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Hugh 'Pop' Benson (1882 - 1944)

Corporal Hugh 'Pop' Benson OBE, Major, MC .... or perhaps not ? After fighting in three wars, he died aged 62 in a POW camp, given military honours by friend and foe alike. He was "generous to a fault, kindly, and often took guard duties and unpleasant chores away from younger chaps in the Regiment." A fascinating story.

My Dad's uncle (his mother's brother) Hugh (on the left in the photo) was born on 28th July 1882 and his early childhood was spent living at The Mount, Sparepenny Lane, Farningham, Kent, with his older brother Alick (1879) and younger sister Marjorie (1884). It was an afluent family with 5 servants.

Their comfortable life must have changed dramatically when his father, William Cole BENSON, left him, his mother, Marion Eliza BENSON, and siblings around 1884 and emigrated to South Africa.

According to my Uncle Tony’s autobiography, "Although she regarded herself as very hard done by and impoverished, my grandmother had been provided, after the separation, with an income sufficient to maintain a house in the Cromwell Road, with three or four resident servants, and to send her two sons to St. Paul’s School."
There is evidence that Hugh attended St Paul's and "Left in U. v. A., April 1898".

Before I started looking into Hugh's story, it had been passed down through the family that Hugh fought in the Boer War, WW1 and was in the Army again for WW2 before being killed while fighting with the South African forces at Tobruk around 1941 / 1942. That in itself would have been a tale to tell. He did indeed fight in three major wars but he wasn't killed at Tobruk.  His story was even more amazing than could have been predicted and this, as far as I am aware, is the first time it has been told. 

The Boer War

My Uncle Hugh recollected that his Uncle Hugh fought in the Boer War (October 1899 to May 1902) and decided to stay in South Africa after this. The autobiography recalls "Grey woolen socks were the fruits of her toil, and they were sent to her younger son who had stayed in South Africa after the Boer War. This Uncle Hugh, whom I met only once, was a glamorized creature by virtue of his foreignness." Whether he met up with his father, who died in March 1898, is unknown.

What do we know about his time fighting during the Boer War ? I was contacted by a researcher in South Africa who has told me that The Natal Carbineers records have the following entry : 

BENSON Hugh. Sergeant Farrier 555

Served Siege of Ladysmith 29/9/1899 to 31/05/1902.
141712 - Served in German South West Africa 1914-1915.
Off strength to Royal Field Artillery - Capt.

This evidence is coroborated by the fact that Hugh's WW1 medal card has an entry, "Sergeant, 1st Mounted Rifles" with regimental number Z28 and 141712. Apparently, the 1st Mounted Rifles were the Natal Carbineers during the German South West Africa Campaign and Z28 would have been the original number for the GSWA campaign. They were then issued with new numbers once they left for Windhoek (141712).

World War 1

As mentioned, I have Hugh's medal card during his service with the British Army in WW1. It shows he was commissioned into the RFA as a 2nd Lieutenant on 1st September 1916. Hugh was at some stage promoted to Acting Captain and then the Acting was crossed off making him a substantive Captain.  He was in theatre 5A of the war from October 1914 which consisted of East Africa, Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia. He was awarded the Victory and British War Medal while he was serving with the RFA.  The 1915 Star would have been issued in South Africa by the Natal Carbineers. He was issued an emblem on the 11 November 1921, which my researcher thinks could be the Efficiency Decoration (VD) for 20 years service.

World War 2 and the mystery surrounding his death 

As mentioned previously, family memories were pretty definite that Hugh took part in WW2 before being killed while fighting with the South African forces at Tobruk around 1941 / 1942.  However, I found a dedication to him on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site showing him on the Berlin 1939-45 War Cemetery memorial (just outside Berlin) dying two years later in 1944.  How could that be right ?  It also showed that, unbeknown to his family, he had the rank of Corporal and had been awarded an OBE !

Intrigued, I then contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission itself and the only additional information they could give me was that he was buried in: BERLIN 1939-1945 WAR CEMETERY, Germany, Plot 10, Row K, Grave 3. They also told me that he had previously been buried at Neuburzdorf Germany (Orstfriedhof) and was reburied in Berlin on 5th June 1947. 

I wondered if perhaps he had been taken prisoner while fighting at Tobruk and then moved behind enemy lines, dying two and a half years later ?

I then wrote to The Department of Defence in Pretoria hoping they could let me have access to his service record which I soon received.  It seems he lied about his age when signing up in 1940 by saying he was born in 1895 rather than 1882.  He would have been 57 at the outbreak of WW2.  Trying to pass himself off as being 13 years younger than he was must have been difficult as, unsuprisingly, his hair is described as “grey”. 

Hugh was serving with the Royal Durban Light Infantry.  

His alledged rank of Corporal doesn’t sound sufficient for someone who had been serving in at least 3 major wars since he was in his late teens but the records show he re-enlisted in 1940 as a Private and there is nothing to suggest he was anything other than a Private. Where did Corporal come from and the OBE ?  The letter from Pretoria says there is “no record on his personnel file of an OBE being awarded to Private Benson”. Where did the CWGC get this information from ? Was it true ?

The service record shows that his trade was a Farmer and the documents say he served for 4 years as RFA Captain. The most surprising information was that, unbeknown to his family, he had married a Mary BENSON with an address of 28 Cluny Gardens, Edinburgh. He gave his next of kin as a G.K.Colville from Castledene, Underberg in Natal. Why was she living in Scotland and not in South Africa with her husband ? 

