Bristol’s Battalions at War

On each of our tours we have spent time following in the footsteps of Bristol’s battalions that fought in France and Flanders. Of particular focus were the 1/4th and 1/6th Gloucestershire Regiment (Territorial Force) and the 12th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment (Bristol’s Own). We have been lucky enough to travel with relatives of men who served in these units so our stops have very much been acts of pilgrimage.

4th and 6th Battalions Gloucestershire Regiment (Territorial Force)

Two Territorial battalions of the Gloucestershire Regiment were based in Bristol – the 4th Battalion at Queens Road in Clifton and the 6th Battalion based at St Michael’s Hill. The 5th Gloucesters had its HQ in Gloucester barracks. The Territorial battalions were called back from their annual camp in Minehead the day before war was declared, arriving at Bristol Temple Meads. A week later they left the city, moving to Essex for seven months training before crossing to France in late March 1915 as part of the 48th (South Midland) Division.

Ploegsteert (April – June 1915)

After a short period of instruction in trenches near Armentières both Bristol battalions went into the front line south of Ploegsteert Wood in the Le Gheer sector. Spending three months there, both battalions learned the ropes of trench life, suffering inevitable casualties.  Of particular poignancy was the deaths of the 4th Battalion’s 17 year old Oliver Badman on 27 April and 16 year old Harold Stenner on 1 May who lie buried next to each other at Lancashire Cottage Cemetery.  Many Bristolian men lie here and we have visited the cemetery on a few of our trips, most memorably in 2016 where the Last Post was played.

The Somme (1915-16)

In summer 1915 the 48th Division was moved south to take over a sector of Somme trenches from the French. It was in the area, opposite the German-held village of Gommecourt, that the 4th and 6th Battalions spent the next year. Their Headquarters was in the village of Hebuterne, a focus of our 2019 trip where we spent a morning looking at their service there which included trench raids, patrolling and a strong German attack on their positions on 19 March 1916. Most of the Bristolian casualties from this period lie in two cemeteries; Hebuterne Military Cemetery and the Sucrerie Cemetery.

Clive Burlton speaking to our group at Hebuterne Military Cemetery

We spent some time at Hebuterne, walking amongst their graves and looking at individual stories. These included Private Bert Cottell, a well known Bristol cricketer and footballer killed on 13 September 1915, Lt Charles Edward Schwalm, an old Cliftonian who was killed on 22 November 1915 throwing bombs in to the German trenches and Corporal William Kingston of the 6th Battalion who was killed during a bombing accident at Grenade School.  Also buried at Hebuterne is Lt Henry Paton Nott, 6th Battalion from Stoke Bishop who was killed by shellfire in the communication trenches in April 1916. His two brothers were also serving as officers in the battalion (see April 1917 section below).

Both battalions suffered around 400 casualties during July and August 1916 in fierce fighting between Ovillers and Thiepval during the Battle of the Somme.

Villers-Faucon (April 1917)

On 18 April 1917 the 6th Battalion suffered a grievous blow when at rest in the Somme village of Villers-Faucon. A delayed action bomb left by the Germans as they retreated to the Hindenburg Line exploded in a cellar being used as Battalion HQ. Six officers were killed, including the Commanding Officer, Adjutant, a Company Commander, the Medical Officer and Chaplain. The C.O. and Adjutant were Thomas and Louis, the elder brothers of Henry Paton Nott, killed in April 1916.  In the space of a year the family lost all three sons plus the father – a tragic tale.  In 2017 we visited Villers Faucon and left a cross at the graves of the Nott brothers.

Third Battle of Ypres (October 1917)

Back in 2016 we visited the area in which the two battalions fought during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele).  It lies south of the village of Poelkapelle and, having read from the war diary after action reports, we were able to lay a cross at the roadside to their casualties.  Soon after their October action the 48th Division left the Western Front for Italy where they served for the rest of the war.

12th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment (Bristol’s Own)

The Battle of the Somme (July – September 1916)

Formed in Bristol in 1914, this unit sailed to France in November 1915, learning the ropes of trench life in and around the Somme and Arras before heading back south in July 1916 to take part in the Battle of the Somme. During the summer months the battalion was involved in three separate actions – at Longueval in July, at Guillemont/Wedge Wood on 3 September and Morval on 25 September.

