Monthly Archives: Jul 2017

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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© 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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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

Flanders 1917: 9590 Private R. Wheeler, 9/East Surreys, 24th July

On the day that “Wimbledon’s Own” 190 Brigade RFA returned to action around Oosthoek, the 9th Battalion, Easy Surrey Regiment were marching back to the front after a period of rest.  Just ten days before there had been one those surreal interludes with a chance to forget the grim realities of war for a few hours and even enjoy yourself – the Battalion had held a “Sports Day” !

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By the evening of 21st two companies, C and D, had occupied the old German front and support line around what had been the village of Zwarteleen.  Twenty-four hours passed before the remaining companies, A, B and HQ, moved forward.  Passing through Dickebusch and on to Voozmezeele their route took them close to the guns of the 190th Brigade as they followed the well trodden way across the Ypres-Comines Canal to the front line.

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The Ypres-Comines Canal, Hollebeke © IWM (Q 41752)

The moves through the maze of trenches at night were not complete until companies A and B exchanged places with C and D, while companies C and D occupied a more forward position in “Image Crescent”, a trench about 750 yards in length, running north and south, just north of Klein Zillebeke.  Battalion HQ was established about 400 yards from, and a little to the north, of Hill 60.

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IMAGE CRESCENT TRENCH – see lower right of map extract

Hill 60 had been a hateful place, bitterly fought over in late April and early May of 1915.  The 1st Battalion, Easy Surrey Regiment had suffered heavy casualties there.  The Cressey brothers of Mitcham were just two of many.  Three East Surrey men were awarded the Victoria Cross for their part in the action.

But Hill 60, which was nothing more than spoil from the nearby railway cutting, had disappeared, turned into a crater by the explosion of a deep mine as part of the Messines assault in June.  It was a desolate place, strewn with wreckage of war.

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Hiil 60 Carters looking toward Zillebeke – July 1917

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1917, Sandbagged dugout near Hill 60 © IWM (E(AUS) 689)

Robert Cedric Sherriff, author and writer for stage and screen, who is probably best known for his play Journey’s End, was serving as 2nd Lieutenant with the battalion in 1917.   Writing home on the 22 July, he seemed to be in a fatalistic mood:

It is now some time since I was last in the line, and there is no doubt, of course, as to it being my turn and I sincerely hope I shall be lucky enough to come through safely as well as through all future periods in the line … “. He added, “We are bound to have a fairly rough time at some period during our next spell in the line .. but some have got to come through safely and the most I can do is hope and trust that I shall be one of these.

Perhaps too, hope and trust is what sustained many in the ranks.  One of those was 9590 Pte Richard Wheeler, from Mitcham, an old hand who had been out in France and Flanders since the end of 1915.  He’d spent months in the Salient then and somehow had survived the Battalion’s serious losses on the Somme in mid-August at Guillemont and early September at  Deville Wood in 1916.

Fumbling in the dark Richard Wheeler’s section was dispersed along the trench with each man left to find the best spot he could.  Maybe it was the time for idle chat as there was slim chance of getting any sleep with our own guns blazing away all night. In any case, there were always sentries to be posted and talk of patrols.  They were meant to be relieved within 48hrs, perhaps the prospect of two nights and days in the front trenches wasn’t so bad after all.  But just keep your head down, in case the Germans have other ideas .

It was Spring 1915 when twenty eight year old Richard Wheeler went to Wimbledon to volunteer.  Born in Mitcham, Richard had lived near Beddington corner during his early life.  His father had died when he was just three, leaving his mother Caroline with Richard and his older brother William.  Richard’s mother was re-married soon after to Charles Heath and Richard lived with his four half-siblings in Mill Green Lane, close to a sleepy stretch of the River Wandle and open land.

wandle

Aged 21, Richard married local girl Ada Elizabeth Parker in 1909 and by 1911 the couple were living with Ada’s mother and two young sisters at 8 Prussia Place, Nursery Road, Mitcham.  Their home in small terrace could only be approached on foot via the footpath from Nursery Road and the cottage garden.

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Prussia Place 1960s

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OS Map 1953

Richard had secured employment at the Mitcham Gas Works as a “carman”, moving the coke.  The company ethos had fostered a loyal workforce with a strong identity.  It had its own football and cricket teams, a must in Mitcham, together with an impressive military brass band.

Many of its employees had volunteered soon after the outbreak of war, and others like Richard, enlisted in 1915.  He had been beaten to France by his brother William who served on the Western Front from August 1915 with the Royal Engineers.

