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World War One Centenary.



Leonard Davey – Died at Mendinghem near Ypres 18 April 1918

 

As the centenary of the end of WWI approaches, we come to the last of the Wickham Skeith men to die in the conflict.

Leonard Davey was born on 16th May 1895 to Charles and Louisa (née Hawes). In the 1901 census he was living with his parents, a brother & four sisters in a cottage “near the Green Mere” [ie the Grimmer]. He served in the 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment which moved to France early in 1916. Leonard died from his wounds on 18 April 1918 & is buried at Mendinghem cemetery near Ypres. Mendinghem sounds a Flemish name, however, like Dozinghem and Bandaghem, these were the popular names given by the troops to casualty clearing stations.

 The 11th Suffolks were on the front line south of Ypres during the German Lys offensive in April 1918. This was conceived by Gen. Ludendorf with the aim of capturing Ypres & driving the British back to the Channel ports & out of the war. Initially the Germans broke through the Allied lines on 9 April & during the following two days the 11th Suffolks, along with their sister battalion the 12th Suffolks, were involved in desperate fighting to defend the line. It is perhaps at this time that Leonard was wounded & evacuated the 25 miles to Mendinghem where he later died.

During the months of March & April 1918 over 200 men from the 11th Suffolks were killed from a battalion strength of less than 1000.

If you have a story to tell or would like some help in finding out about a relative in WWI please contact Pete Davidson.

 

 

 

 

Walter John (Jack) Clements - Killed at Ovillers on the Somme 3 July 1916

Walter John Clements has been the most elusive of the 6 men on the Wickham Skeith War Memorial to trace. We sometimes hear of men who were missing from war memorials, but in Jack’s case it turns out that he is on two, as he also appears on the Yaxley War Memorial. He was born in 1887 to farm horseman Albert & his wife Annie. In 1916 they were living on the Green in Wickham Skeith but had lived in Yaxley.

Jack was in the 7th Battalion Suffolk Regiment which saw action on the third day of the Battle of the Somme, 3 July 1916. There has been much in the media this year about the terrible death toll 100 years ago in this battle & the Battalion War Diary of the 7th Suffolks tells the grim story of the day:

At 3.15am the Battalion made a frontal attack on Ovillers on a frontage of 200 yds. Ten minutes before zero the leading waves advanced under cover of the bombardment and at the hour of zero the Battalion assaulted in eight successive waves.

The first 4 waves (D & C Coys) penetrated to the enemy’s third line and portions of them into the village itself, but owing to the darkness touch was lost with succeeding waves and with the 5th Royal Berks on the right, so that the leading waves were not supported closely enough, thus allowing the Germans to get in between the waves and cut off the leading ones at the 3rd line of resistance. It was at this 3rd German line that the chief casualties occurred and the assault was brought to a standstill.

The two Companies of the Essex Regt moving up in support were too far behind and were practically annihilated by machine gun fire during their advance across the open.

The casualties in the Battalion were 21 Officers and 458 OR [other ranks] killed, wounded and missing, though some of those missing eventually rejoined the Battalion the following night.

From the Commonwealth War Graves website, we can establish that 170 men (~20% of the Battalion) were killed between the 3rd & 8th of July, the majority on the 3rd. The bodies of 119 of these were never found and are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. Jack is buried, along with 42 of his comrades, at Ovillers Military Cemetery.

On 4th July 1916, the day after Jack’s death, but surely before word had reached his family, Jack’s brother Harry joined up at Bury St Edmunds. We will find out more about him in a future newsletter.

If you have a story to tell or would like some help in finding out about a relative in WWI please contact Pete Davidson


James Leonard Davidson - Killed on the Somme 12 Oct 1916

One of the reasons I had for visiting the Western Front this year was to visit the Thiepval Memorial where the name of my relative, Private James Leonard Davidson, is inscribed. The Thiepval Memorial is the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world. It commemorates more than 72,000 men who died in the Somme sector & have no known grave.

