The Battle of the Somme

100 years ago Field Marshall Haig determined on  great offensive that would push the Germans back from their positions. Bombardment of the German lines began on June 26th and continued for five days and then on July 1st, on the assumption that the Germans had suffered heavy casualties, Haig ordered the assault be the infantry and waves of men were sent over the top.

Unfortunately the assumption that the Germans would have wilted under the bombardment proved to be without foundation. The germans had dug trenches 15 metres deep and reinforced their positions with concrete. The five day bombardment had been wasteful and achieved nothing. This was as nothing compared to the waste of life on July 1st. The advancing British troops were literally mown down by German machine gunners. The losses were devastating. The Middlesex regiment, for example, sent out 740 men and lost 622 in the first 10 minutes. This information did not get back to headquarters in time and a second wave of men was sent out even as it was obvious that they would die in this carnage. 20,000 British soldiers lost their lives on that first day and a further 40000 were wounded. Even more astonishing as we read about it 100 years later was that Haig refused to listen to reports that the offensive was not successful and repeated the same tactics on July 2nd.

The fighting continued, albeit with more realistic caution by the generals. The battle continued for the month with virtually no change of positions but with massive loss of life. Some local men were involved in this battle and here are some reports at first hand from that terrible month.

Regarding their youngest son, 26 year old Sapper Albert Edward Sanders, Royal Engineers, Mr. and Mrs. C. Sanders, of 39, Oxford Street, Wolverton, have received the following letter from Captain F. A. Neill, Royal Engineers;
“I am deeply grieved to have to inform you that your son, Sapper A. E. Sanders, was killed in action on Monday night. Along with a section, he was engaged in wiring a trench captured from the enemy, when he was killed instantaneously by a shell which at the same time wounded two of his comrades. I had known your son 18 months, and during that time had many opportunities of learning his splendid capabilities. I feel that any sympathy I can offer you is so very small in comparison with your great loss, but I am sure you will find a great amount of consolation in that he died serving his King and country and doing his duty bravely and well. In him we have lost a good comrade. Will you please accept from all the officers and men of this company our deepest sympathy”
(Sapper Sanders was killed on Monday, July 3rd, 1916, and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France.) W.E. 1916 July 14th
§ Rifleman Thomas Nichols, of the London Rifles, was wounded in the right arm by a shell on the opening day of the advance, and is now in a Canadian Hospital in France. He is the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. H. Nichols, 37, Church Street, Wolverton, to whom he writes that he had to crawl back to camp under cover of darkness, hiding in a shell hole up to his knees in water. He was at one time Secretary of the Wolverton Hockey Club, and when he left for South America the members presented him with a cigarette case. However, after the outbreak of war he left his responsible post on the Central Argentine Railway, and returned home to enlist. W.E. 1916 July 14th
§ Mr. Edward North, of Green Lane, Wolverton, has received a letter from his son, Private T. North, of the 6th Battalion, Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, stating that in the charge at Fricourt, on July 3rd, he was wounded in the muscle of his left arm, and is now in Middlesex War Hospital. W.E. 1916 July 14th
§ Mrs. W. Morgan, of Wolverton, has received a letter from her husband, Company Sergeant Major W. Morgan, 2nd Battalion, Leinsters, stating that he was wounded in the back by shrapnel on July 6th, and is now in hospital. He has undergone his operation and is progressing favourably, the piece of shell having been extracted. A regular soldier, he has served nine years in the 2nd Leinsters, and was previously wounded at St.Eloi, in February 1915. W.E. 1916 July 14th
On Tuesday morning an intimation was received by Mrs. Young, a widow, that her son, Private John Young, King’s Royal Rifles, was missing. The information stated that he had been selected as one of a party to raid the German trenches, and that he had not returned. On Wednesday morning Mrs. Young then received the following letter, signed by Privates J. George and J. Sable;
“I am very sorry to have to inform you that your son Jack has been reported missing. He was one of a raiding party that raided the enemy’s lines on the 2nd July. I express the hope that the worst has not befallen him, and that he may be a prisoner, as some of his comrades are also reported missing, and we are all hoping that news will be received of them. Should this hope fail I would like to offer you my sincere sympathy. Jack was a son to be proud of and was well liked by all his comrades, and should he have fallen he died doing his duty to his country and those at home, like a true Englishman.”
