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26707 2nd Corporal
Royal Engineers

Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis
Ķ 2002. All Rights Reserved.


This research project was prompted by the author's acquisition of a group of father and son medals belonging to men of a family named Matheson [1] from Helmsdale, Scotland. A search for the service papers of 2nd Corporal Matheson, the primary research subject, at the Public Record Office at Kew, Richmond, Surrey was unsuccessful. Since no copies of his papers were available, this research work is, perforce, quite abbreviated from what was hoped for when his medals were acquired by the author. Nevertheless, his story is an interesting one so far as it has been able to be reconstructed. It is hoped that future research, perhaps utilizing the 1901 British Census, will provide additional details.


John Matheson was born in Helmsdale, Scotland [2]. Nothing specific is known about Matheson's family, as no family by that name or by the alternate spellings of the name could be located in Helmsdale in the 1881 British Census. John's father's civilian occupation is unknown, although it is known that he was 767 Sergeant J.S. Matheson of the 1st Caithness Volunteer Artillery [3]. This is known from the fact that Sergeant Matheson was awarded the Volunteer Long Service and Good Conduct Medal (VR) [4]. The medal is named to him as 767 Sergeant J.S. Matheson: 1 Caith: Vol. Art.

The history of the Caithness Volunteer Artillery began in 1863 when the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Caithness, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Orkney, and 1st Ross Artillery Volunteer Corps were formed into the 1st Administrative Brigade, Caithness Artillery Volunteers, with headquarters at Wick. Wick is town on the east coast of Scotland located about 14 miles south of Duncansby Head, the northeaster-most tip of Scotland, and about 30 miles northeast of Helmsdale. In 1867 the Orkney and Ross corps were withdrawn from the brigade, and to it were added the 1st Sutherland Artillery Volunteers, Helmsdale, and the 2nd Sutherland Artillery Volunteers, Golspie. In 1880 the brigade was consolidated as the 1st Caithness Artillery Volunteers with headquarters at Wick. The brigade consisted of eight batteries. No. 7 Battery (the late 1st Sutherland Artillery Volunteers) was located at Helmsdale. Sergeant Matheson probably served in this battery of the 1st Sutherland Artillery Volunteers, since the unit was located in his hometown [5].

J.S. Matheson also was an athlete. Besides his Volunteer Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, the Matheson group also contained a silver watch fob engraved as follows [6]:

J.S. Matheson
Athletic Club
th Jan. 1880


John T. Matheson enlisted in the Royal Engineers for service in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. Based on his Regimental Number (26707), it appears that Matheson enlisted in the Regular Army, probably in July of 1914. Following his attestation he was posted to the School of Military Engineering (S.M.E.) at Chatham, Kent where he received his basic training as a Sapper. Sapper Matheson passed through the S.M.E. in 202 Party and was awarded a bronze medal as "Best Shot" in his party [7]. This medal is erroneously named to him as J. Mathieson.


Upon the completion of his training at Chatham, Matheson was assigned to the 3rd Field Squadron, Royal Engineers serving in the 3rd Cavalry Division of the British Cavalry Corps [8]. This squadron was one of the "Old Contemptible" units of the original British Expeditionary Force. Sapper Matheson, however, did not join the unit until sometime in the early part of 1915 while the 3rd Cavalry Division already was in France and Flanders [9].

The 3rd Cavalry Division had been formed at Windmill Hill Camp in Ludgershall in September of 1914 [10]. The division left Ludgershall on the 5th of October and began embarkation for France at Southampton on the 6th of October. It disembarked at Ostend on the 8th of October and on the following day the division moved forward to Bruges. Operating under the control of the British IV Corps, the division took part in the operations at Antwerp and in the battles of Ypres and Langemarck during October and November of 1914. The 3rd Cavalry Division was then transferred to the British I Corps and saw action in the battles of Gheluvelt and Nonne Boschen.

The 3rd Field Squadron, Royal Engineers also was formed at Ludgershall on the 16th of September 1914. The squadron embarked on the 12th of October, disembarked at Boulogne on the 14th and joined the division in Belgium on the 19th of October 1914 during the battle of Ypres. Sapper Matheson was still at Chatham at this time undergoing recruit training when the squadron saw its first action.

If Sapper Matheson joined the 3rd Field Squadron in spring of 1915, then he joined it during the 1915 phase of the battle of Ypres. The squadron saw action at St. Julien from the 24th of April to the 4th of May 1915, at Frezenberg from the 8th to the 13th of May 1915 and at Bellewarde from the 24th to the 25th of May 1915 [11]. The squadron, under the command of Captain V.H. Simon, R.E., next saw action at the battle of Loos from the 25th of September to the 5th of October 1915 [12].

