Family History

ROBERT HILL WAS MY GREAT UNCLE. I AM WRITING UP HIS LIFE FOR THE CENTENARY OF HIS DEATH. YOU CAN CONTACT ME ON MARTIS1@HOTMAIL.CO.UK. SUSAN MARTIN This records the last days of Robert Hill. Robert had been in France in the 2nd Royal Sussex Battalion since the start of the war. In December 1915 he received his third wound. This one, to the head, was more serious and warranted a ‘blighty’. He was sent to an English hospital at the end of the month. However by late February he was assessed as being fit to resume service. He was sent to Etaples. All men sent to the Western Front for the first time and those returning like Robert had to undergo training at Etaples before going to the front. In most records, though not his service record Robert is still recorded as being in the 2nd Battalion. I do not know whether this was because he was in the 7th for such a short time (just over a month) or whether he would eventually have returned to the 2nd. I think the former is the likeliest. I find the fact that Robert died amongst men he had only known for two weeks particularly poignant. On the 1 March 1916 Robert was assigned to the 7th Royal Sussex Battalion. To understand the probable reason why it is necessary to see what that Regiment had been going through. When Robert returned to the Front it was to the Hohenzollern redoubt, a fortified German stronghold to the north west of Loos, of great strategic importance as it was constructed at the apex of a slightly raised, angled salient. It was regarded as the strongest defended position along the front. The redoubt had seen fierce fighting during the Battle of Loos when we had stormed but failed to take it, so during winter 1915 it remained in the hands of Germans. Another big explosion of five mines on the 18th was caused by the Germans. No man’s land had become a necklace of interlocking craters no-one could cross. At 5.45 pm on 2 March there was a violent explosion of mines. Captain Frank Preedy and 170th Tunnelling Co RE had spent moths digging to get under the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Whenever they met German miners thy detonated a camouflet– 50 by February 1916 when 3 charges set with 25 tonnes of ammonal exploded on the 2 March The 3rd and 4th March found the Battalion under fierce German bombardment with retaliation. It is to be hoped the men had the Brodie shrapnel helmet introduced throughout the army in 1916. ‘Towards 7pm there was a great deal of bomb-fighting, in which we held the advantage’. At 10.15 bombardment stopped, with intermittent shelling during night, 6am violent bombardment resumed. ‘After repeated unsuccessful attempts to drive us out the enemy abandoned the attack soon after 9am leaving us in possession of all the positions we had taken over. Snow falling added considerably to the mud and general discomfort. As the weather worsened the Germans shelled the craters in British hands with minenwerfers. A company was in the front with bomb carrying parties from the three rear companies having to supply it. Colonel Impey’s account said the bombing had petered out by 10.20 but reports of enemy movements made them aware it would resume, so an uneasy night. “During the height of the attack I had a vivid recollection of going down to the front line to organise working parties to keep working parties between the craters and Sticky Trench. West Face had become a shambles but the troops were behaving splendidly. And if it were possible to individualise any, it would be the garrison of the various craters on whom the brunt of the attacks fell” “the state of the craters was awful; deep mud, little or no cover. And the way the posts stuck it was wonderful”. According to Captain W S Till the most comfortable place during the crater battle was in the old front line “The support line was absolutely pulverised by continuous shelling” he writes in a personal reminiscence “and in the craters themselves things were very hot. My platoon in C Company was in the old front line on the left of the entrance to Russian Sap, which was simply a shallow communication trench that joined the old front line to the left crater and although a great deal of stuff passed over us going in both directions, we ourselves were hardly shelled at all. It was our business to keep the enemy in his trenches, bringing fire to bear upon him if he attempted to retake the craters; we were also to supply reinforcements to the craters if they were needed. There was a light fall of snow on the ground, so any movement in no-man’s land was easily spotted. We saw two small parties of the enemy try to leave their trenches, apparently with the object of retaking the craters, but the field-artillery and our own rifle-fire went on to them at once, scattering them almost as soon as they appeared. In the craters on our right the bombing was fairly heavy. It was impossible to tell what was really happening, and all kinds of rumours reached us to the effect that one or other of the craters had been retaken by the enemy….as one emerged from Russian sap one found oneself looking straight down into the crater, which was an inverted cone, 35 feet deep, 130 feet across and almost exactly circular. We were holding the lip to the left and front, while our right was covered by the adjoining crater B. The sides of our crater were steep, and near the bottom were the bodies of three Germans, who had been blown out of their line when the mine went up…German bombs, of the tin-can type with wooden handles, were dropping into the crater at two points {from two bombing saps]…the crater was any easy target…difficult to create a parados…any bombs that fell into the crater stood a good chance of getting someone in the back; this was how most of our casualties had occurred, but the danger-points were now known, and by avoiding the two spots on which the bombs actually dropped casualties were largely avoided. The obvious