Norton Canes Royal Engineers
Courtesy of Andrew Thornon, Bob Leighton and The Story of 1/2nd North Midland
(later 466th) Field Company, Royal Engineers (T.F.) in the Great War.
The company consisted of many relatives and workmates. Within the Drivers section there were three sets of brothers: Drivers William and Alfred Yates; Corporal Wilfred and Trumpeter William Rose and Drivers Arthur, Len and Job Hollowood all from Norton Canes. There was also five Stringer brothers in the Company.
Summer - winter 1914
Early part of 1915 - March 1915
Whilst 1/2nd North Midland Company were in Braintree, the North Midland Division received definite orders to proceed to France. They had received these orders before but they had been cancelled. On 19th February 1915 the entire North Midland Division paraded for Kind George V at Great Hallingbury Park near Bishops Stortford. The inspection had an added significance as the Division was the first to complete territorial force division to be ordered to move to France. On 26th February 1/2nd North Midland Field Company arrived at Southampton and moved to a rest camp prior to embarkation.
The North Midland Division now came under the command of the 2nd Army. On 10th March the Company and other units of the North Midland Division moved to Sailly sur la Lys as a reserve for breakthrough from Neuve Chapelle. On the 16th March as their services were no longer needed 1/2nd North Midland Field Company moved to La Verrier. They were also given the role of supporting the Staffordshire Infantry Brigade. On the 20th March along with the Staffordshire Infantry Brigade they were moved to Armentieres to undergo trench instruction. This preparation was vital before the North Midland Division took over their own section on the Front Line. Whilst in Armentieres the Company suffered their first casualty. Driver George Gough was the first casualty, he was wounded by shrapnel and was treated in hospital in Boulogne but returned soon. He was 21 and a miner from Norton Canes. They left Armentieres on the 31st March 2015 and went to La Verrier. The North Midland Division then moved the short distance to cross the border to Belgium in preparation of entering the front line for the first time.
contacted Sir John French, Commander in Chief about their arrival saying “I have no doubt the North Midland Division which was the first Territorial Division to go to France, will maintain the reputation it has started”.
The company left for the docks at midday and boarded the S.S. “Architect” at 2 o’ clock. They arrived at Le Havre in the early morning of 1st March 1915. At midday they left the Architect and marched through Le Havre to a rest camp, at the rest camp they were given goatskin coats to protect against the cold. On the following day they had a 20 hour train journey in cattle trucks to get to Oxoleare.
On the 4th April 1915, the North Midland Division took over the front line from 28th Division between Kemmel and Wulverghem. They moved into their new billets at ‘Bulford Camp’, near Neuve Eglise. Their bedding was straw on the floor and they had a single oil lamp suspended from the ceiling which was their light.
Each of the four field sections of the Staffordshire Brigade took turns to serve tours on the front line. One of the main tasks of the Sappers was to improve and strengthen the trenches. This was constant work. Strong Points were made that provided accommodation as well as a machine gun post. Other farms were converted into Infantry Battalion Headquarters or First Aid Posts. Each task required the Company to provide manpower, tools and resources. The Infantry Units from the South and North Staffords also provided fatigue parties to work under the supervision of the Royal Engineers.
Where it was possible work was done at night, but the constant activity did attract snipers or artillery fire resulting in 1/2nd North Midland Field Company suffering from casualties. They suffered their first fatality on 16th April 1915. This was Sapper George Phipps, age 31, married from Heath End in Pelsall and he was shot by a sniper. Two more men were killed by the end of April.
Lance Corporal Albert Morris was from Heath Hayes and he was killed by rifle fire on 27th April. Lance Corporal Albert Morris had won the Company Cup for Marksmanship in 1911. Lieutenant Patrick E Welchman wrote to his father telling him of his son’s death saying “The only consolation to you, and it should be a big one, is that he died doing his country’s work at the time of her greatest need.” He was buried in a small burial plot near St Quentin Caberet. Another soldier came across the grave later and sent a letter to the Cannock Advertiser talking of how they (the Kings Own) were carrying on the work of the East Yorkshires and were renovating graves. He said “Lance Corporal Morris is buried under a large plum tree, turfs are planted all round and flowers on his grave.”
Not all casualties were as a result of the enemy. Captain Bernard McCraith was wounded by a British artillery shell that exploded ‘short’ over a trench whilst he was supervising repair works with the 1/5th South Staffords.