I subsequently tried to find out what his OBE (medal left) was awarded for.  There are no lists in the public domain other than the birthday honours list published in The Times and, not knowing what year to look for and the print being very small, it was like looking for a needle in a hay stack. I originally summised that, as with his ability to persuade the authorities he was 13 years younger than he actually was, this award may have been a figmant of his overly active imagination.  However, it turned out to be true.  "Captain H Benson" was
awarded the OBE in 1921. Where did Captain come from ? 

The Golden Nugget

Just by chance, I was invited to a hospitality evening to enjoy a 20 : 20 match at The Oval a few years ago and got talking to someone, as you do, about the fact I had a British relative who had seemingly emigrated to South Africa and fought with South African forces in WW2. This chap said his father may be able to help as he was in contact with a couple of military historians. I subsequently contacted Graham in South Africa and told him where I was with the story.  He did some detective work and has added substantially to our knowledge about Hugh Benson. 

Graham told me he had found there is a small farm near Coleford, just outside Underberg, called BENSON. A local historian told him that Hugh BENSON was in partnership with a Mr COLVILLE in the 1920's and that he had a son George COLVILLE. Graham subsequently spoke to George who told him his father, together with Hugh BENSON, had formed a partnership farming with pedigree Hereford Cattle at Chevy Chase Farm, Drakensberg Gardens Road – this is in the Underberg area (near Pietermaritzburg and close to the Drakensberg Mountains). They had a pack of dogs and used to hunt jackals and otters. Geoffrey Colville was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Dorset Yeomanry.

Graham told me that he had spoken to historian Dave Matthews who was researching the ‘ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE DLI’ who remembered seeing a photo of Hugh Benson’s funeral where a German firing party was honouring him. However, unfortunately, he told me that any service records which may have existed were destroyed in a serious fire which gutted some areas of the DLI HQ.

He confirmed that Stalag 4 b was situated in the MUHLBERG area south of BERLIN between the small villages of BURXDORF and NEUBURXDORF, 8 km east of MUHLBERG. It held up to 16,000 POW'S. There is a museum in MUHLBERG opened after the reunification of Germany which has many photographs and maps etc.  

 Graham forwarded me this email which he received from the Royal Durban Light Infantry historian, Dave Matthews :

"As you can see, I managed to find the photograph taken at Hugh's funeral and the short article that appeared in the July 1967 issue of "FLASH" the regimental magazine. The article reads as follows :

 I am indebted to Eric Everitt, ex Sergeant, 2nd RDLI, for several interesting books, publications and newspaper cuttings, all dealing with the war years - 1939/45. Amongst the papers he let me have was this photograph of a burial service being held in Stalag 4b, sometime during 1943 (NB The date of the funeral was 12/7/44 according to the back of the photograph). Several chaps are easily recognisable, particularly in the front rank. Reading from the left I can tag the following names : J Soames, (?) Cliff Tyson, Ernie Fox, Horace Porter and A Steyn, from S.W. Africa. In the back (right) I can see Archie Mannicom and Eric Everitt.

I was intensely interested in the photograph because of the fact that a German firing party was being used at the burial of an "enemy". I eventually established the fact that the man who was being buried was Hugh (Pop) Benson, who served in the "I" section of the 1st RDLI. It would appear that Pop was quite a character and this certainly must have been
so, for who other than a real character could have persuaded the authorities that he was under 45 when in fact he was already over 60.

Hugh Benson, a Major, M.C. in the 1914 - 1918 war, was farming in the Underberg area at the outbreak of the Second World War. He immediately gave up his favourite sport and pastime, otter hunting with a pack of home grown dogs, and set out for Durban, where he promptly got himself tied up with the 1st RDLI. Many efforts were made to persuade this old sweat to accept rank of some kind but he fought off all onslaughts on his privateship. Eventually however, he agreed to become a lance-jack in the (I) Section. 

Hugh, a fairly quiet man, never really had much to say for himself - certainly he rarely spoke of his First World War experiences. He was fantastically fit for his age, a real hog for hard work and fatigues. He was generous to a fault, kindly, and often took guard duties and unpleasant chores away from younger chaps in the Regiment. He was renowned as a marcher of routes and could walk most men off their collective feet.

It was Pop's lot to be attached to the composite Battalion (Blake Group) which went into "the sack" at Tobruk and from there he was drafted, together with so many other RDLI chaps, to Stalag 4 B where eventually he died. How sad it is that so fine a man, so good a soldier as Hugh Benson, should have been buried so far from home, and yet how fitting that he, with "war and army" in his very blood, should have been buried with military honours in the presence of both enemy and friend. Yes, indeed, Pop Benson was a soldier of whom we of the DLI can and must remember with pride. TUBBY GOLDMAN"

There is a Memorial in the Moth Garden of Remembrance, Underberg – right - difficult to read but "L/Cpl H. Benson, OBE, RDLI" is the first name listed. Where did Lieutenant Corporal come from ?

It was interesting to hear about these other aspects of Hugh's life as it somehow provides a more complete background to a person who was obviously quite a character.  As far as I have been able to determine, he was awarded the OBE for action in WW1 rather than the M.C, which the article suggested his comrades may have believed.  However, whatever his rank, he was a hero and a leader of men who served his country and died surrounded by his comrades thousands of miles from his home.  



They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.


Linked toHugh Benson; William Cole Benson; Marion Eliza Johnson

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