Compiled to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of World War I and those who gave their lives in the conflict 1914 – 2014
Written by Harvey Grenville Trustee, Airborne Assault, Museum of The Parachute Regiment & Airborne Forces. The excerpts here are printed by kind permission of Harvey Grenville.
This booklet has been produced for St Petrock’s Church and the parish of Timberscombe to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, and to remember the conflict’s devastating consequences on the village, its families, and in particular the men who served.
The names of 66 men, who were connected to Timberscombe and served in the armed forces during World War I, are commemorated on a wooden memorial tablet inside St Petrock’s Church. This number of men was a significant contribution by the village to the country’s military effort bearing in mind that its total population was only around 300 at this point. Noticeably, many of the men who served came from the same families, which magnified the impact of their absence on village life, its farms, and domestic life.
The memorial records that 55 of those men survived the experience, although many were physically or mentally wounded as a result of their service to King and country. The research conducted for this booklet has identified that one of these men contracted tuberculosis as a result of his Army service overseas and died in 1919.
This booklet contains profiles on 12 men, listed on the St Petrock’s Church memorial, who paid the ultimate sacrifice and died on active service in the conflict or died as a consequence of their enlistment. Two of them died in the same battle, a day apart, while serving in different units during the infamous Somme offensive of 1916.
The church organ was also donated in memory of Major The Honourable Robert Ryder, who was killed in action during the Battle of Cambrai while leading ‘A’ Squadron, 8th (King’s Royal Irish) Hussars in an assault on German positions at Gauche Wood on 30 November 1917. Although he was not directly connected to Timberscombe, his sisters (Lady Margaret Ryder, Lady Constance Ryder, and Lady Audrey Anson) who donated the organ, were long standing residents of Knowle.
Three mothers connected to the village each lost two sons as a direct consequence of this conflict – one lived at Knowle and another at Bickham before the war; the other in the Corner House. The conflict on the battlefield was no discriminator between the rich and the poor, who were expected to carry an unbearable burden of grief, even in an era of high mortality rates amongst younger age groups.
The profiles of the fallen have been carefully researched from a variety of official public documents and open information sources, which are listed at the back of this booklet. Unfortunately, the majority of Army service records from World War I, which provide details of an individual’s service, were destroyed by German incendiary bombing in World War II. This has limited the amount of information that is available about five individuals’ service histories. In compiling their profiles some assumptions have therefore had to be made about their enlistment date and movements.
Don’t worry if you get confused by the military terminology, even those who have served don’t understand it all (although they might claim they do). In fact, it seems to be a rule of successive military generations to invent new terminology and acronyms just to confuse their predecessors! To assist those with no military background, explanatory notes about the British Army structure and a glossary are included at the front of the booklet.
In the absence of first-hand accounts from these men, the booklet inevitably focusses on their movements and those of their unit.
In any event it is difficult to convey in words, in a short booklet, the soldiers’ emotional experiences on their journeys through the conflict. Nor is it easy to relay the overwhelming force that was normally required by infantrymen when conducting a successful trench assault with bayonet in order to impose their will on opposing German forces, which are recounted in some of the profiles.
Only those who shared time and space with these men could truly understand what they went through. Be it the sheer terror of an infantrymen on the wrong end of a heavy artillery bombardment on an industrial scale; or the gut wrenching fear that may have gripped him immediately before going over the top, which if left unbridled could paralyse a man into inaction; or the sheer courage that was required to overcome that fear and complete the task in hand.
We can only speculate at the apprehension and courage of Thomas Tudball, and other men like him, returning to his unit after leave at home, burdened with the full knowledge of what awaited him back in France.
Neither can this booklet adequately convey the sensory overload experienced by some of the men on the battlefield. Aside from the horrors that a soldier might see or smell, his senses could be bombarded by a deafening crescendo of noise including exploding shells; the air almost alive with the waspish sound of zipping bullets; the screaming of men, some in aggression, others in fright or pain from wounds received.
We can also only guess at the number of Timberscombe men who came back with disfiguring injuries or their physical and mental health impaired by these experiences, at a time when society’s understanding of, and medical treatment for, the psychological effects of modern warfare were in a crude stage of infancy.
Eleven of the twelve men featured in this booklet did not come back. They paid the ultimate sacrifice, in desolate circumstances, far away from their loved ones and rural home on Exmoor. The twelfth managed to make it home but died shortly after the end of the war.
Much of this material, tucked away in archives, has either never seen the light of day before or has only been available in isolated segments. Pieced together, it provides some fascinating stories, which are often inter-twined with each other and the present.
Each profile offers a slightly different perspective on the conflict and family life on Exmoor at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries. You can find out more about the soldier who lied about his age in order to join the Army and fought as a boy soldier in France, and the Somerset born rancher in British Columbia who returned to fight for his motherland. You can also read about the intriguing exploits of George Elford, and the terrible odds faced by Thomas Tudball before his luck finally ran out, within a wide range of stories.
Some of these profiles also provide moving and tragic examples of the high mortality rates which the civilian population had to routinely bear in addition to the deaths and injuries caused by World War I. At the beginning of the twentieth century infant mortality accounted for 25% of all deaths in England and Wales and only 25% of the population lived to reach 65 years of age or beyond. By way of example, the censuses reveal that one mother[i] in the village gave birth to eight children but that by 1911 only four of them were still living. Even set against this backdrop, three of the mothers of the fallen suffered particular misfortune with the number of deaths in their families. Of these, Sarah Merson’s fate is, perhaps, the most striking and tragic of all the mothers’ experiences.
Notwithstanding the limitations of this booklet outlined earlier in this introduction, I hope readers will find the 12 men’s endeavours and family histories as informative and thought provoking as I did when compiling them. HG 2014
CAPTAIN ERIC BATTERSBY
Eric May Battersby was the son of Worsley and Jessie (née May) Battersby. He was born in Kensington, on 18 February 1884. Around 1895, his father purchased the manors of Well and Timberscombe, Knowle, and Bickham. Eric spent much of his childhood and youth at Knowle.
After education at Sherborne College, he was granted a commission and served for three years as a Lieutenant with the 3rd (Militia) Battalion, The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) [RWK], a part time reserve unit, between 1903 and 1906.
He volunteered for military service on 8 August 1914 just four days after Britain declared war on Germany and was reappointed as a Lieutenant on 4 September. By 26 September he had been promoted to Captain. Shortly afterwards he was attached to 1st Battalion RWK, which had suffered heavy casualties after it had deployed to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in August 1914.
By way of background, at the end of August, Allied forces had established a defensive line stretching 200 miles in an attempt to block the advancing Germans, who had invaded Belgium, intent on launching an attack on France.
The BEF held 30 miles of this front on the western flank around the Belgium town of Mons. 1st Battalion RWK fought at the Battle of Mons on 23 August. (See also Frank Chapman’s profile, who also fought at Mons.) This was the first major British engagement with the Germans.
The British were outnumbered by more than 2:1 and 1st Battalion RWK was one of several units which repulsed the German attack throughout the day. The British inflicted more than twice as many casualties as they sustained. However, with other parts of the Allied front collapsing against the overwhelming numbers of Germans, the BEF risked being trapped. Eventually, 1st Battalion RWK was ordered to withdraw, along with other units of British Army’s II Corps to Le Cateau, in France, where it was attacked again by numerically greater German forces on 26 August.
British artillery fire had a devastating effect on the attacking German forces. Nonetheless, around 8,000 of the 40,000 British and French personnel engaged at Le Cateau were either killed, wounded or captured.
Some measure of the fighting can be gathered from the fact that 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to British Army personnel for conspicuous gallantry at Mons and Le Cateau.
By the end of September, 1st Battalion RWK was occupying trenches by the River Aisne in France.
Between 23 August and 30 September, 15 of the battalion’s 27 officers had been killed or wounded. In addition, losses amongst the other ranks amounted to some 390 men. The battalion was reinforced on three occasions, which included returning wounded and stragglers from the retreat from Mons, with a total of about 445 men. By the time the battalion left for Flanders at the beginning of October 1914, after 19 days in the wet trenches by the Aisne, it had a total strength of 986 men.