The North Midland Division faced their first gas attack on the 22nd April in the Ypres Salient. The wind carried the chlorine gas several miles to the south, causing some soldiers in Neuve Eglise to experience irritation to the eyes and sore throats. The Company were issued with rudimentary anti-gas pads.
May 1915 - July 1915
When not working, football was played against other units at Bulford Camp. A letter, written on behalf of “The Cannock and Wyrley Boys” was sent to the Cannock Advertiser and printed on the 8th May about one of the matches between 1/2nd North Midland Field Company R.E. and the Brigade Band. The R.E.s won 3-0.
On the 8th May there was a gas alert but it was later discovered that the smell that had caused the alarm to be raised was that of a decomposing cow.
On the 12th May the North Midland Division was retitled and became the 46th (North Midland Division). They continued with their routine throughout May and June and Major Hatton was allowed to have a couple of days leave.
Lieutenant Osmond Crutchley Hawkins was wounded on 12th June by shrapnel in the thigh. Sapper Jack Hawkins (Cheslyn Hay) and three others carried their officer 600 yards from the front line to a nearby first aid post. Sapper Hawkins was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal which was reported in the Walsall Observer on the 3rd July where it spoke about his bravery and how the Officer he had helped rescue was another local gentleman.
Sapper Hawkins did not receive the award and Lieutenant Hawkins spent some time in hospital in France before being evacuated to England. Lieutenant Hawkins was the son of Mr TA Hawkins of Cheslyn Hay, he was 24 and a graduate of Cambridge University, where he had served in the Officer Training Corps. On the outbreak of war, he applied for, and obtained a commission as Second Lieutenant in 2nd North Midland Field Company. Due to the prompt action taken by Sapper Hawkins he was able to get married which was reported in the Lichfield Mercury on 30th July. By the end of the war Lieutenant Hawkins had been promoted to Major and was serving in a staff appointment in London.
In late June the 46th Division moved to Ypres Salient and on 25th June 1/2nd North Midland Field Company left Neuve Eglise for new billets at Ourderdom. In July the Division took over a section of front line that stretched from Sanctuary Wood to Ypres Comines Canal, they then moved to Hill 60 sector by mid-July. This sector had an evil reputation and was back in German hands. On the 30th July the Germans attacked and captured trenches at Hooge to the North of Hill 60. This was the first time flame throwers had been used. They also heavily bombarded the British Line including those at Hill 60.
1/2nd North Midland Company moved to Kruistraat in case of a German breakthrough and the trenches at Hooge were recaptured by 6th Division by 9th August. The Company continued to carry out improvement works to the trenches in the Hill 60 sector. The sappers also assisted the 175th Tunnelling Company. As many of the men were miners from 1/2nd North Midland Field Company they provided individuals to work with 137th Brigade Mining Section. Gifts from home arrived when Missus C. Fletcher, C. Prince and R. Roberts collected 500 cigarettes and sent them to Sapper j. Scottham for distribution.
September - October 1915
Printed notices & letters about those killed / wounded in action during late October 1915
The Cannock Advertiser of 23rd October printed notices about those killed and wounded. Some of the notices printed were about:
Sapper W.E. Bickley of Cheslyn Hay. He was killed in action having only just returned to the trenches due to injury.
Sapper William Wilkes of Brownhills was killed in action, he joined the Royal Engineers (T.F.) shortly after the outbreak of war.
Major J. Selby Gardner of Rugeley was severely wounded after a bullet passed through the back of his neck. He was being treated in hospital in Le Treport near Dieppe.
Sapper Horace Lote, nephew to Mrs Clewley of Brownhills was wounded in the arm.
Sapper Aarron Foster bandaged a colleague who had been hit and carried him to a trench where he died. Foster was then hit with shrapnel and a shell knocked a parapet over him which scarred his face.
Sapper George Gough of Norton Canes was shot through the right shoulder and the bullet entered his spine. He was deprived of the use of his lower body and legs and was in hospital in Newcastle.
Sapper Ridgeway, Cannock suffered bullet wounds in both arms and bayonet wounds in the thigh. He was admitted to Fazakeley Hospital in Liverpool.
Sapper George Hawkins wrote from hospital saying that “People in England do not realise what we have to go through out here”.
Following the Hohenzollern Redoubt a letter was sent to Lord Dartmouth the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire and President of the County Territorial Force Association by Major-General
E. Montague Stuart Wortley, General Officer Commanding 46th Division saying that the division “behaved with distinguished gallantry worthy of the best traditions of the British Army”. The letter was sent on 16th October 1915.
