John (‘Jack’) Herbert Butler Hollings was born on the 29th of April 1887 to Herbert John Butler Hollings (1855—1922), a Justice of the Peace, and Nina Hollings (1862—1948). He died aged only 26 at the Battle of Messines on the 31st of October 1914.
Jack has left few traces at Magdalene College. His name appears in the College Admission Register on the 8th of October 1906:
‘John Herbert Butler Hollings, born 29 April 1887 in London, son of Herbert John Butler Hollings and Nina Augusta Tracey Smythe, of the Watchetts, Frimley, Surrey, educated at Eton College, is admitted pensioner.
However, it is unclear whether Jack ever came into residence at Magdalene College because he does not appear in any other College or University of Cambridge records of the time.
It is possible to shed some light on the brief entry bearing Jack’s name in the Magdalene College Register. He was educated in Eton College from 1900 to 1903 in H.V. Macnaghten’s House. In his Eton College obituary, he is remembered as having been ‘liked by all here’. Jack completed his schooling under private tutors and applied for a cadetship at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst in April 1906, but was unsuccessful due to a failed eye-test.
Soon after this Jack’s name appears in Magdalene College’s Admission Register, but, by 1907, Jack had joined the Hampshire Imperial Yeomanry. He eventually transferred to the 21st Lancers, a part of the Indian Army. Jack spent time in both Egypt and India with the 21st Lancers and was in Cairo when the 1911 census was taken.
At the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914, Jack was on leave in England and engaged to Florence Fletcher. Jack was quickly caught up in the war, and, on the 24th of September 1914, Jack was transferred to the 9th Lancers. The regiment became involved in the Battle of Messines in October 1914 – part of the ‘Race to the Sea’, in which the British and German armies tried to outflank one another.
On the 30th of October, the 9th Lancers received orders to take over trenches in front of the town of Messines. A report written by Lieutenant Colonel David Campbell in the regiment’s official War Diary makes clear that the 9th Lancers were overstretched and needed reinforcements. German forces attacked in the night of the 30th–31st of October and the 9th Lancers retreated through Messines. The regiment experienced ferocious fighting in the streets of Messines, during which Jack went missing.
Jack’s fate remained unknown to his family and friends. The first news received by Jack’s family was a telegram on the 5th of November 1914 informing them that he had been wounded. By December, reports that Jack was a prisoner had been sent to the family. The father of Jack’s fiancée, Lieutenant Colonel H. J. Fletcher, also made enquiries in February 1915 but was told that there was no further news.
It was not until 1917 that the War Office officially recognised that Jack was dead. Until March 1919, Jack’s name is listed in each issue of Magdalene College Magazine among the ‘past and present members of the College on service’ as having been wounded in action on the 11th of November 1914.
A report in Jack’s War Office file by Charles Moncrieff of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, dated the 3rd of February 1915, may record what happened to Jack:
‘I regret to say that in Messines on the night of 31st October, in the garden of the Convent school there, I found the body of a subaltern of the 21st Lancers. He seemed to have been standing on a ladder looking out over the garden wall, and to have been killed by a shell which had brought down the wall at this place, as well as the ladder on which he was standing. As the hour was very late, I did not look for his identity disc, and next morning before I had been to the place again to identify and to arrange for his burial, we were ordered to retire from Messines; but if the casualty lists of the time do not allow for the death of any other subaltern of the 21st Lancers at that time and place, I am afraid that he must be identified as Mr. Hollings. He was in a remote corner of the garden, and it is probable that no one else of the Cavalry Brigade saw him killed.’
Tragically, this report was never sent to Jack’s family. Even so, Jack’s mother, Nina, seems to have accepted that her son was dead by 1915, when she travelled to France to serve in a military hospital. Later in the War, she and her friend, Lady Helena Gleichen (1873—1947), trained in radiography and gained prominence operating a mobile X-ray unit treating wounded soldiers on the Italian Front.
Jack was the recipient of a number of war medals, including the British War Medal, the Allied Victory Medal and the 1914 Star. Standing testament to the chaos of the war, it appears that Jack’s body was originally buried as that of an unknown soldier and he is therefore named on the Menin Gate. Following the work of the Grave Registration Service immediately after the war, his Regiment and Officer status were established through clothing and buttons found with the body, though the body itself remained unidentified. However, subsequent to an investigation in 1992 in which all the evidence conclusively linked Jack to this grave, the headstone at La Brique Military Cemetery No. 2 was replaced with one bearing the name Lieutenant JHB Hollings; almost 80 years after the event, Jack had been found.
There is a memorial plaque erected in the Eton College Cloisters by his family carrying the inscription ‘We lost lovely youth in the rough cloud of war‘.
This post has been produced in collaboration between Sarah Warren, School Librarian, Eton College, and Matilda Watson, Archivist, Magdalene College, Cambridge.