Tag Archives: World War One

The Long Long LONG Trail: First World War on the TV (part 1)

With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War looming, we have already seen a steady increase in the amount of programs related to the First World War on television. Here’s my assessment of what we have seen so far.

Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Britain’s Great War’ was a welcome surprise. I must admit, I find Paxman rather unlikeable on Newsnight, which, as it turns out, does him a great dis-service as a presenter. I really enjoyed ‘Britain’s Great War’, and I felt that it covered many aspects of the First World War that have been previously ignored. We all know about the Somme and Gallipoli, for example, yet how many people knew that Britain was bombed during the First World War? Or about conscription, or rationing?

Max Hastings’ ‘The Necessary War‘ was a disappointment. Aside from the fact that I find Hastings style incredibly grating, I felt that ‘the Necessary War’ was essentially produced for a ‘Daily Mail’ market, as per much of Hastings work, and was full of great power, imperialist nostalgia of a significantly conservative bent. It is certainly useful to question previously held assumptions – of which the ‘futile war’ argument has become something of an orthodoxy. Presenting the First World War as unavoidable is slightly ridiculous – is any war ever completely unavoidable? If not then we might as well all just kill each other now and get it over and done with!

I have long been a big fan of Niall Ferguson’s book ‘The Pity of War‘, but the TV adaptation was rather disappointing. I enjoyed the open format, and it was very refreshing to watch a topical issue being debated in the studio by the audience and academic alike. However I felt that Ferguson’s segments did not really reflect the content of the book on which the program was based, and some of the elements were completely off on a tangent. I felt that it slightly missed the point overall, but the intention was noble and the format more interesting.

So far ‘37 Days‘ has, in my book, been by far the most impressive. A three part docu-drama following the events of July and August 1914 as the unfold, in Sarajevo, Vienna, Berlin and London. As a series it fills a gap in popular understanding. It is not enough to cite’ the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’ as the cause of the First World War – so much happened in between that and the first shots being fired, as this program shows. And I had not realised just how dramatic events were, how interlinked events were, and the complex personalities involved. I am not normally a fan of the ‘great man’ school of history, but this was illuminating, insightful and entertaining in its own right.

We can expect a significant amount of First World War-centric television over the next few months. As much as I welcome the interest, I do hope that we won’t experience overkill by the time 4 August arrives – in the rush to produce topical and relevant documentaries, we can only hope that there is a marked improvement in the scope and quality!

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Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes – book talks

ImageI’m going to be giving some talks based on my new book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’, courtest of Portsmouth Library Service:

Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes

  • Saturday 8 February – 1.30pm, Carnegie Library (Fratton)
  • Saturday 8 March – 1.30pm, Southsea Library
Over 6,000 men from Portsmouth are believed to have been killed during WW1. Not only were thousands of Portsmouth soldiers killed on the Western Front, but Portsmouth-based ships were sunk throughout the war, causing massive loss of life. Thanks to a
wealth of sources available, it is possible to tell their stories in more detail than ever before.

Researching your World War One Ancestors

  • Saturday 29 March – 11am, Central Library

A special talk for the ‘Lost Hour’ event, this talk will show you how you can research your ancestors who took part in the First World War, using examples of men from Portsmouth who fought and died, and shwoing you the sources available to help with your research.

All talks are fully illustrated, and copies of my book will be available for purchase. Hope to see you there, come and say hi!

For more information about how to find the venues, and about other events taking place at Portsmouth Libraries over the next few months, click here.

Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes is also available to purchase on Amazon and other online booksellers, Waterstones Commercial Road, Blackwells at the Student Union, the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson and the City Museum.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – the Kaiser Offensive continues

After the hard-fought battle on 28 March 1918, the 1st Hampshires went back into Brigade reserve trenches. March 1918 closed relatively uneventfully. On 1 April the Hampshires went into Brigade support, relieving the Somerset Light Infantry north of the River Scarpe, 3.5 miles east of Arras. Their spell in support was quiet, until the Germans began shelling on 5 April. The adjutant, writing in the war diary, felt that this was a ‘demonstration’ connected to the attacks being made at the same time, further south on the Somme. That evening the Hampshires went into the front line in Fampoux, holding Stoke Avenue, Pudding and Port trenches. The next few days saw intermittent shelling, until the Battalion was relieved on 8 April.

After being relieved the Hampshires marched back to St Laurent Blangy, and from there boarded buses to ‘Y’ Huts, about four miles north west of Arras. The next few days were spent in the usual clean up after the front line, and on 9 April it was announced that six other ranks had been awarded the Military Medal for their part in the battle on 28 March. On 10 April the Battalion moved again, marching to camps near Haute Avesnes. During the same day a draft of 159 other ranks joined the Battalion. A rare treat was enjoyed on 11 April, when the Battalion were treated to baths. Also that day Lieutenants Edwards and Evans were awarded the Military Cross for their part in the battle on 28 March.

The Battalions time away from the front was short lived, however, for on 12 April they boarded buses, and proceded to Bethune. Once there, the 11th Brigade took over a section of the line to the south of La Basse Canal, with the Hampshires being billeted for the time in Gonnehem. An attack was clearly imminent, for the next day certain personnel were detailed to remain with the transport. Sure enough, on 14 April the Battalion marched up from Gonnehem, and formed up. At 6.30pm the advance began, covered by artillery support and with the Somersets on the right. The Somersets took the village of Riez du Vinage, taking 120 prisoners. The Hampshires met no opposition, and after advancing 1,500 yards dug in on a line level with the Somersets. During the day only one man was killed, and four wounded. The next day orders were received to continue the advance. Attacks were made by the Ox and Bucks on the flank, and although they were initially succesful and the Hampshires pushed out patrols to keep in touch with them, they were eventually forced back to their start line. At 4.30am on 16 April the Hampshires were relieved, and went back to billets at L’Ecleme.

