Flanders 1917: Last day in Hell – 24930, Pte. J.GARRATT 5th August 1917

Dawn on 5th August 1917 heralded the third full day in the trenches near Klein Zillebeke for the 9th East Surreys.  Trenches that were little better than a water logged hole in the ground full of slime with rain soaked sandbags that disintegrated when touched.  All around was the detritus of war.

The shelling had destroyed everything. As far as you could see it was like an ocean of thick brown porridge” – 2nd Lt. R.C. Sherriff, wounded 2nd August.

An aerial photograph taken high over the devastated landscape at Klein Zillebeke on August 7, 1917, shows few distinguishable features.

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Aerial reconnaissance 28.I36 [Klein Zillebeke] August 7, 1917

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War Diary Sketch Map

The film maker D.W. Griffth visited the area near “Shrewsbury Forest” several weeks later when conditions had much improved and the front had moved on, leaving the wreckage behind.  The pillbox he filmed was made of the same concrete as the fifty pieces embedded in R.C. Sherriff when he was wounded.  The “Forest” had long since been reduced to match wood.

At Klein Zillebeke, the incessant shelling of the 9th East Surreys had already claimed the lives of two Mitcham Men, Ethelbert Griffiths and John Hopkins, but Joseph Garratt from Colliers Wood was still out there and it was about to become a very bad day …

Joseph Garratt’s family home was at 59 Denison Road, Colliers Wood.  At the outbreak of war it was just another ordinary Outer London street of four and five room homes where the families were mostly in steady work.  Compositor, baker, court attendant, LCC tram conductor, engineer’s fitter, carpet layer, glass cutter, pork butcher and carpenter were among the resident’s occupations.  The Edwardian homes were recently built on land that had surrounded Byegrove House, attracting families from Battersea, Camberwell, Tooting, Clapham, Vauxhall, Twickenham and Brixton.

Joseph had spent his early life in Clerkenwell, where he was born in 1897.  He lived in Laystall Street , a narrow cobble paved space in the heart of the teeming Capital, close to Gray’s Inn, the Smithfield’s markets and the Mount Pleasant Postal Sorting Office. Joseph’s parents, Alfred and Ellen, were originally from Birmingham, and his father had worked as a “brass finisher” all his adult life.  Bowen’s “Phoenix Foundry” was on their doorstep.

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Laystall Road 1905 & Today

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Phoenix Foundry – Brass and Bell Founders.

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Joseph was the last of five siblings to attend the school in Laystall Street, sent to the infants at the age of three in 1900.  Dating from 1876, “Laystall Street School” is still in use today.  There is no record of Joseph moving to the older “Boys” part of the school and his father last appears on the electoral roll at 16, Laystall Street in 1906.  The family had moved to Denison Road by 1911, with a fifteen year gap between their youngest child Joseph and their first son Alfred, it was only Joseph and his older sister Alice who lived with their sixty year old parents Alfred and Ellen Garratt.

Alfred and his son Joseph had no need to rely on local work.  You could take a short walk over Waterfall Bridge to the tram stop at the junction of Blackshaw and Longley Roads where the LCC service ran as far as the Embankment.  The London United Trams ran in the other direction along Colliers Wood High Street towards Wimbledon to Kingston and Hampton Court.

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LCC/LUT Tram interchange at Junction of Blackshaw and Longley Road

In 1913, another travel option came to Colliers Wood when the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) opened a brand new motorbus garage in the High Street opposite the Merton Abbey Works.  The LGOC’s B-type motor-bus would provide some of the most iconic images of the Great War, ferrying troops to the front in 1914.

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Merton Bus Garage circa 1920

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As the war dragged on with its insatiable appetite for man-power, the LGOC first employed female bus conductors in February 1916, with women gradually replacing men in their workshops and other behind the scenes roles.

There had already been a number of casualties from Denison Rd at Ypres and Loos in 1915 by the time Lord Derby’s Group Scheme came into being late that year.  It was the Government’s last attempt to encourage volunteer recruitment before passing the Military service Act early in 1916 and the introduction of conscription on 2nd March 1916.

The Derby Scheme was originally meant to close by the end of 1915, but it became necessary to resurrect the Group Scheme in January 1916 to plug the recruitment gap and posters advertising this were circulated.

For some reason, Joseph Garratt choose to volunteer under the Derby Scheme on its final day, 1st March 1916.  He could have waited to be conscripted, but instead he presented himself at the Wimbledon recruiting office giving his age as 20 years 9 months and replying “porter” when asked his trade or calling.  Joseph passed his medical but it was noted he was not a robust individual, at just 5ft in height and a slender 100lbs it was remarked “appears abt 18”.  Born on 13th June 1897, Joseph was indeed only 18 years 9 months.  Yet he would have been given his arm band and told to wait for his group to be called-up.  A month would pass before Joseph returned to the recruiting office in April 1916, this time for reasons unknown Joseph was placed on reserve.  Another five months would pass before he was called-up and was posted to 3rd (Reserve) Bn East Surrey Regiment.  Basic training complete, Joseph joined the 9th Bn in France on 11th January 1917 as 24930, Pte. Garratt, J.  They were near Hulloch, when Joseph experienced his first shocking lesson in the realities of trench warfare

Eight months on the Western Front may have toughened Joseph Garratt but the situation at Klein Zillebeke was the stuff of nightmares.  There was a heavy mist on the morning of the 5th August and the advanced outposts established at Jordan trench came under attack three times between 6am and 8am .

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The war diary contains an appendix which gives a detailed account of a desperate fight as they attempted to keep the lewis gun in action and the supply of bombs was exhausted.  Compelled to withdraw, the main war dairy notes:

but it is feared that 14 of our men were left behind either killed or wounded”

Later that morning around 9.30am in what seems an avoidable and useless death, the Commanding Officer, accompanied by 2nd Lieut. L. H. Webb, came up to make a personal reconnaissance. While observing over the parapet, Lieut.-Colonel de la Fontaine was shot through the head by a German sniper, dying soon afterwards.  He had been a popular C.O. with an Army career that stretched back to 1893.  After five days in hell, the misery of the 9th Battalion at Klein Zillebeke came to end when they were relieved on 7th August 1917,

Fourteen is the exact number of men recorded as killed in action that day in the CWGC register, all names which appear on the Menin Gate memorial to the missing.  It is a list that includes the names of 24930, Pte. Garratt, J from Colliers Wood and 30654, Pte. Lambert, P. from Morden.

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The Garratt family ensured Joseph’s name appeared on the Civic Memorial on Lower Green, Mitcham and the framed  roll of honour board at Christ Church, Mitcham. Members of the family remained in Denison Road into the 1930s.

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Christ Church, Colliers Wood © Copyright Peter Trimming

 

 

 

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Flanders 1917: The end of a journey – 24912, Pte. J. HOPKINS, 4th August 1917

The suffering of the 9th Bn. East Surrey as they held part of the Brigade Front at Jehovah Trench, and further forward, had only just begun on 2nd August 1917.  They were to hold this position for five days.  Companies were rotated between front, support and reserve position during the nights of 3rd/4th and 4th/5th as the enemy’s heavy shelling continued at dawn and dusk.  There was no let up in the summer rain and conditions were appalling.  Not until the final two days did the sun make any appearance.  The War Diary’s record of the men’s reaction seems hardly credible:

“Great credit is due to almost every individual man in the battalion for the energetic way in which he worked. No matter whether they carried rations, water, wounded or anything else they stuck to their jobs in the terrible conditions, and always won through with a smile.”

The list of casualties speaks itself, with yet another Mitcham Man among the dead – 24912, PTE HOPKINS, J.

Little is known of John Hopkins’ early life other than he was born in Lambeth around 1884.  His marriage to Elizabeth Harriet Wales in 1914 is the first tangible evidence that links him to Mitcham.

