Robert Douglas Turnell (usually ‘Douglas’) came to Chelmsford as boy. He was educated at the Chelmsford School of Science and Art and joined the Territorial Army in April 1910. He worked for the architect Frederick Chancellor and then as a surveyor with the Inland Revenue. He was mobilized at the outbreak of the war and landed in France in November 1914. He narrowly escaped death in April 1915 when two bullets passed through his hat. He was awarded the Military Medal in January 1917 and in June 1917 gained a commission in the Royal Flying Corps where he was an observer. He married the following month and had a daughter born after his death. He was killed in action in May 1917. His father’s home was in Fairfield Road.
Douglas was born at Little Barford in Bedfordshire on 10th June 1888, the son of the farmer Robert Turnell and Rosa Ellen Turnell (nee Brimley). His father had been born in 1830 in Dallington, Northamptonshire; his mother in 1848 in Burton Overy, Leicestershire. The couple had married in Surrey in 1874. In 1881 the family had been resident at Little Barford where Douglas’s father was a farmer.
Douglas’s siblings included Rose Emma Turnell (born in 1875), Charles Godwin Turnell (born in 1876), Alice Margaret Turnell (1877-1915), Jane Turnell (born c1879), Henry Turnell (born c1882), Olive Mary Turnell (born in 1884), Lettice Maud Turnell (1886-1967), and George Brimley Turnell (born on 1st August 1890, died in 1976). The eldest four were born in Cranley, Northamptonshire; the remainder in Little Barford.
The 1891 census found two year-old Douglas living with his parents, seven siblings and two servants at Cross Hall, Eaton Socon, Bedfordshire.
In March 1894 Douglas’ father was granted the licence to the King’s Head Inn in Chelmsford. In July of the following year the licence was transferred to Edward Thomas Jackson.
By the time of the 1901 census a decade later the family had moved to 3 Wellington Cottages, Waterloo Lane in Chelmsford. Douglas’s parents were ‘living on own means’; his brother Henry was an electrical engineer, while sister Olive was a dressmaker.
Douglas was educated in Chelmsford at the Victoria Boys’ Schools and attended the Chelmsford School of Science and Art, and subsequently worked for the Chelmsford architect Frederick Chancellor and then the Land Valuation Department of the Inland Revenue from 1910 to 1914. His mother died in 1911 at Brentwood Hospital. That year the census recorded Douglas, aged 22 and working as a surveyor, living with his parents and two sisters still living at 3 Wellington Cottages in Waterloo Lane.
Douglas enlisted into the army at Chelmsford on 30th April 1910 and served as a private soldier in B Squadron of the Essex Yeomanry, a Territorial regiment. He attended its annual training from 23rd July 1910 to 6th August 1910, 12th May 1911 to 26th May 1911, and 19th May 1912 to 24th May 1912.
Three days after the outbreak of War, on 7th August 1914, the Essex Yeomanry assembled at Ipswich, Suffolk, moving to Melton near Woodbridge, Suffolk soon afterwards.
At the end of November 1914 the regiment including Douglas, recently promoted to Lance Corporal, crossed from Southampton to Le Havre, before proceeding to the Hazebrouck area in northern France, close to the Belgian frontier. There it formed part of the 8th Cavalry Brigade, itself part of the 3rd Cavalry Division and afterwards, in early February 1915, had moved north-eastwards and gone into the line east of Ypres in Belgium.
By then Douglas’s brother George had enlisted into the army serving with the Royal West Kent Regiment and the Cheshire Regiment. In 1918 he was awarded the Military Medal.
By the end of March 1915 Douglas’s battalion was back in the Hazebrouck area. April 1915 was spent mostly in training, with lectures in trench warfare. The weather turned fine after the constant rain that had fallen in the winter months.
At the end of April 1915 the Germans launched an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to capture Ypres (the Second Battle of Ypres), involving the first use of poison gas on the Western Front. The battle was to continue until 25th May 1915 and during that period the Essex Yeomanry suffered many casualties. On 12th May 1915, after dark, the regiment, numbering 302 men in all, including Douglas, was ordered to dig a communication trench at Bellevarde, near Potijze, east of Ypres. The task had to be abandoned before daybreak on 13th May 1915 after casualties became too frequent. A post-war history of the Essex Yeomanry reported:
“At dawn, on May 13th the Regiment marched to rejoin the remainder of the Brigade [in support trenches] and the preliminary stages of the German attack began....Very heavy shelling commenced at 4 a.m. The bombardment was at first directed on the front line on a breadth of about one mile, held by the 6th and 7th Cavalry Brigades and the 2nd Dragoon Guards. A dense cloud of smoke hung over the whole area; buildings and trenches alike were demolished beyond recognition.
At about 6 a.m. the enemy brought his barrage over the line held by the 8th Cavalry Brigade, and by 7 a.m. the 1st and 2nd Life Guards were forced to retire through the lines held by the 8th Brigade. The Essex Yeomanry were in the support trench just west of the Potijze-Verlorenhoek road on the north-east edge of Potijze Chateau garden. At about 9 a.m. a message was received through the telephone from the Front line saying ‘Front line absolutely intact’, but all the same it was evident that a retirement was in progress.