James served with the 4th Regiment South African Infantry, known as the South African Scottish. This regiment, actually of battalion strength (~800 men), with 3 others formed the South African Brigade. They first saw major action early in the Battle of the Somme when the Brigade attacked at Longueval (Delville Wood) in the afternoon of 14 July 1916. For 6 days they fought under impossible conditions, surrounded on 3 sides by the Germans & subjected to continuous bombardment with little cover. Only 750 of the 3153 officers and men who entered the wood mustered when the Brigade was finally relieved on 20 July.

I don’t know if Pte Davidson fought in that action or whether he was one of the many men drafted in to make up the numbers during August. By early October the South Africans were at Mametz Wood near Albert & at 2.05 on the afternoon of the 12th, James & his comrades went over the top. A vivid description of what happened next is provided in “The History of the South African Forces in France” by John Buchan (author of “The Thirty-Nine Steps”).

One minute after zero an enemy barrage of exceptional violence began, with the result that in a quarter of an hour the telephone wires to the front line were cut, and no reports were received for some time. In the misty weather it was impossible to see any distance, and the difficulty was increased owing to a smoke barrage, which we had laid down around the Butte, drifting in our direction. Presently it appeared that the enemy was following a new practice. The ground over which we were attacking was a gentle slope, perfectly suited to machine gun fire. He had his machine guns placed well back in prepared positions, and caught our attack at long range. Under this blast no troops could live, and presently the impetus of the assault died away, long before the first objective had been obtained.

Fighting continued under appalling conditions until 20 Oct when the brigade was finally relieved. As Buchan observed:

So ended the tale of the South Africans' share in the most dismal of all the chapters of the Somme…… So awful was the mud that each stretcher required eight bearers, and …. battalion runners, though carrying no arms or equipment, took from four to six hours to cover the thousand odd yards between the front line and battalion headquarters. Such fighting could not be other than costly. In the ten days from the 9th to the 19th October the

South African casualties were approximately 1,150.

If you have a story to tell or would like some help in finding out about a relative in WWI please contact Pete Davidson.

 Tommy Isaac’s Military Medal

Liz’s (Davidson) great uncle, corporal Thomas Edward Isaac, won the Military Medal in WWI but we knew nothing of what he did to receive it. It has been quite a task to find out more & the following may help others find out about a relative’s role in the conflict.

The Military Medal (MM) was first awarded in 1916 & was the other ranks' equivalent of the Military Cross (MC) which was only awarded to officers. More than 115,000 MMs were awarded in WWI & few details were published. We knew that he served in the 24th battalion Royal Fusiliers &, as the citation was in the London Gazette of 11 Dec 1917 (www.thegazette.co.uk), it must have been awarded that autumn. An invaluable resource for investigating WWI soldiers’ experiences are the battalion war diaries. These are kept at the National Archives & the majority are now available online (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk). Using the diaries of the 24th Royal Fusiliers, we have been able to identify the action where Tommy Isaac won his medal.

At the beginning of October 1917 the battalion were at Cuinchy on the Western Front between Ypres & Arras. The author Robert Graves had been there in 1915 & in Goodbye To All That described life in the trenches: "Cuinchy bred rats. They came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly." The battalion diary tells us what happened in the 1st week of October.

1-10-17  Front line trenches CANAL LEFT Sub-Section.

2-10-17  Battalion raided enemy trenches in order to secure identification. Raiding party 2 Officers 25 other ranks. Zero hour 12.15 A.M. 2/3rd October. Raid successful and identification secured. Casualties 11 other ranks wounded, 1 since died of wounds. Awards received M.C. 2, D.C.M. [Distinguished Conduct Medal] 1, M.M. 3.

3-10-17  Front line trenches CANAL LEFT Sub-Section.

4-10-17  Relieved by 17th Royal Fusiliers and moved into Brigade Support, Headquarters, “Kingsclere”.

5-10-17  Relieved in Support by 8th Battn Border Regiment, and marched back to Bethune.

6-10-17  Marched to billets at LAPUGNOY, near BRUAY, - wet day.

Three days in the front line trenches, as happened here, was typical. It is an enduring myth that soldiers spent weeks or months in the front line; they didn’t.

