It’s funny how – when you’re looking for something in particular – something else, often more valuable or interesting, turns up. Such was the case for me when, together with my friend, Dave, I came upon a real ‘lost’ treasure in Snettisham churchyard.
In recent years, I have sought to put my obsession with the First World War to more practical use. As well as the usual activities – visiting the Western Front battlefields, writing blogs, conducting family and other research, and buying far more books than I’ll ever be able to read (or store!) – I volunteered (with Dave) to become a team leader on the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s (CWGC) ‘Eyes On, Hands On’ project. This entails visiting every burial site in our area, identifying all of the CWGC owned graves within them, and reporting back on their present, physical condition. Where necessary, our ‘teams’ undertake cleaning and minor maintenance of the graves in accordance with a very precise set of instructions issued by the Commission.
So it was, in August this year, that Dave and I visited Snettisham Church, where three such burials are sited. It was during our quest to locate these graves that we stumbled upon a neglected, overgrown, but nevertheless impressive grave in a far flung corner of the churchyard. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the initials KCB etched on the side of the concrete tomb. Closer examination revealed the barely discernible name of ‘Strickland’.
Now, love them or loathe them, smart phones can be extremely useful things at times like these. Within seconds I had entered these scant details into ‘Google’, which produced a number of entries for Sir (Edward) Peter Strickland KCB KBE CMG DSO. It was immediately evident that this was the resting place of somebody rather special.
Edward Peter Strickland (known as Peter) was born at Snitterfield, Warwickshire, on Tuesday 3rd August 1869. He was the third son of Major Frederick William Strickland and Frances Annie (Fannie) Pattison and was educated at Warwick School. He was commissioned into the Norfolk Regiment as a 2nd lieutenant on 10th November 1888, aged 19 years, and posted to the 2nd Battalion, where he saw active service during the Burma campaigns which were fought until 1889.
He went on to serve under Kitchener as part of the Egyptian Army, notably in the Anglo-Egyptian conquest of Sudan in 1896, and by the turn of the century had risen to brevet major, attaining the full rank in 1908 and assuming command of the Northern Nigerian Regiment.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Peter Strickland was a lieutenant-colonel commanding the 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment, part of the Jullundur Brigade in the 3rd (Lahore) Division of the Indian Corps. The battalion landed in France in September 1914 and saw brief action during the final stages of the 1st Battle of Ypres in October, followed by a much more significant role in the Battle of Givenchy in December 1914.
Promoted to Jullundur brigade commander in January 1915, he led it through the first major British offensive of the war in March 1915 – Neuve Chapelle – followed by the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April of the same year. At the end of 1915, he was briefly given command of the 98th Brigade within 33rd Division, but it was during 1916 that he was to really rise to prominence, being given command of the 1st Division following the failure of his predecessor, Major-General Sir Arthur Holland, to capture Hulluch during the Battle of Loos in September 1915.
Strickland led the 1st Division through some of the most bitter fighting of the war, including at the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916), Arras and Passchendaele (1917), the Battle of the Lys, the 2nd Battle of Arras, and the Battle of the Sambre (1918), before finally being appointed Commander of Western Division of the British Army of the Rhine in 1919.
He was twice wounded during his time in France and emerged with a reputation as a capable and competent commander and as one of the strictest disciplinarians in the British Army at that time. His wartime service was recognised when he was created a KCB in 1919.
On 17th July 1918, he married Barbara Cresswell (nee Ffolkes), the widow of a close friend of his from the Norfolk Regiment, Captain Francis Joseph Cresswell, who was killed during the Battle of Mons on 24th August 1914. Peter and Barbara had one daughter of their own and two from her previous marriage.
With the war behind him, Peter Strickland may have been forgiven for taking things a bit easier from this point onwards. However, like many of his ilk, this ability does not appear have been part of his DNA.
In November 1919, he assumed command of the 6th Division in Ireland. This division had responsibility for supporting the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in Munster, Kilkenny and Wexford at a time when the Anglo-Irish conflict was intensifying, and with the brunt of the fighting falling upon the 6th Division. In 1920 and 1921, Strickland’s troops fought a counter-insurgency campaign that proved to be a model for future 20th Century campaigns. One innovation was the development of British ‘flying columns’, or ‘active service platoons’, to successfully conduct small unit operations against the IRA.
