Posted by: michaeldaybath | July 22, 2017

Private Frank Derrett, 2nd Civil Service Rifles

Six members of the library departments of the British Museum are commemorated on the British Librarians memorial now at the British Library. In May, this blog remembered Captain Ian Alistair Kendall Burnett (8th East Lancashire Regiment). The British Library’s Untold Lives blog has also covered Captain Burnett, as well as the two British Museum colleagues that died in 1916: Private Charles Robert Dunt (1/13th London Regiment), and Sergeant Harry Michie (1st City of London Yeomanry).

The fourth member of the British Museum’s library departments to die during the war was Private Frank Derrett of the 2/15th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment, the second line battalion of the Prince of Wales’s Own Civil Service Rifles.  Private Derrett died-of-wounds at Salonica (Thessaloniki), Greece on the 22nd July 1917, aged 34.

Private Frank Derrett, 2/15th Battalion, London Regiment

Frank Derrett was born at London in 1883, the son of William and Emma Derrett, who lived at James Street, Marylebone. Census records from 1871 and 1881 describe William Derrett as a china and glass dealer, and it is clear from later returns that Emma continued running the business after his death in 1889. The 1911 Census includes the 63-year old Emma Derrett living at 35 James Street with three sons (including the 27 year old Frank), two grandchildren, and two boarding valets from Switzerland.

Frank Derrett joined the British Museum as a Boy Attendant in the Department of Printed Books on the 23rd January 1899. At the time of his death, he had worked for the museum for 18½ years, from August 1903 as an Attendant in the Reading and Newspaper Rooms. He married Alice Edmunds at Marylebone in 1912.

The Civil Service Rifles War Memorial, Somerset House, London

The Civil Service Rifles War Memorial, Somerset House, London

Frank Derrett enlisted in the Civil Service Rifles in September 1915, becoming part of its second line battalion. The regimental history records that in August 1914, the headquarters of the Civil Service Rifles at Somerset House was besieged by crowds of younger civil servants, some of whom in turn formed the nucleus of the second line battalion. Throughout the war, the 2nd Civil Service Rifles formed part of the 60th (2/2nd London) Division, which served on the Western Front from June 1916 before moving to Salonika (Greece) in November 1916.

The Macedonian Front is one of the lesser-known theatres of the First World War. A small Franco-British force first arrived at Salonika in October 1915, ostensibly to support the Serbian army. However, while the force arrived too late to prevent a Serbian defeat, it remained on Greek soil, establishing a defensive line in Macedonia (it was also a means of pressurising the neutral Greeks to enter the war on the side of the Entente, which they eventually did in the summer of 1917). In August 1916, the reinforced British force became part of the grandly-titled Allied Army of the Orient, under the command of the French General Maurice Sarrail.

After arriving in Salonika, the 2nd Civil Service Rifles spent some time at Katerini before undertaking a gruelling seven-day march to Kalinova in March 1917. As part of 60th Division, they played a supporting role in operations near Lake Doiran (Dojran) in April and May 1917, part of a much-wider offensive planned on the Macedonian front by the Army of the Orient. On the 24th April, the 60th Division were detailed to raid positions in the Machukovo Salient, while the British 22nd and 26th Divisions were to attack the main Bulgarian defences on the Doiran-Vardar front. The 2nd Civil Service Rifles had a support role in this operation and its follow-up on the 8th May. In the days following the second operation, however, the battalion had a tough job consolidating positions on hills known as the Goldies, which is where they suffered the majority of their active-service casualties throughout the Salonika campaign.

By early June, the 60th Division was on its way back to Salonika, having been posted to yet another theatre of war. The 2nd Civil Service Rifles sailed to Egypt on the 19th June, from where they would take part in the campaign in Palestine, eventually returning to the Western Front in late 1918 (the frequent travels of the battalion gained it the nickname, the “Cook’s Tourists”). When the battalion sailed to Egypt, it seems that Private Derrett was left behind in Greece, either in hospital or attached to another unit. He died-of-wounds on the 22nd July 1917, aged 34, and is buried in Salonika (Lembet Road) Military Cemetery in Thessaloniki. Fourteen members of the 2nd Civil Service Rifles died during the Macedonian Campaign; Private Derrett was the last one of them to die.

Frank Derrett’s gravestone at Salonika includes an epitaph chosen by his widow: verses adapted from a popular late-nineteenth-century hymn (The Christian’s goodnight) that had been written by Sarah Doudney and set to music by Ira D. Sankey: “Sleep on, beloved, and take thy rest; we love thee well, but Jesus loves thee best.”

British Museum War Memorial, Bloomsbury, London

British Museum War Memorial, Bloomsbury, London

Private Derrett’s name appears on the British Museum’s war memorials at Bloomsbury and Kensington, as well as on the British Librarian’s memorial now at the British Library at St. Pancras. The war memorial for the Civil Service Rifles, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, once stood in the central courtyard of Somerset House in London; it was moved in the early 2000s to the Embankment side of the building, and now overlooks the River Thames.