Tommy Isaac was wounded near Cambrai in March 1918 during a German offensive which inflicted severe losses on the 24th Royal Fusiliers (22 killed, 61 wounded, 77 missing). However, he survived the war & died in 1975 aged 79.

If you have a story to tell or would like some help in finding out about a relative in WWI please contact Pete Davidson.


Anson Bloor - Killed at Lens June 1917

Brian Bloor’s grandfather, Private Anson Bloor, served with the 1/5th Bn North Staffordshire Regiment on the Western Front. He was killed in a raid on German trenches on the night of 14 June. The battalion war diaries & associated reports are exceptionally detailed & give us a thorough description of the events on that night.

The aim of the operation was for 2 companies (ie half of the battalion which at this time was ~900 men) to raid enemy trenches for identification & to kill or capture German soldiers. Disaster struck before the raid began: “An experienced bomber whilst seeing that his bombs were in working order detonated one ……. it exploded before he could get it clear.” 13 men were wounded of whom 2 later died. One company met fierce resistance & were unable to reach their objective. The other, however, captured the enemy trench after hand-to-hand fighting & returned with 2 prisoners. 5 Military Medals were awarded after this action & 2nd Lt Charles Masefield won the Military Cross.

Casualties were 2 killed, 11 missing & 22 wounded. Anson Bloor was among the missing.

Brian has copies of letters sent to his grandmother, Martha, who was left with 4 young children. There is only space here for a few excerpts.

Anson’s last letter includes:

Well Martha, we are going over to have a look at the Bosh tomorrow. Well my dear if I am lucky enough to pull through we shall come away from the firing line altogether for a week or so, we having now been here up the front line for 26 days the longest that ever a division has stopped on this front so you can tell we are getting tired of it, and I can tell you that the front that we are on is the hottest sector of the Western Front.

And from his commanding officer:

I write with deepest regret to inform you that your husband, Pte. A Bloor, is reported missing after a raid which we made on the German lines.   Every man in the company behaved with great gallantry on that occasion, and I very much deplore the loss of your brave husband.   There is, of course, some hope still that he may be a prisoner but I am afraid the chance is small.   As the officer commanding his company, I beg to offer you my deepest sympathy.   You have at least the consolation of knowing that, if he is dead, he died like a brave man in the cause of justice and right.

Although one of his comrades apparently told Martha that he had seen Anson dead in a German trench, Brian says “to the end of her days, Grandma believed that Granddad would come marching home to her one day.”

If you have a story to tell or would like some help in finding out about a relative in WWI please contact Pete Davidson.


William George Bowers - Killed at Ypres 24 May 1915

Roy Arthey’s great uncle, Lance Corporal William George Bowers, served with the 2nd Bn Essex Regiment on the Western Front. He was killed at the end of the 2nd Battle of Ypres, a battle where gas was first used on the Western Front, and he is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial.

The allies occupied a salient east of Ypres surrounded on 3 sides by the Germans. At sunrise on 22 April chlorine gas was released along 7 km of French trenches killing 5,000 men within 10 mins. The Germans were able to advance 3 km but were unable to follow up this success because of lack of support troops. Fighting continued for another month, but the Germans were unable to break through & capture Ypres.

The 2nd Bn Essex Regiment’s section was NE of Ypres between the village of Wieltje & the no doubt aptly named Shell Trap Farm. On 13 May they had been in action recovering a position that had been overrun by the enemy; great bravery had been shown, but at a cost of 37 killed, 94 wounded & 49 missing.

The final German attack came on 24 May and the battalion war diary provides a vivid firsthand account of the action & gives us some idea of the chaos & confusion of trench warfare:

2.45 am The Germans commenced loosing off gas all along the line from our trenches to the right as far as we could see. ……. A number of men of 2 regts on our right & 1 regt in the support line retired …. the majority without rifles. We stopped some of these men, but they could not be got forward. …….. The shelling continued to be very heavy until 5 am when it began to slacken. The Companies in the trenches about this time reported that Shell Trap Farm & the hedge on its left was occupied by Germans. We were 1st warned that that we might have to retire onto the Divisional Support line & French Switch in the evening, but later were told it was definitely decided that we were going to counter attack with 3 Bns of French helping us.