Before their marriage, the 1911 census return shows Elizabeth Harriet Wales living at 5a Seaton Road Mitcham with her two sons: Thomas aged 8, born in Marden, Kent and Job aged 5, born in Mitcham.  Thirty four year old Elizabeth Wales was a single mother who somehow managed to support her two young children working as a flower seller. The three of them shared one room in a small 5 room terraced property. William Jelly, a farm labourer born in Battersea, his wife Sarah and their two young daughters had two rooms. The remaining two rooms were home to Ben Coates, a greengrocer who described his place of birth as “Kent in Van”, his partner Janthe (?) Collison and their two young daughters.

Elizabeth Wales had spent her early childhood in Battersea.  Born on 26 Nov 1876, she had lived in Currie Street, one of a small triangle of streets hemmed in by the railway and the Thames shore line and overshadowed by the Gas Works where her father worked as a stoker. Charles Booth’s poverty maps described the area as among the poorest in London. After her mother Phoebe died in 1889, nothing more is known of Elizabeth until 1911.

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Currie Street, St.George, Battersea.

More than twenty years after her childhood in Battersea, Elizabeth found herself living once more in the shadow of a Gas Works, with all its noise and stinks. Seaton Road was home to some of the poorer families in Mitcham.

The seven members of the Surkitt family lived in 3 rooms at 4a Seaton Road, parents John and Alice describe themselves as Street Hawkers.  Widowed Henry Harrington, a labourer in the Gas Works, lived with his four children in two rooms at 4a Seaton Road.  Fred and Sinny Matthews lived with their nine children in four rooms at 6a Seaton Road.  Both parents and two of the children were flower sellers.  Henry and Lemataney Matthews lived in the remaining room with their baby daughter at 6a Seaton Road.  Nelson Smith, a flower seller, and his partner Lucasus Constant lived in one room with their baby child at 3a Seaton Road. Leonard and Britania Dixey(Dixie) with two children lived in two rooms at 3a Seaton Road.  Leonard was another flower hawker.

Among Seaton Road’s other flower sellers and hawkers were Josiah and Lemataney Smith at number 16, Henry and Phoebe Scott together with Alice Powell and sons at 10 Seaton Road, the Dedmans and James at 8 Seaton Rd and Jessie and Emily Smith at 5 Seaton Rd.  The eight members of the James family lived in four rooms at 11 Seaton Road. Irish born head of the family Robert James described his occupation as a “peg maker”, adding “Im me on marster”, the birth places of his six children were various “corners” that the enumerator was obliged to clarify.

It is clear from the surnames and occupations that Elizabeth Wales was living in the midst of families whose roots were tied to Surrey’s travelling community.  If John Hopkins had been from a travelling family himself that might explain the lack of any official documents associated with his name.  Whether or not John Hopkins was the natural father of Elizabeth’s children, they adopted his name after John and Elizabeth were married at the end of 1914.

If the pages of the Surrey Recruitment Registers (SRR) are any guide, then 1915 was the year that saw many of Seaton Road’s men volunteering, with a cluster around the time of the Derby Group Scheme which ran from 15th October 1915 until 1st March 1916.

Although John Hopkins is recorded as enlisting at Kingston, his details are not in  the SRR.  His service number is consistent with men joining the East Surrey Regiment around February and March 1916, but there is nothing to say when he first went to France and Flanders.

24912 Pte. John Hopkins officially became one of the missing on the third anniversary of the Great War, on 4 August 1917.  His wife Elizabeth could never have known of the unspeakable conditions he had fought in near Ypres and was left in limbo for another six months, as her hopes that John had survived faded.  There is no record of anyone contacting the Red Cross to enquire if John had been taken prisoner, perhaps Elizabeth had always known the outcome.

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Soldiers’ Effects Entry

When the Mitcham War Memorial was officially unveiled on 21 November 1920, Elizabeth Hopkins had ensured her husband’s name appeared alongside others she knew well: brothers Christopher and Frederick Matthews were her neighbours from Seaton Road.

Three weeks after the unveiling of the memorial her eldest son, eighteen year old Thomas Hopkins, travelled to Kingston to enlist in the Regular Army.  Like his father, Thomas Hopkins joined the East Surrey Regiment.  Elizabeth stayed in Seaton Road, until at the age of fifty four she was re-housed, moving to the modern open environment of Mitcham Garden Village in 1931.  Finally, she had a place worth calling home.  War widow Elizabeth Hopkins remained in Mitcham until the end of her life, passing away in 1946 at the age of 69.

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Mitcham Garden Village, Lower Mitcham. circa 1930s
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Mitcham Garden Village – Today Copyright 2015 Mitcham Garden Village

 

Return Tomorrow to read the story of  a last day in hell for Joseph Garratt from Denison Road, Colliers Wood.

 

Flanders 1917: Friends & Neighbours – 30040, Pte. E.G.GRIFFITHS 2nd August 1917

The impact of the War on friends and neighbours in Merton is perfectly illustrated by the fortunes of the Milledge, Burge, and Griffiths families.  In the summer of 1914, 59 Lyveden Road was the home of my grandfather’s Uncle.  Samuel and Clara Burge had lived there since 1912 and across the railway line in Swain’s Lane during the previous decade.

The Griffiths family moved in next door at 61 Lyveden Road in 1915, John and Rosina were originally from Camberwell, but for the last two years the family lived nearby at 50 Robinson Road.  John and Rosina Milledge had brought their family to 57 Lyveden Road around the same time.  Their roots were in Wimbledon, but they had lived in Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park between 1910 and 1913.

Samuel Burge was a house painter by trade and the seven of his ten children still at home in 1914 were aged between nineteen and nine.  John Griffiths had made a steady living as a bookbinder and the four of his eight children living at Lyveden Road were now aged between 30 and 17.  John Frederick Milledge was another who worked in the building trade and his four children were aged between 19 and 9 at the outbreak of war.

Samuel and Clara Burge belonged to the “Plymouth Brethren” who met at Longley Road Gospel Hall.  Their strong beliefs may have set them apart from other residents of Lyveden Road and would certainly had been opposed to the conduct of the war.  When the Milledge family became their neighbours, Samuel Burge not only had a working life in common with John Frederick Milledge but Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park was known as an area where the “Plymouth Brethren” had flourished.  The fact that the Milledge family had moved from Wimbledon right across London for those few years suggests the neighbours had more in common than just work.

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Many “Plymouth Brethren” would become conscientious objectors when compulsion was introduced in 1916.  But despite Samuel and Clara’s beliefs and their children’s upbringing, two of their sons, brothers Samuel and Reuben, rushed to volunteer in 1914 and a third, Charles Henry, would soon follow.  The Burge family were the first to suffer loss when Samuel “George” Burge was killed in Flanders on the 8th May 1915.

Frederick Ernest Milledge was the next to volunteer in mid 1915, and was sent to France by November 1915.  In the same month his brother Frank Leslie Milledge volunteered under the Derby Scheme on 15th November 1915.  He was placed on “Class W Reserve” and remained in the UK for some time.

In the first week of November 1915, John Learwood Griffiths volunteered and was in France by 18 Arpil 1916.  When Ethelbert George Griffiths was conscripted on the 14th October 1916, his family had only just received the worrying news that his brother John was reported missing in action on 7th October 1916.  Within a month, his sister Elsie had contacted the Red Cross hoping John had been taken prisoner, but no further information was forthcoming.

As Christmas 1916 came and went, the New Year’s wish for the Griffiths family was that their son John was still alive, but for the Milledge family news came via the communication all families dread, their son Frederick Milledge, a corporal in the Royal Fusiliers, had been killed in France on the 17th January 1917.   His brother Frank, the only surviving son, was still in the UK, his fate yet to be decided.