Although the 17th was spent in billets, as the situation was still very unstable the Hampshires were soon put on alert to return to the front. On 18 April a German attack on the 4th Division led to the Hampshires being recalled to Gonnehem to stand by. The attack was unsuccesful, and the Hampshires returned to L’Ecleme. This attack was part of the Germans Operation Georgette in the Lys Sector. The next day the Battalion went into the front line, holding a section south of La Basse Canal, south of Bois de Pacaut. That night a patrol led by 2nd Lieutenant Clegg crossed the canal and captured a prisoner from the 471st Regiment. Prisoner snatch patrols were a hallmark of an agressive unit. The next day brought heavy shelling. During the night C Company pushed three platoons across the Canal and occupied the Bois de Pacaut, capturing two wounded prisoners. 21 April was relatively quiet.

On 22 April the Battalion launched another attack on the Boise de Pacaut. The plan was to clear the southern portion of the Pacaut Wood, and establish a line on the road junction at La Pannerie. The attack was to be on a three Company front, with each being alloted its own objectives, and with the remaining company in support. Zero hour was to be at 5.15am, with the troops assembling south of the Canal by 5am. Three bridges were to be erected across the canal by the Royal Engineers. Stokes Mortars and Machine Guns were attached to give fire support. Supporting artillery fire was also planned, including the use of Gas if the wind was favourable. A Special Company of the Royal Engineers was also attached, to project ‘burning oil’ onto a house thought to be an enemy stronghold. Troops were reminded of the importance of consolidating captured ground. At 7am an aeroplane was tasked to fly over to observe progress.

The attack began as planned, but the heavy artillery barrage alerted the enemy almost at once to the impending attack. Enemy artillery fell as the Hampshires were crossing the Canal bridges, causing casualties. The centre bridge in particular received heavy fire, with the leading officer being killed whilst crossing the Bridge. The right and centre companies came under machine gun fire from the wood almost at once, but the left met no opposition. The right hand company pushed Lewis Guns out front, and managed to overcome resistance. By 5.35am the left flank company had reached its objective, and by 5.40am platoons of the right company were on their objective. The centre company, however, had taken heavy casualties in officers and NCO’s, but after being held up for a short time they managed to make progress and link up with the other Companies. At 9am a platoon of the support Company was ordered up to fill a gap in the Battalion’s line. After daybreak heavy Machine Gun fire was directed on the wood, and the Canal area received heavy shelling. At 1.30pm Lieutenant-Colonel F.A.W. Armitage, who had commanded the Battalion since shortly after the Somme, was killed. At 5.30pm the Germans launched a counter-attack south-west through the wood, with the intention of clearing the area and pushing the Hampshires back. This counter-attack was beaten off with machine gun fire. The centre Company were still struggling to make progress to their objctive. 12 men were detached from the support Company as reinforcements, but it was not possible to attach any more men as the Support Company themselves were suffering heavy casualties on the Canal Bank, and if the Canal Bank were to be lost the rest of the Battalion might have become cut off. Any further attacks were impossible, as the whole Battalion was heavily committed fighting off German resistance. The Battalion was finally relieved the next day.

The battle of Pacaut Wood was part of a larger counter-offensive, the battle of Bethune, was designed to hit the Germans hard after the failure of Operation Georgette. The Hampshires paid a high price, however. During the attack on 22 April three officers were killed, including Colonel Armitage. Five officers were wounded, two dying later. 22 men were killed, one died of his wounds, 147 were wounded, eight were wounded but remained at duty, and 20 men were missing.

A number of Portsmouth men were killed during this period. 2nd Lieutenant Eric Reid, aged 19 and from Lennox Road in Southsea, was killed on 29 March 1918. He is remembered on the Arras Memorial. Lance Corporal G.H. Lacey, 33 and from Clive Road, Fratton, died on 31 March 1918. He evidently died in a Base Hospital or on his way home on leave, for he is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery. Several men were killed on 3 April – Lance Corporal P.O. Lawrence is buried in Roclincourt Valley War Cemetery, and Private Frederick Henwood, 21 and from Bishop Street, Fratton, is buried in Athies War Cemetery. Four men were killed During the Battle of Bethune and the attack at Pacaut Wood. Corporal S. Metcalf, 40 and from Orange Street, Portsea, was killed on 21 April and is buried in Mont Bernanchon War Cemetery. Private Harry Reeve, 29 and from Rivers Street, Southea, was killed on 22 April, and is buried in St Venant-Robecq Road Cemetery. Also killed on the 22nd was Private C.F. Jerome, who is buried in Mont Bernanchon Cemetery. Finally, on 23 April, Private W. Brockway, 22 and from London Road, North End, who is buried in Lapugnoy War Cemetery.

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The national roll of the Grear War

I’ve been working through the list of names on the Portsmouth First World War Memorial. Although there are a few names that have eluded me, thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Portsmouth edition of the national roll, it has been possible to find out a lot about many of the men from Portsmouth who fell in the Great War.

The national roll in particular is a great reference source. It’s not comprehensive, as families had to pay for their relatives to be included, and it also covers men who survived as well as men who died. It tells us when a man joined the armed forces. The exact word used is important – men who were already in the Army were serving soldiers, men who joined in the euphoria on the outbreak of war volunteered, men in the Territorial Force or Army Reserve were mobilised, and men who were conscripted are described as ‘joined’.

The entry supplied by the family gives us details that we would not get from anywhere else. In some cases we are told when the person went to the Western Front. We find out when and where somebody was wounded. In some cases, we also hear about how somebody was killed.

Its also interesting to note how many men died of illness. In particular, towards the end of the war quite a few men died during the Influenza pandemic. In general however it seems that a lot less servicemen died on the home front or away from the front-line than did during the Second World War.

Some interesting stories include:

Private W.E. Morey, of the 6th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, came from 18 Vivash Road. He had volunteered in October 1915. He was taken prisoner on the Somme, and somehow was killed by the Germans in an internment camp at Langensatz – on 27 November 1918, 16 days AFTER the armistice.

Private P. O’Neill volunteered in August 1914. Although he never served overseas, he did serve at home with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was invalided out of the Army in August 1915, and died in Landport Hospital in January 1916. He is not recorded on the Commonwealth War Graves Commissions register, as he was not a serving soldier when he died.

