First published in Britain at War in June 2015.
George Roupell: Endurance
George Rowland Patrick Roupell was born in Tipperary, Ireland, on 7 April 1892. He was the son of Colonel Francis Roupell, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. Roupell was educated at Rossall School, Lancashire, and Royal Military College, Sandhurst.
On 2 March 1912, Roupell was commissioned into his father’s regiment as a 2nd lieutenant and he was promoted to lieutenant on 29 April 1914. After the outbreak of the First World War, he was deployed to France on 16 August 1914 as part of the British Expeditionary Force.
Roupell was present at Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first Battle of Ypres, but it was for gallantry at Hill 60, near Ypres, Belgium, that he was awarded the VC. Hill 60 was an elevated position held by the Germans but it needed to be captured by the British if they were to advance in the area. On 17 April 1915, the British succeeded in capturing the position but the enemy was equally determined to recapture the observation platform within days.
The enemy started making a concerted effort to seize back the hill on the evening of 19 April. Since earlier that day, Roupell, commanding A Company, and his men positioned in one of the most advanced trenches, close to the German line.
After some fighting from 5pm on the 19 April, Roupell and half of A Company were tasked, at 10pm, with relieving two C Company platoons that had originally held the old German support trenches on the forward slope of the hill. On 20 April, there was a heavy bombardment by the enemy from 11 am and from 4pm the Germans launched a sustained attack to recapture the hill.
Enemy troops were soon swarming over the area, inflicting casualties and Roupell’s half of A Company came under a particularly heavy attack. Roupell’s men suffered heavy losses from grenade and rifle attacks yet, in some cases, his men had picked up the grenades and thrown them back at the enemy before they exploded. Despite their heavy losses, Roupell and his men held out against the repeated attacks.
During the bombardment that preceded the final German attack, Roupell had been wounded no less than eight times, yet still he and his men held their position. After nightfall, Roupell made his way back to HQ to explain the hopelessness of their position and to request urgent reinforcements. After having his wounds dressed, he returned to his men even though the surgeon urged him to report instead to a casualty clearing station.
By the time he returned at about 8pm, A Company’s position was looking increasing precarious and some Germans had managed to crawl along one of its trenches and a firefight ensued. At 11pm, Roupell again went back, under fire, to seek desperately needed reinforcements and he returned with a party of 1/Bedfords. They managed to hold the position until 1/East Surreys were relieved by the Devons at 2am on 21 April, having been involved in ferocious fighting for some thirty-three hours.
Roupell recovered from his serious injuries and his VC was announced on 23 June 1915 when his citation concluded: “This young Officer was one of the few survivors of his company, and showed a magnificent example of courage, devotion and tenacity, which undoubtedly inspired his men to hold out til the end.”
He received his VC from King George V in an investiture at Buckingham Palace on the day that his VC was ‘gazetted’. Roupell was also awarded the Russian Order of St George 4th Class for his VC action. In September 1916, he was promoted to captain.
Roupell served with distinction throughout the war, being wounded twice more, being Mentioned in Despatches three times and receiving the French Croix de Guerre.
At the end of the war, he served as an acting lieutenant-colonel in north Russia against the Bolsheviks and in 1919 he was captured, mistreated and eventually released. He married in 1921 and the couple went on to have two daughters.
From 1935-39, Roupell commanded the 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment in the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he again saw action when, as a brigadier, he served with the British Expeditionary Force in France, commanding the 36th Brigade.
On 19/20 May 1940, his brigade came under a sustained German attack and, by the early hours of the next day, the situation was so desperate that Roupell ordered his men to split into small parties to try to escape. Three senior officers were captured, while others escaped but Roupell was hidden on a farm, at great risk to the courageous French farmer, for an astonishing two years. Eventually, with the help of the French Resistance, he escaped through Spain and returned to Britain. From 1943-5, Roupell commanded the Chatham Garrison, Kent.
Roupell retired with the honorary rank of brigadier in February 1946 but commanded the Surrey Home Guard from 1952-6, and was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Surrey in 1953. In 1956, he was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB). His first wife, Doris, died in 1958 and he later remarried.
Roupell became president of the Old Contemptibles Association in 1973 but died the following year – in his sleep on 4 March 1974 – at his home in Shalford, Surrey. He was just a month short of his eighty-second birthday. Roupell’s VC is not part of my medal collection.