Sunday, 5 September 2010

Stunned and empty

During my family history research I came across what must have been a very great tragedy for my family, as World War I claimed the lives of three of its young men on Tuesday 10th September 1918. My great great grandfather Ezekiel Harper lost two sons (John & Joseph), and his brother William lost one of his sons (Henry).

It was one of the great calamities of WWI that recruits from small villages would be formed into "Pal's Battalions" only to be wiped out together, leaving their home towns stunned and empty.

The lads from my family were all in the 1st Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, and curious as to what big battle had claimed their lives, I downloaded the Battalion's War Diary from the National Archives. It seems that the 10th September 1918 was a typically ghastly day. What follows is an extract (as best as I can decipher) from the diary of that day:

10 September 1918
Objective

LOWLAND & CAVALRY TRENCHES from W18b34 to W12a00. Barrage to commence at 4am.
Dispositions
B company on the right, C company in the centre, D company on left.
Situation
Very heavy rain through the night.
Time for barrage altered.
5.15am : Barrage. Owing to bad weather company was unable to get into position in time.
8.45am : Situation not coherent.
9am : The company owing to the darkness were unable to get into the exact positions indicated to them and had concentrated more to the left when forming up for the attack this morning. They were also unable to start at zero (5.15am), the right company started 5:30am. From verbal reports received it is evident that the attack went in a northerly direction, rather than a N.E. one. The enemy had apparently anticipated a further attack on his position and was fully prepared to meet it. The right company met with very heavy machine gun fire from its right flank and as they had lost the barrage had to withdraw. From further verbal reports it appears that the left company went too much to its left and the enemy counter attacked and apparently captured about 20 of them.
Casualties
KILLED: LT C SPRAGG & 5 other ranks
WOUNDED: 2/LT H P SPENCER and 2/LT F MONKMAN and 36 other ranks
MISSING: LT K E BLACK, LT H SOOBY, 2/LT RIDEOUT, 2/LT J WALKER and 138 other ranks
Situation
Warning received during this afternoon re possible relief in the evening, after cancelled, & message received that there would be no relief but this battalion would withdraw later.

Given the grid references from the diary, I've been able to map out their position and objective on that day on a WWI map :

On a Google image of the same location today you can still see the faint trace of where the Cavalry Support Trench (where B company where supposed to have been positioned) came close to the Cavalry Trench (B company's objective, a mere 100 meters away over no man's land.)


If you switch to Map view and zoom out you can get an idea of where this action took place, with Gouzeaucourt to the north, and Épehy to the south.

Poignantly, two months later the diary reads :

11 November 1918
9:00 am : Brigade marched to LIMONT-FONTAINE. Route - Lock bridge - AULNOXE STATION - (v29c04) - POT-DE-VIN - LIMONT-FONTAINE. Battalion billet at ECLAIBES, arriving at 11:45.
11am : Armistice Signed. Cease Fire.

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