Whilst a passenger in a motor vehicle, travelling along King Street, Cork in September 1920, he was the subject of an assassination attempt when dissident republicans opened fire on his motorcade, injuring a chauffeur. Strickland and those with him returned fire on their attackers. Later that year, he was commissioned to investigate the ‘Cork incident’: an act of retaliation by auxiliary members of the RIC in which a substantial part of the city centre was burned down. The report was subsequently suppressed by Lloyd George’s government. Strickland’s private papers reveal his bitterness with the British Government over the conduct of the campaign in Ireland and the loss of life on all sides.
Following the declaration of martial law across four counties (which his area of command fell into) in December 1921, Strickland found himself appointed as the military governor for these areas. A state of armed insurrection having been declared to be in place, Strickland assumed responsibility – not only for military operations – but for the administration of law and order per se. In fact, the vast majority of executions of members of the IRA were carried out under his command, and as the last soldier to exercise control of a substantial area of the United Kingdom under martial law – and to impose the death penalty for rebellion against the Crown – Strickland occupies a notable place in constitutional history.
He remained in Ireland until the withdrawal of British troops in May 1922. Thereafter, he was appointed commander of the 2nd Division at Aldershot, and was subsequently promoted to lieutenant-general in 1926.
His final years of military service saw him return to Egypt as General in Overall Command (GOC) of the British forces there. He retired in 1931, although he remained as Colonel of the Royal Norfolk Regiment until 1949. He died at his home at the Old Hall, Snettisham, on 24th June 1951 at the age of 81 years.
Two months ago, I knew nothing of him; nothing of his life; nothing of his notable military service. A chance discovery in a remote part of a Norfolk churchyard was the catalyst for this blog and for the research that has gone into it. After discovering his rather decrepit grave, I contacted the local vicar who – together with the church warden – has been very supportive in assisting us to try and bring Sir Peter’s life to notice (locally, at least). Today, Dave and I have been back to tidy his grave up a bit. We felt it was the least we could do for this special man.
The phrase ‘A Baptism of Fire’ is one which is so over-used as to be have become something of a cliché. People often use it to describe the experience of their first day in a new job, however relatively banal that may have actually been. Biblically speaking, the phrase relates to the spiritual baptism, prophesied by John the Baptist, that the coming Messiah would administer to repentant sinners. However, if there is one group of people who may be justified in laying claim to the metaphoric version, it must surely be the 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry and those of its men who saw their first action of the First World War, at a little-known spot to the east of Ypres, in April 1915.
The Battalion formed part of the 151st Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Division, a Territorial Force consisting mainly of men mainly taken from the coalfaces and ship yards of the north-east and Yorkshire. They received their orders to leave England for France on 16th April 1915 – some travelling to Le Havre and some to Boulogne that very day. By 23rd April, they had fully concentrated in the area of Steenvoorde, a few miles to the west of the French-Belgian border and a place that millions of subsequent pilgrims to the battlefields will have passed through since.
A day earlier, on 22nd April, the Germans had launched their infamous gas attack along the Langemarck-Bixschoote front in what heralded the Second Battle of Ypres. With it went any plans the 50th Division may have had for familiarisation training ahead of deployment to the front line. Instead, within hours, the G.O.C. was ordered to have all units of the Division ‘standing by’. Such was the critical nature of the situation to the east of Ypres, that the Division was split up in order to provide support to other Divisions in the thick of the battle. At 1600hrs on 23rd April, the 6th and 8th Battalion DLI were ordered to march to Poeringhe and Vlamertinghe respectively. At 8pm, the entire 151st Brigade was placed at the disposal of V Corps, under General Plumer.
By 2300 hrs on 24th April, after receiving a series of orders, one countermanding the other, the 8th DLI found themselves astride the Verlorenhoek-Frezenberg road, about half way between the two villages. By now under the command of 85th Brigade (28th Division), orders were received to head for the 3rd Royal Fusiliers BHQ near Gravenstafel where guides would lead them to some unfinished trenches dug by the hard pressed and battle-weary Canadians who were desperately fighting to hold a line in the face of the formidable German advance. After a torturous march there, they were informed that the position they had been ordered to entrench was untenable and, instead, at 0200 hrs on 25th April, the 8th DLI were ordered to relieve the 8th Canadians in the front line north-east of Boetleer Farm, the BHQ of those Canadians being in the farm itself. They were there in an hour, just as dawn was breaking, and found the BHQ filled with Canadian wounded and in dire need of attention, the Medical Officer having been killed. It was considered unsuitable for anything else given the constant shelling they were enduring and the severe damage they had sustained.
