‘The position was a helpless one’ – The 2nd Sherwood Foresters at Ennetieres, 20th October 1914

The accounts that officer prisoners of war had to give when they returned from captivity make for fascinating reading. Not only can they flesh out the sometimes sparse and clinical war diary entries, but they can give an insight into how these men acted under intense pressure, often in confused circumstances, and with enemy forces bearing down on them.

One such officer was Captain Edward Drury-Lowe, of the 2nd Battalion The Sherwood Foresters (Notts & Derbyshire Regiment). The battalion was part of 18th Brigade, 6th Division; proceeding overseas on 20th September 1914, Drury-Lowe was captured exactly a month later.

On this day, 20th October, the German Fourth and Sixth Armies launched attacks in the Ypres to Armentieres area, in response to the British advances of the previous days. The 18th Brigade was holding a salient in front of the main bulk of the division, consisting of a line of scattered posts. Three battalions, including the 2nd Sherwood Foresters, were holding a line of about three miles, with the Sherwood Foresters occupying the village of Ennetieres, south east of Armentieres. The battalion to the rear was about 700 yards away, and on the Foresters’ right flank there was a gap between the battalion and the left battalion of the 16th Brigade.

Map from the British Official History showing the situation on 20th October 1914

The battalion war diary records how the Germans commenced shelling the village at daybreak. A number of attacks were made against the salient, with the battalion being shelled from all directions, and just five platoons holding a front of 1,500 yards. Eventually during late afternoon the battalion was forced to fall back, however during the course of the retirement it became clear that 16th Brigade to the right had already fallen back, and the Germans approaching from the rear cut off any route to safety. The bulk of the battalion was left with no option to surrender, but Drury-Lowe and the remnants of his men managed to hold out until the next morning. In total almost 500 men of the battalion were taken prisoner. Drury-Lowe’s account of the action is reproduced in full below:

On Oct 20th D Coy, of which I was in command, occupied the trenches on the extreme right of the Battalion’s position. I had taken over the trenches the night before from the DLI.

The position was a hopeless one. Lieut. May’s platoon (No 13) had been temporarily taken from me to form an independent post on my left. Nos. 14 and 15 platoons were entrenches close together, while 2nd Lieut. Smith’s platoon (No. 16) was entrenched about 300 yds to the right of No. 15. The only way to reach these trenches was across open ground with no cover whatsoever. Further still to the right across open more open country was a railway crossing held by the 16th Bde with whom Smith was in communication.

I had orders to withdraw No. 16 platoon as dawn on Oct. 20th to D Coy Hd Qrs, which were at a farm some 150 yds in rear of Nos. 14 and 15 platoons. Directly they arrived, the Germans began to shell the farm, and it was soon in flames. This resulted in the loss of some of the rifles and all the equipment belonging to two sections. The men however were all got away under cover before the buildings were completely destroyed.

I sent at one to inform the CO, who told me to send these two sections to him at once. He also told me to send No. 16 platoon out again to the trenches, as an attack was developing on our right. I sent Smith off with the other half of his platoon, telling him that I should be with No. 14 platoon on my return from the village.

I then took the two sections to the CO. It was about 11am when I handed them over to him. I told him that Smith had only ½ platoon in his isolated position, but the CO could not spare me any more men. I returned to No. 14 platoon. As there was not much firing going on, we dug hard, and did what we could to improve the cover.

About 4.15pm, I received a written message from Smith. He said he had seen nothing of the enemy, and asked for field glasses if I had any spare to spare.

Soon after this some of the men of the DLI came and crowded into our trenches – there was no officer with them. They said that they had been sent ‘to assist in covering the retirement’, but there was then no reason to retire.

Presently however, as it was getting dark, we heard shouting from our left rear (the direction of LA VALLEE), as if men were charging. Soon after we saw men about 300 yds behind us. I estimated their numbers at not less than 1000. Directly I could see that they were Germans, I ordered the men to turn about, and then opened fire, but I soon found that we were being fired at from the front. I now ordered the men to face alternately front and rear, and not to fire unless they were compelled to, as I know that we were completely outnumbered, and our ammunition was running short.

As it got dark we could hear the Germans in rear digging themselves in. Later they set fire to a building near No. 14 platoon. I expected every minute that they would rush our trenches, and ordered every man to stand to. There was also a building on my left, by which I posted a piquet.

At dawn the piquet reported that the enemy had brought up a machine-gun on our left, and as soon as it was light, I saw what looked like a Battalion of the enemy drawn up on that side.

I knew then that we were completely surrounded, I considered that the only course open to me was to surrender.

I surrendered at about 5.15am on Oct 21st with about 50 men, a few of whom were DLI.