The Gardeners of Salonika

In the same way that the British 8th Army in Italy were pejoratively known in the Second World as the “D-Day Dodgers,” the role of the British Salonika Force was not widely understood at home. Indeed, the French premier Georges Clemenceau famously described the Allied Army of the Orient as the “Gardeners of Salonika.” Understandably, this rankled somewhat with those that were there, as is evidenced by the following account published in the Macclesfield Courier of the 28 September 1918. It reflects some of the prejudices of the time, but it also reveals some of what those on the Macedonian Front had to endure.

Corporal J. Welch (of 10, Fence Street, Macclesfield) writes from Salonica, to the Editor, as follows:–
Dear Sir, — I have noticed recently that quite a number of Macclesfield men have been killed in action in Salonica. Many persons have got quite a wrong impression of this Front, and what the men out here are doing. So, if you will spare me a little space in your well-known paper, I will endeavour to give, to the relatives and friends of those men who have made the supreme sacrifice, and to those people who have got the idea that we, out here, are having a holiday, a slight description of this country, what we have done out here, and what we are still doing.
This country practically consists of mountains, hills, and deep ravines. Of course, there is some fairly level ground, which is, generally speaking, water-logged; forming fever-breeding marshes and ideal placed for breeding mosquitoes and many other disease-carrying insects. In the winter months mountain torrents rush down the ravines, and at times do a considerable amount of damage. But in the summer months, practically all of these are dried up, leaving pools of stagnant water here and there. I think that since the time of our Lord, the inhabitants of this country have gone back instead of progressing with the times. For when we first came here there was no drainage whatever, only what was done by Nature itself; and no one seemed to have the slightest idea of sanitation, or, anyhow, it was never shown. We also saw several cases of cattle that had died out in the open; the owners would skin them, if they were worth it, and leave the carcass for dogs, jackals, vultures, and thousands of creeping things to devour; and the bones that were left would bleach in the sun. From this, one can easily understand that there is not much really good water here, to which we can put down a great deal of the sickness in this country, including dysentery, which has taken more than a few good men to their last resting-place. So one can clearly understand that the men out here, exposed to severe winters, and in the summer bearing the heat of the sun, which is almost tropical, and good water being scarce, and the ground itself being foul by reason of centuries of neglect in way of irrigation and sanitation, are indeed open to diseases and illnesses of many different kinds.
Then as regards what we have actually done, everybody knows that when we came here we were too late to save Serbia, which was not our fault, but we did arrive in time to partially cover the retreat of the Serbs, and to prevent Salonica, with its fine harbour, falling into the hands of the Central Powers. Had Salonica fallen into their hands, I think that the transportation of troops to and from India, Egypt, and Palestine, would have been a far more difficult matter than it is at present, for they could, and probably would, have made it into a submarine base, for which, I may say, it is naturally suited. And they could have wrought considerable havoc amongst the shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. And as the gulf and harbour are surrounded by natural fortifications, I very much doubt if we would ever have been able to take it from them. There is also another important factor here to be considered; when we came here there was one single set of railway lines running up country, and not one road that was worthy of the name, now there are plenty of railways and roads everywhere. Railways and roads do not spring up because you lie in your bivouac and wish for them, they require hard work and plenty of it, and we know it, too. And it is those roads and those railways that have enabled us to make our front line where it is to-day.
Now as regards the actual fighting, the trenches are not being constantly moved forward or backwards, as the case may be like those in France for example, and the artillery of each side has them all registered, in other words they can level them any time, and often do. Again, in raids or attacks the Bulgars know as well as we do that many of the hills, which we have to go up to get to him, are so steep it is impossible to scale them from the front. In other words, we must move up the ravines, which also are registered on by artillery and trench mortar batteries. I have been in “scraps” out here with men who went through Loos, but they said that it was far worse than Loos was. I could also mention other similar remarks.
Another thing, some people think that we are in Salonica itself or very near to it. I may say that we are many miles away, and many of our men have not been near it since the day that we landed and marched through it. Also, the men in France have, I believe, all been home on leave, some twice and three times, but a large percentage of the Salonica Force are still waiting their turn for their first, and not much hoe of that, and these are men who have been on active service over two and a half years.
If those people who say that we are having a holiday in Salonica could only see the ever-growing Military Cemeteries out here, I don’t think another word of that kind would ever cross their lips. The time will come when there will be no need to restrict the publication of many things, which have to be restricted at present. Then there will be many revelations; now we see as through glass, dimly, then we shall see clearly and, maybe, understand.

Further Reading:

The history of the Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles (London: Post Office Rifles, 1921):

H. Dalbiac, History of the 60th Division (2/2nd London Division) (London: Allen & Unwin, 1927).

Cyril Falls, Military operations: Macedonia, 2 vols (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1933-35); the British Official History

Jill Knight, The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2004).

Mark Mazower, Salonica: city of ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950 (London: Harper Collins, 2004).

Alan Palmer, The gardeners of Salonika: The Macedonian Campaign, 1915-1918 (London: André Deutsch, 1965).

Update July 30th, 2017:

A short account of Private Frank Derrett was also published on the British Library’s Untold Lives blog on July 29th, 2017:



  1. […] unit. As part of the 60th (2/2nd London) Division, its 2nd line battalion served in both France and Salonika, before joining the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) in the summer of […]

  2. […] Brigade RFA then became part of the 60th (2/2nd London) Division, who in July 1917 took part in the Battle of Doiran on the Salonika Front before their transfer to Egypt in […]

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