In August 1916 one of the journalists from the North Devon Journal visited Sergt. George Kerswell in Braunton. George Kerswell was born in Dunsford, near Exeter, in 1878 before moving to Braunton. By the time he went to war he had a wife, two sons and a step-daughter and was in the thick of the action during the Battle of Dujailah. Some five months later he was home on leave from hospital describing his experiences…
A Brauntonian, Sergt. George Kerswell, who went through part of the Mesopotamia campaign with the Devons, has spent ten days’ sick leave at his home at Braunton. Sergt. Kerswell was a valued member of the Braunton detachment of the Territorials from its formation, and just after the commencement of hostilities he went to India with his regiment. After a stay of fifteen months, the battalion was transported to the Persian Gulf in December. Previous to the severe engagement which occurred on March 8th, the Devons were occupied in trench work–a duty somewhat monotonous, but one not entirely devoid of interest. In an interview with our representative on Friday, Sergt. Kerswell related some of his interesting experiences, dealing more particularly with the battle on March 8th. Preparations for the impending battle were made on March 7th, and all through that night the regiment slowly advanced over a distance of from twelve to fourteen miles. Arriving at Es-sin, where the Turks were strongly entrenched to the number of approximately twelve thousand, preliminary rifle shots were exchanged at seven o’clock in the morning. With a north country regiment and several Indian battalions, the Devons participated in a flanking movement. The English artillery had previously shelled the enemy position before the attacking regiments attempted to advance. Then began the advances which cost so much loss of life to both sides–an advance, taking a whole day to achieve, over 14,000 yards. On the ground over which our men advanced the sun beat down pitilessly, the terrific heat causing great discomfort. The regiment proceeded slowly forward in extended order, disputing every inch of the ground in the teeth of a withering storm of lead. The Turkish trenches were bristling with armed men, and a murderous fire was poured on the British from machine-gun and rifle. The British line sometimes advanced with an even front, sometimes in groups composed of two or three, now receding in ebbing and surging waves, then rapidly breaking over a few yards as one man, while from the Turkish ranks rolled a swift small arm fire. The enemy did not possess many guns of high calibre, but the artillery he had–sufficiently capable of making itself appreciated by an enemy–joined in the general cannonade. All along the linerolled a continuous wave of fire, but eventually the steady intrepidity and patient fortitude of our troops prevailed, and they persisted in maintaining their ground, not though many were killed and wounded, could they be shaken. Sergt. Kerswell was just behind Sergt. Ernest Dinnacombe, of Newport, Barnstaple, when he fell dead, shot right through the centre of the forehead. The rapid exchange of fire, and the advancing on the part of our men was kept up with unflagging persistency until dusk, when they dug themselves in, and waited until they could retire under the cover of swiftly approaching darkness. Early in the morning, accompanied by a fusilade of fire directed on them by the Turks, the Devons retired, though not until some more of the men fell victims to the maxim-gun fire. Sergt. Kerswell proceeded along in the darkness with George Worth, of Muddiford, who was wounded, but who bravely limped along, and the two rendered much assistance to Sergt. Lethbridge and Lance-Corpl. Eykes in carrying Lieuts. Finley and Mason, who were wounded, on stretchers. The dressing station was reached the morning of March 9th, and the same morning the men fell in and tramped, under a boiling sun and over awfully rough road, to the base. Here, Sergt. Kerswell, who had been lucky enough to escape being hit in the great fighting, was admitted to field hospital suffering from valvular disease of the heart. Two or three more hospitals were visited before he eventually arrived at Bombay. The doctors stated that nothing could be done for him there, so after three days he was sent to Cairo. He remained in the Egyptian capital for seven days and then went to Alexandria, where he embarked on a hospital ship bound for England. Arriving in the homeland on the 12th June, Sergt. Kerswell was ordered to a Glasgow hospital, where he was detained seven weeks.
With soldierly modesty Sergt. Kerswell was very reticent with regard to his own participation in the engagement, but one deduced from a casual remark made by him, that he has worthily “done his bit.” His praise for Col. Radcliffe, D.S.O., the officer who commanded the Regiment, was unstinted. Everything that could possibly be done to promote the welfare, happiness and comfort of his men, said Sergt. Kerswell, he saw was done. “None of us can say too much in praise of him. The highest praise of any solider could give him would not be enough. He is dearly loved by our battalion; he treats us as if we were his own family, and we look upon him as the father of the battalion.”
Sergt. Kerswell returned to Glasgow on Saturday with the best wishes of all Brauntionians and with the general expression of the hope that his health will soon be completely re-established.
Kerswell survived the war and ended up in the Essex Regiment and according to the medal rolls was still in the Territorial Force in 1921. He appears to have stayed in Essex where he died in 1933. His family remained in North Devon with one son becoming a carpenter and joner and the other a merchant seaman.
This article was taken from the North Devon Journal 10th August 1916 page 2 coumn a. You can find more articles covering North Devonians experiences in India and Mesopotamia on our Facebook page or by going to the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon. You can also find out more about the Battle of Dujailah and the 6th Devons here.