“Show me a Hero & I will write you a Tragedy, wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Since Harry had joined up in 1914 with the South Wales Borderers, he had seen almost continual action through to 1918. Regimental rolls showed that his survival to this date was a statistical impossibility. This had a lot to do with the fact that leave for the enlisted man was rare. The average soldier got 10 days for every 15 months of field service, but as late as 1917, many men in the trenches had not been home in 20 months.
From Gallipoli & on to Northern France the horrendous toll of dead, injured & missing relentlessly expanded. The Army was bone weary. Its ranks, though, had multiplied, & weakened though they were, there were now more than twenty men in khaki for every one of the men of 1914 who had fought their way through the legendary retreat from Mons. However, the old professional Army of the UK that always won the last battle, had fought at Quebec, Corruna, The Indies, had been trained in musketry at Hythe, drilled on the scorched parade grounds of Chuddapore, was no more. It had been machine gunned, gassed, & buried in 1915. Those holding the line now were the post 1915 ‘old sweats’, hardened veterans of the bloodiest industrialised conflict yet known to man.
The British zone of Flanders operations,was anchored by the towns of Armentières, Arras, & Albert. It ran from Ypres south, then gently east through the mines of Lens, past Vimy Ridge, across the Scarpe River & down to the Somme. Here millions of men lived, trained & died, in an area that measured some 50 by 60 miles, roughly the size of Lincolnshire. To the west was the sea, never more than 50 miles to the rear, and the staging ports of Étaples, Le Havre, & Rouen. To the east were the Germans. These were the 1917-18 killing fields in which the South Wales Borderers saw direct involvement,where those who perished were the ones caught on the barbed wire, drowned in mud, choked by the oily slime of gas, reduced to a spray of red mist, where quartered limbs hung from the shattered branches of burnt trees, bodies swollen & blackened with flies, skulls gnawed by rats, broken corpses stuck in the side of trenches that aged with each day into the colours of the dead :
- First Battle of the Scarpe. 9-14 Apr 1917
- Second Battle of the Scarpe. 23-24 Apr 1917
- Battle of Langemarck. 16-18 Aug 1917
- Battle of the Menin Road. 20-25 Sep 1917
- Battle of Polygon Wood. 26 Sep-3 Oct 1917
- Battle of Broodside. 4 Oct 1917
- Battle of Poelcappelle. 9 Oct 1917
- Capture of Bourlon Wood. 23-28 Nov 1917
- Battle of Estaires. 9-11 Apr 1918
- Battle of Messines. 10-11 Apr 1918
- Battle of Hazebrouck. 12-15 Apr 1918
- Battle of Bailleul. 13-15 Apr 1918
In the spring of 1918, Germany and the Central Powers staged a final massive offensive that threatened to overwhelm British and French forces along the Western Front. It’s purpose was to end the War swiftly by pushing the British Expeditionary Force towards the Channel – where it could be contained – before dealing a decisive blow against the French. The main objective was to break through the British lines in the Somme-Arras sector, where the numerical advantage for the German attackers was about 2:1, as the collapse of Russia had enabled the divisions stationed there to be shifted to the western front. The surprise offensive, aided by fog & Sir Douglas Haig’s dispositions in depth, opened in the early morning of 21st March 1918 with a bombardment of unprecedented intensity. The Kaiser’s Battle had commenced.
For almost five hours a barrage of over a million shells was poured into the British front lines after which thirty two divisions of German troops over-ran the southern section of the front. On the initial day of the attack, they captured more ground than the British had taken in the 140 day battle of the Somme. Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe, issued the order: “Every position must be held to the last man. . . . With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each man must fight to the end.” On 24th March Haig indicated to his French counterpart that the British front line could no longer be held & he would have to abandon the defence of Amiens. In London, the cabinet panicked & even discussed the time it would take to pull the British Army out of France. This was a harbinger of the Blitzkreig of 1940, the evacuation from Dunkirk, & the bitterness that followed it. Remarkably, however, after retreating some 30 miles to the lines they had originally held in 1916, Harry, the SWB & the British Army held firm there & despite being put under fierce pressure, forced the abandonment of German ambition & its adoption of a revised plan.
