I have always been fascinated by the Great War ever since I realised that my father was involved in it. He very rarely spoke about his experiences. Occasionally he mentioned places such as “Wipers” (Ypres), “Plugstreet” (Ploegsteert), “Pop” (Poperinghe) or Arras.
The only specific thing I can remember him talking about was the filth and privations they had to endure and even then it was treated in a lighthearted fashion. He would jokingly refer to it as “Fighting Fleas in Flanders”. I didn’t realise the significance of his humour until I discovered that his Division – the 4th – had produced the postcard below, early in the war, with a cartoon called “Fighting Fleas (?) in Flanders”.
I always felt that I was fully aware of the destruction and carnage; the horror of the slime and mud; the terror undergone and the full extent of man’s inhumanity to man. How wrong I was!
My eldest son had invited me to take a trip with him to visit some of the places my father had mentioned in his diary, with the special mission of seeing where my uncle, killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915, was buried.
We achieved our special mission, only my uncle did not have a carved headstone; his name was among the twenty thousand names carved on seventy plus huge stone plaques which encircled the cemetery. These were the names of the men who had “no known graves”. In addition to these stone plaques, there were hundreds of white headstones, set in neat rows (in true military fashion), beneath which were bodies of soldiers that had been found. Even then, some of them could be identified and bore the words a “Soldier of the Northamptonshire Regiment” or "of the Bedfordshire Regiment” etc., and the legend “Known unto God”.
A soldier from this village – Sergeant Robert WARD – is buried in this cemetery at Dud Corner, Loos.
Every cemetery we subsequently visited was the same. Hundreds and hundreds of neatly laid out gravestones, so many of which contained the bodies of unknown soldiers.
For us the climax came when we visited Ypres and went to the Menin Gate where there is a nightly service when the “Last Post” is played. Every one of the many facades which make up this huge memorial contained hundreds of names of Commonwealth soldiers who had no known grave. There were in excess of fifty seven thousand such names.
The whole effect was so awe-inspiring, devastating and traumatising that my son and I looked at each other and both said “My God. They were all somebody’s son, husband or brother!”
I was so humbled at the enormity of the butchery of those four years that the only words I could find to say, as I signed each cemetery’s visitor’s book, was “Thank You”.
On my way home, on the bus to Wellingborough, I was still deep in thought about what I had seen when it suddenly occurred to me that men from our village, who had died, deserved so much more than to be just names “carved on a block of stone”. They deserved individual biographies to be collated into a book so that their names really would live for evermore in the minds of the people of Stanwick. I hope this work does justice to their services.
This was truly a period of lost innocence and a lost generation.
As in Britain, every village, town and city in France had their own war memorial. Whereas the British memorials are generally very simple in design (stone crosses on plinths or cenotaph-like structures), the French memorials, in true Gallic flair, were much more flamboyant. Even the words on the memorials showed our national characteristics. Ours usually contain the “stiff-upper-lip”, unemotional words like “In memory of the men of this town who gave up their lives etc…” and “Their names liveth for evermore.” The French were much more emotional and poignant. My schoolboy French did not permit me to make a full translation on the memorials, but there were two words I could translate, and they were “Nous enfants” – our children. The pathos of these two words struck me immediately. We did not refer to our soldiers as “Our children” and yet they were the children of Stanwick. They walked the same pavements, climbed the same trees, fished in the same rivers and streams.
Sadly – those children became our lost generation – their innocence shattered in the trenches of France.
In the last census before the First World War the local population of Stanwick was 922 men, women and children. This was in 1911. Families were generally much larger in those days, so the proportion of children in this census total would be greater than one could expect in modern times.
If you take this fact into account, then add the number of women and men beyond military age living in the village at the time, it is reasonable to assume that the number of young men available for service in the Armed Forces could have been barely more than 200.
A study of a “Roll of Honour” board produced during the war, which listed the names of all the men from the village who were serving in the Armed Forces, would show that there were 152 names listed. That was only up to and including the year 1917. It will, therefore, be clearly seen that the young men of that generation, living in Stanwick, were not to be found wanting when the call to arms was made. There would have been very few young, able-bodied men of military age, in this village, who were not in uniform.
