George, a driving force of First World War, died mysteriously on boat home

George Merry, a First World War hero who died in 1920, was a salesman who travelled the world selling cars for a friend – the man who created the Citroen car company. He died mysteriously. His brother’s grandson, Richard Merry, formerly the manager of Lewisham Shopping Centre, knew little about him when he was given a box of all his memories. Here, to tell how he discovered the family secret, now published after five years of research, in his book The Great War in the Argonne Forest.

George Robert Merry – known as Bob – came to me, his brother’s grandson, in a shoebox in the early 1990s.

My grandfather’s brother had died mysteriously, allegedly amid a scandal.

I paid little heed to the old sepia pictures and correspondence and the box went into his attic – exactly where it’d been in his parents and grandparents for more than 70 years.

Then, 20 years ago I had time on my hands and started to flesh out the enigmatic Bob.

The second son of a senior admiralty official, he was born in Chelsea in 1871. Soon after his father retired, to Stanstead Road, Forest Hill.

There he begat a larger family, another son – Richard’s grandfather – and four daughters. Bob probably attended Streatham Grammar School.

By the early 1890s, Bob was regular at the then world famous Catford Cycle Club (CCC), which had branches all over Europe.

Soon he was a club and national champion, regularly riding out of Herne Hill Velodrome and riding in competitions in Europe.

He took part in the exhibition at the opening of the new velodrome in Paris, Stade Buffalo, named after the old Buffalo Bill wild west circus site it stood on.

Bob was given dead heat with the French national champion. English sportsmanship decreed that the race judge, from CCC, later gave the race to the French champion.

In about 1896, Bob moved to Holland, working for the Birmingham-based Dunlop Rubber Tyre Company.

By 1914, widowed and remarried, he was living in Paris, selling Mors sports cars for the mercurial Andre Citroen.

On August 30, 1914, he joined the French Foreign Legion, even though he was over the upper age limit.

He became, 8318 Legionnaire GR Merry 2nd Regiment de Marche du 1st Regiment Etranger.

Bob was assigned as driver and translator to French General Henri Gouraud at the Argonne Forest Front.

In those days not many people could drive and those that could had to be able to carry out all repairs and maintenance.

Bob spoke several languages fluently. But he was also using another skill – which I only found out about late on – interrogating German POWs.

A picture of a temporary American cemetery on the Argonne in the autumn of 1918

Early fighting in the dense forest was brutal. A German account said: “‘Everywhere we came under fire. It caught many a brave and fearless German soldier. A scream of death would sound in the dense bushes, and a corpse, never to be discovered would decay in the undergrowth.”

Bob’s own letters to Richard’s grandfather made light of the awful situation. It said: “You should see the wounded come back after we have taken a trench, dishevelled beyond description. A bayonet charge is a grand thing to witness and I have seen a few, but it is horrible work.

“After a battle, it is not exactly a football crowd leaving after the game is over. I am shocked to read in the English papers that so many young fellows are still in football crowds at home, instead of helping their country.

“Yesterday, a Jack Johnson (a black German 15cm shell) exploded five yards from where I was standing. I knew I was missed again and still alive.”

Censorship started in early 1915 and Bob’s correspondence dried up. Bob moved with the General to the Champagne front.

In 1915, Henri Gouraud went to head the French Expeditionary force in the Dardanelles, so didn’t need Bob any more.

He returned to London and joined the Army Service Corps as an officer at Grove Park in May 1915.

He went back to Europe as a driver’s mate in a lorry. In 1916, he was sent home to Cambridge Military Hospital with flu and shellshock, something from which he never fully recovered.

His father died in Balham in 1917 and was buried in the family plot in Nunhead Cemetery.

Between 1896 and 1906, my great grandmother and three of her daughter’s – Bob’s sisters – had died of TB.

My grandfather had gone from Balham to the front as a Kitchener volunteer in 1915 – no doubt egged on by Bob’s letters.

Bob was back at the front in 1918 – probably one of the few men left alive who was there at both the beginning and the end of the war.

Bob was decorated by the French in 1919. But when I finally uncovered the shocking truth of Bob’s death, it was certainly not the story that had been held in the family for nearly 80 years.

He died in mysterious circumstances on his way back to London in 1920 from his Paris apartment near the Eiffel Tower.

He was last seen alive at the back of the SS Hantonia, a ship crossing the Channel, still in French waters.

All he left, in his cabin, was the box of his memories and a note.

He had suffered a fate not uncommon for those who had fought bravely for Britain in the war – but could not cope with life afterwards.

His body was never found and I have never been able to find if an inquest took place in France.

Main Pic: Bob in Mors sports car at the front Christmas 1914. Bob centre, Andre Citroen left – taken in the Argonne at Christmas 1914. It’s a Mors 17/24 HP sports car – Bob sold them all over the world before the war. Bob is in the centre with the odd looking hat and goggles. On the left, foot on running board is his old boss from Mors, Andre Citroen. Soon after the picture was taken, Andre was released from the French Army and put in charge of making munitions. After the war Andre was given the munitions factory site in Paris as gratitude for his war work. That is where Citroen cars first emerged.




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