I received no messages from and heard nothing of Smith after 4.15pm on the 20th, and I received no messages or orders from the CO after I left him in the village about 11am.

I fear there can be no doubt that Smith and his men were all killed on the evening of Oct 20th, his trenches being rushed from the rear. The ground sloped down slightly behind his trenches, which would enable the enemy to come up unseen.

Drury-Lowe’s sketch map of the action. His original position can be seen left of centre above the ‘Coy’ of D Coy; the asterisk marks where he was surrounded and captured

Brigadier-General Congreve wrote after the battle “The Battalion had done exceedingly well all day; it was just worn out and overwhelmed by superior numbers.” The action of the men that day highlights the resilience of the British Army at the time. Despite having already suffered heavily in action, being led by new officers, with very few of the original platoon commanders who had accompanied the battalion to France, and having been reinforced by men new to the battalion, the men still held out under extremely difficult circumstances.

The same area shown on a later trench map; position of Drury-Lowe’s capture marked

Casualties were hard to estimate due to the loss of all the battalion’s paperwork and records when the HQ was shelled early on in the battle, but in addition to those taken prisoner it was estimated that over 100 men were wounded. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records 77 men of the battalion killed on the 20th, 72 of whom have no known grave and whose names are inscribed on the Ploegsteert Memorial. Amongst these names is that of Lieutenant Harry Smith, referred to in Drury-Lowe’s account.

Ploegsteert Memorial

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A Lucky Escape

I am often struck when reading the recollections of soldiers in the First World War how much luck, providence, fate – call it what you will – seems to factor in their accounts. As such the following story caught my eye.

At the end of October 1917 the Thanet Advertiser ran an article where Second Lieutenant William Munday recounted how his cigarette case saved his life. Munday was a career soldier, having joined the Dragoon Guards aged 16 and serving 14 years with the regiment prior to receiving a commission to the 7th Buffs.

At the end of September 1917 the battalion was in camp at St. Jan-ter-Biezen, three miles west of Poperinghe, undergoing a period of training. The battalion war diary records that at 7.20pm on 29th September a solitary aeroplane dropped four bombs on the camp, killing 27 men and wounding a further 63.

The British camp at St. Jan-ter-Biezen

Munday wrote home that he had been standing in the mess tent before dinner, talking to two fellow officers. The explosion of the bombs hurled him across the tent and when he extricated himself from the debris he found one of the officers was dead (Second Lieutenant Ralph Mead, aged 19) and the other wounded. Munday had been saved by his cigarette case in the left breast pocket of his tunic, which had been pierced by a bomb fragment.

The cigarette case that saved William Munday’s life

The men killed in the raid were buried side by side the following day at Nine Elms British Cemetery, just two miles from the site of the camp, where they lay in plots II and III.

William Munday

As an aside, William Munday was to play a minor role in another aspect of the conflict. By the end of the war he was the Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal for Calais, a position he held until 1922. In November 1918 a member of the Chinese Labour Corps, Chang Ju Chih, murdered a woman and her children. He went on the run and was arrested in April 1919, subsequently escaped, and was re-arrested in February 1920. For his crime he was sentenced to death. He spent his last night in the company of William Munday, who also oversaw the firing squad on 14th February 1920. However the salvo from the firing squad did not kill Chang Ju Chih, and Munday was forced to administer a coup de grace with his pistol. Chang Ju Chih lies in Les Baraques Military Cemetery outside Calais, one of the last servicemen to be ‘shot at dawn’.

William Munday’s medals are now held by the National Army Museum – as is the cigarette case that saved his life, still containing the piece of shrapnel that it stopped.

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A Missing Sergeant – updated

Once again time seems to have flown by since my last post, for a number of reasons. Family life and the day job have taken precedence, and a lot of my free time was spent preparing for my role as a battlefield guide on the Royal British Legion’s ‘Great Pilgrimage 90’ tour. The prospect of being asked questions about potentially any aspect of the war was quite daunting, so I probably over-prepared because of this!

Now I have a bit more free time on my hands I can get back doing what I love most – researching. My research focuses primarily on three areas; my family who served, the men named on my local war memorials, and the local regiments (particularly the 1st Queen’s Royal West Surreys). However, pursuing research leads I often find myself side-tracked by interesting stories.