By 24 October, 1st Battalion RWK was deployed in trenches at Neuve Chapelle, holding a front of 450 yards, where it was joined by Eric Battersby, who had until this point been serving in England. At this stage the battalion was under the temporary command of Major Buckle. The troops were exhausted – the battalion had been fighting, marching and entrenching for over ten days prior to reaching Neuve Chapelle, constantly incurring further casualties. To cover such a wide front, three companies were tasked to man the fire trench (front line trench) and the immediate support trenches.
The battalion made a stand here which ranks amongst the highest achievements of British troops in battle, fighting against the Germans at odds of roughly four to one at certain stages. Their trenches were subjected to heavy shelling by batteries of 6 inch German howitzers. On 26 October, the shelling intensified and fell at the rate of a hundred an hour. One of the officers who survived, later recalled it as ‘the worst shrapnel shelling I have ever experienced….. at one time they were bursting at the rate of ten every minute… everything was wrecked, the support trench was rendered impassable as well as the communication trench, so that to reach the fire trench we had to double across 150 yards of open ground.’
Major Buckle was killed in the fighting on 27 October and Eric, who was by then the most senior officer remaining, took charge of the remnants of his battalion, having barely arrived. Eric Battersby was killed in action the following day.
In spite of its losses, 1st Battalion RWK continued to hold off the German infantry attacks with rifle and bayonet until the survivors were relieved on 30 October. Only half of the battalion remained, led by two subalterns, with the remainder killed, wounded or missing.
Eric Battersby died on 28 October 1914, aged 30 years. His body was never recovered and he is commemorated on Le Touret Memorial at the Pas de Calais.
LIEUTENANT PHILIP BATTERSBY
Philip Worsley Battersby was also a son of Worsley and Jessie Battersby, who maintained a residence in London in addition to Knowle.
He was born on 8 August 1888 at Knowle as the youngest of seven children alive at the time, with three brothers, including Eric, and three sisters. Philip was baptised at St Petrock’s Church during the following month.
Worsley Battersby died in 1896 and was buried in St. Petrock’s Churchyard.
Shortly after the death of his father, Philip relocated with his mother and some of his family to Cheltenham. (Knowle had been let out to Lord Justice Sir George Farwell PC by the start of World War I. It remained in the Battersby family’s ownership until 1916 when it was sold, following Lord Justice Farwell’s death at the end of the previous year.)
While living at Cheltenham their older sister Olive died, aged 17 years. She was also buried in St. Petrock’s Churchyard in December 1899.
After leaving school in 1906, Philip spent a year with a German family in Hanover and then attended the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester as a student. He was a keen horseman and sportsman and played in the Royal Agricultural College’s Rugby XV. Philip was no slouch on the academic side either, and finished 3rd in the Practical Agricultural Class in the Michaelmas Term of 1908.
He was working as a land agent when war was declared in August 1914. The following month Philip and his elder brother, Christopher, volunteered for service with the British Army. After enlistment on 1 September, they were both posted to 14th Reserve Cavalry Regiment and given consecutive regimental service numbers. Their eldest brother, Charles, also volunteered for the Army and was later commissioned as an officer into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Both Charles and Christopher survived the war.
Philip was later posted to 19th Royal Hussars (Queen Alexandra’s Own) after completing his training. Squadrons of the regiment formed part of the BEF in France. Both Philip and Christopher were selected for officer training in November 1914. Philip was commissioned as an officer on 9 December 1914 and appointed as a 2nd Lieutenant in the West Somerset Yeomanry, a cavalry unit which formed part of the Territorial Force (TF) intended for home defence.
He was promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Temporary Lieutenant in May 1915. The following year, Philip qualified as a pilot after undertaking training at Beatty School in Hendon, obtaining his Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate on 11 November 1916. Early in the following month he was seconded for flying duties with The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on 6 December 1916 and was eventually posted to 55 Squadron, RFC (55 Sqn).
Around this time, 55 Sqn’s role as a training unit was changed to that of a daylight bomber and reconnaissance unit. It was re-equipped in January 1917 with the de Havilland designed DH4, a twin seater bi-plane.
In March, the squadron became the first unit posted to France with the DH4. Initially based at Fienvillers, the squadron’s first operational bombing mission was on 5 April 1917, when it dropped bombs near St Amand. This was followed up with bombing raids on German forces at Valenciennes.
55 Sqn undertook bombing missions in support of Allied forces during April and May, 1917, attacking ammunition dumps, railway lines, aerodromes and billets.
In May, the squadron re-located to an aerodrome at Boisdinghem, near St Omer, France. One of the squadron’s pilots died in the move as a result of a crash landing at their new base. During the period from June to October, when the squadron relocated to Nancy, it performed 91 bombing raids dropping 64 tons of bombs. It also carried out 60 photographic reconnaissance missions, destroyed nine German aircraft and shot down a further 34.
Philip was shot down while undertaking a bombing mission on Ramegnies-Chin, near Lille, on 7 July 1917, aged 28 years. The Germans later dropped a message behind British lines to confirm the fact that he had been killed. Ironically, his promotion to substantive Lieutenant was confirmed in the London Gazette in August as his death was unknown to the British authorities.
The Germans later returned some of his personal effects through diplomatic channels, however, the exact location of his crash site was never revealed. No further information was forthcoming from the Germans in spite of Philip’s mother’s entreaties to the War Office up until 1920 to establish his location.
Philip Battersby is commemorated on the Arras Flying Services Memorial at the Pas de Calais.
PRIVATE CHARLES BURNETT
Charles Edward Burnett, who was born in Luxborough in 1899, was the eighth child of Thomas and Emma Burnett, both of whom were from Carhampton. Thomas worked as a carter on a farm in Luxborough and the family of ten resided in a cottage in Pooltown with just four rooms. Thomas and Emma went on to have three more children.
Sadly, Emma died in 1907, when Charles was only eight years old. His father later moved to Beasley Cottages, near Timberscombe, to work on Beasley Farm. At this time the farm was run by William Thorne, the uncle of Sidney and Reginald Thorne who both also died on active service in World War I.
Charles’ elder brother, Sydney, volunteered for service with the Army during World War I. He served with the Somerset Light Infantry and survived the war.
Charles was probably attested in late 1917 as a conscript, after turning 18 years of age, and was later called up for service with one of the training reserve battalions in 1918. (See Reginald Thorne’s profile for further information about the Training Reserve.) After completing his basic training he appears to have been drafted as a reinforcement to 1st Battalion The Dorsets in France around 10/11 October.
The battalion spent the remainder of October at rest and in training. On 30 October the men marched to Saint Souplet and the following day at 17:30 hrs they relieved the 2nd Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, on the front line, south of the Sambre-Oise canal near Ors. Wilfred Owen, the famous war poet, was also on this section of the front line, a short distance away with the 2nd Battalion, The Manchester Regiment.
Charles was killed in the trenches by German shellfire on 2 November 1918, aged just 19 years. Two days later, the 1st Battalion The Dorsets took part in its last battle in the conflict during the passage of the Sambre-Oise canal on 4 November, when Wilfred Owen was also killed in action. Hostilities ceased only nine days after Charles’ death.
Charles Burnett is now buried at the Saint Souplet British Cemetery just a few miles south of Le Cateau, where part of the BEF had engaged the Germans during the first month of the war in August 1914.
PRIVATE HERBERT CARTER
Herbert Carter, who came from a family of nine children, was born in Bawdrip, Somerset, in 1891.
His parents were Samuel and Agnes (née Cottle) Carter, who were married in 1877 at Clutton. Samuel was a police constable and the family resided at Timberscombe Police Station in the 1900s. Samuel and Agnes continued to live in Timberscombe in retirement.
Herbert’s younger brother, Samuel, who was born in 1894, immigrated to Canada before the start of the war in 1913. Like Stuart Stevens featured later in the booklet, he volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Samuel survived the war, returning to Manitoba, and got married in 1922.
Herbert became an assistant grocer after leaving school and it seems likely that he moved to Herefordshire after 1911 as he was enlisted at Leominster into The Herefordshire Regiment. He was in a draft of men transferred from The Herefordshire Regiment to the 1/5th (Territorial) Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment (1/5th Gloucesters) in early 1917.
The battalion was initially billeted at Bresle, France, until it relocated on 9 January to Merelessart, south of Abbeville. It spent the rest of the month out of the front line in training. There was no shortage of sports and recreational activities to maintain the morale of the troops during these few weeks of respite. This included an inter-battalion cross country run, a football match, a boxing tournament and two battalion concerts!
