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Remembered Today:

1/5th North Staffs

Guest KevinEndon

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Guest KevinEndon

Wow Chris, you aare right about it being a fantastic article. I will need a couple of hours peace and quiet to read through it. Many thanks for the reply.

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The 46th (North Midland) Division was the only division that fought on the Somme on 1st July 1916 whose casualties were not the worst of the war. They lost more at Hohenzollern on 13th October 1915 than at Gommecourt on 1st July 1916.

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Here is some additional information for you on 137th Brigade (including 1/5th North Staffords) for you. It is an expanded version of the Hellfire Corner article:

“Over the Bridge of Death”

137th Brigade’s Attack

“It was absolute hell with the lid off. Dying and wounded all over the place.

Shall never forget this day.”

Private Sydney Richards, Machine-Gun Section, 1/5th South Staffords

Entry in his pocket diary for 13 October 1915

“Potters For Ever” – 1/5th North Staffords make their attack

At 2.00 p.m., the leading battalions of 138th Brigade began their assault on the West Face of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Private Samuel Orpe of the 1/5th North Staffords looked up over the parapet of “C” Company’s assembly trench to watch their attack go in:

As we looked over, men could be seen running across. These were the Lincolnshires and Leicestershires, as they charged first.

At the same time, the bombing parties, together with the first wave of assault infantry from the 1/5th North Staffords; “A” Company, (Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Guy Worthington) on the left of the battalion frontage and “B” Company (Captain Reginald Johnson) on the right, scaled the trench ladders and climbed over the parapet. The men then moved through the pre-prepared gaps in the barbed wire in front of the trenches and out into “No Man’s Land”, where the officers ordered the men to lie down. The lead companies were then organised into extended order under the cover provided by the smoke screen, all the time under heavy machine-gun fire.

At 2.05 p.m., the order to advance was given. Private Tom Whitehouse, a soldier from Newcastle serving in “D” Company, recounted later how men of the battalion shouted “Potters For Ever!” as they scrambled up to begin the attack. The line then attempted to move forward in rushes. Private Harrison and his fellow bombers advanced with the first wave:

A whistle blasted, and over the bridge of death we climbed and shouted. I got clear of our barbed wire and commenced to advance, rifle and bayonet fixed in one hand and spade in the other, under a terrific machine-gun fire, bullets whizzing past me in thousands. I got about one hundred yards and took a short rest; up again, but alas! A bullet hit my spade, glanced off and grazed the bone of my left eye slightly. It dazed me for about one minute, but I soon recovered myself, only to find that I was about thirty yards from the first German line. Now I had to make the best of my way back. I saw my left flank trench and made a dash for it, jumping clean into same, at which juncture I bandaged myself, still having the picture of the battlefield in my mind.

As the first wave of the 1/5th North Staffords began to move forward, a hail of machine gun and rifle fire scythed through the ranks. Captain Worthington was hit in the thigh and later found that the copy of the New Testament he was carrying in the left breast pocket of his tunic had a bullet pass through it lengthwise and was fortunate to suffer no further injury. Worthington picked himself up from the ground and continued to carry on forward, but could only see a handful of men from his company. The small group ran towards a communication trench and jumped over it, before again lying down on the other side. No other troops could be seen in the vicinity, so they raced forward to another trench and jumped down into it. This proved to be a communication trench that had been dug by 9th Division during their brief occupation of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Captain Worthington also found several men from the South and North Staffords bombing parties, who were engaged in the attack on Big Willie, with which the trench was connected. One witness described seeing Captain Johnson standing on the parapet of the trench, waving his cane shouting, “Come on, “B” Company!” to encourage his men as they struggled over. He was wounded a few moments later, but was not seen alive again. Captain Sidney Wood, “B” Company’s second-in-command, managed to reach the shelter of a shell-hole with another soldier and stayed out in “No-Man’s Land” until they were able to return to their assembly trenches later that night. Lieutenant-Colonel John Knight also climbed out of the trench with his men to lead them into their first attack. He was last seen falling after being hit in his side by a bullet.

The second wave; “C” Company, (Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Charles Keary), and “D” Company, (Captain Harry Ridgway), followed the initial assault after a few moments. It was now Private Barlow’s turn to climb from his trench:

Up we scrambled, bullets whistling past our ears like hailstones. Off we started. The lad on my left dropped all in a heap without a murmur. About five more paces, the lad on my right dropped. Then they dropped all round me in twos and threes. I wondered when my turn would come, and what it would feel like when it did come. I had not long to wait. I had gone about 50 yards when bang: crack! Got it in the leg. Just throwing my arms up in the air – bang! – copped it again in the right upper arm. Down I go.