1 pm We heard that the trench from the right of the King’s Own round by Shell Trap Farm & southward for some distance was in the hands of the Germans.

5 pm We received orders to retire at dusk …… to the trenches behind the Canal Bank. This was, however, altered at the last moment & A, B & C Coys occupied Divnl 2nd Line while D Coy held the Divnl Support line. The Coys were settled by 2 am 25 May.

 

Casualties: 16 killed; 55 wounded; 21 missing.

 

When one considers that the normal battalion strength would have been about 900 men, the losses suffered by the 2nd Essex in May 1915 were dreadful: 112 killed, 308 wounded & 250 missing.

If you have a story to tell or would like some help in finding out about a relative in WWI please contact Pete Davidson.


Lt. Charles Franklin (Frank) Merriam M.C. - served in Palestine 1917-18

Nigel Merriam’s grandfather, Frank Merriam, began the war in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve manning an anti-aircraft gun near Waterloo Station. In December 1915 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. After service at Ypres, he was posted to the 189th Heavy Battery of the RGA which arrived in Egypt in May 1917.

Although we tend to think of WWI as mainly involving the Western Front, there was an extensive series of campaigns across the Middle East against the Ottoman Empire. The Allied attack in Palestine in 1917 was the largest, in terms of forces deployed, outside the Western Front. It was a successful campaign too. Jerusalem was captured in December 1917 and the advance continued until the end of the war.

189th Heavy Battery comprised four 60 pounder guns and about 116 men. They were usually positioned well behind the frontline as these 5” guns had a range of up to 6 miles. Target identification was carried out by a forward observation post (OP) and, on occasions, by aircraft.

Many of Frank’s letters home have survived and give a detailed picture of some aspects of life in a campaign very different from that going on in France and Belgium. The heat, flies and lack of water were particular irritations but, as many of the letters were to his wife Winifred, the dangers seem sometimes underplayed. Certainly, casualties were much lower than similar artillery units in Flanders, but the forward observation posts were particularly exposed and dangerous.

Excerpts from his letters during the advance on Jerusalem often have a humorous aspect:

“…..the heavens fairly opened and the dugouts flooded. ….. Lots of stuff was washed away …… One of my sergeants cannot find a mandolin which is buried in the mud somewhere.”

This was followed by several days of intense action in high temperatures with little chance for rest but:

“We were congratulated by the General for one piece of work we did yesterday - killed a large number of Turks massed for a counter attack.”

Just after this, Frank had to go forward to the OP as his fellow officer Lt Clark had been killed but still found time for some humour:

“Unwin made us smile yesterday by suddenly discovering while at lunch that he was chewing a lump of earth instead of army biscuit and he had to use half a mug-full of my very precious water supply in order to clean out his mouth.”

Frank Merriam survived the war and returned home in October 1918. In the King’s Birthday Honours 3 June 1919 he was awarded the Military Cross, not for a particular act of gallantry, but for “distinguished and meritorious service”.

If you would like to find out more about Frank Merriam’s service in Palestine, contact Nigel Merriam who has a book about his life.

If you have a story to tell or would like some help in finding out about a relative in WWI please contact Pete Davidson.


LCpl Samuel Abbott - killed at Vermelles 14 Aug 1916

Samuel Abbott, uncle to Romaine Elsden & Jenny Harvey, was a regular soldier with the 2nd Battalion Northamptonshire Regt. In 1901 he was living in Wickham Skeith although the family later moved to Thornham. He joined up at the age of 18 in 1907 & we are fortunate that Samuel’s service record has survived. Over 60% of WWI soldiers’ records were destroyed in a WWII air raid; many of those that survived were damaged by fire and water.

In Samuel Abbott’s case we learn that when he enlisted he was 5ft 4 ½in tall, weighed 124 lb and had a small scar above his right eye. He served from 1911 to early 1914 in Malta, followed by several months in Egypt. The battalion landed in France on 5 Nov 1914 and spent the rest of the war on the Western Front.

The 2nd Northants had seen much action during 1915, including at the disastrous Battle of Aubers on 9 May when, according to the battalion war diary, they suffered casualties of 67 killed, 159 wounded and 200 missing out of a strength of 887. (The Commonwealth War graves website has 196 men from the bn. killed on that day.)

