Uncle Walter’s War

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Last week, we commemorated Remembrance Day (Veterans' Day in the US). We remembered those who fought in wars. Tucuxii was kind enough to share a memory with us. May the dead rest in peace, and may we all resolve that sacrifices like these, however noble, will someday be a thing of the past.

Uncle Walter’s War

An artist's impression of life in the trenches.

My great-uncle Walter enlisted in the Yorks and Lancs Regiment on 5th September 1914, one month after Britain entered the First World War. As a skilled man he was put in the 10th Battalion a service (support) battalion known as the "Hull Hauliers". In spite of this "supporting" role the 10th took part in some of the bloodiest best known actions of the Great War.

The 10th were sent to France in September 1915 as part of the 63rd Battalion, 21st British Division of Kitchener's volunteer army, during the build up to the first major offensive of 1915. They were poorly trained and completely inexperienced and so formed part of the reserve to support the main attack. The first trenches many of them ever saw were filled with dead, dying and wounded men as they entered the mud and confusion of the battle of Loos on the 25th September. For nearly two days they struggled through the mud- and corpse-choked trenches, bringing forward ammunition and equipment with little food or water and no sleep. As the British guns had failed to cut the German barbed wire entanglements, the advance began to stall and the reserves were thrown into action. The 10th were sent forward with vague orders to advance and no objective. Like so many others they came under intense shellfire and heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and became 'stuck on the wire' – unable to cut a way through to the German lines. By the time the 10th fell back, they had taken 319 casualties – almost half their number.

Worse was to come for Walter and his pals the following year, as they were in action on the bloodiest day in British history – 1st July 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme in which 10, 000 British troops were killed in the first hour and another 10,000 had died by the end of the day.

On the 1st and 2nd the 10th supported forward units assaulting Fricourt Farm bring ammunition and supplies forward.

On the night of the 2nd/3rd the 10th took over forward positions in Crucifix Trench and pushing patrols forward towards Fricourt Farm and "Poodles", capturing two machine-guns and 75 prisoners. From 8.55 am they gave covering fire for the assault on Shelter Wood by the Lincolns. They came under sustained attacks by German "bombing parties". As the day progressed a German counter-attack threatened to outflank the Lincolns who had taken heavy casualties, to prevent this the 63rd Brigade was ordered forward and the 10th captured Round Wood Alley and Lozenge Trench by 4.30 pm after two and a half hours of fierce hand to hand fighting. They then repulsed a German counter-attack and captured a further four machine guns.

At 5pm they came under intense fire from German 15 cm Howitzers for half an hour.

Walter received a shrapnel wound to the left shoulder at the end of this action which sent him back to "Blighty" and put him in hospital for 46 days – he did not return to the Western Front until January 1917. In his pension record this wound that put him out of action for six months is described as “slight”.

By this time the 63rd Brigade had transferred to the 37th Division and was preparing for the Arras offensive. During 1917 the battle hardened 10th took part in successful "bite and hold" actions at Scarpe, Arleux and Polygon Wood during the Arras offensive pioneering tactics that would end the deadlock on the Western Front; in the battles on the Menin Road and Broodseine during the Ypres offensive and in the 1st and 2nd battles of Passendale, fighting alongside Australian, New Zealand and Canadian troops.

Walter's war ended in March 1918 when he was buried by shellfire suffering severe leg injuries, a rupture and, having endured two and a half years of the horrors of the trenches and some of the bloodiest most brutal battles in history, a nervous breakdown.

This probably occurred during the "Kaiserschlacht" – the massive assault by German and Austrian troops fresh from the eastern front after Russia's withdrawal from the war following the October Revolution. This spring offensive was launched to try to break the British army and force the French to sue for peace before large numbers of US soldiers could enter the war. During the opening bombardment German gunners fired 1.1 million shells in less than five hours. Shortly after this the badly wounded Walter was sent to the Australian Military Hospital in Rouen.

Walter's younger brothers Herbert and Stanley also served in the trenches. Both were under age, and their records have been lost. They probably served in the Sheffield Battalion of the Yorks and Lancs which saw some of the worst fighting on the Somme. One was gassed and as a consequence was partially sighted, the other was shell-shocked and had bad tremors. In spite of this they drove around Dronfield and Sheffield in an old Morris car well into the 1960's – neither had a licence. The partially-sighted one drove while his brother told him where to steer.

The Cenotaph in Whitehall.
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