Today, there is no Boetleer Farm, but a farm and associated buildings can be found on the exact site, which is on Keerzelaarstraat (referred to in the Official History of the 50th Division as the Gravenstafel Road), approximately 500 metres north-west of the New Zealand memorial at the junction with Roselarestraat and s’Gravenstafel.
I suspect that – shell holes and craters aside – the environment around the farm has changed very little since 1915. It is very quiet, peaceful and very rustic. The road through is a popular route for cyclists and agricultural vehicles alone. The farm rests on something of a plateau, with the ground initially and barely discernibly rising, and then sloping down very gently away to the south, north and east. Standing there, surveying the ground, I tried (as I always do) to picture the scene just over 104 years ago: the noise, the smell, the reverberations, the darkness pierced by the light of explosions and Verys. The fear.
On arriving at Boetleer Farm , the beleaguered 8th Canadians were unable to provide the 8th DLI with a clear picture of the situation. Indeed, so confused was it, that the Canadians were unable to even pinpoint on a map where there were. A and D Companies were despatched to the front line trench, approximately 600-1000 yards north of the farm. There they relieved the Canadians holding that particular line and found the area in and around the trenches filled with the bodies of dead and gassed French Colonial troops. A and D Coys alone held that horribly exposed front trench, with the German front line lying ahead of them between 80 – 250 yards to the north, encircling their position to the front. Owing to the nature of the ground, Boetleer Farm was not visible from A and D Coy positions. Meanwhile, B and C Coys – together with detachments of Canadians, Suffolks and Monmouths – held lines south of the road and along the hedgerows to the east and west of the farm buildings.
The shelling, which had been steady since the 8th DLI had arrived at Boetleer Farm, was accompanied by sudden and intense rifle fire from the west at about 0330 hrs. At 1100 hrs, the shell fire intensified with 45-68 High Explosive and burst shrapnel shells exploding over the neighbourhood. In the fields south of the farm, where B and C Coys were sheltering along the hedges, casualties were severe. The farm buildings were now just a mass of ruins, but beneath them was a large cellar which had been made bomb proof with sandbags. It had been being used as a First Aid post and telephone room for communicating with the 2nd Canadian Bed HQ. All lines were now down, however and communication was no longer possible.
At 1230 hrs, the German fire switched to the A and D Coy trenches. The Official History of the 50th Division records that Lts J N O Rogerds and B H Richardson, plus three men, were ‘mortally wounded in the first salvo’. This is incorrect: Lt Rogers was reported as missing on 27th April, but both he and Richardson had in fact been taken prisoner of war by the Germans. Rogers was eventually repatriated on 22nd November 1918, but Richardson sadly died from his wounds in captivity on 31st May 1915 and is buried at Niederzwehren Cemetery, Kassel, Hessen in Germany. From this time onwards A and D Coy trenches were continually bombarded until evening, with the enemy’s trench mortars joining the assault. Many dug outs were blown to pieces with men being buried within them.
Having been in the line for 11 hours, things were really starting to warm up for the 8th DLI. At 1400 hrs, D Coy scouts reported Germans massing in dead ground to the north west of the D Coy line. These advanced, but rifle fire was opened up on them to good effect. Simultaneously, shells began to fall again on the farm buildings north and south of the road, the fire being directed by hostile aircraft who were continually hovering over the line. An attack directed against the Canadians on the left was easily repulsed. Meanwhile, the Germans continued to mass to the north west of the D Coy trench, unable to be observed by the Monmouths or Suffolks, or from the north farm buildings. The left of the D Coy line was extended southwards, during which a small party of men was wiped out by machine gun fire from an unknown location. Approximately 4000 yards to their north west, D Coy observed three train loads of troops detraining. All attempts at sending runners back with information for the C.O. resulted in the runners being shot down.
Between 1500 and 1530 hrs, 3000 yards to the north, more Germans were spotted in close order, but beginning to extend and advance southwards. In response to this, B Coy was brought up and placed under cover east of the farm buildings and north of the road. A detachment of men was sent off to some higher ground, about 1200 yards on the right flank, to try and get a clearer picture of enemy numbers and dispositions in that area. Shortly after 1530 hrs, B Coy was ordered to reinforce D Coy on the left of the front line trench and made it to a breastwork close by. However, shelling was so intense that they had to evacuate their position and fall back again to the line of the road. Many men were ‘gassed’ by fumes from the exploding shells and thick hedge and brushwood prevented them from seeing much of the situation on their left. By 1600 hrs, the Germans had extended east and west from the original position north, and had advanced significantly. At this point, C Coy was moved up on the right of B Coy.
