Posted by: michaeldaybath | December 19, 2014

1st Somersets at the Birdcage

One-hundred years ago today, on the 19th December 1914, the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry took part in an attack on a German defensive position east of the Bois de Ploegsteert known as the Birdcage. Ploegsteert, usually known to British troops as “Plugstreet,” is a village around seven miles south of Ieper (Ypres), perhaps most famous for being the place that Winston Churchill was the C.O. of the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots for a while in 1916 [1].

Ploegsteert Wood and Mud Corner Cemetery

Ploegsteert Wood and Mud Corner Cemetery from the north

The 1st Battalion, SLI had been quartered at Colchester at the time war was declared and after a short time based at Harrow, embarked at Southampton for Le Havre on the 22nd October. As part of the 11th Brigade, 4th Division, they went into action a few days later at Le Cateau. In October, the battalion moved to Belgium, taking part in an action at Le Gheer, to the east of Ploegsteert Wood, on the 19th-27th of that month. They remained in the Ploegsteert area throughout the 1st Battle of Ypres, where on the 31st October, Major C. B. Prowse led a successful counter-attack near the cemetery that now bears his name. An information board next to the cemetery elaborates:

Prowse Point [Cemetery] was named after Major C. B. Prowse, 1st Somerset Light Infantry following an action on 31 October 1914. The enemy captured a section of British trenches in a sunken road just near where the cemetery is today. Major Prowse led an attack, without artillery support and his men armed only with small arms. They quickly overran the enemy, incurred no casualties and won a ‘Bloodless Victory’. For his initiative and leadership he was promoted to Lieut.-Col. And awarded the DSO.

On the 13th December, the battalion, together with the 1st Battalion, Rifle Brigade, were told to prepare for an attack on the Birdcage, a heavily-fortified strongpoint located just to the east of Ploegsteert Wood near the hamlet of Le Pelerin. Preparations for this included the production of “mattresses” made of rabbit wire stuffed with straw, which were intended to help the soldiers cross the barbed wire. On the 15th, Sergeant Burge undertook a night time reconnaissance of the German positions, an action for which he was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) [2].

Bois de Ploegsteert, Comines-Warneton

Bois de Ploegsteert (Comines-Warneton)

The attack on the Birdcage finally went in on the 19th December. After an (fairly ineffective) artillery bombardment in the morning, the assault commenced at 2:30 pm, with the men in the first wave (two platoons of ‘B’ Company, led by 2nd Lieutenant S. B. Henson and 2nd Lieutenant K. Dennys) carrying the mattresses, intending to throw them over the wire to form bridges. Things almost immediately began to go wrong, the regimental history stating that “no sooner had the platoons set foot in No Man’s Land, bullets from machine guns and rifles met the advance of the Somersets” [3]. Along with many others, Lieutenant Henson was killed before he even reached the German lines. An account of the attack was included in Private Arthur Cook’s diary [4]:

At 2:30 p.m. ‘B’ Company emerged from the Wood carrying large mats to scale the enemy wire entanglements. They were immediately met by a hellish fire from enemy machine guns, but carried on under terrible conditions. The ground was very broken and heavy with water and shell holes and the men could hardly walk, let alone run, handicapped with carrying the mats, so progress was very slow. To add to their difficulties our 6-inch shells were falling terribly short. I saw one fall in the middle of a dozen men killing them all.

Grave of Rifleman R. Barnett, Rifle House Cemetery

Grave of Rifleman R. Barnett, Rifle House Cemetery

Ultimately, despite continued attacks that day, the Birdcage proved impregnable. The regimental history reports that just three officers of ‘B’ Company made it past the German first-line trench, with Captains C. C. Maud and R. C. Orr being killed, and 2nd Lieutenant Dennys being wounded and taken prisoner. ‘C’ Company then took on the attack, reaching the Le Gheer-St. Yves Road by 4:00 pm. However, it was found impossible to dig-in due to the flooded conditions, so eventually the order came for the battalion to make a tactical withdrawal to their original trenches in Ploegsteert Wood. The Somerset’s losses included five officers killed and one taken prisoner, 27 other ranks killed, 50 wounded and 30 missing [5], To the south, the Rifle Brigade’s attack was also largely a failure, with Captain the Hon Richard George Grenville Morgan-Grenville being killed almost immediately. Also amongst the dead was Rifleman R. Barnett, who was aged just 15. Cook concluded [6]:

It was a tragic day for the Somersets, for we had nothing in reward for the precious lives thrown away in an attempt to gain a few yards of ground not worth the life of a single Tommy. […] It has been an awful day and I am glad it is over.