This one starts with the war diary of the 1/7th Battalion Royal Highlanders (The Black Watch). This was the battalion my Great Great Grandfather served with. It went overseas in May 1915 and later that year was posted to the Somme sector, where it took over the line from the French. In November the battalion was based in the village of Authuille, just over a mile from Thiepval. I was reading the battalion war diary, tracking my Great Great Grandfather’s movements, when the entry for 9 November caught my eye:

The enemy shelled PETERHEAD today without effect. Important patrols were sent out this evening to investigate reported working by the enemy in the road opposite the HAMMERHEAD. Capt MHN Graham was in command of the main patrol, and 2nd Lieut AL Millar of the covering patrol. The main patrol was fired on at very close range by a German sentry group, and Capt Graham was seriously wounded in the left arm. When roll was called it was found that Sergt Marnock was missing. Lieut Millar volunteered to lead a patrol search party, but no trace of Sergt Marnock could be found. Weather, dull. Casualties Officers wounded 1, other ranks missing 1.

Hammerhead sap was located at the south east corner of Thiepval wood. If you have ever stood at the 18th Division memorial at Thiepval looking down towards the wood, the sap was just in front of the corner of the wood as you are looking at it.

Hammerhead Sap

Attempts were made to locate the missing sergeant the following day:

10th Nov – A search party under Lce Cpl Falconer B Coy went out from the Hammerhead at 1pm but found no trace of their missing comrade.

It was initially presumed that Sergeant Marnock had been taken prisoner. His family cannot have been helped by reports such as that in the Fifeshire Advertiser, 1 January 1916:

While unabated anxiety is felt by his friends as to the fate of Sergt. J. Marnock, 1/7th Black Watch, Kirkcaldy, it is unofficially stated that he is a prisoner of war. Sergeant Wilson, who is home to East Fife from the front, states that Sergeant Marnock is a prisoner in the hands of the Germans.

However enquiries to the International Committee of the Red Cross are marked with the dreaded words ‘negatif envoye’ in May 1916, and again in June 1917. The German record states no details were found.

John’s brother David, serving in the Royal Garrison Artillery, was killed in August 1917; in the report of his death in the Fifeshire Advertiser of 1 September 1917, it states that John has been missing for nearly two years – his family seemingly still unaware of his death.

Whatever the circumstances (and date) of John’s death, it seems that he was originally buried by the Germans at Courcelette Communal Cemetery. Perhaps he died soon after he was captured, hence the ICRC having no records of him. However his original grave was destroyed by shellfire and Marnock is now commemorated at Delville Wood cemetery, on a special memorial. The memorial reads ‘To the memory of these three Soldiers of the British Empire, killed in action in 1915 and buried at the time in Courcelette Communal Cemetery, German extension, whose graves are now lost. Their Glory shall not be blotted out.’

Sergeant John Marnock is commemorated on Kirkcaldy war memorial, along with his brother.

Sergeant John Marnock

*Update*

I was recently contacted by the relative of a German soldier who had sketched a picture of John Marnock’s grave, presumably when he was originally buried at Courcelette Communal Cemetery. The picture clearly shows John Marnock’s name on the cross, along with his rank, battalion and regiment, and date of death. The German soldier, Arthur Beyler, had enlisted at the beginning of the war and served until he was captured at Thiepval on the eve of the Battle of the Somme. He saw out the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war at Donington Hall in Leicestershire.

The sketch by Arthur Beyler. Courtesy of Delphine Beyler.

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He Made the Great Sacrifice for King and Country

So reads the epitaph on the grave of Second Lieutenant Alfred Claude Gant, 2nd Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who was killed less than a month before the war ended, aged 21. He lies in Busingy communal cemetery, about 15 miles south east of Cambrai.

A while ago I picked up two photographs of his grave. There is nothing particularly special about them; they are small prints that have obviously been taken from an album. One shows presumably his father standing behind his grave. The man stands almost expressionless, not looking at the camera. To me it is a powerful image of a father’s grief. The pictures were probably taken in the late-1920s, perhaps on a pilgrimage, perhaps the first or maybe the only time his parents visited their son’s grave; his mother died in 1933 and his father in 1946.

Alfred was born in Nottinghamshire in 1895, the son of William, a farrier, and Annie. He was educated at Sneinton Church Higher Grade School and became a grocer’s assistant. He enlisted in the 13th King’s Royal Rifle Corps in March 1915 and went to France in July of that year. One of four children, two of his brothers also served.

In May 1917 he was appointed Lance Corporal and in July applied for a commission. At the end of that month he was gassed. He re-joined his battalion in October and was promoted to the rank of Corporal in November. Later that month he returned to England to carry out officer training. His report states: ‘Education, average; Military Knowledge, good; Power of Command and Leadership, good. Better in the field than on paper. Has worked hard and shown satisfactory progress throughout the course. Should make a satisfactory officer.’