Sadly, 36 of these men died. A small number of them from illnesses associated with the hardships of training or with privations suffered in the trenches among the slime and mud. However, the vast majority were killed in action or died from wounds.
On the 9th May 1915, in the same battle, 4 men died. Two of these were brothers and, prior to enlisting, neither had left the village, even for a night. What a traumatic experience it must have been for the families concerned. Indeed, what a shattering effect it must have had on the whole village. These 4 men would have been reported missing at first and there would have been days or weeks of anguish and agonised waiting. Their bodies were never found or identified and their names are shown on two separate memorials, listed as having “No known graves”.
Of the many young men who went away with such enthusiasm and idealisation, 1 in 5 did not return – a very high proportion. This was because most of them joined the infantry in the many battalions of the County Regiment, thus being in more frequent direct contact with the enemy.
The events in bold type are those in which men of Stanwick were probably involved.
13 Aug: British Expeditionary Force (less than 90,000 men) had landed and concentrated in France and then moved into Belgium.
23/24 Aug: Battle of Mons. Although heavily outnumbered British managed to delay German advance.
25/26 Aug: Battle of Le Cateau, where again the British delayed much stronger German forces.
Fighting retreat southwards by both British and French until the River Marne was reached. Germans within 14 miles of Paris.
5 Sept: Battle of the Marne. French attack German flanks who start to retreat.
7 Sept: All French taxis in Paris used to rush troops northwards as reinforcements.
13 Sept: Battle of the River Aisne.
As Germans retreated they were continually trying to outflank the Allies and the skirmishes continued in a north westerly direction. It was imperative to stop the Germans from reaching the Channel ports. To this end, the BEF moved by trains in a wide sweep to Abbeville and then moved to St Omer, blocking the route to Boulogne and to Ypres, blocking the road to Calais. These moves were completed between the end of September to the middle of October and enabled the British to link up with the Belgians in the north.
11 Oct – 2 Nov: Battle of La Bassee. BEF attempt to advance eastwards failed. Germans counter-attacked, but despite heavily outnumbering BEF, also failed.
20 Oct – 17 Nov: First Battle of Ypres. Northamptonshire Regiment distinguishes itself with heavy losses. Although German attacks failed they had destroyed many of the best and most experienced regiments of the British Army who could only be replaced by volunteers.
Enter many Stanwick men into the fray.
The early months of the new year were relatively quiet as both sides assimilated new reinforcements and built up supplies.
10 Mar: Battle of Neuve Chappelle. BEF attack started well but due to poor communications and strong German defence the attack slowly petered out. 2nd Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment involved. Suffered heavy casualties.
25 Apr: Landings began at Gallipoli. Although not on the Western Front this attack on Turkey is included because a Stanwick soldier died here.
2 Apr – 13 May: 2nd Battle of Ypres. The first time poison gas was used. Canadians excelled in this battle.
9 May: Battle of Aubers Ridge. Really a continuation of the Battle of Neuve Chappelle. Disaster day for Stanwick. 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Northamptonshire Regiment were involved. Four men from the village died on that day.
9 May – 25 May: Battle of Festubert. A conspicuous success for the Allies.
25 Sept – 13 Oct: Battle of Loos. This was a costly failure that was so nearly a great success. Failure to use the Reserve Divisions when needed was principle cause of failure. BEF suffered over 50,000 casualties (800 officers and 15,000 other ranks were killed or missing and never heard of again). The Northamptons lost 10 officers and 362 other ranks. Allies used poison gas for the first time.
6 Jan: Conscription Bill passed.
21 Feb: Battle of Verdun began. No direct British involvement. Throughout the early months of 1916 there were a number of relatively minor conflicts. The Germans penetrated the British lines at Boesinghe but were driven out. The Germans attacked the “Bluff” just south of Ypres in March and captured it. It was recaptured and the attack was marked by casualties running into thousands on both sides. All for a spoil heap just 30 feet high.
In April the Germans attacked in the Loos area using poison gas and, again, were unsuccessful. The Germans drove the French off Vimy Ridge north of Arras.
1 Jul – 15 Nov: Battle of the Somme. Although in one sense it was a diversion from the French agonies at Verdun, it was a battle in its own right and has become synonymous with slaughter. The casualties on the first day of the Somme were 57,470, of which 19,290 had been killed, 35,493 were wounded (many of these would die of their wounds later). 2,000 men were listed as missing which probably meant they had been blown to pieces.