Amidst all the stress and horror of this seemingly relentless assault, the 8th DLI’s predicament was exacerbated by uncertainty with regards to who held overall command of them. Contrary to their initial belief, they did not appear to be under the command of the 28th Division – the Canadian staff officers seeming to be only responsible for their own men. In light light of this, an attempt was made between 1600 and 1700 hrs to ascertain who was in overall command of 8th DLI and to point out the large gap between their right and the next troops, the superior German numbers they faced, the heavy casualties they had sustained and to press home the need for artillery support in the area. All that they were told in return was that they would be relieved ‘after dark’. The confusing picture is further exemplified by a Canadian major telling them that he had received orders that they were to retire to the south of Gravenstafel. These were completely ignored.
At 1812 hrs, an A Coy captain reported that he was being heavily attacked and asked if he should retire. The message back was unequivocal: “You must hang on at all costs”. The German’s shell fire had again increased in intensity and both A and D Coys suffered further heavy losses along the road. What’s more, another German battery had begun to open fire on the rear of 8th DLI (from the eastern apex of the Salient), an action which called further heavy casualties.
By 1900 hrs, the situation had become desperate. D Coy was down to its last 50 men, was being heavily shelled and taken in flank by machine gun and rifle fire, and, finally, was forced to fall back. It retired through A Coy’s trench but got lost trying to make its way back to HQ, instead joining up with the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers from 28th Division. Soon after, the remnants of A Coy also retired, to the east. The enemy now came on in considerable strength, but machine gun fire brought them to a standstill 300 yards short of the 8th DLI lines. “The fire discipline was excellent and well controlled,” records the Battalion Narrative.
Territorial troops from a company of Middlesex and one of Monmouths had arrived (partly by accident) about 30 minutes earlier, the former being immediately sent up to prolong the right, whilst the Monmouths were echeloned in rear of the right flank as a reserve. As night fell, the firing gradually ceased, although occasional bursts of shells fire ensured nobody rested easy. Every now and then, a German Very light (the 8th DLI had none) would throw an eerie light over the fields and ruins of Boetleer Farm. Still unable to ascertain whose command they were under, an 8th DLI captain was again despatched to report back and to glean what information he could at about 1930 hrs. Soon after 2000 hrs, he reached the HQ of 3rd Royal Fusiliers and was able to speak to 85th Bde HQ by telephone. Having explained the situation, he was informed that relief would come at 2100 hrs and that the 8th DLI should then fall back to a line roughly on the line of the Haanebeek which they must then hold. The relief did not materialise.
The 8th DLI reorganised and put their new line into a state of defence. Fresh ammunition and water was served out and patrols sent out to touch with the Germans. A company of Monmouths was brought up near the field south of the farm, whilst two platoons were sent forward to the building north of the road. Intense digging ensued during the night of the 25th – 26th April, under the added hazard of continual sniper fire. At 0215 hrs, orders for the 26th April were received: counter attacks by the French and British were planned against the centre of the German line south west of St Julien and up to Turco Farm. It is difficult to envisage that these orders brought much in the way of immediate comfort to the gallant 8th DLI, still desperately clinging on to their piece of advanced and dangerously exposed line.
Dawn on the 26th April brought with it a thick mist which covered the ground. The new line taken up overnight had been inspected and found to be correct. Patrols reported the Germans being 350-400 yards to the north of the 8th DLI line and also overlapping their right flank. Before it was light, Middlesex and Monmouth company commanders reported that they had received orders to rejoin their battalions. However, until such time as Territorial reinforcements had arrived, the Middlesex’ were ordered to remain, whilst only two platoons of the Monmouth’s were allowed to leave. Soon after 0400 hrs, the enemy once again was reported to be advancing. This news was exacerbated by the discovery that the Middlesex’ and the Monmouth’s had – contrary to what the 8Th DLI had been led to believe – already retired. The former were located and immediately returned to the line, but the absence of the Monmouth’s meant that the buildings on the north of the road were unmanned.