He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 2nd KRRC on 26 June 1918, and joined the battalion towards the end of September. It was a baptism of fire for the new subaltern, as the British and Commonwealth forces sought to break through the Hindenburg Line. The KRRC Chronicle reported that ‘On the evening of the 23rd the Battalion moved up to the line again to attack on the 24th. The enemy apparently suspected the attack, because they were shelling all the roads and valleys and likely forming-up positions very heavily with gas. The Royal Sussex were attacking on our left and the 3rd Infantry Brigade on our right. Their objectives were two hills about two miles from the assembly position, and the Battalion’s task was to clear the valley running in between, and the final objective was known as Le Due Trench, about 400 yards south of Pontruet [about six miles north west of St. Quentin]. The attack progressed very well, and all objectives were gained except on our right, where a party of about 200 of the enemy held out in a trench redoubt till dusk, when we captured the positions. A further advance was made at dusk by A and C Companies, and a sunken road on an important ridge in front was captured. This attack had to be arranged and carried out at very short notice, and was most successful. About 2pm the next day, the 25th, the enemy attempted to counter attack, after heavy artillery preparations. They were heavily repulsed by our rifle and Lewis gun fire and the excellent barrage from our own guns. Enemy shelling remained very heavy all day, but no further counter-attack was attempted.’

The attack had cost the battalion 22 killed, 69 wounded (including the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Edward St. Aubyn), and 3 missing.

After a period of rest and training during the first half of October, on 16 October the battalion moved to Becquignette Farm, to the east of Bohain, and prepared for an attack the following day. This was the Battle of the Selle, as the armies advanced north east over the River Selle towards Valenciennes.

The Battle of the Selle

The KRRC Chronicle recounts the details: ‘Early on October 17th, at 1.30 a.m., we went to our assembly positions in the Bois de Busigny. The plan of attack was the 2nd Battalion, working in conjunction with the 1st Northamptons on our right and an American battalion on our left, was to follow close behind the attack of the 6th Division, and, when the latter had gained their objective, leap-frog through and carry on with the attack. The morning mist, together with the smoke barrage, made direction difficult to follow, and the Companies were for the moment disconnected. They, however, all got in touch again before we were due to pass through the 6th Division, and we continued to push forward in section artillery formation, A Company on the left, B on the right, D in support, and C in reserve. When the moment came to pass through the 6th Division we found that they were digging in some 800-1000 yards short of their objective. At first little opposition was met with, but the shelling was fairly heavy. The day went well until the enclosed country north of La Vallee Mulatre was reached. It was here that the enemy had a great number of well-concealed nests of machine-guns in hedges, etc., which kept up a big volume of fire. One of D Company’s platoons, working well, succeeded in out-flanking two of these guns, but the remainder held up the attack. Consequently B and C Companies were ordered to work right round the left flank. While carrying out this movement they had to deal with a sunken road to their left rear, which was still strongly held by the Germans, as the Americans were a little late in dealing with this obstacle. However, the obstacle was overcome, thirty prisoners taken, and later these two Companies, together with one platoon of Americans, successfully rushed the enemy machine-guns, which were firing from a railway embankment. Gallant as was this little affair, it did not ease the situation on the right. Accordingly A and D Companies made another attempt to move forward, with the help of three “whippet” tanks. This was again frustrated, partly by the enfilade fire, which was still very galling, and partly because the “whippets” were also soon placed hors de combat by anti-tank guns. Thus, unable to make progress, we held on to the ground already won and consolidated. It was very satisfactory that we had got further than any other battalion in the Division. During the night the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots pushed through us, but they too found that they could make but little headway their flanks being in the air. An extremely interesting point about this fight was that we were engaged against the same enemy division that the Battalion had met at Nieuport in July, 1917, and we actually took an officer prisoner who had been present at the battle of Nieuport. Time had gone full circle: the debt was paid. We took 100 prisoners, fourteen guns, twelve trench mortars, and many machine-guns. Our losses in the fight were: Officers killed 2nd Lieut. J.M. Hunter, A.C. Gant, W.S. Gibbs. Died of Wounds. 2nd Lieut. A.J. Stephens. Wounded. Capt. J.R.P. Maxwell, Lieut. B.V. Cherry, 2nd Lieut. T.C.S. White, T. Scatter, F. Tun, MM.’

The farm where Alfred’s body was found in 1920

Alfred’s body was recovered in May 1920 from a farm at map reference 57b.w.18.c.7.4, along with several of the other casualties from his battalion that day. The farm is located about 3/4 of a mile north east of  La Vallee Mulatre, referred to in the KRRC Chronicle account of the action.

The location where Alfred’s body was found, east of Molain

He is now buried in Busigny Communal Cemetery Extension, Plot V Row A Grave 23, and lies between two Lance Corporals from his battalion who were also killed in the attack. He is also commemorated on the Sneinton St. Stephen war memorial.