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FREDERICK ERNEST MILLEDGE VIII. F. 21 GUARDS CEMETERY, WINDY CORNER, CUINCHY

Like his father, Ethelbert George Griffiths had worked as a bookbinder before his conscription on reaching his nineteenth birthday in October 1916.  He was posted to the 4th Reserve Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment after passing his medical at the Kingston Barracks.  Ethelbert is likely to have been in France completing his basic training at Etaples by January 1917 and would not join the 9th Bn. East Surrey Regt. until February or March 1917.  Six agonising months had passed since his brother John had been posted missing on the Somme, any vestige of hope for his survival was finally ended in April 1917 when he was officially declared to have died on, or since, the 7th October 1916, while serving with the “Civil Service Rifles”.

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Ethelbert Griffiths may never have come across the other Mitcham men serving in his battalion of the East Surreys, a handful among hundreds.  But any one of his “pals” could have been among the long list of casualties meticulously recorded in the War Dairy when the trenches near the Zwarteleen and the Hill 60 carter were incessantly shelled between 23rd and 25th July.  It was a list that included Richard Wheeler’s name.

The men were physically and mentally battered as the Battalion left the trenches, crossed the Yser-Comines Canal and marched on past Voormezeele back to a tented camp near Dickebusch.  They would stay here until 1st August.

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Camp near Dickebusch on 9 August 1917 © IWM (Q 5847)

Junior officer, 2nd Lt. M.S Blower attempted to lighten the men’s mood with music by giving a gramophone concert on 28th July, “with which the men were very pleased”.   The Battalion were in reserve on zero hour 31st July, but by the following evening had been ordered back to the front line, back to Zwarteleen!

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The Brigade Front now straddled the old German line of Jevhovah Trench and the final moves of the Battalion from Verbrandenmolen across the Yser-Menin Railway and through ruined Zwarteleen toward the front line would test every man.

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The War Diary’s matter of fact account belies the terrible conditions and the dangers faced:

Heavy rain had been falling for three days, no communication trench could be used – for they were more than waste deep in water and liquid mud.  Consequently all movement had to take place overland and the dark night and obstacles in the way made progress slow … on arrival at the support line, and further, on the way to the front line, C coy got caught in a heavy rain of shelling from the enemy, suffering something like 20 casualties in killed and wounded

It was here that 2nd Lt R.C. Sherriff was wounded, he never returned to front. Fifty years later, his account of events on the 2nd August 1917 form a stark and disturbing image of the reality of war:

The whole thing became a drawn out nightmare. The shelling had destroyed everything.  As far as you could see it was like an ocean of thick brown porridge. All of this area had been desperately fought over in the earlier Battles of Ypres. Many of the dead had been buried where they fell and the shells were unearthing and tossing up the decayed bodies. It was a warm, humid day and the stench was horrible. In the old German trench we came upon a long line of men, some lolling on the fire step, some sprawled on the ground, some standing upright, leaning against the trench wall. They were British soldiers – all dead or dying. Their medical officer had set up a first-aid station here, and these wounded men had crawled to the trench for his help. But the doctor and his orderlies had been killed by a shell that had wrecked his station, and the wounded could only sit or lie there and die. There was no conceivable hope of carrying them away

An aerial photograph taken a few days later on August 7, 1917 at 5:00 p.m. shows the devastated landscape at Klein Zillebeke:

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Aerial reconnaissance 28.I36 [Klein Zillebeke] August 7, 1917

Once more the casualties in all ranks of the 9th East Surreys were carefully recorded in the battalion’s war diary in neat lines, as if on parade.  The name of 30040 PTE GRIFFITHS, E.G. appears alongside men from Fulham, Clapham, Coulsden and others killed that day.  Names that would eventually appear on the Menin Gate.

 

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The Griffiths family at 61 Lyveden were left reeling from the loss of their remaining son.  Three years would pass before the Civic Memorial was erected on Lower Green when the residents of Mitcham gathered to honour their dead and remember the names carved in stone.  In the more private space of Christ Church, the names of brothers John and Ethlebert Griffiths appear together on the framed roll of honour.

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Christ Church, Colliers Wood © Copyright Peter Trimming

 

Return Tomorrow to read the story of  the end of a journey for John Hopkins from Seaton Road, Mithcam

Footnote 1:  The fallen sons

May 8, 1915 – Private Samuel George Burge, 2nd Bn. East Surrey Regiment, is killed in action near Frezenburg.  His body was never found and his name appears alongside thousands of others on the Memorial to the Missing at Ypres, the Menin Gate.

October 7, 1916 – Private John Learwood Griffiths, London Regiment (Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles), is missing in action on the Somme and later presumed dead. His body was never found and his name appears alongside thousands of others on the Memorial to the Missing in Thiepval, France.

Janaury 17, 1917 – Lance Corporal Frederick Ernest Milledge,  13th Bn. Royal Fusiliers, is killed in action near Neuve-Chapelle.  He is buried in Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner, Cuinchy

August 2, 1917 – Private Ethelbert George Griffiths, 9th Bn. East Surrey Regiment, is killed in action near Klein Zillebeke. His body was never found and his name appears alongside thousands of others on the Memorial to the Missing at Ypres, the Menin Gate.

Footnote 2:  Frank Lewis Milledge embarked for France on 11th October 1917.   Wounded late in March 1918, he spent time in Grove Military Hospital , Tooting and in the Special Surgical Hospital at Shepherd’s Bush.  After six month’s of hospital treatment Frank Lewis Milledge was finally discharged due to his wounds on 22nd December 1918 in time to spend Christmas with his family.

 

 

 

 

Flanders 1917: Five Days In Hell, 2-7 August with the Journey’s End Battalion

Much has been written [1] about playwright and author, Robert Cedric Sherriff, whose most famous play “Journey’s End” was based on his experiences in the Great War.  Sherriff served in France with the 9th Battalion East Surrey Regiment from October 1916 until wounded on 2nd August 1917.  He was invalided back to the UK on 4th August, the third anniversary of the war [2].

Years later Sherriff wrote of his first impressions on meeting the men of his “C” company:

‘They looked the biggest set of ruffians I’d ever set my eyes on. Anyone seeing them without knowing who they were might have thought that Ali Baba’s forty thieves and the pirate crew from Treasure Island had amalgamated to do some deed of super villainy.’

Yet, Sherriff would say they were ‘some of the best men I ever knew’.

In contrast to Sherriff, very little has been written about the men of the 9th East Surreys that he had to leave behind and their experiences over the next few days in the trenches near Klein Zillebeke.  This short series brings together the story of three of those men and their families, all from Merton!

The men’s struggle to survive in the wasteland of war that Sherriff himself described as a ‘drawn-out nightmare’ where ‘shelling had destroyed everything’ epitomises the lines penned by Siegfried Sassoon in 1918 in his poem, memorial tablet:

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell –
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

Their five days of hell was here at Klein Zillebeke 2-7 August 1917.

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Aerial reconnaissance 28.I36 [Klein Zillebeke] August 7, 1917

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War Diary Sketch Map

Return tomorrow to read the story of friends and family from Lyveden Road, Tooting Junction.

Footnote1:  The Surrey History Centre holds an extensive archive of R.C. Sherriff material, it has held an exhibition and blogged extensively about his life and times, including his “Final Days on the Western Front” .

Footnote2:  2nd Lt. R.C. Sherriff regimental roll entry.

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Flanders 1917: 95272, Pte. Robert Handley “G” Bn Tank Corps, 2nd August.

Two days after zero hour, on the morning of 2nd August 1917, the survivors of G battalion’s Tank Crews were slumped back at the La Lovie camp, exhausted after a day that had taken them to the limits of their physical and mental endurance.  Most were left with a kaleidoscope of momentary images of the battlescape glimpsed through prisms and shutters.  Those with the unenviable job of venturing outside to grapple with the 8-cwt unditching beam, deep in mud and exposed to shell and machine-gun fire, witnessed scenes they’d rather forget.  Some tank men were forced to fight on foot, where survival was a lottery.  The Tanks lay scattered across the battlefield: bogged down, broken, hit by shell fire or abandoned after making it back to the rallying points in ones and twos before dark.

