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My father left Rugby School at the

end of the summer term in 1913.

Letters from his old headmaster and

his housemaster confirm that he

attended Rugby from 1910 to 1913.

He must have decided on a career

in the army, because Dr A David,

writing from Rugby School in 1919,

confirmed that his progress had

been quite satisfactory in the Army

Class. However, his father thought

that he should be sent to a crammer

to prepare him for the entrance

examination to Sandhurst

Military Academy.

He must have been successful in the

examinations, because he entered

the Royal Military Academy just as

war with Germany was declared in

August 1914. He always said that he

had the German Kaiser to thank for

getting him into Sandhurst. His father

signed the application form from the

War Office for his son’s admission to

the Academy on 29 June 1914, and

undertook to pay the sum of £150 a

year for the privilege. It is one of a

number of documents in his military

record, which have been preserved

in the National Archives at Kew.

My father received his commission

into the East Lancashire Regiment

direct from Sandhurst in December

1914 and joined the 3rd Battalion

stationed in Plymouth. He was sent

to France to join B Company of 2nd

Battalion of the East Lancashire

Regiment in April 1915.

Christmas 1913 was the last Christmas

my father spent with his parents at

9 Alexandria Road, Southport. Little

did they all know that by Christmas

1915 he would have been horribly

wounded in France. He spent most

of 1916 in hospital, fighting for his life

from the effects of gas gangrene.

Many of his friends

were killed in the war,

including several of our

relations. Father was

lucky to survive, but the

Great War changed his

life and the world he

lived in forever.

‘The History of the East Lancashire

Regiment in the Great War 1914-1918’

records that in July 1914, the 2nd

Battalion (59th Foot) was stationed

in South Africa. There had been some

rumours of a possible European war,

but early in the morning on 30th

July the battalion received orders to

mobilize at once and man the coastal

defences in Simon’s Bay. They sailed

for home on 29th September 1914.

Twenty-one officers, plus 853 other

ranks with wives and children, were

embarked on the Dover Castle, which

sailed in convoy round the Cape.

There was a serious outbreak of

measles among the children on the

voyage home via Sierra Leone. The

Dover Castle docked at Southampton

on 30th October. After a short stay

at Hursley Park, near Winchester,

the battalion sailed for France

in a converted cattle ship on 6th

November to join the 8th Division on

the British Front Line at La Bassee-

Neuve Chapelle, near Armentieres.

The troops, who went out to France

under the command of Lieutenant-

Colonel C L Nicholson, were

seasoned soldiers with an average

of five years of service overseas. By

March 1915, after the battle of Neuve

Chapelle, 12 officers and 278 other

ranks had been killed or wounded,

including the CO. Some of the men

who were sent to replace them, like

my father, were little better than raw

recruits. My father had only had four

months’ training at Sandhurst before

being posted to his regiment. By the

time he reached France, on 13th April

1915, Major H Maclear had taken over

command of the battalion, with Major

Russell as Second-in-Command and

Captain Arnott as Adjutant. The 2nd

Battalion East Lancs formed part

of 24th Brigade of the 8th Division

of the IV Corps of the First Army,

commanded by General Sir

Douglas Haig.

At the start of 1915 the Allies

had learnt that the German High

Command was planning a major

offensive against the Russians on

their Eastern Front. To achieve

their objective, the Germans were

redeploying men from their Western

Front to supply their Eleventh Army

on the Eastern Front. General Joffre,

the French Commander-in-Chief,

wanted to use this opportunity to

drive the invaders out of France

and Belgium. He planned a great

offensive by the French Tenth

Army to attack Vimy Ridge and

sweep across the plain of Douai.

This offensive was known as the

Second Battle of Artois. General

Joffre approached his British allies

about co-operating in a combined

offensive in five or six weeks’ time.

The intention was for the British to

simultaneously break through the

German line, north of La Bassee

Canal, to widen the gap in the

German line and assist the left flank

of the French Army advancing into

the plain of Douai. The French did

not have sufficient men or munitions

to carry out such a broad attack on

their own. The relationship between

the British Commander-in Chief,

Sir John French, and his French

counterpart, General Joffre, was

somewhat strained. On 1st April, Sir

John French told General Joffre that

he hoped to be in a position to offer

assistance by the end of the month.

On 9th April, he advised the French

Commander that he was prepared

to employ 10 divisions and about

600 field guns in the operation with

five cavalry divisions in reserve.

The objective of the British First

Army would be to break through

the enemy’s line north of La Bassee

Canal and reach the La Bassee –

Lille road between La Bassee and

Fournes. The main attack would be

made by 1st Corps and the Indian

Corps from the Festubert – Neuve

Chapelle front, whilst IV Corps

carried out a secondary attack in

the direction of Aubers – Fromelles.

Sir John French issued his orders

for the battle from British Advanced

Headquarters at Hazebrouck on 4th

May. The offensive was originally

scheduled for 8th May, but was

delayed until 9th May because of

bad weather.

On 21st April the Commander-in-

Chief, Field Marshal Sir John French,

inspected each brigade of the 8th

Division and addressed the men in

appreciation of their behaviour in

the recent battle of Neuve Chapelle.

The following day the senior officers

of the 1st and 2nd Battalions met for

dinner in Armentieres and enjoyed

what was described as the cheeriest

evening since they had landed in

France. Captain Craig, the MO,

upset the waiting arrangements by

embracing a waitress. Father does

not mention anything about the

evening so presumably the junior

officers were not included in the

festivities. On the night of 24th April

they relieved a battalion of the 23rd

Brigade in the right section of the

divisional front facing Rouge Bancs.

The junior officers and

men had not received

much information about

the impending battle,

in which many of them

would die.

The 2nd East Lancs formed part

of the first wave of the attack by

24th Brigade on the Rouges Bancs

section of the German Front Line. B

and C Companies of 2nd East Lancs

led the assault on the right flank of

24th Brigade across the Fromelles to

Sailly road. The Regimental History

records that on the night before

the attack one platoon each from

“B” Company (Lt Daws) and “C”

Company (Lt Boothby) took up their

positions in the advance trench. The

advance trench from which the two

platoons had to attack was open to

enfilade fire from the left. After the

heavy bombardment of the enemy

lines at 5am next morning, one of

the men shouted, “It’s a walk-over,

a ---- walk-over.” He soon found out

that it was not. At 5.40am the attack

commenced. The men had to cross

about 300 yards of open ground

to reach the German trenches.

As soon as they left the Advance

Trench they met a hail of bullets

from the enemy lines. After the initial

attack had failed a further artillery

bombardment was ordered. Many of

the British shells fell short, causing

yet more casualties, including

my father. So ended what was

described in the Regimental History

as the most disastrous day, with one

possible exception, that the battalion

experienced in the whole war. The

casualties on that day amounted to

19 officers and 388 other ranks killed

or wounded, and 42 men missing.

PART 2...

what follows in Part 2 (in

June’s issue) is my father’s own

account of his life in the army and

his part in the battle, which he

wrote shortly before he died in

1972. He calculated that his chances

of surviving the conflict were not

very good, and as he sailed away

he wondered if he would ever see

England again. Reading his words

brings alive what it was really like to

fight in the trenches in World

War One.



Historic Documents Archive

“My Father’s Wartime


Part 1

In 3 parts, sent in by reader Colin Heape