The Germans came on dressed in khaki and claiming to be ‘British’ and ‘Suffolks’. The disappearance of the Monmouths had created a gap in the left of the line into which the Germans now poured, quickly gaining possession of the buildings on both sides of the road. Machine gun fire in enfilade was then opened up on the 8th DLI, whilst simultaneously, the Germans advanced against the centre of the line, turning the right flank of the Middlesex’. The situation was now hopeless and the ridge about Boetleer Farm untenable. With the farm lost, the 8th DLI and Middlesex’ fell back, confusedly at first, but with increasing controls and steadiness. Eventually, the remnants of the 8th DLI fell back in alternate sections, finally reaching a position about the line of the Haanebeek. Few casualties were sustained during the withdrawal, but heavy casualties were inflicted upon the advancing Germans. The much-promised reinforcements were eventually located south of the Haanebeek, to where the 8th DLI further fell back. at 0100 hrs on 27th April, the 8th DLI finally received their orders to retire to Verlorenhoek, where they duly reported at 0300hrs.
6 Officers and 140 Other Ranks came out of the battle. They were at once organised into a single company and placed in dug-outs just west of the village. In total the Battalion – which had only left Newcastle for France 11 days previously – had lost 19 Officers and 574 Other Ranks. Their losses were such that, temporarily, they amalgamated with the 6th DLI to form one Battalion until replacements were found. But, they had more than gained a name for themselves – they had written themselves into the war’s history. General Bulfin, G.O.C. 28th Division, wrote of them
“The greatest possible credit is due to the 8th Durham Light Infantry and the small detachments who, in spite of having their flanks turned and being enfiladed, remained in the northern line, beating off all attacks and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy and thereby securing the flank of the 85th Infantry Brigade“.
The names of two of the officers killed at Boetleer farm, Captain Luther Vincent Burgoyne-Johnson and Lieutenant William Marshall can be found on panel 36 at the Menin gate, neither man having any known grave. The former was the son of the late Lieutenant-colonel J Burgoyne-Johnson.
Lieutenant James Robson Brass, 24 years old and from Sacriston, Durham, is buried at Potijze Burial Ground Cemetery.
There are, of course, countless tales of heroism and sacrifice associated with the First World War. However, few could have involved such an explosive and deadly introduction to fighting at the front as that of the 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry. Truly a Baptism of Fire.
As the sun went down on the recent First World War centenary, questions started to be asked asked about what the future holds for the commemoration of this cataclysmic event. There appears (to me) to have been a fairly ambivalent response from many historians to the ‘official’ commemorative events of the past four years, with some going as far as to assert that these years have represented a ‘missed opportunity’ with regards to securing the First World War in the active memory of the current and future generations.
It is too soon after the centenary commemorations to objectively assess their longer-term legacy. However, it is highly unlikely that interest in the War will collapse overnight. The number of professional historians and enthusiasts currently using social media platforms, such as Twitter, alone – to post information, opinions and debate – suggests that the First World War is not a subject that will be vacating the (inter)national consciousness any time soon.
A recent blog posted on Twitter by a Historian I follow and for whom I have the utmost respect, Peter Anderson (“The Cult of the #FWW’s 11%’ – @flanders1914) prompted some to question whether the act of commemoration was predominantly being driven by a ‘morbid obsession’ with ‘11%’ of those combatants who were killed in the war, at the expense of to ‘the 89%’ (themselves not black and white statistics – a point very well made in a linked post by Professor Peter Doyle) who survived it and returned to post-war lives. This is indeed a very interesting point and, I am certain, not one posed by anybody intending to undermine the memory of those who did indeed make the ultimate sacrifice.
From the historians’ perspective, a desire to expand research of the war away from ‘the dead’ is applaudable and certainly there are still many aspects of the wider war which deserve further exploration. Not least, the lives of those who returned from the war. Were they – as Remarque suggests in his preface to All Quiet on the Western Front – ‘destroyed by the war’? What exactly was the War’s effect on Women’s suffrage: did it accelerate women’s voting rights (as some still believe), or did it delay it (as others believe)? How – in spite of misinterpreted claims of a ‘lost generation’ – was Britain able to successfully survive and fight a Second World War just twenty-one years later? What were the biggest changes in society and societal attitudes that can be directly attributed to the effect of the First World War?
I appreciate that there is a wealth of material already written that would at least try to answer many of these, deliberately basic, questions. However, the point made by Peter Anderson is that too much time and energy is now being given to the commemoration and remembrance of the dead at the expense of those who survived the war.
