Part 9: 1917: Rugby’s battles in the mud

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 9: 1917: Rugby’s battles in the mud

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At the start of 1917, Britain was under new management. David Lloyd George, previously Minister of Munitions in Asquith’s coalition government, took over as Prime Minister. Asquith had been a reluctant war leader, but Lloyd George was determined to press on for victory. The war would now be fought to the bitter end, despite mutinies in the French army and the Russian Revolution in 1917, which eventually took Russia out of the war against Germany. In April, the USA entered the war on Britain’s side, but it took a year for the American entry to tilt the scales in favour of the Allies.

During the first half of 1917, Rugby’s losses in trench warfare on the Western Front continued to mount, and over 40 local lives were lost. They included several young officers, such as Capt A V D Wise, aged 23, of Oakfield House on Bilton Road, Capt E S Phillips, 22, who had joined the Border Regiment, and Capt D E Bradby, 20, in whose memory the Bradby Boys’ Club was later founded by his father. 2nd Lt H H Lister of Clifton Road was just 19. NCO casualties included Sgt Albert Ashworth who had volunteered in Aug 1914. Two brothers, Privates J V Cleaver and W T Cleaver, both in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, were killed within a fortnight in April 1917, while Rugby’s Howitzer gunner P Cope of Lawford Road fell in June. This rate of attrition continued for Rugby in the second half of 1917.

The muddy Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

Field Marshal Haig, the British commander in France, planned an attack for the second half of 1917 which he hoped would turn the tide of the war. Haig’s attack once again aimed to break through the German lines at Passchendaele near the Belgian town of Ypres. However, the Germans had deliberately fallen back to a strong defensive position, the Hindenburg Line, which was difficult to break through. The British attack did not start until the end of July, and over the next few weeks, heavy rain turned the battlefield into a sea of mud in which many troops disappeared without trace. The Tyne Cot memorial was later built to honour British troops missing in the Ypres area from August 1917 onwards.

Over 30 Rugby men were lost in the Battle of Passchendaele from August to November, and at least 10 Rugby names appear on the Tyne Cot memorial. Those who disappeared in August included L/Cpl F E Boyes, Pte WE Summerfield, and L/Cpl FHB Warden. Rugby’s heavy losses in October included CSM George Hayes of RWR 7th Battalion, Pte J Lindley of Little Pennington St, and WC Eccles of Bilton. The Battle of Passchendaele ended in November at a cost around 250,000 casualties on both sides, for a gain of five miles by the British. Further losses in November, after Passchendaele, included L/Cpl Bert Holmes (awarded the DCM medal) and Capt F S Neville, born in Dunchurch.

The Home Front in 1917

While Rugby’s troops battled in the mud of Belgium and France, further muddy battles were fought closer to home, in the field of food production. In 1914 there had been panic-buying of food in Rugby, while in 1915 and 1916 there were frequent shortages in the shops, and prices rose. For the first three years of war, instead of rationing, the government encouraged Food Economy. Canteens were set up in Cambridge Street and Oliver Street, promoting vegetarian dishes. However, unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany in 1917 produced a national crisis. By the end of 1917, coal and oil were rationed, and there were long queues at Rugby’s food shops. In January 1918 the government finally introduced rationing of food, firstly sugar, then pork, bacon, milk, butter, cheese and margarine. Ration cards were issued and shoppers had to register with a butcher and grocer. Potatoes and vegetables, however, were not rationed, and Warwickshire War Agricultural Committee strove to maximise their production. 50,000 acres in Warwickshire were ploughed up for arable crops. Increasing numbers of Rugby women and pupils helped in the fields during 1917 and 1918.

Rugby troops move to Italy

Italy entered the war on Britain’s side in 1915, hoping to gain territory from Austria. In November 1917, many of Rugby’s troops in the 48th Division were transferred from France and Belgium to quieter fronts in northern Italy, to support Italy’s flagging war effort against Austria. Rugby’s ‘E’ company in RWR 7th Battalion, and Rugby’s Howitzer Battery, were amongst those moved to Italy, where they remained during 1918, assisting in capturing Austrian artillery and crossing into Austria by the end of the war. Some lives were still lost on the Italian fronts in 1918. Major RG Pridmore of Rugby’s Howitzer Battery, fell in March. He was a former England hockey international, and was described on his cross as “A most gallant sportsman and comrade”. WH Angell of Little Pennington Street fell in June, and L/Cpl J A Maycock of Bennett Street in September. However, the 48th Division’s move to Italy meant that Rugby’s losses during 1918 (the final year of the war) were lighter than they might have been. Some of Rugby’s troops regarded their stay in Italy in 1918 as almost a holiday, in comparison with daily life and death on the Western Front.