Posted by: michaeldaybath | July 31, 2017

Private Harry Mitchell, 8th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry

Today marks the centenary of the opening of the 3rd Battle of Ypres; the beginning of a British offensive during the First World War. It ended 103 days later with the capture of the (by then) obliterated village of Passchendaele (Dutch: Passendale).

Swanage War Memorial (Dorset)

Swanage War Memorial (Dorset)

The battle remains controversial today. The name Passchendaele vies with the Somme and Verdun as a handy shorthand for the futility of a war fought in mud and atrocious weather. Whether this is a fair assessment or not should probably be the topic of a different blog.

Swanage War Memorial (Dorset)

Swanage War Memorial (Dorset), detail

This main purpose of this blog is to mark the anniversary of the death of 29947 Private Harry Mitchell of the 8th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry. Private Mitchell was killed-in-action one-hundred years ago today, at the age of 27. Harry was also a bellringer at St Mary’s Church, Swanage (Dorset) and a member of the Salisbury Diocesan Guild of Ringers (SDGR).

The Battle of Pilckem Ridge

The opening phase of the 3rd Battle of Ypres (31 July – 2 August 1917) afterwards became known as the Battle of Pilckem Ridge (it was named after a feature that was one of the key targets for capture on the first day). I Corps of the French 1st Army successfully attacked in the most northerly sector, capturing Bixschoote and Kortekeer Kabaret. In the Fifth Army sector to the immediate south, the British XIV Corps, including the Guards Division and the 38th (Welsh) Division, successfully managed to take Pilckem Ridge. XVIII Corps were also able to make good progress in the area around St Julien. Further south again, II and XIX Corps attacked across the Gheluvelt Plateau, making some gains but encountering determined German resistance and counter attacks. To the south of Fifth Army was General Plumer’s Second Army; while IX and X Corps operated on the front opened out in June by the Battle of Messines, II Anzac Corps attacked German lines around Warneton.

On the whole, British progress on the 31st July was solid, if not spectacular. An advance of around 2,700 metres had been made for the loss of just under 32,000 men [1]. However, the degree of success was mixed and not all of the offensive’s objectives had been achieved. 3rd Ypres would continue until November, wth the next stages being the capture of Westhoek on 10th August and the Battle of Langemarck on the 16-18th August.

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, Ieper

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, Ieper (West-Vlaanderen)

Amongst those that died on the 31st July was the Welsh-language poet Ellis Humphrey Evans, also known as Hedd Wyn. He died on Pilckem Ridge while serving with the 15th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers [2]. He was posthumously awarded a bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod in September 1917.

The 8th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry

Another of those killed-in-action on the 31st July was 29947 Private Harry Mitchell of the 8th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, a bellringer at St Mary’s Church, Swanage.

The 8th (Service) Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry had been formed at Taunton in October 1914 as part of K3. Eventually, the battalion joined 63rd Brigade, which was at first part of the 21st Infantry Division, before transferring to the 37th Division in July 1916.

Menin Gate Memorial, Panel 21

Menin Gate Memorial, Panel 21 (Somerset Light Infantry)

As part of the 37th Division, the 8th Somersets took part in the latter stages of the Somme campaign in 1916 (Battle of the Ancre) and the Battle of Arras in 1917. In June 1917, the battalion moved to Flanders, being based in the area around Kemmel, south-west of Ieper. In the early morning of the 31st July, they were part of the Second Army (IX Corps) offensive south of Ieper. The 8th Somersets’ war diary provides a brief outline of what happened on the day [3]:

31.7.17.

3.50a.m. Commencement of first phase by 8th Bn. Linc. Regt and 4th Bn. Middx Regt cooperating with 19th Div. on their left, in attack on RIFLE FARM.

During this phase enemy put down moderate barrage on our front line and support trenches, causing a few casualties. 2nd Lt H.R. Kirk being severely wounded, and dying shortly afterwards.

5.0a.m. C.C. 8th Somerset L.I. informed by Liaison Officer at Bn. H.Q. that RIFLE FARM had been carried at 4.20.a.m.

