Frank Alexander de Pass VC has been remembered with a centenary commemorative paving stone laid in London on 24 November 2014. Despite being born in Kensington, the place chosen for the stone turned out to be on a site in the Victoria Embankment Gardens between the Embankment and the Ministry of Defence. The ceremony of unveiling was performed by The Mayor of the City of Westminster and was also attended by army cadets and staff of 234 Westminster City School Detachment ACF ( Rifles). Frank de Pass was not only the first Jewish Officer to win the nation's highest military honour but also the first officer serving with the Indian Army to be awarded the decoration.
Towards the end of October 1914 the Indian Corps did not take part in the First Battle of Ypres and was based in the region of La Bassée - Armentières. The town of Estaires was the centre of the Indian Corps positions which stretched from Armentières to the north to Givenchy in the south-west. The Ferozepore Brigade of the Lahore Division also did not take part in fighting for possession of Messines, in early November when the Indian Corps was sent to take up positions the north-west of Givenchy close to Festubert.
It was 100 years ago on 23 November 1914 that a detachment of the 34th Poona Horse of the Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade of the 2nd Indian Division, under the command of Capt Roly Grimshaw, took over part of the trenches of the Ferozepore Brigade of the Lahore Division. They arrived in the line at 04.00 hours on 24 November only to find that the enemy had driven a sap right up to the parapet which had been destroyed. This made a gap of 8ft and exposed the Allied trench to enemy fire from the sap, which was about 2.5ft broad and about 6ft deep. A party under Lt Frank de Pass guarded the breach, at his own request, and the position was inspected by Grimshaw as soon as it was daylight. Grimshaw asked for a volunteer to reconnoitre along the line of the sap towards the German lines and. Sowar Khan volunteered and crawled out, and on his return reported that the Germans had erected a sandbag traverse about 10yds from their trench, at the first bend in the sap. Khan also discovered that the traverse was loopholed when a German guarding it fired at him but missed.
At 08.00 hours the enemy began to throw bombs from their side of the traverse; they continued doing so throughout the day causing several casualties. At the same time, on the following morning, de Pass asked Grimshaw to allow him to put an end to the continuous bombing. Grimshaw was not very keen on the idea as it would risk the lives of others should de Pass and his party need rescuing. However, he relented, and de Pass, together with two Indians, Sowars Fateh Khan and Firman Shah, entered the sap and crawled along until they reached the German traverse. With great coolness, de Pass then proceeded to place a charge of gun cotton at the loophole. He subsequent;y fired it and completely destroyed the traverse. The enemy quickly retaliated with a bomb which landed behind de Pass but fortunately failed to explode. The detachment was not troubled by enemy bombers anymore that day.
Later, when de Pass was visiting the neighbouring positions occupied by the 7th Dragoon Guards, who were also members of the Secunderabad Brigade, he spotted a wounded sepoy from the 58th Rifles (Bareilly Brigade) lying outside the Indian trench.
Accompanied by Pte Cook of the 7th Dragoon Guards, he went out in broad daylight to bring the Indian back to safety. He was exposed to enemy fire for about 200 yards. Capt. Grimshaw was not pleased about this action and was to write in his diary:
A British officer is worth more than a wounded sepoy, I know these things cannot be measured in that way....
During the later cover of darkness the enemy had managed to repair their traverse and de Pass again volunteered to repeat the exploits of the previous night. Grimshaw thought that this would lead to de Pass's certain death and refused permission.
On 25 November the Germans returned and began to bomb with increasing violence. Lt de Pass made an attempt to repair the saphead and to supervise the mending of the parapet which again had been badly damaged. He then spotted a sniper at work behind the traverse and tried to shoot him, but the sniper was too quick and blew half of de Pass's head away at close range.
A grieving Grimshaw recorded the incident in his diary when he was exhausted and trying to snatch some sleep.
I was dozing off when an orderly came up with the news that de Pass was very badly wounded. Alderson (a brother officer) and myself both jumped up and the former ran along the trench to try and help. I picked up my flask and followed. I just caught Alderson up and could see de Pass lying on the ground with half of his head gone when I felt a blinding crash and fell forward on Alderson who had also fallen. [They had both been stunned by the explosion.]
Grimshaw was far from well and scribbled a note to de Pass in case he became conscious explaining why he had not come sooner. But de Pass was certainly dead and a message from headquarters said that the enemy were massing in their trenches for an attack. Grimshaw observed sometime later that de Pass's defence works had once more been destroyed by the enemy, allowing them to snipe at will at the Indian unit's positions, together with those of the 7th Dragoon Guards.
This ended the short life of a very brave soldier. In the book The Indian Corps in France, J W B Merewhether describes de Pass 'as the very perfect type of British officer. He united to singular personal beauty, a charm of manner and degree of valour which made him the idol of his men...'