In answer to this, I would suggest that the balance is just about right. Taking the actual war as an example, the dozens of books I possess on the subject cover a vast array of aspects, from the origins of the war, to specific battles, specific regiments and divisions, uniforms, insignia, fictional accounts, gender, race, poetry, geo-political impact…the list is seemingly endless. The dead, of course, are frequently discussed – how could they not be in the context of such a dreadful event? This alone does not constitute an obsession: a better question might be to ask whether a wider obsession with death factors in our interest in the First World War per se? The answer to that would surely be one for the individual. None of this is to say, however, that there is not room for more research into individual survivors of the war as Peter Anderson suggests. There is always room for more.
Neither does the ongoing commemoration of the dead, so wonderfully represented in the work of the CWGC, both at home and across the world, equate to an obsession with them. It should be remembered that today’s CWGC evolved from a public demand (in the United Kingdom, at least), amid an unprecedented outpouring of national grief, for something with which they could permanently remember their dead by. Hence, for example, Lutyens’ Cenotaph – originally a temporary structure in 1919 – being rebuilt as a permanent memorial in 1920, and the birth of the first ‘Battlefield Tours’ around the same time. The greatest tragedy in any war must surely be the loss of human life which accompanies it. Nobody who has ever visited one of the hundreds of ‘Silent Cities’ can surely fail to be deeply moved by them. To attempt to visit Flanders, Picardy, the Dardanelles, the Middle East etc. in the context of the First World War and not find these impeccably maintained memorials to sacrifice is unthinkable: they are the metaphorical elephants in the room.
I wholeheartedly agree with Peter Anderson that the lives of those who made a sacrifice during the First World War, returning in whatever form, to whatever circumstances, will always be a worthy subject area for research and writing. My own grandfather was one of ‘the 89%’; his brother, one of the ‘11%’. However, my own moral compass will always primarily and instinctively steer me towards commemorating those who made the ultimate sacrifice. It is their memory, above all else, that I feel a tangible sense of duty to ensure never diminishes.
The precise details of how Private 119987 Robert Durham, 47th Battalion, Machine Gun Corps, was killed on this day, exactly 100 years ago, are unknown. In reality, they will probably remain unknown. However, there are things I do know and things that – even today – I continue to learn and understand.
In the world of homicide investigations (of which I have plenty of fairly recent previous experience) the number one essential rule is to follow the evidence. This is often quite a straight forward process, but sometimes – where evidence is hard to obtain for whatever reason – it is necessary to consider and investigate a number of ‘working hypotheses’, i.e. educated guesses based on whatever reasonable information is actually in your possession. In the absence of hard evidence regarding the death of Bobby Durham, I have had to employ this exact same tactic today. Consequently, what follows will at the very least include a couple of the most likely scenarios. I will, however, steer well clear of the fantastical or the highly unlikely.
Since yesterday’s blog, having re-checked the Battalion’s war diaries, I can eliminate the possibility of Bobby being in Company C from the conundrum. This Company was exclusively located on high ground overlooking Martinsart Wood alongside Company A. Whilst it did sustain a number of casualties on 5th April 1918, none of these were fatal (on that day at least). The fatalities sustained by the Battalion as a whole on 5th April totalled 6 (a 7th died from wounds the following day). Of these 6, one was known to have come from A Company, with two each coming from B and D Companies. Only 2 have no known graves, however: Private Bobby Durham and Private Henry Jenkins, a Welshman. As I have previously said, it is simply not possible at this time to identify precisely what Company Bobby belonged to, but there is some evidence that points towards it being D Company. In any event, the map below details where each Company were positioned at the start of the day:
In simpler terms, the Companies were situated to the west of Aveluy Wood, providing machine gun cover from the higher ground towards Martinsart Wood and Aveluy village. In addition, B Company was positioned just to the west of Martinsart, whilst a section of D Company were actually positioned within the south-west corner of Aveluy Wood.
We began our trip today by walking across the ground where these positions were located. As we set off on foot from our car towards this ground the following sight suddenly greeted us:
I personally interpreted this as being some sort of message that we were heading in the right direction!
We followed a farm track up to where A, C and D Company guns were placed on the higher ground furthest west. From here it was easy to see why these guns were positioned there: the range of vision across Aveluy Wood, the village and Martinsart Wood would have made it easy to identify and assault the attacking German forces. Even now, 100 years later, it is easy to find evidence of the violence in the form of splintered shell cases, shell caps and even (sadly) fragments of human bodies. Today was no exception in respect of the first two, which were in ample evidence in all of the positions we visited.
