Dr Henry William Wilson Davie MRCVS

This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Virginia.

The grave of Dr Henry William Wilson Davie MRCVS at Greenlawn Cemetery, Newport News
The grave of Dr Henry William Wilson Davie MRCVS at Greenlawn Cemetery, Newport News

The death and commemoration of Dr Harry Davie are unique for two reasons. Firstly, he is the only civilian veterinary surgeon commemorated by the CWGC. Secondly, he is the only CWGC commemoration in Hampton Roads, the large metropolitan area in south-east Virginia based around the sea ports of Norfolk and Newport News. Sadly, the tragedy of his death was not the only terrible event to befall his family.

Henry William Wilson Davie was born in Barnstaple, Devon in the second quarter of 1871. His father, James Headon Davie, was a saddler (as was his grandfather) who ran a business in The Square in Barnstaple. James and his wife Annie (née Wilson) had five children, of which Harry was the eldest.

Harry Davie graduated from the Royal Veterinary College on 12 May 1893 and registered as a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.[1] He returned to Devon and set up a successful veterinary practice in Crediton. In 1897 he married Mary Elizabeth Copp. They had a son, Thomas, and a daughter, Edith, and the family lived at The Green in Crediton, with Mary’s nephew William Abberley Copp.[2]

Following the outbreak of war, Harry Davie was contracted to provide a veterinary service in Devon in support of the purchase of horses by the Army Remount Service. At some time in 1915, he left his veterinary practice when he received an appointment to provide care on the trans-Atlantic crossings for mules and horses that had been purchased in north America.

The rapid expansion of the Army had resulted in an equally rapid expansion of the establishment for horses, particularly draft animals.[3] That, in turn, demanded an increase in the number of veterinary surgeons supporting the war effort. Requirements were met firstly by engaging local veterinary surgeons at civil rates of pay but ‘later it was found necessary to grant temporary commissions in the Army Veterinary Corps to practically all veterinary surgeons, whether employed in the United Kingdom or overseas’.[4] It appears, however, that the veterinary surgeons employed to care for animals being transported by sea were civilians, recruited both from the United Kingdom and from the United States and Canada.[5] It was amongst this group that Harry Davie was employed.

The purchase of horses and mules in north America was a huge effort. The British Remount Commission was established in Montreal and commanded initially by Major General Sir Frederick Benson KCB.[6] Remount stockyards were established first in Canada and later in the United States—initial fears that the neutrality of the United States would prevent buying horses there proved unfounded. Once purchased, the horses were moved by rail to stockyards at one of the ports used by the Commission on the Atlantic seaboard.

It would have been impossible to achieve and sustain the British Army’s establishment for remounts were it not for the efforts of the Remount Commission. By 11 November 1918 the Commission had shipped 428,608 horses and 275,097 mules . By contrast, by 31 March 1920 horse purchases in the United Kingdom totalled 468,323.[7]

One of the largest east coast ports in the United States was (and remains) Newport News. The city was established as a settlement in the early 17thC and by the late 19thC had become a major rail terminal, linked to Richmond, the state capital, and, importantly, to Huntington in West Virginia on the Ohio River. Coal from West Virginia was a major commodity transported through the port, which led to the construction of large coal piers owned by the rail and shipping companies. The construction of a shipyard led to Newport News becoming the world’s biggest shipyard; it remains the largest in the United States. It was here that the Remount Commission established a large stockyard at Breeze Point, capable of handling up to 5,000 horses, and developed Newport News as the primary port for the shipment of horses from the United States. The importance of the depot was such that it became a target for German sabotage efforts in 1915 and a number of horses were poisoned.

Newport News Remount Depot
Newport News Remount Depot

Harry Davie had crossed the Atlantic a number of times in his role as a veterinarian officer. His first journeys were on the converted cattle-ship SS Russian[8] accompanied by a team of horsemen & muleteers and, on occasion, an assistant veterinary surgeon. In early November 1915 Harry Davie was in Newport News having been appointed as the veterinarian officer for the SS Orthia,[9] which was due to leave the port bound for the United Kingdom with a cargo of horses and mules.