At mid-day Colonel Deacon was informed that the Royal Horse Guards and 10th Royal Hussars had been moved forward; consequently the Essex Yeomanry were moved into the trenches on the east of the Potijze-Verlorenhoek road, which had been occupied the Blues and the 10th Hussars.
At about 1.30 p.m. Brigadier-General Bulkeley Johnson, A.D.C., who had established his Brigade Head Quarters in the Chateau Gardens, sent for Lieut.-Colonel Deacon and as a result of the interview the Squadron leaders were informed by Colonel Deacon that a counter-attack was to be undertaken at 2.15 p.m., in order to regain the front line which had been occupied by the enemy.
The Brigade for the purpose of the attack was disposed as follows: - Royal Horse Guards on the right, 10th Royal Hussars on the left, and A. Squadron, under Captain J. O. Parker, in support. The Regiment was to move in 10 minutes and take up a line on the right of the 10th Hussars. The 10th Hussars, it was thought, were in some trenches half way up the rising ground with their right near a White Farm, and their left on the road.
Colonel Deacon gave orders for Major Buxton to take two scouts with him, and report to Lieut.-Colonel E. R. A. Shearman commanding the 10th Hussars to the effect that the Essex were coming up on is right. Major Buxton came under heavy rifle fire from the direction of the White Farm, but found Colonel Shearman near the road. Major Buxton delivered the message, and Colonel Shearman pointed out to Major Buxton the trenches which were to be his objective, and said ‘That is the trench that I am going to take. I shall do it with the greatest ease, there is no doubt about it whatever.’
The Essex Yeomanry were by this time running towards the right of the 10th Hussars, led by Major Roddick and Captain E. A. Ruggles-Brise; the men had bayonets fixed, and cheered as they ran for their objective, Major Roddick was killed almost instantly. Captain Ruggles-Brise continued gallantly at the head of his Squadron.
Lieut.-Colonel Shearman realising that it was not yet the time to deliver the attack, told Major Buxton to do his utmost to stop the advance of the Essex; this he was able to do, and the Essex lay down on the right of the 10th Hussars. At this moment a group of Germans fled from the positions they were holding, and someone hollored ‘Tally ho! Yonder they go’. As a response to the view holloa the whole line, the Essex on the right and the 10th Hussars on the left, rose as one and rushed the hill. The going was deep, but no one halted until the trench was reached as were also a series of holes which the line degenerated into on the right. Very heavy casualties were suffered in both regiments....The objective, however, was gained, and held under very trying conditions.
A large amount of German equipment was found in the line, as was also coffee and sausages. Some prisoners were taken. The line now held was at once consolidated. Captain E. A. Ruggles-Brise and Lieut. R. A. Thomson, with very few men, put up a splendid resistance and held on to some ruins just to the right and in front of our line.
Major Buxton, who was now in command of the Essex Yeomanry, despatched a man with a message to get into touch with the Royal Horse Guards on the right, but this messenger was instantly killed. Any movement on the part of anybody on the right of this line was impossible, and many were killed or wounded in attempting to take ground in any direction. A very heavy bombardment with great accuracy was, by this time, concentrated on the line now held, and a large body of the enemy moved forward from the Verlorenhoek hill.
TURNELL, ROBERT DOUGLAS, Military Medal,
Second Lieutenant, 52 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (formerly of the Essex Yeomanry)
A small dark red flag was placed in a trench by the enemy about 150 yards in advance of our line; this was doubtless a signal for the enemies’ artillery to ascertain the position of their front line. The rain fell heavily, and the mud was indescribable, rendering rifles unserviceable in a very short time; in fact, these had by now become almost completely ineffective. After 2 hours a message came through from the 10th Hussars to the effect that they were retiring behind the crest and filing out of the left end of the trench.
Captain E. A. Ruggles-Brise and Lieut. R. A. Thomson were still gallantly holding on with their small group of men at and about the ruined cottages, and communication with them was impossible. Their only hope of falling back was to wait till after dark. Two of their officers were killed....A general retirement behind the crest was then undertaken, to a position on the reverse slope of the hill, about 600 yards in rear of the advanced position. This line was held until about 6 p.m.
The general line was taken up by the 2nd Dragoon Guards on the left of the 10th Hussars had been maintained throughout, and their assistance by thus maintaining their position contributed much towards the result of the day’s fighting. At about 6 p.m. orders were received for the Essex Yeomanry to concentrate at a house near the G.H.Q line on the main road.
The 10th Hussars took up a support line and then the Essex Yeomanry moved into the G.H.Q. line. It was here that the Squadrons rallied under Major A. Buxton, now commanding the Regiment. Captain E. A. Ruggles-Brise and Lieut. R. A. Thomson and about 6 men returned, having remained the whole time holding on to the positions which they had captured, Wounded men also kept coming in under cover of the darkness. Many Officers and men were missing, many were known to be killed and wounded.”
During the day the Essex Yeomanry had suffered 51 killed, including its commanding officer, 19 missing and 91 wounded - more than half of its number.