What had Merton’s tank man, Robert Handley, seen and done on that first day?  The eye-witness testimony of Srgt. J.C. Allnatt of 19th Company, and 2 Lt D.G.Browne of 21st Company describes the confusion as the tanks negotiate awful ground, struggling to keep in contact with the infantry, individual tanks become isolated. Vulnerable to shell fire, there are miraculous escapes and terrible ends.

After reaching the lying up point at Frascati by 10.30pm on the night of the 30 July, the crews had little time before moving off again to reach their starting points for zero hour.  Joseph Charles Allnatt the sergeant driver of the “Gravedigger”, Tank G10, gave his vivid account of the hours that followed in an article written in 1958.  His section of tanks moved off in the fearful noise of the shrieking and bursting shells, it wasn’t long before conditions and mechanical problems played a part:

“Tanks were facing in all directions and already some were in trouble …. Each time we went into or passed through a shell hole the muddy water came sluicing into the floor of the tank, making everything into a filthy mess … I then saw the crew of one of the tanks of my Section collecting water from a shell hole with petrol cans. Their tank had a leaking radiator, and I understand that during the day they used 120 cans of water – not a very pleasant thing to have to do under fire… I retraced my way on the far side of the Steinbeek and took up the route from which I had made a diversion. I had still another half-mile to go to get to my final objective – the cemetery ….  There was nothing and nobody in sight. The going was still terrible but I got to the cemetery and went alongside its battered wall. I knew that by this time I must be getting dangerously short of petrol and still had to make my way back to the rallying point at Kitchener’s Wood…. Unfortunately, at this time the other tank – “Glamorgan” I think its name was – standing still firing at the enemy, with all its guns. It was bound to happen, although they were unaware of it, enemy shells were falling all about it. I thought for a moment that I could send some-one to tell them what was happening, but I knew it would probably mean the death of one of my crew. I turned away momentarily, and when I looked back, “Glamorgan” had disappeared … We then began to get it in earnest. Our rate of travel was very slow so we were almost a sitting target. Again and again enemy shells missed us by feet, and at least one lobbed underneath us heaving us up, without doing any damage at all. All the while I steered a zig-zag course … Ever since leaving the Steinbeek and the German counter-attack the crew had given up all thought of further action and were all sound asleep on the muddy floor, with Lewis guns, spare parts and empty cases strewn around them … I heard the voice of the Adjutant.8 He poked his head in and shouted, “Who’s there.” I told him. He said “What on earth are you doing here?” I said, “Our orders are to stand by.” He said, “Well, I order you to abandon tank, and get out as quickly as you can.” Dusk was now falling and we had to cover a distance of about 1½ miles … I found a pit which had formally [sic] been a shell bunker. I flopped down … I had not been asleep more than two or three minutes, when somebody roused me with the news that we were to retire to a place called Rezenburg [sic – this should be Reigersburg] Chateau, and thence we would be conveyed back to camp. “[Extracts of Full acount]

It was dark by this time and after a hurried crossing back across the Yser canal, waiting lorries took the exhausted crews back to La Lovie camp, a slow journey on roads crammed with transport.  Both the “Gravedigger” and the “Glamorgan” were part of 19th Company’s fighting tanks.  Suffering a direct hit, the explosion had snuffed out the lives of eight men of Tank G10 in an instant.  The names of seven of its crew members can be found on the Menin Gate.  Tank commander 2nd Lt. James Walker Lynch is commemorated in St Julien Dressing Station Cemetery, where Special Memorial 1 states “Buried in this cemetery, actual grave unknown”.

2 Lt. D.G.Browne, commander of the female tank G46 “Gina”, re-lived the first day in his book the “Tank in Action”, published in 1920.  He dedicated an entire chapter to the lengthy description of the first day’s fighting.  It contains information which is important evidence of Robert Handley’s possible fate on 2nd August 1917.

G46 was near Canada and Hampshire Farm as they crossed, moving beyond what had been the German front line:

“Dawn had broken — a miserable grey twilight behind heavy clouds; and the creeping barrage, with its following infantry, was already far up the ridge … We had anticipated difficulties here, but the reality was worse than anything that I, for one, had imagined. The front line was not merely obliterated: it had been scorched and pulverised as if by an earthquake, stamped flat and heaved up again, caught as it fell and blown all ways; and when the four minutes’ blast of destruction moved on, was left dissolved into its elements, heaped in fantastic mounds of mud, or excavated into crumbling pits already half full of water… The great trouble at first was to find our right direction, for all our famous groups of trees were still invisible, and Kitchener’s Wood was veiled completely by the smoke and dust of the barrage. The German trenches which we had studied on the map were blown to pieces and unrecognisable. One could see nothing anywhere, in fact, but a brown waste of mud blasted into ridges and hollows …2

Slow progress made them late to the first objective at Bosche Castle with the trench system in front of Kitchener’s Wood.  They ran in to shellfire and lost their unditching beam as the tank plunged into a shell hole.

“I got my whole crew out to recover it; but to lift on to the roof again 9 cwt. of steel and wood in so unhandy a form was beyond our powers; and the occasion being urgent, I decided to abandon the thing rather than waste time in manoeuvring the tank and fixing the clamps or other tackle… We obtained a more comprehensive view of the outer world during this excursion, but there was little to be seen. The battlefield wore that melancholy and deserted air characteristic of modern war.  Acres of foul slime below, dark and heavy clouds hanging low overhead, odours of gases and corruption, a few tree-stumps, a few bodies lying crumpled in the mud, half a dozen tanks labouring awkwardly in the middle distance, and the shell -bursts shooting upward like vast ephemeral mush-rooms — and that was all. There was hardly a sign of life in all that mournful and chilling landscape.”

It was near Kitchener’s Wood that G46 got bogged down after attempting to negotiate a way pass the network of water filled shell holes.

“The water rushed in through the tracks and sponson doors, covered the floor-boards, and flooded the sump: the fly-wheel thrashed through it for a second or two, sending showers about the interior; and then the tank, not having been constructed for submarine warfare, gave up the struggle. The engine raced with an increased but futile noise, for the wet clutch had ceased to grip, and we did not move. It was nearly six o’clock, and the rain had begun to fall. To take stock of the situation we had to climb out through the manhole in the roof, the water having risen to such a height above the floor that we could not use the sponson doors. Once outside, it was manifest that there was nothing to be done. The lost unditching beam would not have helped us with the clutch half under water.”

Gina_G46_ditched2

2 Lt. D.G.Browne struggled through mud and shell holes on foot in an attempt to reach his section commander Kessel and Lt.Merchant’s tank G45 which had ditched some 500 yards to his rear.  He was told to evacuate his tank, but in accordance with orders to leave two men behind on guard.  A hazardous duty which 2 Lt. D.G.Browne acknowledges:

“But the duty, never popular, was likely to be peculiarly dangerous in the Salient, on account of the persistent shelling to be expected there. Near Mousetrap Farm, a day or two later, four men were killed while guarding a couple of derelict tanks, after which the practice of leaving such guards east of the canal was abandoned … Under these circumstances, much as I disliked the prospect of remaining in here myself, I felt that I could not leave two of my crew alone there; and I determined, therefore, to form one of the guard.”

2nd Lt. D.G.Browne remained with his second driver Swain, the other six men struggled back to the Hill Top Farm HQ only to be ordered back to the tank!  One man was hit on route but with the help of a second made it to a dressing post.  The remaining four eventually reached G46 again around four in the afternoon.  The crew of G46 sat it out through hours of incessant shelling until about mid-day on 1st August. After a useless visit from a salvage officer and in the absence of further orders, Browne and Merchant agreed to leave their tanks that afternoon and return to Frascati.  They headed for the Wieltje-St Julien road, after eventually reaching Frascati they were taken from Reigersberg by lorry back to the La Lovie camp.  It was after eight at night on 1st August 1917.