For the family in Mitcham, the seemingly unending war left them in a state of constant anxiety about their loved ones, for the men themselves it was a case of day to day survival.  The innocence and expectations of 1916 had been replaced by a mood more of determination to get the job done: “we’re here because we’re here, boys.”

Those two days in the trenches around Hill 60, and further forward in ”Image Crescent”, turned into a nightmare game of chance as German shells came crashing in leftward from the direction of Polygon Wood.  The results were all too predictable with numerous casualties among both officers and men.  Every man is named regardless of rank in the Battalion’s war dairy, which is very rare.  Richard Wheeler had lost that deadly game of chance on 24 July 1917.

 

That night the Battalion was relieved, 2 Lt. R.C. Sherriff emerged from the trenches shaken by the deaths of Lt. J.A. Picton MC , 2 Lt. P.Y.Bogue and the popular medical officer Capt. C.S. Pirie (RAMC).  Sherriff would return to the old battlefields in France and Flanders with his father Herbert “Pips” Hankin Sherriff in 1921.  Among the papers recording their reactions was a poignant photo taken of the original graves and markers of Picton and Bogue who were buried near Klein Zillbeke.

pcton_and_bogue_24_7_1917

 

In contrast, Richard Wheeler has no known grave and his name appears on the Menin Gate at Ypres.  Without knowing his company, it is not possible to say with any exactness where Richard Wheeler was when he lost his life, nor if he was ever under the command of Picton, Bogue or Sheriff.

But there is one document which might tell a different story.  In 1919, the remains of Pte. Frederick James Duck and Cpl. Victor John Wilkins were found near the old trench systems close to Zwarteleen.  They were re-buried at the Perth China Wall Cemetery.  The IWGC records show a number of unidentified British Soldiers were found in the same area.  It is just possible that Richard Wheeler may lie next to Pte. Duck in PERTH CHINA WALL CEMETERY.

duck_burial

When the time came, Richard Wheeler’s name was added to Mitcham’s Civic memorial on Lower Green.  His mother Caroline was still living in Mill Green Lane and ensured his name was added to the war memorial erected in All Saints Church.  Richard’s widow, Ada, re-married in 1925 and lived on in Mitcham for many years.  Richard’s brother William survived the Great War and left Mitcham a few years later.

In August 1924,  on the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War,  the design for a proposed war memorial was published in the gas company magazine, “Wandgas”.   It was planned for the Chief office of the WANDSWORTH WIMBLEDON & EPSOM/ DISTRICT GAS CO. at Fairfield Street, Wandsworth.

wandgas

Richard Wheeler was listed as one of twenty two men from the Mitcham works who had lost their lives in the Great War.

 

 

 

Flanders 1917: L/45229 Driver A.F.V Malins, 23rd July

The six guns of 190th Brigade’s “A” Battery (A/190) were positioned near “Shelly Farm”, Oosthoek, when the men returned from rest on 21 July. Brigade HQ and the R.A.P (regimental aid post) were close by, the ammunition dumps were to the rear, and the wagon lines several miles to the east around Fletre.

The whole area was scarred by two years of fighting and the recent actions at Messines.  A blasted pockmarked landscape criss-crossed by trench works old and new, where any trees had long been reduced to splinter stumps and buildings large or small were just piles of rubble.  The roadways to the rear were supplemented by a recently created supply tramway loop running back to Voormezeele.

Driver Malins had come through the Somme and the recent Messines attack unscathed, now his battery would be in the thick of it again.  He had been with “Wimbledon’s Own” since the very beginning and those early recruit days must have seemed so innocent and far away after more than a year on the Western Front.

The appeal for men to join “Wimbledon’s Own” was little more than two weeks old when Arthur Francis Valentine Malins took the short walk from his family home at 128 Merton Road toward the recruitment offices close to the Broadway.

Regardless of Arthur Malins’ work and life experience, any mention of his father’s long service in the Hussars would have suggested here was a man who could work with horses.  It was late September 1915 when Arthur’s transformation from patriotic citizen into efficient soldier began.  Designated as a “driver”, his training to shoot a rifle, to ride and control a pair of horses in a six horse gun-team, and care for the animals in his charge would all be compressed at break-neck speed into a matter of months before “Wimbledon’s Own” had gone overseas in May 1916.

Perhaps the nineteen year old took it all in his stride, he had been born into an Army family when his father Frank Valentine Malins was serving in Ireland. Frank Malins had been in the 10 Royal Hussars for nearly a decade when he married Annie Sheahan in Limerick in March 1895.  Arthur was born the following year in July 1896. A second son, Edward Hugh, died in infancy in 1897.  By the turn of the century Walter Charles and Sybil Kathleen had been born, and Reginald the youngest in 1903.  It could only be Arthur that had any memory of seeing his father leave for the South African War in 1899.  Over the years Annie and the children had grown accustomed to leading a peripatetic life, following their father from one posting to the next. This wandering came to an end in 1911.  Squadron Sergeant Major Frank Valentine Malins finally retired from the Army on 30th December 1911 at the age of 43, as a decorated veteran of the South African war with an exemplary record, after 25 years service.