Alfred Gant’s headstone

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‘The bayonet was freely used’ – The 3/4th Queen’s at the Battle of Broodseinde 4th October 1917

The 3/4th battalion of The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) was a territorial battalion that been formed in 1915 and went overseas in June 1917, joining 62nd Brigade, 21st Division, in August.  Although the battalion spent some time in the line, the Battle of Broodseinde on 4th October 1917 was to be its first action.

On the night of 2nd-3rd October the 62nd Brigade relieved the 110th in the front line to the east of Polygon Wood. On the 3rd the men tried to carry out reconnaissance of the area but this was made difficult owing to the Germans occupying the nearby high ground.

Plan of attack for the Battle of Broodseinde

The action of 4th October was the third of General Plumer’s ‘bite and hold’ attacks, carried out to try and consolidate on the recent advances made and take the Broodseinde Ridge, thereby protecting the southern flank of the British line before the drive to take the Passchendaele Ridge. The 21st Division was to advance east and take the village of Reutel and the high ground overlooking it. 62nd Brigade was tasked with advancing almost 1,200 yards.

At 3am on the 4th the 3/4th Queen’s assembled with three companies in the front line, each with a frontage of about 85 yards. The strength of the battalion was 982 men.

Juniper trench

The battalion was attacking German positions on higher ground, so the Germans held the advantage and had a good view of the attacking troops. Between the battalion and its objectives were three ‘beeks’ or streams, and because of the shelling the ground was completely churned up, the war diary calling it an ‘impenetrable morass’. The rising ground towards the German positions was covered by barbed wire and there were ‘mebus’ (blockhouses/pillboxes) at the top of the high ground. These would hold 20-30 men, with machine guns and trench mortars covering the approaches.

The area attacked by the battalion. The Polygon Beek can clearly be seen

Zero hour was 6am, and as soon as the British barrage commenced the men moved up behind it. However negotiating a line of barbed wire caused delays and the men came under machine gun fire from the right flank. It also proved difficult negotiating the Polygon Beek and the marshy ground surrounding it, despite the use of mud mats and a few trench boards. Despite the confusion Juniper trench was reached and successfully assaulted. Many Germans were seen emerging, but in the dark it was impossible to tell if they meant to surrender or fight, and they were killed.

Lieutenant Arthur Byfield Frost. He was killed on 23rd March 1918 and is commemorated on Pozieres memorial

A German blockhouse was then encountered; a bombing party led by Lieutenant Arthur Byfield Frost attacked the structure and set it on fire with phosphorous bombs, an act for which Frost was awarded the Military Cross. The rest of this portion of the line was captured and the battalion consolidated its position and established Lewis Gun posts.

The Brigade war diary provides a more detailed account of the action which is worth quoting from, as it paints a vivid picture of the nature of the fighting, very different to the sanitised accounts that are often encountered:

The bayonet was freely used and large numbers of the fleeing enemy were shot with the rifle…One mebus was apparently set on fire by a phosphorus bomb and burnt furiously, the whole garrison being shot as they fled or burnt to death before they could emerge…

Prisoners were numerous and estimated by one commanding officer at 500, but the German dead far outnumbered these and were greatly in excess of our own casualties…

It is impossible to estimate with any accuracy the numbers of the enemy killed during the morning’s fight, but the numbers were far in excess of anything witnessed by the Brigade in the Battle of the Somme…

A gross case of treachery occurred during the attack near a mebu in Jupiter trench. A German officer surrendered and put up his hands. As Lieutenant Cooper of the 3/4th Queen’s went forward to take his surrender the German officer whipped out his revolver and shot Lieut Cooper dead. Before he could do more harm the German’s body was riddled with bullets from the rifles of the men who witnessed the treacherous shot.

On account of an inner compartment of a mebu reopening fire after the outer garrison had surrendered it was necessary to kill all the Germans in the post.

Bayonet work was impossible on the many Germans who fled to the rear as they ran without arms or equipment, but they offered good targets to the riflemen.

It also mentions an incident that occurred with the Padre:

A German rushed at the Reverend Tron and nearly tore his coat from off his back. The padre who is a bit of a boxer, repeatedly struck the German in the face until they broke apart. Unslinging his glasses, the astonished German thrust them into the hands of the astonished clergyman, and tended his surrender.

The area today showing the battalion’s starting point and the blockhouse bombed by Lieutenant Frost

The battalion had captured 200 prisoners, 15 machine guns, and 10 mortars. However losses had also been heavy: three officers and at least 84 men killed or died of wounds, and 250 wounded; of these 17 were officers including the Lieutenant Colonel, the Medical Officer, and the Padre. Total casualties amounted to a third of the battalion’s strength prior to the battle. Nearly 90% of those killed have no known grave and are commemorated on Tyne Cot memorial.

