Posted by: michaeldaybath | November 22, 2017

Rifleman Alfred Pocock, 12th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles

Hilperton: Church of St Michael and All Angels (Wiltshire)

Hilperton: Church of St Michael and All Angels (Wiltshire)

As covered briefly in the previous post, the Battle of Cambrai began in the early morning of the 20th November 1917, when six Infantry Divisions of the British Third Army, supported by nine battalions of the Tank Corps, attacked Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line) defences to the west and south-west of the city of Cambrai. The opening day was a stunning success, with some divisions advancing several miles. The failure to capture key objectives on the first day combined with the lack of substantial reserves, however, meant that the offensive was pretty much doomed to failure from that point on.

On the left-flank of the attack was the 36th (Ulster) Division, and on the 20th November the 109th Infantry Brigade attacked along a line west of the (dry) Canal du Nord, eventually capturing ground to the north of the Bapaume to Cambrai road, but still in touch with the 59th Division on its left and the 62nd (West Riding) Division on its right [1]. The day after that, 109th Brigade pressed forward again and reached as far as the village of Mœvres. On the 22nd November, the 108th Brigade took over from the 109th, and the 12th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles led the assault on the village itself.

Amongst the casualties of the attack on Mœvres was 45009 Rifleman Alfred Pocock of the 12th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, who was killed in action on the 22nd November, aged 31. AlfredPocock was also a belllringer at Hilperton in Wiltshire and a member of the Salisbury Diocesan Guild of Ringers (SDGR).

Hilperton War Memorial (Wiltshire)

Hilperton War Memorial (Wiltshire)

45009 Rifleman Alfred Pocock, 12th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles

AlfredPocock had been born at Hilperton, near Trowbridge (Wiltshire), in the 1st quarter of 1886, the son of Henry and Sarah Pocock. The five-year old Alfred first features in the 1891 Census, when he was 5 years old and the youngest of Henry and Sarah’s four children. By 1901, Alfred was 15 years old and, like his older brother Hubert, was working as a domestic gardener. At the time of the 1911 Census, the family were resident at Hilperton Marsh, although, of the children, only Alfred and his older sister Margaret were still living at home.  In 1911, it seems that Alfred was now working with his father, who was a market gardener and florist, as the occupations of both were given as, “florist, etc.” Richard Broadhead’s book on Trowbridge soldiers adds the information that Alfred married Mary Austin in the spring of 1915 [2]. This would appear to refer to the marriage between Alfred Pocock and Mary Austin recorded in the Frome registration district in the 2nd quarter of 1915. Mary Matilda Austin was born in the 1st quarter of 1888 at Vobster, near Mells (Somerset), and at the time of the 1911 Census was working as a domestic servant at Freshford.

Henry Pocock had been born at nearby Holt on 19th July 1855, the son of Elijah and Elizabeth Pocock. By the time of the 1871 Census, the family were living at Hilperton Marsh. Henry married Sarah (who had been born at Worle in Somerset) at some point in the decade following (the closest match that I can find in BMD records is a Sarah Reading, born at Worle in 1849, the daughter of Thomas and Maria Reading, baptised at Kewstoke on 25 June 1849; this Sarah Reading married a Henry Pocock in the Bristol registration district in the 1st quarter of 1878). Henry and Sarah had five children, four of whom survived until 1911: Margaret, Mabel, Hubert, and Alfred. After Sarah died, Henry married Lily Jones at Holy Trinity, Trowbridge on the 17th July 1916. Henry died on the 14th January 1942, aged 86. The obituary published in the Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser of the 24th January 1942 [3] noted that Henry “had been well-known as a market gardener for over 30 years and [that he] was one of the first to exhibit at the horticultural shows when they were held in Trowbridge.” The obituary also recorded that he was also a judge at many flower shows around that town.

Rifleman Alfred Pocock’s service career is a bit of a mystery. From Soldiers Died in the Great War, we know that Alfred enlisted at Trowbridge, and that he served in the Rifle Brigade (service no: 2791) before transferring to the Royal Irish Rifles. Richard Broadhurst’s book suggests that he had probably been conscripted in 1916 [4].

Rifleman Alfred Pocock was killed in action on the 22nd November 1917, presumably in the 12th Royal Irish Regiment’s attack on Mœvres. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Cambrai Memorial at Louverval in France. His name is also recorded on the two war memorials at Hilperton.