From the 1st to the 13th of July 1916 the 3rd Field Squadron fought on the Somme at Albert, where it was attached to the British XVIII Corps. The squadron returned to the control of the 3rd Cavalry Division from the 23rd of July to the 3rd of September 1916 during the battle of Pozieres.

In 1917 Matheson saw action in the battle of the Scarpe between the 9th and the 14th of April, this time with his squadron attached to the 1st Cavalry Division. The squadron then returned to the 3rd Cavalry Division and took part in the battle of Cambrai from the 20th of November to the 3rd of December 1917. The squadron next fought at St. Quentin from the 21st to the 23rd of March 1918, at Avre on the 4th of April 1918 and at Amiens from the 8th to the 11th of August 1918. In the highly mobile phase of the last year of the war, during the pursuit of the Germans to Mons, Matheson's squadron saw action at the St. Quentin Canal between the 29th of September and the 2nd of October 1918, at Beaurevoir from the 3rd to 5th of October 1918 and at Cambrai on the 8th and 9th of October 1918.

On the 11th of November 1918, the leading troops of the 3rd Cavalry Division had reached the line of the River Dendre at Leuze and Lessines. That night the division was withdrawn to the east of the River Schelde near Tournai. Instructions were received on the 15th that the 3rd Cavalry Division would cover the advance of the British Second Army. On the 17th the division moved forward and on the 21st established its headquarters at Waterloo.

Beginning in December of 1918, demobilization of the 3rd Cavalry Division was gradually carried out and on the 31st of March 1919 the division ceased to exist. Thus the war ended for Matheson and the men of the 3rd Field Squadron, Royal Engineers. Although the squadron had participated in many battles during the war, the number of fatal casualties suffered by the unit was surprisingly small. The following table is a summary of the men of the squadron who were lost during the war [13]:


Regimental Number


Cause of Death

Date of Death

Barber, A.



Died of wounds

15 May 1915

Griffiths, Ernest Victor



Killed in action

21 Jan 1916

Hunt, Henry Edward



Killed in action

27 Sep 1915

Jackson, James



Killed in action

8 Aug 1918

Lenderyou, George H.



Killed in action

31 Jan 1916

Waters, John



Died of wounds

5 Feb 1915

White, George Percival



Died of wounds

9 Apr 1917

If this list is accurate, the squadron lost only four men killed in action and three men who died of wounds during the period from May 1915 to August 1918. No record of the number of wounded suffered by the squadron could be located for this research project.

Matheson appears to have survived unscathed and was demobilized at about the same time that the division was disbanded. For his service during the Great War of 1914-1919 he was awarded the following medals:

The Military Medal

The 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal

It should be noted that all of Matheson's military medals were impressed with the name "Matheson," while sports medals that he received while in the Army are engraved Mathieson and the Rocket Apparatus Volunteer Long Service Medal that he subsequently received was engraved "Matherson." The author has assumed that the Army records are correct and that his name was spelled Matheson.


a. Promotions: John Matheson entered the Army as a Sapper and held the rank of 2nd Corporal by the end of the war. Since his service papers were not available at the Public Record Office, his dates of promotion to Lance Corporal and 2nd Corporal are not known. His 1914-15 Star indicates that he was serving as an Acting 2nd Corporal early in the war. The naming on Matheson's British War Medal indicates that by the end of the war he had been appointed a Temporary Corporal. There is no record to indicate that he was promoted to the substantive rank of Corporal before being demobilized.

b. Conduct: Similarly, lack of service papers does not give any indication of 2nd Corporal Matheson's conduct during the period of this military service. One could assume that as a winner of the Military Medal for his brave conduct in the field and his rank of 2nd Corporal and Temporary Corporal by the end of the war, his conduct was probably "Good" if not "Very Good" or better.


In the absence of his service records, no specific information is available regarding Matheson's education or trade qualifications during his period of military service.


In the absence of his service records, no specific information is available regarding Matheson's medical history during his period of military service.


In the absence of his service records, no specific information is available regarding Matheson's marital status during his period of military service.

The only personal information available about John Matheson comes from a number of sports medals he won while in the Army. As previously indicated, his father was a member of The Helmsdale Athletic Club and like his father, John seems to have had a keen interest in sports, especially football. He may also have been a hunter, as he was a good shot with the rifle based on the "Best Shot" medal he won during his recruit training.

