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  • Claire Jordan

"The Devonshires Held This Trench. The Devonshires Hold It Still"

“The Devonshires Held This Trench; the Devonshires Hold It Still” is the proud legend that greets any visitor to the little cemetery half way up a slope at Mansell Copse facing Mametz on the Somme.

Two Battalions of the Devonshire Regiment climbed up out of their trenches at 7.30am on 1st July 1916 with courage and with hope and were almost immediately annihilated by the interlocking fields of German machine gun fire they faced.

That night, their surviving comrades buried them in the trench out of which they had all so bravely scrambled, and then put up that fierce wooden sign, a Portland stone version of which now graces the entrance to the little two-rowed #CWGC cemetery.

One of the proud men still holding the trench here is 21 year old Cpl Sydney Collier.

Bless him, he had had the most difficult start in life and had already fought many personal fights of his own to get as far as the Somme that morning.

He was the son of a chemist, the grandson of a ‘gentleman’ with wealth enough not to work for a living, but his parents’ marriage, after ten years and four children, broke down. The youngest daughter Beatrice was sent to live with grandparents, the littlest Henry stayed with their mother, but Sydney, the eldest son and his big sister Maggie were sent to a Brighton Orphanage (where they were kept apart).

But even now, aged 6 and alone in the world, as it must have felt to him, he was not going to let it beat him.

He was a good and faithful student, he worked hard and was in time placed by the orphanage in a London boys’ home which provided scholarships for the brightest and most promising students to a private school in Oxford, where Sydney thrived.

There was precious little time to make his way as a clerk at a draper’s merchant after leaving school before the War came and Sydney was one of the first to volunteer, landing in France in July 1915.

Although he had left his estate to his sisters, Maggie and Beatrice, after his brave life came to an end so abruptly #OnThisDay 105 years ago, it was to Sydney’s father Alfred that his old Commanding Officer, 2nd Lt JH Pocock, wrote in sympathy.

Though perhaps Sydney himself would have preferred the letter be sent elsewhere, its words are a beautiful tribute to this lovely lost boy.

“Dear Mr Collier,” wrote 2nd Lt Pocock,

“I am most distressed at the news of your son’s death in action, while leading his bombers, and I beg to offer you my deep and sincere sympathies. I knew your son when the Battalion was raised til the Battle of Loos, when I came back wounded.

I picked him out for promotion in January 1915, I think, and I never regretted my choice. He wrote me several times since Loos and I followed his movements with the upmost interest, because amongst many fine men in my platoon, there was none I liked more personally or appreciated more as an NCO.

He was a good soldier, smart and keen and above all, cheerful, and I feel his loss very much.

In all his work, your son was so quiet and dependable, and all the Officers in the Company shared my very high opinion of him.

I feel certain he fell gallantly leading his men and thus helped to uphold that glorious tradition which the Regiment owns.

If you have a copy of his photograph, I should appreciate it very much. When I return to France, there is none I shall miss more than him.

We shall always be proud of him and the others who paid the great price.”

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