Training continued at Hamel and Marly until 7 February and for the remainder of the month the battalion performed short tours in the front line trenches without major incident.
By early March there was an expectation that the Germans might retreat, having been worn down by the Battles of the Somme and winter engagements of 1916-17. The battalion war diary records on 12 March ‘In the evening many fires could be observed in front, but still no signs of an enemy retreat, can’t be long delayed now.’ The following day it goes on to note: ‘Péronne would appear to be in flames judging from the glare. A very quiet time in the trenches. Little or no casualties. 3 in all.’
On the night of 16/17 March two companies from the battalion moved up the line to La Maisonette to conduct a night raid on the German trenches. The assault was successful and the battalion took possession of the positions and pushed on to La Maisonette. Patrols from 1/5th Gloucesters continued to press on and their advanced station meant that they were the first battalion in III Corps to discover that the Germans were actually withdrawing. However, to slow down the Allied advance, the Germans had left a trail of destruction by setting fire to villages, poisoning wells, cutting down trees, blowing craters on roads and crossroads and setting booby-traps.
When the battalion finally entered Péronne there was ‘hardly a house left standing’. Of those that remained, several were still on fire. Soldiers from the battalion were detailed to assist in extinguishing the fires and clearing rubble from the streets.
The Germans retreated back to the Hindenberg Line, a series of fortified defensive trenches, while the battalion continued its clearance work by filling in craters, clearing trees, and neutralising booby-traps, until the end of the month.
On 5 April the battalion was part of 145 Brigade’s attack on the Germans at Lempire. The Germans held strong defensive positions, with machine-gun and rifle pits in the north and north-west parts of the village.
Elements of the battalion mounted a direct assault on these positions, which they took, although they were then heavily shelled by the Germans. The battalion’s war diary notes that the combined casualties from the assault and the shelling amounted to 15 killed with 40 wounded and two later dying from their wounds.
The battalion’s next engagement with the Germans was at Tombois Farm on the night of 16/17 April. In the intervening period it had primarily deployed working parties on clearing operations.
In spite of the atrocious weather conditions, which was very wet and stormy with some snow, the battalion overran the German positions, and also mounted an attack on Priel Farm which was nearby. Five men were wounded during the operation.
On 18 April, the 1/5th relieved another battalion from The Buckinghamshire Regiment in newly occupied positions and five men from the Gloucesters were wounded by German shellfire.
Between 25 and 27 April, a further nine men were wounded, mainly from shelling while occupying defensive positions.
During April the war diary records the total casualties amongst other ranks as 24 killed and 59 wounded, and that 12 members of the battalion were awarded gallantry medals for their actions.
It was in April that Herbert was mortally wounded, although he did not finally succumb until early May. It is not clear on which date he was injured, as his service record appears to be one of those that has been destroyed (see the introduction on page 1). The most likely explanation is that he was wounded later in the month by shellfire while occupying defensive positions.
On 9 May 1917, Herbert Carter died of his wounds, aged 26 years, on a fine, hot and sunny day while his battalion was at rest in a camp at Le Mesnil. He is now buried at the St Sever Cemetery extension, Rouen.
ACTING CORPORAL FRANK CHAPMAN
Francis Charles Chapman and his twin Robert, were born in the summer of 1887, to William and Sarah (née Bowering) Chapman, of Timberscombe. His mother and father were both born in Luxborough and were married at Cutcombe Church on 28 December 1867.
Frank was baptised at St Petrock’s Church on 21 August 1887.
The family lived at Pitt Cottage and his father worked as a farm labourer at West Harwood Farm, run by the Stevens family.
After leaving school Frank worked as a farm labourer but had enlisted in the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards, a cavalry unit of the British Army, by 1911. His exact enlistment date is not known as his service record appears to have been destroyed by the German bombing mentioned in the introduction.
Frank’s father died four years before the outbreak of World War I, and was buried at St Petrock’s Church on 11 July 1910. Robert was working as a farm labourer in Timberscombe around this time.
Frank was stationed at Assaye Barracks in Tidworth, serving as a Lance Corporal, when Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Frank deployed with his regiment from Southampton on HMT Winifredian with the BEF 11 days later, arriving in Boulogne, France, on 16 August. The regiment’s strength on arrival was 27 officers, 524 men and 608 horses.
The 4th Dragoon Guards was probably the first British Army unit to engage in face-to-face combat with the Germans on the Western Front, when troops encountered and pursued patrolling German cavalrymen near Mons on 22 August, using both sword and rifle.
In a typically matter of fact and unemotional manner, the regiment’s war diary notes: ‘One troop follows in pursuit under Captain Hornby followed by remainder of Squadron in support. Leading troop gets in with the sword. 3 prisoners taken, pursuit continues until brought up by fire from entrenchments. Squadrons withdrawn to Oburg. Our casualties 2 horses killed. 3 wounded. Private Page grazed in two places. Inhabitants report enemy casualties to be 10 (including an officer).
Corporal Edward Thomas of 4 Troop, who is attributed to have fired the first shot by the British in this engagement, later recounted after the war:
‘My troop was ordered to follow on in support, and we galloped on through the little village of Casteau. Then it was we could see the 1st Troop using their swords and scattering the Uhlans left and right. We caught them up.
Captain Hornby gave the order ‘4th Troop, dismounted action!’ We found cover for our horses by the side of the chateau wall. Bullets were flying past us and all round us, and possibly because I was rather noted for my quick movements and athletic ability in those days I was first in action. I could see a German cavalry officer some four hundred yards away standing mounted in full view of me, gesticulating to the left and to the right as he disposed of his dismounted men and ordered them to take up their fire positions to engage us. Immediately I saw him I took aim, pulled the trigger and automatically, almost as it seemed instantaneously, he fell to the ground, obviously wounded, but whether he was killed or not is a matter that I do not think was ever cleared up or ever became capable of proof.’
During the subsequent Battle of Mons, the regiment assisted the infantry in holding the line against the Germans and suffered some 81 casualties including seven killed. As a result Frank was promoted to Acting Corporal.
After the initial battle at Mons, Frank’s regiment withdrew to Le Cateau, where it worked to protect the right flank of units of the British Army’s II Corps, which included Eric Battersby’s 1st Battalion The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment).
Following Le Cateau, a gruelling night march over 40 miles long ensued and by the time the regiment arrived at Sérancourt on 28 August the men and horses were very tired.
The regiment was again attacked by German forces after a move to billets at Plessis and fought a rear-guard action to Noyon which resulted in further casualties of 20 men and 16 horses.
On virtually every day during early September the regiment was either on the march or engaged in action. On the night of 9/10 September the first issue of uniforms arrived since the regiment’s deployment to France, which enabled about 20 men in each squadron to be re-clothed. In addition the regimental war diary records that ‘26 remounts arrived during the night. Very bad class.’
11 September marked a noticeable change in the weather from the hot and sunny days experienced on first arrival to cold and heavy rain, which continued on subsequent days.
On 13 September 1914, B and C Squadrons of 4th Dragoon Guards and a squadron from the 9th Lancers secured the river and canal crossings at Bourg to enable units of the BEF to traverse the River Aisne, during the First Battle of the Aisne. Frank was one of four members of the regiment who were killed in the engagement. A further four were wounded.
Frank Chapman, who died aged 27 years, is now buried at Bourg et Comin Communal Cemetery, south of Laone in France.
Frank’s twin, Robert, only outlived him for eight years and died in 1922, aged 35 years.
PRIVATE GEORGE ELFORD
George William Elford, who was born in 1877 at Brighton, was the son of Edward and Sarah (née Thomas) Elford.
He volunteered for the local militia reserve in March 1897 and was enlisted into the 3rd (Militia) Battalion, The Sussex Regiment. After an initial period of full time training, George then served part time with the militia until his discharge in July 1898 when he joined the Royal Navy.
George signed up for 12 years and served as a stoker. His service record notes that although he was of ‘good character’ he was also prone to lapses in discipline! While serving on the shore establishment in Portsmouth in 1899 he was twice punished with custodial sentences in the cells, of 5 days and 14 days respectively.
In 1903 he married Eva White, who was born in Timberscombe. They went on to have five children. Their first two children, George (junior) and Thomas, were born in Portsmouth.