One of those who does have a grave is Private Harry Brown. In the 1911 census Harry was 16 and living with his widowed mother and brother and sister in Sutton, working as a gardener. His body was recovered in 1920, confirmed by his identity disc, about 2 miles from where the battalion had been in action.

Other casualties included:

Lance Corporal John William Stracey of Carshalton, aged 21. His picture shows that he was a stretcher bearer. He is commemorated on Carshalton memorial.

 

 

 

 

 

Private John Fletcher Boughey, aged 35. Educated at Brighton Grammar School, he worked for Child & Co private bank. He was also involved in the Church Lads Brigade at Ealing and Hanwell.

 

 

 

 

 

Private Sydney Copeland Cleaver, of Canterbury, who worked for Lloyds Bank.

Posted in 1917, Passchendaele, Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, Surrey Regiments, WW1 | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Alfred Pollard VC

Alfred Pollard

Today marks the centenary of the action for which Second Lieutenant Alfred Oliver Pollard was awarded the highest decoration for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. During this centenary of the First World War a commemorative paving slab is being laid in the recipients’ home towns. Pollard was born in Melbourne Road, Wallington, and also lived at ‘Tidbury’, 2 Belmont Road, but the slab is being installed outside Wallington library.

Before the war Pollard worked as a clerk, however as soon as war broke out he joined the 1st Battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company as a Private, disembarking in France just one month later.

Pollard was not one to shy away from danger; not only was he awarded the Victoria Cross, but also the Military Cross and bar, and the Distinguished Conduct Medal – a rare combination. The citations give an insight into his courage under fire. He was awarded the DCM for an action that occurred in September 1915:

‘For conspicuous gallantry on the 30th September, 1915, at Sanctuary Wood, during the bombing fight. Although severely wounded, Serjeant Pollard continued to throw bombs, at the same time issuing orders to and encouraging his men. By his example and gallant conduct he renewed confidence among the bombers at a time when they were shaken, owing, to the enemy being in superior numbers and throwing many more bombs than were available on our side. He did not give up until he fell, severely wounded for the second time.’

James Frank Pollard’s name on Wallington war memorial

On recovering from his wounds Pollard returned to France in May 1916 with a commission. Finding that the wound he had received to his arm impacted his shooting and bomb throwing (for which he had a penchant), he trained himself to use his left hand. In September 1916 his elder brother James was killed at Ginchy whilst serving with the 1st Grenadier Guards; an event that had a big impact on Alfred and made him even more determined to kill more Germans.

Wallington war memorial

Alfred’s Military Cross was awarded for his actions at Grandcourt, on the Somme, on 7th-8th February 1917:

‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He led a patrol and carried out a dangerous reconnaissance. Later, he assumed command of a company and repulsed two strong enemy counter-attacks.’

The bar to his MC quickly followed during the Battle of Arras for what The Times called ‘…an audacious reconnaissance of the Oppy-Gavrelle line.’ Pollard’s battalion was part of 63rd Division, which was in reserve at the start of the Battle of Arras. However on 17th April the division was sent forward to relieve the 34th Division, and the 1st HAC advanced to occupy positions close to the German line between Gavrelle and Oppy. Pollard led a patrol towards Gavrelle to reconnoitre the German line. On finding a dugout occupied by Germans the patrol retired, but on regrouping Pollard discovered one man was missing. He and another man went back to try and find him, but were discovered by German sentries and had to quickly withdraw through the German trenches.

The German line of defence between Oppy and Gavrelle

The citation for the bar to his Military Cross reads:

‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance of the enemy’s front line under very heavy fire, and obtained most valuable information. He set a splendid example of courage and determination.’

The German line was successfully taken and held in the face of a fierce counter attack on 24th April. On 29th April the battalion was ordered to attack a strongpoint in the German lines. The position was taken and Pollard advanced further along the trench with a handful of men. The Germans started bombing down the trench but Pollard met them head on and then defended against a counter attack.

The approximate location of the German strongpoint

‘For most conspicuous bravery and determination. The troops of various units on the left of this Officer’s battalion had become disorganised owing to the heavy casualties from shell fire; and a subsequent determined enemy attack with very strong forces caused further confusion and retirement, closely pressed by hostile forces.

2nd Lt. Pollard at once realised the seriousness of the situation, and dashed up to stop the retirement. With only four men he started a counter-attack with bombs, and pressed it home till he had broken the enemy attack, regained all that had been lost and much ground in addition.

The enemy retired in disorder, sustaining many casualties. By his force of will, dash and splendid example, coupled with an utter contempt of danger, this Officer, who has already won the D.C.M. and M.C., infused courage into every man who saw him.’

Alfred Pollard being presented with his Victoria Cross

Pollard was presented with his Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 21st July 1917. It is currently held by the Honourable Artillery Company in London.

