PEARSALL, Captain Herbert George

Herbert George Pearsall was born in Smethwick near Birmingham on 17th July, 1888, the only son of George Pearsall and Mary Ellen Hughes.  His father was Clerk of Works to the local School Board.  The family lived in a large semi-detached house in Smethwick.  George Pearsall was originally a printer machine minder (but he had retired by the age of 37), when the family lived in 237 Bearwood Rd, West Bromwich. According to the 1901 census, Herbert had a 6 year old sister called Lucy Ellen.

He must have been a promising scholar, for after King Edward’s Five Ways School, Birmingham, Herbert attended the Smethwick Pupil Teacher’s Centre from 1904 to 1906, and was awarded a Toynbee Hall scholarship to Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1907 to study Mathematics. In 1911 he graduated with a BA in Mathematics [Class 3] and an LLB [Class 3].

On 1 August 1912, Herbert was appointed as a Mathematics master at Batley Grammar School, and was acknowledged as a thorough and caring teacher with a keen interest in sport.  After his father’s death in 1915, Herbert lived at Transvaal Terrace, just below the school on Carlinghow Hill. He had previously lived at 43 Timothy Lane in Upper Batley with his mother.

The school magazine photograph of Herbert Pearsall. Image supplied by Stuart Archer.

The school magazine photograph of Herbert Pearsall. Image supplied by Stuart Archer.

He enlisted at Dewsbury on 6 April 1915. After being medically examined there on 31 March and found to be fit for service, he was recruited into what was then a branch of the Royal Artillery, the ‘Motor Machine Gun Service’.  He was 5’7 ½ ‘’ tall and weighed 124 lbs.  Herbert was quickly promoted to Sergeant, and applied for a commission whilst serving at Bisley on 8 January 1916. He was accepted for Number 5 Officer Cadet Battalion and was ordered to join his unit at Cambridge on 14 March. His commission was granted on 26 April whereupon he was discharged from the Machine Gun Corps to take up his rank. Herbert Pearsall was certainly well supported for his application for a commission. One of his references was from a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the other from the Deputy Mayor of Smethwick, who, judging by the twenty years he attested to knowing Herbert, must have been a family friend.

In October 1916, Herbert joined the newly formed tank regiment as a Temporary 2nd Lieutenant. He was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in action on 15 September 1916, the first day on which tanks were used in battle by the British Army. The War Diary for the 4th Tank Regiment for 25 September shows Pearsall’s unit based at Guedecourt, France, and details why Pearsall and several other men were recommended for the Military Cross. It notes:

On this date, Lt. Storey with three other tanks was sent to Guedecourt on a ‘mopping up’ operation which was perhaps the most successful minor operation. Lt Storey reached his objective which was a strongly held trench on a ridge and did wonderful execution with his machine guns. Further, by holding up the enemy he was instrumental in capturing 300 prisoners. The following officers have since been awarded the Military Cross.

Second Lieutenant Herbert George Pearsall was one of several officers awarded the medal for his bravery. However, there is somewhat of a discrepancy in this entry and the actual reason why Herbert Pearsall was given the Military Cross. The War Diary for the 4th Battalion for 15 September 1916 gives this account of what happened on that day.

When this tank reached Flers and failed to find any Germans the officer reported to a New Zealand officer who asked that ’tank’ might protect his flank. Lt Pearsall took up this position and remained there until 7-45pm. ‘Tank’ was then asked to go forward to meet expected counter attack and remained forward until 6 am the next day (16th September). ‘Tank’ advanced with infantry at 9am and carried on until hit by HE shell which burst under belly of car, blowing in the gear box. Lt Pearsall remained in tank for some while using his Vickers guns on enemy and also took one Vickers gun into the trenches when he had to abandon the tank.

The citation in the London Gazette for 14 November 1916 reads:

Temporary 2nd Lt Herbert Pearsall MGC. He fought his Tank with great gallantry, protecting the flank of the infantry and repulsing an enemy counter-attack. Later, when his Tank was disabled, he fired a machine gun from the trenches, displaying great coolness and initiative.

It is clear that Herbert Pearsall was involved in several operations with the early versions of the tank and possibly the accumulation of bravery shown by the officer was enough for him to be awarded the medal. However, the actual bravery commended was on 15 September 1916.

Herbert Pearsall was promoted to Temporary Captain on 12 April 1917, and Acting Captain on 5 June. He was second in command of his company in action during November 1917 at Fesquieres, when his Company Commander was captured, and at Bourlon Wood. This was during the Battle of Cambrai when tanks were used much more successfully than in the previous year, although again without decisive effect. He was further promoted to Acting Major in December 1917, and given command of a Company in January 1918. Captain Pearsall was promoted in the field on two occasions as a Brevet Major, once in January 1918 and then again later in June 1918.

After the Armistice Herbert Pearsall served as an education officer, before embarking from Le Havre for England on 20 January 1919.  He was awarded his M.A. on 31st January, 1919. He returned to live at Tranvsaal Terrace and began his career again, teaching at Batley Grammar School. Sadly, however, Herbert George Pearsall died from Spanish influenza or from pneumonia aged only thirty whist teaching at the school on 19 March, 1919.  He was buried in Uplands Cemetery in Smethwick.

