Meet the map maker

Museum Director, Lynda Powell profiles a delicate map of The Somme, drawn by an American-born soldier, on the back of a trench map. It is on display as part of our current special exhibition, Created in Conflict.  

Panorama from Ponte Reoubt West of Fricourt (Somme)-Combined_reduced“I’ve chosen this sketch of the battlefield around Fricourt as it’s such an unusual view of the Somme.  We are all familiar, perhaps over familiar, with photographs of the scarred landscape, a result of one of the most infamous battles in British military history. But this is another view.

It’s almost shocking to see the beauty of the area; the rolling hills, the hamlets and woods that existed before the battle began on 1 July 1916.”

It’s unclear if the sketch was drawn before the 1st July or created later as a personal act of remembrance. It is drawn on the back of a trench map and, as the inscription describes, it was based upon personal observation and artillery photographs. Many of the places marked have become forever associated with the desperate struggle and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of men that marked the Battle of the Somme.

Trenches, features and woods are all carefully annotated.

“The sketch was drawn by Captain Philip George Alexandre who joined the 10th Battalion in France on the 24th April 1916. The only record in our archive for Alexandre is a reference in the Green Howards Gazette that he joined the 10th Battalion.

Frustrated by finding no other information, I began to look through census returns and other records, eventually piecing together a fascinating life story.

Alexandre’s family were originally from the Channel Islands, but his father emigrated to America.

Philip was born in Texas on the 2nd February 1883, but by 1891 he had returned to the UK. The 1911 census shows him living with his uncle in Leeds. I then found the same distinctive signature on his marriage certificate on the 21st September 1911 at St Mary’s, Rochdale.

sketch signatureHe was recorded as working as a Chartered Accountants clerk.  His new wife, Mary E Gartside is a nurse.  Their son Philip Gartside was born in Leeds on the 18th April 1916.  A few days later, Captain Alexandre left for the front.

Philip survived the war and returned to the Leeds area, living in Pudsey in the 1920s, before moving to Ripon around 1924.

It was only in May 2019 that we were able to put a face to his name. Charlette Edwards, Alexandre’s granddaughter, got in touch with the museum with further information, which brings him even more vividly to life.

Alexandre stands, third from left in the back row of this photograph, from our archive. We did not know the names of any of these men until Charlette got in touch. Now we know one.

Charlette also sent us a short account, which we understand to have been written by Alexandre, of the 7th Battalion’s experience during the opening days of the Somme offensive. It was written on July 31st, 1916, having survived the disaster that befell the 7th Battalion at Fricourt on 1st July 1916.  One of the Company Commanders, Major Kent had taken his men over the top prematurely; resulting in heavy casualties. A subsequent attack also met with disaster with 300 men becoming casualties in 3 minutes – Alexandre had been expecting to be taken out of the line for rest…

…but to our surprise we were rushed up to consolidate and retain a wood [Mametz Wood], which is now world famous. Oh we had a terrible time, and every ghastly horror of war was displayed in defence of that wood, which was vital position. On one occasion, for 63 hours without a minute’s stop my headquarters were bombarded with huge high explosives and tear gas shells….we were in that wood 6 days – felt like a month……

Alexandre reflected on the randomness of fate, his faith and sense of responsibility.

Everybody in great danger prays a lot, and I did constantly. Your life in these big pushes is not worth the flick of a match. And as regards bravery – an officer cannot be anything else.

After the fight to hold Mametz Wood, Alexandre and the rest of the 7th Battalion were rotated out of the line, and he was able to allay the fears of his loved ones.

But now we are a great distance from the Somme, and are in a part of the line where there is hardly a shot fired. And I have been ordered a rest, so I am with the transport 10 miles from the line, in a pretty little village, lounging in a camp chair with nothing whatever to do except eat and read. It is absolutely delightful.

Despite all he had been through Alexandre had no doubt about final victory.

We are absolutely on top of the Germans. We have them beaten man to man, and only time is required to bring a great victory and lasting peace.

He was right about it taking time to win the war; it would be two more long years. Sadly, he was wrong about the finality of the peace.

Philip Alexandre died in Surrey in March 1946.