John Gillis Butt and his twin sister, Gladys Gwendoline, were born in Lucknow, India, on 13 July 1890 and baptised at All Saints Church, Lucknow, on 18 July 1890. Their parents, Army Surgeon Edward Ormiston Butt (born c1857 in County Antrim) and Helen Mary Garrett, (born c1866 in County Galway) had married at Dundalk, Ireland, on 17 October 1889.
John was named after his grandfather, also John Gillis Butt. His father, Edward, was a surgeon who had been educated at Queen’s College, Belfast, and at the school of the Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland. Edward had a string of letters after his name: LKQCP (Licentiate of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians [Ireland]); LRCSI (Licenciate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland); FRCSI (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland); and DPH (Dental Public Health). He had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a surgeon in February 1881.
At some point the family left India and in March 1901, the census recorded Edward, Helen, John and Gladys with the children’s maternal grandparents, James and Sophia Garratt, at Park Street, Dundalk, Ireland. The family was living at the bank where grandfather James was a Bank Agent. The building had 12 rooms and 12 windows and was described on the census as a first-class house.
In late 1909, Edward attained the rank of Colonel. He retired in March 1914, before the outbreak of WWI.
Like father, like son
John was educated Marlborough College from 1904 to 1907 and later at Trinity College, Dublin. Like his father, he studied medicine and received his certificate of medical registration on 10 July 1914. (This certificate is in The National Archives at Kew.) After finishing his studies, he applied to join the Royal Army Medical Corps, gaining his commission four days before Britain entered the war in 1914.
Lieutenant John Gillis Butt RAMC, photographed above, was attached to the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. From his records at The National Archives, we know that he was 5’9″ tall, weighed 9st 3lbs, and had a chest measurement of 33″ at rest.
At the front
According to the Forces War Records website, in August 1914 the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards was stationed at Warley, London District, and then joined the 20th Brigade of the 7th Division and moved to Lyndhurst. On 7 October 1914, they were mobilised for war and landed at Zeebrugge as part of 1914 British Expeditionary Force. Their Division was engaged in various actions on the Western Front including The First Battle of Ypres (19 October-22 November 1914). Just three weeks after landing at Zeebrugge, John was declared missing in action, on 29 October 1914 at Gheluvelt. By 22 November only four officers and 200 men remained of the Battalion.
Missing in action
Enquiries were made to the International Red Cross in case John had been wounded or taken prisoner. His record cards, pictured below, give details of his next-of-kin.
These Red Cross records confirm that John was an English military doctor, a Lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps, 1st battalion, attached to the regiment of Lyndhurst. He had been reported missing or taken prisoner on 28 or 29 October at Gheluvelt near Ypres. His next-of-kin was his father; Colonel H M Butt at Douglas, Bothwell, Scone. One record card suggested that John had been taken at Le Cateau and might possibly have been at Doberitz prisoner of war camp. This document gives the address of John’s mother, Helen, at Crumlin Lodge, Datchet, in December 1914.
In his absence, John was promoted to Captain in March 1915 and his promotion was announced in the London Gazette. (Officers who were missing were still promoted as their names remained on the Army List until their deaths were officially confirmed or accepted.)
The search continues
John’s family searched in vain for news of their son. John’s service record, which is held at the National Records Office at Kew, contains correspondence between his family, his commanding officer, and soldiers who were on the battlefield with John that day. There is also a letter from John’s former professor of anatomy at Trinity College, A Francis Dixon, dated January 1916, enquiring whether his family had received any news. John’s mother, Helen, replied to him saying that she thought John was a prisoner in Belgium. There had been a ray of hope when a Colonel C Corkran reported, a few months after John’s disappearance, ‘As soon as I joined the Battalion, I made enquiries about Dr Butt and I was told by one of my men that he (Butt) had been seen unwounded with another unwounded prisoner in the German hands on 31 October near Gheluvelt. Unfortunately the man who saw Dr Butt was killed so his statement could not be verified.’
‘Murdered in cold blood’
In mid-1916, John’s death was formally accepted to have occurred on 29 October 1914. He was last seen attending a wounded Colonel under fire. He was just 24.