George’s naval service continued on a number of different ships during this period. In all, he served on 12 different warships, depot ships and shore based establishments including three of the Royal Sovereign Class pre-dreadnought battleships (HMS Ramillies, HMS Hood, and HMS Royal Sovereign.)
The family relocated to Hole’s Square, Timberscombe, around 1905-06, presumably so that Eva could be closer to her own family while George was away at sea.
In 1906, shortly after the birth of their third child, Ivy, and a period of unblemished service, George deserted from the Royal Navy. He was recovered and sentenced to 14 days in the cells. On release from the cells he was posted to HMS Drake, an armoured cruiser, in November 1906.
The role of a stoker was hard and often uncomfortable, working in temperatures of up to 150 degrees in an atmosphere full of coal dust in a pitching and rolling vessel while at sea. When fully stocked, HMS Drake carried over 10,000 cubic feet of coal weighing 2,580 tons. During 24 hours at sea its furnaces could typically consume 160 tons. It is no wonder, therefore, that just under one third of the ship’s company of around 900 men were employed in the engine room, including George!
During George’ service on the ship’s company HMS Drake was the flagship for the Rear Admiral commanding the 2nd Cruiser Squadron, and then the 1st Cruiser Squadron, part of the Home Fleet.
The ship spent Christmas 1906 at Portsmouth before steaming to Portland in mid-January. While anchored at Portland, on 24 January 1907, the ship was inspected by HRH Prince Louis of Battenberg, who had previously commanded the 2nd Cruiser Squadron with HMS Drake as his flagship a few years earlier. Battenberg (Lord Mountbatten’s father) went onto be appointed as the First Sea Lord in December 1912.
Thereafter, during the first six months of 1907 HMS Drake sailed to the Royal Naval base at Lagos, in Nigeria, paid a visit to Vigo in Spain and then patrolled the Irish coast. During this time, Ivy was baptised at St Petrock’s Church in April while George was at sea.
From August the ship was stationed at Gibraltar with the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet.
A major infraction appears to have occurred amongst the stokers in October, with six of them sent to the military detention barracks on Gibraltar. George was one of the offenders spending 14 days in the cells; he had already spent five days in the cells earlier in the year!
The ship returned to Portsmouth for Christmas 1907, sailing back to Gibraltar in January 1908. Even though HMS Drake was not involved in naval battle, the ship’s log reflects some of the geo-political tensions in this period. In 1908 it made frequent trips to Tetuan Bay, Morocco, as a show of solidarity with the French, and to protect its base at Gibraltar, during difficult relations with the Germans.
The ship became part of the Home Fleet and in June 1908 patrolled parts of the Irish coast before moving to Milford Haven and taking part in manoeuvres. Thereafter, it sailed around the entire UK coastline spending periods at various locations around the country before anchoring at Portland in November. After sailing down the channel to Torquay, HMS Drake returned to Portland for Christmas 1908.
In June 1909, George (junior) and Thomas were both baptised at St Petrock’s Church.
HMS Drake spent much of that year stationed at Portsmouth. However, there must have been a strong sense of anticipation amongst the ship’s company when she set sail for New York on 12 September. The ship arrived 12 days later, remaining there until 9 October before embarking once more for Gibraltar. One wonders what George made of New York, when he was granted shore leave!
Once back in Gibraltar HMS Drake again made several trips to Tetuan Bay and while anchored there, on 12 November 1909, George’s and Eva’s fourth child, Clarence, was born in Timberscombe. The ship eventually returned to Devonport, Plymouth, in early December and then sailed up the channel to spend Christmas 1909 in Dover.
Clarence was baptised at St Petrock’s Church on New Year’s Eve.
George was discharged to hospital in January 1910, shortly before HMS Drake returned to Gibraltar. He was medically discharged from the Royal Navy in February, just a few months short of his 12 year term.
On his return to Timberscombe, George worked as a farm labourer. However, tragedy struck in March 1912 when Clarence died of Diphtheria at just 2 years of age. He died at the family home in Hole’s Square with his mother by his bedside and was buried at St Petrock’s Church.
In early 1914, George and Eva’s fifth child, Elizabeth (known to the family as Joan), was born. She was baptised at St Petrock’s Church on 25 February.
Approximately six months later George volunteered for military service for the third time, shortly after war was declared in August 1914. He was enlisted in the county regiment, Prince Albert’s (Somerset Light Infantry) (SLI), at the ripe age of 37.
He served in B Company, 2/4th Battalion SLI, which was initially billeted at Prior Park, Bath. This battalion was originally formed for home defence duties in September 1914 and was composed of men who were unable to volunteer for overseas service.
At that time Territorial Force battalions were being posted overseas to maintain internal security in British colonies, which subsequently enabled three divisions of Regular Army infantry battalions to be deployed to the Western Front. During an inspection on 27 November 1914 by General Carew, the men were advised that the battalion would be deployed to India if there were sufficient volunteers.
By this time the battalion had reached a strength of over 1,000 men and 80% of them volunteered for overseas deployment, including George who was serving in B Company. The battalion embarked for India on the HMT Saturnia during the following month on 12 December from Southampton.
After arrival in Bombay, the battalion moved to Bangalore where its headquarters were maintained. B Company was split into two detachments and sent to stations at Malapurram and Calicut, a port town in southern India on the Malabar Coast. The detachment posted to Calicut consisted of 50 other ranks, including George, and two officers.
Lt James Mackie, who was sent to take command of the Calicut detachment late in February 1915, offered the following description of their location in a letter home to his parents:
‘The town itself is a foul hole. There are no European shops the whole town being one large native bazaar in which one sees the foulest sights it is possible to imagine. The amount of disease is appalling, cholera & smallpox are always more or less there & wherever you go you see leprosy, syphilis and elephantitis. Our barracks are however in a beautiful situation & we are quite safe from disease. They are at the top of a fairly high hill overlooking the sea three miles out of the town. In front of us we have the sea & behind us in the distance the mountains rise up their tops always covered with clouds…. It is very hot here but just at the hottest part of the day a good sea breeze gets up and makes it much more bearable. Being so near the sea the air is always very moist so that in spite of the heat it is always a bit damp.’
The Malabar district, which included Hindus and a population of around one million Muslim Mappilas (known to the troops as the ‘Moplahs’), had been the scene of numerous violent disturbances since the start of British rule. The SLI’s Malapurram detachment was called out twice to assist native police in managing disturbances and unrest amongst the Moplahs – possibly as a result of covert German agitation.
While at Calicut, George breached military regulations again! The actual misdemeanour is not known but must have been moderately serious as the battalion orders record that he was given 168 hours detention.
In March 1915, ‘A’ Company was sent to the Andaman Islands, a colony of the British Empire, lying in the Bay of Bengal between India and Burma.
The Andamans, which housed a penal colony containing around 14,000 convicts, was considered to be under threat of an invasion or a raid by the Germans. Most of the remainder of George’s battalion followed in August 1915.
The islands, which were not a healthy place, had an annual rainfall of 130 inches! Around one quarter of the battalion’s troops stationed there contracted malaria. This provides clear evidence that although the troops were not subject to the hazards of the Western Front they were still at significant risk of death and serious illness.
Some battalion personnel remained behind including George, who was stationed at the Wellington Garrison some eighty miles south of Mysore in the southern part of India.
Other members of the battalion also there included Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) JME Waddy, who had been appointed to command the Wellington Garrison’s Sanatorium and convalescent troops. Lt Col Waddy was a veteran of the Zulu wars who had retired and volunteered again on the outbreak of World War I aged 67 years. Remarkably, he remained on overseas service with the Army until he was 71! He took over command of the battalion in December 1915 in the Andaman Islands after Colonel Clutterbuck returned home on sick leave. Lt Col Waddy’s son and grandson also later served with the SLI in India, and his grandson went on to become one of the pioneering paratroopers in British Airborne Forces stationed in India in 1941.
Although the battalion returned to India in January 1916, under the command of Lt Col Waddy, it appears that George remained at Wellington, where he died on 4 March 1916, aged 38 years. He is buried at the Wellington Garrison cemetery.
LANCE CORPORAL CLIFFORD MERSON
Clifford Merson was the son of Francis and Sarah (née Hare) Merson, who had six children.
He was born on 17 August 1882 at Bickham, where the family ran the farm, which employed 6 men and 3 boys. Clifford was baptised at St Petrock’s Church in October 1882.
