STORIES BEHIND THE WAR MEMORIAL - 1


2016 sees the centenary of probably the most famous single battle of the First World War. The Battle of the Somme affected the British nation in a way that no previous military engagement had ever done. This was because the Somme was the first real ‘peoples’ battle’.  Prior to the Somme the British had fought with armies numbering in the tens of thousands. At the Somme it involved over one million servicemen. It was also a battle where two great industrial powers were pitted against each other, with horrific consequences. The heavy losses sustained by the British Empire of 400,000 killed, wounded and missing touched every town and village across the country. We have the permanent record of Farnborough’s involvement in this battle in the form of our war memorial in the churchyard, recording the names of the men from the parish who died in that conflict. I would like to write about what happened to five Farnborough men at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.  

On the war memorial are plaques dedicated to Lieutenant George William Morris, 2nd Lieutenant Gerard Rimington Bower, Gunner Thomas George Durrant. Rifleman Ernest Albert Colvin and Captain Leopold Arthur Lacon Flower.  My research indicates that all of them served and died at the Battle of the Somme, which was fought on the Western Front between July and November 1916. The battle itself is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented battles of all time. Trying to write a short concise account would be difficult, but would also miss the point. Instead I would like to examine the stories behind the names on our war memorial and chronicle my exploration of their individual histories.
 

George William Morris

In researching the names on the war memorial I took advantage of one of the numerous web sites that (for a small fee) will supply you with the details of millions of British service personnel. In practice the actual information is usually basic, but often very interesting and intriguing. So it was in the case of George William Morris.  Although recorded as a Lieutenant with the 2nd Battalion Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (2KOYLI) on the war memorial, the records showed that he was actually a Temporary Lieutenant with the 8th battalion of the KOYLI.  He had been commissioned on the 18th April 1916, just weeks before the battle. This possibly indicated that he might have been ‘raised from the ranks’, a very common occurrence in the British Army during WW1 where it was continually short of officers.  Soldiers (usually NCOs) with strong leadership qualities were prime targets for such promotions, and so it is possible that this is what might have happened to George.  The 8KOYLI was a unit that had been raised very early on in the war in September 1914, as part of Lord Kitchener’s recruiting drive. George Morris therefore may well have been one of the earliest volunteers in the New Army.

The other intriguing mystery was George’s unit, the 8KOYLI. The war memorial records the unit as the 2KOYLI and place name, Authuille Wood, and the date for his death as the 1st of July 1916.  Some quick research shows that the 2KOYLI did in fact fight a battle at a place with that name on the date in question – so what is the connection with George who is listed as belonging to a completely different unit?


On Saturday the 1st July (the first day of the Somme) the 2KOYLI formed part of 97 Brigade in the 32nd Division, which had for its badge a five-spotted dice. This was assigned to III Corps, right in the centre of the battlefield.
       
             British troops waiting to ‘go over the top’    

Like many other infantry battalions it appears to have been a bit under-strength, and probably lacking key personnel – especially officers and NCOs. The 8KOYLI was part of 70 Brigade in the 23rd Division.  On the 1st July this was being held in reserve (it would not see action until the 5th July).  Its troops therefore would have been un-engaged, and so it would have made sense to temporarily re-assign troops from the 23rd to other divisions due to take part in the attack. Since the 32nd Division had another battalion from the KOYLI, it would have been the logical choice for ‘reinforcements’ from George’s unit.

At 7.23am on the 1st July the battalions of 97 Brigade crept out of their trenches into ‘no-man’s land’ under cover of the British bombardment.  Approaching to within 40 yards of the German front line trench they waited for the barrage to lift at 7.30am before rushing the enemy positions. The 2KOYLI managed to achieve most of their initial objectives, but soon ran into trouble. Moving forwards they came under sustained machine-gun fire from German strong-points which brought their advance to a halt beyond Authuille Wood.  Going to ground the battalion then came under German artillery fire with the result that it was unable to push forwards or withdraw to the rear. The 2KOYLI was ‘marooned’ in no-man’s land for most of the day, sustaining heavy losses. Only late in the afternoon did the survivors crawl back to the relative safety of Authuille Wood. Overall the 32nd Division suffered 9,000 casualties (over 40%) on the first day of the Somme.

It is most likely that George William Morris was killed in one of the failed attempts by the 2KOYLI to push out from Authuille Wood towards the German lines. He was probably temporarily attached to that unit from his own battalion at the time, hence his participation in a battle that his ‘normal’ unit was not involved in.