On Wednesday 10 November 1915 Harry Davie disappeared. When news of his disappearance became known there was speculation in the press that he had ‘met with foul play’. His family was notified by telegram by the British vice-consul and, as police enquiries were made, ‘wild rumors (sic)…began to go the rounds’.[10]

Newport News Coal Piers
Newport News Coal Piers

Two weeks later, on Tuesday 23 November, his partly decomposed body was found floating in the James River near the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway coal piers at the foot of 18th Street. The body was taken to the morgue of the undertaker William E. Rouse on 25th Street where it was examined at 5.00pm that evening by the coroner, Dr Henry F. James Jr. When no signs of violence were identified, and cash to the value of $24.50 and a valuable watch were found in his clothing, the coroner recorded that: ‘I examined the body of Dr Harry Davey (sic) and the evidence causal to his death showing as accidental drowning on Nov. 23, 1915’.[11] It was speculated in the press that he had fallen off one of the piers in the area while out walking.

The death certificate, compiled by Warwick County, incorrectly registers his name as ‘Dr Harry Davey’. The details of Harry Davie’s name, occupation and age were provided to the county by Major R H Marsham, then the Staff Officer Embarkation of the British Remount Commission at Newport News.[12]

Harry Davie was buried at 10.30am on 24 November 1915 at Greenlawn Cemetery in Newport News, in a graveside service conducted by Reverend Henry G. Lane, the rector of St Paul’s Episcopal Church. The cemetery, established in 1888 as the first public cemetery in Newport News, covers more than 50 acres and contains over 43,000 burials in more than 20,000 plots. In the graveyard is a large obelisk that marks the mass grave of 163 Confederate prisoners of war, who died nearby at Camp Butler and were buried originally at West Farm, close to where the body of Harry Davie was discovered. Harry Davie is buried in the Old Single Section, in grave 3134. This is on the western side of the cemetery, 450ft due west of the commemorative obelisk. He is buried under a large maple tree alongside two Confederate veterans of the Civil War—John B. Nottingham and William H. Booker.[13]

The circumstances of his death explain the various dates reported in official records and in the newspapers in Devon when his disappearance and, later, his death were announced. His medal index card records his death as 23 November 1918, as does the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The news reports record, for example: ‘All Crediton and North Devon will regret to hear the sad news received yesterday of the death of Mr. H. Davie, M.R.C.V.S. As far as the meagre details received tell us, Mr. Davie was accidentally drowned some ten days ago while carrying out his duties in Montreal Canada’.[14] and, ‘It is with deep regret that we have to record the death of Mr. Harry W. Davie, M.R.C.V.S., of Crediton, who was accidentally drowned on Nov. 10th while carrying out military duties Montreal, Canada.’[15] The report of his death being in Montreal may be explained by a misinterpretation of a message from the headquarters there of the British Remount Commission. The probate record is a little more accurate and notes that probate was granted on 14 February 1916 to his widow, that he died at Newport Mews (sic) on 10 November 1915 and that he left an estate of £410 17s 7d.

War Memorial in the Church of the Holy Cross, Crediton
War Memorial in the Church of the Holy Cross, Crediton

In addition to the CWGC headstone on his grave in Newport News, Harry Davie is commemorated on the impressive wooden war memorial in the Church of the Holy Cross at Crediton. This memorial was designed by the church architect William Douglas Caroe, and dedicated in a ceremony immediately prior to the dedication of the town’s war memorial on 16 May 1923.

Crediton Town and Hamlets War Memorial
Crediton Town and Hamlets War Memorial

He is also commemorated on the south-east panel of Crediton Town and Hamlets war memorial. The memorial was designed by the architect Frederick Bligh-Bond and comprises an octagon of stone tablets contained within an oak-framed, open-sided, shingle-roofed shelter. It records 137 casualties from the First World War, 40 from the Second World War, and one from operations in Aden in 1965. It too was dedicated on 16 May 1923 and unveiled by Field Marshal Sir William Robertson Bt, GCB, GCMG, KCVO, DSO.[16]

It is noteworthy that his name has been omitted from the First World War memorial of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

Later Family Tragedies

Harry Davie’s widow, Mary, died on 15 February 1946, aged 73, at The Green, Crediton, where she had lived throughout her life. She would witness two more terrible family tragedies.