Private Orpe advanced with his comrades of “C” Company:

Then came the words; “Over, Staffords!” There were cheers and smiles, only to change to death and pain, men falling everywhere. It was an awful sight, as it was but one mass of dead and wounded. I got about 40 yards across when I got hit in the foot. As the bullets were hitting the ground where I lay, I kept still for a while. I then began to crawl into a trench in front of me.

Private Arthur Preston, who came from Stone, was a member of “D” Company:

When our Company got over, the first thing that met our eyes was the chaps lying in front, some dead and others wounded. It took me all my time to keep in touch with them, as they were mowing us down so fast with machine guns. I was just thinking to myself what Frank asked me for, when a bullet struck me in the calf of my left leg. I lay down and rooted myself in for safety and got my puttees off. I dressed the wound with my field dressing, and then I crawled back to our trench, which was full of dead and wounded who had been fetched in.

The advance of the second wave suffered the same fate as the first. The remnants of the two companies had reached no further than the communication trench. Both of the company commanders had become casualties, Captain Ridgway being killed and Lieutenant Keary wounded. With their officers killed or wounded, the leaderless survivors of “C” Company linked up with the remnants of “A” Company in the communication trench and advanced no further. Captain Ridgway was mortally wounded during the advance. His servant, Private William Fielding from Stoke, went to the aid of his officer. Using his entrenching tool and under fire, he managed to scrape a hole to shelter Ridgway from any further injury. Fielding, after giving his officer a drink, then crawled back to the assembly trenches to bring a stretcher party to the aid of Captain Ridgway. Harry Ridgway was brought back to the trenches but despite the efforts of Private Fielding, he died of his injuries.

On assessing the situation and the state of the men after the harrowing ordeal of crossing to the position, Major Charles Barke, the most senior officer who had survived the attempted advance, decided that the remnants of the 1/5th North Staffords would stand fast in the communication trench and make no further attempts to advance.

The Attack of 1/5th South Staffords

Two companies of the 1/5th South Staffords, together with Numbers 3 and 4 Bombing Parties from the battalion, were located in a communication trench to the east of Big Willie. The two companies had orders to wait for the first line of the 1/5th North Staffords to reach their position before advancing forward with them. The commander of “C” Company, Captain William Wistance, was able to observe that the 1/5th North Stafford’s advance had been checked and his men remained in the trench. However, Captain William Millner, the officer commanding “B” Company, was unable to see the developing situation and therefore continued with his orders. The Company then climbed out from the trench and lay in front of it; 7 Platoon at the front, 6 and 8 Platoons in the second line, waiting for the 1/5th North Staffords to arrive and link up with them. As they moved through the gaps cut in the barbed wire into the open, several men were hit in enfilade by machine-gun fire from the Redoubt, and the German artillery began to shell the trench. Having suffered heavy casualties in this exposed position, the survivors were compelled to scramble back into the shelter offered by the trench. Among the casualties still lying out in the open was Captain Millner. Private Fred Proverbs climbed back over the parapet in an attempt to rescue his company commander. A shell killed both men while Proverbs was dressing Millner’s wounds.

The second wave of the 1/5th South Staffords’ attack, consisting of Battalion Headquarters, “A” Company and “D” Company, were positioned in the old British front line between Hulluch Alley and Border Alley. At 2.10 p.m., they attempted to cross over towards Big Willie to link up with the remainder of the battalion. Corporal Howard Stott of “A” Company gave a vivid description of the assault:

Promptly at two o’clock the order to advance came. Standing up in front of us our colonel, who appeared as calm as though he was merely taking part in manoeuvres at home – gave the word. As one man the company dashed forward. Never a lad held back, although all knew we were going to certain death. Then came the murderous hail of fire from the machine guns in the German trenches and the slaughter which took place in the next few minutes was terrible. We had to cross five or six hundred yards of open country, which was literally swept with machine-gun fire, before we reached our own front line parapet, and the poor fellows were simply mowned (sic) down. Only two or three of us reached the German front trench.

Private Benjamin Davis, a Wordsley soldier also serving with “A” Company, recalled his company’s attempt to cross to “Big Willie”:

I was in the reserve trenches – some distance beyond the first line – with the result that we had to cover 300 yards in the open. You can imagine what it was like, with a murderous machine-gun fire against us. I had got about 200 yards when a bullet from a machine gun stuck me in the left hand. We were in the thick of it now, and I had to lie flat on the ground scarcely daring to breathe. There I stayed for an hour or so, until the fire had slackened, and then I started to crawl back to our lines, the bullets pinging around me…

A soldier from Walsall, Sergeant Harry Smith, also took part in this advance with “C” Company:

Over the parapets we went, but no sooner did we show ourselves than we were subjected to heavy machine-gun fire. Men dropped left and right, but the others never faltered. After receiving a slight wound in the arm, I fell to one in the back. Comrades who witnessed the attack said they had never seen lads go into it better.

