The Great War was over and WO Bentley founded his company; a century later it melds the best of Britain and Germany. We go in search of a British soldier’s story in Bentley’s latest Continental. Words Chris Nichols. Photography John Mason.
BENTLEY ON THE BATTLEFIELDS – FOR FEARLESS VIRTUE BRINGETH BOUNDLESS GAIN
By GTC to France, returning a wartime memento to its rightful place. Touring in the Continental GTC An emotional journey to WW1’s battlefields.
SYNERGY FROM SAVAGERY
So reads the inscription, chosen by his family, on the grave in France of Captain Edward Dugdale D’Oyley Astley, who was killed by a German artillery shell on 1 June 1918. He was 21. I hadn’t known anything about Astley until recently, but for 27 years I have owned something that he must have treasured. It’s his Army compass. It was with him as he fought across the Somme in World War One, from his first battle near Beaumont-Hamel in 1916 when he was a teenage Second Lieutenant, until the day he died, by then a Captain, 19 months later and just 11 miles west.
‘Apart from its coupé sister, I can’t recall anything with quite this new Bentley’s combination of virtues’
Second Lieutenant Astley was issued with his prismatic Verner’s Pattern MkVII compass before joining the 1st Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment in France in October 1916. My wife Wendy bought it for me in an antique shop in Hungerford, Berkshire. It’s a beautiful thing, made by Cruchon & Emons of London in 1916. Its mother of pearl dial floats in a solid brass case. Down the years, as it sat on my bedside table or I took bearings with it on long walks, I’d wondered whose it had been and what its story was. This spring, I found out. I teased from the compass’s leather case a piece of tightly folded and verdigris-stained paper that I’d assumed was padding. It turned out to be a hand-drawn training map that I suspect had been undisturbed since 1916.
In its bottom right corner I could just make out ‘ED Astley Lt 1st R Berks R’. And then, thanks to the Hungerford Virtual Museum, everything fell into place. Edward Astley came from Hungerford and that’s why his compass with its hidden secret was in a shop there. As Edward’s story unfolded on the HVM website, I learned that he was a capable, trusted and admired young officer. Within days of going to the Front, he’d been Mentioned in Despatches for jumping into Munich Trench on 14 November 1916 and capturing more than 50 Germans. At 21, he was a Captain commanding a company.
Through 1917 and the first half of 1918, like most soldiers on the Western Front, he endured days of tedium intermingled with bouts of murderous violence as the Line inched to and fro, until the Germans’ savage 1918 Spring Offensive pushed it rapidly west before the Alllies rallied and began the 100-day series of victories that ended it all. As was the pattern, his battalion moved in and out of the forward trenches – often half-filled with liquid mud – to raid, attack, dig in, be repulsed, shelled, machine-gunned, gassed, traumatised and killed or wounded, until relieved by another unit to snatch respite. But even behind the lines you weren’t safe. The Germans’ heavy 15cm field howitzers – the so-called 5.9s – could thrust a 93lb shell more than five miles.
On 1 June 1918, a perfect summer’s day, when Edward’s battalion was in reserve, well back, at a village called La Herlière in the flatlands 13 miles south-west of Arras, distant German gunners let fly with those 5.9s.
Edward’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Brett (himself wounded four days later), wrote to Edward’s father: ‘Your boy was killed instantaneously at 7.30 this morning by a shell which landed just outside his tent when he was asleep… He was far and away my best company commander and I don’t know when I have become more attached to anyone in so short a time… He was one of the best officers that this regiment has produced since war began.’ (You can see the letter at hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk.)
Edward’s effects, including his compass, were sent back to his family in Hungerford (74 years later, the compass was passed to the antique dealer). His men buried him, along with the three soldiers who’d also died in that same random shell blast, the next afternoon at Warlincourt Halte Cemetery two miles west. It was to his grave there, on 1 June this year, 101 years later, that I took his compass, his map and a wreath from the people of Hungerford.
I was fortunate as I started planning the journey. My friend Rich Hughes is a WW1 historian and battlefield guide. Using the war diaries of the 1st Battalion RBR and the 99th Infantry Brigade of which it was part – downloaded from The National Archives – he helped me trace Edward’s movements. Wondering about a fitting car to convey the compass led me to a Bentley Continental GT Convertible. Bentley, now celebrating its centenary, was born out of WW1. Captain Walter Owen Bentley MBE started his car company just 70 days after the Armistice. In the Royal Navy Air Service, he’d designed the BR1 engine that Sopwith Camel pilots loved for its power and dependability, and then the bigger BR2 for the Sopwith Snipe. He was strafed by Baron Manfred von Richthofen while fact- finding at a forward squadron and had to leap into a canal – where, neck-deep, he met Chief Petty Officer Nobby Clarke, whom he later hired as a mechanic.
Like all the beautifully designed and immaculately maintained Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries, Warlincourt Halte is serene. The moment you walk among the white headstones in any CWGC cemetery is to encounter the horror that raged between 1914 and 1918, and to see that death was indiscriminate. A 19-year-old is buried beside a 49-year-old; Generals rest close to Privates; a Victoria Cross recipient lies near a poor soul, perhaps whose nerves were shredded beyond endurance, ‘shot at dawn’.