Although Grimshaw doesn't actually spell it out in his diary, he appears to be more than a little peeved that de Pass had taken matters into his own hands. It was if the young officer was determined to make a mark in the shortest possible time. In this he was surely successful as he was to be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his heroism.
Sowars Abdullah and Fateh Khan and Firman Shah, who had supported their officer so well, received the Indian Distinguished Service Medal and Pte Cook was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).
In a report, dated 27 November, Grimshaw wrote: 'I consider that Lieutenant de Pass's conduct throughout was most intrepid,and that this action was a magnificent example to the men of the Detachment.' Another officer, Lt Elphinstone of the same regiment, in writing to de Pass's parents, said of him: 'He was quite the most gallant fellow it has even been my good fortune to meet.'
A few days later, Grimshaw, who was far from being recovered, had to inspect de Pass's body at a local mortuary in Bethune where it had been taken by the 7th Dragoon Guards. The town was five miles to the east of Festubert. He was required to search the young man's pockets for his personal effects and described the scene in the following way:
I felt an unpleasant pang when I stood beside poor Bumpty's body. That lifeless clay was all that was left of his brilliant accomplishments. It was only with an effort that I could bring myself to search his pockets. It was soon over and, giving his hand one last press, I left the room feeling very wretched ...'
On 28 November Grimshaw had to write to de Pass's father and his fiancée, 'a very sad business'.
On 7 December Lt de Pass was buried at Bethune Town Cemetery at 16.00 hrs. Grimshaw wrote: ' We held over the burial to get a reply from de Pass's people as to their wishes as to the disposal of their son. Just as he was lowered into the grave our guns thundered out their wicked-sounding salvoes...' The grave number is I A 24.
When Grimshaw was next on leave he visited de Pass's family. The lieutenant's posthumous VC was announced in The London Gazette of 18 February 1915. Grimshaw described the award as satisfactory. Sadly, de Pass's father was not fit enough to receive his son's decoration and it was, therefore posted to him.
Frank Alexander de Pass came from a Jewish family of Spanish/Portuguese extraction and was the son of Sir Eliot Arthur and Beatrice de Pass. He was born at No 2 Lancaster Gate Terrace, South Kensington, London, W8 on 26 April 1887.The family home was later at 23 Queen's Gate Terrace.
Frank was educated at the Abbey School in the Abbey School, Beckenham in Kent and then moved a Public School at Rugby School in 1901. From there he went to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and in 1904 was third on the list of successful candidates. In January 1906, at the age of 18, de Pass was commissioned in the RFA and three years later on 20 March 1909 he was promoted to full lieutenant. His battery was then stationed in India and he applied for a commission in the 34th Prince Albert Victor's Own Poona Horse, Indian Army, and was successful. He was a natural linguist and quickly learnt the necessary standard of Hindustani which was necessary when dealing with Indian native troops. He also studied Persian, and he was an accomplished horseman, both on the flat and across country. He played a great deal of polo and was also a fine shot. In November 1913 he was appointed orderly officer, with the local rank of captain, to Sir Percy Lake, Chief of General Staff in India.
After the war broke out in August 1914, de Pass rejoined his regiment in September and travelled with it to France. It was now part of the Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade and belonged to the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division. The regiment arrived in France on 12 October 1914, docking at Marseilles, and became the first Indian cavalry regiment to serve in the war. They first saw action at Neuve Chapelle on 2 November, where they assisted in repelling a German attack. The First Battle of Ypres had begun on 19 October and by 31 October had reached a crisis point when the British line was broken at Gheluvelt. On 2 November the enemy withdrew from most of the bank of the Yser in order to concentrate on the capture of Ypres.
During the next three weeks the 34th Poona Horse continued to serve dismounted, and was mainly involved in providing working parties in the day while acting as a mobile reserve during the night. Many units from the India Army Corps were very badly used. Naturally, the Indians were totally unused to the wintry weather and the shell-torn and flooded landscape. Their brigades were broken up into separate battalions and even on occasions into companies. This was a very disheartening practice for the native Indian troops who had come to expect a fairer deal from the British High Command. Later in November they were involved in the fighting close to Festubert where de Pass was to receive his VC.
De Pass's uniform is part of the collection at the Jewish Military Museum and Memorial Room in Hendon. His name is included on the Bevis Marks Synagogue War Memorial, City of London and also inscribed on the Memorial Gates at Hyde Park Corner. Apart from his VC, de Pass was also awarded the 1914 Star; British War Medal and Victory Medal. These decorations are in the collection of the National Army Museum, also in London.
Article contributed by and © Gerald Gliddon
The above article is based on the account of de Pass's career published in the VCs of the First World War: 1914 (The History Press) 2011.
Image from an original courtesy The National Army Museum