Lieutenant Percy Slater watched the advance from the battalion headquarters dugout of 1/6th South Staffords:

It was wonderful seeing the great smoke-cloud along the front, and then five minutes before the bombardment stopped, the figures crawling over the parapet and lying down in front, as far as you could see either side. At the moment the guns lifted, all got up and began to run, or rather, jog. Then they all seemed to melt away.

None of the officers and only a handful of men from the two companies managed to reach their comrades in the forward trench, most of the survivors retiring back to the trenches from where the attack had begun. Of the two companies, only 18 men from “A” Company and 53 from “D” Company survived the advance unscathed. The men from these two companies that had managed to reach “Big Willie” Trench were reorganised under the command of Captain Wistance of “C” Company. Captain Leslie Cozens, the officer commanding “A” Company, was severely wounded during this attempt to advance and died the following day.

In a supporting role, the machine-gun teams waited for their turn to follow their comrades across the “Big Willie”. However, as the advance faltered, their orders were changed. Private Benjamin Walford of the 1/5th South Staffords recalled the scene in the front line trench as his team moved to a new firing point:

As we carried our gun along the trench we all had to stride across dead and wounded men. There was no time to think about these sad sights, our minds were concentrated on the one subject of getting a good position for the gun in order to keep the enemy back, for they were making an attempt to get across to our trench.

The Support Battalions – 1/6th South Staffords and 1/6th North Staffords

It was now the turn of the third assault wave to try to reach the first objective. The companies moved forward from their assembly point in the support trenches to the front line, which was choked with the wounded and dead of the previous two attacks. “A” Company, (Captain John Thursfield) and “C” Company, (Captain William Parkes) led 1/6th South Staffords attack following in the wake of the 1/5th South Staffords. Private Ronald Lerry, with the rest of “A” Company, prepared to climb the parapet:

With eager eyes we watched a line of men move forward on the left, then more lines of men come on, and the time for us to start quickly came. Another battalion was leading, and we immediately followed from the support trench. We had a considerable distance to go, and the country was very open. As soon as we got up we found ourselves under a heavy fire of shrapnel, machine gun, and rifle bullets. The ground all round was being ploughed up. Soon comrades began to fall. Whilst we went along we saw some here and there who had already been knocked out, dead and dying. That was the sickening part of it. Although one only had a hurried glance at such sights during that battle-rush, they impressed themselves on one more than all the murderous fire we were facing. At the time one hardly noticed that, and we were all quite cool in the face of it. I noticed our officer, Mr. Yeatman, very coolly light a cigarette as we lay down during the advance. It did not take long to reach our own front trench, which we cleared at a jump and went forward at a steady double.

Lance-Corporal Walter Shotton, another soldier from Wolverhampton, also took part in “A” Company’s advance:

As soon as the battalion started to get out of the trenches the machine guns played on them. We in the rear scrambled out of our trenches, and five yards away lay down until we were all ready. We had our coats rolled on our backs, but most of us threw them away, so that we could run faster. We made our first rush of twenty yards or more, and as we did so the machine gun bullets struck many of us. Then we had another rush to the second line of trenches. The machine guns were effective again. Lieutenant Finnis, who was leading, was shot through the leg, but he shouted “Never mind me, Go on, boys! Go on!” And we went. A shell burst in front of me, a piece of shrapnel struck my nose, another piece knocked my rifle out of my hand, the concussion of the air blew me six feet high, and when I dropped I twisted my knee. But I stumbled along and, as I jumped down into the trench a bullet went through my hat.

About seventy men from the two forward companies of the 1/6th South Staffords had managed to reach as far as Point 57 of Hulluch Alley, where they linked up with the remnants of the 1/5th South Staffords. Walter Shotton was among the survivors:

When we got to our first line of trenches we were considerably reduced in numbers, both in officers and men, and we found that the South had not been able to advance owing to the machine gun fire along their parapet as soon as they tried to get out. When we reached them we all had another go, but the one or two who managed it were killed before they got very far.