Harry and Mary’s son, Thomas James Davie, was born on 25 November 1899. On leaving school he worked as a motor engineer and he enlisted into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (Bristol Division, BZ/2159) on 13 June 1917, aged 17. He joined Royal Naval Shore Station HMS Victory VI (known as ‘HMS Crystal Palace’) on 10 September 1917 for training for Signal Duty but a few days later was not approved for that duty on ‘educational grounds’. He remained at HMS Victory VI until he moved to HMS Victory II (also at Crystal Palace) on 4 March 1918. On 21 April 1918 he joined HMS Excellent, at Portsmouth—the gunnery training school. He completed his training there on 19 July 1918 and he subsequently served as a gunner on a defensively armed merchant ship. He was promoted to Able Seaman on 10 December 1918 and demobilised on 13 May 1919.[17] After the war he joined the National Provincial Bank as a clerk and worked in the Thornbury branch in Gloucestershire. It was in June 1925 that his mother experienced her second great tragedy. Thomas Davie’s fiancé, Geraldine Esme Young, a maternity nurse, left Thornbury that month to attend the wife of the stationmaster at Woolaston. On Thursday 25 June Davie wrote to her and broke off their engagement. Regretting his decision, on Saturday 27 June he travelled to Woolaston on his motor bike to see her and pleaded to renew their engagement. The following morning they talked on the station platform and arranged to meet for a walk. When Miss Young returned, having prepared for the walk, Davie had disappeared. Just before midnight that night he was found dead in a wheat field behind the railway station. His throat had been cut seven or eight times with a razor, which was lying nearby. At the subsequent inquest the coroner recorded a verdict of ‘suicide whilst of unsound mind’.[18]

The third tragedy to befall Mrs Davie involved her nephew. William Abberley Copp was born in London in 1898. He attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Crediton and, while there, lived with the Davie family. In the latter stages of the First World War, he served as a Second Lieutenant with The Devonshire Regiment and subsequently became an accountant with the National Provincial Bank. On 17 June 1937, aged 38, he committed suicide, by jumping in front of an underground train at Waterloo station. He left a wife, Marjorie (née Marjorie Evelyn Sharland), and a young son. At the subsequent inquest the coroner recorded that he too had committed ‘suicide whilst of unsound mind’.[19]

Harry and Mary’s daughter, Edith Annie ‘Nancy’ Davie, was born in the fourth quarter of 1900. On 3 June 1927 she married Sidney James Talbot Herbert at Crediton. The family subsequently settled in Kingston-on-Thames before returning to Devon. Nancy Herbert died at Exmouth on 20 September 1954 and Sidney Herbert died at Exmouth on 20 September 1956.

Crediton Parish Church for the photograph of the church war memorial.
Donna Egan for the photograph of Crediton War Memorial.

The War Office (WO). (March 1922). Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War. 1914-1920. London: HMSO.
Banks, C B. (1917). The Veterinarian’s Duties as ‘Conducting Officer’ in Trans-Oceanic Shipment of Horses. American Journal of Veterinary Medicine, Volume 12, 1917. pp 370-373.
Winton, G. (19 June 2013) Theirs Not To Reason Why: Horsing the British Army 1875-1925. Solihull: Helion and Company.
The archives of: Daily Press (Newport News), Western Times; The North Devon Journal; The Devon and Exeter Gazette; & Gloucester Journal.

