On the morning of 9th December 1914, L/Cpl. 931 Walter Thomas Bentley of the 1st Bn, Royal Warwickshire Regiment is in trenches near the tiny hamlet of St.Yves. They look out over flat farmland toward the German positions. To their rear, some thousand yards away, is Ploegsteert Wood, “Plug Street” to the British. Walter’s battalion had relieved the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers the night before, and as expected the constant heavy rain had turned the trenches into a morass. Attempts to drain the water proved useless, and the morning is still cold and wet, the worst of conditions. Walter Bentley is 28 years old, unmarried, and has been in the Warwicks since 1907. There may have been heat, dust, flies, the threat of malaria, and angry tribesmen in India, but it was a “cushy” number compared to this. It promises to be another miserable day ….
(The multi-talented individual Bruce Bairnsfather, famous for his wartime cartoons, was serving as a machine gun officer in the 1st Bn, Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1914. He sketched the position of his dugout just behind the front line trenches at St.Yves in the winter of 1914.
Walter Thomas Bentley was born on 7th August 1886 in Battersea. His father, Mitcham born Thomas Bentley, married Susannah Mills at the imposing church of St.Anns, Wandsworth, on Christmas Day 1881.
Walter was their third child, and was baptised on the same day as his younger brother George, in May 1889 at the old church of St.Marys, Summerstown. The family were then living at 19 Burtop Road, a turning just off Garratt Lane, not far from the old Leather Bottle public house and close to where Water’s mother had been born. The bustling centre of Earlsfield was nearby, an area which had seen rapid growth when the above ground railway station was built in 1884 by the London and South Western Railway.
The family moved to Tooting around the time the nation was celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and by 1901 were living at Trevelyan Road, Tooting Graveney. The family had grown, and Walter was now one of seven siblings, with four brothers and two sisters. He was aged 14 and already working as a “shop boy”. It was not long before the family had moved to Mitcham. Walter’s father was now employed as a “City Corporation Watchman”.
In 1903 Walter enlisted in the Militia, the 3rd Battalion of the The Queen’s, joining at Croydon on the 5th of May. Walter gave his home address as 25 Graham Road Mitcham, a road opposite Figgs Marsh and close to an area dominated by the market gardens, nurseries and glass houses of the Mizen famliy, and with the Pains firework factory on the other side of the railway.
On enlistment, Walter gave his occupation as “baker’s assistant” and was working for a bakery based at Wandsworth Common. When he is medically examined at Guildford a day later, his age is recorded as 18 years and 8 months. In time honoured tradition, Walter added over a year to his age. At 5ft 7 inches tall and 119 lbs, no one objects and the seventeen year old with a dark complexion, brown eyes and black hair is passed fit. Walter has just committed himself to six years service.
The next few years are a blank, but at some stage Walter Thomas Bentley transfers to a regular battalion of the Army and becomes Private 931 W. Bentley of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. His service number is consistent with those recruited early in 1907 (907 Henry Carter joined on 5th June 1906 and 978 Thomas Patrick Vincent Smith joined on 13th December 1907). The regimental depot of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was at the Budbrooke Barracks, about 2 miles to the west of Warwick and close to Budbrooke village. With prior military experience, Walter could be posted to the 1st Battalion, rather than staying at Budbrooke. His ear would have to quickly adjust to the accents of the many men from Birmingham, Coventry and Nuneaton who were in the Warwicks’ ranks. While his own accent, no doubt with a smattering of Cockney, would immediately mark him out as a Londoner.
Walter is soon onboard ship bound for India, taking the established route via Gibraltar, Suez and Aden. The 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and been in India since 1901 at Belguam. They had moved to Quetta in 1904, and to Peshawar in 1908.
At Peshawar, the Warwicks were close to the North West Frontier with Afghanistan, a regional trouble spot for the British since the 1850s, and where they had learnt some harsh military lessons in the past. In the autumn of 1907 there had been numerous daring raids in British Territory, with even armed robbery in Peshawar City itself. The Zakka Khel Afridis tribesmen of the Bazar Valley were the origin of the trouble and at the beginning of February 1908 a military expedition was sanctioned. Its purpose was:
“limited strictly to punishment of Zakka Khel, and not occupation or annexation of tribal territory.”
