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Gibraltarians of the Great War: Part 1

By Lt Col (Rtd) F Brancato OBE JP

Every 11th of November, we commemorate Armistice Day: The “Armistice” (Latin for “to stand arms still”) was an agreement to end the fighting of the First World War as a prelude to peace negotiations, which began at 11am on 11 November 1918.

It is right that we should remember the service and sacrifice made by the many Gibraltarians who fought and died in all theatres of operations on land, sea and in the air during “The Great War”.

Let me start by redressing the misconception that Gibraltarian participation in WW1 was limited to a few individuals.

Without taking in account those who volunteered to serve in the Gibraltar Volunteer Corps (close to 500), I have documented over 170 others – most served in the Army but quite a few in the Royal Navy and some even in the nascent Air Force.

8 served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force; 4 with the Australians (one Pte Alfred Ruggier was killed in action in France), 1 each with the New Zealand and South African forces and 7 with the US Army!

Salvador Gomez Beare

These are all “bona fide” Gibraltarians – that is, those born and raised in Gibraltar with both or one parent also born here. That is a very high percentage of “fighting age” males out of a total population of just under 18,000 at the time.

If we were to include those born in Gibraltar but of UK parentage – most of whom were the children of servicemen posted here at the time – the number would go up by another 200.

At the outbreak of the war, there were Gibraltarians already serving in both the Army and Royal Navy – these were in the main officers and senior ranks – professionals all, many of whom were veterans of the South African (Boer) wars at the start of the 20th century.

Amongst these was Captain (later Lt Col) Wilfred Mosley. The scion of an influential local family (his father was Sir Alexander Mosley – a coal merchant and banker, Sanitary Commissioner, Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and his mother was Maria de las Mercedes Francia).

Commissioned into the Wiltshire Regiment, Wilfred was in command of a rifle company when he was deployed in the first wave of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France in August 1914. He served throughout the war, transferring first to the Machine Gun Corps (MGC) – a unit that appears to have been very popular with Gibraltarians – and later to the fledgling Tank Corps.

He was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for his actions at the Battle of Ypres (June 1915), three Mention-in Dispatches (MiDs) and later the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) whilst in command of 11th Battalion, The Northumberland Fusiliers during the Battle of Vittorio Veneto and the passage of the Piave River in the Italian Front.

He retired on account of ill health contracted on active service in 1922 and returned to live in Gibraltar where he died in his house (Marble House, 15 Bomb House Lane) in March 1949. Mosley remains our most decorated soldier to date and lies buried in North Front cemetery.

Wilfred’s cousin – Louis Francis Sprague (son of Horatio Sprague US Consul and Antonia Francia) was also a regular army officer with the Royal Irish Rifles with service in South Africa and Aden. A graduate of the Army Staff College, he took over command of the 2nd Battalion in the trenches in the vicinity of Hooge and Bellewaarde Lake in October 1915 leading them in the battles of Vimy Ridge and the Sommem.

Battle of Vittorio Veneto

He was in temporary command of 74th Infantry Brigade during the battles of Ancre Heights & the capture of Regina Ridge in September 1916 – to my knowledge the only Gibraltarian to have ever commanded an operational level formation (Brigade) in battle.

Unfortunately, he was severely gassed in November of that year and invalided back to England. He never recovered from his injuries and died in December 1924 at the Queen Alexandra Military Hospital in London.

Both Battery Quarter Master Sergeant (BQMS) Thomas Mannion and Sergeant Michael Pitman, were seasoned veterans serving with the Royal Artillery (RA) at the onset of the war.

Gibraltarians WWI world war Gibraltar

Mannion (his brother Frederick was an officer also with the RA) was awarded a MiD for service in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) whilst Pitman (of Pitmans Alley) was killed in action whilst serving with 89 Siege Battery in France in August 1917 and is buried at Trois Arbes cemetery.

Another regular soldier, John Undery (Son of William Undery, Port Officer) enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers 1901 and was a Company Sergeant Major by the outbreak of the war. Commissioned in the field later that year-he was killed leading his men into action in October 1914.

Gibraltarians WWI world war Gibraltar
William Undery, Port Officer

He is commemorated in the Menin Gate memorial, Ypres. Corporal Albert Jones Lancashire Fusiliers (son of Henry and Louisa Jones of Lopez Ramp) landed in France on 20 Aug 1914 with the BEF. He fought at the Battles of the Marne and Aisne and was killed in the trenches in October 1914.

Of course, the vast majority who took up arms were volunteers – swept up by the great surge in patriotic fervour and eagerness to demonstrate their loyalty to the Crown.

Watch out for part 2 coming soon!

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