In March 1912 Frank Malins took the whole family to Canada sailing from Liverpool bound for Halifax, Novia Scotia.   The promise of a new life never materialised and by the outbreak of the Great War, the Malins family were living in Merton Road, it would remain their home for more than a decade.  It was Arthur’s father who was the first in the family to volunteer.  Frank Malins had sought to perform a useful function in the war and at the age of 46 was sent to France in early February 1915 to act as a quartermaster with the honorary rank of Lieutenant, and was later promoted to Captain.

Frank_malins_mic

walter_malins

In 1917, Arthur’s younger brother “Wally”, Walter Charles Herbert Malins, had been conscripted at Kingston on 12 March, aged 18 years 3 months.  He had been working as a telephone operator.  Perhaps with his father’s influence, Walter Malins had joined the Cavalry.  It was Arthur’s mother Annie and his younger sister Sybil and brother Reg who were left in Wimbledon, hoping for their safe return and a prompt end to the war.

There are no records to say exactly where Arthur Malins was in the 48 hours between 21-23 July 1917.  On the 23rd, Arthur was part of a carrying party working near the dumps, moving back and forth between “A” Battery itself.  When he was hit, assistance was near enough for Arthur to be moved down the casualty chain, a difficult and potentially agonising journey for any casualty.  Arthur succumbed to his wounds that day and was buried close to where the 41st Division Field Ambulances were based near Vierstraat.   When the 190th Brigade’s casualty figures were returned for July,  Arthur Malins had the tragic distinction of being the only fatality in the week before zero hour on 31st July.

Notice of his death was published in the Wimbledon Boro’ News on the third anniversary of the war, 4th August 1917.  Arthur Malins had never returned home since leaving for France in May 1916, as his section Lieutenant wrote:

“I was purely a stroke of bad luck … It was all the more a pity as he was to have gone on leave shortly.”

At the end of the war when the KLEIN-VIERSTRAAT BRITISH CEMETERY we know today was created, Arthur’s family requested these words to be inscribed on Arthur’s headstone:

SLEEP ON BELOVED SON AND BROTHER THOU GAVEST ALL

Arthur Malins was one of the 237 names added to the war memorial erected in Holy Trinity Church, Wimbledon Broadway in 1924 which marked the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War.

Footnote1:  Cutting from  Wimbledon Boro’ News Saturday 4th August 1917

malins_obit_4_8_1917

Footnote2:  Arthur Malins was a distant relative of file maker Geoffrey Malins who worked with John McDowell to create  the cinema sensation “The Battle of the Somme”.  The huge success of the film led to the release of  “The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks” early in 1917.

Flanders 1917: “Wimbledon’s Own” 190th Brigade RFA

Writing after the war Lieut. T. B. Stoakley, late RFA, described the raising of the 190th Brigade as:

Possibly one of Wimbledon’s proudest achievements during the War … one does not know which to admire most – the courage and confidence of the civic heads of Wimbledon in undertaking the task of recruiting over 700 men for the Brigade from this one district, or the patriotism of the men themselves who came forward so readily that within a month the Brigade was at full strength. It was without doubt a wonderful achievement, and one of which Wimbledon is tremendously proud.”

After approval from the War Office was finalised in the last weeks of August 1915, Wimbledon’s Mayor, Alderman William Barry, was able to announce the formation of Wimbledon’s own artillery Brigade and appealed for volunteers.  In anticipation of the hoped for surge of local recruits, arrangements were made to accept men via the assembly hall adjacent to the New Wimbledon Theatre in addition to the Town Hall office that was to begin recruitment on the 6 September 1915.

To find sufficient men for four batteries of artillery and an ammunition column at this stage of the war was an ambitious undertaking which faced competition from near neighbours.  Kingston was the home of the East Surrey Regiment and a major recruitment centre, while next door the Borough of Wandsworth’s drive to create a battalion of infantry, (13th (Wandsworth) Bn, East Surrey Regt.)  was still active.  Wimbledon’s 190th Brigade would be the very last voluntary unit to be raised in 1915 for what everyone knew as “Lord Kitchener’s Army”.

An HQ was quickly established at the Corporation Depot in Queens Road, Major C. E Stewart was appointed to command the Brigade and a nucleus of officers and NCOs were sent to Wimbledon from the War Office.

