Posted by: michaeldaybath | May 8, 2017

Private George William Gates, 1st Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry

Part of the DCLI Panel on the Arras Memorial (Pas-de-Calais)

Part of the DCLI Panel on the Arras Memorial (Pas-de-Calais)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Private Henry Arthur Miller, a bellringer at St Andrew’s Church in Preston (Dorset), who died on 17th April 1917 while serving with the 1st Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry at the Battle of Arras. Between the 14th and 19th April, the battalion had spent five days in the front line near the Bois de l’Hirondelle, under constant attack from artillery, machine guns, and snipers.

1st DCLI were part of 95th Brigade in the British 5th Division. They would renew their attack on the Bois de l’Hirondelle on the 23rd and 24th April 1917, as part of the Second Battle of the Scarpe. This was followed by a reorganisation, whereby on the 3rd May, the 5th Division relieved 1st Canadian Division and part of the British 2nd Division on the front line between Oppy Wood and the village of Fresnoy. On the 8th May, however, Fresnoy was lost in a very strong German attack. The history of the 5th Division provides an overview [1]:

This village [Fresnoy] formed a bulge in the line, and the 95th [Brigade] had at first to throw back a defensive flank on their right, though the line was straightened out a bit in the first two of three days. Early on the 8th of May, as dawn appeared, the Germans delivered a strong attack on the village, but three times within the space of two hours was it beaten off by the machine-guns and rifles of the [12th] Gloucesters and [1st] East Surreys. The enemy fire then quietened down, and it appeared as if he had given up the attempt to capture the village, when at 6.30 a.m., an intense bombardment burst on the whole of the left and part of the 13th Brigade fronts, followed by an Infantry assault. It was raining heavily at the time, and owing to the thick mist the “S.O.S.” signals were not seen by our Gunners. The Gloucesters, on the left, had their entire line blotted out, and though the [1st] D.C.L.I. made a vigorous counter-attack, the enemy pressed on, and forced back the Gloucesters out of the village, together with the Canadians on their left. A little later the East Surreys, on the right of the 95th Brigade, were attacked, and, their left flank being exposed, were compelled to fall back to the trenches East of Arleux, and the K.O.S.B. [1st Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers, part of 29th Division] on their right conformed.

The battalion war diary of the 1st DCLI provides a more detailed account of their attempted counter attack [2]:

Captain KENDALL M.C. [Captain T. A. Kendall] commanding “D” Company 1st D.C.L.I. organised a counter attack with his company and a few of the 12th GLOSTERS. This attack, skilfully and resolutely led, reached the front support trench but were unable to advance farther, the tempest of shells, rifle and M.G. fire proving too strong. The remainder of the Company were therefore withdrawn to their original position, Lieut. STEPHENSON [2nd Lieut. H. V. Stephenson] and many of the rank & file being killed. Frequent appeals had been made for artillery to put down a protective barrage, but in vain: the welcome sustained song of our shells cleaving the air as they hasten to their deadly work did not materialise.

The History of the DCLI continues the story [3]:

The storm centre now shifted to the right of the support line where nothing remained to prevent the enemy capturing Arleux Wood but A and B Companies of the D.C.L.I. The two companies were, however, well dug in, in deep narrow trenches: a part of the K.O.S.B. were a little to the east of them, men of the same battalion extending the line to the south.

With great violence the Germans attacked this little band of men, first deluging the line with shells of all calibres. They then advanced. Their pluck was magnificent, but they were facing men who had realized the seriousness of the situation and who also were determined that the attackers should not succeed. Inspired by the splendid example of their leaders, especially Captain B. M. Taylor and Captain Hughesdon, they held on and broke up the enemy’s attack completely. At this stage a heavy artillery group, directed by an officer who providentially reported at Battalion Headquarters, was turned on to the enemy with excellent results.

Among the many members of the 1st DCLI killed on the 8th May was 27136 Private George William Gates, who came from Sway in Hampshire. Documents attached to the 1st DCLI war diary states that Private Gates was in “D” Company, and that he was posted missing on the 9th May 1917 [4]. Presumably, then, he was one of the many killed in the counter-attack by “D” Company led by Captain Kendall.

My interest in Private Gates derives from the possibility that there may be some kind of link with my mother’s family, who also have Sway ancestry. If there is a connection, it must go back to earlier than the early 19th Century, as I have not been able to discover any common ancestors since then.