Hilperton War Memorial (Wiltshire)

Detail of Hilperton War Memorial (Wiltshire)

The 36th (Ulster) Division at Cambrai

The 12th (Service) Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles formed part of 108th Infantry Brigade in the 36th (Ulster) Division. The battalion had been formed in 1914 in County Antrim, mainly from the Antrim Volunteers. As part of the 36th Division, the battalion landed at Boulogne in October 1915. On the 1st July 1916, the 36th Division took part in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, attacking the Schwaben Redoubt and suffering considerable casualties (the Division’s memorial on the Western Front is the Ulster Tower at Thiepval). They moved to the Ypres Salient shortly afterwards and in 1917 took part in the Battle of Messines and the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Langemarck).

On the 20th November 1917, the 109th Infantry Brigade attacked the Hindenburg Line along a line west of the Canal du Nord, by the end of the day capturing ground to the north of the Bapaume to Cambrai road. While the Battle of Cambrai is often seen primarily as a tank battle, the 109th Brigade attacked on the 20th November without the support of tanks [5]. On the following day, progress was slower, but the Brigade had reached the outskirts of the village of Mœvres.

Mœvres. Detail from Trench Map Moeuvres: special sheet, parts of 57c N.W. N.E., S.W. & S.E.

Detail from Trench Map: Moeuvres: special sheet, parts of 57c N.W. N.E., S.W. & S.E.; Scale: 1:20000; Edition: 6G; Published: 1917; Trenches corrected to 14 December 1917 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland (Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

On the 22nd November, 108th Brigade, with the 12th Royal Irish in the lead, attacked the village of Mœvres. The 36th Division’s history by Cyril Falls explains what happened [6]:

The 12th Rifles attacked Mœvres with three companies in line. The two on the left penetrated the village, but the right company was held up by machine-guns in the Hindenburg Support System. On the left, troops of the 56th Division, bombing up the Hindenburg Front System, captured Tadpole Copse. Colonel Goodwin, commanding the 12th Rifles, now handled his battalion with great skill. He ordered his right company to bomb its way up the trench leading from the sunken Mœvres-Graincourt Road to the Hindenburg Support System, while the other companies exploited their semi-success in the village. The right company did succeed in reaching the front trench of the Support System, and in clearing it, but the second line was full of Germans and could never be reached. Meanwhile the centre and western side of the village had been cleared, many Germans being killed in dug-outs and cellars. Pushing on through the village, the Riflemen took the trench on the western edge, fringing the cemetery, and began to consolidate it. Then came the counter-attack.

At 4 p.m. the enemy was seen assembling in great force in Hobart Street, half-way between Mœvres and Inchy, and in the Hindenburg Support System north-west of the former village. Messages were sent back for support and for an artillery barrage. Both were procured, the former in the shape of a company of the 9th Irish Fusiliers, but, unfortunately, neither of them in time. The counter-attack, launched just before dusk, appeared to be made by two battalions, one working parallel with the Hindenburg Support System and one down the Canal, in several waves. The company in the trench east of the cemetery was forced to withdraw to avoid being surrounded. Our men fell back from position to position, in orderly fashion, taking toll of the enemy with their Lewis guns. It took the Germans, in fact, an hour and forty minutes from the launching of their attack to drive the 12th Rifles to the southern outskirts of the village. It was a piece of evil fortune after a fine achievement in village fighting.

The 108th Brigade tried to capture Mœvres again on the 23rd November, but again did not make much progress The “Report on the Operations” attached to the 12th Royal Irish Rifles war diary states that “from the very start it was found that the German opposition was very strong” [7].

The failure of the 108th Brigade to capture Mœvres on the 22nd and 23rd November 1917 reflected the way that the Battle of Cambrai was now moving. After a promising start on the 20th November, the advance became bogged down, particularly at Bourlon Wood and Fontaine-Notre-Dame. Even when tanks were available and supplied with fuel and ammunition, they were not all that well-suited for fighting in shell-shattered woodland or in built-up areas [8]. The Germans counter-attacked in strength on the 30th November and by the 7th December, the Third Army had relinquished much of the ground that it had gained a few weeks before.


[1] Cyril Falls, The history of the 36th (Ulster) Division (London: Constable, 1996), p 155.

[2] Richard Broadhead, The Great War: Trowbridge soldiers (2010), pp. 187-188.

[3] Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, 24 January 1942, via British Newspaper Archive.

[4] Broadhead, p. 187.

[5] Bryn Hammond, Cambrai 1917: the myth of the first great tank battle (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2008), p. 153.

[6] Falls, pp. 159-160.

[7] “Report on the Operations near Moeuvres on the 22nd and 23rd November ’17,” in: WO 95/2506/2, 12th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles War Diary, The National Archives, Kew

[8] Hammond, p. 436.

Update, January 2nd, 2019:

Many thanks to Robert Wellen for pointing out my misspelling of Private Alfred Pocock’s name. This has now been corrected.

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