Before the war, Private Young had been a member of the Church Lads’ Brigade at Wolverton. W.E. 1916 July 14th
§ Lance Corporal Arthur Stephenson, of the Oxon and Bucks Light Infantry, writes home to his mother, who lives in Windsor Street, Wolverton;
“I have had the misfortune to get wounded. It was only slight, and am very thankful, as it hit my head. I was on sentry at the time, and saw this German myself, and could easily have shot him. Up to now I have always given a German a sporting chance and remember many a time instead of throwing a bomb I have thrown a lump of chalk just to give a reminder that he could be hit. From now on I don’t care who and where it is if at any time I come across them they will be picking daisies up instead of drinking Lager beer in Berlin. I am all right and perhaps shall have rejoined my regiment by the time this reaches you. It was a near thing, but I don’t want you to worry, as I am quite well and only waiting to go out of the rest camp, which is not far from the firing line. I have had the luck to have new potatoes, cabbage, and roast meat for dinner, and am thinking I would like another scratch just to get a dinner like it again. It is a good bit of news I am letting you know – that your humble has been recommended for the Military Medal; four out of my Company counting myself. It might not go through, but am hoping it will as I deserve one and a rest after 23 months’ fighting and not scrounging, as many are doing at the present time.” W.E. 1916 July 21st
Lance Corporal A. Fincher, 2nd Bucks Battalion, was killed in action on July 19th. Aged 19, he was the third son of Mr. and Mrs. F. Fincher, of 43, High Street, Stantonbury, to whom Second Lieutenant Floyd writes;
It is with feelings of deepest regret that I write to inform you of the death of your son, No. 1477, Corpl. A.O. Fincher. He was killed on the night of the 19th inst., whilst in charge of a machine gun section, and will be missed very much, as he was a general favourite, and a very efficient N.C.O. He was in my platoon and I considered him to be one of my best N.C.O.s. Again tendering you my sincere sympathy.”
Two brothers are in the Forces. One was wounded a while ago in France, and the other is at Salonica. W.E. 1916 July 28th
Private Frederick Thomas Willis, of the Bucks Battalion, Oxon and Bucks Light Infantry, was killed in France during a heroic and desperate bayonet charge against the Germans on the night of July 19th. In a letter to the bereaved mother, 2nd Lieutenant J. R. Floyd writes;
“It is with feelings of deepest regret that I write to inform you that your son was killed in action on the night of the 19th inst. He was a very reliable and efficient soldier, never complaining if there was any hard work to do or if everything was not quite as it might have been. He was in my platoon, and I shall miss him very much. Again asking you to accept my sympathy, yours sincerely, J. R. Floyd, 2nd Lieut.”
Twenty three years of age, the late Private Willis had enlisted last November 11th and went with his regiment to France nine weeks ago. Before volunteering, he had been employed as a body maker in the Wolverton Carriage Works and being a man of exemplary character, he was well known and greatly respected in Hanslope. A devoted church worker, and a prominent member of the local branch of the Church of England Temperance Society, he was also a member of the band of church bellringers. B.S. 1916 July 29th
§ Mrs. Phillips, of 128, Windsor Street, Wolverton, has received a notification that her son, Private C. Phillips, has been severely wounded in the left leg and lower jaw, and is now in the 37th Casualty Clearing Station. Writing to his mother he says;
“I have been wounded, being hit between knee and thigh in about ten places. It is a nasty leg and done up in irons. I also got a piece in my jaw to make it worse, but still keep never minding.” W.E. 1916 July 28th (Charlie Phillips was a regular sight around Wolverton in the 1940s and 50s. He was postman and although he had a wooden leg, as a consequence of the above injuries, he gamely did his daily rounds. He also used a tricycle with a fixed wheel so that he could pedal with one leg.)
Regarding her eldest son, Private S. Bissell, of the Royal Warwicks, Mrs. S. Bissell, of 23, St. Giles Street, Stantonbury, has received the following letter from Private Arthur W. Jencock, of the same regiment;
“As Sam and I promised each other to write home if either of us got hit, it is my very painful duty to tell you that he got killed in action on Monday, July 17th. He was shot through the head by a sniper and died instantly, and we buried him behind our trench at night. I hardly know how to express my great sympathy with you, nor to tell you how greatly I miss him, as we have been the best of pals since we first came to France. He died as he lived, cheerful and playing the game. I am sorry I cannot tell you more, so will close – again expressing my greatest sympathy with you.”