Sway war memorial

Sway war memorial (Hampshire)

Sway is a New Forest village that until 1879 formed part of the extensive parish of Boldre. In 1817, when the curate of Boldre, the Rev. Henry Comyn, conducted a survey of the parish, he found many members of the Gates family living in the part of the parish called Durnstown, close to the Hare and Hounds public house. A fictionalised tour based on Comyn’s notes gives a flavour of what he found [5]:

Then on to Back Lane, stronghold of the Gates family. First we drop in on William and Sarah Gates, Sarah has been married twice before, first to another Gates who fathered her two sons John and Thomas who are in the locality – the former we are told is busy courting Jane Kitcher. By her second marriage to a Gold Sarah had two daughters, Mary now in Lymington and Anne, married to George Whicher at Bowling Green. William Gates has three children by his first marriage, young William aged twelve who is at Arnewood but his younger brother and sister James and Maria are at hone to liven the household.

Mr. Comyn then decides to miss a cottage or two, knowing full well that the occupants would soon join us at the home of Thomas Gates, the elder statesman of the family, and his wife Betty, Mr. Comyn asks, without much hope, if there is news of their son Benjamin, now 45 years old, or of daughter Sarah, in her thirties, who had married a Kitcher. Both of then, as he put it, had absconded. Their absence, however, is softened by the proximity of other children. There is Isaac, living next door with wife Catherine (Kitcher) and children Phoebe, Isaac and Benjamin; son Samuel is only as far away as Pilley. Another son Thomas, also living in Back Lane with wife Sarah (yet another Kitcher), and their family, the eldest Hannah, aged 15, Eliza, Letitia, Mary and Anne who is a year old. Then there is daughter Frances in Lymington and son William at the bottom of the lane. As expected, of [sic] Thomas’ cottage, quite a gathering which leads Mr Comyn to suggest that Durnstown should be renamed Gatestown!

George William Gates was born at Sway to Walter and Annie Gates on the 26th March 1894. By the time of the 1901 Census, the family had moved to Stoke Common, near Bishopstoke, where Walter was working as a labourer.  They were still living at Stoke Common (109 Church Road, Bishopstoke) at the time of the 1911 Census; by then George was 17 years old and also working as a labourer. The census return states that Walter and Annie had had 11 children, of whom six were still living, as of April 1911.

Walter and Annie feature in the 1881 and 1891 Census living at Durrant’s Town (presumably what is now Durnstown) with Walter’s widowed father, the 75-year old Morris Gates (a farmer), and two young children, also named Walter and Annie. It is possible to trace Morris and his wife Jane in several earlier census returns, e.g. in 1871 at Durrant’s Town, in 1851 at Pilley (another settlement in Boldre), and in 1841 at North Sway.

While the exact connection — if any — is unclear, I have also been able to trace my great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side to Durrant’s Town in 1881. By then, Joseph Gates was married to Elizabeth Emma Gates (née Akers), who had been born at Plumstead in Kent.

Many members of the various Gates families of Sway would serve in the forces during the First World War. For example, in January 1915, the New Forest Magazine published a list of people from Sway serving in the forces that included the names of 11 persons with the Gates surname [6].

The publication Sway in the War, 1914-1945 by Tony Blakeley, et al. (2009) includes a few pages on George William Gates [7]. Using information provided by staff at Cornwall’s Regimental Museum, the authors record that George enlisted at Brockenhurst, probably in early 1916 — suggesting that he could have been part of the first batch of army conscripts (conscription came into force in January 1916). They also state that Private Gates was posted on the 12th April 1916 to the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion, DCLI — a training unit based at Freshwater, Isle of Wight. The booklet also suggests that it was likely that George had served with the 1st DCLI on the Somme front in 1916 before moving with the battalion to Arras in early 1917.

George William Gates has no known grave. His name features on the Arras Memorial to the Missing at the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in Arras, France.

Sway War Memorial (Hampshire)

Panel of the Sway War Memorial (Hampshire)

Apart from George William, the Sway war memorial also includes the names of two other individuals with the Gates surname, neither of whom were part of George’s immediate family. Leading Seaman William George Gates, died in the sinking of HMS Bayano (an Elders and Fyffes ship converted into a armed merchant cruiser) on the 11th March 1915. Private Arthur James (Jim) Gates of the Tank Corps (formerly of the Royal Berkshire Regiment) was killed near Zillebeke, Belgium on the 31st July 1917, in the opening offensive of the 3rd Battle of Ypres.


[1] A. H. Hussey and D. S. Inman, The Fifth Division in the Great War (London: Nisbet, 1921), p. 161.

[2] The National Archives, WO 95/1577/4

[3] Everard Wyrall, The History of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, 1914-1919 (London: Methuen, 1931), p. 261.

[4] The National Archives, WO 95/1577/4

[5] “Sway Snippets – the final tour.” E-mail to ENG-HAMPSHIRE-L list, 13 July 2006:

[6] Tony Blakeley, John Cockram, Nick Saunders, and Richard Williams, Sway at war, 1914-1945 (Brockenhurst: John Cockram, 2009), pp. 33-34.

[7] Ibid., pp. 87-88.


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