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Church (?) Parade – St.Mark’s Place Wimbledon 1915

Who were those early recruits, the volunteers of 1915? A full record no longer exists, but a partial picture can be formed from the small proportion of documents which have survived.

When the recruiting office open on Monday 6th September, among the first volunteers were a 24 year old warehouseman, William Kingston Baker, from Deburgh Road, Wimbledon and two brothers from Goodenough Road, Wimbledon, Bert Reeve a twenty four chief steward and Henry Reeve the nineteen year old chauffeur of Lady Anderson.  Some were eager to volunteer at the earliest opportunity, not waiting for the official start of recruitment.  A nineteen year old fishmonger, Horace Spencer from Croft Road, South Wimbledon, was recorded as attesting on 1st September.  A 41 year old railway worker, Henry Sivyer from Nursery Road Merton, married with two children, is recorded as attesting on 3rd September.  At the upper age limit, Henry Sivyer had previously served in the Rifle Brigade.

All were allocated to “A” Battery, either as gunners or drivers, and given Army service numbers prefixed with “L” for local: L/45047 – William Kingston Baker, L/45048 – Henry Bayford George Reeve, L/45049 – Bert Reeve, L/45083 – Horace Spencer, L/45090 – Henry Sivyer.

On the Friday of the same week, Charles Mount, a 19 year old blacksmith’s mate from Church Road, Mitcham, attested at Wimbledon on 10th September 1915.  On the following Monday, Henry William Woodhouse a 29 year old beer retailer from Hoyle Rd, Tooting, a married man with three children, attested at Wimbledon on 13th September 1915.  Henry Woodhouse could offer previous military experience having spent 11 months in the Middlesex Regt. and over three years in the RAMC as a younger man.  They became: L/45062 – Charles A Mount and L/45140 – Henry William Woodhouse.

Recruitment continued at a brisk pace, exceeding the most optimistic predictions. Toward the end of September volunteers were being assigned to “C” Battery. L/45300, Albert Henry Bentley, from Norfolk Road, Colliers Wood, was a 23 year old electro-gilder. L/45318, Ernest Richard Holman, a 24 year old sawmill labourer, who lived at 17 Nursery Road, Merton, attested on 27th sept. 1915.

Posters, leaflets, meetings and rallies were all used during the recruitment campaign. This 2nd October weekend rally combined with a march accompanied by bands was typical.

wbn_2oct_b_1915

By early October, “Wimbledon’s Own” were finding men for their “D” battery, while by the end of the month other recruits were being assigned to the Brigade’s Ammunition Column.  Among October’s volunteers were:

L/46216, Albert Reid, a 19 year old clerk whose family home was 21 Caxton Road, Wimbledon, who attested on 4 Oct 1915.

L/46235, Joseph Henry Mance, a 38 year old bricklayer from 23 Bath road Mitcham. who attested on 4th Oct at Wimbledon, had a medical on the same day and was approved on 11th Oct.  Joseph Mance was married with seven children.

L/46277, Frederick William Unwin attested on 6th Oct 1915 at Wimbledon.  He was a 19 year old gardener, whose family home was Rose Hill Cottage, Sutton road, Mitcham. (Sutton Road, Mitcham is now Bishopsford Road).

L/46308, Ralph Vernon Huntingford, a 19 year old whose family home was at 7 Vine Cottages Church Road Mitcham.  He had been a “Market Growers Boy” at the age of 14 for the Mizen Bros before working as a lad for the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway since 1914.  First at Mitcham Station, then transferring to Merton Abbey Station in 1915.

As the Brigade was close to reaching its full establishment, adverts appeared in the Surrey press to encourage a final group of volunteers.

wim190_ad_23oct_1915

Ad placed in Surrey Press 16th & 23rd Oct 1915

Among those who responded were:

L/ 47139, Thomas(Tomas) Hillier, a 23 year old labourer, from Kings Road Mitcham, who attested on 20 Oct 1915.

L/47167, Arthur Arnold, a 24 years old, attested on 21 Oct 1915, from Hawkes Road Kingston.  He enlisted at Wimbledon but was at examined Kingston (see newspaper ads ).  He worked as a slater & tiler.  He was posted to the Divisional Ammunition Column.