Aged 23, Private Bissell had been in the Bucks Territorials for four years, and on rejoining was sent up from base with the Warwicks.  W.E. 1916 Aug. 4th

Thomas Young

Some years ago I tried to discover more about Thomas Young, director of the L&BR and sometime member of the Board Works Committee. Here. He gave his name to Young Street in Wolverton.

There were many Thomas Youngs, some very prominent, but this Thomas Young was relatively obscure. I am therefore very grateful to David Hodgkins for sharing his research on this little known railway man.

He began life as the son of a small farmer in Nairn in Scotland and therefore did not have a grand background. He served in the Navy and then worked in India, where he made money. On his return to England he was spotted by William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, and taken into his service as his private secretary. His relatively humble origins were of some use to Melbourne who could then gauge how the “lower orders” were inclined to think. But Young was a very industrious and able man and he was constantly running errands for Melbourne.

After 10 years in Melbourne’s service the lord found him employment as Receiver General of the Post Office at an annual salary of £800. In 1836 this was a huge income. Around this time he also became a member of the L&BR Board, most likely because of his connection to Lord Melbourne, who was a very influential minister. He does not appear himself to have been a major investor in the railway project as he only held share to the value of £1000. He did make the transition to the Board of the LNWR in 1845 but it seems that his lack of substantial investment in the company disqualified him from a directorship in 1850.

He continued with his position at the Post Office until 1854 and died in 1864 at the age of 74. His estate was worth £30,000.

Football on the Front

A lot of Wolverton men ended up in Salonica in October 1915, where, after the initial failed assault on Gallipoli, there was little action. Here is an account of a football match played there 100 years before the present European Cup. The teams included some useful players: lewis a former Watford FC goalkeeper and Laddie Brown from Cosgrove, who was an exceptional young talent.

Private Frank Williams, of “D” Co., 7th Oxon and Bucks Light Infantry at Salonica, sends the following letter to the editor;
“A very interesting football match took place last Friday, March 24, in the vicinity of Salonica between two Companies of the 7th Oxford and Bucks. L.I., who are now doing active service in Greece, the two Companies being ‘D’ Co, and the Headquarters Company. This match was played after the Tommies had had a hard days work with the pick and the shovel, kicking off at 5.30 with an Aegean breeze. ‘D’ Co, won the toss, and the Headquarters kicked off before a fair crowd, consisting of British and French troops. After a little even play the Headquarters were having all the game in their favour, and with a little excitement, Tolley, of the Headquarters, only just missed scoring. The Headquarters, only the sea breeze in their favour, were well over their opponents. Sherwood, at centre half, was showing his Northants. League form for the Headquarters, but was unable to find Lewis, the old Watford goalie weak, and as the whistle blew half-time it was no score. During the next half play was very even. E. Bennett, of the Headquarters, was very consistent at left half, but as the crowd emerged from the ground A. J. Ross placed the ball well in the goal mouth, and after a very excitable time, Laddie Brown scored the only goal of the match. Thus ‘D’ Company won by 1 goal to nil. Look out for further accounts of other matches later on. Hoping you are in the best of health, as it leaves me top hole. We are having extraordinary hot weather.”
Private Williams is the son of Mr. W. H. W. Williams, of Green Lane, Wolverton. W.E. 1916 Apr. 14th

Unfortunately, Laddie Brown had only a few months to live as he was killed in action on August 19th 1916.