The forward companies of the 1/6th North Staffords, “A” and “B” Companies, also came up against withering machine gun fire as they attempted to advance across the open ground in the wake of the 1/5th North Staffords. Company-Quartermaster-Sergeant E. Martin of “B” Company gave a stirring account of his unit’s exploits to his local newspaper in Uttoxeter:

Exactly at the appointed time the signal to advance was given, and Major Peach, who was in command of the company, was first out of the trench. Then the advance began across the open, the men moving as if on parade. The forward movement was well maintained, although men were falling fast for the first 300 yards, when Captain Bamford fell. He was last heard shouting “Come on, lads!” The first position was reached and it was won by the bulldog courage of the men, and was held with more than bulldog tenacity.

The reality of the situation was that while a few men from the forward companies had managed to reach the communications trench connected to Big Willie, most of the survivors were compelled to return to the trenches from where the attack had started. Major Edwin Peach, the Officer Commanding “B” Company of the 1/6th North Staffords, was wounded during the advance. In a letter he wrote from his hospital bed in London, he recounted how he was rescued and taken to safety:

I was hit early in the attack while leading my men, of whom I am very proud. They were as cool as if on parade, and charged at quick time. I had a fearfully painful time getting back about 300 yards in the open, crawling with my leg dragging behind, expecting to be hit again every minute. My servant Wilkinson stayed with me like a brick, and lifted up the barbed wire entanglements so that I could get under. Then he bound the leg with two pieces of board to stop it wobbling and carried me on his back for two miles to the Dressing Station, where Colonel Dent set my leg.

Private A. J. Edwards had seen the fate of the first two waves and prepared to face the onslaught of machine-gun fire and artillery:

The poor chaps of the 5th were simply mown down. Then we followed and were served just the same. It was sickening, but, of course, there was no such thing as turning back, so on went, capturing a trench the Germans called “Big Willie”, and a noted redoubt. There were not many of us left by the time we got there, but we stuck to them like glue, until we were reinforced. The Germans, although their machine guns were playing havoc with us, started running away like mad. A great many of them have finished running now, because they are ‘land-owners’.

The fourth wave of 137th Brigade’s assault consisted of “B” Company (Captain Ernest Cresswell – wounded and missing) and “D” Company (Captain William Adam - wounded), of 1/6th South Staffords, and ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies of the 1/6th North Staffords. They were ordered to move from their assembly trench to the front line as planned. However, due to the chaotic conditions in the communication trenches, they were compelled to advance across the open to reach the forward trenches. Sergeant George Norton later described the events that followed in a letter to his brother Sydney:

As soon as my platoon got over, I had Cpl. Fradley shot dead. The next I saw was Private Marsh badly bleeding. He asked me not to leave him. I called for stretcher bearers. Next I saw Captain Jenkinson shot through the leg. He fell and the stretcher bearers came to him, and they were also shot down. One was killed - Pte. Neville of my platoon - three were wounded. The next I saw was Staff Sergt. Platts and Kenney shot and several more.

Lance-Corporal Maurice Ewers, from Horninglow, also advanced with “C” Company. His brother Leonard was also a Lance-Corporal in the same company:

As we had a long way to go before reaching our objective, we just went at the quick – not the double – going forward a short distance and the falling prone, and then forward again. We lost our Captain – one of the best officers we could wish for – quite early. We were all lying down when Captain Jenkinson got up to give an order. It was a brave thing to do, but he was hit and fell, and I believe he was hit a second time.

Lance-Corporal Francis Clement, from Tamworth, also took part in “C” Company’s forward movement:

With a yell, “C” Company went over the top with brave Capt. Jenkinson in front. As we were going over the top two of my section were killed and about a dozen altogether fell before we had gone many yards, but still we kept going while the bullets flew about like hailstones. My rifle was smashed by a bullet but I managed to pick up a dead man’s gun. We couldn’t avoid walking over the dead, who lay about like sheep.

The two companies suffered heavy casualties in their rush across to the front-line trench, particularly amongst officers, as Maurice Ewers recounted:

After Captain Jenkinson was put out of action, Lieut. J.M. Stack, the next in command, was hit in both legs. Then Lieut. Paget took charge. He was just saying, “If you can advance another 50 yards…” when he was shot in the groin. He was succeeded by Second-Lieutenant Collis, who got through alright, eventually reaching the trench uninjured. As a matter of fact this young officer had been hit on the fingers by shrapnel quite early on, but he pluckily went through the action, ignoring the injury.

With the officers becoming casualties, the task of maintaining the momentum of the attack devolved to the Non-Commissioned Officers, amongst them Sergeant George Norton:

I then advanced into the first line trench. I found about all the officers had been shot. I got my men together then rushed into the second line trench without losing a man in my platoon on the second rush. I think there was a great mistake in rushing the first time in short rushes. We lost a lot of men by doing so. A rush straight across would have been a success. We were all exposed to fire. I dropped into a shell hole. I stopped in the first trench for about ten minutes. I told the men to prepare to advance into the next line of trenches about two hundred yards away without halting and they did. I was very pleased to know all got across without a man getting hit.

