How German WWI Gewehr 98 rifle plucked from No Man’s Land revealed life stories of its owners
One was a beloved husband, another the father of British cryptology and the third a man whose horrific head injuries suffered in a plane crash turned him into a liar who abandoned his wife.
But the lives of German soldier Xaver Meyer and Gordon Highlanders Malcolm Hay and Alfred Thom would have been lost to history – if not for a First World War rifle that came up for sale in an Edinburgh gun shop.
A brass plaque on the weapon, a Gewehr 98, reveals how it was being carried by Meyer, a married father of two, when he was killed in Flanders, Belgium in May 1915.
It was found next to Meyer’s body in No Man’s Land by Thom, who, for an unknown reason, recorded Meyer’s name and details of where he lay on a piece of paper before transferring them to the error-strewn plaque.
It is equally a mystery why, as the plaque records, he then went on to gift the weapon later in 1915 to Hay, whom he had not served with.
British historian David Allton saw the weapon for sale and enlisted the help of his German counterpart Robin Schafer to uncover the life stories of the three men.
Searching in both British and German military records and elsewhere, they discovered how Meyer’s wife and children never found out what happened to him and how Thom became a compulsive liar after a 1916 plane crash that resulted in life-changing head injuries.
He emigrated to Australia with his wife before abandoning her for another woman and returning to the UK shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.
He got a job as an inventor with the government before being killed when the ship he and his second wife were going back to Australia on was hit by German torpedoes.
Hay meanwhile went on to head up an interception and cryptanalysis unit of the War Office, making him one of the founding fathers of British codebreaking.
Meyer’s weapon was bought this year by a Belgian museum that now stands just feet away from where his remains are believed to lie, after the place of burial mentioned on the rifle’s plaque tallied up with Mr Allton and Mr Schafer’s research. The soldier was laid to rest on the Ypres to Menin road near where he had fallen.
His rifle is set to form the centrepiece of an exhibition at the venue, the Hooge Crater Museum, next year.
The lives of German soldier Xaver Meyer and Gordon Highlanders Malcolm Hay and Alfred Thom would have been lost to history – if not for a First World War rifle that came up for sale in an Edinburgh gun shop
A brass plaque on the weapon, a Gewehr 98, reveals how it was being carried by Meyer when he was killed in Flanders, Belgium in May 1915
Meyer was a reservist who had never served before when he was called up.
Service records uncovered by Mr Schafer reveal how he was part of a 1915 contingent of reinforcements who were much older than the young, enthusiastic volunteers of those who had signed up to fight in 1914.
Before the war, Meyer had been a travelling carpenter. He was married with two sons and a daughter.
Meyer was conscripted in March 1915 and sent to war in Belgium just ten weeks later, in May. The rifle he was given was standard issue for the new conscripts.
The soldier survived less than three days of service on the frontline before he was killed on May 24.
The chaotic clashes with British troops were described by a comrade of Meyer’s in a letter to his parents.
The soldier described how the fighting was the ‘worst I have experienced’, adding that he had only escaped ‘death’s scythe by the width of a hair’.
He told his parents that, after getting the British troops on the back foot, ‘we chased them too far and suddenly we were fired upon from all sides.
‘Now we had to run to save our lives, two bullets went through my bread bag, one through my left trouser leg and another grazed my left hand, but God was with me and I am still alive.’
None of Meyer’s comrades knew how he perished, but he was registered as missing at roll-call the next day.
It was found next to Meyer’s body in No Man’s Land by Gordon Highlander Alfred Thom (left), who, for an unknown reason, recorded Meyer’s name and details of where he lay on a piece of paper before transferring them to the error-strewn plaque. It is equally a mystery why, as the plaque records, he then went on to gift the weapon later in 1915 to Malcolm Hay (right), whom he had not served with
Meyer was a reservist who had never served before when he was called up. Service records uncovered by Mr Schafer reveal how he was part of a 1915 contingent of reinforcements who were much older than the young, enthusiastic volunteers of those who had signed up to fight in 1914. Above: Meyer may be in this photo, which shows the unit that he was part of – 1st Company of the 1st Battalion of Reserve-Infantry-Regiment No. 247
Just a week later, the soldier’s body was found by Thom as he was patrolling No Man’s Land under the cover of darkness.
He took his rifle and what is likely to have been paperwork revealing the soldier’s identity. It remains a mystery why he took the rifle, but he may have picked it up as a souvenir, which was a common practice.
Two months after finding the weapon, Thom was back in Britain recovering after being wounded in the wrist and shoulder by a high explosive shell in June.
He had to undergo surgery before several months of recuperation at his home in Aberdeen. It was during this time that, for an unknown reason, he presented the rifle to Hay, his fellow Aberdonian.