In early July they had seen action in the Battle of the Somme near Fricourt, taking significant casualties. They then moved about 50 miles north to Bethune, although even being ~5 miles behind the front line was not safe:

7.8.16   Billets The enemy fired 14 12” shells into Bethune during the morning, but fortunately none fell near our men’s billets. Much damage was done to the town & many civilians killed.

The battalion war diary gives us a picture of the lead up to Samuel Abbott’s death on 14 Aug:

12.8.16   Trenches The battalion moved up to the firing line to relieve the 1st Worc. Regt. at 3 pm. 1 Coy of the Worcesters being left in to make up our strength. From 8 pm - 10 pm we were bombarded very heavily - in the meantime the enemy raided the 2/West Yorks & the 23rd I.B. We suffered 11 casualties. The remainder of the night was fairly quiet - we doing quite a lot of wiring and work.

13.8.16   Trenches Day fairly quiet - the enemy troubling us at times with his minenwerfers [trench mortars] and aerial darts. [? Sometimes known as flechettes - possibly dropped from the air.] We had a few casualties from the former. 2 Lieut Hall shot a German in the very early morning.

14.8.16   Trenches Morning quiet. At 2 pm the enemy sent two rounds over to O.B.1 - apparently registering. A little later he bombarded the Support & Communication Trenches very heavily - killing two men in O.B.1 & obtaining 6 direct hits on that trench. It was arranged that the right Battalion of the Brigade - 2nd East Lancs - should send over gas at 11.40 pm but owing to the unfavourable wind it was cancelled.

Samuel Abbott appears to be named on Thornham Magna War Memorial as Thomas Spalding, but that’s another story.

If you have a story to tell or would like some help in finding out about a relative in WWI please contact Pete Davidson.


Some Reflections on a Visit to the Western Front

Liz & I have just returned from a tour of the Western Front. We spent 3 days in Ypres in Belgium (known to the British soldiers as Wipers) followed by 3 days in Amiens in France close to the Somme battlefield.

It was a remarkable & moving 6 days & we were sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the conflict. The landscape is defined not by the remains of trenches (few of which remain) but by the number of cemeteries. These range from those with many thousands of graves & memorials to the missing, to small cemeteries with fewer than 50 graves. These are all looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who do a splendid job in keeping them all in excellent condition.

Farmers are still uncovering human remains & munitions; not surprising considering the numbers of soldiers of both sides recorded as missing & the huge quantities of artillery shells fired, many of which failed to explode. Of the 21 mines laid in tunnels under the German lines which were fired at the start of the Battle of Messines, 2 failed to explode. One was detonated by a lightning strike in 1955 killing a cow; we drove over the presumed site of the other one, fortunately not during a thunderstorm.

Now for an extraordinary coincidence with a Wickham Skeith connection. On our first morning we visited Brandhoek Military Cemetery where our guide showed us the grave of Captain Noel Chavasse, the only person to win 2 VCs in WWI. He had qualified as a doctor in 1912 & served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. His 1st VC was won at the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 where he saved the lives of 20 men. At the Battle of Passchendaele a year later, although mortally wounded he stayed at his post   & was instrumental in the rescue of many casualties. The bar to his VC was awarded posthumously.

Noel Chavasse had twin sisters, May & Marjorie. Marjorie Chavasse worked for Barnardo’s & in the 1940s was responsible for the all the girls looked after by the charity. And the link with Wickham Skeith? As some of you will know, our own Emma Cable was brought up by Barnardo’s. After her training at Warlies College, in whose home did she work? None other than Marjorie Chavasse. May & Marjorie became well known in the 1980s as the oldest surviving twins in the country, both living to 100.

If you have a story to tell or would like some help in finding out about a relative in WWI please contact Pete Davidson.


Albert Lewis Martin - Killed near Arras Sunday 29 July 1917

As many of you will know, the Wickham Skeith Memorial Plaque records three men with the surname Martin. Albert Lewis Martin was born in 1888 to Thomas and Ada Martin, who in 1901 were living in the Entry. In that census, Albert is described as an apprentice blacksmith.

