Last week I gave a talk on behalf of Haslams Estate Agents and Reading Football Club in Haslams’ flagship office in Friar Street, Reading. The talk was part of a fundraising evening for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity and was attended by over 80 people.
The evening started with drinks and canapés (based on wartime fare which included such things as spam fritters and Maconochie’s steak pies) before 25 minutes from me discussing Reading in the Great War.

Canapés were based on a wartime theme

Most of the audience had little knowledge of this period of history and I was able to explain some of the more interesting stories I had found in my research. These included the story of Max Seeberg, a former Reading FC player from the 1912–13 season who, by the time was declared in August 1914, had retired and was working as a publican. Despite being a well-known and liked member of Reading’s community his German ancestry ensured he was locked up for the duration of the war. Remarkably, he seemed to bear no malice to Britain, becoming a naturalised British subject in 1920.

Talking about Max Seeburg, a former Reading FC player who was locked up for the duration of the war due to his German nationality

I also spoke about Ronnie Poulton Palmer, the England rugby player, Trooper Fred Potts VC and the tragic case of the Sutton family (of Sutton Seeds) whose five boys went off to war. By the end of March 1918 four of them had been killed, leaving Leonard Sutton (a wartime mayor of Reading) with his sole remaining son, Noel who survived the conflict despite being torpedoed mid-channel by a German U-Boat.

After a break for more drinks and canapés an auction and raffle was held. A weekend on the battlefield with me was auctioned off by local resident, Chris Tarrant. Over £3,000 was raised for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.

Chris Tarrant auctions a weekend on the battlefield with me to raise funds for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity

An extract from the Reading Mercury of 12 August 1916 listing players associated with Reading Football Club serving in the forces

The second half of my talk focused on telling the story of a number of Reading FC players and their wartime service. Nine former players died in the conflict whilst others such as Joe ‘Bubbles’ Bailey achieved remarkable success as a fighting officer. In Joe’s case this resulted in the award of the DSO and three Military Crosses, all in a period of just seven months in 1918!

Speaking about Joe Dickenson, ‘the Footballing Grenadier’ who served in the 2nd Grenadier Guards and was killed at the Battle of Festubert in May 1915

My thanks to BBC Radio Berkshire’s Graham McKechnie, military historian Jon Cooksey and Reading FC historian Alan Sedunary who conducted a great deal of research on these players back in 2014.

The entire evening was a great success and I look forward to working with Haslams and Reading FC again in the future.

A selection of images from the evening (courtesy of Ben Hoskins http://www.bhoskins.com/) are shown below.

With Steve Woodford of Haslams, Brigadier Peter Walker of ABF The Soldiers Charity and serving soldiers

Pre-talk drinks and canapés

The audience seemed to enjoy the talk

More audience shots

Second Lieutenant Hardy Falconer Parsons VC, 14th Gloucestershire Regiment. Image courtesy Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, Ref GLRRM:04750.6

Today saw the unveiling of a Bristol Civic Society blue plaque at the former Bristol home of my local Victoria Cross recipient, 2/Lt Hardy Falconer Parsons VC, 14th Gloucestershire Regiment. He lived a fifteen minute walk from my house and I have known his story for the past fourteen years that I have lived in the city.

My colleague Clive Burlton and I were determined to see Hardy’s strong association with Bristol and the West Country recognised. As his Government funded VC commemorative stone was unveiled in Rishton, Lancashire back in August we have spent the last year working on honouring Hardy’s local connections with a Bristol Civic Society blue plaque.

The plaque was unveiled by the Archie Smith and Grace Tyrrell, Head Boy and Head Girl of Kingswood School along with the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Cllr Lesley Alexander. The ceremony was attended by members of the Bristol Civic Society; the former Gloucestershire Regiment; the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum; the Bristol University Officer Training Corps; Kingswood School, Bath, Redland Green School and Dolphin Schools in Bristol; bandsmen from the Salamanca Band of the Rifles Regiment; members of the Western Front Association and the Bristol Great War network and representatives of the Kingswood Association, whose generous donation enabled the plaque to be made and installed. Also attending were the Deputy Lord-Lieutenant for the County and City of Bristol, Colonel Andrew Flint and the Dean of Bristol, the Very Rev Dr David Hoyle. In total, around 100 people were in attendance for the ceremony. Afterwards a sizeable number of us were invited back to the Artillery Grounds on Whiteladies Road for light refreshments as guests of Bristol University Officer Training Corps.

Images of the unveiling ceremony can found below, followed by the culmination of much detailed research into Hardy’s life by Clive Burlton and myself. I can only hope that the people of Bristol and Bath embrace his memory. He deserves that.

Blue plaque for Hardy Falconer Parsons VC at 54, Salisbury Road, Redland, Bristol

Clive Burlton gives the opening address

Jeremy Banning providing the historical background to the life of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC

The Lord Mayor of Bristol with members of Bristol University Officer Training Corps and bandsmen from the Salamanca Band of the Rifles

A delighted Jeremy Banning and Clive Burlton with Hardy’s new blue plaque

The ceremony was well attended by the military

After the ceremony many of those attended were able to mingle and discuss Hardy’s life

Bristol 24/7 have also covered the story: https://www.bristol247.com/news-and-features/news/pictures-blue-plaque-revealed-wwi-soldier-redland/ as have BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-41918314. Our BBC Points West interview is available for a week from 16 minutes in here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09bzw5f/points-west-evening-news-08112017

The life of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC, 14th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment

Hardy Falconer Parsons was born on 30 June 1897 at Rishton, near Blackburn, Lancashire, the first of three boys. His father, the Rev James Ash Parsons, was a Wesleyan Minister whilst his mother Henrietta (known as Rita) was the daughter of a railway inspector from York. Hardy’s rather unusual middle name came from Rita – Falconer was her maiden name.

The Rev James Ash Parsons had spent eleven years in total in the slums of East London as superintendent of the Methodist Leysian Mission. Ill health forced him and Rita to St Anne’s on Sea, south of Blackpool and it was whilst living here that Hardy was born. There followed three years at Arnside immediately south of the Lake District. Clearly, the ethos of duty and service to others, so well practiced by his parents, was a huge part of Hardy’s upbringing.