Alfred Pollard in later life (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

After the war Pollard published his memoir ‘Fire Eater: The Memoirs of a VC.’ (for a great review see Christian Parkinson‘s blog here). This autobiography is particularly frank about how he enjoyed the war and wanted to kill as many Germans as possible. Pollard went on to write over 50 fiction books and died in 1960.

Buy ‘Fire Eater’ from Amazon here:
Fire-Eater The Memoirs of a V. C.

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‘A mad scheme in my opinion’: The 1st Queen’s attack on the Hindenburg Line 23/04/1917

The 1st Battalion of The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) did not participate in the opening phase of the Battle of Arras from 9th April, but on 15th April as part of the ‘fresh’ 33rd Division, moved into support north of Croisilles. The battalion, in 100th Brigade, faced the German line at Croisilles; the 19th Brigade and 98th Brigade were to the left on higher ground, holding the portions of the Hindenburg Line that had already been captured. Three days later Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Markham Crofts returned to command the battalion; he had led the battalion previously but had been wounded near Delville Wood during the Somme campaign.

The battalion was to take part in the attack on the Hindenburg Line on 23rd April, the start of the Second Battle of the Scarpe. The 98th Brigade to the north was to force its way south down the German trenches to link up with 100th Brigade, which would be carrying out a frontal attack to capture the first and second lines of the Hindenburg Line. The right flank of 100th Brigade was to be protected by two tanks. The 1st Queen’s and 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps were to spearhead the attack, with the 2nd Worcestershires in reserve. To try and maintain the element of surprise the attack would be launched before dawn.

An aerial view of the area of operations (outlined in red) © IWM Q17253.

However not everyone was convinced by the plan. One officer of the 1st Queen’s who did not participate in the attack wrote: ‘A mad scheme in my opinion, as if the 98th don’t join up, they will be left in the middle of the German line with both flanks in the air, and it will be impossible to get up reinforcements or ammunition till dark. In addition the advance to within 200 yards of the enemy in the dark is a most difficult and dangerous operation; the wire in front of the enemy is very strong, in three lines radiating from a centre, and only gaps have been cut by the artillery.’ On the 20th several officers reconnoitred the Hindenburg Line from the vicinity of Croisilles, and the following day was spent practising for the attack.

On the night of 22nd April the battalion assembled north east of Croisilles. Battalion HQ was established at point A on the map. At 3am the men marched to their deployment position (point B). At 4.15am the battalion advanced and moved to a sunken road that bisected the Croisilles-Fontaine road (point C) and lay down to await zero – fixed for 4.45am – without being detected by the enemy.

The area of the 1st Queen’s attack

The country here is very open; although the Sensee River runs through the area, it is only a trickle running along a watercourse, giving a certain amount of cover but commanded generally from the high ground of the Sensee Valley which was held by the Germans. The German front line was protected by at least two rows of barbed wire twenty yards thick, with more thick wire between the first and second line. Concrete machine gun emplacements were regularly placed along the line, with dugouts and tunnels connecting the positions.

During the attack the battalion was under the command of Captain Frederick Godfrey, who had joined the regiment as a Private in 1897 and worked his way up the ranks. D Company formed the first wave under Captain Brodhurst-Hill to the right of the main road; A Company under Second Lieutenant Carpenter the second wave to the left of the road; and B (Second Lieutenant Holliday) and C (Captain Ball) companies forming a third wave. Two companies of the 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps followed behind at a distance of 100 yards carrying extra ammunition and bombs.

Map of the objective showing the German line

The attack started punctually at 4.45am and worked up to within 50 yards of the barrage, entering the front trench with few casualties. The Brigade account of the action records that ‘A few Germans were found dead in the front line, a few more offered some resistance and were bayoneted and some half a dozen surrendered…’.

To the right of the road two strongpoints were captured and bombing parties pushed on until they were held up by another strong point. A double block was made and post established in the communication trench. On the left of the road a block was first made at the Sensee River, but when the box barrage lifted the enemy attacked. They were repulsed with rifle grenades and a party under Corporal Spooner followed them and captured a concrete blockhouse and machine gun. A block was then made 50 yards from the blockhouse.

The leading companies pushed forward towards the German second line but were held up by very strong wire; despite over 62,000 rounds of artillery ammunition being fired from 21st April on the area of the 33rd Division’s operations, the wire between the two lines remained uncut and impenetrable. The artillery barrage then lifted back beyond the second line, allowing the Germans to man their parapets. Only a small party of A Company reached the second line; the rest of the battalion were either still in the first line or had taken cover in shell holes between the two lines. A headquarters was established in a dugout in one of the communication trenches to the right of the road (point E). The first line itself was by now blocked with wounded; the battalion’s Medical Officer, Captain Herman Dresing, would be awarded the Military Cross ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. After being shelled out of his dressing station, he took up another position, and continued throughout the day, and performed operations under heavy shell fire, which was causing continual casualties around him.’