The German assault on that day began at 6am. It consisted of an intensive artillery bombardment of the area, initially focused on Aveluy Wood and the positions immediately surrounding it. In Aveluy Wood, this was quickly followed by an infantry attack. In all, the assault lasted five hours and, I am quite certain, Bobby would have been killed within that time frame. IF he was in D Company, my best guess is that he would have been killed in Aveluy Wood itself, either shelled or as a result of the infantry attack there. IF he was in A or B Companies, my best guess is that he would have been killed by an artillery shell at any one of the positions marked on the map. We visited them all this morning, with the exception of Aveluy Wood. This is because the wood is now in private ownership and access to it is prohibited. We managed, however, to get reasonably close to the south western edge, where B Company guns were positioned, as the below photo shows:
After eventually returning to my car, we decided to take a drive along the D50 Albert to Hamel road, which dissects Aveluy Wood and where Aveluy Wood CWGC Military Cemetery is located.
This is where it all began to get very interesting (and emotional).
From the road, the wood is dark, forbidding and very clearly still bears many of the scars of its experience during the First World War. The ground is undulating, pock-marked and violently corrupted. There is a real atmosphere of foreboding. As we entered the cemetery, I was immediately struck by a sense that this was a very private place; one solely inhabited by victims from the wood itself (many cemeteries contain graves of soldiers killed from a much larger area).
VIEW OF WESTERN SIDE OF AVELUY WOOD FROM THE CWGC CEMETERY.
The cemetery contained several graves of casualties from the 47th (London) Division killed on 5th April 1918. However, none of the graves contained men from the Machine Gun Corps. Except one: ‘an unknown soldier’. Immediately we noticed that this grave was surrounded by ‘unknown soldiers’ from other 47th Division regiments. This prompted us to inquire of the CWGC gardener working nearby as to the history of these graves. He helpfully confirmed that they contained the bodies of soldiers killed inside Aveluy Wood between April and September 1918.
Given the proximity to other 47th Divisioners, IF the only action that could have resulted in them being in Aveluy Wood cemetery was the one on April 5th (and initial research suggests that this was the case – although further research is required) then there is a GENUINE possibility that this grave could be that of Bobby Durham. Certainly, of the known casualties of the 5th April, it could only be Bobby or Henry Jenkins, as all of the others have known graves. In summary, further work is required, but suffice to say that there is already some evidence that suggests that this being the grave of Bobby Durham is a strong possibility.
I have to admit, this unexpected find shook me to the core. My friends and accomplices, Dave and Steve, have been joking over that last couple of days about me getting ‘that moment’, when I would somehow really sense that Bobby was close. Well, all joking aside, this was it for me and, intuitively, I believe this could well be him. So much so that I decided to abandon my plans to lay the poppy wreath I had bought to lay at the Faubourg D’Amiens CWGC Memorial (where Bobby’s name is inscribed, but where he most certainly is not) and to, instead, lay it at the side of this grave.
After paying our respects, Steve and Dave then surprised me by presenting me with a MGC cap badge they had planned to give me at the Arras Memorial later today. To say the whole experience was emotional is to understate it hugely.
As a fitting finale to this pilgrimage, we finished the day in Arras at the Faubourg D’Amiens CWGC Memorial. Here, I paid my final respects to Private Robert Durham: my Great Uncle Bobby.
The saddest part of all is that at the end of the 5th April 1918, having made only the most paltry of gains on that day, the German General Officer Commanding, General Ludendorff, called an end to Operation Michael. Thereafter, attention would turn to the north of the line towards Lys.
Had Bobby Durham survived this one final day……..
I don’t know how much more – if anything at all – I’ll be able to find out about Bobby Durham. I won’t stop trying though and anything of real interest will be the subject of a further blog. I would love it to be the case that, on the centenary of his death, it was his grave I stood beside and laid my wreath upon; that somehow he will know that he is never forgotten and that his Great nephew cared enough about his supreme sacrifice to come and visit him one hundred years later.
As I write this, a hundred years ago, my Great Uncle Bobby Durham had entered the final 24 hours of his short life. Tomorrow, I will visit the area where he was killed, close to Aveluy Wood, in the Somme region of France. But for now, I will provide a short backdrop to Bobby, his war and his death on Friday 5th April 1918.
