In the newspapers a hundred years ago today were the exploits of young Londoner Ernest Norman Lawrie, who had gone out into no-man’s land to capture a German flag.
Ernest Norman Lawrie was born in West Hampstead in April 1893 and grew up in Kew Gardens. He was the son of John and Elizabeth Lawrie; John was the manging director of Whiteley’s department store in Kensington. After being educated at Haberdasher’s School in Cricklewood, young Lawrie (who appears to have been known as Norman) started working at Elkington and Co plate silver makers of Regent Street in 1912.
Norman Lawrie was among the first wave of volunteers for war service after the Britain declared war in 1914. On August 10th, he joined the Kensington Battalion, the 13th Londons. Two and a half months later, he and his comrades went to the Western Front. Lawrie saw action at Neuve Chapelle in early 1915 and was commissioned as an officer in the battalion on 3 April 1915.
In a letter home he describes his efforts to win glory among the officers and men of the battalion soon after he was made an officer himself:
“The first time I went into the trenches as an officer I had rather an exciting experience.
“It had been a very dark night, and I kept on telling the sentries to keep a good lookout.
“In the morning we were surprised to see, midway between our lines and the German lines, a little German flag flapping in the wind. Underneath was a board with some writing on it, and all this stuck on to a post.
“It had been put there by some German patrol, who had the cheek to come thus far and stick it in the ground.
“Great excitement reigned all day, and our fellows potted at the post ‘like mad’ to knock it down, and the Boches potted at our fellows to do likewise, but neither side succeeded.
“During the evening I heard a group of about ten officers talking about it, and each saying he was going out when it was dark to bring it in.
“Well, to cut a long story short, I didn’t wait till it was dark but at dusk I strolled out, revolver in hand (loaded in all six chambers), with a corporal, in case I should get potted.
“After passing the word along our sentries, ‘Cease fire, patrol going out in front,’ the corporal and I started on our journey.
“We first of all had to climb over our own entanglements – that is one of the reasons why I went out before it was quite dark, as you get torn to pieces by the barbed wire in the dark; and reason number two, I wanted to get there before our other officers; and number three, because I didn’t want to meet a German patrol, which always comes out in front of their wire in the dark.
“Having safely climbed our wire, we crawled along and found to our dismay a ditch 5ft across and with 7ft of water in front of us.
“I had a pretty long journey. Well, we got there all right, and I gripped the post, when a sudden fear seized me.
“Here was I isolated between the two trenches, and suppose a wire was attached to the post from the trench and when I pulled it they would open a machine gun on me.
“Well, I felt carefully all over it, but ah! no wire. So I tore it out of the ground and – good heavens! A star shell went up and dropped within 5 ft of the corporal and I.
“You know what a white flare is like at a firework display, which shows up everybody all round. Well, both sides use these as rockets to show up the ground between the trenches at night, and this was one of them.
“Of course, the Boches spotted the flag was gone, and then spotted two black forms lying flat on the ground.
“My word, it was hot for a moment! The bullets fairly scraped us as they whizzed past. Well, we waited till the flare died down, and, picking up the flag, we ran to a hole in the ground made by a shell and dropped into this. And once more a star-light went up, but we were hidden this time.
“At last the star-lights stopped, and we hurried back to our trench, and huge cheers greeting me hugging the flag like a baby.”
The Daily Mirror described the incident as showing “better than anything the spirit of our men at the front” and revealing “once again the British soldier’s utter contempt for death”. Viewed another way, it was a reckless gamble with two men’s lives over a simple flag. Either way, it certainly shows how important such symbols as the flag were in the contest over no-man’s land.
Norman Lawrie was killed in action a few weeks later. I don’t know how he died, but his commander’s letter says that “He met his death leading his men in the true British way, and under circumstances as exacting as any that troops could be called upon to face”, so it doesn’t seem to have been in another wild venture out into no-man’s land.
- de Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour
- Daily Mirror 9/6/1915