L/47216 William George Cobbett, a 20 year old hairdresser from Earlsfield road, Earlsfield, attested on 25th October and was posted to “D” Battery as a driver

In the early days training and drill had taken place on Wimbledon common, but by the end of November “Wimbledon’s Own” had moved to Waterloo Barracks, Aldershot.  They trained at Long Valley, later firing at the Larkhill Ranges on Salisbury Plain.

larkhilljpeg

After a review by H.M. the King on Laffan’s Plain, Farnborough , orders to go overseas reached them at the end of April 1916 .  The Brigade entrained at Aldershot for Southampton on Thursday 6th May 1916, embarking on-board the transport “Anglo-Canadian”, an adapted nitrate boat in the South American trade, for Havre.

190th Battery scan-rtch

“C” Battery – Wimbledon’s Own, courtesy of M.Wake

Two of the early recruits never reached France. L/46277 Frederick William Unwin was found to be underage, he was just 15 years 6 months old and was discharged from the ammunition column on 29 April 1916 .  So too was the young fishmonger Horace Spencer, who had been eager to volunteer the previous September.  He was just 16 years old and was discharged underage on 7 April 1916.  Horace Spencer is thought to have served in the RAMC in the final years of the War (See Surrey Recruitment Register record below).  Frederick William Unwin joined the Navy on his eighteenth birthday on 17th October 1918 for 5 years, joining the Royal Fleet Reserve in 1923.

L/45049 Bert Reeve, who had been promoted first corporal and then Sergeant by the beginning of 1916, was transferred to an “Anti-Aircraft” unit before going to France. Other men would be transferred between batteries within and outside the 190th Brigade in the first few months.  L/47167 Arthur Arnold was sent to the Divisional Ammunition Column soon after arriving in France.

The Brigade’s first real action was on the Somme during September and October 1916 in the Flers area.

flers_1916_map

 

L/45140, Henry William Woodhouse, from Tooting, was wounded for the first time on 11th September and spent 98 days recovering in the UK.  L/45318, Ernest Richard Holman was wounded in the right foot on 13th September, the healing process was long and slow, he spent 261 days hospitalised in the UK.  Before Ernest Holman had returned to France in early June 1917, transferring to the RGA, he had suffered the tragic loss of his wife Daisy in March and his 5 year old son George in April.  Both had succumbed to Pulmonary Tuberculosis.

In October 1916, the two Mitcham men, L/45300 Albert Henry Bentley of “C” battery and L/46308 Ralph Vernon Huntingford of “A” battery lost their lives within a twenty-hour period on the 26th and 27th of October.  Both men are commemorated on the giant Thiepval Memorial and on memorials in Mitcham.

Re-organisation in November 1916 meant some of the men from the “Hampsted Howitzer” Brigade joined “Wimbledon’s Own”.  Other losses, transfers and replacements gradually brought men from across the UK into the 190th Brigade.  L/46235 Joseph Henry Mance transferred to the Royal Engineers on February 1917 to work on road construction.  L/46216 Albert Reid transferred to the Divisional Signal Company in June 1917, he would be awarded the DCM in 1918 [footnote:2].  L/45047 William Kingston Baker was transferred to the Divisional Ammunition Column in July 1917 and L/45090 Henry Sivyer would be posted to the UK in August 1917.

When the 190 Brigade returned to their guns on the 21st July, Henry Bayford George Reeve, Charles A Mount, Henry Sivyer, Tomas Hillier and William George Cobbett were among the remaining early recruits within the core of the original “Wimbledon’s Own”.  As were two others from Wimbledon: L/45229 Driver Arthur Malins of “A” Bty and 1230 Cpl. Harry Skeate of “A” Bty.

The positions and actions of the 190th Brigade in the days before zero hour are summarised in the pages of its war diary, together with the orders and maps circulated within the 41st Division. The 190th Brigade were placed in the “OOSTHOEK” group and appeared to have remained at the co-ordinates specified on 21st July.

While “B” battery remained silent, the others fired day and night, while maintaining their dumps of artillery shells.  Retaliation was in the form of gas shells at night and day-time shelling.  This reached a peak in the back areas on the eve of zero hour itself …

 

Footnote 1:  This entry in the Surrey Recruitment Register  appears to match the description of the conscription of Horace Spencer who had been discharged underage in April 1916:

First name(s) H
Last name Spencer
Service number 46649
Age 18 Years 10 Months
Birth year 1899
Occupation Assistant
Attestation year 1917
Attestation date 23 February 1917
Attestation place Wimbledon
Unit or regiment Royal Army Medical Corps
Regiment Royal Army Medical Corps
Height 5ft 2in.
Weight in pounds 112
Chest expansion inches 2
Chest size inches 32
Remarks 59 Palmerston Road Wimbledon

Footnote2:  Albert Reid’s DCM citation

reid_dcm

 