Hardy’s first school was King Edward VII School at Lytham St Annes. From the paper work we have found it appears the family moved to Bristol in 1912 when the Rev James Ash Parsons became pastor at the Old King Street Wesleyan Chapel (sadly, now demolished). The family moved to 54 Salisbury Road in Redland and Hardy attended Kingswood School in Bath until April 1915.

Extract from attestation papers of Hardy Falconer Parsons (National Archives: WO339/73298)

After school Hardy Parsons became a Medical Student at Bristol University with the aim of becoming a medical missionary. At the end of November 1915, during his first year at the University he signalled his wish to volunteer for service by attesting when aged just 18 years & 5 months but was immediately placed on the Army Reserve.

He had previously declined a safe post in a Government munitions laboratory, feeling that he ought not to withhold himself from the fullest sacrifice. He hated war, but recognised that the making of munitions was just as much war work as was the actual taking of life.

He joined the University’s Officer Training Corps in May 1916, a month shy of his 19th birthday, and then passed his first Bachelor of Medicine degree. His attestation papers make interesting reading – recording that he was a tall man, especially for that time, standing at 6ft ¾ inch tall. In early October 1916 he was posted to 6th Officer Cadet Battalion at Balliol College, Oxford and, on 25 January 1917, was appointed to the Gloucestershire Regiment as a Second Lieutenant.

He eventually joined the 14th Battalion in March, a unit which had previously been a ‘Bantam’ battalion – with men of 5ft 3 inches and less serving in its ranks. By the time the nearly 6ft 1 inch Hardy joined the battalion this unique distinction had been very much diluted. In February 1917 the battalion war diary records 475 ‘normal size men’ joining the battalion.

Trench map extract of The Knoll – captured by 105 Infantry Brigade on 19 August 1917

On 21 August 1917 near the village of Vendhuile in the eastern part of the Somme, Hardy’s battalion were holding recently captured trenches at a position known as The Knoll in the Hindenburg Line outpost zone. Their relief of the units who had captured the Knoll some two days before was completed by 1.30am that night.

Modern view of The Knoll, photographed October 2017. Vendhuile, the Hindenburg Line and St Quentin Canal are out of view in the valley.

It was a critical position which afforded observation over the Hindenburg Line and St Quentin canal a mile away – observation the British wanted and the Germans wanted to prevent. In fact, men from Bristol’s 1/4th and 1/6th Territorial battalions had fought for the same view in this same position four months previously.

The loss of such critical terrain forced the Germans into a devastating counter-attack. As recorded in the Brigade war diary, at 3.51am the Germans struck. Militarily, it was a brilliantly executed counter-attack by the Germans – The Knoll being attacked at four points simultaneously. German infantry were accompanied by special detachments using portable flamethrowers. These forced Hardy Parsons’ men back. However, he alone stuck to his bombing post and held his position, throwing bombs (hand grenades) at approaching Germans until a British counter-attack could be launched. The counter-attack was successful – the Germans were repulsed from the trenches around The Knoll and within 40 minutes this bloody action was over. Much of this success is due to Hardy’s refusal to yield ground.

Telegram sent to the Rev James Ash Parsons informing him of Hardy’s death

During his heroic sole defence of The Knoll Hardy had been severely burnt by liquid fire. Writing these words over a hundred years later I cannot begin to imagine the sense of duty that compelled him to stay at his post, or the pain he would have endured during and after sustaining such horrific burns. Unsurprisingly, the nature of his wounds proved too severe and he succumbed later that day, dying at the age of just 20 years and two months. Hardy Falconer Parsons is buried in the immaculate CWGC cemetery at Villers-Faucon.

Grave of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC at Villers Faucon Communal Cemetery

His effects, consisting of just a wrist ID disc and two wrist watches were sent by registered post to his father within the month.

105 Infantry Brigade war diary describing the events of 21 August 1917

The Brigade diary describes Hardy’s gallantry, commenting that he ‘was afterwards recommended for the VC for his action’. During the war many acts of bravery were put forward for the VC but subsequently rejected. However, in Hardy’s case, approval was given. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross – personally presented to his father by King George V at a ceremony on Durdham Down (Bristol) on 8 November 1917. Hardy’s father also attended the Colston Hall event on 15 February 1919 when he was presented, on his dead son’s behalf, with an illuminated address and gold watch by Lord Mayor Twiggs. The address included Hardy’s full Victoria Cross citation:

“For most conspicuous bravery during a night attack by a strong party of the enemy on a bombing post held by his command. The bombers holding the block were forced back, but Second Lieutenant Parsons remained at his post, and, single-handed, and although severely scorched and burnt by liquid fire, he continued to hold up the enemy with bombs until severely wounded. This very gallant act of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty undoubtedly delayed the enemy long enough to allow the organisation of a bombing party, which succeeded in driving back the enemy before they could enter any portion of the trenches. This gallant officer succumbed to his wounds.”

Hardy Parsons was only the second member of the Gloucestershire Regiment to receive a VC during the First World War.

Hardy Falconer Parsons VC Chapel Memorial, Kingswood School, Bath

On 23 July 1923, a tablet in his memory was unveiled in the chapel of Kingswood School in Bath and his Victoria Cross and campaign medals are held by the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, having been presented to the Gloucestershire Regiment at a ceremony in 1970 in front of what is now City Hall, attended by the Lord Mayor, Cllr Bert Wilcox.

Victor comic, 11 July 1970 – the story of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC

The collection also includes a portrait photograph of Hardy in uniform; the bronze memorial plaque sent, popularly known as the “Dead Man’s Penny” to his parents after the war and his Gloucestershire Regiment collar badge. Engraved on the back of the badge are the words “Irene Randall 10 Newfoundland St., Bristol 1917”. Who she was, and why he had that, we will probably never know….

Victor comic, 11 July 1970 – the story of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC

On 11 July 1970, the Victor Comic ran a cartoon story with 10 sketches on its front and back pages, recounting the story of the 14th Gloucesters action at The Knoll and to the deeds of Hardy Falconer Parsons – bringing his heroic actions to the attention of a younger audience.

