J. V. WILSON, CHAPLAIN TO THE FORCES, 1/6th SOUTH STAFFS, FIRST FIELD DRESSING STATION FONQUEVILLERS CHURCH CRYPT: PLAIN POSTCARD (FPO) to A. HIBBETT Esq, Education Officer, Town Hall, Walsall, Staffs, England. (Posted 3rd July).
July 1st 1916.
I have just seen your son Bertie in Hospital (1). He is wounded in the right wrist, but otherwise is alright & I think you needn’t worry about him. He is being sent on to another Hospital so don’t write till you hear from him.
He just saw Sidney for a few moments this morning. He was alright. I hope you will have Bertie back soon.
J. V. Wilson C.F. 1/ 6 South Staffs.
MY MEMORIES OF THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME: 1967.
‘The Men of the North Midland Division of Territorials did not turn their backs on the enemy. On a large board, posted against a wall of the ruined Church at Fonquevillers, was printed in large letters: ‘TO BERLIN – UP TRAFFIC ONLY’.
‘The climax of my war experience came on the first of July, 1916, when the Battle of The Somme began in earnest. We learnt later that the whole of the British Army was to advance that day (2).The ‘Mad Staffords’ of the 46th Division went forward to capture Gommecourt.
The first of July 1916 was a bright, sunny day. We had been allowed to buy biscuits in Fonquevillers village at the back of the lines. I bought some, called ‘Petit Beurre‘, and they came in useful. Whenever we buy them now they always remind me of the time I was waiting to go ‘Over the Top’.
We had been waiting in our trenches, facing the Germans, for many weeks before the Charge. During that time I was detailed off to do an official drawing of the German Front Line, showing Gommecourt Village and Wood with the Sunken Road beyond, the German enfilade trench and with all the trees as exact as I could. This was my small contribution in preparation for the ‘Big Push’. I had the use of a periscope, and was disguised as a sandbag in case I had to look over the top of the trench to see the formation of the trees and the trenches more clearly (3).
It was while I was making this sketch that I was amazed to see some very old German soldiers, with long white beards, using mechanical excavators in their front line, and making great loads of earth fly up in the air.
I also spotted a dead cow’s head, which I presumed was used as a German sniper’s post. I feel pretty sure that it was from there that our parapet was peppered with German bullets whenever I attempted to put up my periscope. “Keep away from Hibbett and his periscope !” was the general cry.
What terrified me more than the enemy shells and bullets was the sight of our men allowed to drink over much. It was a mistake to have given our men leave to drink alcohol before the Big Push. Some of them, delirious with too much to drink, were throwing mud at each other and I was afraid that they would throw mud at me. It was sights such as these that have made me keep off beer ever since.
I got wounded on that day. I was going forward in the trenches towards the front lines. A Leicester runner, hastening to deliver an urgent message, his voice competing with the noise of gun-fire, came shouting from the rear: “Bend your backs, me lads! Bend your backs! The Tiger’s face doesn’t turn away from the enemy!” (4).
We all bent our backs in the trench and the runner, I can see him now, ran along our backs, head and shoulders above the trench, exposing himself to the enemy, while shells kept bursting on either side of him.
The Germans trained their machine-gun fire into our trench (5). My hands got scratched with the barbed wire contraption getting caught in the sides of the nam trench (sic) (6). The situation got hopeless. We were advanced beyond Gommecourt Wood and found it was no use carrying the chev de frieze any further (7). I got lost in the confusion of the bombing.
I got to where I believe was the point our Front Line faced the German enfilade trench I had sketched in the days before (8). There to my amazement I saw British soldiers lying close on the floor of the trench, like sardines in a tin – some dead and some dying with groans.
A sergeant called out to me from a dugout: “Come in here or you will soon be like those lying there.” To my lasting remorse I was forced to tread on the bodies of those poor men. My right wrist was bleeding badly from a shrapnel wound and a chum called (Arthur) Venables* (9) tied an emergency field dressing on it. I learned later that he was killed and I pray he may be rewarded in heaven.
