Second Lieutenant Bernard Rissik,
9th (Service) Battalion, The Rifle Brigade
Killed in action, 22 June 1915, France
Bernard (“Barney”) Rissik has a connection with William McLaren, the subject of two previous posts. His paternal aunt, Anna Maria, married William’s maternal uncle, Henry Marshall, so while not themselves genetically related, Barney and William were both cousins of the children of Henry Brown Marshall and his Anna Maria Rissik.
Barney’s grandfather, Dr Gerrit Rissik, at the time a prominent medical practitioner in Utrecht, had been prevailed upon by the Transvaal government, in the mid-1870s, to fill the role of personal physician and surgeon to President Kruger and other ‘Free Burghers’ of the Boer Republic. He arrived in Pretoria with his wife Neeltje, and their children, after an arduous journey of eleven weeks, in May 1876. One child did not accompany them. He was their third son, Sijbrand, a professional soldier, who at the time of his death in Holland in 1898, was serving as an officer in the Dutch East Indian Army.
Born on 8 March 1892, Barney was the eldest child of Gerrit and Neeltje’s second son, Johann who had married Maria Magdalena Wilhelmina Leibbrandt (“Mimmie”) in Cape Town in 1890. By the time of Bernard’s birth, Johann was a highly regarded surveyor, acting frequently as the fledgling republic’s Surveyor General, his ability, knowledge, efficiency, and tact making him an invaluable civil servant, and earning him throughout his life the greatest affection and respect from his colleagues as well as from his political opponents and, in due course, of the British government.
Barney’s father, Johann Rissik was the brother-in-law who provided the Uitlander rebels with ‘succour’ during their imprisonment, and who was later a Boer commando leader during the Anglo-Boer War in which his brother-in-law’s nephews were serving British officers. In the December 1965 issue of Pretoriana, Johann’s son, Ulrich, describes how Mimmie Rissik had gone to the British military headquarters in indignation at the enemy troops’ plundering of her orchards, resulting in the British placing a guard on her home to prevent further theft and vandalism. She had also, while there, come across William McLaren’s elder brother, James, who had “further placated her by entertaining her sons with a fascinating tour of the nearby [British] redoubt.” (See sources.)
Barney was educated at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown, and subsequently matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford. On the outbreak of war, he joined the Oxford O.T.C. to train as an officer and he was duly gazetted in November 1914 as a Second Lieutenant in the 8th Middlesex Regiment. At the time of his death, seven months later, he was attached to C Company of the 9th (Service) Battalion of the Rifle Brigade.
We know something of the conditions prevailing at the time of his death from the frank and powerful accounts provided in the letters sent by a fellow officer in the 9th Battalion, Captain Hugh Montagu Butterworth to his family in New Zealand.
These letters home have been skilfully edited by Jon Cooksey in Blood and Iron: Letters from the Western Front. Describing the events of June 1915, Cooksey comments that “a more vile location could not have been chosen for the first proper tour of duty for a New Army battalion”.
Previous fighting, in which firing had come from all directions, including the rear, meant that the new arrivals were immediately confronted with the distressing reality of war and immediate work for burial parties, diggers and engineers.
Reading Captain Butterworth’s account, I imagine what his parents must have felt on reading his missives, and how their anxiety would almost certainly have been heightened.
“We simply waded about among dead Englishmen and Germans, in fearfully decomposed state. Horrible!” The next day he recorded that, of the 24 men in a burial party, only one was not physically sick and added “they stuck it out splendidly”. In war diaries, my heart sinks when I read that ‘the men’ were “splendid” or “magnificent” since those adjectives accompany situations of unimaginable horror.
The orders from above for the 22 June were to capture a “troublesome” German-held redoubt. Cooksey notes that the proposed action was “much against the better judgment” of the battalion’s C.O. whose instructions involved having to lend C Company and all the battalion’s bombers to the 5th Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Hugh recorded how they felt under constant fire in these words:
“At about six in the evening we were suddenly told that we were in for a stunt taking a redoubt. Our company was in support (fortunately!). Affairs started at seven-thirty. We began an extensive bombardment and the Germans came at us with equal intensity. Believe anything you are told about concentrated artillery fire. To say I’ve never been in anything the hundredth part terrific is merely banal. How can I describe it? It was like every noise you have ever heard, crashing over your head…ten or twenty shells passed over or burst all around us per second employment em dash we were ordered simply to lie doggo at the bottom of the trench. This lasted for nearly two and a half hours. For the first half hour one was in imminent fear of death. Sand and earth fell on you in heaps…For the next half hour you rather bored you would be finished off. It would be easier you thought.”
When after the first half hour the men moved forward into a “murderous curtain of shells”. Cooksey records that C Company was ‘mauled’ as it moved forward with only five bombers from the 9th managing to reach the German trench. He adds “but only five against hundreds was no contest”.
The men, he notes, had been “raked by the crossfire from several machine guns firing north from further down the line as well as that from “a single machine gun sweeping south down to no-man’s land from the very redoubt at the point of the tiny German salient which they were hoping to pinch out. They stood no chance.”
The War Diary for the day of Barney’s death is more restrained in its information, but notes his death and that of the other Rifle Brigade officer killed, Hugh Benson. The adjutant notes, sharply perhaps, that the orders are attached, which I duly read, reflecting on, and comparing it all the time, with Hugh Butterworth’s account.
