james_upton_vcThe 'battle' of Aubers Ridge - it appears ridiculous to call it so - fits perfectly the stereo-typical vision of the British in the Great War: men cut down in their thousands for little or no gain, with only the bravery of the men offering any kind of distraction from the scale of the disaster.

Although largely fought by units of the old pre-war regular army, those now bore little resemblance to the battalions that landed in France back in the first months of the war. Many wartime volunteers had been sent as reinforcements to regular battalions and, for some, Aubers Ridge was their first experience of war.

Not all the pre-war regulars had disappeared, however. Lance Corporal William Prouse, 2nd Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, was a Boer War veteran from Nuncargate (where an 11 year-old Harold Larwood was living at the time). He hadn't gone to France immediately, likely being retained to help train new recruits. Others, like Harry Boneham, had found themselves in territorial units, in his case, given his seemingly impeccable Nottinghamshire credentials, the improbable 1/4th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders.

Boneham described moving into the front line ahead of the attack in a letter to the landlord of a local pub, "We were ... given masks to wear in case the Germans used poisonous gas on us. We were soon ready, and lay down to rest a bit until the time for moving came. A strong wind was blowing, and it was raining steadily as the time drew near. However, 7 o'clock came and we got no order to move. Until midnight, we lay in suspense, and were then told that the attack had been postponed for 24 hours - possibly owing to the strong wind in our direction, and the cloudy sky. Next day passed off quietly, the weather clearing, and in the evening we marched up and took our places in the trenches. This was on the Saturday evening [8 May], your busy time as a rule, and as I sat in the trench I was thinking I wouldn't half mind if I were with you to lend a hand. It's anything but a treat, I can tell you, waiting through the night for the time for an attack to come.

"Eventually, however, we saw streams of light in the east, followed shortly afterwards by a beautiful sunrise. Skylarks were whistling overhead as gaily as could be, as if there were no such thing as war in the world. What a change in the state of affairs there was a few minutes later though. A single shell came howling through the air from one of our big guns far at the back. This was followed by a regular hurricane of shells from all the guns that had been massed for the attack. The noise was deafening, what with the whizzing overhead and the explosions in front, while the sight behind the German trenches reminded one of a storm at sea, clouds of dust and earth being thrown into the air much as the spray is when waves dash on the rocks" [1].

It's doubtful whether he or many other British soldiers saw their part in the context of the wider French plan for Artois. Like other ordinary soldiers, William Prouse's perspective was strictly limited and his expectations doubtless framed by the nature of the fighting he experienced in South Africa. He wouldn't be the first or the last man to have high hopes for the effectiveness of an artillery bombardment. Writing to a friend, he described what happened to him:

"I was at Neuve Chappelle and went through safely, but the next battle I was in was at Fromelles on May 9th, a Sunday that I shall never forget as long as I live. We had orders at 10.45 p.m. on May 8th to parade and march to the reserve trenches, where they told us we were to remain until morning. The bombardment started at 4 a.m., and there were about a thousand guns on the go [sic] until 5.45. I thought the Germans' front line trench would have been filled with their dead, but at the order to advance the Germans were still in their front trench, and what a murderous fire they put into us! I shall never forget it. Their maxim guns were all fixed on top of their parapets, but we managed to reach their first trench after hundreds of our fellows had been killed and wounded.

"The Germans then retired to their second trenches, what were left of them, and we then had to get under cover for a while as it was suicide to attempt to advance further then. After a while the order came for us to mount the parapets once again, and of course we were off again in no time. I had just prepared myself for a final plunge at a burly Prussian Guard [sic] when I was bowled over by a bullet, which hit me just below the right knee. I tried to get up again but was unable to do so, so I rolled over under cover into a pool of water, which was quite to my waist. The night had been rather frosty, so you can guess the water was not very warm.

"I lay there close on three hours, as bullets were flying just over my head; I dare not move as it would have been all up with me. I had two chums with me who were wounded, but both were killed in trying to get back. My tale would perhaps have been the same if I could have moved, but I seemed paralysed for a while. Anyhow, I must have either fainted or fallen asleep, for, when I came to, the fire which had been murderous all along had abated, so I thought I would risk trying to get back as far as our own trenches where I had my leg bandaged and was told to get back to the dressing station if I could.

"Well, I started on the journey, and I shall never forget it. It took me over three hours to go, or rather crawl, about a mile and a half, and the sights I saw on the way back are still in my memory. The Germans had started their big guns, and the shells were dropping right and left of me, happily not too near, but plenty near enough. I passed heaps of our poor fellows who were dead, some with heads blown clean off, and I also saw one of my own officers who had been badly wounded. I wanted to help him back if I possibly could, but he said: "Never mind me, Corporal; get back yourself if you can." I believe he has since died of his wounds.