The battle (or more correctly the series of battles) continued until 18 November, by which time the British casualties totalled 420,000. Tanks were first used in this battle but not in any great number. Five Northamptonshire Battalions were involved at the Somme and at least two men from the village were killed. The 6th Battalion distinguished itself at Trones Wood and a memorial to its exploits has been erected there.
January and February were bitterly cold which restricted activities on the Western Front.
17 Feb: 6th Battalion Northants involved at Boom Ravine on the River Ancre – three Stanwick men died.
10 Mar: Actions began along the River Ancre. On 18th March Bapaume was captured and by the end of the month Cambrai was being menaced by the BEF.
9 Apr: The BEF switched attack northwards around Arras. Vimy Ridge was captured by the Canadians. The British attacked eastwards towards Cambrai and on the first day had penetrated three and a half miles – an unprecedented advance. Thereafter the battle developed into one of attrition until it finally ended on the 24th May with casualties mounting to 159,000 – a casualty rate of 4,000 per day.
19 May: The French Army mutinied and when he heard, the British Commander-in-Chief realised he had to prolong his attacks around Arras, at whatever cost, in order to keep the Germans occupied both mentally and physically. Fortunately, the Germans did not know of the mutiny or they would have simply walked through the gaps and reached Paris.
Surprisingly quickly the mutiny subsided (55 ringleaders were shot and the causes for most grievances removed), and the French Army was viable again. However, not yet in a state to be an effective fighting force, time was needed for that. Field Marshall Haig realised that the burden of keeping the Germans at bay again rested on him and the British Army.
7 Jun: Attack on the Messines Ridge (about 5 miles south of Ypres). 19 huge mines were exploded simultaneously (shock waves were felt in southern England), followed by a massive artillery barrage. The fearful impact of the mines and artillery barrage decimated the Germans who surrendered in droves. In a little over 5 hours all objectives had been gained. This was the first stage of the 3rd Battle of Ypres.
8 Jul: The Battle of the Dunes. The Germans attacked the British near Nieuport on the Belgian coast. The Steelbacks were involved in this battle.
31 Jul: The first day of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. They called it Passchendaele; a name in the British Army that is associated with all the worst possible aspects of war. The aim of the attack was to break through the German lines surrounding Ypres and to capture the ridges to the east, thus denying invaluable observation posts to the Germans. Then the cavalry could be used to break out on to the Belgian plains, through Bruges and on to the Belgian coast at Zeebrugge and Antwerp.
Although there were some hold ups at Chateau Wood, Sanctuary Wood and ShrewsburyForest (names that became synonymous with carnage around Ypres), steady progress was made. Then the rains came and from then until the 10th November, when the Canadians finally captured the ridge at Passchendaele, it became a battle of attrition fought with great courage on both sides in the most horrendous conditions that man could imagine.
The total British casualties in this battle are still in dispute but they were likely to have been in excess of 300,000, of which more than 35,000 were killed.
Just over a mile south west of the village of Passchendaele is the TyneCotMilitaryCemetery. With nearly 12,000 graves it is the largest Commonwealth War Cemetery and on the panels of the Memorial, covering the period from the 16th August 1917 to the end of the war there are the names of 35,000 British and Commonwealth troops who have no known graves. A Stanwick soldier, Charles Foskett, is one of these names.
20 Nov – 30 Nov: The Battle of Cambrai. The first battle in which there was a large scale use of tanks (381 in fact). The opening stage was a great success but poor communications slowed the battle down. Reinforced with large numbers of troops from the Russian front and astute use of low-flying aircraft against infantry, the Germans counter-attacked and regained the initiative. The 5th Battalion of the Steelbacks were involved.
26 Jan: The British Army took over from the French near St. Quentin.
21 Mar: The Germans struck heavily at the junction of the British and French armies with the main aim of capturing Amiens and then the Channel ports. At first they were very successful and got within gun range of Amiens. Stubborn defence by the British halted the advance.
They also advanced south west towards Paris and reached the River Marne as they had done in 1914. The French counter-attacked and drove them back ably assisted by the British and the Americans, who were now in France in strength.