But what of gunner Robert Handley?  Was he back at La Lovie, or somewhere out there, unlucky to have picked the short straw and been left guarding a tank? Was he in a tank of 19th or 21st company?

There is at least strong evidence to suggest that Robert Handley was in 21st Company. When he volunteered to join the “Heavy Branch”and was officially transferred on 25th Feb 1917 he was part of a small group of ex DCLI men who either due to wounding or sickness had been in the UK in late 1916:

95269 L.W.Baggott
95270 W.J.Gray
95271 A.Dean
95272 R.Handley
95273 H.Hunt
95274 H.Jones
95276 F.W.H Littlejohns
95277 H.A.Taylor
95278 C.Turner
95279 W.C.Trewin
95283 F.G. Burch

Gray, Hunt (real name Barratt), Littlejohns and Burch are all known to have been in 21st Company.

One task that fell to “G” Battalion HQ Staff immediately the facts were known was to create a “Battlegraph”, a chart summarising each tank’s progress and final state after the first day. Two versions exist, one as an appendix to “G” battalion’s War Diary and the other as an appendix to the Tanks Corps’ 1st Brigade War Diary.  The latter having two additions about “direct hits” to tanks, but neither show the direct hits suffered by tanks after 31st July.

The “Battlegraphs” and contemporary maps allow tank narratives to be constructed. They name individual Tank Commanders, but full crew list, if they ever existed, have been lost.  Neither do they fully corroborate 2nd Lt. D.G.Browne’s recollection that:

“Near Mousetrap Farm, a day or two later, four men were killed while guarding a couple of derelict tanks, after which the practice of leaving such guards east of the canal was abandoned …”

Only one tank is shown to have ditched near Mousetrap Farm, G6 “Grantham” of 19th Company.  The “G” Battalion war diary entry for the 2nd August 1917 is brutally succinct: two abandoned tanks are hit, two 21st Coy men acting as guards are killed.

There are no detailed casualty lists naming individuals, just a summary which appears in an appendix to the Brigade war diary which was part of a report on the 31st July operations.

The only men killed on 31st July were the crew of 19 Company’s Tank “Glamorgan”. The figures include four casualties from 21st Company which must have occurred in the following days.  Were these the four men alluded to by 2nd Lt. D.G.Browne and why does the “G” Battalion War Diary only mention two?

It is the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission that may hold the answer to the discrepancies in “G” Battalion’s records and explain Robert Handley’s fate.  In its new guise as CWGC, the modern register and associated original casualty burial returns reveal the four names officially recorded as having lost their lives on 2nd August 1917:

EDWARDS, CHARLES WILLIAM
Rank: Gunner
Service No:70026
Date of Death:02/08/1917 Age:28
Regiment/Service:Tank Corps “G” Bn.
Grave Reference: IV. D. 19. Cemetery: ARTILLERY WOOD CEMETERY
Additional Information: Son of William Henry and Hannah Edwards.

MACCULLOCH, D
Rank: Gunner Service No:77524
Date of Death:02/08/1917 Age:32
Regiment/Service: Tank Corps “G” Bn.
Grave Reference: IV. D. 18. Cemetery: ARTILLERY WOOD CEMETERY
Additional Information: Son of John and Susan Macculloch, of 11E, London St., Edinburgh. Native of Oban, Argyll.

LITTLEJOHNS, F W H
Rank: Gunner
Service No: 95276
Date of Death: 02/08/1917
Regiment/Service: Tank Corps “G” Bn. Grave Reference: III. K. 25. Cemetery:
ESSEX FARM CEMETERY

HANDLEY, ROBERT
Rank: Private
Service No: 95272 Date of Death:02/08/1917Age:23
Regiment/Service: Tank Corps “G” Bn. Panel Reference: Panel 56.
Memorial: YPRES (MENIN GATE) MEMORIAL
Additional Information: Son of George William and Emma Handley, of 5, Heaton Rd., Mitcham, Surrey.

According to burial return documents dating from 1919, Edwards and McCulloch were originally found together at map location “c.8.c.5.5” in graves marked by crosses which clearly identified them as both members of 21st Company, “G” Battalion, Tanks Corps, and were dated 2/8/17.  Could they have been the two men reported killed in the Battalion War Diary while guarding a tank?  Perhaps, but the location of their original graves bears no relation to the known tank positions at the time and is far from the Mousetrap Farm mentioned by 2nd Lt. D.G.Browne.  Although it is likely they were brought to a safer place to be buried.

Gunner Littlejohns is recorded as dying of wounds at Essex Farm, close to the Yser Canal’s western bank, used by dressing stations at the time.  His family are believed to have received word that he was wounded before he died on the 2nd August 1917.  The Battalion War Diary does state a 6-pdr gunner was wounded during gas shelling at Frascati on the night of 28 July and sent down to the CCS.  If Francis William Henry Littlejohns was the casualty, it is possible he suffered from the delayed effects of mustard gas.  Whatever the truth, there is one puzzling question about Gunner Littlejohns burial return.  Why should his service number be incorrectly stated as that of Robert Handley’s?

tank_burial2

The sad conclusion is that the inconsistent and incomplete record keeping of “G” Battalion make it impossible to say with any certainty how and where Robert Handley lost his life.  The question of why Robert Handley’s service number should appear against Gunner Littlejohn’s burial return is likely never to be answered.  The final insult to Robert Handley and the three others who died on 2nd August 1917, is the omission of their names from the “Roll of Honour” which appears as an appendix to the war dairy entitled “A Brief Battle-History of the 7th Battalion”  and dated December 1918.  It is a prototype for the slender 35 page publication of 1919.

Mitcham’s Tank Man, Robert Handley had simply been forgotten.  Ultimately where and how Robert Handley had met his end may have been of little consequence to the Handley family at Heaton Road, Mitcham.  All they knew was a son and brother would never return.  They ensured Robert’s name appears on the Civic Memorial at Lower Green, and on the wooden memorial panel at their local St.Barnabas Church.

barnabas

© Copyright John Salmon

 

 

Flanders 1917: Zero hour 31st July, 2782 Pte. Charles Henry Coles.

At zero hour the main thrust towards Pilckem Ridge was made by the Fifth Army in the centre and north of the Ypres Salient.  At the southern extreme of the Salient the 41st Division of the Second Army attacked near the Ypres-Comines Canal where the 190th (Wimbledon’s Own) Brigade RFA and men of the 23rd Middlesex Battalion were in action.

3ypres_stages_map

By July 1917, 2782 Pte. Charles Henry Coles of the 23rd Middlesex Battalion, nicknamed the 2nd Football Battalion, had been a soldier for a year and three months.

When war came, his older brother Lewis Coles had rushed to volunteer in Lambeth, joining the Coldstream Guards on 9th September 1914 and was in France by March 1915.  Not to be outdone, Charlie’s younger brother Leonard Coles joined at Battersea in February 1915, claiming to be just over eighteen years old, when really he was still sixteen.  Leonard had worked as a barman, like his brother Lewis, and was no flower.  He easily passed the medical and his age was not challenged.  Whether it was due to Leonard’s parents, or a change of heart, he was discharged under age after 71 days service in the 3rd (reserve) Bn. East Surrey Regiment who were based at Dover.

Charlie Coles had held back, not volunteering until 14th February 1916 at Wandsworth Town Hall under the Derby Scheme, shortly before conscription was introduced. Another two months would pass before Charlie, the eighteen year old tobacconist’s assistant, would swap his civilian clothes for a rough khaki uniform and join the 27th Bn Middlesex Regt..