Flanders 1917: The Artillery Duel Begins

The guns in the Ypres Salient may have never been silent in the last two years, but the opening of the bombardment on the 16th July 1917 brought a new and terrifying crescendo of fire upon the enemy’s positions.  Thousands of guns had been packed into the salient, the combined total of the field artillery’s 18-pdr and 4.5-inch howitzers, plus the medium and heavy guns, numbered a little over 3,000.  Twice that used in the Somme bombardment.  A colossal 4,000,000 shells would be fired in the period between 15th July and 2nd August.  There could be no doubt a ground assault was coming, it was just a case of when.  Newspapers were quick to report the start of a “Great Artillery Duel” in Flanders.

mirror_july16_1917

These first salvos were the culmination of weeks of meticulous planning and exhausting work: building up the rail and roads needed for transportation; creating the dumps of ammunition and water; providing for the horses and wagon lines; digging and reinforcing dug-outs for the men and making pits and platforms for the guns emplacements.  All this was done in the most difficult conditions.  The overwhelming weight of firepower enjoyed by the Germans in 1915, when the men of B.EF. had resisted their onslaught to its great cost, was now more in our favour.  But the advantage of the German positions remained.  Everywhere the build-up and movements of Allied forces were overlooked and observed, Haig himself would write:

On no previous occasion had the whole ground from which we had to attack been so completely exposed to the enemy’s observation.”

It was during the shortened hours of the summer nights that activity was at its greatest, when our troops and working parties came up to front areas before making the long trek back to the relative safety of the rear as dawn broke.

Further newspaper reports reflected the vital importance of dominating the skies above the Ypres Salient:

mirror_july19_1917

In the Fifth Army, field batteries had concentrated about Zillebeke and Verbrandenmolen.  Others were in the Pitijze-St.Jean area and east of Ypres.  Further north, most were to the west of the Yser Canal.

ypres_map

 

Segeant J.C. Allnatt, a driver in the Tank Corps, described the scene on one of his forward trips on foot to reconnoitre the route to the enemy positions:

The British were massing the greatest concentration of artillery ever crowded into so small a spot and the guns were literally wheel to wheel.  Everybody seemed to know when the actual assault was to take place.  It is quite certain that the Germans knew it too.  It seemed that every available inch was occupied by horses, troops or vehicles and we threaded our way through them under the most depressing and difficult conditions.”

He added:

We, like all other troops, were bombed most nights and shelled in the day time.  So great was the concentration on our side, that wherever a shell burst, it was bound to do damage.”

Some 1,500 German guns were ranged against their opponents, able to fire concentrically into the Salient.  Despite the over-optimistic reports of the results of our own counter-battery fire, German artillery was able to inflict great damage.  Those on the Gheluvelt plain were particularly effective.  One group of Australian gunners arriving from the Somme just after the 16th July were allocated to gun-pits in the Zillebeke area.  The impact of enemy fire on the 1st Australian Division’s batteries was described by a British artillery officer at the time:

“We were next to the Anzacs, splendid fellows. I remember looking back-we knew where they were, of course, south of Zillebeke Lake, and we were just north-and seeing the Boche fairly pounding it in there; and all the time the Anzac guns kept on firing away, and we wondered how they could do it-how on earth they weren’t blown to blazes. Right in the thick of it you would see them firing every time. Then we moved up and we came alongside some of them again further up, and I was telling one of them what we saw and how splendid we thought it was; and he said: “Do you know, we were looking across at you chaps north of the lake and thinking just the same thing about them!””

But this fire was only maintained at the cost of rising casualties.  The official casualty figures for the Fifth Army during the three weeks 6th-13th, 13th-20th, 20th-27th were 2,275, 5,930,  and 7,354, respectively.

German artillery fire at Ypres thrashed the roads, bivouac camps, and battery positions for miles back.  Extensive use of a new “mustard gas” (Yellow Cross) was made by the enemy.  Not a true gas, but a vapour mist of oily droplets when dispersed which penetrated clothing and clung to surfaces forming a persistent contaminant. Exposure produced painful inflammation of the eyes and vomiting, followed by reddening of the skin and blistering.  In the worst cases victims developed grave or fatal broncho-pneumonia.  Blindness brought on by severe conjunctivitis was, in the most cases, mercifully temporary, but psychologically damaging (On the night of the 12th/13th the town of Ypres was deluged with the new gas, causing 2,014 casualties mostly in the 15th Division, the majority had recovered within seven days).

mustard_gas_victims

Mustard Gas Casualties

Part of the British bombardment included gas shells, while the Royal Engineer’s Special Brigades made use of their Liven’s Projectors and gas filled mortar rounds. Mitcham born Walter Gray, who served in no.2 coy, 5th Bn. of the Royal Engineers Special Brigade, had been at Messines and was now at Ypres.