Two German Armies were ordered to overrun nine Allied divisions (8 British – including the SWB – , & 1 Portuguese) that were between the German lines & the strategically important railway junction of Hazebrouck. Initially the offensive that again commenced with heavy artillery fire on April 9 1918 appeared to be highly successful. German troops smashed through the Portuguese defences but could not break the bloodyminded stubborn British troops. It could be argued that it was here that the SWB finally broke the mighty German war machine, and brought the end of the War in sight, but that was not at all the view at the time of the exhausted & shattered British troops who were metaphorically out on their feet, awaiting the knockout blow. This never happened. The swift German advance over previously bitterly contested & shattered terrain left them dangerously stretched & presented many problems, not the least being how to re-supply from railheads & depots across countless muddy quagmires, an inland sea of black waste and shell holes, strewn with carcasses of horses & men.
British forces were accordingly able to re-organise, re-fit, & prepare, and on 8 August 1918 in Northern France, a mainly British force themselves launched an attack on a 15 mile wide front and advanced to a depth of 7 miles. In so doing it inflicted 70,000 casualties on the Germans capturing 500 guns while suffering 44,000 casualties of its own. The Battle of Amiens as it became known, was the first clearly-successful, large-scale, Allied offensive operation on the Western Front. Ludendorff, the German commander, famously called it the “Black day of the German army”. The Hamlet of Outtersteene had been captured by the Germans on 12/4/18 who retained control there after the First Battle of Kemmel 17–19/4/18. Forcing the German troops to retreat, it was re-captured by the South Wales Borderers on 18/8/1918,
Some 900 prisoners were taken, but in the subsequent advance East beyond the village, & less than 3 months before the November Armistice, Harrys’ number finally came up – 100 years ago to this day – on the far side of Outtersteene Ridge during unrelenting fierce artillery shelling. His body was never recovered, as with hundreds of thousands of others on the Western Front, he had been literally obliterated from the face of the earth by the awesome power of heavy guns & high explosive.
The endless road moves to a darkening sky
A Road where withered tress & shadows sigh
Across the years, where the memories lie
With friends long dead in Picardy.
Thus came the end of a beginning
No golden voice of immortality
Sang Crispin’s Day, but old men in their dreams
Will sometimes ramble with their youthful friends
And mingle shadow with reality
Now they are gone. It matters not -so long as not in vain
the ghosts of far off friends should have died.
His Mother received a sympathy letter from the Chaplain 2nd Battalion SWB dated 31/8/1918,
& one from Sapper Carey dated 2/9/1918.
Son George also wrote to her from his Q ship on 5/9/1918.
There is no family record of any official notification/confirmation of Harrys’ death being received, apart from a typically dismissive letter dated 8/12/1920 from the the War Graves Commission
Harry is commemorated, along with the names of 11,477 others from 36 Divisions & 100 Regiments, at The Ploegsteert Memorial, (near Armentières) a covered circular colonnade, seventy feet across & thirty eight feet high, entered by an opening set between two stone lions.
He also merited a mention in the local Parish magazine.
It was a terrible war, the most brutal and destructive conflict the world had ever seen. “When it was all over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves,” wrote Winston Churchill, “and these were of doubtful utility.” On average, roughly 6,000 men were killed every day of the War. Before it was over, 9.5 million soldiers lay dead, millions more wounded. About half of the British soldiers fighting in France became a casualty of one kind or another. Even if one includes the men serving in the lines of support & communication, those on home defence in Britain, and British Army garrison troops in India & the Far East, it meant that of ten men joining the Army, two were destined to be killed, & five injured ; only three would survive the War intact. Intact ? In war there are no unwounded soldiers. The figures take no account of the psychological effects of the fighting. Harrys’ brother George had lived through Gallipoli, Palestine, Egypt & the Atlantic to survive the Great War – however, in common with many of those who came home , the memories & awful trauma of his War Service could not be erased. The chasm between those who knew and those who only imagined would be a defining reality of British life in the immediate years after the War, a current of memory & distinction flowing between the survivors, never spoken about but never ever forgotten. Many simply could not speak to those people who had not shared their experiences, much less cooperate with them. It was not that they despised them, they even envied them. But between those who had served and those who had not, there was a dark screen of horror & isolation, the knowledge of the reality of war. Across that screen there was no communication. They could only stand on one side, like strangers in a strange land. Unsurprisingly, George never settled successfully back in the UK. In spite of at one stage being appointed Captain of the Duke of Westminster’s yacht “The Flying Cloud”,
He left the UK (with wife Hilda) for a fresh start in New Zealand. It was here that he effectively disappeared from the family record – just one more unseen insignificant victim of the War to end all Wars.
© DJM 2018