The error-filled message on the engraved brass plaque that was set into the stock of the weapon reads: ‘Given to Capt. M.V. Hay, 3/Gordon Highlanders by Lt. A.M. Thom, Gordon Highlanders.
‘This rifle belonged to Landsturman Meyer Haver, Ersaltz Battailon 247, 12 Armeekorps. He lies buried 200yds west of Hoodge in a ditch on the north of Ypres-Hooge road.’
The errors are believed to have resulted from the fact that whoever recorded Meyer’s details from his papers was not able to read the German handwriting style correctly.
The ‘X’ was misread as ‘H’, while ERSATZ (replacement), became ERSALTZ.
That Meyer’s Regiment was part of ’12 Armeekorps’ was equally wrong, because it belonged to XIII (13) Armee-Korps.
This is explained by the fact that, when opening Meyer’s tunic to search for his papers, Thom would have seen the depot stamp of XIII Army Corps in the tunic’s lining.
The fact these stamps were often smudged from the start may have been compounded by the rainfall, turning the XIII into a XII.
Captain Hay, who was 34 when he was given the rifle, was the grandson of the second son of the seventh Marquess of Tweeddale.
He had inherited the Seaton farm estates near Aberdeen and had been supervising them when he joined the Gordon Highlanders at the outbreak of war.
The soldier was severely wounded at the Battle of Mons in August 1914 and had been taken prisoner by German troops.
He was partially paralysed as a result of a head wound and was therefore unfit for further frontline service.
He became the first British officer to be exchanged and repatriated in February 1915 and would write a book about his experiences which was published the following year.
In the months which followed Hay received further medical treatment and convalescence time at his family seat in Aberdeen.
It is likely that he met Thom when the latter arrived in Aberdeen later that year.
Both men had been wounded and both shared difficult war experiences, but only Thom would have been able to bring home souvenirs. He therefore could have given the rifle to Hay so he had something.
Hay learnt to walk gain with the help of a cane, before he was promoted to Major and given command of a section of the British Directorate of Military Intelligence, a part of the War Office that was responsible for interception and cryptanalysis.
Hay was as severely wounded at the Battle of Mons in August 1914 and had been taken prisoner by German troops. He was partially paralysed as a result of a head wound and was therefore unfit for further frontline service. He became the first British officer to be exchanged and repatriated in February 1915. He is pictured above during his recovery
Meyer’s weapon was bought this year by a Belgian museum that now stands just feet away from where his remains are believed to lie, after the place of burial mentioned on the rifle’s plaque tallied up with Mr Allton and Mr Schafer’s research. The soldier was laid to rest on the Ypres to Menin road near where he had fallen. His rifle is set to form the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Hooge Crater Museum (pictured) next year
The Hooge Crater, voted the best private museum in Belgium, was once a chapel that was built in the 1920s
It meant he was one of the pioneers of British codebreaking, which was integral to British victory in the Second World War, at bases including the country house Bletchley Park.
It was there that a team that included the famed Alan Turing cracked the German Enigma code.
Hay became a historian after the war and wrote more than a dozen books.
The contents of his family seat, Seaton House, were sold off in 1959 to pay for an inheritance tax bill. The home then burnt down in 1963, a year after Hay’s death.
Mr Schafer believes Hay’s rifle left his possession as part of the 1959 sale. It had several owners after that and was at one point used as a hunting rifle.
It then passed through several more hands before ending up for sale in the gun shop in Edinburgh.
After being contacted by Mr Schafer and Mr Allton, the Hooge Crater Museum spent thousands of Euros buying the weapon and getting it to the UK.
The Hooge Crater, voted the best private museum in Belgium, was once a chapel that was built in the 1920s.
At a cost of thousands of Euros, the rifle is now back close to its former owner.
At next year’s exhibition, the weapon will be poignantly displayed just a few feet from where Meyer almost certainly still lies.
Meyer’s wife and children never found out what happened to him. She went on to marry his brother, as was common practice at the time.
She had two more children but hers and Meyer’s two sons were killed in the Second World War. Their daughter passed away childless in 1989.
However, thanks to the rifle’s plaque, Meyer’s surviving relatives – a grandson and great-nephew – now finally know what happened to him and where his body likely lies.
Thom had first enlisted when he was just 15. He signed up to fight in the Gordon Highlanders for the Boer War in 1902 but was quickly discharged for being under-age.
He re-joined in 1904 and had a seven-year spell in the Army, serving first in Cork and then India.
But the first stint of his service career ended ignominiously in 1911 when he was discharged following a court martial for Absence Without Leave and losing his kit.
