Nineteen years old Robert George Biss is remembered on the war memorial in Castle Cary where his father kept the Angel Hotel, and in the closing weeks of the great War he was serving in France with A company of the 2nd Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment; also serving in A Company was nineteen year-old Lance Corporal Reg Sweet, my late Father.
By mid October 1918, the German Army was falling back under the constant pressure from the Allied Forces, and as part of the British 19th (Butterfly) division, the 2nd Wilts were serving in the vicinity of Cambrai. A divisional attack was planned for the 20th October with the object of securing ground between the villages of Haussy and Saulzoir. The battle plan involved crossing a river called the Selle, advancing over meadows and attacking German defensive positions on the embankment of the railway which ran between the two villages. An artillery barrage on the enemy positions would give cover to the assault battalions as they crossed the river and the open ground. A reconnaissance on the afternoon of the 19th October found that the Germans had suddenly withdrawn from the embankment and the battle plan was changed at the last minute. The assaulting battalions, including the 2nd Wilts, now would cross the river and assemble on the embankment before launching the attack on the new enemy line.
The Regimental History of the 2nd Wilts recounts that:
"As a result of the information gained the companies moved to the embankment and made new assembly positions in place of those previously planned. The barrage table was altered accordingly...while it was still dark, in the small hours of the morning of the 20th, our barrage opened and continued for three-quarters of an hour before our men went forward, A number of casualties were suffered from our own 'shorts', and at times, so many of our own shells fell among our men as to threaten disaster. In the war of movement, which had now taken the place of trench warfare, it was not so easy to arrange an effective barrage as formerly. But at the appointed time the companies went forward in perfect order. 'A' and 'C Companies were in front the final objective was reached by 7.30 am....the whole operation had cost the Wiltshires 3 Officers and 119 other ranks killed and wounded...."
My fathers recollection is somewhat different and this is what he told me when I recorded some of his memories in 1981:
"On the 19th of October, a Captain and one NCO from each of the battalion's companies went to Battalion HQ to go through the task for the next morning, to see our positions and where we had to go and what we had to do. I went along as Lance Corporal in charge of the Company's runners. We had to go through our gun lines and then down a long slope to a sunken road. Then there was the River Selle and we had to wait in the rood for the Engineers to lay footbridges across the river which we would run over under cover of a barrage. We would then cross some meadows and attack Jerry on the railway embankment. I was very frightened when I saw we had to go over the river because I couldn't swim and even if I could you woudn't have a chance if you fell in with all your equipment on.
Well, we formed up in the sunken road but I think the engineers put the bridges over too early and instead of staying in the road until the barrage was down on the Jerry lines, we, for some reason or the other, went over early and got caught in our own barrage. In those days there were no radios, and field telephones were usually out of action because the lines had been cut by enemy shelling, and so you couldn't alter the barrage once it had started. Still, we had to go on, and up we went over the railway embankment and found Jerry had pulled out. A lot of us copped it, and although we in Company HQ got over all right, there were people being knocked out all over the place.
None of us on HQ got knocked out, which was a good thing because all the stretcher bearers had gone off to pick up who they could. All the company runners, except my pal 9ert Harper, who came from Bristol, had also disappeared. We got down into a hollow beside a road on the other side of the railway and there was young Biss the company clerk, Bert Harper, Captain Pakeman and his servant, a couple of sergeants and me. We lay in the hollow waiting for the barrage to move on but then one of the sergeants shouted 'Come on - we'll go on now' but as he got into the open he was killed by a Jerry bullet or a shell. I then got up and so did young Biss who was lying next to me and who I hod been talking to, he was a clerk on the railway and came from Castle Cary where his father kept the Angel. I cant remember much after this because a shell exploded amongst us and I was knocked out and badly wounded in the face and hip. I heard later that Biss was killed and the Captain and his servant were wounded, but my pa1 Bert was all right and got me back to the forward dressing station. He really ran a risk in doing this, because in an attack everyone had to go on, and if you were caught going back without a reason that could be desertion and you could be shot. Bert saved my life because I was losing so much blood that if I had had to wait for the stretcher bearers, which would have been hours, I would have bled to death."
Lance Corporal R.G. Biss, 2nd Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment, lies in France in the British Cemetery near the village of St Aubert where he spent his last day and my father was the last person to whom he spoke.