Sadly, the family was blighted by a series of deaths in short succession. In January 1886 his sister Florence died, aged 16 years. Worse was to follow at the beginning of March 1886 with the death of his newly born brother, Stanley, who died only 1 day old. Within two weeks of Stanley’s death Clifford then lost his disabled sister, Ethel, aged 10 years. In a further tragic twist of fate his father died later that year in November 1886.
Eight years later Clifford’s eldest brother died in March 1894, aged 27 years. All five family members were buried in St Petrock’s Churchyard.
By 1901, Clifford was living with his mother at the Great House in Timberscombe and later moved with her to The Avenue, Minehead, where they were joined by Lionel, after the death of his wife. The brothers farmed in Minehead for a few years until Clifford moved to the Midlands, and became a Garage Manager living in Solihull.
On 25 November 1915, Clifford, then aged 33 years, married Florence Eva Jeboult (or JéBoult) in Solihull. His wife had been born and brought up in Dunster and it would appear that they moved up to Solihull together.
Clifford volunteered for service in the Army around this time through the Group System, also known as the Derby scheme, in which men voluntarily registered for military service and were classified into groups for call up based on their age and marital status. The scheme was advantageous for older married man, who were only called up once all single men registered in the scheme had been mobilised.
Men who volunteered under the Derby Scheme and opted for deferred mobilisation were awarded a day’s army pay for the day they attested. They were given a grey armband with a red crown as a sign that they had volunteered and were held on the Army Reserve until they were called up.
Using Clifford’s regimental service number as a guide it would appear that he attested in late 1915 and was called up in 1916. He initially joined the SLI and was part of a reinforcement draft that was transferred to 6th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI), probably by June. 6th Battalion DCLI formed part of the 43rd Brigade.
In July 1916, the battalion spent most of its time on the front line near Arras, which was a key base for the Allies during World War I, with Vimy Ridge to the north and the battlefields of the Somme to the south.
On 1 July, the French and British mounted the Somme offensive against the Germans, across a front of 23 miles. The Battles of the Somme, which continued until November, have become noted for their enormous loss of life. Although the Allies eventually penetrated around five miles into German occupied territory, the cost on both sides was immense resulting in over 600,000 British and French killed and wounded with a similar number on the German side. The British fired over 1.6 million shells at 15 miles of the German front line in the week preceding the start of the offensive. However, much of the shelling was ineffective. As a result, on 1 July, the British Army suffered its largest ever number of casualties in a single day of circa 60,000 men when it launched the infantry assault. Over 600 infantry battalions of the British Army were deployed during the course of the Battles of the Somme.
During the initial phase of the Somme offensive Clifford’s battalion held the front line further north. Towards the end of July the battalion occupied trench positions near three large craters on the north-east side of Arras, known as Cuthbert, Clarence and Claude; these had been created by the detonation of German mines under trenches in the British front line in the previous month. The battalion’s positions suffered heavy German trench mortar bombardment causing substantial damage, although casualties were relatively light. Several references to casualties suffering from shell shock, in the battalion’s war diary for July, only hint at the trauma caused by the remorseless artillery bombardment.
The battalion moved to the Somme district in August and spent most of the first half of the month in training at Le Meillard, and then Albert.
On 14 August, 20 men were wounded from shell fire while the battalion was deployed at Montauban in a support role moving water and rations to the front line.
The following morning at 08:00 hrs, Clifford’s battalion relieved 6th Battalion, SLI, at Delville Wood, which was known to the troops as Devil’s Wood. A battle had been going on here for a month to gain a tactical artillery advantage during the Battles of the Somme. The wood, which covered an area of 156 acres, had suffered terrible artillery bombardments and by the time Clifford’s battalion arrived it largely consisted of stumps and shattered trees. The few surviving trees were completely bare of foliage.
At 06.00 hrs on 17 August the battalion’s senior officers received a briefing at brigade headquarters on a British attack planned for the following day. For the rest of the day there was heavy British and German artillery bombardment of opposing positions.
43rd Brigade’s attack was mounted on German positions the following afternoon at 14.45 hrs (2.45pm). The battalion advanced to its first objective supported by a rolling artillery barrage and was engaged in heavy fighting for the remainder of the day. Although the battalion captured some German positions, it had suffered a high number of casualties particularly from machine gun fire, and was forced to consolidate its gain rather than advancing further. The following day it suffered additional casualties from German artillery bombardment while occupying these new positions.
By the time it was relieved at 04.00 hrs on the morning of 20 August the battalion’s losses from the previous five days amounted to 366 men killed, wounded or missing. It seems likely that Clifford was promoted to Lance Corporal around this time, following these casualties.
The remnants of the battalion were moved to Fricourt for refitting. After a few days rest, the battalion marched to Montauban on 25 August and was employed in a support role carrying water and rations to troops in the front line trenches. Further casualties were sustained from shell fire.
The battalion was relieved on 30 August and late the following evening arrived at billets in Aumont, about 19 miles west of Amiens. Clifford remained here training with the battalion for the next assault until 11 September.
After a series of movements, the battalion advanced up to the front line on the night of 15/16 September for its next attack. The brigade was tasked with attacking German trench lines – known as Gird Trench and Gird Support – and capturing the village of Gueudecourt. This attack was part of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, the third and final British offensive during the Battles of the Somme in 1916. Another Timberscombe man, Sidney Thorne had died in this battle a day earlier, during the Guards’ assault on German positions at Lesboeufs.
Three battalions from the brigade launched their assault at 09:25 hrs. During the next one and a half hours all three battalions suffered heavy casualties from machine gun fire, and the attack stalled.
Clifford’s commanding officer sent a message back to brigade headquarters to advise them that machine gun fire was holding up the advance and that supporting British tanks, in action for the first time, had broken down. Brigade headquarters ordered the battalion to hold its position so that it could organise a further artillery barrage in order that the assault could continue.
Brigade headquarters ordered the advance to continue at 18:55 hrs (6.55 pm) in the evening. The remnants of the three battalions from 143 Brigade, including Clifford’s battalion, were supported by two battalions from 142 Brigade.
The battalion’s war diary notes ‘the whole line advanced with the utmost gallantry but an intense machine gun fire opened from both flanks, causing excessive casualties. Every company commander had either been killed or wounded, & only two very junior officers remained in the firing line. After advancing 200 yards the attack melted away, and the remaining men crawled back.’
The battalion lost 309 men killed, wounded or missing out of around 570 men who took part in the fighting that day.
Clifford Merson was killed at some stage in this fighting on 16 September 1916, aged 34 years. His body was never recovered and he is now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
LANCE CORPORAL LIONEL MERSON
Lionel Chave Merson was also a son of Francis and Sarah Merson, and an older brother of Clifford. He was born in the summer of 1878 and baptised at St Petrock’s Church.
He was working in London in his early twenties when he met Kate Curry. Kate, who had been born in Taunton and brought up in Alma Street, moved to London as a teenager when her widowed mother remarried.
Lionel and Kate married in Kensington in 1900 and returned to Timberscombe to take over the administration of Bickham Farm. Around this time Clifford and Sarah moved into the Great House.
Lionel and Kate’s first child, Derrick, was born in the spring of 1901, and a daughter, Margaret, followed several years later at the beginning of 1908. However, further tragedy was looming on the Merson household and Kate died later that year. She was buried in St. Petrock’s Churchyard on 16 December 1908, aged 35 years.
Lionel vacated Bickham and joined his mother, Sarah, and Clifford in Minehead with his two young children. After working as a farmer with Clifford for a while, Lionel then became a Polo pony trainer for the Minehead Pony Stud Company.
Lionel had served for five years with the West Somerset Yeomanry at some time in between his return from London and the outbreak of the war in August 1914. In September, although no longer serving, he volunteered for enlistment into the Army for the duration of the war and joined the Royal North Devon Hussars. This placed no small burden on Sarah who, at the age of 70 years, was required to look after his two children!
For the first 12 months Lionel’s regiment was stationed in the UK. Then, in September 1915, Lionel moved up to Liverpool with his regiment in preparation for deployment overseas. Shortly after arriving his regiment embarked for Egypt, on board HMT Olympic, one of the White Star Line’s transatlantic ocean liners which had been converted into a troopship.