"We must have lost thousands that Sunday, as I hear we were engaged miles all along the line, but I never want to go through another day like that. I was brought to Boulogne the day after, having had one night in hospital at Merville. We had thought that we should catch the Germans napping, but there were thousands of them all ready for us." [2]

Harry Boneham, a member of the 1/4th Seaforth Highlanders' no.4 Company, was in reserve, their role being to bring up stores and ammunition to support the attack of the leading waves. He had a perfect view of the action, which quickly disabused him of any notions that there was much of an advance to support, "Our guns had scarcely ceased however, when the German artillery opened on us, and shells fairly rained down on us. The order came for our boys to charge, and over the parapet they went, all eager to be first. They were met though by a terrible fire from machine guns and rifles in front, and very soon there was not a man left standing. One or two managed to get back unhurt, but the rest lay where they fell, either dead or badly wounded, and it was not until night came that any of them could be got in. It was evident that the German trenches were still too strongly manned to be taken without terrible sacrifice, and so our attack was suspended for the time being until a further bombardment could take place. Already sadly reduced in numbers, and suffering all the time from the shell fire, the Germans were pouring on us, so it was decided to relieve us a short time afterwards. Of the terrible time we had in getting out while shells fell among us relentlessly, and of the awful sights we saw, I will say little, indeed the horror of it defies description. How anyone could come through it untouched was a marvel, I can tell you" [3]

Many of the early volunteers selected the local regiment, the Notts & Derby (Sherwood Foresters), and had found their way into the 1st Battalion, a regular battalion, ahead of its participation in the attack at Aubers. James Upton, a 27 year-old Bulwell man working in Bestwood Colliery before the war, was one of the battalion stretcher-bearers. The Foresters shared the fate of the other attacking units that day and Upton didn't lack opportunities to demonstrate his bravery, bravery that won him the first of the Victoria Crosses to be awarded that day.

On 18 May, he wrote to his sister, "I look like getting the VC for rescuing wounded men in a big scrap we had last Monday. I thought my time was up every moment, and I was carrying one chap out on my back when a shell hit him and killed him stone dead. I told you that I had given up my stripes but for my heroic deed, as the General calls it, he promoted me to be a corporal again.

"My God, Pat, one could not stop under cover oneself and hear the groans of the wounded and stick it. The shells were coming in hundreds but I stuck to my task." [4]

His official citation for the Victoria Cross was published in the London Gazette on 29 June 1915:

"On 9th May 1915 at Rouges Bancs, France, Corporal Upton displayed great courage all day in rescuing the wounded while exposed to heavy rifle and artillery fire whilst going close to the enemy's parapet regardless of his own safety. One wounded man was killed by a shell, while the corporal was carrying him. When not actually carrying the wounded he was engaged in dressing and bandaging the serious cases in front of our parapet."

In another letter to his sister, Upton revealed the scale of the losses that the 1st Notts & Derby had suffered up to that time, "I have been through mud, water and murder. We have lost 935 men during the last month. My other chum got killed the other day. I had been speaking to him and another man, and had only just left when a shell came and blew them all up. I am one of twelve in the whole regiment who have never been in hospital during our stay in France. My regiment has had 2,700 casualties of one kind and another. We are having very fine weather now, and it is quite enjoyable. One forgets there is such a thing as war and cannot sleep if there are no big guns banging away." [5]

He was a little less unambiguous when he spoke at a recruiting rally in Hucknall on 27 July 1915. He was there to encourage men to join up, so it was hardly surprising:

"If my leave was to go on much longer I shouldn't be able to run. I am getting so fat although just at present life in the trenches is just a picnic from morning till night. We are waiting for more men, and then with a long pull, a strong pull, a pull together we shall get the Germans on the run.

"I am going back on Saturday [31st July 1915] but I shall go back with a good heart. Can I persuade a few of you young men to get into khaki? It's a fine life with plenty to do and plenty of food and drink to do it on. We don't get bully beef and biscuits now, but fresh meat, vegetables and bread - and hundreds of cigarettes." [6]

Bert GriffithsThe reader of those words today might be forgiven for thinking that there was some confusion between what constituted a picnic and what trench warfare involved. Ptes. James Steer was killed and Bert Griffiths and Jack Truman were both wounded, Hucknall members of Upton's battalion, on 9th May. Griffiths was later to serve in Gallipoli before being blown up kicking a dud on the Somme in September 1916. No picnics there either.

