Postcards were produced in abundance during the First World War and can provide a fascinating insight into the men who served. Many were studio pictures of individuals or groups of soldiers, and capture a brief moment of their lives; for many perhaps the only photograph of them that exists. Yet too often on these postcards there is little or no identifying information about the men, and we are left wondering who they were, what they experienced, and ultimately what their fate was.
This picture of a group of men from the East Surrey Regiment is typical of many of the surviving postcards, although it was clearly not taken in a studio. The postcard is of men from the East Surrey Regiment, in the front row a Second Lieutenant flanked by three Sergeants and a Corporal, with 25 men behind them. Other than this there is little other identifying information; some good conduct stripes and a drummer’s badge are visible but other than this the only notable thing about the picture is the mixture of belt (P08 & P14) and cap types.
So here we have a photograph of 30 men, with the regiment known and the different ranks visible. This could be the end of the story for this particular postcard, however on the reverse is scrawled “7th Battalion East Surrey Regt; C Company; 9 Platoon. Taken at ‘Bonniers’ France, November 1917.”
The 7th Battalion of the East Surreys was a K1 new army battalion and had gone to France at the beginning of June 1915. Part of the 37th Brigade in the 12th (Eastern) Division, they had participated in actions at Loos and on the Somme.
Bonniers is small village approximately 25 miles west of Arras, and from the battalion war diary we can see that the battalion spent time here from 28th October -15th November 1917.
On 20th November C Company led an attack with tanks near Gonnelieu (ten miles south of Cambrai) as part of the opening day of the Cambrai offensive. The 12th Division were on the right flank of the attack under III Corps, Third Army (Byng). The war diary records:
At 6.20am the Zero barrage opened and tanks could be seen crawling over the ridge in the half light. There was no enemy retaliation at the spot where the Brigade was, as we were only 1800 yards from the German line, luck was with us.
At 6.50am the Battalion moved off by platoon round the road encircling Gonnelieu to the north. Enemy shrapnel was bursting on the road exit from the village. The front line lies almost on the edge of Gonnelieu and in a very short time the leading platoon were in no man’s land.
The hostile barrage was fairly heavy all about this area, especially on the sunken road La Vacquerie Road. This road was therefore avoided. The Battalion gradually shook out into Artillery Formation after leaving the village, and in company with tanks and enemy bullets and shells, moved on towards the Blue Line. Two companies either side of the main Bonavis-Goudeacourt Road. German machine guns and snipers were still firing from Sonnet Farm, although the troops who were taking the first system were well beyond. This was the case throughout the attack and was due to the difficulty of clearing or mopping up in time to keep pace with the advancing troops.
Captain D.F. Roberts was unfortunately killed near Sonnet Farm, by a bullet through the head. The two companies on the left slightly lost direction owing to their following the line of a valley and losing sight of the main road which was our line of advance.
On arrival at the Blue Line some houses on the right which should have been taken, were still holding out and our right two section of tanks were a little late.
The battalion suffered 16 men killed and 100 wounded in the attack. The war diary records that the C Company officers who took part in the attack were Second Lieutenant E. Jordan and Second Lieutenant H.W. Binstead. Is one of them the officer on the postcard? Binstead survived the war and returned home to Wallington; Jordan was killed on 9th April 1918.
The successes of the opening day of the offensive were short lived and on 30th November the Germans counter-attacked. The battalion was again in action, and the war diary records one officer killed, three wounded, and nine missing (including the battalion’s commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel RH Baldwin, who was wounded and taken prisoner). Five other ranks are listed as killed, 11 wounded, and 260 missing.
Further analysis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database for this period shows 19 casualties on 20th November; eight between the 20th and 30th; and 64 for 30th November. Only one of these has a known grave; the remainder are commemorated on Cambrai memorial.
Ultimately one is left wondering how many of the 30 men in the postcard were wounded or killed in the Cambrai offensive, in the weeks after the picture was taken.