My experiences before and during the Battle were terrible to me, but curious enough I felt serene until I was told to make for the First Field Dressing Station. I made my way in haste to get out of the trenches: full of our dead, all with tarpaulins and ground sheets over them.
I stood waiting in the mouth of the trench near to Fonquevillers Church and the Dressing Station in the Crypt, and there I was interviewed by Padre T.Howard* (10)(whom I was to meet again, after the War, at Lichfield Theological College).
I received treatment against tetanus, then it was a great relief, despite the cobbles that shook my wounds, to leave the Battle behind, and be sent by Ambulance to an open field to await the train which was to take us to Hospital.
I shall never forget seeing the wounded lying in the sunshine in that wide field. It was just as if so many washer-women had laid out their ‘whites’ on the ground to dry – men with wounded arms, legs and heads all bandaged up.
There on his horse sat the Colonel* (11), staring at the sorry sight. Then I saw, lying on the field, Alan Machin*, an old Grammar School Boy of QMS, Walsall (12).
Pte Bertie Hibbett appears to have got further, than I first thought, across No Man’s Land before he was wounded. In his Memories he describes the British Front Line Trench opposite the German enfilade trench as full of dead & dying. He mentions German machine gun fire & enfilade fire. This was about 9.30 am. 2 hours after Zero hour accord. to S. Staffords War Diary. NB Being ‘beyond Gommecourt Wood’ is puzzling until one remembers the objective was The Z.
That the 137th Brigade attack had failed was reported to Major General Sir Stuart Wortley at 8.55 am. 1st Wave 5th N. Staffs were in advanced trench. 2 Waves were in Old British Front Line (with Pte Bertie Hibbett wounded & Corp. Venables). The 6th North Staffs were stopped; if in German First Line then not supported. Orders made to open artillery fire on whole of western edge of Gommecourt Wood. At 9.33 am 5th N. Staffs were unable to move forward because of congestion in forward trenches. At 9.35 am 6th S. Staffs reported not enough men to continue attack.
ARMY CHAPLAINS. 5,000 Chaplains served in WW1, many going straight from their parishes without training. 168 or more lost their lives. Their original role was to take services & burials well away from the Battlefields. Increasingly in 1914-1918 War Chaplains felt compelled to serve on the Front Line, experiencing the full brutality of War. Burials of soldier’s pals, where they fell, was important for morale but extremely dangerous. The service would be a simple prayer taken from Revelation 14.13: I heard a voice from heaven saying: ‘Blessed are they that die in the Lord, even so saith the Spirit for they rest from their labours’. See Hugh Pym BBC <http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides>
(1) The Revd J.V. Wilson, C.F. used the term ‘Hospital’ in his FPO to Pte Bertie’s father, no doubt to re-assure him that his son was being well cared for. But this would be a reference to the very basic First Field Dressing Station in Fonquevillers Church Crypt – or the Field Ambulance (stationery tent/ not vehicle) in a field away from the Front; where the wounded would have been collected from the whole of 46th Midland Division.
Pte Bertie’s train might have gone from Arras, in which case it is possible my father might have known the underground ‘Hospital’ in the tunnels below La Grande Place (where names of wounded soldiers are scratched on walls). Since he never mentioned this it is more likely to have been Bethune? It took a painful ‘one & a half days’ for him to arrive at a Hotel cum Hospital on the cliffs at Le Treport, near Rouen.
(2) The Battle of the Somme extended from Fonquevillers/ Gommecourt in the north – to beyond Mametz in the south/ i.e. not the whole of the Western Front.
(3) Pencil Sketch: After the Somme Battle, one lesson learned was that every soldier, not just Officers & N.C.Os, was given a maps of enemy trenches which he was expected to learn. My father kept a copy of this drawing very carefully for 50 years. Sadly it went missing following a Toc H Exhibition in Skegness in 1960s. Reward to anyone who may know of its whereabouts. Size 5″ x 12″ approx . Please contact: <firstname.lastname@example.org > .
(4) Royal Leicester Regt. ‘Tiger’ Hindoostani Badge. Awarded 1825 for services in India.