Trench map extract of Longueval, 1916

On our 2016 tour we were joined by two guests, Keith and Terry, whose grandfather’s had been with the battalion in these actions. It was a tremendous honour to visit each spot with them. A special moment was when, overlooking the Bristol’s Own Cross at Longueval, our Bakers Dolphin driver Michael played the Last Post.  

2016 group at Bristol’s Own Cross, Longueval

We also recreated the group shot of the Old Comrades Association from 1930 at the cross and a wreath and cross was laid. The three actions on the Somme irrecoverably changed the nature of the battalion. Losses at the Somme were nearly 700 men and their reinforcements were rarely Bristolian. Some wag is said to have said that ‘Bristol’s Own’ were now ‘Anybody’s Own’.

The Battle of Arras (May 1917)

In 2019 we visited the small village of Fresnoy-en-Gohelle east of Vimy Ridge where the 12th Gloucesters were in action during the latter stages of the Battle of Arras. It is a rarely visited but deeply rewarding area.

Annotated map from 95 Infantry Brigade war diary showing positions east of Fresnoy held by 12th Gloucesters at noon on 7 May 1917

The battalion had taken over newly-won shell-hole positions on the east side of the village. It was a perilous position to hold and they were ill prepared for a determined German counter-attack which was launched on the cold and rainy morning of 8 May under a huge artillery bombardment and in heavy mist. Under the onslaught the battalion fought as hard as they could but were forced back. The mist obscured SOS shells fired by the doomed infantry so artillery support never arrived. One 12th Gloucesters soldier wrote:

“We put up a good hand-to-hand fight with bomb and rifle and even rifle butts and for a time held the attackers at bay. But we were very much outnumbered and gradually forced back. But in small groups the men fought stubbornly until wounded or killed.”

12th Gloucesters casualty list taken from 95 Infantry Brigade war diary

The Battalion’s losses were 13 Officers killed, wounded and missing plus a further 288 Other Ranks. It is likely that many original Bristol’s Own who had survived the Somme or had rejoined after recovering from wounds became casualties. Their losses at Fresnoy were larger than they had suffered in a single action on the Somme and surely marked the end of the truly Bristolian nature of the battalion.

Jim Baldwin telling us about some of the 12th Gloucesters casualties from the Fresnoy action

Stopping at the lay-by on the crossroads where the battalion had fought under such odds, we explained the action of May 1917 and left a cross in the field in memory of those who had become casualties.

Breaking of the Hindenburg Line, 29 September 1918

By September 1918 very few of the original battalion were still in its ranks. One man who was Bristol-born was the grandfather of Clive Burlton’s wife George Pine who had begun the war in the 6th Battalion. We had planned our tour to coincide with the centenary of the Breaking of the Hindenburg Line on 29 September 1918, a hugely important day in the Last Hundred Days. As part of that day’s momentous assault the 5th Division, of which 12th Gloucesters were a part, were tasked with attacking the Hindenburg Line southwest of Cambrai between Villers-Plouich and La Vacquerie. Compared to the Allied success to the south the attack here did not fare so well.   

One of the page of the 12th Gloucesters war diary for 29 September 1918

A last minute change to orders did not reach the battalion until they were already on the march to their assembly. The Battalion only arrived at these positions as the artillery barrage began, making the organisation of sections difficult to organise in the darkness. When the attack began the darkness made direction difficult to maintain. A report was soon received at HQ that the objective had been gained and it was not for some hours that this information was found to be incorrect. A sunken road had been mistaken for the real objective. Whilst occupying this position the battalion was subjected to very heavy machine-gun fire. Despite capturing 120 prisoners they still took casualties; 2 officers wounded, 12 Other Ranks killed and a further 28 wounded, one of whom was George Pine.

Annotated trench map showing the 12th Gloucesters final attack on 29 Sept 1918

We started our walk at Fifteen Ravine Cemetery which was in the valley from which the battalion started their attack.

Fifteen Ravine British Cemetery, Villers Plouich

Many of their casualties are buried in the cemetery and we visited their graves, noting that none of them were from Bristol. As we walked the attack route we stopped periodically to read from the Battalion war diary until we ended up at the sunken road they mistook for their objective.

12th Gloucesters killed 29 Sept 1918 at Fifteen Ravine British Cemetery, Villers Plouich

It was here that Clive read George Pine’s account of the attack and his subsequent wounding. Clive then placed a cross in the field where George was wounded. It was an emotionally rewarding experience walking in the battalion’s footsteps 100 years to the day.