The attack was already starting to falter. The two tanks which should have arrived to protect the right flank never showed up, having broken down before zero. In addition, the 33rd Divisional History records that as daylight came, ‘it was seen that the Sensee Valley was completely commanded by machine gun nests and pill-boxes both north and south of the River.’

By 6.45am the supply of grenades began to run out, and over the next few hours the two reserve companies of the 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps took up nearly 1,500 bombs. However the Germans kept up incessant attacks of their own. At 10.10am Captain Godfrey reported that advance of 98th Brigade had relieved the pressure and although casualties were heavy the men were ‘cheery and confident’.

The blocks to the right of the road were maintained until 11am when the Germans made a determined attack but were driven back by parties under Company Sergeant Major Elderkin; he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions, the citation reading ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He continually organised bombing attacks and throughout was instrumental in repelling hostile counter-attacks’.

Lance Corporal Ware, awarded the Military Medal for his part in the attack

At 12.20pm Captain Godfrey reported that the enemy were again pressing forward with repeated bombing attacks and the supply of bombs was getting low. Lance Corporal Ware from Reigate was awarded the Military Medal for volunteering to get more mills bombs. At 1.20pm the last carrying party of men of the Worcesters tried to take up an additional 800 bombs, but before they reached the line the enemy commenced a strong bombing attack from five different points. At 1.22pm three flares were seen from approximately point D on the map, believed to mark the furthest advance of the battalion to the right of the road.

With the British supply of bombs exhausted, at 1.45pm the Germans massed on the right flank and rushed the blocks. The pressure forced a retirement and the men in the centre communication trench were cut off.

Godfrey later recalled that ‘This fighting went on until about 2pm when affairs took a decided turn and it was evident that pressure was increasing and that the enemy was making a decided effort to eject us. What happened on our right is not quite clear but I think that although counter measures were in hand on all sides, the right had to bear the brunt of a very determined counter attack, about this time a verbal report reached me that the troops on our right were falling back and leaving the trenches. Events must have happened very quickly for in a short time the party at battalion headquarters found themselves isolated and their retreat cut off. With the enemy closing in on all sides, the trench we occupied holding quite a number of wounded, casualties increasing, about 2.30pm resistance ceased and we were disarmed.’

The Germans had broken through the block in the first line to the right of the road (point F), effectively cutting off the men in the communication trench and headquarters dugout, and placing themselves in a position to enfilade the men in the first line to the left of the road. Unfortunately Godfrey had just called a conference of the company commanders in the headquarters dugout, and eight officers were taken prisoner. Captains Godfrey, Ball, and Brodhurst-Hill, and Second Lieutenants Botton, Holliday (wounded), Walker, Jacob (wounded), and Thompson (wounded). In fact Second Lieutenant Lacey was the only officer who participated in the attack who got back unwounded from the German line.

Those men who could retire were not out of danger, for ‘As the men came back, the well posted enemy machine guns, picked them off like rabbits, and scarcely a man returned unwounded, whilst many were shot down in their tracks.’ This account from the 33rd Divisional History states that only 43 men from the battalion could be mustered after the attack.

Second Lieutenant Norman Fowler

In addition to the eight officers who had been taken prisoner, Second Lieutenants Millard, Fowler, and Burghope were killed, and Second Lieutenants Carpenter and Bower wounded. According to the battalion war diary of the other ranks 26 were killed, 101 wounded, and 308 missing; the war diary therefore puts the total number of casualties at 448.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission database records 123 deaths in the battalion for 23rd April and the following few days. One hundred and fourteen (93%) have no known grave and are commemorated on the Arras memorial. The total number of men taken prisoner is difficult to ascertain, but is estimated at between 40 and 100 men. At least seven of those taken prisoner that day died whilst incarcerated and are buried in Germany. The 16th KRRC also suffered heavily, with 270 casualties.

Private William Dulake, killed during the attack

The attack had failed for a number of reasons: the failure of 98th Brigade to effectively link up from the north; the minimal effect of the artillery bombardment on the German wire; the barrage lifting beyond the German second line; the breakdown of the two tanks due to support the right flank; and the difficulties experienced in communication and resupplying the attacking parties with bombs. The battalion had yet again been thrown into the thick of the action and had again suffered considerably despite fighting tenaciously for nearly ten hours. The loss of so many officers was a particular blow, but the battalion would once again reconstitute itself and would be back in action in the same area less than a month later, when the German line was finally taken on 22nd May.

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