Remembering the brave soldiers of Alnwick and district who gave their lives

A map which shows the area attacked and secured by 50th (Northumbrian) Division, with which the Northumberland Fusiliers 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force, the Alnwick battalion, played a prominent role and with which so many local men served and died.
A map which shows the area attacked and secured by 50th (Northumbrian) Division, with which the Northumberland Fusiliers 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force, the Alnwick battalion, played a prominent role and with which so many local men served and died.

This is the second part of a feature, the third in a three-part series spread over recent months, to mark the centenary of the 1916 Battles of the Somme.

Using data on some of the 204 men killed in action or died of wounds received or other causes during the campaign as recorded in the database compiled last year by Alnwick District WW1 Centenary Commemoration Group (now held by Northumberland Branch of the Western Front Association), this final article relates background information on some of the men lost and, to give context, provides a retrospective view of events on the Somme battlefields 100 years ago.

Conditions on the Somme battlefield in later parts of 1916.

Conditions on the Somme battlefield in later parts of 1916.

Battles of Le Transloy (October 1 to 18) and Ancre Heights (October 1 to November 11)

On September 26, 1916, Thiepval, an objective for the disastrous July 1 attacks, was finally taken by a carefully-planned and well-executed assault by 18th Division.

The pattern of limited advances continued whenever weather permitted during October. The next major engagement on the Somme, the Battle of Le Transloy, started well for the British but coordination of infantry and artillery declined after the first day, due to the confused nature of the fighting in the mazes of trenches, dug-outs and shell-craters.

To compound matters, deteriorating weather and shorter days began to have a massive impact on battlefield conditions – logistic difficulties increased enormously; grounded aircraft limited reconnaissance and the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) capability for artillery observation; trenches were waterlogged and in places the battlefield was a sea of mud.

Conditions on the Somme battlefield in later parts of 1916.

Conditions on the Somme battlefield in later parts of 1916.

In his history of the Northumberland Fusiliers’ (NF) 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force (TF), Captain F Buckley recorded: ‘Mud was everywhere, in parts up to the waist, and what was worse, the thicker, more tenacious kind that just covered the boots and clung in heavy masses.

‘The exertion of forcing our way step by step in an already heavily-burdened state during our various moves about this line remains in my mind as some of the most strenuous and exhausting times of the whole War.’

Once Thiepval had fallen, the Germans no longer had dominating positions overlooking the valley of the River Ancre. The British attack, long since dormant in this area, was now renewed. Despite the difficulties encountered, the British gradually pressed forward, still fighting against numerous counter-attacks, in an effort to have the front line on higher ground from which the offensive could be renewed in 1917.

A French offensive during the Battle of Verdun, on October 24, forced the Germans to suspend the movement of troops to the Somme front.

Thiepval Memorial

Thiepval Memorial

From October 29 to November 9, British attacks were postponed due to more poor weather, before the capture of 1,000 yards of the eastern end of Regina Trench by the 4th Canadian Division on November 11.

Battle of the Ancre (November 13 to 18)

Urged to continue to fight by Joffre, whose French forces were now on the offensive around Verdun, the British made one last effort. The Battle of the Ancre (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel) was carefully planned with massive artillery support – the attack was the largest in the British sector since September and had a seven-day preliminary bombardment, which was twice as heavy as that of July 1.

The British force attacked in fog and snow on November 13 from the same front lines from which the attack had failed so badly on July 1.

Two of the objectives achieved, the capture of Beaumont-Hamel and Beaucourt, were other objectives for the July 1 attacks, but Serre once again proved an objective too far. Considerable casualties were sustained before snow caused a final suspension of operations.

50th (Northumbrian) Division’s involvement

50th (Northumbrian) Division was again heavily involved in this final battle. Between November 13 and 19, attacks were made on Gird Trench and Hook Sap. The whole German position in the vicinity of Gird Trench allowed them to bring enfilade fire from almost any point, to bear upon attacks from British trenches.

The first divisional attack was made by 149th Brigade with the NF 1/7th Battalion TF forming the left-hand attacking battalion specifically tasked to capture Hook Sap, Gird Trench and the parallel Blind Trench. Zero hour was 6.45am on November 14.

Troops went forward punctually and only the fourth wave encountered the enemy barrage before reaching Snag Trench however the first three waves met the same barrage almost immediately they moved on from Snag Trench and casualties were taken. They pushed straight on and were lost in the mist.