A mixed force of British and Indian troops, under the command of Major-General Sir James Willcocks, entered the Khaibar Pass on the 14th February, advancing toward the Bazar Valley. Private 931 Walter Bentley, was with the Warwicks in the first brigade, along with Indian units. The satirical magazine Punch referred to the expedition as “Willcocks’ Weekend War” due to its brevity, but without necessarily appreciating the part played by men like Walter Bentley who were in close combat with the tribesman, nor the casualties sustained. The submission of the Zakka Khel tribesman within two weeks brought the conflict to an end. But any peace was short lived as disturbances caused by the Mohmand Lashkars made the Mohmand Expedition necessary in April 1908.
For his part in the Zakka Khel Expedition, Walter Bentley was awarded the “INDIAN GENERAL SERVICE MEDAL, 1908” with clasp inscribed “NORTH WEST FRONTIER, 1908”, under the provision of special Army Order, dated 11th December 1908.
By 1911 Walter was with the 1st Battalion at Bombay, the year in which the visit to India of their majesties King George V and Queen Mary culminated in the great coronation Durbar held at Delhi on 12th December 1911. But it might have been football that was of greater interest to Walter, as this was the year that the team of the 1st Bn, Royal Warwickshire Regiment won the “Rovers Cup Final”, the second oldest of India’s main tournaments, beating the 2nd Bn, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, 1-0.
Back in Mitcham, the Bentley family had moved the short distance from Graham Road to Fernlea Road by 1911. It would remain the home of Walter’s parents into the 1930s. Walter’s older brother Charles Thomas Bentley had married Daisy Greenacre in 1903 and by 1911 was living in Love Lane. Mitcham.
Walter’s time in India was coming to an end, and by 1913 his battalion had returned to Britain and was stationed at Shorncliffe Camp, Folkstone. News of their arrival appeared in the “Dover Express and East Kent News” on Friday 3rd January 1913
Walter settles into garrison duties and adjusts to the old climate. News of the battalion’s activities appears in the local press, the “Folkestine, Hythe Sandgate and Cheriton Herald”, throughout 1913. Boxing, football and cricket always attracts attention, as do the concerts given by the regimental band during the summer season at both Folkstone and Dover. A military parade in May 1913 brings out the crowds as the troops march down the Sandgate Road toward the Town Hall, with the Warwicks at the head of the parade accompanied by the regimental mascot, their Indian Black Buck antelope.
Life will change for everyone when the war comes.
As the European crisis heightened, officers and men were recalled from leave on 30th July 1914, as were any men pending transfer to the Army Reserve. This would include Walter Bentley who had served 7 years with the colours. There would be a lot of route marches in the following days as the 1st Battalion moved from Shorncliffe to York, then back south before embarking for France on 22nd August 1914. They sailed from Southampton at 10.30am on the SS Caledonia, arriving at Boulogne by 8pm.
The 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment formed part of the 10th Brigade of the 4th Division, along with the 2nd Bn, the Seaforth Highlanders, 1st Bn, the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 2nd Bn, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. As Private R. G. Hill of the Warwicks would recall:
“we were a really fine body of men, hard as nails, average age about twenty-five, and every man with the idea that he was equal to three Germans! Splendid men, enthusiastic, and brave, going to fight, they thought, for a righteous cause”.
Within 48hrs, Walter had detrained with the Battalion just outside Le Cateau station, a town in a state of confusion after the events at Mons. From here they advanced toward Haucourt were the 1st Warwicks join the of the Battle of Cateau on the 26th August 1914. Walter will need all his training, experience and instincts to survive. By the 27th, the splintered groups of the Warwicks were already retiring back to St.Quentin, and so began the long and weary retreat.
When the tide finally turns, like everyone else, Walter’s spirits lift as they advance again in early September. As Private R. G. Hill puts it:
“One day we turned about; other parties joined us, and we were told we were now advancing. We hardly believed it until we came upon dead Germans. That put new life in us. Advancing! Hurrah!”
They cross the Marne without a scrap and dig in on top of the ridge beyond the river, a 1,000 yards from the enemy. September 1914 was relatively quiet for the Warwicks who suffered less shelling than other nearby battalions. But fetching water and rations is always a risky business. In common with other BEF units, the 1st Warwicks begin to move north in early October. Private R. G. Hill takes up the story:
“By forced marches and a train journey, we reached St. Omer. One night there, and we boarded French motorvans. We soon found ourselves scrapping after we had disembarked at a small village.
The enemy had dashed down and seized the next village, Meteren, and our first task was to drive them out. The place was held by a rearguard of machine-gunners, and could have been encircled and captured, but we were ordered to take it by bayonet.
We took it at a terrible cost, but found no enemy to bayonet. What few machine-gunners were there had done their work well and fled in time. Then through Bailleul and Armentieres, which the enemy abandoned without a fight.”
