'Over the top 4 times in 5 days' - the story behind Pearson's banjo

This is an extract from my book TRENCH ART. 

It's the story of Kenneth Herbert Pearson, a gentle youth 'of infinite good temper', who went over the top 4 times in 5 days . . .

I have his small banjo, made from pennies and brass from the battlefield. This is the story I found when I researched the inscription.

Note: I've lost the citations in the cut and paste - they're all there in the book.

Pearson's banjo

The banjo has a compartment for snuff made from five stacked pennies. It is 7.8cm in length and 3cm across the body.

The banjo is attached by a chain to a container for matches made from copper and brass and measuring 5.2cm by 2.3cm by 1.5cm. The frets of the banjo serve as the strike for matches.

A smoothed and shaped 1917 penny on the front of the match container is inscribed ARTISTS REGIMENT 1ST 28TH K H P.

The back of the fretboard is stamped with the number 766615.


The round body of the banjo is made from 5 stacked pennies. The three middle pennies have a hole cut from the centre; the top penny swivels as a lid. 

The pennies are held together by five visible rivets, with only one going through to the top penny allowing it to swivel. 


The match container is an oval cylinder made from a piece of copper joined at the front under the penny by a seam of solder; it has a curved piece of copper for the base.

The penny is cut to an oval and smoothed; the last digit of the date is blurred - most likely 1917.
The letters of the inscription appear to be done by hand rather than stamped.


This is the piece that stirred my emotions when I first held it. It is smooth and heavy,  much handled and worn. It is a beautiful piece - functional, original, handmade, and personal. I am moved by knowing that its owner once held it as I do now. 

I was intrigued by the Artists Regiment. 

I found their website and learnt that the regiment was formed by artists in the mid 1800s to face a perceived threat from France. It consisted of ‘painters, sculptors, engravers, musicians, architects and actors’. 

By the 20th century, according to Wikipedia ‘The Artists Rifles was a popular unit for volunteers.... and recruitment was eventually restricted …... It particularly attracted recruits from public schools and universities . . .'

I’d studied the war poets at university in the 1960s. I went looking for the ones I knew, and there was the most famous one of all – Wilfred Owen. He was in the Artists Rifles. He was killed in action a week before the end of the war. 

With his poetry as emotional context, I went looking for KHP who held this banjo so many years ago.

KHP 766615

The Research

Rank: Private
Service No: 766615
Date of Death: 30/08/1918
Age: 19
Regiment/Service: London Regiment (Artists' Rifles) 1st/28th Bn.
Grave Reference: VI. B. 34.
Cemetery: Bagneux British Cemetery, Gezaincourt
Additional Information: Only son of Herbert Andrew and Kate Elizabeth Pearson, of Redditch, Worcs. (CWGC)

There were initials only on the banjo so I used his serial number to find his name in the CWGC. This gave his name and next of kin which led to his records in ancestry sites before the war. 

I also found two obituaries, one in du Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour and one in The Artists Rifles Roll of Honour. 

From one of these I learnt he had gone to Felsted School in Essex. I emailed the school explaining that I was researching Kenneth Pearson. 

A few days later the archivist replied with details of Kenneth’s time at the school including his areas of study and his exam results. 

Using information from all these sources, I eventually found his story - of a gentle lad with a hearing impairment who studied the classics and died on the battlefields of Flanders.

Kenneth Herbert PEARSON 1899 - 1918

Kenneth Herbert Pearson was born in Redditch, Worcestershire on 11 May 1899, the only son of a bank manager and his wife. He had two older sisters.

He grew up in what we would call today a middle class family. His father was a bank manager in the Midlands of England. The family lived in the bank building in a respectable area of Newbury with a live-in ‘lady help’ to assist with the housework.

Education was important to the family. In 1911 twelve-year-old Kenneth was at school. And more unusually so were his  sisters, eighteen-year-old Kathleen and fifteen-year-old Dorothy. 

Kenneth was educated at Newbury Grammar School and Felsted School in Essex.

Kenneth had a scholarship to study at Felsted. In his first exams in 1915 he came top in Scripture and fourth in Maths. He also studied English, French, Latin, History and Geography - a classical education.


He was not particularly interested in sport but was actively involved in a range of other school activities.

As the war progressed his exam results began to slide dramatically and in 1917 he left Felsted to join the Artists Rifles.


Felsted School describes him in its Roll of Honour: 

Kenneth Pearson was in house d from January 1915 (age 15) to July 1917 (age 18).

Date of birth 11 May 1899.

CV: Artists' Rifles. Died of wounds received in France, Aug 30 1918.

WW1: Died.

A quiet boy, handicapped in many ways by slight but permanent deafness, but entering with zest into all the details of our routine and enjoying them with infinite good temper, K H Pearson spent his two and a half years here from January 1915 to July 1917.
Then military service claimed him and he joined the Artists.
He had been in France 11 weeks with them when the Brigade played its part in the great advance. Four times in five days he 'went over the top' with them, and on August 29th was badly wounded in the head; unconscious, he was carried into the CCS, and there died next day. 

He was the only son of H A Pearson Esq. of Redditch.


After training in England, Kenneth Pearson went to France with the Artists in June 1918. 

By August the Artists were part of the offensive that would eventually end the war – the ‘great advance’ mentioned in his school obituary. As part of that great advance, the Artists joined the attack on Thilloy near Bapaume to recapture it from the Germans.

I found three accounts of the attack on Thilloy from 21 to 30 August 1918 when Kenneth Pearson died: an obituary of a soldier in the Artists who was wounded on the same day; pages from the war diary of the Bedfords who fought alongside the Artists; and an extract from the New Zealand Medical Service describing the attack at Thilloy and its aftermath. 

This is my understanding of what happened that week, based on those accounts.


Early in the week there were heavy morning fogs. The Artists along with other regiments launched a frontal assault on the trenches around Thilloy, finding their way blind down a ravine and up a ridge on the other side. As the fog lifted, advance troops found themselves in open space - easy targets for the entrenched enemy. They were driven back by heavy machine gun fire and snipers firing from behind the ridge. 

They were surprised by the level of resistance. Some German troops were taken prisoner with little resistance but others were fiercely defending their positions to allow their fellow soldiers to retreat.
Over the next few days the story was repeated. Assaults were launched only to falter under sustained resistance from machine gun fire and expert snipers, always with heavy casualties.

Kenneth Pearson ‘went over the top four times in five days’ as attacks were repulsed by machine gun fire. Many were killed and injured.

Kenneth Pearson was wounded on 27 August, the day the battle to reclaim Thilloy came to a climax. He suffered a gunshot wound to the head and was evacuated to the Casualty Clearing Station at Doullens. 

He died there three days later on 30 August 1918.


The New Zealand Medical Service adds a sad postscript to his story.

As the shelling subsided on the night of the 28th, a strange silence fell upon Bapaume - away to the eastward was seen the glare of burning dumps, and just before dawn our patrols penetrated the town to find it abandoned.

The German troops withdrew the day after Kenneth Pearson was mortally wounded.

In his book The Hawke Battalion, Douglas Jerrold writes of that week near Thilloy: 

 . .  . it is justifiable to suggest that the idea of . . . isolated frontal attacks was itself an unwise one . . . two days later, the advanced posts, for which so much had been vainly sacrificed, fell without a shot being fired.


Wilfred Owen – deeply affected by seeing his comrades killed in battle - wrote this poem in 1918.


Move him into the sun -

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields unsown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know . . .

When he writes so poignantly ‘Move him into the sun . . . ’ I think of Kenneth Pearson, the quiet boy ‘of infinite good temper’ who fought for his country and died of his wounds at 19.