A Flemish battlefield tour by anyone with an interest in Toc H could not possibly be complete without visiting the grave of Lieutenant Gilbert Walter Lyttelton Talbot in Sanctuary Wood Cemetery outside of Ieper. His headstone (Plot I Row G Grave 1) stands alone from its neighbours allegedly aligned to face Poperinge and Talbot House, the famous wartime haven that was named for him. However, few people making the pilgrimage to his grave know that 200 miles to the south east stands the headstone of Gilbert Seymour Wyndham Talbot, the nephew our Gilbert never knew.
After recovering his brother’s body from where it lay in no-man’s land and seeing it buried in Sanctuary Wood, chaplain Neville Talbot’s most remembered contribution to the war was helping his friend and fellow chaplain Tubby Clayton establish a soldier’s club in Poperinge. At the insistence of General Reginald May the name Church House was dropped and the club was called Talbot House though Neville insisted it was named for his sibling and not himself.
Towards the end of the conflict, in April 1918, Neville married his cousin Cecil Mary Eastwood at West Stoke Church near Chichester. The ceremony was conducted by his own father, Edward Stuart Talbot. Neville returned to his pre-war position as Chaplain at Balliol College and in December 1919, a daughter Elizabeth was born in Chelsea.
In April 1920 Neville was made Bishop of Pretoria and after being consecrated at St Paul’s Cathedral, relocated to South Africa. Gilbert was born in Johannesburg on 31 Aug 1921. His parents were overjoyed and at first there was no indication of any problem for Cecil. However by the third day there were complications appearing and Neville became anxious for his wife. By the morning of the 9th September it was clear that Cecil’s life was endangered and Neville and his brother Edward prayed furiously in the Chapel of St John’s College. It was to no avail and Cecil died later that day aged just 34. Neville was a widower with a young daughter and a baby son. Shortly after Cecil’s death, Lavinia Talbot – Neville’s sister – dedicated herself to looking after her brother’s children and household. It was a generous decision that would cost Lavinia her own dreams; she died a spinster in 1950.
Young Gilbert grew up in South Africa – they moved to Pretoria – but in 1933 his father was appointed to St Mary’s, Nottingham and the family returned to the UK. The following year Gilbert went to Winchester College where he excelled as a cross-country runner and steeple-chaser. He was also a keen historian and Secretary of the Archaeological Society. In 1940, turning down an Exhibition at Oxford, Gilbert followed his father and uncle into the Rifle Brigade.
He was commissioned to the 1st Battalion in on 3rd May 1941 as a 2nd Lieutenant with the service number 184841. Then part of the 2nd Armoured Brigade, the battalion was fighting in North Africa and it was here that Gilbert was first wounded in the Western Desert on 28th February 1942 during the fighting around Tobruk.
Transferring to the 22nd Armoured Brigade from June 1942, the 1st Battalion were now part of the mighty Desert Rats. It was during the Second Battle for El Alamein (October and November 1942) that Gilbert was wounded for a second time. On recovering he was appointed Aide de Camp to Sir Maitland ‘Jumbo’ Wilson in Cairo then acting as Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East.
During this time Gilbert’s father Neville suffered two major heart attacks – in December 1942 – and died on the 3rd April 1943. Thus he would be spared a third tragic death of a close family member.
Gilbert re-joined his battalion in August 1943 in time for the invasion of Italy but in January 1944 returned to England with them. Here they waited – mostly at Dixon’s West Camp in Ickburgh, Norfolk – until June when they took part in Operation Overlord.
Arriving in France shortly after D-Day the battalion were holding the line ten miles south of Bayeux. Talbot was commanding HQ Company near Balleroy when it was heavily shelled. He died along with Major Francis Dorrien-Smith, Lieutenant James Vaizey Caesar and two soldiers, Corporal Beer and Rifleman Parnell. All but Beer (REME) were from the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade. The five are buried in the civilian Eastern Cemetery in Bayeux. Plot 9 Grave 2. Gilbert is also remembered on a war memorial plaque in Christ Church, Chelsea as his address was the family home in Cheyne Court at the time of his death.
Perhaps the most tragic figure left in this story was Gilbert’s sister Elizabeth. She had now lost her mother when she was not quite two and now her father and only brother in the space of little more than a year. However, Elizabeth was a flight officer in the WAAF during the war and in October 1944 became engaged to Flight Lieutenant Ronald Chalk of Watford. They married in February 1946. Elizabeth later lived in Chorleywood and was a Justice of the Peace amongst other things. She died in 2002 at the age of 82.
Gilbert Talbot was one of the many millions who gave his life for his country. Like all of them, including the uncle he never knew, his is remembered by a simple Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone. I think though, that being one part of the Talbot family that gave so much to Toc H, Gilbert Seymour Wyndham Talbot may share a little of the glory of the uncle he never knew whose name adorns that well-known house in Poperinge, now in its second millennium under the Talbot name.