Reports from returning wounded soldiers told of severe hand-to-hand fighting in and around Hook Sap and an enemy counter-attack was beaten off at 10:30. However further enemy counter-attacks were eventually successful and posts held by the battalion were surrounded and Hook Sap was retaken by the Germans. The Brigade ended the day more or less back where they started from.

1/7th Battalion was relieved late on November 15 and returned to Flers Line. The Divisional history records casualties sustained by the battalion during operations from November 14 to 16 as: Two officers killed, five wounded and one missing; 19 other ranks killed, 95 wounded and 104 missing – some will have eventually struggled back to British lines; some will have been killed in action; others will have been taken prisoner by the Germans.

Private Robert John Miller

Private Robert John Miller served with the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) 2nd Battalion. He enlisted at Alnwick, on January 20, 1916, and his service records reveal him to have been 5’ 9” tall and working as a ploughman before joining up.

On June 13, 1916, Robert joined the NF 15th (Reserve) Battalion. As part of a draft of reinforcements, he left Folkestone on September 12 and arrived at Boulogne the same day. The following day, he arrived at Etaples and was posted to the NF 8th (Service) Battalion. Less than a week later, he was posted to the West Riding Regiment.

Born in 1894 at Whittingham, Robert was the son of William and Bella Ann (née Morton) Miller. In 1911, Robert was aged 16, working as a horseman on a farm at Low Hedgely, Powburn. His father William (49) was a cowman. His mother was then 48 years old, and Robert had two sisters, Dorothy (23) and Elizabeth Jane (12), and two younger brothers, William Edward (11) and James (5).

Robert (21) was killed in action on October 12, 1916, barely three weeks after joining his battalion at the front. He is commemorated on Thiepval Memorial and on a Memorial Plaque in St Philip and St James Church, Rock.

Corporal John Luke

Also born in 1894, the son of John and Isabella Cowens (née Pattison) Luke of Embleton, John Luke, named after his father, was the eldest of eight children, having two brothers and five sisters. His father worked as a general carter’s labourer, and his mother became the sub-postmistress for Embleton with the family living in the Post Office Buildings.

John Senior died towards the end of 1905 leaving John Junior as the eldest male, obliged to become the breadwinner for the family at the age of almost 12. As such, he was unable to take up a scholarship won in 1907 and, in 1911, he was employed as a whinstone quarry worker.

According to Soldiers Died... and Ancestry.co.uk, Luke enlisted at Newcastle, where some records have him as resident, however, ‘The Fallen of Embleton, 1914-1919’ (2014) cites the Alnwick and County Gazette as reporting him and his friends HS Neal and T Mulhearn as enlisting at Alnwick on November 13, 1915.

His original service number was PS 9214, which suggests he was assigned to one of the Public Schools battalions of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) (18th to 21st Battalions), but the 19th and 21st Battalions were disbanded in England in April 1916 and the men dispersed.

Corporal John Luke was 23 years old when he was killed in action, on November 5, 1916, serving with the Royal Fusiliers 22nd (Service) Battalion (Kensington).

He was the only man of his battalion killed on that day when the battalion took over the left section of the Redan sub-sector, half-way between Serre and Beaumont-Hamel, in the Beaumont and Serre trenches opposite the German front line called Munch Trench.

Luke is buried at Euston Road Cemetery, Colincamps. He is commemorated on the Memorial Cross, Spitalford Cemetery (Embleton) and on the 1914-18 Plaque at Embleton Church of England School.

The 1916 Battles of the Somme in retrospect

None of the senior British commanders (Haig, Commander-in-Chief, BEF; Rawlinson, 4th Army; and Gough, 5th Army) emerged from the Somme campaign with great credit, but it’s important to remember that was the first time any of them had to conduct operations on such a vast scale. All three made mistakes with bloody consequences for men under their command, which brought misery and bereavement to so many families throughout Britain.

However, the campaign should not and cannot be dismissed as a bloody and total disaster. The Allied victory in 1918 was made possible by the battles of attrition of 1916-1917.

In 1916, the BEF was probably incapable of fighting anything but a battle of attrition because of the inexperience of commanders throughout and most of the troops who were largely war-service volunteers with limited training and no battle experience. Its logistic system was incapable of supporting a major, sustained advance. Resources available were insufficient to realistically expect cavalry to convert a German retirement into a rout. The reality is that the BEF was simply incapable of achieving a decisive victory in 1916.

British casualties sustained during the 1916 Battles of the Somme numbered 498,021, of which 108,691 men were killed or died. Total French casualties numbered about 195,000 while German total casualties vary depending on source but are generally thought to have been between 420,000 and 500,000. Also worthy of note, the intense battles around the fortress town of Verdun are generally estimated at 362,000 French casualties and 336,000 German.

A simple comparison of manpower losses of the respective belligerents would risk failure to understand that Germany and her allies had a smaller manpower pool than Britain, France and their allies. More important, large numbers of experienced German soldiers and non-commissioned and junior officers were killed during the Somme campaign which the Germany Army struggled to replace and never really recovered from. The BEF lost mostly inexperienced soldiers while those who survived benefitted greatly, in strict military terms, by gaining experience. The Somme taught the BEF how to fight while it degraded the quality of the German Army.

Similarly, large materiel losses were equally hard for the Germans to replace, partly because of the effective maritime blockade maintained by the Royal Navy, whereas Britain with its Empire was better able to afford such losses. In mid-1916, British industries were really only beginning to be on an effective ‘Total War’ footing to which must be added increasing support from American industries as they, too, did likewise.

Although the British artillery bombardment prior to the July 1 attacks failed to achieve many of the goals set for it, its sheer power and Britain’s increasing ability to maintain supplies of ordnance to satisfy the voracious demands of its artillery arm and enable sustained heavy bombardments of enemy positions, forced German defenders to endure an appalling ordeal throughout the campaign.

The increasing ability of the BEF to mount sustained attacks in 1916, and its increasing capability as an effective fighting force, shocked the Germans who quickly came to realise that, on the Western Front, Britain was fast becoming their principal enemy. The Somme campaign contributed directly to the German decision, in February 1917, to attempt to knock Britain out of the war by re-introducing unrestricted submarine warfare.

The Germans knew only too well that such a decision was likely to eventually result in the USA’s entry into the war but they gambled that Britain could be knocked out of the war before American resources could be fully deployed and become effective, a gamble which ultimately failed.

The Somme campaign had been conceived as a joint Franco-Anglo offensive as part of a huge simultaneous war-winning attack by the Allies on the Eastern and Western Fronts. That strategy was blunted by the German attack at Verdun in late February 1916, which turned French attentions to that area for most of the rest of the year, the immediate impact of which was that the BEF then had to assume primary responsibility for operations on the Somme. Until then, the British had been very much the junior partner on the Western Front.

Despite the disaster on July 1, 1916, when the BEF sustained 19,240 fatal casualties and 38,500 wounded, politically and militarily it would have been impossible for Britain to abandon the offensive. The French had incurred enormous casualties during the first two years of the war and continued to do so, so the British had to keep applying pressure on the Somme to draw German forces away from the Verdun sector.

Surprising as it may seem, at the end of the campaign, morale within the BEF remained generally good. Valuable battle experience had been gained on how to fight a modern war; lessons were being learned quickly and disseminated throughout the BEF, so that tactics improved rapidly. For example, it was soon recognised that the platoon, a body of 30-40 men, was the major tactical unit and platoon commanders were given much greater flexibility as well as firepower through re-organisation into semi-specialised sections of riflemen, Lewis Gunners, bombers and rifle bombers.

Careful training and rehearsal of battles became more commonplace. Increasingly greater and more reliable supplies of artillery ammunition were available and new weapons were introduced, such as tanks, Lewis Guns and rifle grenades.

This series of articles has been written to mark the centenary of the Somme campaign in 1916, to reflect on some of the 204 individuals who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country and on the impact this must have had on some local families.

In closing with the final part of the Roll of Honour for those local men lost during the campaign, let us remember some words of Robert Laurence Binyon from his 1914 poem, For the Fallen:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

Roll of Honour: October 1 to November 19, 1916

For each entry, the format is the name and rank; regiment/battalion; date of death; age; where commemorated (or buried, if found).

Private James Riddell: Durham Light Infantry, 20th (Service) Battalion (Wearside); 1 October: Thiepval Memorial.

Lance Corporal Joseph Hunter: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 3 October; 23; Etaples Military Cemetery.

Private John White: Machine Gun Corps (Infantry), 149th Company; 3 October; 20; Thiepval Memorial.

Lance Corporal Richard E Leach: Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), 26th (Service) Battalion (Bankers); 4 October; As yet, unknown; A.I.F. Burial Ground, Grass Lane, Flers.

Corporal James Dawson: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/5th Battalion Territorial Force; 6 October; As yet, unknown; St Sever Cemetery and Extension, Rouen.

Private Arthur Moseley Maughan: Durham Light Infantry, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 6 October; 28; St Sever Cemetery and Extension, Rouen.

Private George Cock: Durham Light Infantry, 12th (Service) Battalion; 7 October; 35; Thiepval Memorial.

Private Robert Smailes: Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade; 7 October; 24; Warloy-Baillon Communal Cemetery and Extension.

Private Robert Armstrong: Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment), 2 nd Battalion; 12 October; 28; Thiepval Memorial.

Rifleman Joseph Burn: King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 21st (Service) Battalion (Yeoman Rifles), ‘C’ Company; 12 October; 31; Heilly Station Cemetery, Méricourt l’Abbé.

Private William Crisp: Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment), 2nd Battalion; 12 October; 22; Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval.

Private Robert John Miller: Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) 2nd Battalion; 12 October; 21; Thiepval Memorial.

Private Richard Stokoe: Hampshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion; 13 October; As yet, unknown; Thiepval Memorial.

Gunner Joseph Nelson: Royal Horse Artillery and Royal Field Artillery, 5th Ammunition Column attached to 315th Brigade, 63rd (2nd Northumbrian) Division; 16 October; 23; Puchevillers British Cemetery.

Lance Corporal Thomas William Hindmarsh: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 19 October; As yet, unknown; Ayton Parish Churchyard, in the south-west corner.

Private William Simm: Cheshire Regiment, 15th (Service) Battalion (1st Birkenhead); 21 October; 22; Warloy-Baillon Communal Cemetery and Extension.

Driver James Cleghorn: Australian Field Artillery, Division Ammunition Column; 27 October; As yet, unknown; Abbeville Communal Cemetery and Extension.

Private William John Thomas Hall: King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry) 7th Battalion; 31 October; 28; Thiepval Memorial.

Private Henry Glendinning Brown: Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 9th (Service) Battalion; 2 November; 33; Thiepval Memorial.

Corporal John Luke: Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), 22nd (Service) Battalion (Kensington); 5 November; 23; Euston Road Cemetery, Colincamps.

Private Thomas Thompson: Durham Light Infantry, 1/6th Battalion Territorial Force; 7 November; 39; Thiepval Memorial.

Able Seaman Frederick James Luckhurst: Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Royal Naval Division, Drake Battalion; 13 November; 24; Warloy-Baillon Communal Cemetery and Extension.

Petty Officer Thomas Taylor: Royal Navy Division, Howe Battalion; 13 November: 21; Thiepval Memorial.

Private Thomas Edgeley Barclay: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 14 November; 30; Warlencourt British Cemetery.

Private Alexander James Davidson: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 14 November; 20; Thiepval Memorial.

Private Herbert Goward: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 14 November; As yet, unknown; Warlencourt British Cemetery.

Private Robert Gutherson: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 14 November; 33; Thiepval Memorial.

Private JR King: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 14 November; As yet, unknown; Warlencourt British Cemetery.

Sergeant Henry Miller: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 14 November; 30; Thiepval Memorial.

Private Robert Henry Pringle: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force, ‘D’ Company; 14 November; 24; Warlencourt British Cemetery.

Sergeant James Robert Richardson: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 14 November; 20; Thiepval Memorial.

Private Edmund Ross: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 14 November; As yet, unknown; Warlencourt British Cemetery.

Lance Corporal George Gilbert Shiell: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 14 November; As yet, unknown; Thiepval Memorial.

Private James Tate: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 14 November; As yet, unknown; Warlencourt British Cemetery.

Private Andrew Gray: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 15 November; 20; Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval.

Private William Lawson Ritchie: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 15 November; 20; Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval.

Lance Corporal Alexander R Rutherford: Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment), 1/9th (Highlanders) Battalion Territorial Force; 15 November; 21; Puchevillers British Cemetery.

Sergeant Robert Hounam: Australian Infantry, AIF, 47th Battalion; 16 November; 30; Bulls Road Cemetery, Flers.

Sergeant George Robinson: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 16 November: As yet, unknown; Dernancourt Community Cemetery and Extension.

Lance Corporal John William Athey: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force (NB. Coldstreamhistorysociety.co.uk website records Athey’s unit as being the Black Watch and infers that CWGC record is wrong); 17 November; 22; Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval.

Lance Corporal George Watson Purvis: Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 17 November; As yet, unknown; Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval.

Private Robert Mavin (NB. At least one record available via the Ancestry.co.uk database spells the name as Mabin): Prince Albert’s (Somerset Light Infantry), 8th (Service) Battalion; 18 November; As yet, unknown; Thiepval Memorial.

Private J Maclagan: Border Regiment, 11th (Service) Battalion (Lonsdale); 19 November; 21; Varennes Military Cemetery.