Pioneer James Newman was one of the oldest Portsmouth servicemen. Of 70 Unicorn Street, Portsea, he was serving in the Army when the war started. Initially serving with no. 2 Stores Section of the Royal Engineers, he was sent to France in December 1918 after the Armistice to work with the Graves Registration Unit. He was accidentally drowned in the Sambre Canal on 13 December 1919, and is buried in Les Baraques Cemetery, France. He was 63.

Sergeant A.A. Martin was a pre-war regular soldier. Serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, he was wounded at Gallipoli. He was seconded to a Bombing School at Lyndhurst in the New Forest, to train new recruits in how to use Grenades. He was killed in an accident on 23 February 1917, and is buried in Lyndhurst. He came from 64 Bedford Street, Buckland.

Private C. Oakey was also killed accidentally. From 70 Union Street, Portsea, he originally volunteered in October 1914 and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was wounded at Ypres, and was again wounded after being transferred to the Salonika Front in 1917. After the armistice he was transferred to Turkey, and was killed in an accident. He is buried in Haidar Pasha Cemetery in Istanbul.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Passchendaele

artillery barrage map from ...

An example of a creeping artillery barrage at Passchendaele (Image via Wikipedia)

The Battle of Passchendaele had begun on 31 Jul7 1917. The first phase during July and August had failed to make any serious progress. The Battle of Broodseinde was to be the last assault launched in the Ypres Salient as part of the offensive, and was an attempt to protect the southern Flank of the salient. The ever-elusive breakthrough was still hoped for, however.

After arriving at Proven on 20 September, the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment spent the next week training hard. It was hard to get much training done, however, due to the limited amount of space available. On 23 September a draft of 103 men arrived, and on the 27th the Divisional Commander, Major-General Matheson, inspected the Battalion.

On 28 September the Battalion entrained at Proven in the afternoon, and detrained at Elverindghe. From there the Hampshires marched to Roussol Camp. The next day Company Commanders instructed their NCO’s and men in the plans for the forthcoming offensive. The day after that on the 30th each Company rehearsed their plan for the attack.

later on the 30th the Battalion went into Brigade reserve at the Canal Bank, relieving the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers. The detailed operation order issued by the Adjutant listed the equipment and rations that the men were to carry. Officers were not to carry swagger sticks, and were to dress exactly the same as the men. Haversacks and entrenching tools would be left behind. Instead every man was issued with either a pick or shovel. Each platoon would carry 10 wire cutters, every man 2 aeroplane flares and every man 3 sandbags.

A detailed map was issued, showing the ground over which the Brigade was to advance. Starting in the area of Langemarck, the 11th Brigade was to attack on a narrow front, capturing ground to the North East of Poelcappelle. The 1st Hampshires were on the left, the Somerset Light Infantry on the right, and the 1st East Lancs in support and the Rifle Brigade in reserve. The Hampshires objectives, in order, were to be the Red House, Beek Villa, Imbros House, Kangaroo Huts and Tragique Farm. The principal objective, however, was merely a green line marked on the map. An even more detailed Battalion-level map was issued, that showed each of the Companies objectives, and also the distances between each landmark on the map. A diagram of how the platoons were to be set out in the advance was also included, and each platoon was allocated a specific objective, either to capture or, for the support companies, to consolidate once it had been captured.

The attack was to be on a 2 Company front, with each company’s front being 150 yards wide. The two other companies were to be in close support. A creeping Artillery Barrage was planned, as well as a Machine Gun Barrage. A detailed map showed the planned creep of the Barrage, beginning at Zero hour, and creeping forward on lines in front of the advance, moving forward every 2 to 3 minutes. Each Battalion was also alloted 2 Vickers Machine Guns to act in support. 2 Platoons were also designated as counter-attacking platoons, and designated authority to act on their own initiative to break up any German attacks. A Lewis Gun team of the 21st West Yorks was to be attached for anti-aircraft duties. A contact aeroplane was to overfly the area at set times to observe and report on progress.

On 1 and 2 October officers and NCO’s went forward to reconnoitre the line. The next day, on the 3rd, the Battalion went forward to its assembly area at Eagle Trench. It comprised 19 officers and 522 men. 3 officers and 118 men were to be left with the transport, to form a nucleus for reforming the Battalion if it were wiped out. Two tins of hot tea laced with rum were brought up for each Platoon. Heavy rain had fallen in the first few days of October, turning the artillery-riddled ground into a morass.

The troops were formed up and ready to go at 2am on 4 October. The enemy began shelling at 5am. At 6am the advance began, advancing behind the creeping barrage. They met light resistance, but the barrage was reported as being ‘ragged’, and caused many casualties to the Battalion. 30 prisoners and a machine gun were captured in Kangaroo trench. The Battalion advanced well, however. At 1pm it was noticed that the 10th Brigade on the left flank were retiring. An advance by the Rifle Brigade, coming up from reserve, checked this withdrawl. The Hampshires held firm on their objective line as night fell. Overall the battle of Broodseinde was one of the most succesful of the war. All objectives had been captured, for relatively light casualties when compared with the Somme and the earlier phases of Passchendaele. This was

The Battle on 4 October inflicted heavy casualties on the Battalion. 4 officers and 36 men were killed, and 8 officers and 182 men were wounded. 25 men were missing. Among the wounded were Colonel Armitage and Captain Laurie, the Chaplain, who both remained at their post.

Four Portsmouth men were killed on 4 October 1917. Private William McCarthy, 32 and from Highland Street, Eastney, is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial. 19 year old 2nd Lieutenant Henry Hall, of Victoria Road South, Southsea, is also remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial. Private Charles McCable is another man remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial, while Private Frank Oxford, 29, is buried in Cement House Cemetery.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – after the Battle of Arras

Lewis gun

A Lewis Gun, as used by the 1st Hants (Image via Wikipedia)

As June 1917 dawned Company Training continued, as well as sports events, including a Company football competition. On 6 June the Divisional Royal Engineers commander lectured on consolidation. On 10 June a party of 100 men under Captain Johnston marched to Monts-en-Ternois, where medals were presented after the recent operations at Arras.

