Private Cecil James MASON 
(17667)
2nd Bn. Coldstream Guards

Born: About November 1
892, Bedale, Yorkshire
Died: 31 July 1917, Ypres, Belgium (Age 24)

Born around November 1892 in Bedale, Yorkshire, Cecil James Mason was the eldest son of Harry and Mary Mason (nee Binks). His father, originally from Lewisham in London, was a Blacksmith and seems to have moved the family around quite a bit. In 1901 they were living in Middlesbrough and Cecil had two brothers William and Harry and a sister Olga Mary. By 1911, Cecil’s parents had another son named Andy and were living at Pull Woods, just south of Ambleside where his father and younger brother William were working as gamekeepers. Cecil, however, had left home and was working as a gardener on the Eden Hall Estate in Langwathby. We do know that at some point between 1911 and 1915 Cecil moved to Patterdale still working as a gardener, possibly at the Patterdale Hall Estate.

Cecil enlisted during December 1915, soon after two other local lads, Ernest Lake and George Cooper. Like them he joined the 2nd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He would have received his basic training at the Battalion’s barracks in Windsor. This would have included rifle and bayonet practice, trench warfare, digging and maintenance, and lasted for about 12 weeks (it got less as the war progressed). After this he would have been given a short period of leave before being posted to the front. 

When he arrived, in the spring of 1916, the 2nd Battalion were billeted in the town of Poperinghe, about 8 miles west of Ypres in West Flanders, where they would regularly march to the front line to relieve another Battalion, spend typically two or three days in the trenches before being relieved themselves by another Battalion. Every few weeks, the Battalion would be rested at camps thirty or forty miles away from the fighting. This routine was interrupted from time to time, by concerted offensives along the front. 

On the 15th Sep 1916, the 2nd Battalion took part in the Battle of Ginchy in which 440 men were killed, missing or wounded as a result of intense machine gun fire and heavy shelling by the Germans. During this action Cecil acted as a runner carrying messages, his devotion to duty led to a ‘Mention in Despatches’ and the award of a Conspicuous Gallantry Certificate on Parchment. The award was reported in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald on the 21st April 1917 they also mentioned that his brother William serving with the Dragoon Guards had been wounded but was now back at the front.

During the latter part of July 1917 the 2nd Battalion were billeted close to Herzeele (about 20 miles west of Ypres), where they underwent training for their part in a major allied offensive planned to begin on the 31st July that would later become known as the Battle of Passchendaele. Their objective was to cross the Yser Canal and then the Steenbeek Stream (see photo below) to take the Pilkem ridge thereby eliminating the Ypres Salient, the vulnerable bulge of allied-held ground that was surrounded on three sides by German forces.

At 10pm on the 30th July the Battalion moved up to it’s assembly position ready to attack the next morning. The assembly positions had been heavily shelled with gas shells every morning for the previous ten days between 3am and 4.30am. However, mercifully, on this night not a shell of any sort or size came anywhere near, even though the Allied guns had been firing hard all night1Also, after a week of rain the ground was waterlogged with trenches thigh deep in water.

At dawn, the Battalion advanced and crossed the Yser Canal at 6.20am using improvised bridges made of petrol tins, which were very unstable; a false step would have pitched them into the filthy morass. The German barrage on the canal was heavy at times but consistent – enabling commanders to predict when to take cover. As they advanced closer to their objective, the shell fire became heavier and machine guns started to inflict casualties. The attack was going to plan and by 9.30am the 2nd Coldstreams had joined up with the 2nd Grenadiers and began to consolidate their position. Unfortunately at this point a German airman flew very low (100ft) over the Battalion in a captured English plane with a black cross painted very indistinctly. The consolidated position was therefore given away and a very accurate artillery fire soon followed causing many casualties. Cecil survived the advance and reached the final objective but was shot by a sniper whilst digging in.  

Captain John H Hall wrote to his parents saying:

He took part in the advance on July 31st and reached our final objective. He was shot through the heart by a sniper whilst the company was digging in. He was a splendid soldier, and it was only last March that he was awarded a parchment for gallantry in the field. He will be a great loss to me and his comrades. He was buried where he fell.” 

Cecil had served with The Coldstream Guards in Flanders for around one and a half years and his medal card3 shows that he was posthumously awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal. 

The Imperial War Museum have a 6 minute film they say was taken of crossing the Yser Canal on the 31st July 1917. One scene shows two stretcher bearers carrying a wounded man across a wobbling footbridge. Click Here to watch the film (NB: Doesn't work on iPad)We have also found extracts from his Battalion's War Diary that cover the action in which he was wounded - these and other items can be viewed from the list of Research Documents below.

He is remembered and commemorated on: 

The Patterdale War Memorial
The War Memorial at St Margaret’s Church, Low Wray (close to where his parents lived)
Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial3
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial Certificate


What became of his family?

We are not sure what became of Cecil’s parents or siblings, although we believe his brother William survived the war, having served with the Dragoon Guards in France from August 1915 until he was demobbed in December 1919.


Notes:

1. . There were two official views for this absence of enemy artillery fire:

(1) most favoured by gunners, that Allied counter battery fire was so good that not a German could get near his guns to fire them;
(2) that the German gunners were busy getting their guns away and over the Steenbeck river to avoid them being captured.

2. Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is one of four British and Commonwealth memorials to the missing in the battlefield area of the Ypres Salient in Belgian Flanders. The memorial bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces (except New Zealand and Newfoundland) who fell in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 and who have no known grave. The names are engraved in Portland Stone panels fixed to the inner walls of the central Hall of Memory, to the sides of the staircases leading from the lower level to the upper exterior level, and on the walls inside the loggias on the north and south sides of the building. From 11th November, 1929 the Last Post has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20th May 1940 to 6th September 1944. The daily ceremony was instead continued in England at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town. Bullet marks can still be seen on the memorial from that time. More Details

3. Medal Card for Private Ernest Lake, Coldstream Guards


The Victory Medal
To qualify for the Victory medal one had to be mobilised in any service and have entered a theatre of war between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918).

The British War Medal

To qualify for the British War Medal a member of the fighting forces had to leave his native shore in any part of the British Empire while on service. It did not matter whether he/she entered a theatre of war or not.


Research Documents

Westmorland Gazette 21 Apr 1917 - Report of Private Cecil James MASON's Gallantry Certificate