However, Maurice Ewers saw his brother Leonard fall during this rush:

My own brother was killed before my eyes. He had gone 200 yards and was getting near the fire trench parapet when a bullet put an end to his life. He fell back into the trench, and was wedged in the bottom. Mercifully, it was almost instantaneous death. I do not know if he instinctively realised that anything was going to happen to him, but he had left his belongings in his valise, and had made out a sort of supplementary will.

On arriving at the front line, the remaining troops of the companies forming the fourth wave were ordered to remain in position to defend it against German counter-attacks. Sergeant George Norton found that the front line was in a state of utter confusion as dead and wounded mingled together, making any further attempts to advance impossible:

I then got an order from Colonel Radcliff (sic) to hold this trench. So this stopped us from advancing any further. Here I found us all mixed up with all sorts of regiments, South and North Staffords, Lincolns and Leicesters. We were having it very hot with bombs but we gave them more than they gave us. It was a fine bit of work to see young Schofield of my platoon running the Germans up the communications trench with bombs. I never expected him to come back but he did in an awful sweat - he had used all his bombs.

In the space of about ten minutes, the Brigade had been decimated and the remnants of the Staffordshire battalions had not made any progress against the defenders of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. The 138th Brigade’s attack had met with some success, although the Lincolns and Leicesters had also suffered heavy losses. Despite this, a foothold had been gained in the Redoubt but due to the failure of the Stafford’s assault, their position was vulnerable and heavy fighting was to continue there for the next two days. Old sections of German trench were opened and eventually linked with the sap dug by sappers of 1/1st North Midland Field Company and the pioneers of 1/1st Monmouths. A telephone cable was then laid along the trench, allowing communications to be established with the troops located in the Redoubt.

The Bombers’ Battle – The Fight for Big Willie Trench

Whilst the infantry of the assault waves made their attempts to advance across to their first objectives, the bombing parties of 137th Brigade were engaged in a ferocious battle to link up with 138th Brigade in the Hohenzollern Redoubt. At 2 o’clock, Number 5 Bombing Party of 1/6th North Staffords, led by Second-Lieutenant Harold Beaufort, the Brigade Bombing Officer, commenced their attack up Big Willie Trench and had managed to advance approximately thirty yards up the trench towards the redoubt. The party got as far as a second trench block but as the casualties started to mount up, and under a fierce German counter-attack, the survivors were forced to withdraw back to the barricade from where they started. At this critical time, the position of the Brigade’s dump of grenades became a cause of concern to Beaufort. He had given instructions for supplies of grenades to be brought up to Big Willie in order to maintain a ready supply for use in continuing the bombing attack to their next objective. As a result of the failure to take Big Willie Trench, Beaufort feared that the supply could now be destroyed during a counter-attack by German bombers. As he was moving back down the communication trench to issue new orders to his bombers, Second-Lieutenant Beaufort was killed.

A second attempt was then made to advance up Big Willie Trench by Number 4 Bombing Party from 1/5th South Staffords, commanded by Lieutenant Hubert Hawkes. The bombers succeeded in pushing back the German defenders using both grenades and their bayonets. Eventually, the second trench block was reached and the 1/5th South Staffords began to consolidate their position, frantically pulling down the battered parapet of the trench to improve the barricade. A bombing party from the 1/6th South Staffords also arrived in Big Willie Trench and was actively engaged in defending the position until virtually the entire contingent became casualties. Some bombers may have advanced further, but this could not be confirmed, as Major Law reported:

I observed signalling from the “Dump” for more bombs and S.A.A.; also later for reinforcements. At the time I took the signal to be from our advanced bombing line but I could not convince myself that they should have arrived there.

Private Harold Holden, of “A” Company of the 1/6th North Staffords, was a member of Number 6 Bombing Party:

At five minutes past two we all mounted the parapet, most of us feeling mad – some wild with thirst for German blood. Then I witnessed the most awful sight I ever saw in all my life. Hundreds fell before we reached the German lines and then didn’t we let into them. I cannot describe what I saw, as I was too excited. Later we got reinforced, as almost all of our officers had either been killed or wounded. I got back into our own trench, thanking God…

Number 6 Bombing Party also suffered heavy casualties during their attack, with the detachment commander, Second-Lieutenant Norman Joseph, being wounded. Private Holden was also injured during the action:

The trench was full of fellows, either dead or wounded, and amidst all this I heard the cry for ‘stretcher-bearers’, and of course I wandered off to where the cry came from. Eventually I found it was a poor chap who was hit with a shell, and he was lying helpless in front of our trench exposed to the Germans, who were firing like mad. I had been spared up to then, and then without hesitating I jumped over the parapet, and before I could say a word I was shot in the thick part of my right leg. I was compelled to fall back into our trench, as the pain was awful.