He gave his address as 302 Franciscan Road, Tooting and named his father Oswald Lewis Coles of 24 Heaton Road, Tooting Junction, as his next of kin when he volunteered.  Heaton Road was the same place Robert Handley had lived.  Charlie Coles had been born in Norwood in 1897 and his family had lived in both Lambeth and Lewisham, only moving to Mitcham around the time of the Great War.  Charlie was one of six siblings – Lewis James, Charles Henry, Leonard Ralph. Elsie Helen, Doris Hilda and Douglas Maurice.  Doris had been born in Liverpool in 1905, and Douglas in 1907 on the Isle of Man, reflecting the travelling nature of Oswald Coles’ work.  It was only later when Charlie’s father was in the Tobacco trade that the family settled near Tooting Junction.

Charlie Coles was mobilised in April 1916 and on completion of his basic training was sent to France in late August as 2782 Pte. C.H Coles of the 23rd Bn . Middlesex Regiment, nicknamed the 2nd Football.  Footballers-Battalion-Recruitment-Poster-e14144087008071916 had ended badly for Charlie Coles, he had gone down with a bad case of trench fever that would keep him on the sick list for three months as he was moved back to no. 32 Stationary Hospital at Wimereux.  Released to duty, he spent three weeks on the Etaples training grounds before the was fit enough to rejoin the 23rd Middlesex at the end of March 1917, no doubt still thinking of those Australian nurses.

The big test for Charlie Coles came first at Messines and now at zero hour 31 July.  The sights and sounds, the confusion and din of the action on the 7th June must have remained indelibly etched on his memory for weeks. Survival instincts and training had got him through, or was it just pure luck?

 

The limited objective of taking the “Damm Strasse”, a sunken and fortified road, as part of the 123 Brigade had been a costly assault for the 23rd Middlesex.  Starting with 16 officers and 550 other ranks, ten officers were either killed or wounded and fifty percent of other ranks had become casualties by the end of that day.  It is hard to know if Charles Coles was optimistic that luck would be on his side again, or if he was less assured about his chances now.

What news did Charlie Coles have of his brothers?  Lewis, the lucky blighter, had got leave!  He was going to miss all this.  What’s more. he was getting married!  For a brief period the gloom of the war was lifted at the Coles family home at Heaton Road, Mitcham, when their son Lewis was married to Clara Law at the local St.Barnabas Church on 9th July 1917.  He would not rejoin his battalion until August.  Leonard Coles had been conscripted and joined the 13th (Battersea) Bn East Surrey Regiment.  By 1st June 1917 he had been transferred to the 1st battalion as Corporal 242556 L.R. Coles.  It seems Leonard was made for the Army, two stripes already!  Leonard remained in the Arras sector throughout June, July and August 1917.  Charlie wasn’t to know that both his brothers would be part of the Passchendaele offensive during October and November 1917.

For Charlie Coles and the men of the 23rd Middlesex, the first weeks of July were spent in intensive training, honing those skills needed to survive and work as a fighting unit – bayonet, musketry and squad drill, slow advance behind a barrage, assembling on tapes and gas drill.  The mounting tension was only broken when the 23rd Middlesex played the sport the knew best – football!  They were easy winners of the first two rounds of the Brigade competition, beating the 11th Queens and 20 DLI in succession to progress to the Divisional Finals.  It ended in anticlimax when the 23rd Middlesex were beaten in the semi-final, a close low scoring game by a RAMC team, losing 0-1.

They had moved up to Ridge Wood, about a mile and half east of St.Eloi on the 25th of July and after a well timed inspection of gas masks and box respirators, the Wood was duly shelled with gas in the early hours of 29th July, timed to cause the greatest confusion and effect.  The final move took place at night when the 23rd Middlesex left Ridge Wood at 8.30pm on 30th July making for the Yser Canal crossing at Spoil Bank by 10.30pm, a distance of about 2 miles as the crow flies.

Their route took them via “Bus House” skirting to the north of the batteries of 190th (Wimbledon’s Own) Brigade near Shelly Farm.  They actually crossed at the “pontoon bridge” and “iron bridge” close to the oak dump [square O 4a on large map].  There would be no unbearable hours of waiting in front line trenches before going over the top.  The companies of 23rd Middlesex pressed on through the communication trenches only just reaching their assembly area in front of Battle Wood by zero hour – 3.50 am, 31 July 1917.

The creeping barrage they were meant to follow was laid down by the gun’s of the “Wimbledon’s Own”, part of the 41 Division’s “OOSTHOEK” artillery group.  It was hardly light as the men stumbled forward over the churned up and boggy ground only to be met by a flooded impassable area which stretched from the Ypres-Canal on their left to the railway embankment on their right.  The embankment itself was their only route forward, unable to keep up with the creeping barrage, they were exposed to machine-gun fire from dog-outs on the embankment and from higher ground some 500 yards to their left toward Hollebeke.  The “Wimbledon’s Own” 4.5 Howitzers were used to suppress the enemy’s machine-gun fire, but not before the 23rd Middlesex had suffered many casualties.  It was no more than 45 minutes into the attack …

The progress of the 23rd Middlesex that day can be followed in the war diaries and maps, like pieces moving on some giant chessboard.  The various landmarks and names can all be identified – the canal, railway embankment and the lines drawn which marked their objectives that day.  But it is eye-witness testimony that brings the soldier’s experience into sharp focus. Victor Edgar Fagence, 11th Bn Royal West Surrey Regt.  was interviewed nearly sixty years after the event by the Imperial War Museum in 1976.  The memories of zero hour, and that day, had never left him.  The 11th Queens had advanced in the same area as Charles Coles.  In reel six he recounts what happened – the shelling of back and approach areas left nowhere really safe, the boggy terrain pitted with shell-holes was far worse than any sodden ploughed field, restricted movement meant rushing pill-boxes was impossible and then Victor Edgar Fagence was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire while carrying his lewis gun.  He was lucky not to have been killed.

The 23rd Middlesex were effectively pinned down by 9am and overflown by enemy aircraft.  Heavy rain that afternoon flooded newly dug positions as all movement was halted.  Their positions were heavily shelled, but they hung on until relieved overnight, reaching the tunnels at the Spoil bank at 3 am on 4th July.  The war diary states 14 other ranks were killed that day, with many more were wounded.  In fact the CWGC register lists the names of twenty nine men who died that day.  Only one, Charles Biles from Beddington Terrace, has a known grave.

Like the others who fell that day, the name of Charles Henry Coles was added to the Menin Gate Memorial, unveiled by Lord Plumer on 24 July 1927.

mening1927

Both of Charles’ brothers would take part in Passchendaele.  Lewis Coles was in the thick of Passchendaele through to October 1917 when he was wounded.  At the end of the year, after long exposure in miserable conditions, Lewis Coles was invalided back to the UK suffering badly from trench foot.  After 89 days in hospital he was transferred to the Guard’s London Command Depot, and never returned to the front. Leonard Coles was at Polygon Wood in October and Veldhoek in November 1917.  His battalion was often at rest at Ridge Wood, the place Charles Coles had started from on the night of 30th July.

When the time came, it was Charles’ father Oswald Lewis Coles who took Army Form W. 5080 to the St.Barnabas Lodge to be countersigned on 9th June 1919.

GBM-WO363-4-007295267-00065

The family had moved a short distance to Inglemere Road by 1919.  The name of Charles Henry Coles appears on both the Mitcham Civic Memorial at Lower Green, and on the wooden memorial panel at St.Barnabas Church.

barnabas

© Copyright John Salmon

Members of the “Coles” family remained in Gorringe Park for many years after the Great War.

 

 

 

 

Flanders 1917: Merton’s Tank Men

The British Tank was first used on the 15th September 1916 at Flers-Courcelette during the Battle of the Somme.  A message dropped from an observation aircraft behind the British Lines triggered a newspaper headline that flashed around the world.

