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 1,400 local men and Rugby School old boys who lost their lives in the war.
Part 10: 1918: Final battles in Rugby’s war
By 1918, Germany was starving, owing to a successful naval blockade by Britain and its Allies. German commanders decided on a final push to break through British lines on the Western Front, before Germany would have to surrender. The Russian Revolution had taken Russia (on the Allied side) out of the War, so German generals moved a million men from the Eastern Front to the Western Front to join the attack. The German offensive began on 21st March 1918 with a huge artillery bombardment of British lines along a front of 50 miles on the Somme. The 1918 Battle of the Somme had started. The huge scale of the attack took the British by surprise. This was the heaviest artillery bombardment in the entire war, with over a million shells fired. The British defences, and units in them, were smashed in many places, and thousands killed. The bodies of 14,000 British troops killed during the battle from March-August were never found, such as Walter Tull, who had played football for Northampton Town and was Britain’s first black army officer.
The 1918 Battle of the Somme
Many of Rugby’s troops were by now on the quieter Italian fronts, but Rugby still shared in the losses on the Somme in 1918. On 21st March these included L/Cpl Frank Reeve from Murray Road and Pte Charles Chambers of Hillmorton, along with Corp WM Haggar, L/Cpl A V Bicknell and Gunner CH Hardman. Several more men from the Rugby area, such as Capt Thomas Townsend MC of Clifton, Pte Fred Summers and J Donnovan of Bath Street, fell during the next few days as the Germans advanced up to 30 miles in places. Stiff resistance by British forces slowed the German attack, allowing defences to be re-organised further to the west. Rugby’s losses on the Somme in April 1918 included 2nd Lt R V Wilson, an old boy of Lawrence Sheriff School, and 2nd Lt E H Jones of Cosford, who won the MC medal. By April, the German attack had ground to a halt, and in the summer of 1918, the British Army reversed the flow of the Battle of the Somme, and re-captured the ground lost in March. As the British advanced with their new weapon, the tank, losses in August included Privates G Clark of Windsor Street and AG Souster, both of the Tank Corps.
Prisoners of war
At the start of 1918, around 90,000 British P-o-W’s were held in German camps, but by the end of March 1918 another 90,000 British troops had been captured in the German spring offensive. This created a crisis, as German was already hungry and could afford little food for prisoners. Each district of the UK had a P-o-W committee, raising money to buy food parcels for local men held as P-o-W’s in Germany. These were delivered by the Red Cross. The Rugby Advertiser in 1918 published many appeals from the Rugby Prisoner of War Committee, quoting released P-o-W’s such as Private P. Mace from Hillmorton: “I suppose you know that all we had to live on was the food that you sent us from England.” Around £3 per month was needed to feed each prisoner. In May, 35 men from the Rugby area had been captured, bringing the total of Rugby prisoners to 95, but as the Allies advanced this number had risen to 150 by October 1918. The Rugby Committee did its best to keep Rugby P-o-W’s from starvation, while harvest festival was being celebrated in Rugby’s churches. P-o-W’s in Germany were often ordered to join ‘Kommandos’, or work-parties, in factories, mines or farms, especially to replace workers who had joined the German armed forces. A number of Rugby prisoners, such as Frank Clements, died in captivity in Germany in 1918, along with BTH employees J. Pescow and F. Wright.
The Spanish Flu epidemic at the end of 1918
Another concern of the Rugby Advertiser towards the end of 1918 was the mounting ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic, which in due course was to claim more lives globally than the First World War. Most day-schools in Rugby had closed by the start of November. On 2nd November, the Advertiser announced over fifty flu fatalities in Rugby in the previous three weeks, including an entire family in Brownsover, and reported that healthy young adults seemed most at risk. In the last week, there had been 17 burials at the Clifton Road cemetery, and so many graves were needed that an extra six grave-diggers had been employed. By the time epidemic subsided in December, over 120 local people had died from influenza.
Late losses before the Armistice
As Allied forces advanced into Germany, Rugby’s losses continued right up to the ceasefire on 11th November. J H Vale of Clifton, who won the DCM and MSM medals, fell in September. Losses in October included 2nd Lt Harold Lever of Hillmorton, Pte AE Webb of Alexandra Road who had been in France for just over a fortnight, and Pte HJ Oldham of Newbold, followed by Pte George Brain from Dunchurch at the start of November. D R Coleman of Rugby, a Royal Engineers pioneer, joined the ranks of war dead on the very day of the Armistice, 11th November 1918. The guns fell silent at 11 a.m..
Battery Sergeant Major George Hopewell, of Rugby’s 5th Howitzer Battery, describes the experiences of the Howitzers during 1917 and 1918:
“On July 5th we commenced a ten days’ march into Belgium for the third battle of Ypres...where we arrived on July 17th. Here we quickly realised the meaning of Ypres being the artilleryman’s grave, for during our three months’ stay there we had three officers wounded, one officer gassed, six N.C.O.s and men killed, 32 N.C.O.s and men wounded, and 10 N.C.O.s and men gassed. At the gun positions we were SHELLED DAY AND NIGHT and at the wagon lines we were bombed almost every night, and altogether things were most unhealthy. During the week’s artillery preparation before the battle commenced, we had 7 guns knocked out and a dump of 5,000 rounds of ammunition blown up by the enemy shell fire.”
“The rain commenced on the first day [July 31st], and after a few hours the conditions were as bad as they possibly could be. The guns had to be continually dug out, as they were axle-deep in the mud, and every round of ammunition had to be taken up by pack horse, which meant night and day work for the drivers. When we had just succeeded in getting our complement of ammunition up to the guns, 6,500 rounds, Jerry blew the whole lot up, and so with much wailing and gnashing of teeth we had to re-commence the heart-breaking pack work again.”
“Some idea of the amount of firing which we did in September will be gathered from the fact that during the month 17,500 rounds, or over 273 tons of shells, were fired by our battery alone.”
[In November the Howitzers travelled by train through France to Italy, to help stop the Italian retreat].
“We had a glorious run through Paris, Lyons, the Rhone Valley, and along the coast of the French and Italian Rivieras, and it was like a glimpse of heaven to see the peaceful country and beautiful scenery once more.”
“On March 23rd we left the Montello and went into action in front of Asagio, our gun position being 6,000 feet above sea-level, and we remained in this locality until we advanced into Austria, reaching Trento before the armistice with Austria was signed....The remainder of the time was occupied in raiding, until the Allied attack right along the line on October 29th, when our South Midland Division created a record for a day’s capture by one division, by taking 23,000 [Austrian] prisoners and 500 guns, together with a huge amount of war material of all kinds. Our biggest casualties in Italy were from sickness, as we had seven N.C.O.s and men die in a week from the influenza epidemic.”
[The Howitzers left their guns and horses in Italy in March 1919, and arrived back in England in April].