On 16th May 1915 Douglas’s’ name appeared in the regimental war diary for his "especially good work" in that action in which he narrowly escaped death. The Essex County Chronicle of 28th May 1915 reported:
“Chelmsford Corporal’s Narrow Escape – two bullets through his cap – Lance-Corpl. Douglas Turnell, whose home is in Waterloo Lane, Chelmsford, has written an interesting account of the famous charge to his sister. He participated in it, and had two wonderful escapes, his hat being twice pierced by enemy bullets, one of which grazed his head and caused some slight bleeding. Otherwise he was unhurt. He speaks in glowing terms of the dashing charge in face of terrible odds and of the high encomiums bestowed by the officers.”
He was made Corporal on 21st June 1915, Acting Lance Serjeant on 16th July 1915 and Serjeant on 6th September 1915. At the end of that month the Essex Yeomanry participated in the Battle of Loos.
On 11th September 1916 Douglas signed his application for a Commission. His good character was certified by Canon Lake, the Rector of Chelmsford, who had known him for 20 years. Mr. Clist, headmaster of Victoria Boys’ School in Chelmsford certified that Douglas had reached the necessary level of education suitable for a commissioned rank. His application gave his home address as 28 Fairfield Road, his occupation in civil life as surveyor and a Professional Associate of the Chartered Surveyors’ Institute, and confirmed he could ride. On 1st December 1916 Douglas passed his medical as part of the application process.
The Supplement to the London Gazette of 22nd January 1917 announced the award of the Military Medal to him, then serving as Serjeant 606 in the Essex Yeomanry. Douglas was renumbered as 80029 in 1917.
On 6th January 1917 Douglas’ application to be an observer in the Royal Flying Corps was recommended by the commanding officer of the 3rd Cavalry Division.. His application showed that he was aged 28, weighed nine stone ten pounds (presumably an important consideration for early aircraft), and had considerable knowledge of Morse Code. He also had extensive knowledge of map reading and map making, a slight knowledge of photography, experience in driving petrol engines, had driven a Triumph Rudge, Douglas and FN motor cycles.
On 21st February 1917 Douglas left France and returned to England as his application for a commission progressed. On 13th April 1917 he was posted to Oxford and on 7th June 1917 was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps as a Second Leiutenant. The following day he went to Number 4 Training School at Northolt in Middlesex.
While there, on 7th July 1917, 29 year-old Douglas married Great Warley-born Lilian Mary Pearl at Boxted. At the time he was a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps General List living in Chelmsford. His father was a retired farmer. Douglas’s bride was aged 21, lived at Cross Farm in Boxted, and was the daughter of John Reeve Pearl, a farmer and inn-keeper.
Douglas moved to Number 64 Training School at Narborough in Leicestershire on 16th November 1917. He remained there until 31st December 1917 when he joined the Artillery & Infantry Co-operation School.
On 2nd February 1918 Douglas was posted to 52 Squadron. Less that two months later, and after being married for fewer than nine months, he was killed in action in France on 27th March 1918 while serving as a Second Lieutenant in the 52nd Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. He was aged 29 and was an observer. He is buried at St. Pierre Cemetery, Amiens (grave: XVI. C. 5).
The Essex County Chronicle of 5th April 1918 reported:
“Sec.-Lt. Douglas Turnell, R.F.C., son of Mr. R. Turnell, of Fairfield Road, Chelmsford, has been killed on the Western front. He was in the Yeomanry at the outbreak of the war, and went with his troop to France, taking part in the memorable charge on foot of the Essex Yeomanry in May 1915. He had been mentioned in dispatches three times and had been awarded the Military Medal. Subsequently he obtained a commission in the R.F.C. He has three brothers serving. Douglas was formerly with Messrs, Chancellor and Son, architects and before the war was in the Land Valuation Office.”
The same paper included a family announcement from his widow:
“Turnell. - In sacred and ever-loving memory of my dear husband, Second Lieut. Douglas Turnell R.F.C. M.M., killed in action in France, March 27th. aged 29.”
The following week the paper carried an acknowledgement from her:
“Mrs. Turnell, widow of Second-Lieut. R. D. Turnell M.M. R.F.C., wishes to thank her numerous friends for their many letters and kind sympathy in her recent bereavement - Boxted, Colchester, Essex.”
At that time she was living at The Crosses, Boxted near Colchester. Later Douglas’s widow lived at Valley Farm, Acton, Sudbury, Suffolk. On 30th October 1918 she gave birth to Douglas’ daughter, Margaret Lilian Turnell.
When the administration of Douglas’ will was carried out it gave an address for hom of Eastgate Farm, Marham in Norfolk.
Douglas is commemorated on the Civic Centre Memorial, Chelmsford, by the Chelmsford Parish Great War Memorial in Chelmsford Cathedral and on the Essex Yeomanry War Memorial at Chelmsford Cathedral. He was entitled to the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, and Victory Medal, plus the Military Medal..
The register of electors for 1918 listed Douglas’s father and brother at 28 Fairfield Road in Chelmsford. The property was later demolished.
Douglas’s father died in 1924 in Oxfordshire. Douglas’s widow died in 1954, aged 58. Their daughter died in 1970.
Acknowledgements to Ian Miller