Barney’s service record, which has not been digitised, is an almost pathetically slim file, and it is clear that pages have been weeded out, as is not uncommon in these files. The title given to his file includes ‘The Connaught Rangers’ but I have not found an explanation for this yet nor is it listed on his Medal Card. I was so struck by the pencilled note at the top of the form Barney filled in when applying for a commission. It reads, ‘A very good officer’ and on the line below, ‘a Boer by birth’. I hope readers can make it out in the image on the left. It is very faint.
My initial reaction was that, while clearly well-intentioned, the note seemed, perhaps, slightly patronising. On reflection, I see rather the implication as a nod to the fighting skill of the Boers. Bernard’s father had, indeed, led a Boer commando against the British forces not much more than a dozen years previously.
Bernard Rissik has no known grave but is commemorated on the Ypres Memorial—The Menin Gate—at which volunteers from amongst the firemen of Ypres sound The Last Post every evening at 8 p.m. In the days preceding his death, the original Menin Gate featured on more than one occasion in the War Diary for his battalion.
The fate of others
Hugh Butterworth was killed three months later. Like Barney, he has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Ypres Memorial. A New Zealander and the son of George Montagu Butterworth and his wife Catherine Lucie Warde of Cashmere, Christchurch, Hugh had been a Master at the Wanganui Collegiate School.
Just over a month after Barney’s death, his younger brother, Harry, was gazetted as a lieutenant in the South African forces. Harry Rissik survived the Great War, but his son, 611358V Gunner Johann Rissik, died while on active service in Italy in 1944, aged 19, and is buried on a hillside in the lovely setting of the South African Cemetery at Castiglione dei Pepoli.
At almost the same time as Harry was gazetted, so was Sijbrand Abe Rissik, of the Oundle School Junior Division Officer Training Corps contingent, who had been appointed to the 3rd West Riding Brigade as a Second Lieutenant. Born in Johannesburg, and educated in England, he too survived the war though his Medal Index Card shows he served from June 1917 in France with the Royal Field Artillery.
Barney’s niece, Elizabeth, Ulrich’s eldest daughter, was widowed in 1944, Her first husband, Lieutenant Keith MacWilliam of 34 Squadron, was one of the 43 South African SAAF crew who were killed during the extremely risky exercise of dropping supplies in the Relief of Warsaw.
Butterworth, H. M., ed. Cooksey, J. Blood and Iron: Letters from the Western Front, Pen and Sword, 2012.
The London Gazette, https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/28965/page/9022/data.pdf ,
6 November 1914.
Photograph of Bernard Rissik from ‘Clifton Rugby Football Club History’, http://www.cliftonrfchistory.co.uk/members/pics/r/brissik.jpg, accessed 20/8/2015. Also on same site, showing him as a club member 1911–1912. http://www.cliftonrfchistory.co.uk/members/membersR.htm
This is the same photo as appears on page 32 of the ‘Johann Rissik Edition’ of Pretoriana.Rissik, P.U., ‘Johann Rissik: a Memoir by his son, Ulrich’, Pretoriana, no. 49, December 1965.
The National Archives, WO 95/1901, ‘War Diary of 42 Infantry Brigade: 9 Battalion Rifle Brigade,’ 1 May 1915–31 October 1915. The events of 22 June are on page 7–8 (of 208 digitised images) and the orders relative to 21–22 June on page 21–24 (of 208) digitised images. The relevant file’s name is WO-95-1901-1_1.pdf.
The National Archives, WO 339/189, ‘Lieut. Bernhard Rissik, The Connaught Rangers’.
Trinity College Oxford, The War Memorial Library, http://www.trinity.ox.ac.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/WW1-memorial-board.jpg, accessed 21/8/2015.
Double-click on the image of the War Memorial Board and Bernhard Rissik is the last name amongst those who matriculated in 1912. I am being precise, as I could not initially spot his name, and thought he had been omitted from the list.
Additional notes and comments
When applying to become an officer, Bernard spelt his name as Bernard so I have used this spelling in deference to his choice at that time. It is recorded, in other contexts, including the War Memorial at Trinity College as Bernhard. Other records suggest that he was known, familiarly, as Barney so I have taken the liberty of also referring to him by that name.
Other members of the Rissik family whose service records survive are listed below with the record reference for the respective War Office series.
The National Archives, WO 374/57734, 2/Lieut. G. H. Rissik, Artists’ Rifles/Royal Engineers.’
The National Archives, WO 339/5761, ‘Captain Harry Rissik, The Rifle Brigade.’
The National Archives, WO 339/58920, ‘Captain Cornelis Rissik, The Manchester Regiment.’
The National Archives, WO 339/133580, ‘Equipment Officer Jaop (sic) Willem Rissik, Royal Flying Corps’.
The National Archives, WO 339/51833, ‘2/Lieut. Frederick Altman Rissik, Northumberland Fusiliers’.
While I have not yet located his service record, I note another Rissik record on the Medal Card Index. This was for Captain Albert Willem Meintjies Rissik, of The Rifle Brigade, who was previously a Sergeant in 19/Royal Fusiliers. His service record may have been incorrectly indexed and I will look for it on my next visit.