Albert Martin served in the 16th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment and was killed near Arras on Sunday on 29 July 1917 just before the Battle of Passchendaele.

The battalion diary for the 16th West Yorkshires is extremely detailed and here are a few excerpts to give an idea of life in the front line, followed by the entry which actually tells us how Albert was killed.

23 July Usual artillery activity……. Our aircraft were particularly active, in spite of persistent AA fire from the enemy.

25 July Situation normal with the exception of about 42 shorts from our own howitzers which were apparently shooting from NW of Vimy. [Shells falling short.]

27 July Gas was launched on the right divisional sector and a slight bombardment by way of retaliation was put over the Montreal and New Brunswick trenches but without doing any damage.

28/29 July Usual artillery and aeroplane activity. A patrol of 1 NCO (Sgt Nelson) and 6 other ranks was surprised about 50 yds from our front line by a hostile patrol who fired on them from point blank range from a shell-hole concealed in long grass. Sgt Nelson was mortally wounded and 1 other rank wounded, the sergeant’s body being brought in by 2 of the patrol. Our patrol was taken so much unawares that with the exception of one bomb which was thrown at the enemy, no retaliation was made. The night was intensely dark and it was then found that privates Clayton and Martin were missing. They have not yet been accounted for. [NB It was most unusual for other ranks to be mentioned in the war diaries.] A further misfortune was recorded on the night of the 28/29 — Quebec trench was heavily bombarded at about 1 am which resulted in one shell falling outside C company headquarters with the following casualties: 2nd Lt OL Paus, died of wounds; 2nd Lt Cawey, wounded and 3 other ranks wounded. One stretcher bearer of 18th West Yorkshire battalion was also killed by the same shell.

While going through these records at the National Archives, I came across the report of a court of inquiry into the surrender of a number of men from Albert Martin’s battalion 5 months earlier on 27 February. On that day, during an attack, 73 men had been killed and 87 wounded with 66 missing, 16 of whom had apparently been seen surrendering. It was ordered that in future men attempting to surrender should be shot.

If you have a story to tell or would like some help in finding out about a relative in WWI please contact Pete Davidson


 

Walter Frederick Hawes - Killed at Passchendaele 31 July 1917

I was recently contacted by Karen Smith, who lives in Devon, about her great uncle Walter Frederick Hawes. Walter was born in Wickham Skeith and was killed on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele. He doesn’t appear on our war memorial as the family had moved to Thornham in the early 1900s; instead his name is on both Magna & Parva memorials. Karen and her husband are hoping to visit Wickham Skeith for Remembrance weekend and I thought it would be timely to share her story of her great uncle.

Walter Frederick Hawes was born in 1894 to Frederick & Rosa (née Ellis). In the 1901 census they were living at Elm Farm but soon after moved to Thornham where his father possibly worked for the Hennikers. Walter joined the 1st Battalion London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) as a private. The battalion was involved in the Battle of Pilckem Ridge which was the opening attack of the Third Battle of Ypres which later became known as Passchendaele. There had been an intense artillery barrage for two weeks leading up to the attack on 31 July which, combined with heavy rain on the day, resulted in troops becoming bogged down in deep mud. It was during this action that Walter was killed. His body was never identified and his name appears on the Menin Gate in Ypres. [The Battalion’s casualties were very heavy: Officers – 3 killed, 7 wounded, 1 missing; Other Ranks – 47 killed, 138 wounded, 77 missing.

Walter’s parents, Frederick and Rosa moved back to Wickham Skeith after WWI and lived in Kitchen Close. They fostered at least 3 Barnardo’s children. Karen’s father remembered visiting his grandparents as a young child. He went missing one afternoon and could not be found. All the villagers were rounded up and the men called in from the fields to search for him, including wading through The Grimmer as it was feared he may have drowned. Some hours later someone went to feed the rabbits that were reared for the pot. At the back of the hutch was her father, fast asleep with the rabbits, curled up in the straw.

If you have a story to tell or would like some help in finding out about a relative in WWI please contact Pete Davidson.