My pillaging of old newsletters continues with this account of my research into the unfortunate death of my Great Uncle Robert who died during the First World War. Robert was one of only two Yelfs to die in that conflict and it was believed by the family that he had been killed by a sniper. The photograph below is of Robert and his new bride Catherine shortly before the outbreak of War and this is the account that I originally wrote in 1997.
A recent trip to the Public Records Office at Kew has provided some more information.
Robert’s death certificate gave his regiment as the 12th Battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment (an odd choice for someone born and bred in South London) and his date of death as 28th October 1916, killed in action. A check in the library put this within the period of the battle of the Somme, which ran from July to November of that year. But was Robert killed at the Somme or somewhere else? I was able to confirm that the war diaries of the 12th battalion were stored at Kew and I was able to visit to have a look through them. Each unit of battalion size or above kept such a diary, often hand-written at speed with entries only a line or two long. They often also include operational maps, divisional orders, raiding party reports, artillery maps and many other bits and pieces, but most importantly from my point of view, notes of any casualties. Officers names are sometimes mentioned, but other ranks hardly at all, so I was really interested in finding where the battalion was and what it was up to when Robert met his end. In fact I think I may have found the actual circumstances of his death, something of an unexpected bonus.
Most of the reports were written in pencil, but those around this period for this particular battalion were typed, which made reading them a lot clearer. The unit was based south-east of Arras in northern France and was in the front line. The reports for a few days each side of Robert's given date of death were as follows - (Italics are mine)
Courcelles Oct 27th
In the morning A & B Companies proceeded to relieve C & D Companies at Courcelles. C & D Companies returned to Warnimont Wood. Capt. D.C. Allen remained at Courcelles in charge of detachment.
O.C. [Officers Commanding] coys. were A Company Lieut. V.S. Simpson B Company Capt. E.L. Moxey
[Turning the page for the entry for the 28th, the day of Roberts death I was disappointed to see that an entry had not been made, However, the next entry was as follows]
Warnimont Wood Oct 29th In the morning companies were at the disposal of their commanders.
Notice having been received from Brigade Headquarters that a working party would have to be provided in the evening, afternoon parades were suspended. At night a working party of 2 officers and 100 other ranks was provided for work in the trenches. A HE (High explosive] shell bursting near the crossroads, HEBUTERNE [Name of village], caused 8 casualties in this party - 1 o.r. [other ranks] killed, 5 wounded and 2 shell-shock.
For the next few days the diary notes the lack of any casualties, despite heavy rifle fire. Although it’s impossible to be sure, I feel that this unfortunate soldier killed at night by a shell burst was almost certainly Robert as this is the only note of a casualty for several days either side of the date given for his death.
Looking at a Michelin map of the area, the region is covered in British war cemeteries and I hope that a letter to the War Graves Commission might provide information as to Robert’s final resting place, if it’s known. Hebuterne only looks an hour or so from Calais so I may be able to visit at some point in the future.
Background reading in the library also revealed that the 12th battalion was originally a ‘Pals’ battalion made up of friends and comrades from the same are. In their case the 12th was known as ‘The Bradford Pals’ who had spent early months of the war in Egypt. Many had purchased scarabs as lucky charms and carried them over to France. After some of the early, bloody battles, concern was expressed that casualty lists were having a disastrous effect on local morale. Whole villages or small towns might have their young men wiped out in a single day and from that point on regional regiments tended to be mixed (including putting cockney’s into kilted highland regiments) and Pals battalions broken up to spread the death toll. It seems Robert was transferred to the York and Lancaster regiment as part of these moves.
This year we finally did make it to visit Robert's grave in Hebuterne where my daughter took the photo of Robert's grave at the beginning of this article, but not before Robert had a visit from the band of the Metropolitan Police (but the circumstances around that are surely worth a separate blog entry of their own.