“A Tank is walking up the High Street of Flers and with the British Army cheering behind”

Excited reports of “juggernauts” and “mechanical monsters” stoked the public’s fascination for Britain’s new wonder weapon as the feats of the “New British Armoured Motor-Cars” were described in the most lurid terms.  They were supposedly immune to rifle and machine gun fire, could shrug off bombs and shell splinters, “nothing but a direct hit from a fair-sized shell could do them any harm” was one newspaper’s claim.  In the absence of any official photographs, the cartoonist’s imagination was let loose:

tank_cartoon

It did not detract from the overall story given to the public: here was a weapon that could smash through German defences on the road to victory.  The reality was rather different.

It was argued then, and ever since, that the Tank had been used too soon, in too small a number and over the wrong terrain.  Developed in a shroud of secrecy by the Landship Committee formed in early 1915, it was originally an initiative that came from the Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Car Squadron, backed by Mr. Churchill.  Operations were taken over by the Army with the involvement of the influential Ernest Swinton and the code word “Tank” was being used by the end of 1915.   In 1916 Swinton was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given responsibility for training the first tank units.  Within a year of the first protoype, “Little Willie”, being developed during August and September 1915, the Mark I Tank was engaging the enemy on the Western Front.

There was scepticism and even open hostility to the use of Tanks in the upper echelons of the Army.  A few doggedly hung to the belief that it was the Cavalry who should exploit any breakthrough.  After Flers, Tanks were in action again on 26th September when eight were used and later in a number of minor operations between mid-October and 18th November 1916, when the Somme campaign finally ground to a halt. The weather had turned the battlefield into a morass in that final month, exposing the limitations of the use of Tanks in such conditions.

For the eight man crew, conditions inside a Tank had always been appalling.  At nearly thirty tons there was no suspension to absorb the shock as it lurched, pitched and crashed around.  Intense heat for the exposed engine came with deafening noise and intoxicating fumes that could suffocate a crew, rendering them unconscious.  Only the tank’s commander and driver were seated, the rest could only stand or crouch in the belly of the beast.  The endurance of crews during combat was measured in hours.

These early tanks were slow, unreliable and prone to break down, the crews and workshops worked feverishly to keep them running.  In battle they were easily ditched, and rapidly bogged down in bad sodden terrain.

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916© IWM (Q 1568)

At Flers , only 32 out of the 49 tanks allocated reached their starting point. Of the 32, 5 soon became ditched and a further 9 broke down.  Nine tanks kept up with infantry, inflicting losses on the enemy.  Nine others, unable to keep up, assisted in “mopping up”.   The statistics speak for themselves.  The bravery of the crews and the dedication of those working behind the scenes was not in doubt, but Tanks faced an uncertain future.

Haig wrote in his Somme Dispatch  printed in the Supplement to the London Gazette of 29th December 1916:

Our new heavily armoured cars, known as “Tanks,” now brought into action for the first time, successfully co-operated with the infantry, and coming as a surprise to the enemy rank and file gave valuable help in breaking down their resistance. The advance met with immediate success on almost the whole of the front attacked

Adding further:

“The part played by the new armoured cars —known as “tanks”—in some of the later fights has been brought to notice by me already in my daily reports. These cars proved of great value on various occasions, and the personnel in charge of them performed many deeds of remarkable valour.”

Despite the naysayers and critics, Haig’s plans for 1917 envisaged a greater role for tanks.  Only around 150 had been produced for 1916, but production was to be ramped up as over 1,000 Tanks were ordered for 1917.  Existing and new factories were to be used to meet the demand, as the accompanying logistics were built up.  The Heavy Section MGC became the Heavy Branch MGC in November 1916, signalling greater autonomy, as a programme of rapid expansion and re-organisation took place.  The original Tank Companies had withdrawn to the Bermicourt in France, while Bovington Camp, near Wool, in Dorset became the new home for the battalions being created in the UK.  Men and officers were allowed to volunteer from other units either in France or at home and came from every conceivable section of the Army, and even the Royal Flying Corps and the Navy.

bovington

Boington 1916 – image courtesy of Bovington Tank Museum

 

It was 22nd and 23rd November 1916 when the British Public finally got what they had thirsted for, pictures of a Tank! The London pictorials, such as the Mirror and Sketch, were joined by the Telegraph and other papers in publishing photographs which had passed censorship and were sourced from the “Canadian Record Office”.

Five weeks later audiences flocked to the new sensation being shown in picture palaces around the country – “THE BATTLE OF THE ANCRE AND ADVANCE OF THE TANKS”. Released on 1 January 1917, the film was the sequel to Malins and McDowell’s hugely popular “The Battle of the Somme”.   It was shown four times a day at Wimbdeon’s King’s Palace from 15th January for one week only.

ancre_film

Billed as “The War’s Greatest Sensation – The Tanks in Action”, box office takings were even higher in the first three months of release than for its predecessor “The Battle of the Somme”.   It contained several lengthy sequences of the first shots of tanks at the Front which elicited “oohs” and “ahhs” from the film-goers. [Geoffrey Malin wrote extensively about his experiences of seeing his first tank on the Somme in 1916 in the book “How I Filmed the War” published in 1920.]

 

For the vast majority of residents in Merton, Mitcham and Wimbledon the Tank would remain an object of fascination in which they would invest their hopes for a swift victory and their cash, in the form of war savings bonds.  For a select few families the connection with tanks would become far more personal.

tank_week_wim1918

Tank Week, Wimbledon Broadway 1918

 

Only a handful of men from the Merton area can be said to have served in Tanks.  John Glassbrook and Robert Handley are among those few who became Tank men during the Winter of 1916-17.  Both single and of similar ages, the two men were from rather different backgrounds, with the opposite of previous military experience before joining the “Heavy Branch”.  John Glassbrook (Jack to family and friends) was effectively the raw recruit with no experience of the Western Front, a recent transfer from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.  Robert Handley had already seen plenty of trench warfare.  After volunteering at the beginning of the War, he had been on the Western Front between April and October 1915 with Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI) before they were sent to Salonika, arriving in December 1915. Robert Handley had been invalided back to the UK in the second half of 1916 and along with a small group of ex DCLI men, all recovering from wounds or sickness, he had decided the “Heavy Branch” was better than going back to the trenches.   He was officially transferred to “G” Battalion Heavy Branch MGC on 25th February 1917 as 95272 Handley at Freshwater.  Robert Handley would be the first to go to France on 5th May 1917, John Glassbrook wouldn’t follow until 1st July 1917 and would take no part in the first day of Passchendaele.

By 1917, Robert Handley’s civilian life must have seemed a former self which was hard to recognise after more than two years of war.  Born in Camberwell in 1894, Robert Handley had lived near Loughborough Junction until around 1908.  The Handley family had moved to Heaton Road, Mitcham by 1911, into newly built properties on land that had formed part of the Gorringe Park Estate, and before the new St.Barnabas Church was completed in 1914.

Tooting Junction was on their door step with its reliable and relatively cheap Trams, and Tooting Broadway within walking distance.  The Handleys could keep their links to Brixton and not be restricted to local work, while enjoying a less crowded and more open environment.  In 1911, seventeen year old Robert Handley was working as a shop assistance.

 

He had been in the first rush of volunteers in 1914, and with just basic training would be one of the thousands sent to France around April and May 1915 when the B.E.F was holding out against the German onslaught around Ypres.  He joined the 2nd DCLI as a part of a large draft of over 300 men on 9th May after the battalion had suffered heavy losses.  After more weeks of trench holding at Ypres, Robert Handley would move around various sectors of the front before the 2nd DCLI were sent to Salonika, arriving on 5 December.  Months of tedious spadework followed in 1916, as British forces dug in around what became know as the “birdcage”, the defence line around Salonika itself.  There was no real offensive action until October 1916.  Salonika was a very unhealthy place to be, the climate and poor sanitary arrangements made dysentery and various enteric diseases almost endemic amongst the troops in the summer months, malaria was rife and records show more men dying of disease than in combat.  The sufferings of a typical Tommy in Salonika are vividly described in this account of Walter John Cooke’s war  – “My Tommy’s War: Mules and malaria”.

