Posted by: michaeldaybath | January 11, 2017

The 5th Dorsets at Beaucourt

While the Battle of the Somme officially ended in December 1916, fighting on that front did continue during the winter of 1916 and 1917, up-to-and-beyond the German retreat to the Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line) in February and March 1917. On the 11th January 1917, the 5th Dorsets attacked near Beaucourt, north of the River Ancre.

The 5th (Service) Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment was a New Army formation and had previously fought in the Gallipoli campaign, landing at Suvla Bay on the 11th July 1915. After the evacuation in January 1916, the battalion spent some months in Egypt before being sent to France in July 1916, where 11th (Northern) Division became part of VI Corps in Third Army. Joining the Somme battle during its third phase, the battalion fought at Mouquet Farm in September 1916 and suffered many casualties there and at Zollern Redoubt [1].

In the very cold winter of 1916 and 1917, the battalion were mostly based in the northern part of the Somme sector, north of the River Ancre. On the 11th January 1917, the battalion took part in a diversionary attack near Beaucourt. The regimental history provides some background [2]:

The 7th Division, which was now holding the Beaumont Hamel sector on the 11th’s left, had been nibbling away at the German lines facing it with much success, and on January 11th it was to attack on a quite substantial scale, three battalions of the 91st Brigade assaulting Munich Trench. With this the 11th Division was to co-operate, the 34th Brigade putting the Dorsets to attack up the spur immediately north of Beaucourt between the Beaucourt-Serre road on the left and the Puisieux ravine on the right.

The battalion war diary records that the 5th Dorsets relived the 11th Battalion, Manchester Regiment in the front line trenches on the 10th January. Two companies of the Dorsets were detailed to carry out the main attack towards “Bois d’Hollande” on the 11th: “A” Company led by Captain Francis Ritson, and “D” Company led by the recently commissioned 2nd Lieutenant Ernest Shephard. The remaining two companies were to occupy the lines behind the attacking force and act in support. The main objectives of the attacking companies were a chalk pit and some ruins known as the Nest.

The war diary entry is fairly brief, noting that the attacking companies gained all of their objectives, before being forced to retire due to counter attacks. The regimental history provides more detail [3]:

Zero on January 11th was at 6.40 a.m., and the two companies, advancing punctually behind an excellent barrage, mastered their objectives without much difficulty, capturing fourteen prisoners of the 135th Infantry Regiment at the Nest. All seemed to be going well and consolidation was promptly began. Unluckily, when daylight came a thick fog, accompanied by a blinding snow-storm, made it impossible to see more than fifty yards, and “C” Company, though ready to push forward if needed, got no news of the attack until about 9.30 a.m., Captain Ritson himself appeared in urgent need of support.

What had happened was that “D’s” left platoon, while consolidating the Chalk Pit, was suddenly attacked by German bombers from a bank above it and driven out. 2/Lieut. Wanstall, the platoon commander, though wounded, rallied his men, collected others from support and tried to retake the Chalk Pit but failed, that point being by this time occupied by the Germans in great force with a machine-gun. These had apparently emerged from an undetected dug-out south-west of the Chalk Pit and in rear of the Nest , with which it was apparently connected underground. At the Nest meanwhile our men were trying to clear an entrance to the dug-outs, which had been blown in by shell-fire, when they too were suddenly attacked and driven out. Captain Ritson, finding that “A” Company could not retake the Nest and hold the rest of its line without help, sent off several runners to summon up “C” Company, but as no answer or assistance was forthcoming decided to go back himself. He and Captain Clayton had just got  “C” going forward when they saw the advanced troops falling back. A much stronger party had meanwhile attacked “D’s” left and, working round its flank, which the loss of the Nest and Chalk Pit had exposed, took that company in flank and rear. Lieut. Shephard, seeing that “D’s” position was untenable, sent a message to warn “A” to fall back also, but most of “D” was cut off, Lieut. Shephard himself being killed.

The war diary records the casualties as one officer killed [2nd Lieut. Shephard], two missing, and three wounded; 20 other ranks killed, 88 missing, and 48 wounded. Around 50 of those counted as missing had been taken prisoner. After the attack, the battalion was relived by the 6th York and Lancashire Regiment, and (unsurprisingly) spent the next few weeks refitting near Forceville and then at Domqueur. The regimental history consoles itself with the thought that the Dorsets had successfully distracted attention from the 7th Division attack further north [4].