He went back to Scotland and worked as a factory engineer before accepting a position as an engineer at a rubber plantation in Sumatra in 1913.
He returned the following year to re-enlist with the Gordon Highlanders after the outbreak of the war.
This time, Thom attempted to hide the circumstances of his previous discharge by saying he had served in the Punjab Volunteer Rifles.
Having returned to the Highlanders in late December 1914, he was made Corporal and was sent to France five days later.
After finding Meyer’s rifle and then getting his wrist and shoulder injuries, he was sent home.
This map shows the route that Meyer took and the positions of the German lines when he was killed. The blue line reveals the patrol route of Alfred Thom on the night he found Meyer’s body
This patrol report from May 31, 1915, is from the same night that Thom found Meyer’s body, rifle and identity documents
Having recovered, he tried to return to a combat role but was then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps – the precursor to the Royal Air Force – in early 1916.
He was sent to flying school in Wiltshire and promoted to Captain. But his luck ran out in November 1916 when he had to make a forced landing due to an engine failure and was seriously injured.
Having suffered a fractured skull, he ended up with double vision, blind spots in both eyes and intense headaches.
With a flying career now impossible, Thom was posted to a succession of technical roles but his ongoing health issues hampered his performance.
He was told by his commanding officer in January 1918 that he was being removed from his post.
But the unpredictable Thom arrived in his Brigadier-General’s office with a resignation letter typed out, and a dossier accusing his superior of fraud, theft and inefficiency.
After an investigation, his erratic behaviour was put down to his injuries. He was invited to resign with the rank of Major due to ill health and accepted the position.
He had by then been married to medical student Edith Marjorie Newman for several months.
But due to her work commitments at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Thom took an overseas post in Rangoon, Burma.
Although Edith did join him, the couple were forced to return to the UK due to his poor health.
They then set sail for Australia, although on arrival Thom reported that an expensive pocket watch had been stolen at sea.
Whilst details about what happened to him after this point are not entirely clear, Thom is known to have invented many details about his life.
He claimed to have been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for an act of gallantry during the Boer War, aged just 14 – yet we know he was at school in Aberdeen at that time.
Thom also routinely wore the ribbon of the Legion d’Honneur but had never been awarded it, nor any of the other foreign awards to which he made claim.
He ended up being recruited as a special constable in the Melbourne police after the ordinary officers went on strike in October 1923.
But Thom ended up being imprisoned for theft after he failed to account for £80 worth of government money he had been given to pay those under his command.
In the subsequent court hearing, the prosecutor stated that Thom’s behaviour was of someone who was ‘somewhat off his level’.
In summing up the case the judge noted that ‘Undoubtedly [Thom] had suffered severely and was a piece of wreckage from the war’.
Thom deserted his wife that same year and met an English nurse working for a church medical mission, after purchasing a tobacco planation in the Victorian bush in 1927.
When Edith successfully filed for divorce after finding out her husband’s whereabouts, Thom married his new love, Agnes, in 1937.
Thom went on to work in the field of optics and wrote what became a key text book about the manufacture of lenses.
Thom and Agnes returned to Europe in 1938 and, when the Second World War began the following year, the erratic veteran secured a role with the government as an inventor.
Having been given a substantial pay cheque in March 1941, Thom went to London to celebrate at the Café de Paris, on the same night it was destroyed by German bombs.
He suffered another head injury but escaped with his life, as 34 people were killed in the attack.
But Thom and his wife were killed after making the fateful decision to return to Australia in 1943.
Their ship, the MV Melbourne Star, was hit by torpedoes from U-129. Its cargo of ammunition was detonated and the ship sank in two minutes.
Speaking to MailOnline, Mr Schafer said: ‘The fact that we have been able to pinpoint the last hours of someone who spent less than three days on the Western Front before they were wiped off the face of the earth is incredible.
‘It has never happened before, that we can be so precise. The second thing is that we can give Meyer’s family closure.
‘It could have been a simple story of one British officer who took the rifle. That could have been the story.
‘We now how the rifle went to someone who has one of the most freaky stories I have ever read, being dishonourably discharged and becoming deranged from a head wound.
‘And this fantastic link to Major Hay, the father of modern British decryption and deciphering. He is basically more or less the person in whose wake the work of Bletchley Park becomes central.
‘You could not wish for anything like that.
‘We hope that if anyone in Aberdeen reads this, we would still be interested to learn more about the connection between Thom and Hay in Aberdeen. Yes they were fellow officers, yes they were both Aberdonians but we suspect there is another link which we don’t know. In the early stages of the war they never met one another.
‘There must be some family connection. It is a bit weird. Yes some soldiers sent rifles home, but why record the exact details of the German soldier on the plaque? That is something we don’t quite understand.’