(5) Machine gun fire at approx. 9.25. See Staffords War Diary. 1st July 1916. (6) Nam’ trench? Maybe my father meant a ‘sap trench’/ a shallow trench dug hastily at night before a Charge to help men gain further ground across No Man’s Land without detection (in this case about a 1000 yards.
(7) Cheval de frise: barbed wire entanglement nicknamed ‘knife rest’;(ref. medieval defence against cavaliers). Before a Charge, each soldier had to carry forward a piece of equipment from piles at entrance to trenches: e.g. wire cutters/ shovels/ – or these iron stakes. <https://WW1 revisited.com>.
(8) German Enfilade Fire: at approx 9.30 am. See previous 1st July Post.
(9) Padre Howard*: one of a number of Padres who comforted my father in extremity; whose faith & courage no doubt re-enforced his own sense of calling to the Anglican priesthood. (10) Corp. Arthur Venables*: See Pte Bertie’s Tribute ‘To Fallen Comrade’, Walsall Observer & S. Staffordshire Chronicle. 12th August 1916. Commemorated on Thiepval Memorial to Missing.
(11) Lt Col Richmond Raymer. Evidence that Col. Raymer, though wounded, was still on duty on horseback/ in command 1/5th S. Staffords. Major Adabie* ordered Major Lord 1/5th S Staffs ‘to find his wounded C.O Lt Col Raymer, to order an advance led by 1/5th Bn & supported by 2 companies of 5th Leicesters.
This order issued at 2.30 pm: ‘Add all details of previous waves from this morning’s attack to new 3rd wave. Take forward all Lewis Guns you can find. Instruct first wave to take all men forward they find in the New Front Line. Officers and N.C.Os must reconnoitre with periscopes all gaps in our wire and in the hostile wire so as to be able to lead the men through‘.
See Staffords War Diary, previous 1st July Post/ List of Casualties below/ & Alan MacDonald: ‘A Lack of Offensive Spirit’.
(12) 2/Lt Alan Machin*: wounded with a ‘Blighty’, died 1918 in UK/ influenza epidemic? Mentioned many times in Hibbett Letters.
1/5th Bn. SOUTH STAFFORDSHIRE REGT. July 1st 1916.
LIST OF CASUALTIES. ** Known to Pte Bertie Hibbett/ amongst original Walsall volunteers/ QMS Cadet Force, 1914. NB. recognition of Shell Shock.
Officers Killed: Capt F. Eglington.
Missing, Believed Killed: 2/ Lt G.T. R. Knowles. Missing: Lt J. F. Thorne; 2/Lt F. A. Fawcett; 2/Lt H.Allen** (Commemorated Lochnagar Crater by QMSchool, Walsall, 2016) ; 2/ Lt T.R. Sanger**; 2/Lt S. J. Ellison.
Wounded. Lt Col.R. R. Raymer**; 2/Lt. L.A. Evans; 2/Lt H. G. Cozens**; 2/Lt L. W. C. Capsey; 2/Lt J. R. Cartwright; 2/Lt E. J. U. Turner; 2/Lt A.E. Machin**.
Wounded (Shell Shock). Major W. A. Wistance**; Capt. C.Lister**.
Other Ranks: Killed 12. Missing 23. Wounded & Missing 1 (Sgt Sydney Hibbett. Commemorated Lochnagar Crater by QMSchool, Walsall, 2016).
Wounded 105 (Pte Bertie Hibbett). Wounded (Shell Shock) 20. Total: 178.
SUMMARY OF CASUALTIES JULY 1916: Officers Killed 1. Missing, Believed Killed 1; Missing 5; Wounded 7; Wounded (Shell Shock) 2.
Other Ranks. Killed 13; Missing 23; Wounded & Missing 1. Wounded 108; Wounded accidentally 1; Wounded (Self inflicted) 1. Slightly Wounded, remained at Duty 4; Wounded (Shell Shock) 20; Injured, remained with Battn. for light duty. 1.
Signed: J. Lamond. Capt Adjt for Major (Lord) Comdg 1/5th Bn South Staffordshire Regiment.
NEXT POST: 9th July 1916.