Many of those Somersets that died still remain in Ploegsteert Wood. There are three Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries inside the wood itself, Rifle House Cemetery, Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery and Toronto Avenue Cemetery. Toronto Avenue Cemetery exclusively contains Australian graves (from 3rd Australian Division) from the Battle of Messines in June 1917, but the other two contain burials from earlier phases of the war, including the attack on the Birdcage.

I visited Ploegsteert Wood in May 2013, on a walk from Armentières to Mesen (Messines). I reached the large CWGC cemetery at Hyde Park Corner and the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing by lunchtime and was able to climb Hill 63 and head back to the main road (N365) close to the turning for Le Yvon, where there is another CWGC cemetery (Prowse Point) and more recent memorials to Bruce Bairnsfather and the Christmas Truce. A track heads south from there down towards Mud Corner Cemetery and an entrance into the wood. A path then takes you into the centre of the wood, where a north-south track links the three CWGC cemeteries. I was inside the wood for over an hour and I encountered no one else; all that I could hear was the rustle of leaves and birdsong, including my first cuckoo of the year. In this eerie atmosphere, visiting the cemeteries inside was very moving.

SLI graves, Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery

SLI graves, Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery

The graves of the Somersets can be found in Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery, which was somewhere near the Battalion HQ (Somerset House). It is the middle of the three cemeteries inside the wood, about half-way between Toronto Avenue and Rifle House cemeteries. The Somersets’ plot has 26 graves that date from the 19th. It is interesting to note that many of these owe their very existence to the Christmas Truce. An account published in Frederick Coleman’s From Mons to Ypres with General French – based on contact with Somerset bandsmen working as stretcher bearers – suggests that the truce in this area might have a little tentative, but did include the exchange of rations and smoking materials, the recovery of bodies, and some attempts at mild espionage [7]. What we do know from the battalion war diary is that the bodies of Maud, Henson and Orr were recovered, together with that of 18 NCOs and men, all being buried on the same day [8]. The regimental history records that, during the recovery of the bodies, a Saxon officer stated that Captain Maud had been the “bravest of the brave.”

While his name does not appear on the main Bath war memorial, Captain Charles Carus Maud had strong links with the City of Bath. His family had lived at Bathwick Hill House, at least until his father, Lieutenant-Colonel William Sherer Maud, died in 1894 (he was buried at Claverton). Charles was born on 15th January 1975, was educated at Wellington, and had a very active military career. After his death, a short obituary appeared in the Bath Chronicle, 2 January 1915, p. 5:

SOMERSET OFFICERS KILLED

Two officers of the Somerset Light Infantry returned as being missing on Monday are now reported to have been killed They are Capt. Maud and Capt. Orr. Captain Charles Carus Maud, D.S.O., who was killed on December 19th, was the youngest son of the late Colonel William Sherer Maud, R.E. of Bathwick Hill House, Bath, and of Mrs. W. S. Maud of Milton House, Bournemouth. Born in 1875, he got his commission in the Somerset Light Infantry from the Militia in 1896, and was promoted captain in 1904. From 1902 to 1904 he was employed with the West African Frontier Force, and from 1906 to 1910 with the Egyptian Army. In the South African campaign he took part in the operations in the Transvaal in 1902, receiving the Queen’s medal with two clasps. While in West Africa he saw active service in the Kano-Sokoto campaign, 1903 and in the Sokoto-Burmi operations, 1905, being mentioned in despatches for the latter service and receiving the D.S.O. In the Sudan in 1908 Captain Maud took part in the operations in the Jebel Nyima district of Southern Kordofan, and was awarded the Egyptian medal with clasp. Captain Robert C. Orr was educated at Rugby, and after serving his apprenticeship at Belfast with his father, was admitted a solicitor in 1903 He practiced at Ballymena, and was a member of the Mid-Antrim Hunt Club, and associated with the Ulster Volunteers, being Adjutant of the North Antrim Regiment.

Maud’s battlefield cross is now kept by the Somerset Military Museum in Taunton [9]. Five others that died on the 19th also came from Bath: Corporal William Pattemore, and Privates George Ashman, Charles Blight, Henry Bodman, and Clarence Chun [10].