Aged 31, Lance Corporal William “Laddie” Brown, 7th Battalion, Oxon and Bucks Light Infantry, was killed in action on Saturday, August 19th. A native of Cosgrove, he had been a keen sportsman, and some years ago played some ‘sterling games’ for the Cosgrove and Wolverton football clubs. His parents, William and Margaret Brown, of 62, Peel Road, Wolverton, have now received the following letter;

“Dear Mrs. Brown. – It is with feelings of heartfelt sympathy and deepest regret that I write to tell you of the death of your ever brave and cheerful son ‘Laddie’ (he was known as ‘Laddie’ throughout the whole battalion and was immensely popular). On the night of the capture of Horseshoe Hill, your son went with me and the rest of the left-half company through an intense barrage of shrapnel and high explosives which the Bulgarian batteries were sending over. We were carrying tools so that we could get ‘dug in.’ We managed to get there and had to dig in solid rock. Everything seemed hopeless, but ‘Laddie’ and the rest of the boys stuck it, even though we were being shelled all the time and were without water or rations. On the afternoon of the 18th Captain Martin, Mr. Steele and myself were discussing how we were going to hold the position in the event of the counter attack being made, and your son was less than three yards away on our left. Suddenly an immense 3.4 high explosive shell burst about 15 yards to our left, and your brave boy was hit in the abdomen and in the leg. He rolled over and fell at my feet, and gasped,”Oh! I am bleeding to death.” We tried our best but, Mrs. Brown, it was a hopeless case and your gallant boy died in twenty seconds. His death unnerved the rest of the platoon as he was such a favourite amongst us all, and took from me bits of the best of good fellows (sic). The Oxfords, who got through, have lived through absolute hell, as we were exposed to frontal fire, enfilade fire from both flanks and defilade fire from our left flank by the Bulgarian batteries, which were absolutely raining shrapnel and high explosives on to us. Some of the high explosive shells were ??, and never will I be able to realise how the fellows got through that barrage of fire, how they escaped casualties in repelling two counter attacks made by 600 Bulgars, and how any of us got out of that hell-spot alive. I have other letters to write to the relatives of my wounded men, so I will conclude after once more expressing my deepest regret. I am, yours very sincerely, A.P. Boor, Lieut., O.C. 15th Platoon. “D” Co.”
The deepest sympathy is extended in the village to the bereaved parents, who lost another son, Private Joseph Brown, at the battle of Hooge nearly 12 months ago.
(Private William Brown is buried in Karasouli Military Cemetery, Greece.) W.E. 1916 Sep. 22nd 

Some experienced soldiers meet their end

Two years int the Great War, men and resources were being used up. Two New Bradwell men, both of whom had done military service before 1914, sadly died in April and May 1916. 
Louis Kent had fought as a professional soldier in India on what was then known as the North West frontier. Frank Bowles had served in the Boer War in South Africa. Both men were in their early thirties and were called up as reservists at the outbreak of war in 1914.  The two reports below come from the Bucks Standard.

The youngest son of Mr. and Mrs. Simon Kent, of 31, High Street, Stantonbury, was killed in action on April 5th. He was 34 year old Corporal Louis Victor Kent, of the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who, having always been interested in soldiering, was in his younger days a member of the Bucks Volunteer Corps. In fact in 1900, at the camp at Sandgate he had rescued a comrade from drowning, and in recognition of his bravery received the vellum of the Royal Humane Society. Subsequently he joined the regular Army, and in 1908 received the Indian North-West Frontier medal. After 16 years service he then left the Army, being presented by General Gatacre on his departure with a framed emblem of the Warwickshires. He then passed the necessary exams for the post of army schoolmaster, having a short time before received a first-class certificate for education. At the outbreak of war he was called up on the Reserve, and in the early days of hostilities took part in much hard fighting in France. At Neuve Chapelle he was wounded in the thigh, and was later drafted with the Indian Expeditionary Force. He leaves a widow (the eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. J. Cornhill, of Oxford-street, Wolverton, and formerly of Newport Pagnell) and two little girls. B.S. 1916 May 13th

With full military honours, Private Frank Bowles, of the 2nd East Kent Regiment (The Buffs), who died on the 15th inst. in a London hospital, from wounds received in action, was buried in Wolverton Cemetery on Saturday afternoon last. Aged 33, prior to the war Private Bowles lived with his wife at Stantonbury, where he was much respected. In civilian life he was employed in the electric shop of Wolverton Works, and being called up as a reservist at the outbreak of war, he saw a good deal of hard fighting in France and Flanders. He leaves a widow and two young children. B.S. 1916 May 27th