Posted by: michaeldaybath | September 22, 2016

2nd Lieutenant J. M. Mansel-Pleydell: The death of an artillery officer and inventor


2nd Lieutenant J. M. Mansel-Pleydell’s battlefield cross, Church of St Mary, Sturminster Newton (Dorset)

In the Church of St Mary, Sturminster Newton (Dorset), there are several memorials for Second Lieutenant John Morton Mansel-Pleydell of the Royal Field Artillery, who died on the 22nd September 1916. His name appears on the village war memorial, which is made-up of wooden panels behind the altar in the war memorial (or warrior) chapel. Close by in the same chapel, is John’s battlefield cross, which would originally have stood in the St. Pierre Cemetery in Amiens, where he is buried [1]. A third memorial is an engraved stone plaque, embedded below a stained-glass memorial window installed in memory of his younger twin brother, Evan, who in 1910 had died  of illness at Lucknow in India, also while serving with the Royal Field Artillery.

Memorial window for Lieut E. M. Mansel-Pleydell

Part of memorial window for Lieutenant E. M. Mansel-Pleydell, Church of St Mary, Sturminster Newton (Dorset)

John and Evan were the sons of the Rev. Canon John Colville Mansel-Pleydell and Beatrice Maud (née Smith). Canon Mansel-Pleydell was the Vicar of Sturminster Newton from 1899 to 1915, and the second son of John Clavell Mansel-Pleydell of Whatcombe House, near Winterborne Whitechurch. The twins would, therefore, have been the cousins of Edmund Morton and Henry Grove Morton Mansel-Pleydell, officers that also died in the First World War. Edmund was a Lieutenant in the Dorsetshire Regiment, but he died near Kemmel on 12 March 1915, while attached to the Worcestershire Regiment. Henry was  a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment; he had been awarded an Military Cross for his actions during a gas attack at Hill 60 (near Ypres) in May 1915, but he died in odd circumstances near Thiepval Wood in March 1916 [2, 3].

John and Evan were born on 16 March 1884 at Bengeo, near Hertford, where their father was Rector from 1882 to 1895. Both attended Fonthill and Winchester College [4], before John was admitted as pensioner at Trinity College, Cambridge in June 1903 [5]. He was awarded a BA in Classics in 1906. After that, John worked abroad for a while, in both Canada and the Malay Peninsula, but he returned to the UK on the outbreak of war. He joined the Royal Field Artillery (RFA), and went to the front in August 1915. He died at Amiens on the 22nd September 1916, of wounds received earlier that month, while serving with “A” Battery, 107th Brigade, RFA. The 107th Brigade was part of the divisional artillery of 24th Division, a New Army formation that fought on the Western Front for almost all of the First World War.

There is a short account of John’s life in the History of the Family of Maunsell (Mansell, Mansel), which highlights his role in the invention of a height finding device for anti-aircraft fire [6]:

The twins were born on March 16, 1884, and were educated at Fonthill and Winchester. John remained at Winchester until 1903, in which year he matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1906 graduated in Classical Honours, being placed second in Class II. After leaving Cambridge he was engaged in business in Canada and in the Malay Peninsula until the outbreak of war in 1914, when he returned to England, and in December, 1914, was given a commission in the Royal Field Artillery. After eight months’ training he was sent to the front in France in August, 1915. While serving there he turned his attention with great interest to anti-aircraft gunnery, and spent all his available time in working out with intricate mathematical calculations various inventions for acquiring an accurate range and precise aim in firing at enemy air-machines. One of these inventions was accepted by the War Office, in conjunction with an invention on the same lines by Professor Bennett of Cambridge, and has been patented under their joint names. Another which he sent to the Ministry of Inventions proved that on his own initiative he had arrived at practically the same conclusions as those of a French officer, whose invention is now in use in the French army. He was wounded at the battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916, and died in hospital at Amiens on the 22nd of the same month.

The Professor Bennett mentioned was Geoffrey Thomas Bennett of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and his obituary contains a little more information on his war work [7]:

From 1911 to 1915 Bennett was named among the Assistant Tutors of the College [Emmanuel]; in 1913 he had completed twenty years as Lecturer in Mathematics, and might expect some relaxation of active teaching. But war began in 1914, and after some informal association with Horace (afterwards Sir Horace) Darwin, who was engaged in anti-aircraft work, he served (1916-1917) with Professor A. V. Hill […] and others, in the anti-aircraft experimental section of the munitions inventions department (latterly at Whale Island). Here he distinguished himself by his insistence that the first requisite for successful firing was to determine the height of the attacking plane, for which he invented a device.

I have been unable to find any firm evidence of a patent.

Memorial tablet for Lieut. J. M. Mansel-Pleydell

Memorial tablet for Lieutenant J. M. Mansel-Pleydell, Church of St Nicholas, Winterborne Clenston (Dorset)

John’s death was reported in the Western Gazette as follows [8]:

LIEUT. J. M. MANSEL-PLEYDELL KILLED IN ACTION. — On Sunday the sad news was received in Sturminster that Second-Lieutenant John Morton Mansel-Pleydell had fallen a victim in the war. He was the elder twin son of the Rev. Canon Mansel-Pleydell, formerly vicar of Sturminster Newton, and was 32 years of age. The deepest sympathy of all Sturminster Newton people is extended to the sorrowing family in their sad loss. The late Lieutenant Mansel-Pleydell was educated at Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was placed second in Class II. of the Classical Topics [Tripos?]. In September, 1914, he returned from the Malay, and obtained a commission in the Royal Field Artillery in the following December, proceeding to the Front in August, 1915. He died of wounds on September 22nd. He was co-inventor of an important improvement in anti-aircraft gunnery

John’s name appears on several memorials outside Sturminster Newton. His name features on the war memorials at Winchester College and Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge. It also can be found on the war memorial at Kimmeridge (which is where his father was born) and on some more personal memorials at Winterborne Clenston, near Whatcombe. Clenston has a plaque given by John’s sister Cicely, as well as a hymn-board that commemorates both of the brothers. Evan and John also had two younger brothers, Harry Percy Morton Mansel-Pleydell and Ralph Morton Mansel-Pleydell, who both at some point joined the Royal Field Artillery, reaching respectively the ranks of Major and Captain.

[1] CWGC casualty database entry:

[2] “The Dorsetshire Regiment at Hill 60, May 1915,” Opusculum, 5 May 2015:

[3] “An incident near Thiepval Wood,” Opusculum, 17 May 2016:

[4] Winchester College Roll of Honour:

[5] Trinity College, Cambridge Roll of Honour:

[6] Edward Phillips Statham, ed., The History of the Family of Maunsell (Mansell, Mansel) (London: Kegan Paul Trench & Co.), vol. 2, pt. 2, pp. 719-720:

[7] H. F. Baker, “Geoffrey Thomas Bennett,” Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 4, No. 13, November 1944, pp. 596-615.

[8] Western Gazette, 29 September 1916, p. 3.



  1. […] Finally, in one of those curious co-incidences that one finds occasionally when investigating the names that appear on war memorials, it was interesting to discover that Captain Sanctuary’s father was appointed to a prebendal stall in Salisbury Cathedral at the same time as the father of 2nd Lieut. John Morton Mansel-Pleydell [8]: […]

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