Grave of 2nd Lieutenant S. B. Henson, Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery

Grave of 2nd Lieutenant S. B. Henson, Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery

While the 1st Somersets was a regular battalion, not all of its members had extensive military experience. For example, Second Lieutenant Stanley Benskin Henson had only relatively recently returned from East Asia. Henson’s family lived at Wedmore, Somerset, where his father William John Henson was a GP. A short obituary appeared in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 5 January 1915, p. 5:

Second-Lieutenant S. B. Henson whose name has appeared in the official list among the officers killed, was the only son of Dr. and Mrs. Henson, of 2, Derby-street, Mayfair, W., and of Elmsett Hall, Wedmore, Somerset. He was 27 years of age, and educated at King’s School, Bruton, and Pembroke College, Oxford. Obtaining a commission in the Colonial Police six years ago, he was stationed at Singapore and Penang, but resigned his commission in that corps soon after war was declared, and came to England. He joined his regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry, in which he was a special reserve officer, and was transferred to the 1st Battalion on going to the front.

Another obituary in The Bond of Sacrifice, by Lewis Clutterbuck (1916) quotes a letter to Henson’s parents that was written by his battalion commander, p. 183:

The officer commanding the battalion gave the following details: “As to the manner of your son’s death, I can only tell you that he died as a very brave man. He was leading his men in the attack on the German trenches, and had outstripped the rest of his company by about twenty yards, when he was shot through the heart and killed instantly. Those of his company who were fortunate enough to come out of the action alive speak in the highest terms of your son’s courage. He is a great loss to the regiment.

Henson’s name appears on the war memorials at Wedmore and the Singapore Cenotaph. He also features in the Roll of Honour of Pembroke College, Oxford [11].

Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery (Comines-Warneton)

Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery

After the attack on the Birdcage, the Ploegsteert Wood front line was fairly stable until the German advance in Spring 1918. The cemeteries in the wood remained to be encountered by people in other units, as described in this published account from 1915 in the Bath Chronicle, 19 June 1915, p. 6:

THE GRAVES OF THE SOMERSETS.

A BEAUTIFUL CEMETERY IN BELGIUM

Staff-Sergt. H. J. Eves of the 1st/4th Gloucestershire Regiment, a son of ex-P.C. Eves of the Bath Police Force, residing at 3, Upper Trafalgar Place, Calton Road, writes home a letter from which the following are extracts:–

This is a terrible time, and I would like to appeal to all eligible young men to buck up and come out and help us, as we are no doubt up against a tough job. I am now in a wood behind the trenches, and I went into a beautiful cemetery of the Somerset L. I., the best kept I have seen in the country. It may be interesting to Bathonians to know that I saw two names of Bond, one a quartermaster-sergeant and the other a sergeant, buried with seven others. I also saw another name Stacey. Their relations can be assured that the graves are being well looked after, and crosses and inscriptions erected over them. I can tell you that every man I see, whatever unit he belongs to, has got victory in big words on his countenance. In concluding the writer says “Be sure to chase all those young stay-at-homes and strikers, as we would gladly share our little outings and privileges with them.”

The 1st Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry remained on the Western Front for the remainder of the war, serving throughout with 11th Brigade, 4th Division. The Battalion’s final engagement during the Advance was at the Battle of Valenciennes on the 1st/2nd November 1918, capturing the village of Préseau.

References:

[1] Tony Spagnoly and Ted Smith, A walk around Plugstreet: South Ypres sector, 1914-1918, rev ed. (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2003), pp. 5-10.

[2] Brian Gillard (ed.), Good Old Somersets: the 1st Battalion Somerset Light Infantry, August – December 1914 (Leicester: Matador, 2004), pp. 136-138.

[3] Everard Wyrall, The history of the Somerset Light Infantry (Prince Albert’s), 1914-1919 (London: Methuen, 1927), p. 55.

[4] Arthur Cook, MSS diary, Somerset Light Infantry Archive; published in: A soldiers war, ed. G. Molesworth (Taunton: Goodman, 1957). Extracts printed in: Gillard, Good Old Somersets, p. 143.

[5] Spagnoly and Smith, A walk around Plugstreet, p. 27.

[6] Cook, cited in Gillard, Good Old Somersets, p. 144.

[7] Frederic Coleman, From Mons to Ypres with General French: a personal narrative (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1916), pp. 352-356.

[8] Gillard, Good Old Somersets., p. 148, quoting the battalion war diary.

[9] Captain C. C. Maud, Somerset Remembers blog: https://somersetremembers.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/283/

[10] Andrew Swift, All roads lead to France: Bath and the Great War (S.l: Akeman Press, 2005), p. 86.

[11] Pembroke College, Oxford Roll of Honour: http://www.pmb.ox.ac.uk/content/henson-stanley-benskin

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: