An Arras Mystery

Today marks the centenary of the death of Private Harold William Baker, 20th Royal Fusiliers, one of the men commemorated on Carshalton war memorial and who I wrote about in my book. Harold lived locally and attended St. Olave’s school in Southwark between 1910 and 1915.

Carshalton war memorial

Harold was killed during the battalion’s attack south east of Heninel. The battalion war diary recorded: ‘Night march successfully carried out and arrived at place of assembly at 2.45am. Attacked enemy’s position…A, D and B Companies formed up and proceeded about 100 yards when heavy machine gun fire was opened from front and flanks. Progress then was slight and the attack was inclining too much to the right. The advance was stopped and C Company entered the trenches. The attack would have been successful but MG fire was too severe and the attack failed.’

The area in which the 20th Royal Fusiliers were in action on 16th April 1917

The Record of Olavian Fallen contained a comprehensive obituary for Harold:

Harold Baker

‘Harold William Baker excelled at cricket and rugby and was an NCO in the school cadet corps. He is mentioned frequently in the Olavian magazine between the years 1910 and 1915. In his spare time, not content with his strong religious beliefs, he had become an unofficial street preacher, taking the world of God into the slum areas – an often thankless task. His best school friend was Harold Grose, a fellow rugby player, with whom he enlisted in the Fusiliers. Grose, who survived the conflict, would retain affectionate memories of ‘the Preacher’. The Allied line gradually pushed seven miles south east of Arras with men from Northumberland capturing the high ground of Wancourt tower. The 15th April saw desperate German counter attacks almost all repulsed. Private Baker was involved in all of these infantry actions at the tender age of eighteen. On the 16th, he was advancing with his friend Jimmy Wilde, a Welsh school master, and their officer, Lieutenant CE Powell, when all three men were cut down in one sweep of an enemy machine gun from the high ground. The three men were buried alongside each other by an officer of the Kings (Liverpool) Regiment, who later found them, after their brigade had pushed the reinforcing troops forward. The clean white stones of these brave men sit in the sunshine at the Heninel-Croisilles Road Cemetery, on a road that crosses a plateau south west of Arras.’

As stated Harold is buried in Heninel-Croisilles Road Cemetery, Plot 2, Row E, Grave 41. However, now comes the mystery; the two men mentioned as being buried alongside Harold, are in fact not…

At first glance I thought that perhaps the obituary should not be read literally, and the two men were buried elsewhere in the same cemetery, but this is not the case. A search of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database identifies ‘Jimmy’ Wilde as Lance Corporal Wenden Ray Wilde, commemorated on Arras Memorial. A quick internet search shows that he was Senior Mathematics Master at Carmarthen Grammar School, and is commemorated on the memorial there and the one in Carmarthen itself.

The only likely candidate for Lieutenant CE Powell is Second Lieutenant Eric Layton Powell, also listed on the Arras Memorial. His medal index card shows that his father lived in Brabourne, near Ashford in Kent, although he is not commemorated on the village memorial.

So the two soldiers in the account can be positively identified, but the mystery still remains as to what happened to their bodies. From the account it sounds as if the burials happened quite soon after the attack. Were they ever actually buried side-by-side with Harold Baker? Or were their bodies maybe disinterred by later shelling or the graves lost when the ground was re-captured by the Germans in April 1918? They could even be among the 104 unidentified graves within the cemetery. I suspect it is a mystery that will never be solved.

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This entry was posted in 1917, Arras, Carshalton, Centenary, CWGC, Remembrance, Research, WW1 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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