The regiment landed in Gallipoli on 9 October 1915 and sustained a number of casualties in action against the Turks, including 27 men killed between 17 October and 9 December[i]. It was withdrawn to Egypt shortly after this and defended the Suez Canal in 1916.
Lionel contracted Tuberculosis while in Egypt and was medically discharged from the Army in November 1916.
He was subsequently issued with a Silver War Badge and entitlement certificate. The badge was designed to be worn on civilian clothes to denote that the recipient had been honourably discharged due to injury or sickness, and was no longer fit enough to serve. Over 1.1 million of these badges were issued to military personnel as a result of the conflict.
While recuperating in Cambridgeshire, Lionel met and married Florence Tuffs in late 1916. He moved back to Minehead with his new wife to live at 5, Selbourne Place. On his return, Lionel worked as a manager for a hunting stable.
Sadly, Lionel never fully recovered and he was transferred to Cotford Asylum near Taunton where he died in 1919, aged 41 years. He was buried in St Petrock’s Churchyard on 25 September 1919.
Lionel’s death left Beatrice as the sole survivor of Sarah’s six children. More crucially it left Sarah with responsibility for Lionel’s youngest child, Doreen, aged around 11 years.
Sarah, relocated with Lionel’s two children to St Leonard’s on Sea in Sussex, where she died in 1923, aged 78 years. On 9 April 1923, she too was buried in St Petrock’s Churchyard to re-join her late husband and five of her children.
SERGEANT STUART STEVENS
Reginald Stuart Stevens was born in Timberscombe on 1 February 1886, the eldest child of Robert and Mary (née Cording) Stevens. His father came from Winsford and his mother from Wootton Courtenay. They married in 1885.
The family ran West Harwood Farm, which at the time was a 212 acre sheep and arable farm. It has been occupied by the Stevens family ever since, and a relative of Stuart currently resides there (2014).
Stuart immigrated to Canada, and subsequently worked as a rancher in British Columbia, at Appledale, which lies almost halfway between Vancouver and Calgary.
He volunteered for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), which had already deployed to the Western Front, and was attested in May 1915. It is estimated that at least half of those who volunteered for the CEF were British born.
Two of his brothers, Leonard and Stanley, served in the British Army during World War I and survived.
Stuart initially served with 54th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, and was promoted to corporal in September 1915.
He was placed on the 2nd reinforcement draft released by the battalion to support the CEF on the Western Front and arrived in England on 30 October 1915. The following day Stuart was posted to 30th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, which was based at Shorncliffe, Kent. The 30th Battalion was a reserve unit which provided reinforcements to the Western Front. Stuart served with the unit as a physical training and battle fitness instructor until he reverted to the rank of private at his own request in June 1916.
What prompted this is now lost in the mists of time. However, within a couple of days he was posted to the 7th (British Columbia) Battalion, Canadian Infantry, which formed part of 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, 1st Canadian Division.
Stuart joined up with the battalion at Ouderdom, Belgium, on 17 June shortly before it marched to take over trench positions in the Mount Sorrel area. It finished the month operating in a reserve role for the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade.
The battalion had a relatively quiet time in July and the first half of August in the Ypres sector. It even found time on 4 August for a battalion sports day during its five day stay at Patricia Lines prior to deployment to front line trenches.
It spent the last two weeks of August at Eperlecques, France, for brigade training and exercises. Stuart was promoted to Lance Corporal on 26 August shortly before the battalion entrained for Bonneville.
September saw the battalion deployed to trenches near Albert, in the Somme. It later participated in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, one of the Battles of the Somme, on 26 and 27 September. Initially in reserve, it suffered over 200 casualties before it was relieved by 2nd Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles.
Following these losses, Stuart was promoted to Lance Sergeant on 7 October. During this month the battalion continued on front line trench duties near Albert dispersed with short periods of relief until it was moved to a rest area at Dieval on 23 October.
During the cold weather of November the battalion moved to a new sector occupying trenches near Vimy Ridge.
Stuart was promoted to Sergeant while the battalion was working in a support role for 2nd Brigade on 9 December.
The trench conditions and weather took their toll on Stuart who developed bronchitis and was admitted into a field hospital on 16 December for a week. He returned to his unit on 23 December at Bruay where the battalion, now at rest, celebrated Christmas Day 1916.
On 30 December, the lower parts of Bruay flooded with the water reaching depths of 10 feet in places within a few hours. The battalion was detailed on humanitarian duties to help the civilian population. By New Year’s Eve night the flooding had receded to about 3 feet although it took a further week for the situation to return to ‘normal’.
On the night of 16/17 January the mild weather was replaced by a cold front and a heavy snowfall. The following day the battalion set off for ‘Fosse 10’, a group of ruined houses on the Arras-Bethune road, and shortly after moved off to front line trenches. The cold snap continued until mid-February.
On two successive nights at the end of February the battalion sent raiding parties into the opposing German front line trenches, destroying dug outs and inflicting severe casualties. Immediately after these raids it was relieved and transferred to billets at Bully-les-Mines.
March was mostly spent in trench positions near Ecoivres. At the end of the month the battalion transferred to Camblain-l’Abbé where it practised infantry assault exercises in snowy conditions in preparation for the forthcoming battle at Vimy Ridge.
On 5 April the battalion returned to muddy trenches near Vimy Ridge, an escarpment north east of Arras, which overlooks Douai plain. The battalion watched heavy artillery bombardment on the German defensive positions over the next few days. In addition, there was regular aerial activity from both British and German planes above the trenches.
Vimy Ridge had been held by the Germans since 1914. The British and French had previously made several unsuccessful attempts to take the escarpment resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties and by 1917 was heavily fortified. The defences included networks of trenches which criss-crossed the ridge, supported by concrete machine gun emplacements. Deep tunnels had also been constructed to accommodate German troops underneath the ridge and in places rolls of barbed wire over 100 metres deep protected the German trench systems.
On 9 April 1917, Easter Monday, the battalion formed part of the Canadian Corps attack against German positions on Vimy Ridge. The engagement was fought as part of an Allied offensive known as the Battle of Arras and was the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Corps were deployed together in battle.
The Canadian operation was meticulously planned as a four stage attack with Stuart’s battalion forming the centre of the 2nd Canadian Infantry’s Brigade attack, which in turn made up the right flank of the 1st Canadian Division’s assault.
Lt Stuart Kirkland, from one of the Ontario battalions nearby, recalled: ‘We stood there in mud to our waists all night waiting for the eventful hour. After fifteen minutes before the time set, I took two water bottles of rum and gave each of the men a good swallow, for I was bitter cold standing in the mud all night. [At 05:30 hrs] Hundreds, thousands of big guns, from 18-pounders to 15-inch guns, opened at the same second. Imagine 15-inch guns firing from miles behind the line and throwing each of them about 1,400 pounds of explosives. The very Earth rocked, and the noise and thunder was awful and maddening.’
Supported by a creeping artillery barrage, Stuart’s battalion secured its first objective on the front line German trench system during the morning of 9 April. The Canadians took most of the ridge on the first morning, although it took several more days to capture the entire ridge including its highest part, known as Hill 145. On the afternoon of 9 April, the battalion’s companies were relieved by other units enabling the evacuation of the battalion’s wounded, which was virtually completed by dusk.
Work continued the next day with the battalion employed in collecting its dead and burying them in a battalion cemetery. Refitting and re-equipping from casualty equipment also took place.
11 April was spent completing the process of re-equipment and re-organising. The battalion also salvaged stores, arms and equipment from the battlefield.
Troops were rested on 12 April prior to relieving the 1st Battalion, Canadian Infantry. That night the 7th Battalion’s positions were shelled heavily resulting in a large number of casualties.
Late on 13 April the battalion resumed its advance, gaining more territory from the Germans. The most advanced company dug in along the road from Willervals to Mont Forêt Quarries.
Orders were received by the battalion to advance again the following morning on 14 April. It was on this day that Stuart was killed. After moving forward about 300 yards the lead company came under heavy machine gun fire and shortly afterwards heavy German artillery fire was directed on the battalion. The company consolidated its advance and was relieved on the night of 15/16 by other Canadian troops.
At the start of the battle, the battalion had a strength of 752 men in the trenches. It paid a high price for the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge. In less than a week the battalion suffered losses of 61%, from men killed in action, died of wounds, wounded or missing. The battalion’s fighting strength had been reduced to 293 men by noon on 16 April. By any standard this represents an astonishing attrition rate.