Ewart Moulton Parsons

And as for the Parsons family, despite Hardy’s death, the war had not finished with them. Hardy had two younger brothers; Ewart Moulton and Lyall Ash. Lyall was born too late to serve but Ewart, born the year after Hardy, was working as an apprentice engineer at Bristol company, Brecknell Munro and Rogers in summer 1916.

Page from memorial booklet for Hardy and Ewart Parsons

He joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and by 17 July 1918, was a 19 year old Lieutenant and pilot in No.50 Training Depot Station at Eastbourne, flying his Sopwith F1 Camel fighter high above the Seaplane Station. What happened next is still unclear but his plane went into a spin and plummeted to the ground from 3000ft. Unsurprisingly, Ewart was killed instantly.

Grave of Ewart Parsons in Canford Cemetery, Bristol

His body was brought back to Bristol and his funeral held at the Old King Street Wesleyan Chapel where his father was the pastor. The coffin was borne by six RAF officers and taken on a gun carriage to Canford Cemetery, where the internment took place followed by the sounding of the Last Post.

So, in the space of eleven months James Ash and Rita Parsons had lost two of their three boys. On the base of the stone cross marking Ewart’s grave at Canford Cemetery the family also commemorated his brother, Hardy. Like so many families across the world, the Parsons’ suffered grievously in the war.

Detail on Ewart Parsons’ grave in Canford Cemetery

But, as this research is primarily based on Hardy I would like to end with a description of him, provided by his father which, when considered alongside his Victoria Cross action, shows him to have been a truly remarkable young man, a perfect example of the loss of the best of that generation:

“Hardy lived all of his life from early childhood on the same high plane of self-forgetfulness and sacrifice in his thought for and service of others”

Hardy Falconer Parsons VC (30 June 1897 – 21 August 1917)

Sources of information consulted for this article include:

Service record of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC (National Archives: WO339/73298)
105 Infantry Brigade War Diary (National Archives: WO95/2486)
14 Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment War Diary (National Archives: WO95/2486)
RAF service record of Ewart Moulton Parsons
Census returns (1901 & 1911)
Material from the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum http://www.soldiersofglos.com/
Victor Comic, 11 July 1970
London Gazette – various dates
The Kingswood Magazine, Vol. XX, No.10, December 1917
North Devon Journal, 27 August 1931
North Devon Journal, 10 November 1949
Gliddon, Gerald, VCs of the First World War: Cambrai 1917, Stroud, 2004

Second Lieutenant Hardy Falconer Parsons VC, 14th Gloucestershire Regiment. Image courtesy Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, Ref GLRRM:04750.6

On 8 November 2017 a Bristol Civic Society Blue Plaque for Hardy Falconer Parsons VC, 14th Gloucestershire Regiment (my local Victoria Cross recipient) will be unveiled at 54 Salisbury Road, Redland, Bristol. The date is 100 years to the day after King George V personally presented Hardy’s VC to his father, Rev James Ash Parsons at a ceremony on Durdham Downs.

Between 2014 and 2019 the Government is funding the production and placing of a commemorative stone for each and every Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War. Although Hardy Falconer Parsons lived at 54 Salisbury Road, he was not born in Bristol. So in August the government-funded commemorative stone relating to Hardy Parsons, was laid in Rishton, Lancashire.

Local historian and author Clive Burlton and I were determined to see Hardy’s strong association with Bristol and the West Country recognised. If we couldn’t have the government-funded stone in Bristol, the next best thing was to have a Bristol Blue plaque unveiled in his honour.

The grave of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC at Villers-Faucon Communal Cemetery

So, during the past year we have organised for the creation of the plaque. Wednesday’s ceremony, starting at 11am, will have representatives from the Bristol Civic Society; the former Gloucestershire Regiment; the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum; the Bristol University Officer Training Corps; Kingswood School, Bath, Redland Green School and Dolphin Schools in Bristol; bandsmen from the Salamanca Band of the Rifles Regiment; the Western Front Association; members of the Bristol Great War network and representatives of the Kingswood Association, whose generous donation enabled the plaque to be made and installed. Also attending are the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Cllr Lesley Alexander; the Deputy Lord-Lieutenant for the County and City of Bristol, Colonel Andrew Flint and the Dean of Bristol, the Very Rev Dr David Hoyle.

The event is open to the public so please do come along and attend if you can. I will be posting the results of my research on Hardy Parsons along with photos of Wednesday’s ceremony on my website later this week. In the meantime, it is worth reading Hardy’s VC citation to have an idea of his valour:

“For most conspicuous bravery during a night attack by a strong party of the enemy on a bombing post held by his command. The bombers holding the block were forced back, but Second Lieutenant Parsons remained at his post, and, single-handed, and although severely scorched and burnt by liquid fire, he continued to hold up the enemy with bombs until severely wounded. This very gallant act of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty undoubtedly delayed the enemy long enough to allow the organisation of a bombing party, which succeeded in driving back the enemy before they could enter any portion of the trenches. This gallant officer succumbed to his wounds.”

There should be a short film on Hardy’s action on Wednesday evening’s Points West (BBC1) from 6.30pm.

Following the success of last year’s ‘Bristol on the Western Front’ trip that I organised with fellow historian, Clive Burlton, we are pleased to announce another trip for October 2017.

This year we are broadening the net with less of a Bristolian focus. Stops will cover actions by units from Wiltshire, Somerset and South Wales.  As such, we thought it apt to name the tour ‘The West Country at War’.

Once again we are travelling with our partners at Bakers Dolphin. The three night, four day tour will visit key sites where soldiers from the West Country fought, earned bravery awards and lost their lives.

Menin Gate, Ypres

Travelling by executive coach we will depart from Bristol on 13 October and travel to Arras, stopping at sites of interest en route. The next day will be spent on the Somme battlefields, visiting some well known (Mametz Wood) as well as lesser known sites on the 1917 battlefield!

The following day sees us journey northward to the sacred Ypres salient , the wartime cauldron for so many of Britain’s soldiers. Whilst in Ypres we will attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. Our time in Ypres will see us visiting sites around the salient including Ploegsteert (known as Plugstreet to the Tommies) to follow the 1st Somerset Light Infantry in December 1914, see where the Christmas Truce took place and visit the area in which Bristol’s Territorials first went into the trenches.

