The last stand of the 178th (2/1st Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire) Brigade: 21st March 1918

[a short blog post]

“Very heavy enemy barrage on front line from 5.0am to 9.30am. Enemy attacked at 9.30am. Battn suffered very heavy casualties”

So wrote KJ Bunting, Captain and Adjutant  to the 2/6th Battalion; however, this short sentence belies the enormous casualties that the 2/6th Battalion, along with the 2/5th and 7th Battalions of the 178th Brigade, suffered during the first day of ‘Kaiserschlacht’; the German Spring offence of 1918.

Unlike the 2/5th and 7th Battalions, the War Diary of the 2/6th Battalion does not record the precise numbers of casualties suffered that day (i.e killed, wounded or missing).


However, the 178th Brigade War diary does provide a total number of casualties for each Battalion. The strength of the 2/6th Battalion on 1st March 1918 was 53 Officers and 883 Other Ranks, thereby suggesting that approximately 20 Officers and 220 men were left in reserve and took no part in the fighting.


The 59th Division War Diary gives slightly higher casualty figures of 34 Officers and 722 men wounded or missing. In addition, they acknowledge that the numbers of wounded men were not reported by Medical Units, and therefore a proportion of other ranks listed a ‘missing’ may have in fact been wounded.


Personal Accounts

Very few personal accounts exist of those chaotic few hours, several Officers wrote of their experience after the War and a few stories appeared in local newspapers at the time.

Below are a few examples.


George Robert Yeomans

“We were holding the line on March 21st 1918. I was wounded in the left leg by a gun shot and taken prisoner a few hours afterwards. My leg was amputated April 8th 1918 at Cassel Germany”

George Robert Yeomans, Lewis Gunner, B Company, 2/6th Battn, aged 20 from Upper Marehay.


265746 Corporal Joseph Page

“Our Battalion was in the support trenches, having come out of the first line trenches two days earlier. We found the Germans putting down a barrage of gas shells. We stood to until eleven o’clock, by which time the trenches had been blown flat and many casualties sustained. A runner came up and said the Germans had broken through. I had to take that message to our Battalion headquarters, and after I had been there about 15 minutes I was surprised to see hundreds of Germans all round us.

            By this time part of the Battalion had already been taken prisoner, but the rest of us were told to get behind a sunken road and fight it out. There were machine guns at either end, and although we fired as hard as we could at the oncoming Germans they swarmed forward in mass formation, other parties coming down the communication trenches. We put up a hard fight until by one o’clock we had no ammunition left. Our last lot of bombs were useless, as somebody had left the detonators behind.

            After having done a lot of execution we retired from the sunken road into a trench, the end of which was blocked so that we could not get out. About twenty of us scrambled up, however, and made a rush under heavy machine gun fire to another trench on the right, fifty yards away. There we met some Lincolnshire reinforcements, with whom we put up a big bombing attack. Fritz bombed us back until our casualties became so heavy that we found it was hopeless to go on fighting, so one of the sergeant-majors ordered us to put our arms down and are hands up.”

[The Mansfield Reporter and Sutton Times, Friday, May 19, 1918]


Lt Conrad Stark, “C” Company, 2/6th Battalion

“We were very quickly surrounded and our lines became too hot to hold from crossfire. Retired to our support line; shall never know how I reached same untouched, was walking through our own and the enemy’s barrage. Had a great number of casualties whilst crossing. On reaching support managed to put up a show there but was surrounded about 9:40 a.m. and taken prisoner about 45 minutes after the enemy left his front line.”


The last stand of the 178th Brigade

The vast majority of men that were killed that morning have no known grave and are Commemorated on the Arras Memorial to the Missing. 


However, by examining the exhumation and reburial records held by the CWGC it is possible to identify the locations of 65 Officers and men of the 178th Brigade whose bodies were recovered after the War. Assuming that they were buried close to where they died, either by the Germans or through shell fire, it is possible to trace the last actions of the 178th Brigade.

There are several important inferences that can be made:-

Major John Warren MC, 2/Lt Albert Catterall and a few men of the 7th Battalion were able to escape from the German’s surrounding their front line positions and make a ‘final ‘stand in sunken road in 4d – see 1), 2) and 3).

CSM John Tomlinson, although recored as serving with the 2/5th Battalion, had mostly likely been attached to the 2/6th Battalion when he was killed – see 4).

Several men from the 2/6th Battalion, most little from the HQ Company, were able to escape being surrounded in Railway Reserve – see 6), 7) and 9).

Very few of the 2/5th Battalion made made it away from Noreuil – see 8). In fact Joseph Hudson is the only man serving with the 2/5th Battalion who’s body was exhumed and identified after the War.

35748 Pte George Chambers Woolley, The Welbeck Rangers…….

Prior to Enlisting

George was born in New Mills to ?? and Mary Chambers and was one of 8 surviving children. In the 1911 Census the Wolley family were living at Ollersett, New Mills in Derbyshire. At this time George was cloth packer in the local bleach works.

George Attested into the British Army in December 1915 – possibly under the Derby Scheme – and was mobilised into the 3rd Battalion Sherwood Foresters on the 5th June 1916.

George married Maria Roughly in Hayfield Parish Church in October 1916 and four months later their first daughter Matha was born. A son George was born on 30th December 1918.


Arrival in France and wounded at the Battle of Passchendale

Following basic training George arrived in France (Calais) on the 2nd July 1917 and was posted to the 17th Battalion Sherwood Foresters, the Wellbeck Rangers at the 14th Infantry Base Depot.

George was present with the Wellbeck Rangers when they took part in the 3rd Battle of Ypres and attacked Steenbeek near St Julian.

1.15am. Assembly of Battalion was complete and carried out without casualties.

3.50am. The advance commenced across “No Man’s Land”.

4.16 am. The Blue Line was reached without opposition. Slight casualties were incurred due to the protective barrage.

5.13 am. The advance on Black Line commenced. Slight opposition was met with by two enemy machine guns in the vicinity of Oblong Farm. These were at once engaged. The advance continued until held up by machine guns and snipers from Canoe Trench.

5.33am. Undercover of Lewis guns and barrage Canoe Trench was the captured. The advance was then continued by the second wave through Kitchener’s Wood to the dotted black line. On arrival on the eastern side of the Wood two enemy machine guns opened up on us from Alberta. These were engaged…….with the assistance of two tanks……and captured the farm.

6.50 am. The Dotted Green Line Companies and Hugel Hollow Platoon formed up behind protective barrage.

7.30 am. Advance behind protective barrage began. Very little resistance was met. Several prisoners taken from Hugel Hollow and concrete dug-outs to the North East of Alberta.

7.55 am. The Steenbeek was reached and advanced over and consolidation commenced on the Eastern side.

Total casualties were 331 Officers and men including George who was serving with “B” Company.


George was taken to the 134th Field Ambulance before being transferred to 2nd Australian General Hospital at Wimereux. He was returned to England on the 9th August 1917 and did not return to France.


George was granted 9 days leave in mid-September 1917, before being transferred to the 501s5 Agricultural Company of the Labour Corps in April 1918 and was stationed at Derby with the Northern Command.

Recruiting for the 2/6th Battalion, the Sherwood Foresters

Recruiting for the 2/6th Battalion took place at the Drill Hall in Chesterfield and at the various Company Headquarters throughout Derbyshire. In most cases, as the men were enlisted they were paid 3/- per day pay (including billet allowance) and 3d a day for clothing allowance and sent back to their homes until they were called up.

A brief story of Samual Hague from Clay Cross……

Samual Hague was born c1879 in Clay Cross and was a coal miner hewer by trade. He met and married Clara Harvey – who was six years his junior – in August 1907 and their first child – Harold – was born four months later.

Samual and Clara had five children – Harold b. 1907; Clara b. 1909; Eliza b. 1910; Emma b. 1912 and Louise b. 1914. – and they lived on Blackwell Road in Huthwaite, Nottinghamshire.


In November 1914 Samuel enlisted into the Sherwood Foresters (Notts & Derby) Regiment aged 33, but was discharged 12 days later because he was ‘not likely to become and efficient soldier’ due to rheumatism.


Samuel later re-enlisted in April 1915 and following basic training – he had previously served with the 4th (Reserve) Battalion prior to 1914 – he was posted to the 1st Battalion.

Samuel joined the 1st Battalion in France, possible in 1916 because he was not awarded a 1915 Star, and served with them throughout the rest of the War until he was discharged with rheumatism in December 1918.

Unfortunately, and during his time in France, Clare died in October 1916 leaving him a widower and his children without their mother.

He was awarded a pension, but it is not known if Samuel ever remarried.

 

 

Surg.-Major Arthur Wilson Shea (1866-1947)

“Surg.-Major AW Shea……..was also on that well remembered march out of Chesterfield, mounted, as always, on the popular “Sceptre” (alias “No. 9”). We remember the doctor because of his many waved farewells, which were all faithfully reordered by the cinematograph.

Men of the Forest Green Circle……

As I hinted during the first lock down (!) – I fancied putting pen-to-paper and writing the History of the 2/6th Battalion. The only previously published History – limited to very few copies – just documented November 1914 to late 1916.

So I’ve been messing with titles and introductions – a bit like Bilbo Baggins and the start of the Hobbit…..

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…….”

So here we go


Men of the Forest Green Circle; being a history of the 2/6th Battalion, the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire) Regiment (1917-18).

The story of the 2/6th Battalion, the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire) Regiment starts as a North Midlands’ narrative in 1914 as men from the two Counties flock to join the newly established Territorial Battalion. However, even before the ‘2/6th’ leaves for France in February 1917, recruits from both Hull and London have bolstered their ranks and significantly redefined the composition of this ‘North Midlands’ Battalion.