On 11 June the whole Battalion moved to billets in Arras by ‘motor bus’. The next day the men were bivouaced in the support lines, until 7.15pm when the Battalion relieved the 5th Cameron Highlanders in Brigade support. They remained in support until 16 June, when the Battalion went into the front line near the River Scarpe. The line ran to the east of Roeux. The Battalion had a very quiet time in the line, and were relieved on 20 June, when they went back into Brigade support. The next few days were spent on improving the trenches and erecting barbed wire, before the Battalion was relieved by the 1st Royal Warwickshires on 26 June. The last few days of June were spent in the usual post front line cleaning, inspections and then work parties.

During June 1917 the Battalion had received significant reinforcements, in the shape of 6 officers and 131 men. Notably, no members of the Battalion were killed during the month – a rare month indeed on the Western Front. By mid-1917 the BEF and its units had honed the routine of trench warfare. Each time the Battalion went into the line or was relieved, a detailed operations order was issued in advance by the Adjutant. Atlhough this was no dobt efficient, it was also motivated by a feeling that the high proportion of conscripts in the Army, as well as non-regular officers, needed more detailed orders.

 Early July was spent in Balmoral Camp, training and providing work parties. On 13 July the Battalion went into Brigade support, and on 14 July went into the front line, north east of Monchy-le-Preux. The Germans were very quiet during the day, but very busy at night with snipers, rifle grenades and trench mortars. No men were killed, and the Battalion was relieved on 18 July. After several days in Reserve, the 1st Hampshires went back into the front line on 22 July. This tour proved to be more eventful. On the 23rd the Artillery carried out a dummy raid on the German lines to which the enemy replied, and the next day the Battalion sent out a patrol to reconnointre the enemy line. Several members of the patrol were lost. One of them was Corporal John Leask, a Portsmouth man, who is remembered on the Arras Memorial. On the 25th the Artillery again carried out a dummy raid, before the Battalion carried out a genuine raid the next night. The raiding party advanced behind a strong barrage, and took four prisoners. Only one Hampshire was killed. The Battalion was relieved the next day on 27 July. The rest of July was spent in Brigade reserve and providing working parties.

The Beginning of August 1917 found the Battalion in Wilderness Camp, before on the 2nd of the month they marched to Balmoral Camp. The Battalion began training, including a tactical exercise for officers to illustrate how to advance after a retreating enemy. Divisional sports competitions were held, and medals were awarded for the raid carried out on 24 July. On 13 August a full Battalion exercise was carried out, complete with dummy enemy machine guns. On the 14th the Battalion went into Brigade reserve, and the next day into the front line. The Battalions line was in the area of Musket Trench and happy valley. The Hampshires remained in the line until 23 August – a very long tour – and suffered 4 men killed by enemy shelling. One of them was Private Francis Davis, 35, from Boulton Road in Southsea. He is buried in Level Crossing Cemetery.

On 23 August the Battalion marched back to camp in Scots Valley, apart from A Company who remained in Lance Lane. The accomodation at Scots Valley consisted mainly of tents, and a few tarpaulin shelters. There were no cookhouses, and these had to be built. Over the next few days the Battalion also provided work parties. On 28 August Colonel Armitage left the Battalion temporary to take charge of the 11th Brigade – presumably the Brigadier was ill or wounded. On 31 August the Battalion marched back to Balmoral Camp.

September proved to be an interesting time for the Battalion. Although the ever-present work parties continued, time was found for platoon training. On the 5th the Battalion was relieved, and marched to Pommier. During the day a draft of 129 men arrived. The next day the new arrivals were inspected by the CO, and the Companies were re-organised into 4 platoons. On the 7th individual training commenced, including bombing and Lewis Gun lessons. the next day Brigadier-General Marshall, of the 45th Infantry Brigade, gave a fighting on recent fighting at Ypres. On the 8th Colonel Armitage returned to resume command.

Interestingly, on 9 September a group of 3 officers and 80 other ranks went by lorry to visit the area around Beaumont Hamel, where the Battalion had fought in July 1916 on the Somme – an early form of battlefield tour. Meanwhile back with the Battalion training continued, and on the 10th all officers and NCO’s down to Platoon Sergeant were lectured on German methods of defence ‘and how to deal with them’. More and more lectures were taking place – a sign of the experience that was being gained on the Western Front, the new professionalism in the BEF, and the number of amateur soldiers in the Army.

Training continued, and on the 15th of September, when 14 officers and 350 men turned out for a cross-country run (one wonders what happened to the rest of the men). On the 18th the Battalion marched off to Mondicourt. At midnight on the night of the 19th/20th the Battalion entrained at Mondicourt, and 9.30am detrained at Hopoutre, south of Poperinghe. From there they marched to Piddington Camp, south east of Proven.

The Battalion had returned to the Ypres Salient, where the Third Battle of Ypres had been raging for several months.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Battle of Arras #2

Troops embussing in Arras to go back for a res...

Troops embussing in Arras to go back for a rest (Image via Wikipedia)

 

As night fell on 9 April 1917, the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment were holding a section of captured German trenches after the Battle of Arras. Snow fell throughout the night, enough to leave a white blanket over the ground.

10 April seems to have been a relatively quiet day. The Hampshires observed the Germans very closely, and they seemed to be in the process of retreating. Judging by the traffic on the roads behind the enemy lines it seemed that they were pulling back, yet small groups of Germans in the front line kept up resistance. Attempts were made to continue the attacks, but the wintry conditions made fighting difficult.

At 7pm Germans were spotted moving towards the Hampshires front in a counter-attack. An artillery barrage was quickly called up – a great example of the improvements in all-arms co-operation – as well as rifle and Lewis Gun fire. After several hours it became clear the enemy’s attack was a reconnaisance in force, to assess the strength of the British line.

The next day, 11 April, saw the Battalion return to offensive action. The 4th Division was ordered to attack and hold a low ride, about 1,200 yards to the East of the fourth line of German trenches. The Somersets were in the lead for the 11th Brigade. The Germans were holding their line in strength, however, and the plan had to be altered. The Hampshires attacked to the left, and extended their line by 150 yards, losing 1 officer and 11 men killed and 16 wounded in the process. A similar attack was enacted the next day in order to cause a diversion for another attack elsewhere near Arras. This attack was repulsed, and the Battalion again lost 11 men killed and 16 wounded.