7.50a.m. Commencement of second phase “D” Coy 8th Somerset L.I. cooperating with two companies 8th Bn. Linc. Regt on their left, with “C” Coy on their right, advanced to clear BEEK WOOD of the enemy, and to establish a new line from the WAMBEEK just S. of WAM FARM to a post to be established by 10th Bn. York & Lanc Regt South of GRASS FARM.

9.0a.m. A/Capt Hunt retuned to Battn H.Q. wounded in left arm and reported success of attack to Western outskirts of BEEK FARM enclosures and that his Company were digging in.

10 a.m. Pigeon report received from Capt. H.G. Baker M.C. O.C. “D” Coy that two platoons had gone forward to clear BEEK enclosures and that the remainder of his Coy were digging in on the left of “A” Coy in touch with LINCOLNS that all Officers of “A” Coy had become casualties, Capt Hunt and 2nd Lt. Kirk and 2nd Lt. Adams wounded. That “A” Coy was not in touch with “C” Coy on the right but that they were visible digging in the other side of a small ridge.

1.5p.m. Report by runner from Capt. Baker that 2nd Lt. Blake “D” Coy had been killed, that the remainder of the two platoons that had gone forward had returned, that posts had been established at N.W. and S.W. corners of enclosures.

3.p.m. Report by runner from 2nd Lt Wood “C” Coy that Capt. Baker M.C. O.C. “C” Coy had been wounded, and that he was digging in and was in touch with York and Lancs Regt on Right.

5.40p.m. Pigeon report from Capt. Baker that platoons sent forward had retired, that posts were established N and S of BEEK FARM that 2nd Lt. Blake had been killed, that his platoon had suffered many casualties and that it was at that hour impossible to bring in wounded.

About 8p.m. message received from Heavy Artillery Reserves that enemy were massing for counter attack E. of BEEK WOOD. Our guns opened and the attack did not materialise.

Captured positions consolidated during night.

Coys reorganised and posts established.

“B” Coy moved up to fill gap between “A” and “C” during night from old shell hole line. “C” Coy 10th York and Lancs Regt came into that line in support of 8th Som. L.I. 1 Coy 10th Bn. R.F.’s [Royal Fusiliers] in reserve under command of O.C. 8th Som. L.I.

Comparatively quiet day no counter attacks.

Battn relieved by 13th Bn. R.F.’s after dark without incident.

All but one of the 61 members of the 8th Somersets that died on the 31st July 1917 have no known grave and are commemorated on Panel 21 of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ieper.

Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, Panel 21

Menin Gate Memorial, part of Panel 21 (Somerset Light Infantry)

Private Harry Mitchell

Harry Mitchell had been born in Swanage (Wareham district) in the 2nd quarter of 1890. He features in census returns from 1891 to 1911, living with his parents at various addresses at Swanage:

1891: Albany Terrace, Institute Road, Swanage
1901 St Keverne, Cluny Crescent, Swanage
1911 9, Station Road, Swanage

In 1911, Harry Mitchell was 20 years old and working as a plumber and gas fitter, presumably working with or for his father (who was an employer in the same trades).

Church of St Mary, Swanage (Dorset)

The Church of St Mary, Swanage (Dorset)

Harry Mitchell was the only child of Clifford Henry Mitchell and Maria Ruth Mitchell (née Linnington), who had both been born in the Isle of Purbeck. Clifford Henry Mitchell had been born at Worth Matravers in the 2nd quarter of 1859. The 1911 Census is unusually precise on Clifford’s birthplace, stating that he had been born at St Alban’s Head. Clifford’s father, James Mitchell, was a coastguardsman, so presumably Clifford had been born in the coastguard cottages at St Alban’s Head. Clifford’s parents, James and Elizabeth Mitchell, both came from Cornwall. James Mitchell was born at St Keverne, on the Lizard, but once working as a coastguardsman, he seemed to move around fairly regularly. In 1861, James and Elizabeth were living at Studland with children born successively at Swanage, Parkstone and Worth.

