In the University Archives, we receive many requests for information regarding former staff and students. Researchers are often contacting us for information about a member of their family, having encountered a reference to study at Manchester during their family history research. This type of research is a popular hobby for many people seeking to learn more about their own history and to gain a sense of connection with ancestors. This was not the case with a recent enquiry for a precise date of birth and photograph of former student Richard Gordon Alsop, which came from a researcher who had no familial relation to the individual concerned. Richard’s story, and the circumstances that led to the researcher contacting us, are an incredibly moving reminder of the importance of archival memory and commemoration.
Richard Gordon Alsop was born on the 13th of December 1923 in Hinckley, Leicestershire. A talented rugby player, he was captain of his local team and was capped at under-14s level, playing against Wales in Cardiff in the 1937-38 season. In 1941 he accepted a place at Manchester to study history, taking a course in modern history and staying at Hulme Hall, which is still used by students today. The cataclysmic global conflict of the Second World War would no doubt have overshadowed the studies of Richard and his fellow students. Whilst Richard registered at Manchester for his second year, he left and enlisted into the army on the 5th of March 1942. His military training at Barmouth took him back to Wales as part of the 2/5th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers.
Richard was sent to France in August 1944 to join his battalion which was experiencing heavy losses due to ongoing action from the Normandy landings that had occurred the previous month. Losses during the campaign were so heavy that the entire 59th Infantry Division was considered unable to effectively conduct operations and was broken up. Richard was reassigned to the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and fought battles at Lisieux, Le Havre and Dunkirk before advancing via Brussels into the Netherlands. In October 1944, his battalion formed part of Operation Pheasant to liberate the central and western parts of the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant. The battalion advanced well despite mortar fire, anti-tank and personnel mines from the entrenched German opposition.
On the 25th October Richard’s battalion was moving towards Vught, south of the industrial centre of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, when they encountered strong opposition on the road. After six hours of heavy fighting and reinforcement from several companies the position was finally taken. Nineteen men from the battalion were wounded during the fighting, six were missing in action and six were killed; including Richard. It later emerged that they had met a counter-attack by a German battalion. His commander wrote to his parents with details:
‘The gallantry displayed by your boy on that day won the admiration of all who knew him. His company was advancing as my leading company against stiff opposition. Three of the officers in it were knocked out, including the major in command, the captain and the second in command. Your son at once assumed command and in the face of very fierce enemy machine-gun fire, urged his men on, giving no thought to his personal safety whatsoever. I personally saw him and spoke to him about 5 minutes before he died, hit by a sniper’s bullet, which killed him instantly.
It is boys like him who are winning this war for us all and may I say that you should be proud to have had a son such as him. He lies in a little cemetery with others who died in the same action. Remember always that you had a very good son who died doing his duty to the end.’
Richard was killed in action six weeks before his 21st birthday.
Today, Richard’s body lies at rest in Nederweert War Cemetery alongside 362 other soldiers from the Commonwealth who fell during the campaign to liberate the Netherlands. In 2020 a local voluntary organisation, the Adoption Graves Foundation of the Nederweert War Cemetery, was founded and has successfully organised for every grave to be ‘adopted’ by a resident of the Netherlands. Several of the graves have also been adopted by residents of Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Belgium. Members who have adopted the grave of a specific soldier visit the grave several times a year and attend commemorations such as Remembrance Day and ANZAC Day. On Christmas Eve every year, members light a candle on their adopted grave so that a light burns through Christmas night. The individual who contacted us about Richard, Jürgen Beekers, is part of a group within the foundation researching the lives of the soldiers resting in the cemetery. He requested the precise date of birth because the adopter of the grave lays flowers every year on the soldier’s birthday. They have also tried to find a photograph of Richard as part of the ‘Faces of Nederweert’ project to give every grave a face as well as a name.
Although we were unable to locate a picture of Richard in our archives, we were happily able to assist Jürgen with further details of Richard’s studies at Manchester. His registration records gave details of his course of study, his residence and his precise date of birth as well as other details that confirmed prior research. These details will help the foundation to commemorate Richard’s sacrifice, share his story and maintain the extraordinary connection they have cultivated with fallen soldiers across time and borders. In return, Jürgen provided us with a 30-page document of his research on Richard’s life that has enriched our understanding of a student memorialised on our campus.
On the way to another engagement, we stopped for a moment at the war memorial in the Old Quadrangle and looked for Richard’s name. He is commemorated here, along with a poignant dedication:
‘To the members of the University of Manchester and of the University’s senior training corps and air squadron who laid down their lives in the Second World War 1939-1946. They went out from this place and did not return.’
I have walked past the names on this memorial hundreds of times during my regular duties, but this was the first time I saw a face as well as a name.