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission database lists 48 members of the 5th Dorsets that died on the 11th January (although several more died in subsequent days, presumably some from wounds suffered on the 11th). Of the 48 men listed, only six have specific burials: five in the A.I.F. Burial Ground at Flers, one at Cayeux Military Cemetery. The remaining 42 are all commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

The casualties included two Dorset bellringers, members of the Salisbury Diocesan Guild of Ringers (SDGR) and commemorated on the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers rolls of honour [5].

Fontmell Magna war memorial cross

Sergeant Sidney Shute’s name on the war memorial cross at Fontmell Magna (Dorset)

Lance Sergeant Sidney Shute was a bellringer at Fontmell Magna. In the 1901 and 1911 censuses, Sidney was living with his family at 41, Smiths Hole, Fontmell Magna. His parents were Henry and Anna Shute, and Henry was working as a brewer’s drayman in 1901 and as a general labourer in 1911. Sidney’s name appears on both of the war memorials at Fontmell Magna and on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Samuel Nathan Crane was a bellringer at Lyme Regis. Private Crane’s service records survive and they show that he enlisted at Lyme in August 1914 when he was 23 years old. Samuel Nathan Crane had been born at Cubitt Town (Poplar, Middlesex) in 1890 and had been baptised in October of the same year at Christ Church, Isle of Dogs. He was the son of another Samuel Crane, described in the baptism transcript as a gas fitter, resident at 13 Ship Street, and Elizabeth Crane. In the 1901 Census, the family were living at the Horse Shoe Factory in Poplar, where the older Samuel (who had been born at Seething, Norfolk) was working as a stationary engine driver. By the time of the 1911 Census, the family (minus the older Samuel) were living at 3 Monmouth Street, Lyme Regis, where Elizabeth was working as a housekeeper, and the 21-year old Samuel is  described as a plumber’s mate. Private Crane’s name appears on both war memorials at Lyme Regis as well as on the Thiepval Memorial.

13931361729_35a1fc9754_b

The War Memorial in St Michael’s Church, Lyme Regis (Dorset)

Another Lyme Regis casualty on the 11th January was the commander of “D” Company, 2nd Lieutenant Ernest Arthur Shephard. While an experienced soldier, Shephard had not long been an officer. He was a regular soldier who had risen through the ranks in the 1st Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment, and had served with that unit on the Western Front since February 1915, mostly as a Company Sergeant Major (CSM). CSM Shephard was with the 1st Battalion when the Dorsets were attacked with gas at Hill 60 in May 1915 as well as on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Shephard’s diary, published in the 1980s as A Sergeant Major’s War [6], is a lively and humane account of his experiences with the Dorsetshire Regiment during the war. CSM Shephard was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in November 1916, and then transferred to the 5th Battalion. Ernest is buried in the A.I.F. Burial Ground at Flers, a grave that was often visited by the military historian Richard Holmes [7]. His name also appears on both of the war memorials in Lyme Regis.

Ernest was the son of Frederick William and Elizabeth Shepherd. His mother died in 1897, but by the time of the 1901 Census, Frederick had married again, and the family were living at Church Street, Lyme Regis, where Frederick was the town’s photographer. At the time of the 1911 Census, Ernest was already a Lance Corporal in the 1st Dorsets, and was based with the battalion at Alma Barracks, Blackdown Camp, near Camberley (Surrey).

Ernest’s older brother, Private Frederick William Shepherd, served with the 6th (Service) Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment. He died on the 11th May 1917, and his name is recorded on the Arras Memorial.

References:

[1] Tim Saunders, West Country regiments on the Somme (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military, 2004), pp. 231-251.

[2] C. T. Atkinson, “History of the 5th Battalion, the Dorsetshire Regiment, 1914-1919.” In: History of the Dorsetshire Regiment, 1914-1919, Part III. The Service Battalions (Dorchester: Henry Ling, 1932), p. 55.

[3] Ibid., p. 56

[4] Ibid., p. 57

[5] Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, Rolls of Honour: https://www.cccbr.org.uk/rolls/

[6] Ernest Shephard, A Sergeant-Major’s war: from Hill 60 to the Somme, ed. Bruce Rossor (Ramsbury: Crowood Press, 1987).

[7] Richard Holmes, “My hero Ernest Shephard.” The Guardian, 7 November 2009: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/07/ernest-shephard-hero-richard-holmes

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