Robert Durham (Bobby) was the first born child of Henry and Sarah Durham (Harry and Sally as they were known). He was born during the summer of 1893. In 1896, his brother (my Grandad), John Watson Durham, was born and finally, in 1898, came their sister, Hannah. All of the children were born in Felling, then in County Durham (now Tyne and Wear).
by 1911, he had moved to Sheffield where he had gained employment in a steelworks. His father, Harry, had been a coal hewer and it may well have been his experience and influence which led to Bobby seeking a different course for his own life.
Like every other aspect of Bobby’s short life, details are scarce, but we do know that at some stage during the First World War he enlisted into the East Yorkshire Regiment. I say ‘enlisted’, but it is more likely that he was conscripted. Conscription for the British forces began in January 1916 and targeted men between the ages of 18-41. Prior to this, many men were kept out of the armed forces and in ‘reserved occupations’ (steelworkers were one, due to the need for mass production of munitions for the war effort). Although I have no information as to when exactly Bobby joined the army, I have been able to confirm that he did not land in France (and so see any action) until December 1917. Consequently, I suspect that it was sometime in 1917.
Upon arrival in France, Bobby was sent to an overflow camp (a kind of holding station), until eventually being reassigned to the newly restructured and reorganised Machine Gun Corps (47th battalion) in March 1918. There is an entry in the 47th battalion’s records which is good evidence that this official move would have been on 13th March. However, it also suggests that he was on attachment to the MGC before that date. It reads:
“Battalion took part in Divisional Tactical Exercise at Le Mesnil. 117 Other Ranks joined from Infantry Battalions of 47th Division, 31 Other Ranks already attached from Infantry Battalions taken on strength.”
It is almost certain that Bobby was one of the 31 Other Ranks referred to here as there are no other intakes into 47th Battalion around that time and as a member of the East Yorkshire’s, he would not previously have been a part of the 47th Division.
The newly created 47th Battalion was the result of a reorganisation of the previous Machine Gun Companies which became necessary as the war evolved. They provided the machine gun support to the 47th (London) Division. Roughly speaking, the 47th battalion would have probably consisted of 300-400 men at that time, divided into Companies, each containing approximately 50 men. These would have probably operated in, between, 2-4 gun teams of around 8 men. The 47th Division (of which the 47th Battalion was a part), had seen action in most of the many of the major battles of the war, including the 2nd Battle of Ypres (1915), the Battle of the Somme (1916), the Battle of Arras and the 3rd Battle of Ypres (both 1917). They were a London Division comprising of 12 battalions (organised into three brigades) plus a number of support sections such as artillery, medics, pioneers, mortar teams and machine gunners. At full strength, the division would have had approximately 12,000 men. However, by the end of 1917, the actual ‘fighting fit’ number would have been closer to 5000 men in total.
Through a process of elimination, largely from examining the casualty lists of the 5th April and battalion war diaries, I have been able to narrow down Bobby’s Company as being one of A-D. What little evidence there currently is leads me to believe that B or D Company are the most likely (with D Company being the slight favourite). In any event, each of these Companies was in position between Ruyaulcourt and Fins when the Germans launched their final Offensive (Operation Michael, or the ‘Kaiserschlacht’) on 21st March 1918. The maps below provide an overview of this:
This morning, with my good friends Dave Cole and Steve Smith (fellow WW1 enthusiasts and – in the case of Steve – qualified battlefield guide), I visited the area where Bobby would have been located. The picture below shows a part of the battlefield today:
VIEW FROM OUTSKIRTS OF RUYAULCOURT LOOKING TOWARDS HAVRINCOURT WOOD. THIS IS ON THE KNOWN SPOT OF ONE OF THE 47TH BN MACHINE GUN PLACEMENTS ON 21ST MARCH 1918.
Met by an irresistible German advance and in a situation of relative chaos, if not panic, the 47th Division (like so many others along the Western Front) were forced into a long, bitter, fighting retreat. By the 24th March, the Division had been forced back close to High Wood (which they had taken from the Germans during the Somme campaign of 1916). The entire 47th Division by now contained only a few hundred fighting-fit men, such were the heavy losses they sustained. Here they remained as efforts were made to stem the tide of the German advance, before further retiring to new positions between Albert and Hamel, to the west of the River Ancre. On 26th March they were relieved by the 12th Division and returned to the rear lines for some much needed rest and a chance to reorganise.
On 4th April, Companies A-D of the 47th Battalion Machine Gun Corps – including 24 year old Geordie boy, Bobby Durham – moved into new positions around Aveluy Wood in the full knowledge that they were once more about to face the onslaught of this relentless German Offensive.