Gerard Rimington Bower

Gerard was just 19 when he fought in the Battle of the Somme.  Researching his background I discovered that he was the son of Theodore Herbert and Mary Whichelo Bower. At the time of the battle he was listed as a 2nd Lieutenant in ‘The Queens’, in which case given his young age he probably went straight into officer’s training and then over to France. Trying to identify this particular unit took a lot of effort as there were a large number of battalions and regiments that had this phrase in their titles. As a result I went down a number of false leads, however I finally tracked down the 1st Battalion ‘The Queens’ as the most likely candidate. This unit was part of 100 Brigade which formed part of the 33rd Division whose badge was a pair of three spotted dice.

The 33rd Division was part of Kitchener’s New Army and had been raised in 1915. It was mostly comprised of locally raised units known as ‘Pals’ with large numbers of recruits coming from public schools, footballers, sportsmen and a strong contingent from the Church Lads Brigade. It was mostly raised in the south of England. Given Gerard Bower’s young age and the fact that he probably went into this unit straight out of school I concluded that this division was the most likely one that he served in, given the background of the 33rd.  

33rd Division was transferred to France in November 1915 and was assigned to XV Corps at the time of the Battle of the Somme.  It did not see action in the early attacks being held in reserve.  However, by the third week of July it was moved forwards in the line as part of the re-organisation of the British Army after the first phase of the battle.  

Against strong opposition from the French, Field Marshall Haig had stopped most offensive operations on the northern half of the Somme battlefield where the British had experienced few successes. Instead he transferred the main weight of the attack to the southern flank where the attacks on the first day of the battle had breached almost 6 miles of the German lines. Here he hoped to ‘reinforce success’.
 
Part of this new plan was to assault the German position between Pozieres and Delville Wood. This is a battlefield that I have visited myself where you can still see the trenches pretty much as they would have looked at the time of the battle.


The 33rd Division formed up on the evening of 14th July with 100 Brigade taking their positions between High Wood and Bazentin-le-Petit. So as not to give the enemy warning of the assault there was a ‘hurricane’ bombardment at 08:3am the following morning, Saturday 15th of July 1916, lasting just 30 minutes. 

The troops went in on time at 09:00am heading towards a German position called ‘The Switch Line’.

     Deville Wood after the battle in September 1916    

Crossing open ground, 100 Brigade came under machine-gun fire from the flank which brought the whole attack to a grinding stop. Unable to advance any further 100 Brigade was reinforced with additional troops. This did not improve the situation and for the rest of the day the British troops remained pinned down in no-man’s land waiting for darkness to cover their retreat. 100 Brigade finally fell back to its starting positions without having achieved anything.  
My research has shown that 2nd Lieutenant Gerard Rimington Bower was reported as being killed in action on the 15th July 1916, almost certainly in this assault by 100 Brigade.  As an officer he would have been expected to set an example by leading from the front.  During WW1 junior officers had the highest casualty rate of any part of the British Army, and it is most probable that George was killed leading his troops into the attack towards ‘The Switch Line’.

Thomas George Durrant

Thomas was 29 when he fought in the battle. My initial research drew up a wealth of personal information on him. He had one surviving parent at the time, Mrs J. Durrent who lived at 20 Church Road in the middle of the village.  Thomas was a Gunner (service number 47325) in the 54th Battery, the Royal Field Artillery.  At the time of the Somme this was part of 39 Brigade Royal Artillery, attached to the 1st Division whose badge was a round circle on a triangle.  At this time the field artillery was operating light 18-pounder artillery guns, similar to the ones used by the ceremonial King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery.  Each infantry brigade would have one or more batteries of these guns in support.  Due to their relative short range the guns would be deployed close up to the front lines well dug in, although sometimes they were deployed in the open ‘in emergencies’.


 
British 18-pdr field guns in action on the Somme    

The 1st Division was involved in a bitter engagement during the Battle of the Somme where the British attempted to capture a feature stretching between Gouzeancourt and Pozieres in the second half of July 1916. The British III Corps was the lead formation in the assault and the 1st Division was assigned the right flank in the attack.

The attack was launched on Sunday 23rd July 1916 with the first units going in at 02:30am.  The 1st Division assembled its troops outside the British wire and attempted to infiltrate across no-man’s land under the cover of the artillery barrage.  This would have been where Thomas Durrant would have had a role in the attack, providing artillery coverage for the advancing infantry.  

After some initial successes the attack was stopped by well placed German machine-guns hiding in the long grass that was still plentiful across this part of the battlefield.  Unable to advance any further the 1st Division only made limited gains on the day and soon had to dig in and consolidate their meagre gains.
The following day, Monday 24th July, was spent by both sides trying to consolidate their positions. This involved a major bombardment by the British artillery all along this sector of the front lines against the German positions. The 54th Battery RFA would certainly have been involved in this barrage and Thomas Durrant would have spent much of his time in action as a result.  

