In Memoriam: Lawrence Austen Impey

In Memoriam

In the past, it was common for institutions such as schools, railway companies, post offices and even private businesses to create their own war memorials. They remembered those staff who had fallen in the service of their country.

This year, as part of the Royal Armouries commemoration of the Armistice, we decided to research the history of our own families. We wanted to find out how the lives of our grand-parents and great grand-parents were shaped by the two world wars.

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Edward Impey, Director General and Master of the Armouries © Paul Cockerill. Light Space Photography TM

Edward Impey, Director General and Master of the Armouries

Impeys have always been interested in family history as we have all heard a lot about it. Both my paternal grandparents wrote engaging memoirs, but these are full of tantalising gaps…

This project offered an opportunity to discover some firm facts through access to official documents, while reading around the subject added a lot of context. Lawrence’s First World War experiences were unusual and certainly interesting, but not conventionally distinguished.

In relation to the First World War, I would like Lawrence to be remembered mostly for what he represented rather than for himself. He was a good example of the British young men of the period, particularly in the early part of the war, who were desperate to get to the Front and tried any means to do so, but for whom delusion was so rapidly followed by disillusion.

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Lawrence Austen Impey © Impey Family Archive

In Memoriam: Lawrence Austen Impey

Private in French Army, July 1917;
Second Lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards, from July 1918.
Captain, Coldstream Guards, 1940

Lawrence was my father’s father. He was born in January 1900, the son of an Eton schoolmaster. The year of his birth meant that he served in both wars, though doing very different things.

Lawrence was fourteen at the outbreak of war and so remained at school. In 1917 he heard of a scheme whereby boys of seventeen or over who could drive a car could serve at the front as ambulance drivers . In the teeth of parental resistance, he absconded to France. From July to December 1917 he served as a driver for the British Committee of the Red Cross, a unit which was commanded, paid, fed and clothed by the French Army. Lawrence wrote numerous letters home, many of which survive, but after the war he rarely spoke of his experiences.

His unit of about twenty men – mostly under- or over-age and from all corners of the Empire – lived in the trenches or behind the lines, wherever their work took them. They drove in pairs; Lawrence’s co-driver being an Englishman of his own age called Knight. Their ambulances were Model T Fords. Long overhanging bodies were added to the rear, making room for ten sitting wounded (‘assis’) or five stretcher cases (‘couchés’). Red crosses were painted on the sides and roofs to discourage enemy fire but which ‘served the Germans nicely for target practice’.

The unit transported wounded soldiers from the trenches or front-line dressing stations to the clearing stations behind the lines. They almost always drove at night, without lights and on tracks pitted with enormous shell-holes and busy with other traffic. They suffered regular breakdowns, were frequently under shell fire, and occasionally strafed by ‘boche’ aeroplanes.

The Model T’s crude suspension did little to ease the jolting of the roads, and the cries and agonies of the wounded left a lasting impression. Amidst all this, working 24-hour shifts and more, they often fell asleep at the wheel, and had to take turns to shake each other awake.

In late summer 1917, the unit was sent to Verdun. It participated in the actions at Fort Douaumont, Fort Souville, and the French recapture of Le Mort Homme. Lawrence described the living and fighting conditions as they overran the German positions. He admired the sophistication of the German dug-outs, complete with underground railways, electric light and hospital wards. His main impression, though, was of the attack; hand-to hand fighting in the dark tunnels, with flares, bayonets, clubs and grenades, and its horrific aftermath:

“As we got within 200 yards of it the stench of old blood and dead Germans became unbearable…the clothes and bodies of the dead… were lying each side quite saturated…. and if you slipped off the duck boards …it came over your boots”.

Lawrence and other Englishmen were awarded the Croix de Guerre for their actions at Verdun. The award ceremony was memorable for Lawrence because the French officer, who kissed him on both cheeks, hadn’t shaved. He was later also awarded the Victory Medal, ‘for service as ‘Driver’’ (although the dates covered his whole war service)

Towards the end of 1917, Lawrence fell victim to Phosgene gas. A barrage of gas shells was intermixed with explosives to mask its arrival and delay its detection. This, coupled with inadequate and worn-out gas masks (‘…a wad of absorbent material soaked in some useless chemical’) made the French troops hopelessly vulnerable. The family story relates that Lawrence was left for dead by the roadside, only later attracting attention by faint, unconscious stirrings. Months of recuperation followed, first in French hospitals, and finally in England. Miraculously, he recovered.

Lawrence was then drafted into an Officer Cadet Unit, and on 31 July 1918 was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards . The Armistice came before he could be posted abroad, and he was demobilised on 30 December, when he took up a place at Oxford.

Between the wars, Lawrence worked as a Director of a mining company and was a County Commissioner for the Scouts.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he was considered too old for active service. In 1940, though, he reported for duty as a 40-year old ex-soldier keen to do something useful. On 4 March1941 he was re-commissioned as Second Lieutenant . He soon became aide-de-camp to Robert Bridgeman, first Director General (1941-44) of the Home Guard (familiar to many as ‘Dad’s Army’). This involved gruelling if often hilarious tours of inspection to all corners of the British Isles.

In his last years, with the onset of dementia, he suffered nightmares, reliving his experiences in the trenches and the hospital he was taken to in 1917. Like many of his generation he felt that the First World War had a bigger impact on the world than the Second, and recognised, if underestimated, the impact on himself and other survivors.

He died in 1989.

To discover more stories, visit the In Memoriam exhibition at the Leeds museum and at Fort Nelson.