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News > Archives & History > The Death of Captain Reginald H.M. Hands

The Death of Captain Reginald H.M. Hands

On Monday 14 May 2018 the Centenary Celebrations of the firing of the Cape Town Noon Gun took place at The Lions Head Battery, just below Signal Hill. Much was made of the link between this Cape Town tradition, and the death of an Old Diocesan, “Reg” Hands. His death was the spark that eventually resulted in the firing of the Noon Gun as a daily institution, and the implementation that started as 2 minute’s silence, has been reduced to a minute’s silence, and is today often used as a moment’s silence.

His death is reported in The Diocesan College Magazine of June 1918, on page 16: “Captain Reginald H.M. Hands, of the S.A. Heavy Artillery, died of wounds and gas poisoning in France on 20th April, 1918, at the age of 29.”

Whilst his death has had such a significant impact on the world, there is another story to be told in the way that he died. To hear a first-hand account of this, we turn to the September 1918 edition of the above mentioned magazine, and pick up the story on page 15. We will leave readers to contemplate their own conclusions at the end of the letter…

The following are extracts from a letter written by an OD – Bombr. H.B. Stephens of the S.A.H.A. – who was gassed during the same bombardment as Hands. This letter was written by Stephens from the Eastbourne Convalescent Camp to Major P.A. M. Hands, M.C. That Reg Hands should have died as he did from the effects of a chance shell when off-duty is, the more sad for the fact that he and his battery had just come successfully out of ten days of as strenuous fighting as they could possibly have experienced. At one stage officers and men alike had had to turn-to and haul the guns to save them from capture by the enemy.

‘On arrival at the S.A. Hospital, at Richmond at the end of April, I found Mitchell, who had been the late Capt. Hands’ batmen there. He gave me a full account of all that took place on April 18th, from the time the officers were casualties, until he left Captain Hands in hospital that evening. As you know, the battery was, at that time at la Bourse, in the neighbourhood of Bethune, the battery position was behind a fosse there, and our officers were quartered in a house in the village, not far from the fosse. At 4.30am, on April 18th, the Germans, as a preliminary to an attack on our front line in the neighbourhood of Givenchy and Festubert, opened a strong bombardment on our front line and, in addition, shelled the back areas, including la Bourse, fairly heavily. La Bourse was shelled for an hour or more, and the officers’ quarters were hit between 5.30 and 5.45 a.m. by the last shell that fell in that neighbourhood, and the only one that came within the immediate vicinity of the house. At the time Capt. Hands, Lieut. Maasdorp and Lieut. Brown (R.G.A.) were lying in bed in their pyjamas, in one room. The shell, bursting as it broke through the wall, landed in the centre of their room, filled it with flying splinters, and wreaked havoc generally. Lieut. Brown and Lieut. Maasdorp’s beds were both damaged, but Capt. Hands’ was untouched. Lieut. Maasdorp was the only one actually hit, being wounded in the leg and head, though Capt. Hands had a narrow escape from a splinter which struck his pillow. Capt. Hands pulled on the first article of clothing he could find over his pyjamas, and, with Mitchell and two other batmen (one of whom died a fortnight later from gas poisoning), placed Lt. Maasdorp on a stretcher, and carried him to a dressing station nearby in the village. On getting to the dressing-station, they all commenced vomiting, and apparently, what with the confusion resultant on the shell bursting in the room, and having all their attention concentrated on getting Lieut. Maasdorp away as quickly as possible, they realised then, for the first time, that it was a gas shell that had done the damage. By this time Hands’ eyes had commenced to swell up, and he was beginning to feel the effects of the gas, but disregarding the medical orderly’s advice to remain at the dressing-station, he returned to the officers’ billet with Mitchell. Mitchell at once got some tea and breakfast for him, which he ate, but commenced to vomit directly afterward, bringing up a little blood. About half an hour later, Major Forder (who assumed command of 73 a couple of days previously) returned from the battery position, and on seeing the condition Capt. Hands was in, immediately ordered him to the dressing-station. Capt. Hands was very unwilling to go, as the battery was already sadly depleted for officers, but as Major Forder insisted on it, he complied with the order, and Mitchell escorted him to the dressing-station. There the R.A.M.C. major in charge insisted, despite Capt. Hands’ protests, that he should (as he put it) go behind the lines for a few days’ rest, at least. They left la Bourse about 9.30 a.m. and travelled some five miles to another dressing-station (name unknown). After receiving further attention at this place, they left about an hour after arrival, and travelled another few miles to a hospital (mainly tents), near Bruay. Here two nurses put Capt. Hands to bed straightaway; by now he was quite blinded, and suffering some pain, though he was quite cheerful, and had been talking cheerfully to Mitchell all the way along. As Mitchell was feeling pretty bad himself by then, Capt. Hands insisted on him reporting to the doctor. The doctor ordered Mitchell to bed, but before doing this, Mitchell went again to make sure that Capt. Hands’ kit was all right; he also, at his request brought Capt. Hands’ writing-case and materials, and left them next to his bed. It is typical of Capt. Hands’ consideration for others that, even under these circumstances, just as Mitchell was leaving him for the last time, he remembered that he owed Mitchell some money for wages, etc., and gave him a fifty franc note in settlement thereof. On arrival at Richmond Hospital, Mitchell heard for the first time, greatly to his grief of Capt. Hands’ death…

I may mention that while being attended to at the same dressing-station a couple of days later (the result of a gas shell bursting in my billet during the same bombardment) the R.A.M.C. people there informed me that the four medical orderlies who attended to Capt. Hands were so badly gassed by the exudations of gas from his clothing, that they all had to be evacuated the following day. I need hardly tell you how grieved all of us members of the 73rd battery were, at the loss of an officer for whom we had the utmost admiration and respect, and how we sympathise with his relatives in their loss. Any member of the battery would gladly have written up this little account of Mitchell’s as a very slight practical  token of this sympathy: being on the spot, as it were, it fell to me to do so.’
 
 

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