In response the Germans replied with a heavy counter-barrage against the British lines throughout the day. Standard German military doctrine would have been not only to shell the forward trenches, but also to neutralise the enemy’s guns as these were the biggest threat to their own troops. The records show that Gunner Thomas George Durrant was killed on this day, and so was very likely to have been a victim of this ‘artillery duel’ as both sides tried to destroy each other’s guns. Serving in a field battery close to the front lines with only limited cover George would have been in a highly vulnerable position to enemy fire, which at this time would also have included gas shells.  
 

Rifleman Ernest Albert Colvin

As in my earlier research on the names on the war memorial I took advantage of one of the numerous web sites that (for a reasonable price) will supply you with basic details on millions of British service personnel. In practice the actual information is usually incomplete, but nevertheless interesting and intriguing. This was certainly the case with Ernest Albert Colvin about whom I was able to find a wealth of personal information. Very early on I was able to discover that he was born in 1887 and was just 29 when he died in August 1916. Prior to the war he had lived with his wife, Lottie Elizabeth Colvin, at 10 Pitt Road. His parents Albert and Emily Colvin lived next door at 12 Pitt Road.

Ernest was a Rifleman (number R/17294) in the 12th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps. This unit had initially been formed in September 1914 from the second wave of volunteers (the ‘K2 Tranche’) for Kitchener’s Army. Ernest probably joined the 12KRRC at this time. By the time of the Somme his battalion formed part of 60th Brigade within the 20th (Light) Division. The division’s badge was a cross on a white circle, and the formation formed part of the XIV Corps within the British 4th Army. The records show that Ernest died of wounds on the 18th of August 1916 in the Somme area of operation. This would suggest that he probably sustained his fatal injury a day or two beforehand. When researching the war record of the 20th Light Division I noticed that its parent formation, XIV Corps, was redeployed into the front line opposite Guillemont two days previously on the 16th. This was right at the southern end of the British position on the Somme.

British troops advancing across ‘no-man’s’ land

Although the 20th Light Division was not immediately put into the trenches itself, it would have been deployed close to the rear and would have directly supported the assaulting divisions. Even when not directly attacking, soldiers were at risk of being killed or wounded by German artillery, machine-guns and snipers. There was also the risk of air attack (a novelty at the time) and gas shells. It is therefore possible that Ernest Albert Colvin was fatally wounded in the build up by XIV Corps some time between it entering the line on the 16th of August and going into the attack two days later on the 18th.

Captain Leopold Arthur Lacon Flower

Leopold was 32 at the time of the Battle of the Somme, and served in the 7th Battalion of the London Regiment (7LR). From researching the various websites I discovered that he lived at an address called ‘Well Close’ with his wife Helen Gladys Flower.

The 7LR was a pre-war Territorial Force unit that made up part of the 2nd London Division. On the outbreak of World War 1 it assembled at St. Albans in August 1914, and travelled to France 7 months later. By this time it had been re-named as the 47th (2nd London) Division and had adopted the symbol of an eight pointed star on a black field as its badge.

Before departing for France, the division had gained the last of its constituent units, including the 7th London in November 1914. This was assigned to the 140th Brigade, which my research shows was commanded by Brigadier General Viscount Hampden at the time of the Somme.

The 47th Division formed part of the British Army’s III Corps within the 4th Army. The 47th (2nd London) Division was heavily involved in the Battle of the Le Transloy Ridge that was fought from the end of September to the middle of October 1916. This was a position several miles behind the original German front line that dominated the surrounding area. Possession of it conferred the ability to dominate the opposing side, and it was bitterly contested by the British and Germans. The III Corps was tasked at the end of September to take the ridge and launched a series of attacks using artillery and a new fangled weapon called ‘the tank’.

The details on our war memorial and my research show that Leopold was killed in action on the 7th of October 1916 at Warlencourt. From looking through the records of the 47th Division, this neatly ties in with an engagement fought on that day at the Butte De Warlencourt. The front line was being held by the 140th Brigade and it launched an attack against the opposing German trenches with three battalions – the 7th, 8th and 15th London Regiment. Despite supporting artillery the British infantry were stopped by German machine-gun positions that had survived the bombardment, and only limited gains of around 500 yards were made.

British advance in open order on the Somme

As an officer Leopold Arthur Lacon Flower would have been expected to lead from the front and set an example to his men. As a Captain he would have been responsible for between a platoon and a company of troops – approximately 100 soldiers.

It is not always known that the junior officer corps in the British Army had the highest casualty rate during WW1. This was directly related to the fact that the officers led all of the attacks, and were exposed to the greatest of dangers. It is therefore almost certain that Captain Flower was killed in action leading his men across ‘no-man’s land’ in the assault against the Butte De Warlencourt on 7th October 1916, in a scene that has become synonymous with the popular image of the Battle of the Somme.

Andrew Bailey

Part Two

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