Accommodation is based at the following 3-star hotels – Holiday Inn Express (Arras) and the Novotel (Ypres). Evening meal and continental breakfast are included. If there is demand then Clive and I are happy to give evening talks. Last year we were heartened by the almost 100% attendance rate at our talks by those who had already had a long day on the battlefields.

Delville Wood Cemetery, Somme

Full details of cost and contact details to reserve a space can be found on the attached flyer.

We look forward to you joining us for another wonderful few days!  

 

Back in May I spent an afternoon filming with Yellow Duck Productions for their hit BBC Wales genealogy series, ‘Coming Home’. The programme, which was shown on at 9pm on BBC One Wales on Wednesday 21 December was an hour-long special, looking at the family history of Hollywood actor Ioan Gruffud. Whilst it unlocked stories of Ioan’s royal connections it was his Great Great Uncle Rees (known as Rhys) Griffiths’ service in the Great War which I had been asked to research and explain.

Ioan Gruffud & I outside the church in Pontyberem

Ioan Gruffud & I outside the church in Pontyberem

Rhys was the son of David and Anne Griffiths, of Meilog, Pontyberem. A keen churchgoer, at the outbreak of war he was studying to enter the ministry. He enlisted at Carmarthen in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and was posted to 106 Field Ambulance, part of the 35th Division (made up of ‘Bantams’ who were all under the normal regulation minimum height of 5’ 3”). With his unit, he moved to France early in 1916, occupying positions in the trenches in French Flanders and Artois. Sadly, there is no surviving service record for Rhys and so his day-to-day movements can only be pieced together from his unit war diary.

63926 Pte Rhys Griffiths, 106 Field Ambulance RAMC

63926 Pte Rhys Griffiths, 106 Field Ambulance RAMC

The war diary for 106 Field Ambulance is often short and functional, describing the routine of the subsequent months with little elaboration but noting issues involving latrines, dung heaps, a lack of coal for hot baths and too few disinfectors to help prevent scabies and lice. At the end of May 1916 this period of relative calm ended abruptly.

On the night of 30 May 106 Field Ambulance are serving in the Rue du Bois sector between the villages of Neuve Chapelle and Festubert. At this time these villages, both heavily fought over in 1915, were considered a relatively ‘quiet’ sector.

At 7.20pm that night a heavy German bombardment falls on the frontline trenches around the salient around S10.5, destroying 250 yards of breastwork trenches. Further artillery fire falls on support positions, ‘bracketing’ the area and preventing British reinforcements getting through. Under this bombardment the infantry holding this sector, W Company of 15th Sherwood Foresters, suffer heavy casualties and it is reported three officers are wounded. One of these, Captain Ralph Ainsworth is wounded twice.

Trench map with S10.5 circled

Trench map with S10.5 circled

The barrage is a precursor to a highly successful raid by the enemy. By 8.40pm, with positions destroyed and most of the Sherwood Foresters wounded, German troops attack, penetrating the right flank of the position and taking a number of men prisoner. By 10.10pm men of the 14th Gloucesters and 18th Lancashire Fusiliers had re-established British control of the salient.

By then, Rhys had been killed. The exact circumstances surrounding his death are provided by a letter written by Frank Fairfax, the Chaplain of the Field Ambulance, to Rhys’ father which was later published in The Carmarthen Journal and South Wales Weekly Advertiser of 8 September 1916:

Dear Mr Griffiths, I have to break the sad news to you of the death of your son, Rhys, on the night of 30 May. In the bombardment of the trenches there were many wounded, and he and his friend, Dugdale, were together giving first-aid and carrying the wounded back to safety. As I understood it was while Rhys and Dugdale were attending the wounded officer that a shell burst which killed Rhys, but left Dugdale unharmed except for a severe shock. When he is well enough he will be writing to tell you about it. But there is no doubt that Rhys showed great bravery, and thought not of himself in his noble devotion to duty. I knew him and loved him. He was known to be a splendid comrade and a true Christian. Often he would sing to us his Welsh songs and hymns.

The German raid was very well planned and executed. Raids such as this were a common enough event, even in ‘quiet’ sectors. Their usual aims were to kill the enemy, gather intelligence on defences and, if possible, capture prisoners who could be interrogated for additional information.

A report written the following day by Lt Colonel RNS Gordon, 15th Sherwood Foresters details two Officers and thirty-four Other Ranks still unaccounted for. A subsequent report provides a detailed narrative of events and lists Officers and men who showed gallantry during the raid. First on the list is Captain Ainsworth (the twice wounded officer) who the report describes as ‘although wounded twice refused to be moved and stayed with his Company until the end. He displayed remarkable coolness and apparently only gave the orders to withdraw to the flanks as a last expedient.
He further took steps to see that all documents and the logbooks were sent to Headquarters on realizing the gravity of the situation.
He is, I regret, still missing.’

Nottingham Evening Post - Monday 22 April 1918

Nottingham Evening Post – Monday 22 April 1918

In fact, he stayed missing – at least to the British. Records show Captain Ainsworth was captured by the raiding party. He was held by the Germans in Officers’ Detention Camps at Crefeld and Holzminden until April 1918, when he was transferred to Holland, finally being repatriated in December of that year. Notification of his transfer to Holland reached the Nottingham press on 22 April (shown to the left). A Facebook page ‘Small Town, Great War. Hucknall 1914-1918’ gives more detail on Captain Ainsworth here.

As the chaplain’s letter describes Rhys and Dugdale attending a wounded officer when Rhys is killed, there is a good chance the officer was Ainwsworth. The letter also describes Rhys’ RAMC comrade, Private Robert Dugdale, being severely shocked. Dugdale’s pension record survives and confirms the chaplain’s description of events. He was admitted to the Field Ambulance as a casualty that night, suffering with neurasthenia. Dugdale makes a full recovery, serves through the Somme, Passchendaele and the 1918 battles, ultimately surviving the war. Having served nearly four years he was discharged in July 1919. Dugdale was awarded the Military Medal in January 1917, probably for good work during the Battle of the Somme.