thing was to bomb the two points the enemy was throwing bombs from but not easy mark to hit and only one in ten of our bombs went into the sap, whereas he could hardly fail to miss the crater. Bombing the saps was not easy and probably only one in ten of our bombs went in”. he continues “With this advantage in his favour, the enemy had certainly established superiority of fire…and as our stock of bombs was far too small a messenger was sent back for more. The messages had to be repeated several times as the communication trenches were being heavily shelled. More than one message was answered given the number of bombs which eventually arrived. The RE started to make a dug-out at the bottom of crater but it was a waste of time as it would be washed out in next rain. One Scotsman of the Royal Engineers, of gigantic size and great strength broke all long distance bomb throwing records. The night was quiet and the next day they were relieved and told they had used 3,000 bombs in one day. The next day sunshine and the anticipated bombing didn’t happen “the prospect of being inside a large tea cup in which shells ere bursting was not exhilarating but our luck held” In personal reports of the fighting in the craters early March more than one said the safest place to be was in the old British front line, this was on the reverse of a slight rise so shells would go over. The reserve trench was a more dangerous place to be. The tally for 3-4 March of killed & missing was officers 3 ORs 24 (approximate.); died of wounds officers 1 ORs 11 (approximate); wounded 175 ORs (approximate); Total officers 9 ORS 210 (approximate). Some of the wounded in March may have been able to return, Allan Haylor did so on the 23rd March having fractured his hand on the 12th. However many of the wounded would have still been out of action. The battalion was clearly in need of more men. Another 2nd Battalion private Robert Wright may have been with the 7th also. 14 NCOs were awarded the military medal initiated on 26 March 1916 – Sgts WE R Bankes (B), AW Beale (A), A J Evans (A), A N Peacock (B), J G Peacock (D) and Corporal F Picton (D), Lance-Corporals E Dudman (A), W Hendry (B). A Triton (B). Privates J Bird (D), F Gratwicke (D), E Harman (D), H J Lawrence (B), J Wilson (D). When announced Sergeant Evans and Private Bird had been killed at Ovillers on 7th July and some others hadn’t survive. The opposition was the III Battalion 18th Infantry Regt (3rd Bavarian division) “The explosion of the mines came as a great surprise and had a paralysing effect. The terrible cries of the wounded and buried men could be heard above the din of the fighting, and heavy clouds of smoke and dust blinded the Verey light”. Three privates stopped the enemy penetrating any further along the Chord. Counter attack next day with heavy losses killed or missing 2 officers, 72 ORs, wounded officers, 41 ORs. The loss from the adjacent 23rd regiment much heavier. Four men caught in a dug out after a mine explosion were hidden behind sandbags for four days after the British entered, but managed to get away. On the 5th March the Battalion was relieved by the 7th East Surreys and went to Annequin looking forward no doubt for a well deserved rest but at 11.30 same day ordered to return to Sailly-Labourse. Two days were spent there and on each day two companies had to be found for bomb-carrying in Vermelles. Whilst the 7th were out of the front line another account is by Philip William Bates 1897-1974 . Bates was in the West Kent 6th Battalion. From the 8th March his battalion came under German attack but British troops positioned in craters forward of their own lines held firm. The Germans were bombed continually until nightfall interspersed with trench mortar, machine gun and moderate artillery fire until 8pm quietness reigned. The British artillery had been excellent during the bombardment but it was now colder than ever and many of the communication trenches had become useless due to extreme conditions. The German attacked again the following morning, but were driven back by rifle grenade and trench mortar fire. At sunrise they attacked again with heavy bombing – then Bates was wounded On the 11th the 7th returned to trenches, in left of the Quarries section, Cand D companies in firing line, B company in the old British line and A company in Cureley Crescent. The quarries section included remains of the Hairpoint (a trench in that shape) making a sharp re-entrant to the German lines. As a result of a mine explosion this was considerably reduced in size and occupied a crater at end of it, Also occupied was the Pulpit, a large chalk mound thrown up by mining operations, a good observation post. Relieved on the 14th the Battalion went to billets in Vermelles and Noyelles. Vermelles was continually shelled and the only billets were in cellars of ruined houses. Troops were again employed all the time on fatigues and carrying parties, only one man killed. This was probably on the 15th William Clark born in Brighton. On 17th again in front line quarries section. Two men were lost Maurice Napper and William Stenner. The Battle of the Craters as it came to be known resumed on the next day. At 5pm there was a crushing bombardment along the whole of the Hohenzollern sector, the explosion of two German mines, the first surface mines in the clay on top of the chalk which our underground miners weren’t able to detect. No man’s land had become a necklace of interlocking craters no-one could cross. Fine defence put up so we still held Craters 3 and 4 and the near lips of Craters 1, 2 A and B. At 10.30pm the near lip of Crater C was regained . The battalion was just outside of the most heavily shelled area and only sustained 9 casualties, all wounded according to the War Diary (although the CWGC lists two men lost Maurice Napper and William Stenner). This attack virtually ended the Battle of the Craters which cost the