Emsworth author pens First World War book after discovering old shoe box chronicling life of his great uncle

AN AUTHOR from Emsworth has seen the publication of his first book chronicling the First World War campaign in the Argonne Forest and its aftermath.

By Neil Fatkin
Monday, 4th January 2021, 4:00 pm
Bob (centre) in the Argonne during Christmas 1914 driving his Mors Sports car alongside Andre Citroen (left) then an artillery officer in the French army. Person to the right is unknown.
Bob (centre) in the Argonne during Christmas 1914 driving his Mors Sports car alongside Andre Citroen (left) then an artillery officer in the French army. Person to the right is unknown.

Lifelong Pompey fan Richard Merry was inspired to write the book after being handed an old shoe box some 30 years ago by his late father, David Merry.

The box contained artefacts, letters and diary excerpts about the the life of his great uncle, George Robert Merry, a former cycling champion who worked for the tyre manufacturer Dunlop and spent time living in Paris and travelling the world selling sports cars.

However it was the exploits of his uncle Bob, as he was affectionately known, during the Great War which inspired a 30-year process of investigation into lesser-known but equally bloody battles of the Argonne Forest.

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American soldiers burying their dead in temporary graves during autumn 1918.

At the age of 42, Bob was seen as too old to enlist in the British Army at the start of the war. However being based in France he joined up with the French Foreign Legion.

Richard, 65, said: ‘I fell in love with Bob’s story and the incredible bravery of the French soldiers and the awfulness of everyday life in holding their position on the German front line.

‘Within weeks of enlisting, Bob was at the Argonne front as driver and translator for the French General Henri Gouraud, commanding the 10th Paris Division. Bob started correspondence with my grandfather describing the trials and tribulations of the bitter fighting in the Argonne.’

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Richard Merry with his book the Great War of the Argonne Forest.

Richard noticed how correspondence appeared to ‘dry up’ part way through 1915.

He said: ‘I think this may have been to do with increased censorship as the authorities grew increasingly concerned about the impact on recruitment of the revelations of the true horrors of life on the front-line.’

Determined to piece together what happened next Richard discovered that Bob was discharged from the Foreign Legion before enlisting with the British Army Service Corp.

‘By this time the government had extended the age at which men could join up and Bob returned to the Argonne front-line. Despite having to return home for a period of time in 1916 due to shell shock and flu, Bob was one of the few to experience this campaign from 1914 to 1918,’ said Richard.

Initially inspired to create an exhibition about his uncle it was a walking trip to France which led to Richard deciding to pen the book.

He said: ‘I was walking the Western Front Way when I bumped into some people who had seen the exhibition and said I should write the book. There wasn’t enough just with my uncle’s story which is why I decided to extend the book to cover the Argonne.’

As well as chronicling the lesser-known role of French and American soldiers in the conflict, the book also charts the aftermath of the campaign including the retrieval of bodies, rebuilding of villages and birth of battlefield tourism right up to the onset of World War Two.

However it’s the opening of that dusty old shoe box and Bob’s story which remains at the forefront of the book’s narrative.

Richard said: ‘Bob received the Croix de Guerre – Cross of War – from French authorities for his exploits and I wanted memorialise my great uncle with the writing of this book.’

Entitled The Great War in the Argonne Forest the book can be purchased in Waterstones or via the Pen and Swords Books website.

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