Casualty Form from Robert Dugdale's Pension Record showing his admission to the Field Ambulance with neurasthenia

Casualty Form from Robert Dugdale’s Pension Record showing his admission to the Field Ambulance with neurasthenia

Rhys Griffiths was the first death suffered by 106 Field Ambulance since their arrival in France. The other two men known to be associated with his death, Private Robert Dugdale and Captain Ralph Ainsworth, both survived the war. Such is the way luck can play a part in surviving time in the trenches. Despite it being a tragic story, it was a satisfying experience to talk Ioan and his father Peter through Rhys’ all too brief period of time on the Western Front. Another family now aware of their link to the Great War.

Rhys is buried in St. Vaast Post Military Cemetery, Richebourg L’Avoué alongside the men of 14th Gloucesters and 15th Sherwood Foresters who also died on 30 May 1916. Remembering them all.

Grave of Pte Rhys Griffiths, 106 Field Ambulance RAMC at St. Vaast Post Military Cemetery, Richebourg L'Avoué

Grave of Pte Rhys Griffiths, 106 Field Ambulance RAMC at St. Vaast Post Military Cemetery, Richebourg L’Avoué

Link to BBC Wales ‘Coming Home’ page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086xl8v

The Somme 1916 - From Both Sides of the Wire TX Card

For the past 12-18 months I have been working as Historical Consultant on the three part BBC2 series, ‘The Somme 1916 – From Both Sides of the Wire’. Written and presented by my colleague Peter Barton, the series aims to show a previously neglected corroborative view of the battle, using material from the vast and mainly untapped German archives.
Programme website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07lst9b

The first programme is tonight at 9pm on BBC2 with the other two at the same time on 25 July and 1 August.

Peter Barton - filming at Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel

Peter Barton – filming at Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel

Peter Barton – standing in the German lines in front of Montauban. Across these fields British soldiers and advanced and captured the village on 1 July 1916

Peter Barton – standing in the German lines in front of Montauban. Across these fields British soldiers and advanced and captured the village on 1 July 1916

Memorial to commemorate the losses of the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment and the Essex Yeomanry at Monchy-le-Preux

Memorial to commemorate the losses of the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment and the Essex Yeomanry at Monchy-le-Preux

Monchy-le-Preux has long been one of my favourite spots on the battlefields. The tale of its capture and subsequent defence make fascinating reading. As such, I was delighted to take my group of battlefield clients to attend the unveiling of a new memorial to the 1st Essex Regiment and Essex Yeomanry in the village square on Saturday 21 May 2016. The memorial is the brainchild of Dr Ted Bailey, whose grandfather served in the 1st Essex Regiment.

The start of the ceremony, 21 May 2016

The start of the ceremony, 21 May 2016

Monchy was chosen as the site for this memorial as it is forever associated with the losses sustained by the cavalrymen of the Essex Yeomanry who aided the capture of the village on 11 April 1917. During this action, Lance Corporal Harold Mugford held back the advancing enemy singlehandedly, although seriously injured. For his actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Three days later the 1st Essex Regiment and Newfoundland Regiment launched an ill-fated push eastwards up Infantry Hill. The Newfoundlanders losses are commemorated with one of their five caribou in the centre of the village. Dr Ted Bailey has sought to redress this imbalance with a memorial to the memory of the Essex Regiment and Yeomanry.

The press release distributed prior to the unveiling provides additional detail on the two actions of the Essex Regiment and Yeomanry at Monchy:

On 11 April, the Essex Yeomanry, as part of a mounted division, bravely attacked Monchy in a snowstorm, galloping into the village but were met with heavy fire and lost 135 men, 29 killed in action, and most of their horses. Machine Gunner Lance-Corporal Harold Mugford doggedly defended the position under severe enemy pressure although severely wounded in both legs which were subsequently amputated. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and survived the war with distinction.

On 14 April, the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment attacked east of Monchy into a wooded area aiming for their objective, some high ground known as Infantry Hill. Initial success, with ground captured and prisoners taken, was reversed by  a heavy German artillery barrage plus a simultaneous counter attack by the 3rd Bavarian Regiment, one of the enemy’s finest fighting units.  The battalion suffered 661 casualties, so many that a temporary battalion had to be formed with the Newfoundland Battalion, named the ‘1st Newfoundessex’, comprising only 400 men.

Other Essex Battalions were also in the vicinity during this larger Arras engagement. The 2nd Battalion was in action on 9 April losing 78 men whilst the 9th Battalion lost 163 men.

Wreath laying at the memorial

Wreath laying at the memorial

The unveiling ceremony was very well attended with a long list of dignitaries from the UK along with a great many locals. The memorial can be visited in the square outside the church just off the Rue de la Chaussy. It stands a mere 50 metres away from the Newfoundland caribou.

Map showing location of the new memorial to the 1st Essex Regiment and Essex Yeomanry at Monchy-le-Preux

Map showing location of the new memorial to the 1st Essex Regiment and Essex Yeomanry at Monchy-le-Preux. Map courtesy of Geoportail www.geoportail.gouv.fr/

Detail on the plaque, Monchy le Preux

Detail on the plaque, Monchy le Preux

Through my work for Historic England I have come to know many stories of Bristol’s soldiers in the war. A few years ago I met Clive Burlton, a local historian and writer with a superb knowledge of Bristol’s role in the war. Clive and I have given talks at the same venue on a number of occasions and over a post-talk beer often discussed the possibility of running a coach tour to the battlefields for people who want to find out more about Bristol’s wartime story.

So, here we are! I am pleased to announce that, with our partners at Bakers Dolphin, we are running a special tour:

Bristol on the Western Front with Jeremy Banning & Clive Burlton 1

The three night, four day tour will visit key sites where soldiers from Bristol fought, earned bravery awards and lost their lives.

Travelling by executive coach we will depart from Bristol on 7 October and travel to the sacred Ypres salient, the wartime cauldron for so many of Britain’s soldiers. That evening we will attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate that night. The next day sees us visiting sites around the salient including Ploegsteert (known as Plugstreet to the Tommies) to see where Bristol’s Territorials first went into the trenches before heading south to Arras, our base for the remainder of the trip.