So far the weather had been mostly dry, but the years of constant shelling had already blocked or diverted streams and damaged the natural drainage of the low lying wet-land in the Ypres Salient.  The intense bombardment was about to totally destroy the drainage system, with every shell-hole filling with water, even before any rain fell.

Of special interest to the residents of Wimbledon, Merton and Mitcham were the fortunes of the 190th Brigade, Royal Field artillery – “Wimbledon’s Own”.  They had been part of the 41st Division since first going to France in May 1916.  As part of the Second Army, the 41st Division had remained in the area they had occupied after Messine, deployed to the south west of Ypres on the boundary with the Fifth Army in the vicinity of the Ypres-Comines Canal.

 

As a consequence of the system of rotations and relief the 190th Brigade had been at rest on 16th July, not returning to their guns until the 21st July.

 

Coming Next ….  The 190th Brigade, RFA – “Wimbledon’s Own”.

 

Flanders 1917: Haig’s Earthquake Blow – Success at Messines

Haig had planned to clear the enemy from the Messine-Wyrschaete Ridge before the main offensive could begin at Ypres.  The Battle of Messines, which took place between 7th and 14th June 1917, was one of the genuine successes of the Great War. Naturally, newspaper headlines heralded this a great victory as early as 9th June, for once with some justification.

mirror_june8_1917

The news would dominate the papers throughout the country for many days.

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The Royal Flying Corps had fought to dominate the skies over the battlefield preventing German aircraft observing our artillery while providing much needed direction of our own counter-battery fire and general reconnaissance.  There had been extensive mining in this sector over the previous two years with many long and deep tunnels dug by British, Canadian and Australian tunnelling companies.  As the final artillery barrage was briefly silent in the minutes before the infantry assault at zero hour, 3.10 a.m. on 7 June 1917, nineteen huge mines at Messines were fired within the space of 20 seconds, shattering the German lines.  The sound of the blast was considered to be the loudest man-made noise in history.

Suddenly at dawn, as a signal for all of our guns to open fire, there rose out of the dark ridge of Messines and “Whitesheet” and that ill-famed Hill 60, enormous volumes of scarlet flame […] throwing up high towers of earth and smoke all lighted by the flame, spilling over into fountains of fierce colour, so that many of our soldiers waiting for the assault were thrown to the ground. The German troops were stunned, dazed and horror-stricken if they were not killed outright. Many of them lay dead in the great craters opened by the mines.”  — Sir Philip Gibbs

The assaulting infantry had still to deal with fortified strong-points, the “pillboxes”, and machine-gun nests.  For many it would be their first terrifying experience of going over the top. The 41st Division’s attack was at the northern extreme, and in its 123rd Brigade were the 11th Battalion, Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) and the 2nd Football Battalion, 23rd Middlesex.  They were to assault a sunken and fortified road called the “Damm Strasse” an objective on the blue line (see square 9 on trench map).

dammstrase

For 2782, Pte. Charles Henry Coles, 23rd  Middlesex., from Mitcham, this was a baptism of fire, he had first arrived in France at the end of 1916.  Another who had gone to France around the same time was G/10081, Pte. Victor Edgar Fagence, 11th Queens, from Pyford, Surrey.  Victor Fagence was interviewed by the Imperial war Museum in 1974, the audio tapes of his recollections of operations in front of the Messines Ridge, and later at 3rd Ypres, extend over several reels and can be heard here

By the end of the Battle the 41st Division were in the St.Eloi sector and close to the Ypres-Comines Canal.  It would be their starting point in the Third Battle of Ypres.

messine_map_a

Three Mitcham men lost their lives during the Battle of Messine:

76744, Pte. Walter Hampton Siviour, RAMC 33rd Field Ambulance, was killed in action on 8th June 1917.

21925, Pte. Henry Walter Carter, 8th Queens (Royal West Surrey), died of wounds at No.10 Casualty Clearing Station, Remy Sidings, on 14th June 1917.

225098, Pte. Charles William Henry Dillistone, 1st London (Royal Fusiliers) attached to 12th Royal Fusiliers, was killed in action on 14th June 1917.

Mitcham born Walter Siviour is one of those men who do not appear in the Surrey Recruitment Registers as he volunteered in Central London on 1st November 1915.  The 28 year old grocer’s assistant had lived at 6, Church Rd., Mitcham.  Walter married Ellen Quinby in the Summer of 1914, daughter Rose was born in Oct. 1914 and Gwendoline in the spring of 1916.  Walter was not posted to France until 14th November 1916 where he joined the 33rd Field Ambulance.  On the 8th June the 33rd FA was attached to the 11th Division and its stretcher bearers were used between the various regimental aid posts (RAP) and both advanced and main dressing stations (ADS,MDS) operated by the 33rd, 34th and 35th Field Ambulances in the Wytschaete area.