Stuart Stevens died aged 31 years, and is now buried at Boise-Carre British Cemetery, Thélus, a few miles north of Arras.
100 hectares of Vimy Ridge was subsequently gifted by France to Canada in tribute to the Canadians who gave their lives fighting alongside the French on the Western Front. This now forms a memorial park which includes preserved trench systems. The centrepiece of the park is an impressive twinned column memorial to all Canadians who served their country in battle during the First World War, and particularly to the 60,000 who gave their lives in France. It also bears the names of 11,000 Canadian servicemen who died in France who have no known grave. Around the memorial are twenty sculptured figures.
PRIVATE REGINALD THORNE
Arthur Reginald Vellacott Thorne was born in Bridgwater on 8 January 1899.
He was the son of Sidney and Bessie (née Manning) Thorne. Sidney’s family came from Exford and Bessie was born in Lilstock, on the Somerset coast near Hinkley Point. She worked as a cook and domestic servant in Glastonbury prior to marrying Sidney in Clevedon in 1896. Two of their six children, Sidney and Reginald, died during World War I.
The family initially lived in Horsham but shortly after moved to Bridgwater. By 1901 they had returned to West Sussex, where Sidney worked in a sausage making factory in Chichester.
a few years they had relocated back to Somerset to live at the Corner House,
Timberscombe. Sidney’s elder brother (William), and uncle of Reginald and
Sidney, ran Beasley Farm. Sadly, Sidney (senior) died in October 1908 and was
buried in St Petrock’s Churchyard.
Reginald was attested for service as a conscript when he turned 18 years of age and was enlisted into 35th Training Reserve Battalion, which was part of 8th Reserve Brigade based at Wool, Dorset.
The Training Reserve was formed to cope with the large numbers of men requiring training following the introduction of conscription in 1916. The county based method of recruitment and training was replaced by a centralised system for the remainder of the war. In September 1916 the regimental reserve units were re-designated as battalions within the Training Reserve. The battalions also acted as holding units for soldiers who had completed their training and were awaiting posting to an active service battalion. A soldier could be posted to an active service battalion of any regiment from the Training Reserve and could no longer assume that he would serve with his county regiment. For example Charles Burnett, who featured earlier in the booklet, was posted to 1st Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment.
Reginald fell ill before he was posted to an active service battalion. He was transferred to the Salisbury and District Isolation Hospital at Stratford-sub-Castle, which treated infectious diseases such as diphtheria and scarlet fever.
He died on 5 June 1917, aged only 18 years. Reginald was buried in St Petrock’s Churchyard four days later – the only soldier from the village’s fallen who lies at rest in Timberscombe.
In 1922 Reginald’s mother, Bessie, tragically lost a third son, Cecil, who died aged 17 years. One can only wonder at the life of Bessie who, already widowed, lost three sons in the prime of life within a period of six years. It is difficult to imagine, even with the passage of time, how she came to terms with such loss.
As an adjunct to Bessie’s tale, Elizabeth, the wife of Sidney snr’s elder brother, William, had also died in 1925. William and Bessie subsequently married in 1928 at the Wesleyan Chapel in Minehead. They were married for 12 years until William’s death in 1940.
Bessie eventually passed away in 1958 in Minehead, aged 84 years.
LANCE CORPORAL SIDNEY THORNE
Sidney Richard Vellacott Thorne was also a son of Sidney and Bessie Thorne.
He was born on 26 March 1897 in Horsham.
Following the death of his father, Sidney moved to 7 Trinity Street, Taunton, at the age of 14 to live with his uncle to complete an apprenticeship to be a butcher. Three years later he volunteered for a short service appointment with the Coldstream Guards shortly after his 17th birthday in March 1914. In order to join up he declared that he was 18, which was the minimum enlistment age!
Six months after enlisting, Sidney was promoted to Lance Corporal. The following month he was posted to 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards in October 1914, which was by then part of the BEF in France, engaged in fighting on the front line at the First Battle of Ypres.
He arrived at the battalion’s front line positions on 30 October, as part of a reinforcement draft of 90 men. This draft did not even cover the battalion’s losses during the nine days preceding his arrival when it suffered at least 150 men killed, wounded or missing, primarily from shell fire and snipers.
From 1 to 16 November the battalion held front line trenches facing Reutel and Becelaire, in Belgium, east of Ypres. The battalion war diary for November notes:
‘The German trenches were 500 to 100 yards away. Although never actually attacked [by infantry], the position of the battalion, at the head of a long and narrow salient, was somewhat precarious. The trenches on our right rear were frequently attacked – our own trenches were subjected daily to shellfire, considerable annoyance & some loss being caused by light field guns firing shrapnel at a range of about 1,000 yards. Bombs were fired into the trenches with great accuracy & caused some casualties; snipers too were always busy. Finally, the zig-zag line of the trenches made it impossible to escape enfilade fire.
Nov. 16th was the 21st consecutive day in the trenches without relief. Cold & wet weather & the constant vigilance, which was necessary, imposed a great strain on all ranks, who however continued cheerfully to carry out their duty.’
At midnight on the night of 16/17 November the battalion was relieved by French infantry. A night march followed and the battalion bivouacked one mile east of Ypres at 03.00 hrs in the morning to snatch a few hours sleep.
After temporarily relieving the Grenadier Guards in trenches near Zillebeke and a further march, the battalion was billeted near Ouderdom for much needed rest and refitting on 21 November.
Some officers, warrant officers and four NCOs were allowed home on short leave. Sidney also returned to the UK on 22 November. This is particularly striking as he had only been in France for one month and the battalion was significantly under strength. Sidney’s service record does not record the reason for his transfer. The most likely explanation is that he was returned back to Chelsea because it was discovered that he was under the minimum enlistment age of 18. Noticeably though he was not discharged from the Army, which was desperate to hang onto its ‘boy’ soldiers because of the critical shortfalls in manpower it was facing.
Sidney served in the UK with the Coldstream Guards 4th (Reserve) Battalion until shortly after his 18th birthday. In April 1915 he was posted back to the 3rd Battalion in France, which was by this time occupying trenches in Givenchy.
For the next 10 months the battalion continued on front line trench duty with periodic relief until it was transported by train to Calais on 26 February 1916. It returned to the Ypres sector on 17 March. The battalion war diary records: ‘Whole line in bad state. Parapets weak & low. No drainage.’
Intensive periods of German shelling took place with regular frequency. For example on 23 March the war diary notes: ‘Bad day. Wieltje Salient heavily shelled morning-afternoon. 100 yards blown in and all communication cut.’ 26 March: ‘Wieltje Salient again blown in’. 30 March: ‘Hostile bombardment throughout day.’
Shelling and sniper fire were not the only issues. In April 1916, spring was nowhere in sight in France. Bad weather, including heavy rain over 36 hours, had reduced the trenches to an awful condition, causing trench flooding while the battalion was on front line duties.
Front line trench duties interspersed by reliefs continued until 20 May when the battalion was billeted at St Omer for training.
In early June, most of the battalion was employed on railway maintenance and construction and making dug outs on the Yser canal bank. After this the battalion resumed the pattern of front line trench duties with short periods of respite until it was deployed in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette during the infamous and costly Somme offensive. The battle which started on 15 September 1916 marked the debut of the tank on the battlefield.
The 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards attacked German trenches near the village of Lesboeufs, about 30 miles north east of Amiens, at the start of the battle.
The assault was launched at 06.20 hrs with waves of men about 50 paces apart. Each wave was about one half of a company in strength. As might be predicted, the battalion incurred a large number of casualties from German machine gun positions about 300 yards away from the starting line. After they had been overcome the battalion’s second objective was taken without much opposition later in the day, although the Germans launched a counter attack against the battalion around 18:00 hrs (6 o’ clock) in the evening, which was repulsed.
The following morning when the battalion consolidated its positions, it had sustained total casualties of 425 men killed, wounded or missing.
Sidney Thorne died at some stage in the fighting on the first day of this battle, on 15 September 1916, aged just 19 years. His body was never recovered and he is now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
PRIVATE THOMAS TUDBALL
Thomas John Tudball was born at ‘Knackers’, Luccombe, in January 1884, the son of John and Emma (née Mogford) Tudball. He was baptised in Cutcombe Church.