1. (Back) ‘Proceedings of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and Veterinary Medical Services’. (1893). Veterinary Journal and Annals of Comparative Pathology, Volume 36. p 418. London: Baillière, Tindall & Cox.
2. (Back) Mary Elizabeth Copp was born in 1872 at Moortown, near Great Torrington. Their son, Thomas James Davie, was born on 25 November 1899 and their daughter, Edith Annie Davie, was born in 1900. Mary’s nephew, William Abberley Copp, was born in London in 1898 and is shown as living with them in both the 1901 and the 1911 census. Note that the 1911 census may be mis-transcribed as ‘Davis’.
3. (Back) In 1914 the establishment for remounts was 25,000 animals; by 1917 that had increased to 869,931 (See: The War Office (WO). (March 1922). Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War. 1914-1920. p 396.)
4. (Back) WO. Op. Cit. p 187.
5. (Back) The contract for United States veterinarians and a very detailed account of the role of a veterinarian conducting officer working for the British Remount Commission may be found at: Banks, C B. (1917). The Veterinarian’s Duties as “Conducting Officer” in Trans-Oceanic Shipment of Horses. American Journal of Veterinary Medicine, Volume 12, 1917. pp 370-373.
6. (Back) Major General Sir Frederick William Benson KCB. Born at St Catharines, Ontario in 1849 and educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto. He served with the 19th Battalion Volunteer Militia (Infantry) during the Fenian Raids in 1866 and subsequently attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He was commissioned into the 21st Regiment of Hussars in 1869 and served with the 12th (The Prince of Wales’s) Royal Regiment of Lancers from 1876. Appointed Aide-de-camp to the Lieutenant Governor, North West Frontier, India in 1877, he attended the Staff College in 1880. He then served with 5th (Princess Charlotte of Wales’s) Dragoon Guards) and 17th (The Duke of Cambridge’s Own) Lancers; was Brigade Major, Poona, India 1882-1884; Garrison Instructor, Bengal, India 1884-1890; Commander, Egyptian Cavalry 1892-1894; Deputy Assistant Adjutant General (Instruction) Dublin, Ireland 1895-1898; Assistant Adjutant General South Eastern District 1898-1900; Assistant Adjutant General 6th Division, South African Field Force 1900-1901; Mention in Despatches 16 April 1901; CB 19 April 1901; Inspector General of Remounts 1903-1904; Director of Transport and Remounts 1904-1907; and Major General in charge of Administration 1907-1909, when he retired. KCB 24 June 1910. He died in Montreal on 20 August 1916, aged 67 and was buried in St Catharine’s (Victoria Lawn) Cemetery.
7. (Back) WO Op. Cit. p 396 & p 861.
8. (Back) SS Victorian was a cattle-ship built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast in 1895 for F Leyland & Co. It was later operated by the White Star Line. It served as a horse transport during the South African War and in the First World War (renamed SS Russian) until it was sunk by UB-43 in the Mediterranean on 14 December 1916.
9. (Back) SS Orthia was a cattle-ship built for the Donaldson Line in 1896. It served as a horse transport during the First World War and was broken up in 1922 after a collision in the St Lawrence River.
10. (Back) ‘Veterinarian is Found Dead Near C.&O. Coal Pier’. (24 November 1915). Daily Press.
11. (Back) Library of Virginia. Commonwealth of Virginia Death Certificate, No. 27072. The death certificate incorrectly registers his name as ‘Dr Harry Davey’. The details of Harry Davie’s name, occupation and age were provided by Major R H Marsham, then the Staff Officer Embarkation, British Remount Commission, Newport News.
12. (Back) Brevet Lieutenant Colonel The Honourable Reginald Hastings Marsham OBE was born on 1865 the second son of Charles Marsham, 4th Earl of Romney. He was commissioned into the 4th Battalion (Militia), The Bedfordshire Regiment, on 10 April 1886 and appointed Second Lieutenant 7th (Queen’s Own) Hussars on 8 February 1888. In 1894 he was appointed Aide-de-Camp to Major General G Luck CB in India. He was promoted Captain on 14 April 1897. During the South African War he served as the head of the British Remount Commission in New Orleans. Promoted Major on 5 October 1904 and retired on 26 February 1908. He was recalled during the First World War and joined the Remount Service; he was posted to the British Remount Commission in 1915. On 29 March 1917 he was appointed to command a Remount Squadron and on 12 May 1919 he became a District Remount Officer. OBE 15 April 1919. When released from service he was appointed Brevet Lieutenant Colonel. He died on 8 November 1922, aged 56. His younger brother, Captain The Honourable Douglas Henry Marsham, was killed in action at Cannon Kopje during the the Siege of Mafeking on 31 October 1899, while serving with the British South Africa Police.
13. (Back) Sergeant John B. Nottingham enlisted at Williamsburg into Company F, 32nd Virginia Infantry Regiment (his grave records 39th Virginia Infantry Regiment) on 20 May 1861. He was captured at the battle at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865. Private William H. Booker enlisted into Company G, 1st Virginia Cavalry in 1861.
14. (Back) ‘Death of Mr. H. Davie, M.R.C.V.S.’ (30 November 1915). Western Times.
15. (Back) ‘Death of Mr. H. W. Davie, M.R.C.V.S.’ (2 December 1915). The North Devon Journal.
16. (Back) For a full account of both ceremonies see: ‘Crediton. War Memorial. Unveiling Ceremony.’ (17 May 1923). The Devon and Exeter Gazette. p 3.
17. (Back) Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Service Record.
18. (Back) ‘The Woolaston Tragedy’. (4 July 1925). Gloucester Journal.
19. (Back) ‘Bank Accountant Mourned’. (25 June 1937). Western Times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.