The following is an extract of a letter from John’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel M. Earle, to his parents on 5 December 1914 from The National Archives. (It is also published on the Buckinghamshire Remembers website.)
The letter, left, reads: ‘the Germans were rushing over where I lay with your son and his orderly and we were not touched. I regained consciousness and found your son bandaging my head, his man knelt at my feet. I spoke to your son. I said “Look out, we are well in front, we shall get taken”, he told me we were all right and begged me to be quiet. Shortly after, two or three Germans came up to us. I heard a shot quite close to my head and I felt your son collapse. I distinctly saw a German fire down on the back of the orderly at my feet, the ball [bullet] having passed through the man entered my leg and the man fell on me. I don’t think it was very long after my second wound that I again lost consciousness and when I again came to I found myself in a hut in the hands of the Germans. I am sorry to say that I feel convinced that your son was killed. I am sure he was killed instantaneously for he never spoke to me or moved. I am never quite clear how I got to the hut in question. Private Venton, Coldstream Guards, was there tending me. He told me that he saw the Doctor at my head and that he was dead. I sincerely wish that I could hold out to you any hope of it being otherwise. I consider that he was murdered in cold blood contrary to all the laws and customs of civilised warfare. I shall always think that he gave his life to save me, and I have every reason to believe that his prompt action saved my life.’
The British Medical Journal also published details of John’s death in their issue of 26 February 1916: “Lieutenant John Gillis Butt, RAMC, [originally printed as Bute, and corrected in a later edition] is believed to have been killed in France on October 29th 1914. He was born in India, the son of Colonel Edward Butt, Army Medical Staff and was educated at Trinity College Dublin where he was a prominent member of the University Dramatic Society. After graduating MB and ChB, [Medicinae Baccalaureus, Baccalaureus Chirurgiae – Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery] he entered RAMC as Lieutenant on 31 July 1914. He was attached to the Grenadier Guards from 7 September 1914 and was with them up to 29 October. On that date he was last seen alive attending Colonel Earle, of the Grenadiers, who had been wounded. As the enemy advanced, Colonel Earle was again wounded as he lay on the ground and Butt is supposed to have been killed at the same time. Colonel Earle lost consciousness and was unable to say with certainty that Butt was killed but he appears never to have been heard of since that day. Had he been alive, and a prisoner of war, he would almost certainly have been able to communicate that fact to his relatives. His name, as far as we have noticed, has never appeared in the list of casualties and for many months was retained in the Army List, being included in the list of lieutenants promoted to captains on 1 March 1915.”
In John’s records at The National Archives, there is a hand-drawn map which shows where the Grenadier Guards were fighting on the 29 October, the day John was believed to have been killed. This indicates that they were at Brickfields, near Gheluvelt, marked with an asterisk.
For more information about the 1st Grenadier Guards at Ypres, see The Grenadier Guards in the Great War, by Lieut Colonel the Right Hon. Sir Frederick Ponsonby, which can be read online here.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website records that Lieutenant John Gillis Butt RAMC of the 1st Grenadiers was killed at the Kruiseik Cross Roads. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, on panel 56.
John is also remembered at his former college, Trinity College, in Dublin. There is a memorial on the walls of the entrance hall to the Reading Room, and John’s name is listed on one of the six marble plaques.
He is remembered on Datchet’s WWI memorial but, oddly, just as John Butt.
John was awarded the British War Medal, Victory Medal and 14 Star.
Family in Datchet
It’s not yet known the exact date that John’s family moved to Datchet. John’s twin sister, Gladys, married Robert Cecil Hodgson in Calcutta, Bengal, in 1912. When John graduated in July 1914, he gave his address as Crumlin Lodge. According to Marshall’s Directory, his mother was still at Crumlin Lodge in 1916, and her death in January 1918 was registered locally which suggests she remained there until the end of her life.
John’s father, Edward, may have moved to Scotland after his wife’s death. He applied for his son’s medals in 1921, giving his address as The Hope, North Queensferry. On the Grenadier Guards website and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, his address was given as Brucefield, Dunfermline. The 1927-28 edition of MacDonalds Scottish Directory and Gazetteer also listed his address as Brucefield Villa.