The two bombing parties of 1/6th South Staffords were also heavily engaged in conducting bombing attacks. Unable to attack towards Slag Alley and Dump Trench as originally planned, the bombers joined in with supporting the attack up Big Willie Trench. Lieutenant Gerald Howard Smith, together with Sergeants William Bratt and Fred Watson, led their parties into the trench and soon became engaged in the fierce fighting.

At about 2.30 p.m., the Germans mounted a counter-attack against the trench block in Big Willie Trench. Sergeant Joseph Beards and a section from ‘C’ Company of the 1/5th South Staffords defended the barrier. Beards and his section became involved in a brutal struggle to hold their position, both sides using their bayonets and throwing grenades. Lieutenant Hawkes, alerted to the dangerous situation at the barrier, brought forward Number 4 Bombing Party to reinforce the defenders. A group of German infantry was seen trying to advance over the open ground in an attempt to cut off Sergeant Beard’s group. “C” Company’s 10 Platoon quickly lined the parapet of the trench and engaged the advancing Germans with rapid rifle fire. A Sergeant from Walsall witnessed the action:

A few of the enemy found their way down an old communications trench, and got within ten yards of our barbed wire, from where they threw bombs. From our ‘bay” we potted at them and bombed them out. Our trench was attacked on the left by the Germans, who were trying to force a barricade. We continued bomb-throwing until darkness came on. There was heavy and continuous artillery fire all the time.

Faced with this determined defence, and having taken several casualties, the Germans were forced to withdraw. After a brief lull, another attack was then made on the barricade in Big Willie Trench. Sergeant Beards, assisted by Private W. Barnes, was again compelled to defend the position at bayonet point. Beards received a wound to the head during this encounter but refused to leave the barricade. The Germans were now advancing in strength down the remains of the trench and continued to shower Beards and Barnes with grenades. At about 4.00 p.m., the two men were forced to make a fighting withdrawal after Germans began to attack from three directions with grenades. No support was available due to heavy casualties among the bombing parties, but they continued to fight tenaciously. Sergeant Fred Watson of the 1/6th South Staffords continued to hold his position against German attacks for five hours until he was killed.

While the actions in Big Willie Trench were taking place, carrying parties tried to bring up more supplies of small arms ammunition and grenades, but were hampered by the narrow communication trenches being clogged with casualties, as witnessed by Private Benjamin Walford and his machine-gun team:

There was a constant cry for bombs – thousands must have been used on one point alone.

There was a shortage of Mills Bombs available at the supply dumps and a wide variety of types, including rifle grenades and bombs without detonators or fuses, were sent up to the units of 46th Division. Most of these proved to be useless.

Maintaining communications with Brigade and Divisional Headquarters during the assault was a trying task for the battalion signallers. Their job was made extremely difficult due to the chaotic conditions in the assault trenches and broken wires caused by German artillery fire, as Lance-Corporal George Dunn of the 1/5th South Staffords recounted:

I had one of my worst experiences during the reciprocal bombardment. I had to go out to repair the lines; the communications had broken, and I had to find the break. Just at that point I saw two of our men had been killed by a shell, and at once the fear came that one might be my brother Arthur, who is also in the Brierley Hill Company. I repaired the broken line and then found that the two unfortunate men were evidently machine-gunners.

Private Thomas Pursell, a Wolverhampton man serving with the Signal Section of 1/6th South Staffords, wrote:

I was very fortunate, as I was one of the reserve telephone section to go over the parapet, as the first section could not get into communication. We were rushing up the communication trench to the first trench to see if we were needed when we met our signal officer, who had just been wounded through the wrist. He ordered us back to the second line to await orders. Fortunately, communications kept good and we were not needed to go over to the advanced point.

137th Brigade’s Attack Fails

By 4 o’clock, the fighting on the 137th Brigade front had virtually ceased, with both sides conducting an artillery duel over the area, while the Lincolns, Leicesters and Monmouths were engaged in a bitter struggle to hold onto their foothold in the Hohenzollern Redoubt against determined German counter-attacks. A thick mist had begun to descend over the battlefield as dusk settled. The priority of those troops who remained uninjured was to prepare their positions for defence against German counter-attacks. Efforts were made to reorganise the remaining Staffords by the surviving officers. Major Law reported that:

All the men that that could be collected were pushed up to the fire trenches, which at times were very thin in places. About a dozen men were kept back for passing bombs up the communication trenches, which had become badly blocked with wounded.

