Part 3: 1915 - Trench warfare on the Western Front

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In this series of 12 articles, Rugby historian Nigel Stanley traces the part played by thousands of Rugby’s men, women and children in the Great War, saluting over 1400 local men and Rugby School old boys who lost their lives in the war.

Part 3: 1915 - Trench warfare on the Western Front

War-time streets of light and darkness

Rugby had expanded greatly around 1900, with an urban population of 26,000 by 1914 and another 16,000 in the villages of the Rugby district. Major employers included the electrical engineering works of BTH (British Thomson Houston) on Mill Road, the LNWR railway workshops, and the Willans works on Newbold Road, making turbines for generating electricity. Employment led to new terraced housing in New Bilton, and in the large central area of Rugby bounded by Newbold Road, Clifton Road and the railway. Rugby was a major railway junction, and during the war, troop trains became a common sight, as thousands of soldiers passed through the town on their way south. Cars, buses and motor-bikes could be seen alongside horses on roads now lit by electric light, but Rugby’s new terraced streets were to become streets of sorrow in 1915, as war casualties mounted, along with the number of grieving mothers and widows in black.

Rugby’s men in the trenches

On the Western Front, 1915 was dominated by trench warfare, especially by British attempts to break through German lines in the second Battle of Ypres. Rugby School boy Louis Stokes, now 18 and in the army, wrote home in June about the coming attack, that “We are immensely superior to the Germans in ammunition”, but “If it does not quite succeed, it will have been a ghastly waste of money, men and munitions.” His fears were soon realised. The BEF was led by Sir John French, who launched various offensives involving Rugby troops, especially at Loos (the ‘Big Push’) in September. These battles brought heavy losses but only minor gains of territory. Over 80 men from the Rugby area were killed in trench warfare and battles on the Western Front during 1915. The pages of the Rugby Advertiser conveyed news from the ‘home front’ and from the frontline, with lists of local men recently killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner.

Among Rugby’s casualties in June 1915 was 2nd Lt William Alfred Brooke, younger brother of Rupert Brooke who had died two months earlier. The fallen in 1915 included officers such as Lt D Davies and 2nd Lt J W Bush, over twenty NCOs such as W C Hunter and M Dodd, and over 50 infantrymen or equivalent ranks. Over 30 of those killed had volunteered for the new Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, whose 5th Battalion suffered heavy losses at Loos on 25th September, such as S G Barnett, W F Goffin, and Wilfred Page of Cambridge St. Other infantry regiments with several Rugby casualties in 1915 were the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the Rifle Brigade, whose losses at Loos included 18-year old Wilfred Lintern of The Elms, Clifton, and T Shone of Newbold. Private Arthur Vickers from Coventry won the Victoria Cross for action at Loos on 25th Sept, by cutting the German barbed-wire in broad daylight under heavy fire.

Rugby T.A. troops arrive in France

Warwickshire’s four TA battalions (the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th RWR battalions), in the army’s 48th Division, arrived in France at the end of March 1915. After further training, Rugby’s ‘E’ Company in 7th Battalion went into the trenches, firstly near Bailleul, then near Hebuterne, with billets at Fonquevillers when not at the front. Until the Battle of the Somme in 1916, these battalions defended the trenches, rather than being ordered ‘over the top’. However, the German use of gas caused problems, and shrapnel from exploding shells and mortars brought casualties. Losses in 1915 included Cpl T F Johnson of Lawford Road, and L/Cpl JWG Hughes of Paradise Street in June, both of Rugby’s ‘E’ Company. In September 1915, an appeal went out in Rugby for 1500 plum puddings, to be sent to ‘E’ Company in good time for the winter and Christmas.

Volunteers, conscripts and objectors

By Christmas 1915, over 200 Rugby men had died in the war, and the optimism of August 1914 was a distant memory. 3,200 Rugby men had now volunteered for the forces, but recruitment rates in Rugby and elsewhere were too low to replace losses, and in January 1916, conscription started in Britain for most single men aged 18 to 41. Later that year, married men were called up, and in 1918 the upper age limit was raised to 51. Not all men wished to fight. A ‘No Conscription Fellowship’ was formed in Rugby in 1915, and a public meeting against conscription was attended by over 700 married men in March 1916, at The Empire cinema (now Rugby Theatre). Opponents of conscription could appeal to a local tribunal to decide their case, and from 1916-1918 hundreds of appeals by local men were reported in the Rugby Advertiser. Most appeals were on grounds of employment or family circumstances, and only a few on grounds of conscience, by Christian pacifists. Tribunals could allow an appeal, or dismiss it, or recommend non-combatant service, such as the Royal Army Medical Corps. In Rugby, conscientious objectors included W. Barker, and William Humphries of Campbell St. In Warwickshire, those who refused to serve were often sent to Warwick Prison. Rates of normal crime fell during the war, as most potential criminals were now in the armed forces. One warder at Warwick Prison later recalled that from 1916-1918, most of the inmates were either conscientious objectors or “uncontrollable girls”.