Along with his military medals and that of his father, the author was fortunate to obtain the following sports medal all named as shown below:

Cavalry Corps

The reverse of the medal is plain and engraved with the words:

rd Field

The medal is hallmarked with a ring suspender and a thin purple ribbon (5/8ths of an inch wide) with two thin lavender stripes.


Matheson returned home for demobilization and discharge, probably in 1920. Nothing is known about his trade or the type of work he did for a living. It is known that after his discharge he joined the Board of Trade Rocket Life Saving Apparatus Volunteers, the forerunner of the Coastguard Auxiliary Service. He probably served at a lifeboat station somewhere near his home on the North Sea coast of eastern Scotland [14]. The most likely location would have been the Aberdeen Lifeboat Station. This station was one of the earliest in Scotland, being established in 1802 by the Harbour Commissioners. Like the station to the south at Arbroath, the first lifeboat at Aberdeen was built by Henry Greathead. In 1875 a second station was established at Aberdeen and up to 1925 the Aberdeen lifeboat had a record of saving 589 lives [15].

Matheson's duties at the lifeboat station consisted of manning the rocket life saving apparatus at the station. Lifeboat stations normally consisted of an officer's house, coast guard cottages, the rocket house and a watchtower. In addition to lifeboats, the life saving apparatus consisted of a wagon loaded with ladders, ropes and other equipment for the rescue of people from ships wrecked close to land. A key piece of equipment for rescue operations was the rocket launcher used to send a rescue rope to stricken ships close to the coast. Once a line had been connected between the ship and the shore, a breeches buoy rescue system could be made up and people pulled to safety [16].

Line rockets competed as throwing devices with other line throwing tools; namely, the Hunt gun, the Manby mortar and the Lyle gun, and eventually replaced them in England by 1878. The line rocket used by John Matheson was placed in a long narrow trough equipped with legs to position it at an angle for flight. The line (known as the whip line) was attached to the rocket and was coiled in a faking ("flaking") [17] box to allow it to deploy untangled after the rocket was fired. The rocket was aimed in such a way as to hit the rigging of the sinking ship or a ship run aground near shore. It was also usually aimed to the windward side of the ship so that there would be a chance of the line being blown to the ship if the rocket missed. If the lifesaver's aim were true with the rocket, the seaman on board the ship would haul in the line to retrieve a pulley (tail block) with an endless line running through it. The line usually had a board attached to it on which the seaman found instructions in English and French that would tell them how to attach the pulley to the mast or some other sturdy part of the ship [18]. The lifesavers on shore then tied a hawser to the line and drew it out to the ship, where the men on board made it fast to the mast about two feet above the tail block. The lifesavers then tied their end of the hawser to a double pulley on a buried sand anchor and placed an X-shaped crotch under the hawser to raise it above the level of the sea. The hawser was then pulled taut using the double pulley [19].

A breeches buoy was then used to move people from the stricken ship to the shore one at a time. The breeches buoy consisted of a common cork-filled life ring (a circular life preserver) with a pair of short-legged oversize canvas pants sewn inside. The person being moved from the ship to the shore got into the breeches buoy as if putting on a pair of trousers [20]. The breeches buoy hung from the hawser by means of a free-running block known as a traveler block. The lifesavers on shore pulled the breeches buoy out to the wrecked ship using the line attached to the traveler block and to the tail block aboard the ship. The victims aboard the ship were then saved one at a time by sitting in the trouser legs of the breeches buoy and being pulled ashore. It was possible at times for two persons to use the breeches buoy by each putting a one leg into the breeches buoy at the same time and holding on to the lifts of the buoy. Ship captains were to ensure that women and children landed first and that if two persons used the breeches buoy, children would be held in the arms of an adult or were securely lashed to the buoy.

In lieu of the breeches buoy a life car was sometimes used. The life car could rescue usually four to six people at a time. The car consisted of a cone-shaped fuselage constructed of metal, which resembled a covered boat with a hatch through which the passengers could enter it. It was heavy and clumsy to use and required a stouter hawser than the breeches buoy. It was also a terrifying experience for the people who rode inside the life car, as it was coffin-like and pitch black inside. A claustrophobic person must have been terrified; dangling above the sea from a rope with the life car bobbing and swaying as it was pulled to shore.

In dire circumstances, when the ship seemed to be about to break apart, the lifesavers frequently dispensed with the hawser and sent the breeches buoy out to the ship on the whip line. The victims aboard ship were then drawn to the shore directly through the surf, without the benefit of the line being raised to any height above the sea [21]. Needless to say this was a somewhat more risky way of performing the rescue, but sometimes necessary when time did not allow for the heavy hawser to be pulled out to the ship.