Bristol on the Western Front with Jeremy Banning & Clive Burlton 2

On Saturday 9th we will spend a day on the Somme battlefields, visiting key sites such as Newfoundland Memorial Park, Thiepval Memorial and the Lochnagar Mine Crater. We will also look at the story of the 12th Gloucesters (Bristol’s Own) in their actions at Longueval and Guillemont. The morning of our final day will be spent on the Arras battlefield, looking at the events surrounding the 12th Gloucesters (Bristol’s Own) action at Fresnoy on 8-9 May 1917.

Recruiting card

Wartime recruiting card for local soldiers to enlist at Colston Hall, Bristol

Accommodation is based at the following 3-star hotels – Novotel (Ypres) and Holiday Inn Express (Arras). Evening meal and continental breakfast are included. If there is demand then I will give a talk on the tunnellers’ war after dinner one night and Clive on a particular Bristol story the next night.

Guillemont - 12th Gloucesters (Bristol's Own) attacked close to here on 3 September 1916

Guillemont – 12th Gloucesters (Bristol’s Own) attacked close to here on 3 September 1916

Individual visits can be accommodated if time permits and locations are close by.

The cost is a competitive £560pp, based on a shared room. For more details please contact me HERE or Mandy Havill, Group Travel Manager on 01934 415 000. I look forward to meeting you on the tour and sharing in Bristol’s fascinating history.

Delville Wood Cemetery, Somme

Delville Wood Cemetery, Somme

I have been working with the schoolchildren from a local Bristol school, Fishponds Church of England Academy, for the past couple of  years as part of my work with Historic England’s ‘Heritage Schools’ scheme. This has involved taking them on First World War themed heritage walks around the local area, including visits to the nearby local war memorial and the Glenside Campus of University of West of England (UWE), the former mental asylum which, in its wartime guise at Beaufort War Hospital, had over 30,000 wounded service personnel pass through its gates.

Fishponds War Memorial, Bristol

Fishponds War Memorial, Bristol

During this period it was discovered that the striking Fishponds War Memorial was not ‘listed’ by Historic England.  The idea was formed to engage the local schoolchildren to work on getting their memorial listed. If successful, it would be the first time schoolchildren would play such an active role in this process.  Furthermore, it would be a wonderful way for local children to engage in their community. The project began with high hopes as Historic England has pledged to protect 2,500 war memorials by 2018 to mark the centenary of the First World War.

In November 2015 I accompanied Michael Gorely, who manages the ‘Heritage Schools’ programme for Historic England, and a number of Year 6 children to the war memorial. The task was to carry out a condition survey; recording factual details such as the memorial’s physical appearance, what materials it was made from, its shape, size, setting and any changes from its original design. Also noted were details of plaques and additional inscriptions. The children also researched its history and wrote persuasive letters asking the memorial be listed to the Designation Department at Historic England. It was the department’s  decision whether to grant listed status with the final ratification made by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. A selection of comments from the children’s letters can be found below.

“When we went to see the site, everybody had a fantastic time learning about it.”
“It is a great piece of history and most people would agree that it should be listed.”
“People would be devastated if anything happened to this historical memorial.”
“This amazing piece of history means something to everybody even if their family did not go to war…”
“Our memorial is a unique statue with lots of names carved down on it.”
“It is a part of the local community and we want to remember those who died for us.”

Children from Fishponds CofE Academy with members of the local RBL at Fishponds War Memorial, March 2016

Children from Fishponds CofE Academy with members of the local RBL at Fishponds War Memorial, March 2016

In March we heard the news their appeal had been successful; they are the first school in the country to achieve this! I was invited into the school on 22 March for a special assembly followed by a small wreath laying service at the memorial attended by standard bearers from the local Royal British Legion. The story made the Bristol Evening Post and we gave some interviews for BBC Radio Bristol’s breakfast show. The newspaper article can be read here: https://twitter.com/heritagemikeg/status/713032323537707011

The original memorial had been designed with a bayonet on the end of the soldier’s rifle but had been repeatedly vandalised. As a consequence the bayonet was eventually removed. The children and staff at the school are now working on getting a replacement bayonet added. Ironically, this is much harder now due to the memorial’s listed status!

The children holding hands, forming a protective ring around Fishponds War Memorial, March 2016

The children holding hands, forming a protective ring around Fishponds War Memorial, March 2016

A small number of Fishponds Church of England Academy children will be visiting the Houses of Parliament next week to speak to an All-Party Group about their success.

I have also recently heard that I heard yesterday that Historic England’s ‘Heritage Schools’ scheme has won the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage at the Europa Nostra Awards 2016. Press release: http://www.europanostra.org/awards/209/

Everyone who has been involved with this scheme has played a part in ensuring that pupils can learn about, connect with and enjoy their local heritage. So, let’s hope it continues and more children reap the benefits. And a huge congratulations from me to all of the children involved.

Further details: https://historicengland.org.uk/news-and-features/news/school-children-help-list-bristol-war-memorial

Last weekend I had the pleasure of guiding nine gentlemen around the Somme and Arras battlefield on bikes. As a keen cyclist I try and take my bike when visiting the battlefields but this was something different in that it was the first organised specialist cycling trip I had put together.

Our base was the delightfully comfortable Les clés des places in the heart of Arras. The Somme was our destination on Friday, leaving the neglected battlefields of Arras for the Saturday.

Day One – The Somme

Friday morning dawned with beautiful weather. With the bikes fixed to the cars we headed south, crossing the ground voluntarily given up by the Germans as they pulled back to the Hindenburg Line in 1917. Parking at Serre Road Cemetery No.2, we got the bikes ready and headed off.

