It’s a foggy morning on the 8th of November in this part of France. Private L/11668, Joseph Flint. 1st Bn. of the Middlesex Regiment, is in the defensive position dug in the fields at La Boutillerie. The 1st Middlesex having been holding this line since the 23rd of October.
Lying roughly halfway between the villages of Fleurbaix and Le Maisnil, La Boutillerie is little more than a crossroads with a few farm buildings. It had once been the site of a great Abbey, of which only ruins and the old gatehouse remained by the time of the Great War.
The ruins were a short distance to the rear of the 1st Middlesex’s position. The flat farm land was easily flooded and conditions in the trenches were bad after a wet October.
“For it must be remembered that trenches in those early days were primitive, mere excavations in the ground compared with the scientific earthworks of later periods. Often dug on soft ground, the parapets and traverses crumbled away under the heavy rains, or were blown to bits by the enemy’s shell and trench-mortar fire. Terrible in the extreme was the condition of officers and men as they stood in the trenches, often knee-deep in filthy mud and slush. For many days they had not taken off their clothes, which had become caked with mud, blood-stained and verminous; indeed, it was with difficulty that many of them remembered there had been a time when they were clean and warm, when the concentrated misery of the trenches was unknown to them. But if their feet and hands were icy cold and numbed, if their clothes were soaked and clung like sodden rags about them, limbs racked with rheumatics, if they stood in three feet of water peering cautiously over the parapets across No Man’s Land, dotted here and there with the rotting carcases of what had once been brave men and their pals … “
The 1st Middlesex, part of the 19th Brigade and now in the 6th Division, had been ordered to occupy Fromelles and Le Maisnil on the night of the 20th October. Heavy shelling had driven them back by the 23rd October to a hold defensive line from La Boutillerie to Rouge Bancs. Their CO, Colonel War, died of wounds on the 22nd, and the Battalion’s casualties numbered over 100 officers and men. Over the next week the 1st Middlesex suffered heavy casualties from shelling and sniping. Casualties: 23rd October, 2 other ranks wounded; 24th, 3 other ranks killed, 5 wounded; 25th, 1 officer and 11 other ranks wounded; 26th, 5 other ranks killed, 19 wounded; 27th, 2 other ranks killed, 21 wounded; 28th, 2 other ranks killed; 29th, 3 other ranks wounded; 30th, 3 officers and 26 other ranks wounded, 26 other ranks killed.
On the 30th the enemy launched an infantry attack against the Battalion. In the ensuing struggle, a 50 strong group of Germans penetrated the line and were only killed or captured after what was left of B coy had made repeated attacks to drive them out.
“In this very gallant little fight, the 1st Middlesex lost 16 other ranks killed and 25 wounded, including Lieut.-Colonel Rowley, Capt. Gibbons and 2nd Lieut. Shaw. “Where all ranks behaved so well,” said Colonel Rowley, “it was hard to single out any for reward, but at any rate all had the satisfaction of worthily upholding the name of Die-Hards.” Captain A.F. Skaife was killed by a sniper on 1st November. In the lottery of combat, Joseph Flint had survived this onslaught. Many of his “pals” had not.
Unlike other battalions in the 6th Division, the 1st Middlesex had been in France since early August 1914 and had often been stretched to the limits of their endurance. They had been at Mons, Le Cateau, on the Marne and the Aisne.
The resolve of professional solders like Joseph Flint had never wavered.
At the outbreak of war, Joseph Flint had just completed seven years service in July 1914 and had been placed on reserve, only to be mobilised on the 5th of August at Mill Hill and had landed in France August 12th, 1914, where the 1st Middlesex were part of the independent 19th Brigade, unattached to any Division. Private Flint was 26 and unmarried.
Joseph Flint was born in Mitcham in 1889, to parents Henry and Marry Ann Flint. Joseph was one of six surviving siblings, with three brothers. Joseph is sixteen when his father dies in 1905, and his widowed mother Mary is left with the direct support of just her sons John and James by 1911. Joseph’s mother Mary re-marries in 1913. The family had lived in Queens Road and Bath Road Mitcham.
Joseph joined the regular Army in 1907, enlisting on 29th July in London. He describes his occupation as “general labourer” and declares his age to be 18 years and 11 months. He joins the Middlesex Regiment at Mill hill on the 31st. Initially posted to the 2nd battalion, Joseph is sent to the Channel Islands by October 1907 for garrison duties on Guernsey and Alderney. After a little over a year Joseph will experience an entirely different world when he is posted to the 1st Battalion which is to be sent to India. Joseph spends 4 years, far from home, stationed at Allahabad and then Dinapore. He returns to Britain at the end of 1913. His seven years with colours expires in July 1914 and Joseph signs his transfer papers to the Army reserve on the 28th July 1914. He has earnt one good conduct badge and is graded “first class” in musketry. Joseph is described as of “good character, inclined to get into trouble, but willing honest, sober ( one case in 1910) and hard working”.
Whether Joseph Flint has a chance to get back to Mitcham before war is declared is unknown. But just seven days after being placed on reserve, he is mobilised and re-joins at Mill Hill. Two of the 1st battalion’s companies land at Le Havre on the 11th of August, and Joseph Flint is with the rest of the battalion that land on the 12th of August. The next ten weeks will be the most challenging and intense of his life.
After the German infantry attack on the 30th October at La Boutillerie, the 1st Middlesex continue to be reduced in number by constant daytime shelling. As the fog clears on the morning of 8th November, Joseph Flint can only expect more of the same. According to the records “D” and “C” companies suffered a “fearful shelling”. Two officers were wounded; 11 other ranks were killed and 38 wounded. The battalion is not relieved until the 14th of November, the casualties between the 3rd and 14th November alone amount to 1 officer killed, 2 officers wounded, 72 other ranks killed and 70 wounded. Before they leave La Boutillerie the battalion will have buried many of their comrades behind a wall in the ruins of the old Abbey. Private L/11668 J.Flint’s war had ended here (cwgc entry).
Mary Ann Flint will be informed of here son’s death in due course. Joseph’s younger brother John Flint volunteers in May 1915 and serves in the Royal West Surreys. His younger brother James Flint is conscripted in 1917 and James serves in the Machine gun Corps. His older brother Charles Henry, married with three children, is conscripted in 1917 and serves in the Reserve Labour Company RE Transportation Branch.
After the war ends, Mary Ann Flint, now Mrs Forbus, fills in Army form W5080 in order to receive Joseph’s plaque and scroll. She is sent Joseph’s “1914 Star” in June 1919. The Treaty of Versailles was officially signed in the same month, on the 28th of June. An event that prompts a single “Peace Day” celebration on 19th July 1919 and roughly a month before what would have been Joseph Flint’s thirtieth birthday. When the Mitcham War Memorial is unveiled in 1920, Joseph Flint’s name appears as “FLINT J.”.
Joseph’s mother receives his “British War Medal” around the same time in November 1920, his “Victory Medal” in February 1921 and his “Clasp for 1914 Star” in April 1921
In 1920, the registration units find and identify Joseph Flint’s grave at the “Abbey Wall” location, La Boutillerie. His remains are reburied along with many others from the 1st middlesex at the Rue-David military cemetery which is closer to Fleurbaix. The IWGC contact Mary Ann Flint about his headstone, no inscription is requested. Joseph’s mother is still living at 34 Bath Road, Mitcham, on the eve of WW2.
Footnote 1: La Boutillerie today:
Footnote 2: IWGC documents from 1920 show Joseph Flint was originally buried at map location SH36 N5C 30 95