Captain Pearsall’s file at the National Archives shows the somewhat callous nature of his erstwhile army colleagues upon receipt of news of his death. Minute One of the file asks whether a death report had been received regarding the officer. The minutes flow until minute number five, whereupon a Colonel in the records department of the War Office writes on August 16th 1919: ‘We understand Captain Pearsall was demobilised on January 18th last and are therefore not concerned’.

Herbert Pearsall’s brother, Charles had already written to the solicitors for the War Office, Holt and Co, on 26 March 1919. In his letter, Charles informed Holt’s of his brother’s death. Holt’s were based in Whitehall Place and were seemingly agents for the War Office, helping to deal with probate issues after the death of soldiers. His letter said: ‘I regret to inform you that my brother Captain Herbert George Pearsall, late 1st Battalion Tank Corps, died of pneumonia on 19th inst, at Batley, Yorks’.

The family found themselves embroiled in letters to and from the War Office dealing with the effects of their deceased relative. Herbert Pearsall, like many, (though by no means all), soldiers at the front had written a will on 13 September 1915, leaving his worldly goods to his father. Sadly, since that time his father had died and therefore there were more letters trying to sort out the probate and who should inherit his money. His relatives were due a War Gratuity, and there were other monies due to him. The value of his estate was £ 1666-11s-8d, but it took some time for the family to get this. Even in March 1920 the War Office were writing to the family to dispose of small amounts of money he was owed in allowances.

Herbert Pearsall’s grave in the cemetery in Smethwick bears the notation, ‘Late of the Tank Corps’, and the school magazine for 1919 contained three fulsome tributes: one from a former Headmaster, N.L. Frazer; one from his current Headmaster, R.L. Ager; and one from a colleague, G.H. Kilburn.  All agreed on his excellence as a teacher, his cheerfulness and his modesty.  All agreed that, ‘he would have gone far in the teaching profession’.

Mr Fraser, the Headmaster at the time of his joining the school noted that:

Since he joined up in early 1916 (sic) I have heard from him regularly and seen him several times. I do not believe that he was ever so happy as when he was sergeant in the Motor Machine Gun Corps. The open life at Bisley and the comradeship of the army both appealed to him. He wrote in high spirits and enjoyed every moment. Later, when he got his commission in the tanks and went to France his letters were just as cheery, but were far fuller of the men under him than himself. He wrote, I remember, just after he won the MC for conspicuous gallantry for handling his tank but that incident was not mentioned, nor could he be persuaded to speak about it.

The head teacher at the time of his death who had not worked with him before the war, but had done so afterwards for a short time, ‘RLA’ wrote that:

It was self devotion that took him into the army – it was self devotion that brought him back to us, when he was still feeling the strain of nearly four years. Our lives will be the richer for his, he has gone forward to that fuller and more perfect life which awaits them who have served their master nobly here. Let us thank God for him.

The praises heaped upon him told of his modesty and his Christian faith and that he was proficient in motor mechanics, which may well have been a reason he was commissioned into the tank corps! Mr Fraser ended his eulogy by saying that:

With his proved capacity for leadership and command he was certain of rapid promotion in a profession which he had entered from choice and for which he was admirably suited. I speak for his colleagues, his pupils and his friends. This was the happy warrior – a gallant and Christian gentleman, a servant of God.

G.H. Kilburn was full of praise for his colleague in a tribute that ran to a page and a half in the magazine. He wrote:

Seven days ago Mr. Pearsall was standing next to me in prayers. To-night we have just returned from seeing his remains taken to Birmingham. At present the sense of loss and of tragedy is so deadening that it is hard to see things in their true proportion. But that very fact may help us to throw into higher relief the reasons why we all loved him so, and why his death causes such a gap.

Perhaps the best tribute to his qualities as a chum was paid by the senior forms, who selected a farewell to be put on his wreath. After much weighing of the merits of several selections, they insisted on one which lays special stress on the point mentioned:

Comrade of truest fashion

This was the man we knew

Herbert Pearsall’s Grave in Smethwick Cemetery. Image supplied by Stuart Archer.

Herbert Pearsall’s Grave in Smethwick Cemetery. Image supplied by Stuart Archer.

Kilburn continued to wax lyrical upon the virtues of a master taken away from the school at so young in age and at the start of what would no doubt have been a stellar career in education. His final paragraph is poignant and touching:

The honour and friendship with such a man is rare, and we are missing him sorely. My one great impression just now is that of a wayfarer across whose face there blows a waft of fragrance from some pleasant old world rose garden. It ebbs and fades away, yet the memory of it will come back as a help in dreary days. Alas! That reality should have been so hurriedly swept into a memory!

There were three beneficiaries to the £1600 that Herbert had left behind. Mary Ellen Pearsall, his mother, his sister Lucy Ellen, and Charles Frederick Pearsall, his brother who was by then living in Handsworth, Birmingham.

Herbert Pearsall is not commemorated on the Batley Grammar School Roll of Honour, nor on the Town’s War Memorial.  There is a very strong case for his addition, especially as there is a precedent with the inclusion of another teacher, R.S. Hawcridge.  Other soldiers who died in 1919 are included on the Roll of Honour for the school. At least two soldiers on the roll probably never saw active service at all as Captain Pearsall had done. His name was probably not included on the roll as he supposedly died of natural causes, but it was probably the case that had he not been weakened by his experiences in the trenches and the tanks of the Western Front, then he would have survived. His grave stone in Smethwick cemetery is near to where his family were from.