Corporal Francis Holeywell, 2nd Northamptons, wrote in a more upbeat manner than Prouse. Doubtless, he wanted to reassure his family that he was all right but the severity of the fighting he was involved in comes through:

"I have just come out of another scrap with the Germans, and escaped without injury. Bullets and shells flew all around us. I saw poor fellows thrown up into the air about 20 feet by the explosion of some fiendish shell the Germans use. I had one bullet through my bayonet scabbard, close to my hip, but it only smashed a pipe in my pocket. A few minutes afterwards a piece of shrapnel hit me in the middle of the back, but only bruised me, nothing to speak of, as I am still doing my duty. I had a good ducking into about four feet of water, but I did not mind that as I was pretty warm at the time, and it cooled me considerably. I am now enjoying a well-earned rest". [7]

The thousands of wounded now looked to men like New Annesley's Herbert Pilch, a member of the 21st Field Ambulance, 7th Division. He had been in France just over a month, having only enlisted in Hucknall the previous February. He had been with his unit less than a month when he was sent into action.

"...I received my baptism of fire in a heavy engagement last Sunday evening, when the shrapnel was falling thick and fast like a hurricane hailstorm, and the very first shell that burst near us caused us all to scatter and lie flat, face downwards. As I threw myself down I placed my hands behind my head so that if I got any wound it would be in my hands and not in my head. I was hardly to earth before a triangular piece four by three inches struck the earth just in front of my head and buried itself four or five inches in the ground. I could not discern whether it was a shell itself or the contents, and there were several more shells scattering their contents around us for a while. When we advanced to the dressing room about 200 yards further ahead I fished it out with my jack knife to keep as a souvenir, but left it as I found it was too heavy a piece of shell to carry with me until I got a chance to send it home." [6]

Pilch then makes a statement, unusual for the time but in itself scarcely remarkable, that some men were not quite so brave as they might have been.

"Of course, the shrapnel bullet is much smaller and nearly round, but makes a nasty wound. There were 33 of us, including the officer and sergeant, but those two had gone forward to see how the ground lay, and of course got it hot as they went but the sergeant came back to us and told us to take all possible cover as there was a rapid enfilading rifle fire. Every man went forward more or less courageously, according to his temperament, and I and two of the others were chaffing those who were a little timid and telling them to buck up as the officer and sergeant had had to find the most dangerous parts for us and let us have word accordingly, and they did it right manfully like true gentlemen. You see we have good examples before us even when death is in the air. The old hands in this section tell me that this engagement has been as hot as any they have been in, and some of them were in the so-called retreat from Mons." [8]

11,000 men had been killed or wounded. When the scale of the failure at Aubers was realised the hunt for scapegoats was on. French, the British commander-in-chief, was not about to accept his share, placed the blame squarely on the Government for its failure to ensure adequate supplies of artillery ammunition. The so-called 'Shell Scandal' was born, as The Times' correspondent, Colonel Repington, broke the story of the artillery's inability to support the infantry because of the paucity of ammunition.

Reaction within Hucknall was mixed. Politically, the local council was staunchly Liberal and was horrified at the stance adopted by some sections of the press. The particularly vitriolic coverage in the newspapers owned by Lord Northcliffe resulted in the local library banning his publications! Henry Morley, the editor of the local newspaper, no less a Liberal but of a more pragmatic outlook, commented in his editorial:

"Both the "Daily Mail" and the "Times" have been forbidden entry into the Hucknall Free Library, doubtless in consequence of the articles criticising some features of the war. We do not hold a brief for the journals emanating from the Northcliffe Press and we must wait and see the truth or untruth of their statements. The only sure way to answer the question is by a "stream of facts", which the late Right Hon. J.E. Ellis sought to obtain relative to the South Africa war, and for which he was likewise persecuted. It is a mistake to blame the alarm clock for waking you up, and nor can unpleasant truths be disposed of by the ways adopted in some quarters." [9]

The unpleasant truth was that the British army was far from ready to take on the Germans on the Western Front. And Kitchener's Army, not even in France at this stage, would have much to learn before it was.

Sources:

[1] ‘Mansfield Chronicle', 21 May 1915
[2] ‘Notts Free Press', 18 June 1915
[3] ‘Mansfield Chronicle', 21 May 1915
[4] ‘Hucknall Dispatch', 8 July 1915
[5] Ibid.
[4] ‘Hucknall Dispatch', 29 July 1915
[6] ‘Hucknall Dispatch', 27 May 1915
[7] ‘Notts Free Press', 4 June 1915
[8] Ibid.
[9] ‘Hucknall Dispatch', 3 June 1915

 

Top photograph: James Upton VC

Second photograph: Bert Griffiths

 

Article and images contributed by Jim Grundy.

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