division over 2000 men After this there was no further attempt to capture the Chord . Holding the interior of craters was very costly in men, the crater bottoms were a mass of liquid mud, the sides impossible to revet and no shelters possible to construct. It was decided to occupy the near lips. The men were relieved on the 20th and were glad to be going to support trenches and not Vermelles which continued to be badly shelled. The battalion had to find excessive fatigue parties, 350 men out of duty strength of 450 for nearly 24 hrs. 20 of these were wounded. Robert was at Etaples on the 20th and may have arrived at the7th by the 23rd, on which day it took over from the 8th Royal Fusiliers. There was a heavy snow fall the next day, in fact bad weather all the time, and some cases of trench feet. On 27th they were relieved and went to Annequin. Annequin was a mining village, of the sort Robert would have been familiar with from his time as Loos. This was supposed to be two days rest but on the morning of 28th a shell hitting Lewis gunners’ billet killed one man wounding seven. On the 30th it was to Bethune and on the 3rd a special parade at Sailly Labourse (three miles SE of Bethune) where medal ribbons were presented for the recent fighting in the Hohenzollern redoubt. On the same day the battalion relieved the7th Suffolks in Hohenzollern Redoubt trenches, in the front line. On the 7th. A small defensive mine was blown on the sector on the battalion’s right with the result that Sergeant A Skerrett and three Lewis gunners were wounded in the retaliation. Sergeant Skerrett was one of the original NCOs and died of his wounds. The 8th passed quietly until 6.30 pm when the Germans blew a large mine just west of Crater A, West Face and the mine shafts were blown in. 17 miners were buried in the shaft and dug-outs. All the miners extricated except one man who had turned mad and shot himself. The support company (D) was at once ordered to reinforce B company which was holding the position affected, but the enemy made no attempt to occupy new crater as sap 9 extended to its lip and West Face cleared where it had been blown in by explosion. Casualties were heavy. Lieutenant E G Sutton was shot by a sniper when climbing over the filled in portion of the West Face just after explosion to see what had happened, eight other ORs killed and 39 wounded. Robert was one of those killed. He was at first declared missing, as were several of the others. The officer killed was 21 year old Eric Guy Sutton, son of Leon Goodhart Sutton, Hillside, Reading. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website lists ten others in the Royal Sussex Regiment killed that day. Robert was one. One soldier was with the 9th, F Lintott died of wounds, buried Bailleul Community Cemetery Extension Nord and another Robert Wright was with the 2nd and died of wounds, buried in Bethune Cemetery. Two have war records that have survived, and both like Robert were recorded as missing on the 8th. Harry Gooderson is commemorated on a panel at Loos cemetery. He died around his 22nd birthday. He was one of three other Sussex men, apart from Robert killed on the 8th. Born at Nutley his mother Mrs Ruth Wratten 2 Totease Cottages and his . stepfather Abraham were living in Buxted. Harry was an under cowman when he attested 0m 27 August 1914 and until the 8th his only injuries had to do with dental problems. Henry had no effects to be sent home, and neither apparently had Robert. Arthur Voice who until he had enlisted worked as an under porter, living in Kemp Town. His parents William and Ruth Voice were living 8 Bedford Buildings Kemp Town. He had joined 14/1/1915and landed in France 23/6/1915. He is commemorated in Loos too as is Lance Corporal Gilbert Stear whose medal card also said died presumed 8 April. Gilbert was 23, the son of George and Julia Stear. In 1911 he was a cowman living with his family in Dairy Lane Maudlin just outside of Westhampnett, and he had enlisted in Bosham. Allan Haylor 21 had enlisted Tunbridge Wells when working as a groom, his parents living Matfield, Kent. Like Robert he was posted as missing but he is buried in Quarry Cemetery. In 1925 his mother wrote ‘I should be glad if you would forward the disc belonging to my late son 258 Pte A Haylor’. A note has been made to say that this was done on 6/11/1925. Does this mean that possibly much later his body was found? Allan had only rejoined the battalion on the 23rd after having fractured his hand on 12 March. At half an inch short of 6 foot he must have been considerably taller than a lot of his fellows. It was only on 16/3/1917 that it was accepted that he had died. Victor Charles Winkworth 21 from B company is also commemorated on Loos Panel. From Kentish town he had been a motor body builder in civilian life, and arrived in France on 25/9/15. Charles Muir is an interesting case as his medal card describes him as dying of wounds 8/11/1916. I believe this could just be a slip of the pen, and should be 11/8/1916. At 44 he was one of the oldest soldiers. Son of Mrs Leatherdale Beamish Road Lower Edmonton and husband of Mrs Muir 79 Besley Street Streatham. Finally Alfred Foster born in Battle buried at Vermeilles had arrived 1/2/15. I am including this poem because I feel particularly sad to think that Robert probably died ‘chumless’. He had only been with the 7th for about two weeks, too short a time to have made new chums. To my chum No more we’ll share the same old barn The same old dug-out, same old yarn No more a tin of bully share Nor split our rum by shell’s flare So long old lad What time we’ve had, both good and bad We’ve shared what shelter could be had The same old billet that always leaked And now you’ve “stopped one” We’d weathered the storm two winters long We’d managed to grin when all went wrong Because together we fought and played Our hearts were light, but now – you’re dead And I am mateless