Having found out details of my great-great uncle William MacDuff’s war service, I was now keen to find out more information about how he had died. The 11th Border Regiment war diary entry for the day was very brief; more recent histories of his regiment (The Border Regiment in the Great War) and battalion (‘The Lonsdales’ by Colin Bardgett) shed no further light on the action either. Everything I read indicated that the Passchendaele offensive had ended on 10th November 1917 when the Canadians captured the village, so why had William been killed in action in this area?
An obituary in the local paper where William’s family lived also added some more details – it stated that he had been a bank clerk in Scotland before securing a similar position in a bank in Canada. It also said that he had been instantaneously killed by a machine gun bullet whilst leading his platoon in an attack. It named the bank he had worked for – a quick Google search later and I found that they still existed and even had an archive department. I sent them an email and was amazed when they replied stating they had some information about him. I eagerly awaited their package in the post. When it arrived it contained details of William’s employment with the bank, with the explanation that apparently Canadian banks actively recruited from Scotland well into the 1950s due to similarities of the banking systems, the Scots’ work ethic, and their ability to deal with the harsh Canadian winters! Also in the package was a picture of William in his military uniform. Being able to see what he looked like really brought his story to life.
Still trying to track down further details of the action in which William died, the breakthrough came when I returned to the National Archives to examine the Brigade and Divisional records. The Lonsdales had been part of the 97th Brigade, 32nd Division, and both files contained extensive records and maps of the information. It transpired that William’s battalion had been part of an attack to consolidate the position north of Passchendaele and capture the remaining high ground on the ridge. The attack had been made on a moonlit night; trying to achieve the element of surprise, the troops advanced without any artillery support until zero +8 minutes. However soon after the attack started the German machine guns opened fire causing many casualties – possibly including William. Although the Battalion succeeded in reaching their objective, they suffered high losses, including most of their officers, and were driven back by German counter-attacks. A final discovery was an aerial photo of the area taken shortly before the attack, showing a morass of mud and shell holes.
Soon after this discovery I found out that a PhD student at the University of Birmingham was writing his thesis on this very action. He very kindly gave me a copy of his thesis once it had been marked, and from this and further conversations with him, I learned that this had actually been a fairly significant action, involving ten battalions from two divisions. The whole attack had failed, and over 1,600 casualties were suffered by the British. However despite these losses, the attack has effectively been written out of the official history of the war. On a more general note his thesis is an excellent account of the amount of detail and effort that went into preparing for an attack of this kind, and I learned a great deal from it.
In November 2011 I travelled to Ypres for Armistice Day. For me it was a very poignant journey – over the course of three years I had gone from finding out I had a relative who had been killed in the war, to uncovering full details of his service, putting a face to the name, and ultimately learning about how and where he had lost his life. I visited Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, where William is commemorated along with nearly 35,000 other servicemen whose bodies were never found, to pay my respects.
Hopefully this is not the end of William’s story, and I can now make sure that my family does not forget him. During my search for William I have learned a great deal about researching soldiers from the war, and have ultimately developed a deep-rooted interest in remembrance and ensuring that these men who laid down their lives are never forgotten.
A superb post that was a real pleasure to read. Many thanks for sharing it.
That there are many actions which have not yet been described is something I am realising through my work on the 18th Division. The notion that the Battle of the Somme ended in November 1916 is false. It continued well into 1917, until the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. Dates are of course necessary but once we look behind them, we really do build a better understanding of the war and the realities of its fighting.
As your post indicates, it is not until we leave the secondary literature behind and investigate the wealth of archival material for ouselves, that our understanding really develops.
Thanks Steve. Yes it seems that if an action doesn’t fall within one of the ‘defined’ campaigns then it is often forgotten about. In this case the fact that the attack failed may have also had something to do with it. However it just goes to show there is plenty out there to still be researched! Regards, Andy
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