The next two days were very quiet apart from heavy shelling, and one man was killed on each day. On 15 April another attempt was made by B Company to capture Hudson and Hazard trenches, but again it was found impossible to take.

On 16 April the Battalion was shelled heavily, losing 4 men killed, before being relieved by the 1st Royal Irish Rifles and going back to Divisional Reserve that night. D Company did not manage to get away before daylight and had to remain in Hyderabad redoubt until the next night.

The Battalion marched back to shelters in the old German second line. Whilst they would have been OK in decent weather, the rain and snow had made them uncomfortable. After several days in reserve the Battalion then marched back to huts in Agnez-lez-Duisans, six miles west of Arras. The next day the Battalion marched to crowded billets at Izel-lez-Hameau, twelve miles west of Arras.

After the ubiquitous church parade on the first Sunday and time spent cleaning up, the Battalion were paraded and read messages of congratulations from Major-General Lambton (GOC 4th Division) and Lieutenant-General Fergusson (XVII Corps) for their efforts in the Battle of Arras. By the end of the month the Battalion had recommenced training in a similar manner to that it had before going into action.

During April 1917 the 1st Hampshires had suffered their heaviest casualties since the Somme the previous year – 3 officers and 26 men killed, 8 officers and 122 men wounded, 3 men accidentally wounded and 5 missing.

On 2 May the Battalion returned to the front line. After marching up to the old German 4th system the Hampshires were occupying trenches immediately north of the Fampoux-Athies road. Major Earle was in command, as divisional orders had ordered that Lt-Col Armitage was to remain behind with the transport.

The next day the 4th Division attacked, with the aim of capturing the western outskirts of Plouvain. Zero hour was very early, at 3.45am. The Germans were obviously expecting an attack, and it seemed that little progress was made. In the afternoon the 1st Hants supported the 1st Rifle Brigade in their attack on the Chateaux north of Roeux. Due to delays the Rifle Brigade began their attack at 3.30am, but were held up by maching-gun fire.

The next few days were relatively uneventful apart from heavy shelling. On 4 May the Battalion was holding a position between the junction of Corona and Ceylon trenches and the railway embankment. The enemy’s snipers were very active between the Chemical Works and the Chateau that the Rifle Brigade had attempted to capture. On 8 May the Battalion made a ‘chinese attack’ on the Chateaux, Chemical Works and surrounding areas, but evidently were not succesful.

10 May was spent preparing for operations, and nightfall found the Battalion occupying Ceylon and Cordite trenches. On 11 May the 4th Division, together with the 17th Division, attacked on a fron from Roeux Cemetery on the left to the station buildings on the right. Maps showed blue and black lines which were the respective objectives. The enemy were completely surprised and offered little resistance. The Black line was reached by 7.30pm, and the Battalion had taken 150 prisoners and 7 machine guns. The next day at 6am the Battalion advanced on the Blue line, and was again succesful, taking very few casualties.

The Battalion was relieved on 12 May by the 1/8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 13 May found the Battalion bivouaced south of the Fampoux-St Nicholas road, and from there the men marched to the Cavalry Barracks in Arras. On 14 May the 1st Hants boarded buses at Arras and moved to Magnicourt-sur-Canche. Over the next two days Major-General Lambton and General Sir Edmund Allenby inspected and addressed the Battalion, and operation awards were announced – 1 DSO, 2 MC’s, 1 DCM and 2 MM’s.

Although relatively modest, compared to the Somme the gains at the Battle of Arras were very impressive, and for much smaller losses. Little progress was made after the first day, however, and no breakthrough was made. The Hampshires were to remain at Arras for the time being, until the Third Battle of Ypres began – Passchendaele.

More Portsmouth men were killed in the days and weeks after the first day than on the first day itself:

11 April – Corporal Mervyn Offer (Arras Memorial), Private J.J. Cleaver (Bailleul Road East)

15 April – Private W.C.Brine (Etaples)

16 April – Lance Corporal George Jones (96 Twyford Avenue, Stamshaw; Arras Memorial)

18 April – Private Frederick Earwicker (Worlds End, Hambledon; Aubigny)

25 April – Lance Corporal W. Palmer (29 Mills Road; Aubigny)

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – prelude to Arras

A British machine gun post in a captured trenc...

A British machine gun post during the Battle of Arras (Image via Wikipedia)

After returning from the front line on 2 February 1917, the 1st Hants spent several days going through the usual clean-up routine. After the ubiquitous church parade on the Sunday, attention then shifted to training, and also providing men for fatigue duties. On 8 February a party of 3 officers and 268 men were seconded to Maurepas to relieve a working party from another regiment. 268 men represented a sizeable amount of the Battalion’s manpower, at a time when they were supposed to be resting and training.

Although the remainder of the Battalion went on a route march on the 9th, and on the 10th marched to a new camp at Suzanne, on the 11th a party of 4 officers and 171 men were attached to 171 tunnelling company of the Royal Engineers near Maurepas. The remainder of the Battalion left in the camp did nothing but fatigues, with only a Lewis Gun class continuing. The party of men sent to Maurepas were engaged in making gun emplacements, and the men attached to the tunnellers were assisting in building accomodation for gun teams.

On 16 February the Battalion went into close support. Every available man was put to work improving the trenches, as the onset of the spring thaw was making them very very wet and muddy. On 18 February the Battalion went into the front line. By this time it was raining, making conditions even worse. After four days in the line the 1st Hants were relieved on 22 February. As the ground was in such a poor condition it took until midday on the 23rd for all of the Battalion to pull back to Hem crossroads, where they boarded buses for their new camp at La Neuville-les-Bray.

Having reached La Neuville-les-Bray, on 24 February the Battalion marched to camp 124, near Corbie. Once there the usual cleaning, inspections and church parades commenced. Finally, on 27 February, a full scheme of training began, starting with individual training within sections, and other training for specialists. A platoons football league was also begun.

