|Hordern's VMI Class Picture|
As we enter this centennial year of American involvement in the First World War it is my hope to write up a series of short biographical profiles highlighting the service of forgotten servicemen and women from my home state of Virginia. These are stories that I have encountered in my research going back to 2009 when I first spent a lengthy amount of time in the files of the Virginia War History Commission.
This first set of profiles will focus on Virginians who took the bold step of going “over there” before the American declaration of war in 1917.
We will start with the tragic tale of Warrenton native Herbert Hordern, who rose to become an officer in the Second Battalion of the Irish Guards, B.E.F.
Herbert Radcliffe Hordern was born on June 12, 1892, the son of the son of Radcliffe and Grace Harriet Nesbitt Hordern. Herbert was descended from what his Alma Mater described as “distinguished English ancestry,” which may partly explain his decision to join the British ranks in 1915.
In 1908 Hordern enrolled in the Virginia Military Institute, where he earned such distinguished nicknames as Count, Herbo, and Scrooge. Hordern struggled with academics and eventually graduated in the Class of 1914, prompting the yearbook author to quip:
All records of matriculation of this Stone Age representative have long since crumbled to dust, and it is only by careful examination of the hieroglyphics, recently excavated, that we can discover anything concerning him.
Apparently Hordern wanted to carry on Virginia’s cavalier tradition, which resulted in more ruthless taunting in his yearbook:
His highest ambition is to be a dashing cavalry officer, and we earnestly hope that Uncle Sam, in his leniency, will examine his nether extremities through a magnifying glass and let him in.
Two months after graduation Europe was embroiled in war, and Hordern wasted little time in crossing the Atlantic to join the British Expeditionary Force. Hordern was able to gain a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of the Irish Guards in August of 1915.
Writing in 1917 his mother recalled:
His dearest wish ever was to be a soldier; and when this War came he felt from the first the most intense desire to go to the front in any capacity.
Hordern served as an adjutant and received a slight wound at Loos before being transferred to the 2nd Battalion (the same unit that Rudyard Kipling’s son John served with). According to his mother, he, “made good from the first; and those warm-hearted Irish adopted their American ‘Sammy’ with sincere affection.”
1916 brought the Battle of the Somme, and with it the incident that would forever alter Hordern’s life. At the beginning of August, Lt. Hordern was put in charge of a small party of men tasked with digging new trenches near the embattled village of Thiepval. Hordern and his detail left their main camp on August 1st and had to take trucks to a bivouac near where they were to start digging. The next day they set about their task and soon came under the fire of German artillery. Hordern was in the middle of directing his small detail when a shell exploded that wounded Hordern and eight other men in his party.
Rudyard Kipling chronicled the incident in his classic work, The Irish Guards in the Great War:
2nd Lieutenant Hordern was dangerously and eight men were slightly wounded by one shell while at work…The machine had taken possession of their lives and fates, and as they went from trench to bivouac and back again they could both see and hear how extremely little a battalion, or for that matter a brigade, mattered in the present inferno. The fortnight's battle that had opened on the 14th of July had finished itself among erased villages and woods that were already all but stumpage, while the big guns were pounding the camps and bivouacs that held our reserves, and one stumbled on old and fresh dead in the most unlikely and absurd places.
Hordern was evacuated to a hospital directly behind the lines where he underwent the first of two surgeries before being sent to London, where his mother paid him a visit and recalled:
In November  another operation was performed; and, after many anxious weeks and agonies of pain unspeakable, he began slowly to creep back to life. He is still in Hospital, but convalescent, and we are now hopeful he may in time be well. Whether he will again be with his beloved regiment, we can not yet say, but he has no other hope than to get back to his work. He has been brave—never a murmur.
It would be nearly three years before he would leave the military hospitals to rejoin his family. On January 26, 1918 his mother reported:
He is, I am most happy to tell you, very much better, can now walk about in the house, and even get up steps, with his sticks. He is still under his medical board, at a convalescent home for officers at Brighton (Tie Herbert Samuelson Hospital, 2 Sussex Square), and spends most of his days in the wonderful bracing air of that charming place.
One month later he would be placed on the half pay list because of his inability to serve.
By war’s end, he would finally be sent home. During his time in the B.E.F. Hordern earned the Mons Ribbon of Service and was recommended for the Victoria Cross for his bravery on August 2, 1916. He received a full commission into the Irish Guards August 29, 1916 with seniority from the date of his wounding and was promoted to 1st lieutenant on November 27, 1916.When he returned to the United States he lived with his family in Pennsylvania, but was never able to recover from the Somme. On September 23, 1929 he died from complications from his wound.
He was 37 years old.
Hordern was brought back to Virginia to be laid to rest, and is buried in Warrenton Cemetery in Fauquier County, Virginia.