Saint Quentin’s Great War Secret

Saint QuentinIn the spring of 2014, I was taking one of my not so infrequent motoring escapades in France. Such adventures have for years been one of my favourite pursuits. I was travelling through Picardy and stumbled across a town called Saint Quentin. I had certainly heard of this place before but had never visited it. It had been named after a Saint who had been martyred there in the third century. I headed for the ‘Centre Ville’ and parked my car.

St. Quentin is home to many outstanding architectural features. There is an extraordinary, medieval basilica that can be seen from miles around in the Picardy countryside. It is imposing and dominating. It still bears the scars of Great War damage that occurred in this region between 1914 and 1918. This ecclesiastical structure also bears the signs of the preparation of its very destruction by German explosives. Next to the railway station, there is a mighty war memorial commemorating the fallen soldiers of the town during WW1. St. Quentin itself suffered much destruction during the fighting. It was occupied early on in the First World War by the German army and was used as a component of their defensive Hindenburg Line. The Lycee Henri-Martin can be visited as well .This was used by Sir John French as his General Headquarters during the infamous retreat from the Belgian town of Mons in 1914. Saint Quentin these days is very colourful, alive, busy and French. It has the solid sense of typical Gallic culture that many of us still love in the twenty first century.

St. Quentin lies at the heart of so many vestiges from the fighting during the Great War and is so much a part of its history. Many military cemeteries surround it and the Somme battle grounds lie not far away westwards, towards the coast. The celebrated Great War museum, under the streets of Albert, is close by as well. Oddly, St. Quentin is rarely visited by tourists who wish to see the remaining Great War symbols. St. Quentin should be a central attraction. The town is the largest in the Aisne department of Picardy and has so many intimate associations with the Western Front that existed in northern France one hundred years ago.

Saint QuentinAs I took my stroll around the town centre, I could see that St. Quentin reminded me of everything that I had found so reassuring and comforting about France over the years.  I took coffee and lunch on a street terrace outside a beautiful little cafe. In front of me there was a very imposing and large central square. On the edge furthest away, guarding the town, was an exceptionally grand Hotel de Ville. This town hall boasted many impressive statues that had been sculptured onto the walls. The central square and the impressive Hotel de Ville had been the location of a very rare, yet almost romantic, event that occurred early on during the Great War in 1914. I learnt about it all a little later.

After my return to England, I was reading about St. Quentin. I discovered information concerning a bizarre event that occurred almost at the spot where I had sat outside the cafe. It was something that happened in August 1914 on the very town square that I had been admiring. The background to it all concerned the effective surrender of two British Colonels to the German army.

Lieutenant-Colonel John Ford Elkington was the son of a General. His father had been the Lieutenant- Governor of Guernsey and had led a distinguished career in the British Army. Elkington had received a classic private education at Elizabeth College in the Channel Islands. On completion, he followed his father into the military. Colonel John Elkington fought in the Boer War gaining the Queen’s medal with four clasps.

Saint QuentinDuring August 1914, Lieutenant- Colonel Elkington was leading the 1st. Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the appalling allied retreat from Mons in Belgium. His second in command was Colonel Mainwaring of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusilliers. Colonel Mainwaring was exceptionally war fatigued and unwell. During their retreat, these two officers led their men into St. Quentin. Somehow, they concocted a written deal with the local French Mayor of the town. The idea was to agree that there would be no resistance shown to the approaching German army. The British and French were war weary, hungry, thirsty and profoundly fatigued. The agreement would ensure that no further war casualties would occur and food would be provided for all of the starving soldiers. It seemed at the time to be a clear cut military surrender. Colonel Elkington had that far in his career given patriotic though undistinguished service to his country as a military officer.

After the agreement documents between the officers and the Mayor had been signed by Colonel Mainwaring in the central square in front of the town hall, Elkington left the scene. He set off on his own to the local railway station. The reasons were never documented. Perhaps he intended to continue the fighting with the Germans elsewhere in the town or perhaps make his escape to Paris.

Both of these British officers were subsequently court martialled by the military. No records of the court proceedings or a statement concerning the events have been retained on any file. Both Colonels were cashiered and dismissed summarily from the armed forces. The final remarks however, made at the end of the process, were published by the media at the time. It was stressed that Colonel Elkington was not disciplined for any failure of courage. It was attributed to a brief error of judgement made under circumstances of great stress, fatigue and genuine concern for the wellbeing of the men under his command. Colonel Elkington left the British Army as a broken, middle aged man facing appalling humiliation.

Saint QuentinThe story continues. Colonel Elkington subsequently joined the French Foreign Legion in the ordinary ranks. By then he was fifty years of age. He once again saw service on the Western Front fighting the Germans. He was personally involved in an incident where his conduct was so conspicuous and courageous that it was brought to the attention of the French commander, Colonel Joffre. Elkington had acted in an emergency with extreme bravery. The Medaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre with palm were conferred on this ex British officer by the French state. This was the greatest award that could be made to a foreign person by the French military. The demonstration of bravery and courage was described as quite extraordinary.

The London Gazette later reported that, as a result of his actions in the Foreign Legion, Elkington was to be returned in his original rank to the British Army. The British King had made it clear that Elkington’s court martial had made no judgement about his courage. His reinstatement was a personal vindication not only to him but also his fellow countrymen.

Colonel Mainwaring, the document signatory, was not returned to the British armed forces and died in obscurity it seems.

Colonel Elkington once again returned to the war as a senior British officer. He was bearing the greatest military award that could be given to a foreign soldier by the French Government. A sort of wheel of fortune for a gallant, courageous man. Colonel Elkington was later badly injured in action and remained in a French hospital for many months. He saw no further war service.

Saint QuentinThe story at the time appealed much to the public. It was almost a romantic tale. It seemed to bear testament to the character and traditions of humanity whilst at war under the most stressful of circumstances.

During the time of the ‘Surrender’ at St. Quentin in 1914, one of the junior officers in the Warwickshires that day was a certain Bernard Montgomery. He later became the distinguished Field Marshall, and later Viscount. His service during the Second World War, as everyone knows, was illustrious. Montgomery had plainly held nothing against Elkington as he later laid a memorial to him, to his son and his son in law. They had all provided very patriotic service for their country and had died of their wounds.

Saint Quentin is a curious place to visit. It lies at a crossing of the Somme River amongst the often rather plain Picardy countryside just to the east of Amiens. It was severely damaged during the Great War as a result of its strategically significant location for the German Army. Later, after the war, the architecture in the town was reconstructed in the Art Deco style. This mode of design is very common in north eastern France and was very popular during the nineteen twenties. It can be seen everywhere. There are many additional features to visit in St. Quentin. Museums include the Matisse family house and the Museum of Resistance and Deportation in Picardy. You can take a picnic in the beautifully maintained ‘Champs Elysees’ gardens as well on a nice day if you wish.

Saint QuentinSo much of the history of the Great War lies in Nord, pas de Calais and Picardy. St. Quentin is hardly ever included in any of the tourist routes of the battlefields. It is, however, very much a major player in that period and can reveal so many secrets of its own from those days one hundred years ago. Saint Quentin is bright and vibrant these days. It is a typical symbol of a modern France and supports the energetic, optimistic and enthusiastic life endeavours that exist in so many parts of the country elsewhere. Take a visit if you are passing and contemplate the dreadful horror, anxiety and appalling carnage of the First World War in northern France.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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