It was at Meteren that the young officer Lieutenant B.L.Montgomery was badly wounded and not expected to survive. The appearance of Highlanders in Armentieres caused much amusement:
“with the female part of the population shrieking with laughter at the dress of the Mademoiselle Soldats”.
The 1st Warwicks move into the firing line at Houplines on October 19th. By the 21st the sound of battle rages all around them, and for the next ten days the shelling and sniping takes a steady toll of officers and men. On November 1st they can hear sounds of a big battle raging to their north. All the while the men suffer miserable conditions in flooded and filthy trenches as the weather deteriorates.
Finally on 17th of November, after being in trenches for 28 days at one stretch, part of the 1st Warwicks are relieved, and the remainder on the following day. The men are dirty, unshaven and lousy. As Private Hill recalled:
“We were at last relieved and proceeded to a large brewery at Nieppe, where four days’ rest, a bath, and clean underclothing made new men of us. This was our first good wash since leaving England.”
On 22nd November, the Battalion relieves the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers in trenches at St Yves between 5-30 & 8.30 pm. The Dubliners rotate with the Warwicks, four days later, by which time the Warwicks have lost two more men killed and a further 13 wounded. The Warwicks relieve “The Dubs” again at St.Yves on 30th November.
December 1914 begins at St.Yves with five days of heavy rain, the trenches are in an awful state and the sniping continues. There is some escape for a small section of men who are chosen to parade under Captain Freeman at Nieppe in front of King George on 3rd December. The following day, the Warwicks are relieved at night by “The Dubs” and move to billets in Nieppe to clean up and rest. There is no break in the weather until the morning of the 8th December. The Warwicks rotate once more with the Dublin Fusliers in the St.Yves trenches, but it’s another foul wet night and any attempt to drain the trenches proves useless.
On the 9th December, the war diary simply states:
“Rain in the morning. Fine in the afternoon. Trenches in a very bad state. Work all night – trying to make them habitable. 2, killed. 8, wounded”
The war has come to end for L/Cpl. 931 Walter Thomas Bentley and Private 9689 George Henry Childs from Birmingham. The two men are buried in separate locations behind the lines in Plogesteert Wood.
As the war drags on, the Bentley family come to terms with their loss and fear for the fate of Walter’s brothers Charles and William, who also serve in the Great War. When the war ends Walter will be awarded the 1914 star with clasp, and both the British and Victory medals.
In January 1920, those tasked with locating remains within Ploegsteert Wood fail to locate Walter Bentley, despite knowing the site of his burial was Sheet 28 U20 b 9.5, nor did they find Private Childs.
Walter Thomas Bentley’s name was added to the Ploegsteert Memorial, along with George Henry Childs and some 11,000 other names of those who died in this sector during Great War and have no known grave.
In Mitcham, the Bentley family ensures Walter’s name is added to the main Memorial and the “Roll of Honour” in St.Mark’s Church, close to where they live.
Walter’s parents remain in Mitcham until the end of their days. Thomas Bentley passes away aged 66 in the winter of 1926, and was buried at the Church Road Cemetery on 13 December 1926, just over 12 years after Walter was killed. Walter’s mother Susannah Bentley passes way aged 79 in the spring of 1938, and was buried on 24 March 1938 at the Church Road Cemetery.
Footnote 1: If Walter Bentley had lived, he would almost certainly have experienced the Christmas Truce of 1914 that took place in the turnip field between the British and German lines at St.Yves.
Regimental Sergeant-Major George Beck, of 1st Bn, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, diary entry for Christmas Day 1914 notes:
“Not one shot was fired. English and German soldiers intermingled and exchanged souvenirs. Germans very eager to exchange almost anything for our bully beef and jam. Majority of them know French fluently“. He also describes how the sworn enemies played football, shared cigars and how a German band played God Save the King, which made the British troops think of home.
Bairnsfather wrote about the Christmas Truce:
“It all felt most curious: here were these sausage-eating wretches, who had elected to start this infernal European fracas, and in so doing had brought us all into the same muddy pickle as themselves. There was not an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to war and the will to beat them relaxed.”
Footnote 2: Private R. G. Hill went to France on August 22nd, 1914, with the 1st Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regtiment. On April 11th, 1917, he was wounded in the face, and was discharged medically unfit in March 1918. His recollections were first published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom, and can be read here.
At the outbreak of the Great War, George Beck was a Quarter-Master Sergeant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and he started to keep a diary of his time in the trenches. They are being published here.