There is no documentary evidence to show where or how Walter Siviour died, and with no known grave his name was added to the Menin Gate Memorial.  Walter Siviour‘s name appears on the St.Mark’s Chuch Memorial and the main Civic Memorial.

Henry Carter was another recruit from Church Road, Mitcham.  Born in Rotherhithe, his family had moved to Mitcham by 1910.  One of seven siblings, Henry was apprenticed in the print trade.  He had volunteered under the Derby Scheme on 27th January 1916 when he was nominally assigned to the 10th Bn. East Surrey before being posted to the 8th Queens.  At the time of the Messine battle, Henry Carter’s battalion were in the Zillebeke area manning part of the “Observatory Ridge” complex.  They had just moved up at night on 13th June from the “Railway Dug Outs” south-east of Zillebeke when they were heavily shelled and machine gunned when overflown by an enemy aeroplane.  The Queens suffered 12 killed and 29 wounded in the space of three days.

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If this is when Henry Carter had been hit, he had passed down the casualty evacuation chain to the final leg by ambulance train to Remi Sidings where the 10th Casualty Clearing Station was based.  Henry would have been buried under a wooden marker shortly after he succumbed to his wounds on the 14th June 1917.

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When the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery we know today was created, Henry’s mother Annie requested this inscription for her son’s headstone:

“WEEP NOT FOR MY LOVED ONES DEAR I AM NOT DEAD BUT SLEEPING HERE”

Charles Dillistone had come to Mitcham some time between 1905 and 1911 when his family home was at 2 Dorset Villas, a property in Devonshire Road, Colliers Wood. Charles was born and baptised in Stockwell, as were four other of his 5 siblings. The family had lived on the Clapham Road, a busy thoroughfare that runs from Clapham North to Kennington through the centre of Stockwell.  Charles Dillistone attested under the Derby Scheme in late 1915 or early 1916 and was “called-up” on 8th May 1916 when he was still eighteen.  He was working as a “Cinema Operator”, a job possibly suggested and found by his father John Crick Dillistone who worked as a “Publicity Manager for a Film Maker”.  Charles did not go to France until 25th April 1917 where he was shuffled between the East Surreys and the 12th Bn. Royal Fusiliers by 12th May 1917.  Charles had no combat experience prior to the battle of Messine.  On the 7th and 8th June they too were in action at the “Dammstrasse”, until relieved on the night of the 10th.  On the 14th June 1917, the 12th Bn Royal Fusiliers and 8th Buffs were given the task of taking a series of dug-outs north of the railway at “Battle Wood”.  Starting from “Impartial Trench”, the attack took place at 7.30pm.   The leading company came under fierce machine gun fire, a brutal and violent struggle followed with hand to hand fighting.  There were heavy casualties on both sides (A full account can be read here )

Charles Dillistone was posted missing after this action and it would be many months before he was officially presumed to have died on the 14th June 1917.  With no known grave, his name was added to the Menin Gate Memorial.  His name appears on both the Christ Church Roll of Honour and the main Civic Memorial.

The Dillistone family mourned one son, while fearing for another. Charles’ older brother Cecil Douglas Dillistone had been in the 6th Londons since 1915, they fought on the Somme in 1916 and at Ypres in 1917.  Cecil Dillistone was wounded early in 1918 to the extent that he was discharged on 25th April 1918.  Cecil lived a full life after the war, marrying and raising a family in Sutton where he lived for many years.  He passed away in 1965, aged 69.

There was no attempt to rapidly exploit the success at Messine, the detailed and complex preparations for the main offensive remained on course for the 25th July, a little over four weeks away, as the concentration of troops continued.

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The Fifth Army was at the centre of the Ypres Salient with the Second Army to its south and the French and Belgian forces on its northern flank.

The offensive was to be preceded by an intense ten day bombardment, on a scale that dwarfed that of the Somme in 1916. By the 7th July the infantry assault was postponed three days due to delays in the French First Army.  Bad weather delayed the start of the air offensive over the Ypres salient until 11th July.  The enemy’s opposition only declined toward the end of the month after a bitter struggle for air supremacy.  All the while, weather permitting, British aircraft maintained their artillery spotting, air photography, reconnaissance and bombing.

The sound of the thousands of guns packed into the area was about to become a deafening and lethal roar …