It’s only a simple bench in the beautiful rolling hills and woods of the Chilterns north of London, but it reminds us of the terrible human cost of the fighting on the Somme a hundred years ago.
The bench overlooks the remarkable remains of what was once a lengthy and complicated system of World War One trenches, dug by trainee soldiers from the Inns of Court Training Corps, nick-named ‘The Devil’s Own’.
It’s in memory of 2nd Lieutenant John Graham Goffey, of the 17th Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps. It tells us that 2nd Lieutenant Goffey trained in the neighbouring trenches, and was killed at Beaumont Hamel in September, 1916.
The bench was put there by members of the Goffey family in memory of the man known to them as ‘Uncle Jock’. What the plaque doesn’t tell us, though, is that John Graham Goffey had been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant only three months before he died – and was a mere eighteen years old when he was killed.
Jock was the eldest of seven children – six boys and a girl – born to Harry and Elinor Goffey, who lived in Berkhamsted. His father was an accomplished engraver and artist, born in Liverpool, who attended the Liverpool School of Art, the Herkomer Art School at Bushey near Watford, and the Chelsea Polytechnic.
‘Jock’ was 17 years old when he joined the regiment. He’d been educated at Berkhamsted School but at the time he joined up, he was working as a clerk in London. As the regiment was based in Berkhamsted, he had the unusual privilege of being billeted, with two other cadets, in the family home in Cross Oak Road, not far from a huge tented training camp called ‘Kitchener’s Field’ which had been set up in September, 1914, near Berkhamsted Castle.
He would have spent several months training with thousands of other troops preparing for combat, including digging nearly 13 kilometres of trenches on Berkhamsted and northchurch Commons, of which just 600m remain, mapped and preserved by volunteers from the Chilterns Conservation Board and Chiltern Society.
Nearly 14,000 men passed through the camp. About 12,000 were commissioned into regiments. About 5,000 were wounded, and 2nd Lieutenant Goffey was one of nearly 2,200 who died. The dead are remembered by a memorial next to the local golf course. The memorial also notes that the ashes of Colonel Francis Errington, who wrote the Corps history in the 1920s are buried nearby.
In his history, Colonel Errington remarked on how the landscape provided perfect training ground: “For the squadron, long treks without touching a road, wide movements, distant reconnaissance; for the infantry, wood fighting, canal crossings, river crossings, big fights on the open commons and downs, local fighting among the enclosures, every form of open training”.
2nd Lieutenant Goffey now lies in the Ancre British Military cemetery at Beaumont Hamel.
His name is recorded on a memorial on a wall in Berkhamsted’s parish church, St Peter’s.
Two other cadets billeted with 2nd Lieutenant Goffey at the family home in Berkhamsted had illustrious service careers.
2nd Lieutenant Aubrey Basil Raymond-Barker – was a pilot in the RFC – shot down on a bombing raid in France. He was presumed killed, and his brother Dick dropped a wreath over the German lines. But the Germans returned the wreath with a message saying Aubrey was a prisoner of war. He returned home and became a head teacher in Banbury; Dick was later shot down and killed – the penultimate victim of the Red Baron.
2nd Lieutenant Walter Lightowler Wilkinson of the 1st/8th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was killed on the opening day of the Battle of Arras. He’s buried at Roclincourt Military Cemetery, France.
Walter, known to his family as “Wilkie”, was a poet. One of his poems is featured in the CWGC booklet, “Poets of the Great War”.
At Last Post
Come home! – Come home!
The winds are at rest in the restful trees
At rest are the waves of the sundown seas;
And home – they’re home –
The wearied hearts and the broken lives –
At home! At ease!
The Berkhamsted Local History and Museum Society produced a facsimile copy of a contemporary account of the Inns of Court training camp called The Devil’s Own Time in 2014, with original photographs and explanatory notes.
The ‘authors’ were known as ‘Rell and Able’, which apparently derived from the legal expression ‘REady, wiLLing and ABLE, meaning ‘prepared to act’.
Thanks to the extended Goffey family for material which contributed to this article, particularly John Goffey (also known as ‘Jock’) and Richard Shepherd. Details about the training trenches are widely available online.