On 4 March the whole 4th Division began the march to its new area of operations at Arras. The first day’s march was for 15 miles, and 16 men fell out. This was quite a low figure, given the Battalion’s fitness, the conditions and that they had become used to static warfare. The next day’s march of 10 miles saw only five men fall out, even with a snow fall. By 7 March the Battalion hard reached their new camp at Buire-au-Bois.

After the usual cleaning up and improving of billets, training began in earnest on 9 March. Individual training continued, with Company training beginning on the 10th. For several days D Company were attached to the 3rd Army, to give a demonstration to training staff and observers of ‘the company in attack’. Later, on the 18th, the whole Battalion have a similar demonstration.

No sooner had Battalion training begun on 19 March, than on the 21st the Battalion was transported by bus to Bajus. Company and Battalion training resumed, but time was found on the 25th for the final of the Platoon Football Cup, with 9 Platoon beating 5 Platoon 2-0.

Although the Battalion were scheduled to take part in a major offensive in only a matter of days, on 26 March 119 men under 2nd Lieutenant Stannard left for Anzin-st-Aubin, to form a work party. The next day the rest of the Battalion went to the divisional training area, and took part in a Brigade exercise. The Battalions assaulted positions almost identical to those that they had been given for the coming battle – in effect, a dress rehearsal. Another practise took place two days later, and another two days after that.

With plenty of individual, company, Battalion and now Brigade training behind them, the 1st Hants were certainly better prepared for Arras than they had been for any other battle so far in the war. At the end of the month detailed instructions were circulated to officers by the Adjutant, covering signals between infantry and artillery, and also a complex table showing what equipment men were to carry during the assault. Staff work was also beginning to come into its own.

Into April, poor weather limited the amount of training that could be carried out. 4 April was spent – for A and D Companies – practising consolidation, that is, keeping hold of positions that had been captured, clearly something that was of benefit when attacking enemy trenches. B Company spent the day exercising with the Trench Mortar Battery, a good example of co-operation. The next day was spent going through Operation Orders with NCO’s and men – again, the men were going into the Battle of Arras better informed than ever before.

On 7 April the Battalion marched to huts on the main Arras-St. Pol road, and the next day marched to camp at Maroeuil. The Battle of Arras was to begin the next day.

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The Great Western Railway in the First World War by Sandra Gittins

The problem with Railway History, is that any mention of ‘railways’ or ‘trains’ always has people jumping to conclusion, frequently of the anorak-wearing type. But railways are just as much about social history as they are about technology, as Sandra Gittins has shown. And this social history really came to the fore in 1914.

I found this book a real eye-opener in more ways than one. I hadn’t realised just what an impact railways had had on the war, but also what an impact the war had on the railways. An iconic image in British military history is the eponymous train pulling away from the station loaded with waving troops. More humbling is the spectre of trains pulling back into the same station carrying scores of wounded men.

If the First World War was the first truly industrialised war, then the Railways seem to have been a real force multiplier. The combustion engine had not been developed quite enough to be as significant as it would later become. The German state had built – in a typically German fashion – a complex system of railways that would speed their armies to the western front to enact the Schlieffen Plan, and then across Germany to fight the Russians in the east. The French and British took much longer to perfect their rail networks nearer the front, and the immediate importance of the Great Western Railway was in ferrying troops around country – principally to the embarkation ports for France, and also to the training camps on Salisbury Plain.

Other aspects of the GWR’s war I was quite unaware of. It comes as something of a surprise to read that the GWR’s engineering works were making munitions and artillery pieces for the Army. The GWR was also crucial in transporting coal from the Welsh mining areas to coastal ports, from where it could be taken to fuel the Royal Navy, which was still overwhelmingly coal powered. The company’s ferries were also pressed into service. There were so many train services running on Government service, and so little rolling stock left, that passenger services were seriously curtailed.

As the western front stagnated into static warfare, so infrastructure grew up to service the men and materiel flowing towards the trenches. An important component of this was the rail network. Initially the GWR sent a number of engines and rolling stock, and then built more specificially for the Government for service abroad. Some of these were of completely new designs, to transport aircraft and tanks. Eventually, GWR men were sent to France to both operate the existing rail networks, and to build new ones.

As with most large companies (in 1914 GWR employed in the region of 80,000 people), many employeed joined the forces. Some of these were on an individual basis, but the GWR also contributed men and officers to several Royal Engineers Railway Companies, and also some volunteer infantry units. This was very much in keeping with the ‘Pals’ ethos; that men who worked together and joined up together would be allowed to fight together. The absence of young men to work the railways led to the employment of women in many roles, and also not a few retired GWR employees.

Sandra Gittins has also included a very impressively researched Roll of Honour, in which most names have been discovered in the CWGC database. I’m working on a similar project at the moment, and its very inspiring to see that someone has gone into such depth. There are also some gallant tales, such as the sergeant and the private who managed to take prisoner 250 Germans between them, form them into a column and march them back to the British lines.

Overall, we are left with a couple of impressions. Firstly, that Railways were such a huge part of life in early twentieth century Britain, and for a large and prominent company such as the GWR, this must have been even more so. Also, we are given a sense of community – not only did companies form the heartbeat of the community, but also that these communities suffered so much from the human cost of war.

The Great Western Railway in the First World War is published by The History Press

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Christmas and New Year on the Somme

For their first stint back in the front line since the grievous losses on 23 October, D Company was in the front line, C Company in support, and A and B Companies were in reserve. The Battalion’s front line was about 500 yards long, and opposite St Pierre Vaast Wood. This tour of the front line also saw a new rotation of companies. Instead of all of the Battalion being in the line for the duration and having other Battalions in reserve, the Hampshires held a shorter front, with Battalions rotating between front line, support and reserve every day. This caused less strain on the men by lessening the time they were in the front line for any continuous period, and also gave newer soldiers a chance to gain experience gradually.