After his discharge from the Army, John Matheson performed life saving duties using equipment and methods much like those described above. He served as a volunteer at a life saving station for 20 years, thereby qualifying for the Rocket Apparatus Volunteer Long Service Medal [22]. Although it is not known for certain, John Matheson could have served at the Aberdeen Lifeboat Station from about 1920 to 1940. During this period the men of the station took part in rescues involving the Glen Cova (1930), the trawler George Stroud (1936), the steamer Fairy (1937) and the trawler Roslin (1937).

The Rocket Apparatus Volunteer
Long Service Medal



1. BANKS, A. A Military Atlas of the First World War. Heinemann Educational Books, London, 1975.

2. Battle Honours of the Royal Engineers. The Royal Engineer Journal, Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1925-1932.

3. BECK, A.F. History of the Great War. Order of Battle of Division. Part I - The Regular British Divisions. The Sherwood Press Ltd., Nottingham, reprint of the 1934 edition.

4. GRIERSON, J. MONCRIEFF. Records of the Scottish Volunteer Force, 1859-1908. Frederick Muller, Ltd., London, 1972, pp. 152-153.

5. History of the Corps of Royal Engineers. Volume V. The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1952, p. 248.

6. MOBLEY, J.A. Ship Ashore! The U.S. Lifesavers of Coastal North Carolina. North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh, 1996.

7. SHANKS, R., YORK, W. and SHANKS, L.W. The U.S. Life-Saving Service: Heroes, Rescues and Architecture of the Early Coast Guard. Costaņo Books, Petaluma, 2000.

Computer Software

Soldiers Died in the Great War. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Heathfield, East Sussex, 1998.

Internet Web Sites

1. The Amlwch Coastguard Station.

2. GRAY, M.G. History of the Aberdeen Lifeboat Station.



London Gazette, 13 March 1919, p. 3423.


[1] Alternate spellings: Matherson and Mathieson as shown on the medals.

[2] Helmsdale is a coastal town in the present day Highland Region of Scotland. It is situated on the north side of Moray Firth, about 50 miles northeast of Inverness.

[3] The full title of this unit was the 1st Caithness Royal Garrison Artillery (Volunteers) (Caithness and Sutherland).

[4] This medal is in the author's collection and was purchased with the group of medals awarded to his son.

[5] Records of the Scottish Volunteer Force, 1859-1908 by Lt. Gen. Sir James Moncrieff Grierson, K.C.B., C.V.O., C.M.G., A.D.C. Frederick Muller, Ltd., London, 1972, pp. 152-153.

[6] This watch fob is in the author’s collection.

[7] This medal is in the author's collection.

[8] The British 3rd Cavalry Division had no Commander Royal Engineers (CRE).

[9] This statement is based on the fact that he was awarded the 1914-15 Star and not the 1914 Star. Additionally, based on his Regimental Number, he would not have been able to complete his recruit training before the squadron was deployed to France with the 3rd Cavalry Division.

[10] The references are vague on this. There is a Ludgershall in Buckinghamshire and in Wiltshire. It is uncertain near which town the division was formed.

[11] Battle Honours of the Royal Engineers. The Royal Engineer Journal, Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1925-1932.

[12] History of the Corps of Royal Engineers. Volume V. The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1952, p. 248.

[13] Soldiers Died in the Great War.

[14] In October of 2002 the author was fortunate enough to visit the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station at Rodanthe on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. At Chicamacomico, he met Ms. Linda Molloy who guided him through the station and explained the history and procedures of the lifesaving operations that took place there and along the Outer Banks. The description of the rocket apparatus, breeches buoy and life car contained in this narrative is based primarily on the procedures used in the United States. However, the operations of life saving stations in the United Kingdom during the same periods of time were very similar, if not identical. The author does not believe that he has gone too far astray in describing the type of apparatus that John Matheson must have used along the east coast of Scotland during his time at a lifesaving station there.

[15] GRAY, MARK G. History of the Aberdeen Lifeboat Station. RNLI HQ, Poole.

[16] The Amlwch Coastguard Station.

[17] The name of the line differed between the United States and the United Kingdom. Either word could be considered appropriate as the Chambers English Dictionary gives the following definitions for each:

In fact, a faking or flaking box was a frame or rack used to coil rope; hence, either or both names seem appropriate.

[18] Historical records indicate that many lives were lost due to the failure of the crewmen aboard ships to properly secure the line.

[19] MOBLEY, J.A., p. 38.

[20] SHANKS, YORK and SHANKS, p. 69.

[21] MOBLEY, J.A., p. 38-39.

[22] This medal is in the author's collection.