8 Aug: In the face of British and French attacks in Flanders the Germans retreated.
12 Sept: The Americans attacked in strength at St. Miheil, near Verdun with great success.
18 Sept: The British attacked the Hindenberg Line.
29 Sept: Cambrai was captured.
6 & 7 Oct: The Germans retreat south of Cambrai and north east of Rheims.
12 Oct: Big advances made in Flanders with the capture of Menin and then on to Lille.
Further south, both the French and Americans were advancing rapidly.
21 Oct: The whole of the Belgian coast was captured.
1 Nov: The Rivers Scheldt and Oise were reached.
9 Nov: The British reached Mons where their war had begun in August 1914.
Early in May 1915 the 1st Army of the British Expeditionary Force began its spring offensive in conjunction with the French Army. The French were to attack in the south while the 1st Army was to attack in the north at Aubers Ridge, about 15 miles west of Lille.
The British plan was to deliver two converging attacks. The main one in the south, between Neuve Chapelle and Festubert, was led by the 1st Division and the Meerut Division (both battle hardened). The second, a subsidiary attack was to be launched in the north and led by the 8th Division (another experienced Division).
Artillery was to open fire 40 minutes before the infantry attacked. Its main objective was to cut gaps in the wire through which the infantry could advance and then be left behind the German positions to prevent the movement of German reinforcements. Unfortunately there were not enough guns or ammunition to fulfil these tasks properly. Although some gaps were cut in the wire, the guns failed to destroy the German strongpoints and their machine guns. The latter were to wreak terrible havoc upon the infantry as soon as they left their trenches. The 1st Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment was selected to lead the 1st Division. After the barrage, the 1st Battalion rushed to the assault across 300 yards of open ground but the German machine guns (22 of them) were in full spate spreading their demonic fire. Within 30 minutes not a man of the Northamptons was left standing. They were lying out between our own barrage and the Germans deadly rifle and machine gun fire. With the German artillery bombarding the British trenches the soldiers could neither advance nor retire.
In the afternoon, the 1st Guards Brigade made an assault with no better results. At night the survivors crawled back to the British lines, after lying out for fourteen and a half hours. It was a sad roll call that night. Out of 26 officers and 750 men, only 4 officers and 60 men returned to the regiment.
On the northern front the 8th Division fared little better. The sequence was the same – not enough guns, too short a bombardment and not enough ammunition. With a battery of artillery right in the front line good paths were cut in the wire and a breach made in the enemy positions through which the infantry managed to rush and gain a foothold. This could not be held and by nightfall all were back in their trenches. One company of the 2nd Battalion of the Northamptons did indeed reach the parapet of the German trenches where they fought, against overwhelming odds, until 8 o’clock at night when one officer, 14 men and 10 wounded managed to return.
Losses in the 2nd Battalion amounted to 9 officers and 63 men killed, 3 officers and 154 men wounded and 193 men missing (all of whom were afterwards reported as killed).
Privates J Brawn, J Craven (1st Battalion), H Felce and W Felce (2nd Battalion), all from Stanwick were killed on this day. None of their bodies were found or recognised.
The capture of Trones Wood by the 6th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment, together with the 12th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, was one of the smaller battles that went to make up the devastating Battle of the Somme (1st July – November 1916).
Two divisions had been commanded to capture the enemy’s second line of defence. Just before dawn on the 14th July it was discovered that Trones Wood, which was supposed to be in our hands, had been recaptured by the enemy, except for a small portion in the north west where the 7th Battalion of the West Kents were holding out and in peril of being surrounded. It was perilous situation demanding immediate action, for our left flank was being menaced and the West Kents gradually annihilated. Hasty orders were sent to the 6th Northamptons and 12th Middlesex to go to the rescue. There was no time to explain the plan of attack.