The family later moved to Bench Cottage when his father started working on Allercot Farm.
Thomas was educated at Timberscombe School. After leaving school, Thomas also worked as a farm labourer prior to volunteering for a short service appointment with the Coldstream Guards. He was attested at Taunton on 29 March 1904, and posted to the 1st Battalion following basic training. After his three years service with the Regular Army he was transferred to the Army Reserve on 29 March 1907 and returned to civilian life for the next seven years.
The day after Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 Thomas was mobilised from the Army Reserve and posted back to the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards (1st Bn CG), which formed part of the 1st Guards Brigade, on 6 August.
The battalion was amongst the first units of the BEF to land in France, and Thomas joined up with them on 21 August 1914, shortly before the Battle of Mons, in Belgium, and the subsequent retreat (outlined in Eric Battersby’s profile).
Thomas took part in a major counterattack by French and British forces against the advancing Germans known as the First Battle of the Marne in the following month. Over 2 million men took part in this significant battle which resulted in a German defeat and led to the Germans abandoning their advance on Paris. It is estimated that around one quarter of the one million French and British troops who were deployed in the battle were killed or wounded. Casualties for 1st Bn CG were proportionately lighter in comparison with only around 50 killed or wounded.
1st Bn CG was not so fortunate in the First Battle of the Aisne, an Allied attempt to exploit the success of the Battle of the Marne. This battle marked the start of the trench warfare which characterised the conflict on the Western Front.
On 14 September, 1st Bn CG was tasked with securing high ground between Vendresse-Beaulne and Paissy, and to advance to the village of Cerny-en-Laonnois. This action resulted in the battalion losing 364 men killed, wounded or missing in one day! The battalion was withdrawn to the reserve and spent two short spells in front line trenches during the remainder of September.
From 28 September to 14 October 1914, 1st Bn CG held front line trench positions north of Troyon and during this period suffered over 60 killed or wounded.
Throughout the second half of 1914 the battalion was repeatedly deployed to undertake tasks which tested the limits of the soldiers’ endurance. In addition, they were effectively required to perform with one hand tied behind their back, since the BEF as a whole was poorly equipped with armament and munitions for the job in hand. The British Artillery lacked sufficient heavy guns and some artillery units were, on occasions, pulled back because they had run out of shells to fire at opposing German forces. Even by May 1915 the British had not effectively scaled up its artillery shell production to cope with the demands of the Western Front. While the Germans were producing 250,000 shells every day, mostly high explosive (HE) – which was considered to be more effective in trench warfare than shrapnel shells – the British were only producing 15,000 shells a day of which only about 2,500 were HE.
Ammunition supplies to the infantry were equally restricted. Most crucially, British Army infantry battalions had been given insufficient machine guns for the type of warfare they were expected to fight. A fact candidly acknowledged by David Lloyd George in the House of Commons while serving as Minister of Munitions in 1915:
‘I come now to the equally important question of machine guns. The dimensions of the machine-gun problem will be realised if the House will consider not only the increase of the size of the Army, but also that the number of guns per division has increased many-fold. When the War began our ideas were that each battalion should be supplied with two machine guns. The Germans supply each with sixteen machine guns. There is no doubt that the machine gun is by far the most destructive weapon in the whole of their army; it has destroyed far more lives than their rifles. In fact, I was told the other day that the machine guns and artillery between them are probably responsible for more than 90 per cent of the casualties, rifles being responsible for not much more than 5 per cent. We were rather late in realising the great part which the machine gun played in this War, and I think I am entitled to say that the first time that the importance of the problem was impressed upon me was by the Prime Minister after one of his visits to the front in June [1915!].’
Against this backdrop, 1st Bn CG was deployed at the First Battle of Ypres in Belgium. During the action around Langemark, between 21 and 25 October 1914, 197 men of the battalion were killed wounded or missing.
A reinforcement draft arrived before their next action at Gheluvelt, which commanded the approach to Ypres, from 27 to 29 October. Initially, they fought to clear woods either side of the Ypres-Menin road of German forces, and then held trench positions close to the road. Even with recent reinforcements the battalion’s strength was only about 350 men, around one third of what it should have been. They were too few in number to defend the length of front which they had been allocated. British positions were attacked by a numerically superior German force in thick mist at 05:30 hrs on the morning of 29 October, resulting in some of the Coldstream’s positions being over-run. 15 of the battalion’s officers were killed, wounded or missing during this action.
The remnants of the battalion, including Thomas, were quite isolated, although the men managed to reform to the east of Gheluvelt village and south of the Ypres-Menin road.
The battalion was withdrawn that night and bivouacked in woods nearby in the 1st Guards Brigade Reserve. Its fighting strength had been reduced to just one officer and 80 other ranks, including Thomas.
After a further reinforcement draft arrived, 1st Bn CG’s strength increased to three officers and about 200 men, still only one fifth of the battalion’s establishment. The battalion was in a crippled state with no serviceable machine guns. It was in no condition to be on the front line having had no time to refit, retrain or recover from its recent ordeals.
However, in an act of desperation to stand firm against German attacks, the Army command deployed the battalion to defend part of the front line in poor trench positions. On 2 November, the Germans launched a heavy artillery bombardment on this section of the British front line and followed it up with an infantry attack. The 1st Bn CG managed to hold its positions against overwhelming numbers for two hours before their trench positions were again over-run. One of the battalion’s three officers was killed, after only 24 hours on the front line, and a second was captured.
At first only about 30 men were able to join up with the sole remaining officer, Lieutenant Quartermaster Boyd, further stragglers appeared during the course of the day. The attack resulted in around 100 men being killed, wounded or captured – a 50% attrition rate from this single action. Thomas was amongst the group of survivors, who were pulled back into the 1st Guards Brigade Reserve positions.
That evening Sir John French, the Commander in Chief of the BEF, issued a Special Order to the troops under his command:
‘The Field Marshal Commanding in Chief has watched with the deepest admiration and solicitude the splendid stand made by the soldiers of His Majesty the King in their successful effort to maintain the forward position which they have won by their gallantry and steadfastness. He believes that no other Army in the world would show such tenacity, especially under the tremendous artillery fire directed against it. Its courage and endurance are beyond all praise. It is an honour to belong to such an Army.
The Field Marshal has to make one more call upon the troops. It is certainly only a question of a few days, and it may be of only a few hours, before, if they only stand firm, a strong support will come, the enemy will be driven back, and in the retirement will suffer losses even greater than those which have befallen him under the terrific blows by which, especially during the last few days, he has been repulsed.
The Commander in Chief feels sure that he does not make his call in vain.’
In the ensuing days, these words must have rung hollow amongst the troops. It was another 18 days before the 1st Guards Brigade was relieved by French troops, on 20 November.
From 23 November to 19 December 1914, the battalion was billeted at Strazeele, reforming and training. By this time, the original members of the BEF, which had landed in France that summer, had been virtually annihilated in supporting the French to stand against the Germans for the first four months of the war. Thomas’s battalion, like many others in the BEF, had suffered a casualty rate of over 100% of its planned establishment; losing nearly 1,200 men killed in action, died of wounds, wounded or captured as Prisoners of War since first contact with the Germans in late August.
On 28 November Field Marshal Sir John French inspected and spoke to the remnants of the battalion. It was also inspected by His Majesty King George V on 3 December.
Thomas was granted leave from 21 December returning to the front line on 9 January 1915.
On 22 January the battalion left Cambrin to go into the trenches at Cuinchy, France, relieving men of The London Scottish Regiment. The trenches at Cuinchy had not been completed and were full of water. To add to the misery imposed by the wintry conditions, the Germans heavily shelled the trenches on 24 January in advance of a German offensive the following day.
Having seen so much action and survived, in spite of unfavourable odds, Thomas’ luck finally ran out early the following morning. German attacks commenced with the explosion of a mine under the trench held by No 4 Company. Other mine explosions occurred and were followed up by a massed German assault, which over-ran part of the British trenches held by the Coldstream Guards.
The battalion was again devastated by the German assault on 25 January 1915 with around 200 men killed, wounded or missing, including Thomas. It is incredible that he had managed to survive the trail of death and destruction for as long as he did.
Thomas Tudball died, aged 31 years. He is now buried at Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery at Soucheze, north of Arras. The cemetery contains over 7,600 burials from World War I, over half of which remain unidentified.