100 Years Ago

December 1914 by Lyn Dyson

After four days in the trenches at Kemmel in Belgium, the 1st Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment marched to billets in Westoutre and then Locre where they enjoyed five days of rest and re-organization. By 9th December they were back in the trenches at Kemmel where they stayed until 18th December, with a break of three days’ rest at Locre. During this time they saw little action, but the weather was wet and life must have been tedious and cold and miserable in the trenches. On the 19th December they started another spell of rest at Locre, but on Christmas Eve they marched back to the trenches at Kemmel.

Christmas day dawned with a thick fog which lasted all day. There was practically no shelling on either side, but there was some sniping, and two men were killed, one was wounded and another man was reported missing. It was a cold and frosty time, and two more men were killed by sniper fire on Boxing Day. Throughout this time in the trenches, they worked on improving their conditions, and by the time they were relieved on 27th December, they reported that the trenches were fairly habitable.

At the end of the year they were resting at Westoutre and Locre.

Meanwhile the 2nd Battalion started the month in trenches at Pont De La Justice in France. On 5th December the men had hot baths for the first time since their arrival in France. This was very much appreciated. From 6th December until 11th December they were able to rest in billets, and this was followed by three more days and nights in the trenches.

The battalion moved on to Fleurbaux, and on Christmas Eve they were once more in the trenches. On Christmas Day there was an unofficial armistice and troops of both sides met and buried the dead. The Battalion fixed up a board with “A Merry Xmas” written on it in German, midway between the trenches and this was evidently much appreciated by the enemy. On Boxing day the armistice continued, and officers from both sides met and had a few minutes conversation. The trenches were reportedly in very bad condition, and the HQ dugout was isolated by water from the rest of the battalion. The HQ was therefore moved to a nearby cottage.

Private Harry Batt 8218 Killed in Action 5th December 1914

Harry Batt was born in 1886, the son of John Batt, a railway labourer, and his wife Annie. The family came from Great Cheverell, although they had spent some time in Bristol.

Harry grew up in Great Cheverell with at least six siblings. In 1901, at the age of fifteen Harry was working as a plough boy.

There was a family split around 1906, and Harry either left home, or was thrown out by his parents. He joined the army and served in the 2nd Battalion of the Border regiment. He spent two years in Gibraltar from 1906 to 1908, followed by nearly five years in the East Indies. He was a qualified machine gunner.

In 1913 he left the army and was put on the reserve. Unable to go home, he made a new home with a Mr & Mrs Griffin who lived at Alton Barnes, and then at the Clock at Lydeway. He was given a very good reference from the army, which described him as “thoroughly trustworthy and to the best of my knowledge he has never been under the influence of liquor during the last three years of his army service.”

At the outbreak of war he was called up but he did have a brief spell of absence without leave in September 1914, for which he received two weeks’ punishment. He would have been placed in fetters and handcuffs but was still able to march with his unit. This was a relatively tolerable punishment. He would also have been subjected to hard labour and loss of pay.

Harry arrived in Zeebrugge on 6th October 1914. There is some confusion as to what happened to him after that. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that he was wounded on 26th October 1914. The battalion was ordered to attack and hold a line in Gheluvelt village. The attack was carried out under a creeping barrage timed to start at 5.40am and to reach the objective at 6.36am.

At 5.40am the Battalion advanced over very marshy ground through which the men were only just able to move. One company got stuck in the mud up to the waist and was almost entirely wiped out. Machine Gun fire was opened from the pepper boxes as soon as the Border’s barrage opened. Practically the whole company was wiped out by machine gun fire in an attempt to take the pepper boxes. One of these was taken and a machine gun captured but the remaining three defied all attempts to take them. By 10am it was apparent that the original objective could not be reached with the small number of men left.  By this time there were only about 40 men of the Battalion left out of the attacking companies. The remainder were either casualties or had become mixed up with the Devons. They could not be found however and few men came out of the line with the Devons when the Brigade was relieved at 11.15pm by 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers.

At the end of the day, 6 soldiers were known to have been killed, 174 were wounded and 126 were missing.

Harry was first included amongst the missing and was believed to have been taken as a prisoner of war. He was reported wounded on 3rd December 1914, and the first that his parents knew about it was when they read his name in the Daily Mail on 9th December. Mrs Griffin, his landlady and friend, whom he had recorded as his next of kin, made enquiries and reported that she had received a letter from Harry on 5th December, although in other correspondence she said she had not heard from him since October. No-one seemed to have any idea what had happened to him.

Official records show that he was buried by the Germans in Kruiseecke Cemetery, but the location of the grave was lost, so he is remembered on a special Kipling memorial, along with 31 other soldiers from various regiments, at Zantvoorde British Cemetery. The inscription reads “To the memory of these 32 soldiers of the British Empire who fell in 1914 and 1915 and were buried at the time in Kruiseecke German Cemetery, and in Wernicq Road German Cemetery Comines, but whose graves are now lost. Their glory shall not be blotted out.

It isn’t clear whether the Kruiseecke cemetery was destroyed by shells during later fighting in the area, or whether after the war the landowner obliterated it when rebuilding his farm house. Whatever happened, Harry’s body was never found.

As he was buried by the Germans, it may be that he was taken prisoner, but died of wounds some time later; or it is probable that Mrs Griffin was mistaken about the date she received her last letter from Harry, and he was killed in action on 26th October 1914.

Private Frederick Charles Kyte 9332 Killed in Action 22nd December 1914

Frederick was born in Easterton on 9th December 1893, the son of James Kyte, a retired Royal Marine, working as an agricultural labourer, and his wife Eliza Jane Wiltshire. James and Eliza had eleven children, eight of whom survived to adulthood.

Frederick was educated at Easterton National School, and enlisted into the 1st Coldstream Guards in 1911, just before his eighteenth birthday. By this time his family had moved to Horton.

He arrived in France on 12th August 1914, and was wounded at the first battle of Ypres, and invalided home in November. However he returned to the Front on 17th December when his battalion was billetted at Strazeele, reforming and training.

At 5pm on 20th December the battalion was ordered south, and marched 20 miles to Givenchy where they were ordered to attack the enemy. This they did at 3pm with the Coldstream Guards and the Cameron Highlanders in the first line.  A few shells caused one or two casualties in the village but with this exception the enemy’s artillery fire caused no damage. As soon as the attack started the leading companies came under enfilade rifle and machine gun fire but owing to a heavy hailstorm which came on right in the enemy’s face, casualties were not heavy. Three Companies occupied some old French trenches.  At 5.45 a.m. on the 22nd December the three companies attacked the German trench along the road leading from Givenchy to Chapelle St. Roche and took it but unfortunately they were without any support on their flanks and they were bombed out of it about 8 a.m. They were forced to retire to the North of the ruins of the church in Givenchy having lost over 50% of their strength.

It was during this action that Frederick was first reported missing, and later reported killed in action. He is remembered on the memorial at Le Touret, and at Bradford on Avon.

If anyone has any further information, please contact Lyn Dyson on 01380 813943 or lyndadyson@yahoo.co.uk

 

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