The 1st Hampshires were relieved on 23 December 1916 by the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, after four days in the front line. After marching to Maurepas the next three days were spent carying out fatigues, including on Christmas Day. The Battalion were in the front line again on 27 December, relieving the 1st East Lancashire Regiment. A similar routine of rotating Companies was once again carried out. This was a very short tour, however, for on 29 December the 1st Hants were relieved by the 2nd Middlesex Regiment. After once again marching back to Maurepas, lorries took the men the rest of the way to Bray. There the Battalion worked on making its camp habitable, including building roads and paths. The day before New Years Eve a draft of 132 reinforcements arrived.

The first page of the War Diary for 1917 records that the first week of January was spent in a ‘plucky attempt’ at training in spite of very poor conditions. The camp now had a road into it, and chalk paths round the huts. Training was mostly limited to musketry and gas helmet training. A regimental course was set up for training men in using the Lewis Light Machine Gun. Due to operational commitments on the actual day, the 4th Division celebrated Christmas Day on 7 January 1917, putting on a good dinner but in a typically british manner the War Diary bemoans the lack of plates or glasses.

The next week was again spent on training, until 15 January when the Battalion marched to huts in Curlu. This camp was much better than the one at Bray, consisting of small huts with a capacity for 25 men each. Training was impossible, however, due to a heavy fall of snow. Therefore time was spent improving drainage and building cookhouses.

On 20 January the Battalion relieved the 1st East Lancashire Regiment in the front line. D Company, however, remained in Curlu and was attached to the East Lancs. The front line was around 500 yards long, and about 500 yards east of Bouchavesnes, which itself was three miles north of Peronne. Rations had to be carried 5 miles from the nearest road – a significant logistical undertaking. The front line was exposed, as the enemy occupied higher ground. The front line does seem to have been relatively quiet during this stage of the war, however; the Germans limiting themselves to the odd shell and the odd sniper.

On 24 January the 1st Hants were relieved by the 1st East Lancs, and went back tot dugouts in Clery or camp in Curlu. No work could be carried out while the men were out of the line, as the ground was so hard. The Battalion were back in the front line again on 28 January, and again the Battalion practised a roulement of Companies. On 1 February the Hampshires were relieved by the 1st Kings Own Regiment, and marched back to camp near Suzanne, the last Company arriving just before 6am on the 2nd.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Respite on the Somme

The day after the bloody battle on 23 October 1916 the 1st Hampshires were relieved in the front line by the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and went back to bivouac in Trones Wood. After reaching the wood at 4am, at midday they marched on to Mansell Camp near Carnoy. On the 27th they went to new billets at Meaulte, then 3 days later entrained at Mericourt. They arrived at Arraines – about 13 miles south east of Abbeville – and marched to billets in Merelessart.

By this time the Battalion was severely understrength after its losses on the first day of the Somme and 23 October. In terms of officers, the Battalion was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Armitage, and the second in command was Major F.H.W. Guard. There were three Captains, three Lieutenants and eleven 2nd Lieutenants. In peactime, a Battalion would have five Majors, and a similar number of Captains. Losses had been so heavy that young and inexperienced officers were given a lot of responsibility very quickly (Incidentially, its noticeable from my research that very few officers came from Portsmouth, and those that did tended to be pupils of the Grammar School).

The attrition rate amongst officers was particularly high on the Western Front. On 23 October alone the 1st Hampshires lost one Captain and two 2nd Lieutenants killed, and seven 2nd Lieutenants wounded. Its not difficult to see how the Battalion needed to rebuild after such losses. Many officers were also away on courses.

On 2nd November 1916 the Battalion marched to a new area at Ramburelles. On the 4th the General commanding the 4th Division, Major-General Lambton, made an inspection. On the same day training began, and would continue for the rest of the month. The war diary gives an unusually detailed account of the training that was carried out – close order drill, arms drill, physical drill, Bayonet fighting, musketry, firing on the range and small attacks. The ubiquitous church parades also took place each Sunday.

After a week of basic training to build up the men, Company training began on 20 November. At the same time a draft of 73 reinforcements arrived, going some way to making up the Battalion’s losses – 159 arrived during the month in total. On the last day of the month the Battalion carried out a full exercise. Battalion training continued into December. Private Alexander, Sergeant Oliver, Corporal Golding and Private Patterson were presented with the Military Medal, and Lance Corporal Alexander received a bar to the Military Medal.

On 7 December the Battalion marched to Morlancourt. The next day they marched to Bray-sur-Somme. On 15 December the Battalion was transported by lorries to Maurepas, and from there marched to Combles, where the sheltered in old dug outs while in Brigade reserve. On 19 December 1916 the 1st Hampshires once again went into the front line on the Somme.

The Somme offensive had been ‘closed down’ after the failure to make a breakthrough at the end of October. The British Army was therefore pausing to rebuild in time for the next offensive, which would come in the north at Ypres in the Spring. A pattern was therefore emerging – of units taking part in the latest ‘big push’, and then withdrawing to rebuild in time for the next effort. In between there were relatively quiet spells in the trenches on the front line.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – The eye of the Storm

After the Gas attack 0n 8 August 1916, the 1st Hants were relieved on 11 August. The Battalion went back to camp accomodation. Space was cramped, and water supply was a problem. After the first couple of days were spent resting, what the war diary describes an ‘ambitious’ training programme was curtailed by having to provide men for working parties. This pattern continued until 21 August when the Battalion entrained at Brandhoek for Ypres. There Headquarters was based in the Town Ramparts, C and D Companies in the Infantry Barracks, and A and B Companies in the Zillerbeke Bund.

It was only a short stay in the front-line town, for on 22 August the 1st Hants relieved the 42nd Canadian Infantry. The sector occupied was only 1,000 south of Ypres, along the Menin Road itself, and stretched for 800 yards. The position was described as ‘rather unpleasant’, due to being overlooked by all points of the Salient. Most of the trenches were in a poor condition. The Germans were relatively quiet, apart from sending over light guns and trench mortars in the evening. A heavy barrage on the 26th, however, resulted in two officers being buried by earth and being badly shaken. 5 men were killed and 15 wounded. During the bombardment 10 Germans tried to infiltrate A Company’s positions but were beaten off. The next day the Battalion was relieved.