Soon after daybreak the two battalions had to cross a thousand yards of open ground through a heavy barrage of high explosive. The already heavy casualties were added to because the West Kents, having become disoriented during the night thought, in the early morning light, that our troops were the enemy. The wood was a wilderness of fallen trees, thick undergrowth, a maze of trenches and barbed wire, with machine guns spitting out death. The inside of the wood was an absolute inferno with shells bursting all the time and trees flying bodily in all directions. It was a bloody battle with terrific hand-to-hand fighting taking place. The Germans had received orders to hold the wood at all costs. They fought with stubborn bravery but the attackers were not to be denied. To and fro the battle swayed for hours but by 10 o’clock the wood was in our hands. The Germans fled in disorder leaving a large number of dead and wounded.
Once the whole wood was in our possession, the Germans, who had the range perfectly, started to shell incessantly. The British battalions had to hold the positions they had won for two days until relieved on the 16th July. The 6th Battalion lost 32 killed, 204 wounded and 35 missing (almost certainly killed). Among the dead was Stanwick’s Private R S Sawford.
The Battles of the Somme had ended in November 1916. However, the attritional conflicts had continued throughout a very bitter winter. The 17th February was the first day of the thaw which turned the ground into a slide and then a sea of mud.
The Ravine was a deep sunken road. At first it ran south east from the River Ancre for a distance of 500 yards to another sunken road running due south for 700 yards. Beyond this junction the sunken road proper ran eastwards for another 500 yards until it linked up with the west Miraumont road. The whole system looked like a misshapen “T” with the south running stem the Ravine proper. The troops attacking the eastern side of the Ravine were to advance northwards, taking Grand Court Trench and the eastern arm of the Ravine and then on to Miraumont Trench at the top of the hill overlooking Petit Miraumont. This was the task of the 6th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment and the remainder of the 54 Brigade. The assembly point was 200 yards in advance of the Gully. “B” Company of the 6th Northamptons taped out the battalions forming up positions early on the night of the 16th/17th and cut the wire to allow free passage for the assault. The first platoons of “C” Company were led up Cornwall Trench. Behind them and to the right came “A” Company and finally “D” Company, but as they were passing the Gully the Germans started shelling causing many casualties. Zero hour was 5.45am.
The Germans were expecting this attack. Two British soldiers had gone over to the enemy and revealed the hour and plan of the attack. Hence the timely shelling, as well as the bringing up of storm troopers for the later counter-attack.
Enemy wire had not been effectively cut by artillery which delayed forward movement so that the troops were not able to keep up with the creeping barrage. This allowed the enemy to regroup to face the oncoming troops. By 8.30am when the Northamptons were tired, depleted in ranks and bereft of many officers, the Germans counter-attacked. The Northamptons were able to delay the advancing Germans for 30 minutes and thus lessened the threat to a neighbouring division. The position reached a stalemate as the British filtered back into isolated shell holes and rifle pits. Both sides remained in these positions until the next day.
The ground gained had been bought at a high cost in dead and wounded. Stanwick lost two men killed in action and one died later of wounds and is buried in Stanwick Churchyard. Their names are Private E Barker, Lance-Corporal G Watford and Private E H Robins.
* ACTION near ARRAS – 2nd BATTALION, ESSEX REGIMENT, 28th March 1918
On the 28th March 1918 the Essex Regiment were holding the left sector of the whole of the 4th Division front and indeed the extreme left of the Third Army where it joined the First Army boundary. The 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment was the front battalion of 12 Brigade. The 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers were in support and the 1st Battalion, King’s Own were in reserve.
At 3am there was heavy enemy artillery fire (high explosive and gas) on the Front, Support and Reserve lines. At 6am the bombardment became more intense but communications were still valid. At 7.10am the communications ceased and wire was cut. At 7.20am the German assault began. There was a breakthrough on the right and the front companies fought on until ammunition was exhausted. Battalion H.Q. withdrew along Chili Avenue to its junction with Harry and Hussar Trenches. It was here that a strong point was established in conjunction with the Lancashire Fusiliers. The enemy did not penetrate further and though the position was for some hours critical in the extreme, with troops falling back on the right and the left, the line held. In this section of the line the Germans mighty effort to capture Arras had been thwarted. They were only able to advance a distance of less than 2000 yards.
That same night the 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment moved back to Athies. There were 5 officers and 75 men as survivors from the 500 men who were alive in the morning of the 28th March 1918. Stanwick’s Pte J G Morris was killed on that day. A fortnight later these survivors were moved to the Ypres Salient to help stem the German advance in that sector.