Our first stop on day one - Serre Road Cemetery No 2

Our first stop on day one – Serre Road Cemetery No 2

I had sent our proposed route to the group beforehand so everyone was aware of the distances involved. After an introduction of the battle and practices of the CWGC at Serre Road No. 2 we headed across Redan Ridge with its isolated ribbon of battlefield cemeteries to the small village of Beaumont Hamel. As one of the Somme’s most well visited sites with a highly evocative story the Sunken Lane offered our first chance to get to grips with the actions of July and November 1916. After hearing a 1st Lancashire Fusiliers officer, Lt E.W. Sheppard’s description of the 1 July attack we rode via Auchonvillers to Newfoundland Memorial Park where we had a good walk around the trench system, visiting all three cemeteries. The descent to Hamel was fun; infinitely more so than the climb up the Mill Road to the Ulster Tower! One of the group had previously served in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment so I was able to show him the Pope’s Nose and discuss the 1/5th Battalion’s attempt to capture the position in September 1916.

Thiepval Memorial

Thiepval Memorial

After a visit to Lutyen’s imposing Thiepval Memorial and our first (and only) puncture of the day we headed via Mash Valley for lunch at the Old Blighty Tea Room in La Boisselle. Subsequent stops included the Lochnagar mine crater, Becourt, Fricourt and Mametz.

Cycling past Bernafay Wood

Cycling past Bernafay Wood

From the bottom of Dantzig Alley Cemetery we surveyed the undulating ground in front of us, a familiar view to the British in July 1916. Dominating the landscape is Mametz Wood, scene of so much heartache and horror for the 17th (Northern) and 38th (Welsh) Divisions. Our tour continued up to Montauban and Trônes Wood before a stop at Guillemont Road Cemetery where we paid our respects at the grave of Raymond Asquith, 3rd Grenadier Guards.

The grave of Raymond Asquith, Guillemont Road Cemetery

The grave of Raymond Asquith, Guillemont Road Cemetery

Raymond, the son of the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith has been described as ‘one of the most intellectually distinguished young men of his day’. He had been mortally wounded at the start of the Guards’ attack on 15 September 1916 and died on his way to a dressing station.

Guards Memorial, Lesboeufs

Guards Memorial, Lesboeufs

One of our group was a former Coldstream Guards officer and so we deviated from the original plan, heading to the Guards Memorial between Ginchy and Lesboeufs. The exposed position on the ridge to Lesboeufs is in the centre of the ground over which the Division fought in the second half of September 1916.

Postwar image of Guards Cemetery, Lesboeufs. The contrast between the haphazard crosses in this postcard and the neat rows of Portland headstones that greet the modern visitor is testament to the skill and dedication of the CWGC.

Postwar image of Guards Cemetery, Lesboeufs. The contrast between the haphazard crosses in this postcard and the neat rows of Portland headstones that greet the modern visitor is testament to the skill and dedication of the CWGC.

Our route back across the battlefield took in Delville Wood, looking a perfect picture of peace in dappled sunlight – the polar opposite of summer 1916.

A walk in Delville Wood

A walk in Delville Wood

Away from Newfoundland Park and Thiepval the roads were quiet. Bikes lined up at Delville Wood.

Away from Newfoundland Park and Thiepval the roads were quiet. Bikes lined up at Delville Wood.

Next up was High Wood where I described the ferocious fighting that had raged there through the high summer of 1916. The wood and Switch Line proved such a bulwark to advance that British efforts resorted to siege warfare techniques; employing Vincent and Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors in the wood along with the use of tunnellers to plant a mine under German positions. In the late afternoon light of a perfect spring day it was hard to imagine the carnage in these quiet mellow fields and woods.

Crossing the Roman road we headed via Courcelette to Miraumont, along the Ancre valley to Beaucourt before a gentle climb up past Ten Tree Alley en route back to the cars. The conversations that night over a much-needed dinner and drinks all touched on the benefits of cycling in helping everyone’s appreciation of the battlefield.

View this route on plotaroute.com

Day Two – Arras

The bumpy track up to Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery

The bumpy track up to Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery

We awoke the next morning with slightly aching legs and for some, aching heads. There was no need for cars as we would be setting out directly from our hotel. Whilst the touristy spots of the Somme were packed with coaches and school groups the empty fields around Arras are a very different proposition. I assured our travellers that other than farmers and locals we would have the Arras battlefield to ourselves. Heading south via Beaurains (a bike path runs alongside the road for much of this) and London Cemetery we rode to Neuville-Vitasse, a village which in April 1917 was wired into the German defences with the main Hindenburg Line running just behind it.

Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery

Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery

Heading up the bumpy track to Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery was fun. From its dominating position I spoke of the 30th Division’s attack on 9 April 1917, the start of the Arras battle. The closely packed graves of the cemetery are predominantly made up of men from the 2nd Wiltshires and 18th King’s (Liverpool Regiment) who suffered grievous losses attacking across this ground.

I explained the connection with Hugh Dennis’s grandfather, Godfrey Hinnels, whom I had researched for the television programme, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Godfrey’s unit, the 1/4th Suffolk Regiment were tasked with salvage and burial duties in the days after the main attack. As such, it was likely he had been involved with the burial of the men that now lay in the cemetery’s walls.

Next up was Cojeul British Cemetery which is the resting place, amongst others, for two Victoria Cross recipients – Horace Waller, 10th KOYLI and Arthur Henderson, 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.

Bikes could only get us so far. Walking the last bit to Cuckoo Passage Cemetery.

Bikes could only get us so far. Walking the last bit to Cuckoo Passage Cemetery.

Climbing Henin Hill we visited the remaining German pillbox (MEBU) before our next stop, the isolated and beautiful Cuckoo Passage Cemetery. This small battlefield cemetery, full of Manchester Regiment killed on 23 April 1917 lies at the limit of the Manchesters’ advance. I read aloud an account by Private Paddy Kennedy who served with the 18th Battalion describing events that day. Many of his comrades lay around us within the cemetery walls.

Group shot at Bootham Cemetery, Heninel

Group shot at Bootham Cemetery, Heninel

We returned back towards Heninel before picking the road up to Chérisy where I discussed the terrible events of 3 May 1917, the Third Battle of the Scarpe. Described by Cyril Falls in the Official History as ‘a melancholy episode’ the attack that day was an unmitigated disaster for the attacking British forces. British dead for the day reached nearly 6,000 for very little material gain.