August 1916 had been a hard month for the Hampshires, particularly considering they had been sent to the Ypres sector to recover from their mauling on the first day of the Somme. They had lost 23 men killed (including 7 from Gas), 38 wounded, 2 missing, 46 men were gassed, and 91 were sent to hospital, with only 36 returning in the opposite direction. This was hardly a Battalion rebuilding itself – replacements were going straight in at the deep end.

September 1916 proved to be a much quieter month for the Battalion. On 1st September they went back into the front-line east of Zillebeke. On the 2nd two men were killed in D Company, the Battalion’s only loses for the whole month. On the 5th the 1st Hants were relieved and went back to Montreal Camp, 2 miles south of Vlamertinghe. After spending several days resting and on inspections, on 10 September the Battalion marched to Poperinghe, then by train to Bollezeele and thence to billets at Merckegem. The next day the whole Brigade marched to Capelle, two miles south of Dunkirk, and the next couple of days were spent in the sand dunes at Dunkirk.

On the 15th the Battalion marched back to Merckegem, where Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston wished them ‘godspeed on their departure for the Somme’. The next day they marched to Esquelbecq station, where they entrained for Amiens. After several days spent in billets in Amiens the 11th Brigade marched to Corbie. On the march the 1st Hants fought a readguard action exercise against the rest of the Brigade. The rest of the month was spent training hard and in practising assaulting enemy positions.

Finally the Battalion had been allowed to rest and gather itself after its hard time on the Somme and a less than quiet spell at Ypres. However, only 27 men and 4 officers arrived as reinforcements during September 1916, so the Hants would still be seriously undermanned on their return to the Somme, where the Battle had been raging ever since their departure.

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Mud, Blood and Bullets: Memoirs of a Machine Gunner by Edward Rowbotham

Having researched 1,500+ Portsmouth soldiers who died in the First World War, sadly I know very little about any of them as people. There really aren’t as many Great War veterans accounts as there as there are from their counterparts who fought twenty or so years later. Therefore anything that sheds new light on the soldiers experience of the Trenches is to be applauded. Here, a Granddaughter has edited her Grandfathers wartime memoirs.

Edward Rowbotham was born into a large Midlands mining family, one of 14 children. Although he followed his father and most of his brothers down the pit, as soon as war broke out in 1914 he wanted to join the Army. Although he initially remained at home, in 1915 he finally volunteered as part of Kitcheners Army.

Although he initally joined this local unit the Staffordshire Regiment, he was soon drafted to a brand new formation – the Machine Gun Corps. Although infantry Battalions had begun the war with Vickers Machine Guns in their weaponry, it was soon found that for them to be fully effective they would need to be put into the hands of a dedicated unit. And thus the Machine Gun Corps was formed.

Rowbotham fought at the Somme – particularly at the Battle of Flers – and then at Passchendale in 1917. Almost continuously in the front line for three and a half years, his story takes us right up to the point where the British Army marched into Cologne as an occupying force. Three and a half years is an awful long time to he survived on the Western Front, and it is difficult not to have the feeling that Rowbotham had a charmed life.

As so often is the case with personal accounts, it is not the ‘what happened when’ that is interesting, it is the very human tales that emerge that are worth their weight in gold. Stories of bizarre wounds, boxing matches, grumbling about bully beef, officer-men relations, the usual ‘British-soldier-in-a-strange-country’ stories and tales of super-strength Army Rum are what make personal stories such as this so valuable. At all times we are reminded that we are reading about a real person and their experiences, the text has such a personal feel to it. I found myself not just by the war stories, but also by the tales of failed romances. Rowbotham’s premonitions about his own safety are also amongst some of the intriguing episodes I have read about.

Ted Rowbotham distinguished himself on a number of occasions. On one occasion he went ino no-mans land to find a missing soldier, after receiving a premonition of his own safety. Having found him mortally wounded, Rowbotham sought out a stretcher and remained with the wounded man. Eventually Rowbotham managed to have him evacuated to Hospital, where he later died. Although this incident was not reported at the time, when Rowbotham later took over a gun position and manned it all night he was recommended for a Military Cross. But, as with so many men decorated for bravery, he is entirely modest about it in his memoirs.

Not only is Ted’s account of the Western Front interesting, but also is stories of what happened to him before and afterwards – its like the bread in the sandwich, it holds the filling together. But what really makes this book a pleasure to read is the authors warm, grandfatherly style of writing – its very much in the tone you would expect a wisened older relative to take when passing on their life experiences to the young. But not at all patronising, more ‘warm fireside’.

Mud, Blood and Bullets is published by The History Press

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Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiment WW1 War Diaries online

I’ve recently been helping a friend research an ancestor was killed at Galipoli in 1915. Almost by accident I found that the war diaries for 15 Battalions of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiments between 1914 and 1918 are available online at the Salisbury Rifles Museum website.

The War diaries cover the daily summary, normally written up by the Adjutant. The transcriptions on the Rifles Museum website do not include appendices, orders, reports or maps. Men are very rarely mentioned by name, but officers are.

For example, take a look at the entry for 10 August 1915, when my friend’s great-uncle was killed at Galipoli serving with the 5th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment. The war diary entry for that day shows that the Battalion suffered very heavy casualties fighting at ANZAC Bay.

War Diaries for the First and Second World Wars are also available to purchase from the Museum’s website.

Handy for researching family history, and much easier than going to Kew and leafing through and transcribing thousands of pages!

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Private Leonard Fry

Some time ago I reviewed Kut 1916 by Patrick Crowley. It tells some pretty graphic stories about the suffering endured by British troops present during the siege, and those captured by the Turks.

However it is only now, thanks to the information contained in the Portsmouth Section of the National Roll of the Great War, that I am beginning to be able to discover some of the stories of men from Portsmouth who were in Iraq during that terrible period.

Private Leonard Fry, of 25 Plymouth Street, had joined the Army back in 1905. He was serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment. He was twice wounded at Kut. After the surrender he was taken prisoner, and while being force marched to Tikrit he developed dysentry, and was left to die at the side of the road. His date of death is recorded as 6 June 1916, presumably the last time he was seen alive. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Basra Memorial.

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