Harry’s mother, Maria Ruth Linnington (sometimes spelled Linington in census returns) had been born at Langton Matravers in the 1st quarter of 1859. In the 1861 Census, Maria is recorded living at Swanage with her widowed grandmother Martha Phipard (Phippard?), a 68 year old pauper, and an uncle, George Phipard, a Greenwich Pensioner. In 1871, Maria is back at Langton, living with her mother, Martha Linnington, and five siblings. By 1881 Maria is 21-years old and working as a cook domestic at Tyneham Rectory for the family of the curate, the Rev William Truell. Maria married Clifford Henry Mitchell in the 1st quarter of 1886. Clifford died in 1925, aged 66; Maria in 1943, aged 84.

Private Harry Mitchell’s service records do not seem to have survived. From Soldiers Died in the Great War, we do know that before joining the 8th Somersets, he had previously been No 2165 in the Hampshire Regiment. In reports sent to the press, Private Mitchell was at first posted missing [4].

From a bellringing perspective, we know that Harry Mitchell was a change ringer. Swanage bellringing records show that he rang in a quarter peal of Grandsire Triples on the 22 June 1911 for the Coronation of King George V [5].

War Memorial, St Mary's Church, Swanage

War Memorial, St Mary’s Church, Swanage (Dorset), detail

In addition to the Menin Gate, Harry Mitchell’s name also appears on two war memorials at Swanage: the main town memorial overlooking Swanage Bay and the war memorial plaque inside St Mary’s Church.

References:

[1] Wikipedia, Battle of Pilckem Ridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Pilckem_Ridge

[2] Jonathan Hicks, The Welsh at Passchendaele, 1917 (Talybont: Y Lolfa, 2017), pp. 111-118.

[3] War Diary, 8th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry. WO 95/2529/2, The National Archives

[4] War Office Weekly Casualty List, 25 September 1917, p. 25, via British Newspaper Archive.

[5] Swanage Bellringing: Past Ringers (includes photograph): http://www.swanagebellringing.sdgr.org.uk/page101.html

Update Aug 8, 2017:

A quarter peal of 1,260 Grandsire Triples was rung at St Mary’s Church, Swanage on the 31st July 2017 in memory of Harry Mitchell. The performance report on BellBoard included images of a framed photograph of Harry Mitchell and an account of its dedication, possibly from the Swanage parish magazine:

Prayers were offered by the Rector [Rev W. R. Parr], after which Captain Ridout, on behalf of the bellringers, in asking the Rector to unveil the portrait, remarked that he had not had the pleasure of knowing Harry Mitchell personally, but he had been informed he had taken a keen interest in bellringing; he was of a most lovable disposition, extremely popular with his mates, and a good friend, and his fellow-ringers desired to perpetuate his memory in the belfry where he had spent so many happy hours. The Rector, in unveiling the portrait, said that Harry Mitchell was during his lifetime a true lover of his church, a devout worshipper, and a good son
[…]
Mr. C. W. T. Dean [churchwarden] in a few appropriate words, said he had known their late friend well. He possessed a true Christian character, and he was a good son to his father and mother. Mr. C. H. Mitchell (the father), speaking with deep emotion, thanks the speakers for their kind remarks in reference to his boy, and also thanked the ringers for their kindly thought.
[…]
At the conclusion of the ceremony the ringers rang a remembrance series of whole-pull grandsire (168) triples, half muffled.

Update Aug 13, 2017:

I recently managed to track down the grave marker for Clifford Henry and Maria Ruth Mitchell in Northbrook Cemetery, Swanage. Unfortunately, it is is currently in a very bad state.

The Mitchell grave in Northbrook Cemetery, Swanage (Dorset)

The Mitchell grave in Northbrook Cemetery, Swanage (Dorset)

The stone includes a memorial to Harry Mitchell, but this is not visible at the moment. The face down part (the front) of the stone has been transcribed as follows:

IHS | In Loving Memory of | HARRY | THE ONLY SON OF CLIFFORD HENRY | AND MARIA RUTH MITCHELL | PTE 8TH SOMERSET L.I. | REPORTED MISSING AFTER AN ACTION | IN BELGIUM JULY 31ST 1917 |AGED 27 YEARS | Until the day break

Transcription from: http://members.iinet.net.au/~suegar/SwanMINthbrook_16.htm

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