This is their story……

The dwindling men of the ‘Original Deployment’ of the 2/6th Battalion during 1917-18

The 178th Brigade of the 59th Division landed at Boulogne at the end of February 1917. This closely coincided with the Territorial Force renumbering that occurred in March 1917 and before the 2/6th Battn (59th Division) was engaged in any major operations on the Western Front.

By the time the 59th Division were engaged during the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line at the end of April 1917, all the men that were serving with the 2/6th Battn at that time had been renumbered with a 6-digit (24****) service number.


We can identify these men as the ‘Original 1917 Deployment’ of the 2/6th Battalion.


Therefore, by studying the service numbers of the 2/6th Battn men who were killed in action during the 11 months between April 1917 and April 1918 it is possible to see how the composition of the ‘Original 1917 Deployment’ was slowly diluted due to the ever increasing numbers of casualties (killed, wounded and missing) and subsequent reinforcements.

 

My first thoughts…….to be revised……

By mid-April 1918, and at the time of the last action of the 2/6th Battn (before being reduced to Cadre in May 1918), less that 1 in 5 men still serving were from the Original 1917 Deployment.

Charles Norman Commins from Lincoln

Charles was killed in action during a raid on Hunters Post in the last months of the Great War, and thanks to his great nephew Chris, we can now put a face to Charles and tell a little more about his short life and the sweetheart that he left at home.

Charles was born in Lincoln in July 1895 and in the 1911 Census was living with his family at 117 Winn Street. He was from a large family and an errand boy for a local doctor.


Service with the Sherwood Foresters

It’s not clear when Charles enlisted, and into which Regiment; interestingly, his two elder brothers both enlisted into the Lincolnshire Regiment and have very close regimental numbers.

Charles was certainly with the 1/7th Battalion at the end of 1916 (December) when the Territorial Force Renumbering was being planned and the Territorial Battalions of the Sherwood Foresters used a five digit (2****) regimental numbering system to renumber men being moved between battalions or being posted from other Regiments at the 14th Infantry Base Depot . Charles duly received a 7th Battalion 6-digit number in March 1917 (269262).

Charles most likely served with the Robin Hoods from December 1916 until the Battalion was reduced to Cadre in late January 1918.

Note the Service Record of 20070/269288 Alfred Harold Gregory, who has similar Regimental Numbers to Charles, was used to infer his service.


Attack on Hunter and Scott Post

During early September 1918 the 1/6th Battalion made several attacks on the German strong points known as Hunter and Scott Post – see here for details. It was during this attack that Charles was killed in action or mortally wounded.

Chris has told me that there is a family legend that Charles died carrying a wounded man back to his own trenches. That he was hit and fell and that the wounded man asked Charles whether he was OK, he said he was ok and could carry on. He picked the man up again but was hit a second time, this time he told wounded man he would have to make his own way back and died.


 

An obituary was posted in a local paper by his fiancée “Vera L” who must have also sent the post card to the family.

William Lyons from Buxton – ‘the man that got lost’

The War Diary entry for the 31st July 1918 simple records……

“One man missing from X.8.c.80.20. Thought to have been lost in the early morning”

Through sheer luck I can now report that this man was 2943/240815 Pte Willliam Lyons from Tideswall.


William was born in 1871 in Burbage and in the 1911 Census he is recorded as a general labourer in the lime industry lodging with the Belfield family at 30 Lime Terrace, Burbage in Buxton.

William enlisted into the 2/6th Sherwood Foresters in October 1914 and following basic training he arrived in France on the 25th June 1915 with the ‘1st Reserve’ Reinforcement.

William served with “A” Company was was wounded by shell fire in Ypres on 4th July 1915 – see here.

“On the Saturday night we went up to the lines on fatigue, and travelled up a long way in motor lorries; it was quite an exciting journey for us after we left the lorries to march through Ypres, especially as for many of us it was the first experience of the war. Fritz was sending over a few gas shells and we were all sneezing and rubbing our eyes. We drew spades and set off after a short rest, landed at the work, finished off fairly quickly and started for home – home consisting of bivvies made from water-proof sheets, and some of us hadn’t even got those. We had a pretty rough journey coming through Ypres, had just downed tools and started the march towards the houses, when Fritz began shelling; of course he managed to get a lucky shot right in the middle of us, killing and wounding about half the party, many of whom had not yet even seen the trenches”.

[Battalion History]

The casualties numbered thirty-two; nine men were killed or died of their wounds and another 23 were wounded.


Following his return to the 1/6th Battalion he was reported missing and recorded on a Red Cross Enquiry List dated 1.10.1918 as missing on 31.7.1918.

William was repatriated on the 3rd December 1918 and he was finally disembodied on 27th March 1919.

He died in July 1940 in Pontefract aged 69.