At some stage Robert Handley was invalided back to the UK, very likely as yet another man suffering badly from dysentery.  It meant spending weeks in hospital, one of Robert Handley’s fellow volunteers, 95270 Pte. William John Gray (formerly 13596 DCLI) was returned to the UK in October 1916 and remained in hospital for 57 days.

But now an entirely new experience lay ahead as the men of “G” Battalion continued to train for forthcoming operations.  From the end May to the first week of July, “G” Battalion HQ was based at Wavran, south of the growing central workshop complex at Erin where tanks were drawn as various groups spent time at the driver training area around Wailly, near Arras, and the gunnery ranges at Merlimont plage on the coast between Le Touquet and Berck.  The tank of 1917 was the improved Mark IV with its unditching beam.

erin_photo

Queen Mary visits Tank Corps Central Stores and Workshops, at Erin, 7th July 1917. © IWM (Q 3554)

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MarkIVTankWithUnditchingBeam1917

Mk IV tank with unditching beam, 1917

G battalion consisted of three companies numbered 19 to 21, each with 12 fighting tanks organised into sections with 4 tanks each.  Now the crews had to work out how best to communicate by hand gesture and facial expression over the deafening noise within the Tanks.  They became families of men who would practically eat, drink, sleep and work together, never too far from their Tank.

G Battalion’s Tanks were brought to the Ypres sector over a period of three nights, with the tanks of 21st Company arriving on 8 July 1917, followed by the tanks of 20st and 19th coy.  A “Tankodrome” had been created in Oosthoek Wood about 3 miles to the West of Ypres, an area that covered several acres and would be home to C, D, F and G battalions, plus the necessary workshops.

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2nd Lt. Douglas Browne of 21 Coy. G Battalion described the arrival at Oosthoek Wood:

“Parking tanks (especially Mark IV. ‘s) among timber at night is always a noisy and trying operation, resembling in sound and destructiveness the gambols of a herd of inebriated elephants. The tank-driver, unaided, can see nothing whatever, and has to be guided by the flashings of an electric torch, with which refinements of signalling are difficult and generally misunderstood. The trees, which appeared to be harmless and nicely spaced in the daytime, become embued with a malignant spirit and (apparently) have changed their positions since last seen.  It was as black as a coal-pocket in Oosthoek Wood that night ; and for an hour or so it rang with curses and exhortations and the crash and rending of ill-treated timber as tank after tank tried to swing this way or that and pushed down a young tree or two in the act. However, soon after one o’clock we had them all in, herded together more or less in sections, and the first arrivals were already camouflaged.“ – Tank In Action p. 105.

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Two “C” Battalion Mark IV tanks in Oosthoek Wood near Elverdinghe (Elverdinge), 11th September 1917. © IWM (Q 3547)

Extreme care was taken to obliterate any and all Tank tracks to avoid detection. Shelling had caused the death of six C Battalion men and damaged three tanks on 4 July and it was soon decided to move the men further east to camp at La Lovie close to Lovie Chateau, the GHQ of the 5th Army.  The men would have to walk or hitch a lorry ride back and forth to the tanks parked at Oosthoek Wood.  The woods were shelled every day, and rumours spread of the suspicion that somehow the Germans new about the Tanks.  It was later found a British soldier captured in a raid had told the enemy all he knew, disclosing the presence and approximate number of tanks hidden in the Woods.  Talking of the fear of being observed from the air, 2 Lt. Douglas Browne wrote:

It is movement which betrays. Infantry, moreover, can always take cover rapidly; but it is impossible to camouflage a tank in the open in a few seconds. In consequence it is inadvisable to move tanks during daylight near the front line, if any of the enemy’s aeroplanes are likely to be about. In the Salient they were always about and things had got to this pitch — that although we were hidden in a wood, with clearings close at hand where we could have tested our machines secure from direct observation, during the whole month of July no tank was permitted to move a yard except by night.

Oosthoek Wood, the work place of Robert Handley and hundreds of other Tank Men trudging around in mud and oil slicks, was an unloved place, smelly and unhealthy after rainfall.  But everyone was focused on preparing for zero hour.  The arrival of additional tanks increased company strength from 12 to 16 by 21st July.  Following orders, the carefully choreographed movement of tanks at night to more forward positions started on night of 24 July.  A feat which required skill and patience in the dead of night, moving in lowest gear with tank commanders walking ahead as guides.  News of another postponement reached them on 25th July, zero hour had been delayed by another three days and was now fixed for 31st July.  G Battalion were to support the assault on Pilkem Ridge, the 12 fighting tanks of 19 Company with 39th Division and 21st Company’s 12 tanks with 51st and 39th Divisions.

The final move was to cross the Ypres Canal at the dead of night via the “Marengo Causeway”, Joseph Charles Allnatt, writing in 1958 described his experiences as the driver of Tank G10, named the “Gravedigger”:

On the night of July 29/30 we moved up again to a place called Frascati which is on the site of a brick kiln. On our way we had to cross the Yser canal by means of a specially constructed causeway … There was to be no halting on the causeway in case a tank should get stuck and cause an obstruction. Having got over the canal we swung right handed and reached our final rallying point. Frascati was a place which had long been used for gun pits and ammunition dumps but nevertheless was pitted with shell holes and battle debris of all kinds. Here we took great care of our camouflage because we were now within sight of the enemy who were only about 1¾ miles away. The day of July 30/31 – the eve of the battle – was spent as before in more maintenance work and the receiving of additional equipment and supplies. Each tank was given a bag of assorted bombs – Mills, incendiary and smoke – two pigeons in a crate and a large case of 303 ammunition to give to the Infantry preferably at an advanced point … ”

2nd Lt. Douglas Browne, commander of Tank G46, “Gina”, describes a near disaster when en route to cross the Ypres canal:

I wished to maintain my position in the column. We were off again, in fact, very shortly after.  But at this stage every one was becoming anxious and irritable, and the stoppage brought exalted personages raving about G 46, clamouring for it to proceed. As it happened, haste would have helped nobody, for about this time serious disaster overtook the section in front. Our route left Rum Road a quarter of a mile from the canal, and took thence a narrow track leading direct to Marengo Causeway. This track was bounded by a dense hedge, with trees, on one hand, and by a deep ditch on the other : its surface was greasy after the rain, and the two leading tanks of 19 Company slid off into the ditch. They still blocked the track, and until they were got out no one could advance. I soon caught up this paralysed advance-guard, where crews were labouring with booms and shovels, and officers were peering at their watches and whispering anxiously.  Henriques, the Reconnaissance Officer of 19 Company, came to me muttering that “things were very serious.” As indeed they were, for the nights at the end of July are short: it was already nearly one o’clock; and it was essential for us all to reach the shelter of the trees at Frascati before morning. If dawn found any tanks in the open east of the canal, all sorts of calamities would have ensued. The whole offensive would have been jeopardised, as our presence so far forward must have advertised its immediate on fall to the enemy, to say nothing of the consequences to ourselves.”

2nd Lt. Browne leading his tank on foot through an area bombarded with gas shells, finally reached the lying up point at Frascati for the tanks of the 21st Company, “We were only just in time. Dawn was breaking as the last tank drew in; and we had taken nearly seven hours to cover 5000 yards.

 

For Robert Handley and the tanks crews of G Battalion. Those final days before zero hour had stretched nerves and increased the apprehension of what might lie ahead. As 2 Lt. Browne wrote: “The probable conditions awaiting us were known to all; but none of our conjectures equalled the reality.”

J.C.Allnatt wrote of Ypres, “It was a filthy place, the ground being flooded in spite of our efforts to drain it, the trees were shattered and the mud in places was nearly knee deep … Every member of the Tank Corps, even those of the lowest rank, knew that they should not be there …. Any kind of attack in that place was just plain foolish”.

Robert Handley’s story continues on 2nd August.  Coming Next –  zero hour