The survivors of the 1/5th South Staffords positioned in Big Willie Trench received further reinforcements when a detachment of bombers from 1/6th Sherwood Foresters, led by Captain Victor Robinson, reached their position. The defences were then reorganised. The Sherwood Foresters positioned themselves on the right flank. Holding the centre sections of the line were the combined “B” and “D” Companies of the 1/5th South Staffords, under the command of Captain Edgar Wilson and a detachment of twenty-two men from 1/6th South Staffords, led by Captain John Thursfield. The left flank, closest to the Hohenzollern Redoubt, was entrusted to the survivors of “A” and “C” Companies of the 1/5th South Staffords, led by Captain William Wistance.

Considerable numbers of casualties, both dead and wounded, choked the assembly trenches in the Brigade’s frontage but little could be done to help. The walking wounded had to make their own way to the first aid post in Bart’s Alley, but those who were more seriously injured could do nothing but lie in agony until they could be taken to the Collecting Station, as Sergeant George Norton observed:

I walked along the trench. I witnessed a terrible sight of men killed and wounded and no stretcher bearers to be found. Men were in awful pain. I dressed a lot of wounds and then sent them out of the trench. Them that could not walk had to lie in the trench in awful pain for twelve to eighteen hours or more.

His brother, Sergeant Sydney Norton, had been wounded during the attack but managed to crawl back to the trenches. He later recalled his experience in a letter to his wife in Fazeley:

I crept about 200 yards on my stomach into a safe place where the stretcher bearers could get me expecting every minute was my last. As I was being carried away they were pinging away at us but Oh when I was in a safe place I prayed and thanked the Lord above. I could see him on my right and you and the children on my left.

The ground in front of the first line trenches was littered with dead, dying and wounded soldiers. Some of the wounded had managed to find temporary sanctuary in the comparative safety of shell-holes but others, like Private Joseph Barlow were dangerously exposed:

There I lay flat, face downwards, wondering what would happen next. A few yards away lay seven or eight pals, some dead, some gone delirious. I felt more sorry for them than I did myself. I could not help crying and praying for the Lord to help them. You should have seen me digging a hole with my chin in the soft ground. I couldn’t get low enough, the bullets were flying within an inch at times.

Second-Lieutenant Frank Mayer had been wounded in the leg whilst leading 4 Platoon of “B” Company of the 1/5th North Staffords in the first wave of the attack. Hearing the cries of a wounded soldier for water, Mayer had crawled over to him to give him a drink. Moments later, Frank Mayer was shot in the head and killed. His body was seen still clasping his water bottle. The plight of the wounded was too much to bear for some soldiers. Seeing their friends lying helpless out in the open compelled many men to try and bring them back into the trenches, despite being ordered not to do so. For some this proved to be a fatal decision. Private Walter Shotton saw two of his comrades from the 1/6th South Staffords, Privates Archie Marr and Rowland Tonks, killed while endeavouring to reach wounded soldiers. Drummer John Clarke, an eighteen-year old soldier from Burton, made three attempts to rescue wounded soldiers. The first man he brought back died on reaching the trench, but he was able to recover two wounded soldiers successfully. Clarke was mortally wounded when making a fourth attempt and died a few hours later. Sergeant George Norton witnessed another Burtonian, Lance-Corporal Fred Mallett, attempt to bring in wounded comrades:

He had been over the top and fetched in two wounded. I begged him not to go over again. He would not be persuaded by me. He went - did not go far before he was hit never to rise again. It was a case of several men throwing their lives away trying to save the wounded. But it was murder to go.

As night fell, Private Joseph Barlow had been lying wounded in the open for about four hours when he decided to try and reach the British trenches:

After dark I thought I would risk my neck and try and get back to our trenches. I unbuckled my belt and gradually took all my equipment off (about ½ cwt.), and crawled on my stomach, keeping low and acting dead when their flare lights were up. Got to our barbed wire, crawling under it got my tunic fast; loosened it, got up and ran the other ten yards like a March hare, and plunged head first into the trench, wounds or no wounds. Then I started off as well as I could hobble, stumbling and striding over dead and dying.