Edward died in 1935 in England, at a nursing home in Bournemouth, and he was buried in Datchet alongside his wife. His funeral was at Ditton Road Cemetery on Friday 15 November 1935. A notice was placed in The Times the previous day.
On 30 November 1935, the British Medical Journal posted a notice of Edward’s death, left.
Remembered at Datchet Cemetery
Edward and Helen were both buried in Datchet Cemetery and John is also remembered on the reverse of their gravestone. The inscription reads: “In loving memory of Lieut J C Butt, RAMC, attd 1st Battn Grenadier Guards. Only son of Colonel and Mrs Butt who fell in action at Gheluvelt, Flanders, October 14th [sic] 1914”.
A letter home
In June 2017, the DVS met the great nephew of John ‘Jack’ Gillis Butt who showed us his research about his uncle, including exact details of the place where he believed John was first buried, and the contents of the last letter from ‘Jack’ to his mother, written on Sunday 18 October 1914. The letter reads:
My dear Mother,
Just a few lines to let you know that I am free. We have had a lot of marching since we landed here but not much fighting up to the present, only small affairs with outposts.
We have been in billets since we landed so on the whole very comfortable, but sleep is very short as we stand to arms sometimes at 4 in the morning and get to bed at night when we can.
Have had no news of Col Swanston and have no idea where he is.
When writing to me my address will be: Lieut J G Butt RAMC, MD, 1st Batt Grenadier Guards, 20th Brigade, 7th Division, Expeditionary Force.
I am all right for clothing and cigarettes. If you think of it, could you get me a map case? I forgot all about it and without it my maps get torn. If you don’t know what it is like perhaps father will get it. I wrote to father from Dover when going across on the transport.
The Germans set a village on fire yesterday only 1.5 miles from where we are at present and at night we could see several other villages blazing in the far distance.
I’m sorry I can’t let you know where we are but things as far as I know are going well.
Write soon to let me know how things are going with you. An occasional paper would be very acceptable as all papers here are in French.
Love to all and to your dear self,
Your affectionate son, Jack.
Lieutenant John ‘Jack’ Gillis Butt, MD, died 11 days later.
A final resting place
In July 2018, John’s great nephew, Nick Previté, had some news to share with us. After spending years searching for his great uncle’s grave, and joining forces with another WWI researcher in Australia, he became convinced that the grave of an unknown lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps, ‘Known unto God’, at Hooge Crater Cemetery, was that of his uncle, Lieutenant John Gillis Butt.
In 2016, the case for rededicating the grave was presented to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, with supporting evidence which included the position of the Grenadier Guards at the Kruiseik Cross Roads and the statements made by Lieutenant Colonel Earle, Private Venton, and an unidentified German doctor. The Cross Roads were under British control from 18-29 October 1914 and again after 28 September 1918. There were seven lieutenants in the RAMC who had no recorded place of burial during these time frames. Of these seven, only three died in Flanders. Two of those three were killed a number of miles from the Cross Roads and were excluded as possible candidates. By process of elimination and with additional supporting evidence, it was possible to prove that the grave at Hooge Crater Cemetery was almost certainly that of Lieutenant John Gillis Butt.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission accepted the evidence and forwarded the submission to the Ministry of Defence, the final adjudicator concerning the naming of graves where the inscription states ‘Known unto God’. In July 2018, the case was accepted by the MoD and a service of rededication, organised by the JCCC, took place at the graveside on 9 October 2018. John’s great nephew was there to represent the family.
(Hooge Crater Cemetery is about 4kms from Ypres on the road to Menin. There are 5916 Commonwealth WWI servicemen buried or commemorated there but 3570 of the burials are unidentified. Special memorials record the names of a number of casualties either known or believed to be buried among them, or whose graves in other cemeteries were destroyed by shell fire.)
John Gillis Butt also received a Clasp with the 14 Star medal but it was not with his medals that were handed down to great nephew. Nick has since received confirmatory paperwork, obtained a clasp and attached it to his great uncle’s 14 Star medal.