Why cycling the battlefields is best…
Travelling by bike is by far the best way to appreciate the landscape; you feel every rise, every dip, every change in gradient. What would be a simple drive in a car takes on more meaning when on two wheels. Your thoughts turn irrevocably to the men whose footsteps still echo through the ground as, stealing a line from Sassoon, ‘they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack’.

The track from Sun Quarry to Quebec Cemetery between Cherisy and Vis-en-Artois

The track from Sun Quarry to Quebec Cemetery between Cherisy and Vis-en-Artois

Continuing towards Hendecourt our focus changed for a short time as I described the Canadian successes of August and September 1918. Stopping at Sun Valley Cemetery I pointed out the formidable obstacles of Upton Wood and The Crow’s Nest (the latter captured with great daring by the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada) on the morning of 1 September 1918). Passing Quebec Cemetery we dropped down for our picnic lunch at the idyllic Valley Cemetery between Vis-en-Artois and Chérisy. This spot is the final resting place of a number of highly decorated officers and NCOs of the 3rd Battalion, Canadian Infantry who were killed nearby at the end of August 1918. Amongst the 3rd Battalion men buried here is the 23 year old Lieutenant Edward Slattery, DCM, MM & 2 Bars. From the decorations received whilst serving in the ranks and his tender age he appears to have been quite some soldier.

Our lunch stop. Picnic at Valley Cemetery, Vis-en-Artois.

Our lunch stop. Picnic at Valley Cemetery, Vis-en-Artois.

Highly decorated Canadians from 3rd Battalion, Valley Cemetery, Vis-en-Artois

Highly decorated Canadians from 3rd Battalion, Valley Cemetery, Vis-en-Artois

Recently destroyed house, Monchy-le-Preux

Recently destroyed house, Monchy-le-Preux

Suitably refreshed we headed back towards Guémappe and across the Route National towards Monchy-le-Preux. The road was blocked in the village, the result of a recent building collapse. Undeterred, we headed west where I explained about the village’s capture and the terrible loss of British cavalry in its narrow streets on 11 April 1917.

Newfoundland Caribou, Monchy-le-Preux commemorating the battalion's action on 14 April 1917

Newfoundland Caribou, Monchy-le-Preux commemorating the battalion’s action on 14 April 1917

Having visited the impressive 37th English Division memorial and the Newfoundland Caribou in the village we rode eastwards, up Infantry Hill where I was able to regale the party with the story of the ‘Men who saved Monchy’: the disastrous 14 April 1917 assault by the Newfoundlanders and 1st Essex Regiment.

The men who saved Monchy

The men who saved Monchy

Infantry Hill is a special spot for me, the scene of so much concentrated fighting and yet, like so much of the Arras battlefield, it remains rarely visited. It was in these fields on 3 May 1917, that disastrous date for the British Army, that one of our group’s great uncles, Private Thomas Clark, 8th East Yorkshire Regiment was killed. Standing close to the spot where the 8th East Yorkshires went over the top I was able to explain the actions that day, reading from the war diary to enable everyone to appreciate the disaster that befell the attacking British troops and the magnificent defensive performance of the German forces.

Extract from the 8th East Yorkshire Regiment after-action report for 3 May 1917 action on Infantry Hill, east of Monchy-le-Preux

The Battalion moved forward at Zero hour [3.45am] but owing to the heavy smoke combined with the darkness they found it difficult to move on any definite point or points.

A platoon commander of the right-hand leading company found himself advancing up a small ridge which is to the south of the copse in O8 Central where he ran up against machine-gun fire. He was joined by a KSLI officer and some men. They moved forward together, the KSLI officer was killed as well as a number of men and as the place was bristling with machine guns and the copse occupied by snipers he stayed down in shell holes, returning at night to HILL TRENCH with 11 men on receipt of orders to do so from Battalion HQ…

…The men were in good heart and moved forward readily. I attribute the results to the heavy smoke, combined with the darkness which prevented people locating their points of direction. In addition to this the enemy barrage was very heavy to which must be added the very effective use of machine-gun both from the front but also enfilading attacking troops.

Casualties: 35 killed, 161 wounded, 39 missing

After some time to contemplate we returned to the village before riding down the Scarpe Valley to Fampoux where we looked at its capture on 9 April 1917 by the 2nd Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. Next up was another special spot; the Seaforth Highlanders cross overlooking the Hyderabad Redoubt, Greenland Hill and Roeux. Whilst there I explained the disastrous 11 April 1917 attack and read aloud the wonderful description left by Seaforth Highlander Private James Stout of events that day.

Descending the Sunken Lane, Fampoux

Descending the Sunken Lane, Fampoux

It is a great shame there is nothing at the former site of the Chemical Works, so bitterly fought over during the battle to show the ferocity of fighting and losses sustained to secure its possession. The site is now a Carrefour mini supermarket where we bought a cool drink and snacks before our ride via Athies back into Arras.

Faubourg-d'Amiens Cemetery & Arras Memorial

Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery & Arras Memorial

Our final stop of the day was the Arras Memorial where Private Thomas Clark and a further 34,765 men are commemorated. One of the group found the grave of his great uncle in the adjoining Faubourg D’amiens Cemetery. Tired but satisfied at the ground we had covered we headed back to the hotel before a good evening meal and much chat.

View this route on plotaroute.com

Day Three – A quick look north of Arras and back to Blighty

Soldatenfriedhof Neuville-St. Vaast

Soldatenfriedhof Neuville-St. Vaast

Our final day was overcast and rainy. Bikes were attached to cars before we visited the huge German cemetery at Neuville St-Vaast and French cemetery at La Targette. Next up was the preserved battlefield on Vimy Ridge before our final stop at Walter Allward’s masterpiece, the Vimy Memorial atop Hill 145.

Allward's masterpiece - the Vimy Memorial

Allward’s masterpiece – the Vimy Memorial

My thanks to the wonderful group who I accompanied and for their generosity and looking after me so well.

If you are interested in a battlefield tour by bike, either as a group or by yourself then please get in touch via the Contact Page. I would be happy to put an itinerary together for any British battlefield and am happy to cycle up to 50 miles/day. However, there is so much to see that 25-40 miles/day is the ideal distance.

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