‘You look at headstones but you should see men,’ said Rich. ‘Each one is a story; each one is a tragedy. There are 1266 men buried here but when you think of all the people their deaths affected, it’s phenomenal.’
The cemetery’s register reveals the enormity of one such story: Second Lieutenant Frank Beechey, aged 30, of the 13 Bn East Yorks Regiment, a popular teacher and Lincolnshire cricketer who died at Bullecourt in November 1916, was one of five brothers taken by the war. Only two of widow Amy Beechey’s eight sons came back unscathed. When Queen Mary, in April 1918, thanked Mrs Beechey for her sacrifice, she replied: ‘It was no sacrifice, Ma’am – I did not give them willingly.’
Edward Astley is in Warlincourt Halte’s furthest corner, just beyond the Cross of Sacrifice. It was deeply touching to place on his headstone the compass and the map he’d drawn so carefully 103 years ago. At its base we laid the British Legion wreath that Hungerford’s mayor, Councillor Helen Simpson, had given us on behalf of the townspeople.
To Edward’s right lie his three comrades killed by the same shell. And next to them three fellow young officers killed four days later by a shell as they reconnoitred when the battalion went back into the Line.
In sombre mood we drove a 20-mile loop on small roads criss-crossing the rolling wheatfields to the site of Munich Trench, where Astley had fought his first battles. As the Bentley eased its way through the now-pristine countryside, we began to see sights so common here: those serried headstones in cemeteries alongside the roads, nestling beside woods or dotting the skyline, some tiny and some vast, like those on the Serre Road; and the green CWGC signs, often six-deep, pointing the way. Beyond Beaumont-Hamel we followed the narrow track north onto the plain, past the 195 graves of Waggon Road Cemetery, until it petered out. We parked the Bentley and walked 400 yards through the young wheat to Munich Trench Cemetery.
Second Lieutenant Greville Stoneham, 21, from Godstone, Surrey, is buried here. He was with 19-year-old Edward Astley in 1916 when they led 159 men across 800 yards of No Man’s Land to attack Munich Trench, which sliced along the crest.
But they were too close to their own artillery barrage. One hundred and sixteen fell. Others got lost. Just ten or 15 remained with Astley and Stoneham when they reached the trench and jumped into its sludge. Stoneham was shot at once. Astley baled up several Germans he encountered, detailed two men to guard them, and pushed on.
After a spate of ‘bombing (grenades) and shooting’, two German officers and about 50 men surrendered. Astley was the only officer of the six who’d started that morning to survive the ultimately fruitless attack. And so his war went on until, when he was seemingly out of immediate danger, that shell killed him. This was my compass’s story.
For the next two days we roamed the Somme battlefields from our base in Arras – with its vast, fine square, still pock-marked by German shrapnel – to the sites 30-odd miles south along the River Somme east of Amiens. The Bentley carried us in gracious style. Its extraordinary refinement, best expressed in an impeccable ride and hush, top up or down, had been obvious from the outset. But here I learned how sublimely that ride blends with sharp handling and an ability to stay amazingly flat in corners. Extravagant and cossetting it might be but ponderous it is not. Apart from its coupé sister, I can’t recall anything with quite this combination of virtues.
The ride quality – even on the optional front 275/35 and rear 315/30 ZR22 Pirelli P Zeros, bespoke to the model – stems from Bentley’s new continuous damping control system. It constantly measures the wheels’ velocity and distance from the body and fiddles the air in the three-chamber springs. All the while, a 48- volt roll-control system tweaks electronic actuators on the suspension’s active anti-roll bars. That kills body roll and keeps the tyres upright. But there’s another factor: Bentley and Pirelli engineers spent 1000 hours on the road together, evaluating six batches of tyres at a time in seven development stages, to find the optimum comfort, quietness, grip, response and durability.
While GTC drivers may mostly glide in supreme comfort roof-down, as we did in 30deg heat, there’s another dimension to this convertible’s character: searing speed. All that weight – 2.4 tonnes in a car nearly 16ft long – doesn’t impede the performance that the Crewe-developed and built, twin-turbocharged, 5950cc W12 is ready to deliver.
In an instant it switches from easing along, six cylinders deactivated, to all 12’s 626bhp and 664lb ft. The Bentley whizzes to 100mph in 8.0 seconds (0-60 in 3.7), which is near-enough 911 territory and quicker than a Mercedes- AMG S63 Cabriolet. And this car, an opulent four-seat convertible, will do 207mph.
This third-generation model is also beautiful. It is longer, and pushing its front wheels 135mm further forward let the designers drop the engine to create a lower, more sultry body with divine lines. It’s a pleasure to look at the light playing along those creases running from its front wings onto the doors and along the haunches. When the roof goes up, in 19 seconds, it’s surprisingly slim and harmonious, too – and drops cabin noise 3dB to match the level of the previous Continental coupé.