Sadly, for some of the wounded help came too late. Second-Lieutenant Tom Dann of the 1/6th South Staffords had received a severe wound from a bullet that entered his thigh and exited through his foot. Men from his battalion brought in Dann during the night but no help could be given to him and he slowly bled to death in the trench. Sergeant George Norton was involved in the recovery of his company commander, Captain John Jenkinson:

By this time it was getting dark, and I thought it was a good opportunity to get in some of the wounded we could. First we got in Capt. Jenkinson (Talbot helped). He lay in the open for several hours for it would have been certain death to have gone out to him. After a struggle we got him in. It was a case of being cruel to be kind. As he lay on the fire step, he asked for a doctor. We could not do anything, for there was not an ambulanceman to be found. We made him as comfortable as we could. I could see he had been hit again, for he had an awful wound in his stomach. I watched over him. I could see he could not last long. He lasted about an hour. Then we put him in a small disused trench close by. We covered him over.

German trench mortars and artillery shells continued to bombard the British trenches during the night as the shattered survivors of 137th Brigade held their positions. Expectant of an imminent German counter-stroke, half of the troops stood-to in preparation to repulse any attack while their comrades tried to snatch some rest. Private Benjamin Walford was with his machine-gun during the night when he received some much-needed sustenance:

During the night it became calmer, and what a relief it was! We were getting spent. About 1.00 a.m. an officer brought round some rum for us. He gave us a drink out of one of those small collapsible cups. It absolutely burnt our throats, but it was acceptable, for we were parched and could hardly speak for want of a drink. Do you know, we had one bottle of water to last us three days; and all the food we had was in our haversacks, which we had taken with us from the barn.

Sergeant George Norton recalled that:

It was an awful night, foggy and damp. The enemy tried a counter-attack but were repulsed. At daybreak they continued to shell us. I found out that Sergt. Hayward had been hit by a shell but did not see him. All day long we stuck to the trench expecting a counter-attack, but it was an artillery duel all day long. About four o’clock we had news that we were going to be relieved at nine o’clock, but unfortunately did not get relieved until seven the next morning by the Guards.

On the morning of 14 October, Brigadier Feetham went up to inspect the trenches that were held by his Brigade. He informed the remaining officers that the Guards Division would relieve them that night. In Big Willie Trench, a company from 1/5th Sherwood Foresters arrived at 6.15 a.m. to take over from “A” and “C” Companies of the 1/5th South Staffords on the left flank. The Foresters were to support a renewed attempt to attack up the German-held section of Big Willie to link up with an assault made from the West Face of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. The attack took place but was beaten back by the determined German defenders. At mid-day, the detachment from 1/6th South Staffords withdrew from Big Willie to join the remainder of the battalion in the front-line trenches before they were relieved. Private Benjamin Walford’s machine-gun team were also relieved and began to make their way back down the communication trenches towards Vermelles:

We were relieved by other details during the afternoon of the day after the attack. We had to take all our guns with us. It was a long journey to get out and they didn’t forget to shell us even then. They were bent on giving us a good send-off.

The conditions in the shattered trenches made the relief of 137th Brigade by 3rd Guards Brigade extremely difficult. The Guards found the positions they had left three days before much changed from when 46th Division had relieved them in preparation for their attack. The positions were now littered with the detritus of war; empty gas cylinders, smashed rifles, discarded equipment and the bodies of the dead, some partially buried by artillery fire. Such was the congestion in the line that the Staffords had to wait until the morning of 15 October until the troops from the 3rd Guards Brigade fully took over from them. As the Guards filed into the trenches, Sergeant George Norton recalled the scene as the shattered remains of 137th Brigade withdrew. He also checked the body of his company commander, Captain John Jenkinson, to recover his personal effects:

I shall never forget that Saturday morning when we left the trenches. The spectacle presented was that of a true battlefield. In a tangle of torn barbed wire were to be seen the scattered bodies of the slain - many of them being held up more or less in an upright position. This is where I saw the last of the Captain. I had the unpleasant job to search him. I had to take everything from him and make a list of things he had on him. I should have liked some of his things in remembrance of him but the only things I had was his collar badges and stars, which I hope to keep in remembrance of him. Next we had the order to file out. I had to get to the rear and see every man what was left was out of the trench. The Guards took over duties. I should say I was the last man to see the Captain. I had a good look at him before leaving.


Officers Other Ranks

1/5th South Staffordshire: 13 306

1/6th South Staffordshire: 18 389

1/5th North Staffordshire: 20 485

1/6th North Staffordshire: 17 298

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As always, Andrew's meticulous research produces a post that conveys so much.

The lads from Brierley Hill and Burslem, Tamworth and Tunstall have a champion.

Well done, Andrew.


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