All the sumptuousness and technology of its hand-made cabin wouldn’t matter if the driving position were flawed, but it too is perfect. The seats adjust 20 ways – there’s an optional massage facility – and can waft hot air around your neck, pleasant on a cool evening. The rear buckets cosset, too, but they lack legroom for adults on long distances. The 235-litre boot, better than before because the roof now folds more compactly, will serve two adults and children with small bags. And, with a 20-gallon tank, it’s pleasing to fill up and see a 530-mile range on the fuel readout (albeit closer to 400 if you push on; I logged 20.6mpg).
If, as part of the £53,315-worth of options on our £228,415 First Edition and Centenaryspec GTC, you’d included the £6500 Naim audio system with 2200W and 18 speakers, I think you’d be pleased. The option I most appreciated, though, was the head-up display, which projects the car’s pace and the speed limit onto the windscreen.
One thing occasionally disrupts the GTC’s dignity. As it slows for traffic lights, for example, the ZF eight-speed dual-clutch transmission picks up first gear with a bit of a jolt. Bentley admits improvements are due. Distance helps, apparently: the ECU is constantly learning and adapting to improve shift quality.
On the quiet side roads of a Sunday evening, I dialled the GTC from the well-judged ‘Bentley’ mode to ‘Sport’. The suspension stiffened without disrupting the aplomb. The four-wheel drive shifted 83 rather than the usual 62 percent of the torque to the rear wheels, so that when I asked the silken W12 for big dollops out of corners the car felt tauter and a smidgen more tail-driven. The steering wasn’t very involving but its accuracy and consistency were enough.
The transmission worked faster and its changes were as instant, up and down, as they were seamless, giving me as much speed as each bit of road could handle. Blasting into the bends, I’d initially worried about all that weight but the vented iron discs – with 28 pistons across their four calipers – did the job. On the over-run, the exhaust’s basso profundo wafted over the tail but was no more intrusive than the high-revs warble on the way up.
Over a drink in the great square at Arras, I thought about something a Dutch boat skipper had said earlier in the day. We were parked by the River Somme for a picnic lunch and he was mooring his boat nearby. ‘That’s a wonderful car,’ he called. ‘But it’s not British, is it?’ I doubt that he appreciated how much of the Bentley’s design, engineering and development – not just its manufacture – is done at Crewe; or that, while it shares its MSB platform with Porsche’s Panamera, Bentley’s requisites were present from the start. That included engineering for a drop-top, which is why the body is uncommonly rigid. It seems to me that Volkswagen’s money has married the abilities of two nations, each capable of great achievement as well as immense destruction, to produce something magnificent: excellence born of collaboration, not conflict.
Visiting the WW1 Battlefields
By Rich Hughes of the Western Front Association
There’s been a big increase in interest in the Great War, not least because of the centenary commemorations. Many visitors to the Somme explore the 1916 battle and the disastrous attack of 1 July just north of the river, when the British Army suffered over 50,000 casualties. The Lutyens Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, honouring the 72,337 British and South African servicemen with no known grave, and the Lochnagar Crater near La Boisselle – site of a huge mine explosion on 1 July 1916 – are essential stops, but it’s worth visiting more remote cemeteries such as Waggon Road near Munich Trench, or Bertrancourt above the D114. I’d also suggest Pozières and Mouquet Farm, both captured in 1916, and the impressive Australian memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, with its information-packed Sir John Monash Centre, opened in 2018. Lt-Gen Monash planned the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918, the template for the British forces’ subsequent victories.
For a first visit, walk from the Serre Road cemeteries (D919) and follow Redan Ridge to the crater at Hawthorn Ridge above Beaumont-Hamel. Then continue down into the valley of the Ancre River and finish at Thiepval, proving that Somme battlefields were not flat. On the other side of the D929 Albert-Bapaume road are the notorious woods – Mametz, Trones, High, Delville and others – and evocative cemeteries such as Guillemont Road (Raymond Asquith, son of prime minister Herbert, is buried there) and Flatiron Copse.
For further reading, Before Endeavours Fade by Rose Coombs has excellent route suggestions and maps.
Below and right Soldiers mass in the great town square at Arras; a century later, the square looks much the same but there’s peace and a visiting Bentley Continental GTC First Edition in Centenary specification.
From far left Edward Astley’s prismatic Verner’s Pattern MkVII compass reveals the map long secreted within; Warlincourt Halte cemetery, where Astley is buried; Bentley proves to be perfect Continental transport; Astley was killed in June 1918, aged 21.
2020 Bentley Continental GTC
Engine 5950cc 4OHC W12, 48 valves, two turbochargers, electronic injection and management
Max Power 626bhp @ 5000rpm
Max Torque 664lb ft from 1350rpm
Transmission Eight-speed double-clutch automatic, four-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted
Front: double wishbones, air springs, active anti-roll system
Rear: multiple links, air springs, active anti-roll system
Brakes Ventilated discs
Top speed 207mph