Late October 1915 - December 1915
On the 17th October 1/2nd North Midland Field Company were on a rest day but they held a church parade to remember their fallen comrades. On the 19th they moved to Rue de Lillers and whilst stationed there they played three football games against other Field Companies in 46th Division. They won two games and drew one. On the 25th October the Company returned to Fouquires in preparation for a return to the front line trenches. On the 4th November, 46th Division relieved the 3rd (Lahore) Indian Division at Richebourg St. Vaast. Due to waterlogging the Company was heavily involved with trench improvements. On the 6th November news was received that Major Chris Hatton had been awarded the Legion of Honour by the French for his leadership during the attack on Hohenzollern Redoubt and rescuing several wounded men.
1/2nd North Midland Field Company suffered a major blow when Major Chris Hatton was wounded in the abdomen by a piece of shrapnel whilst in conversation with Major R Abadie, the Brigade Major of 137th Brigade. Chris Hatton had commanded the Company from its mobilisation at Norton Hall and had served with them throughout apart from a few days leave in June 1915. He was evacuated to hospital in England but was never again to serve with 1/2nd North Midland Field Company. He was a very popular and well respected by his men. Meanwhile back in England Driver George Gough died of his wounds on the 9th December. He was buried with full military honours in the churchyard of St James’ Church in Norton Canes. A firing party was provided by the 10th Battalion The Leicestershire Regiment who were based at Rugeley camp. A detachment of Royal Engineers was also present. Most of the villagers attended the funeral.
They moved on the 19th December to Pecquer and settled down for their first Christmas in France. Ten soldiers from Norton Canes made an appeal to Councillor T. Emery J.P. for a phonograph. A collection was made in the village to buy one and it was sent to C.Q.M.S. Shergold. Other gifts for the soldiers were received from home and the comfort funds that had been set up in the Cannock area. C.Q.M.S. wrote to the Norton Patriotic fund to thank them saying “Just a line to thank the committee and subscribers of the Norton Patriotic Fund for the very kind and welcome parcel I received today.” He also went on to say “In my little place I can tell the names of those who opened their parcels – Myself, Joby Hollowood, Herbert Fenton and T. Rose. They are staying in the same barn as me and I can tell you we have had a good smoke this evening, and a good chat about the times we have had at Norton.”
On Christmas Day the Company prepared to move, the division had been ordered to move to the south of France and then from there sail to Egypt. Reveille was sounded at midnight and the Company left Lillers at 5 o’clock in the morning. At 8 o’clock the Company apart the Transport Section began their journey to Marseilles, which they reached on the 27th December.
January - March 1916
1/2nd North Midland Field Company sailed from Marseilles on board H.M.S. “Magnificent” on the 3rd January 1916. They sailed in convoy on a zigzag course to confuse U Boats and reached Alexandria on 9th January. They took a train to Shalufa Camp which was on the west bank of the Suez Canal which was under threat from the Turks. They stayed in Shalufa for several days and then along with 1/6th South Staffords, elements of 1/6th North Staffords, a troop of Indian Cavalry and a baggage train of a hundred camels and moved out to the East of the camp. Their task was to construct “No. 3 Post” including placing wire entanglements around the position.
Whilst in Egypt the Company’s Officer Commanding changed a few times. Captain Patrick Welchman M.C. relinquished command on 8th January and Lieutenant C.H. Jones took over commanding the Company during its service in Egypt until he was relieved by Captain R.N. Burn. 46th Division didn’t stay very long in Egypt and they received orders to return to France. 1/2nd North Midland Field Company left Shalufa on 3rd February took the train to Alexandria. The Company then sailed for Marseilles on board the Minewaska, landing back in France on 9th February. The Company reached Pont Remy on 12th February and on the 18th were reunited with their Transport section. The Transport section had been temporarily “homeless” and had been travelling round whilst the rest of the Company were in Egypt. The Company then spent the next month moving from billet to billet.
The British Army were in the process of taking over portions of the front line from the 10th French Army below Vimy Ridge with 46th Division moving forward in March to relieve 24th Division of the French Army in the trenches near Neuville St Vaast.
1/2nd North Midland Field Company were based near Mont St Eloi, billeted in caverns burrowed into the chalk known as ‘marnieres’. The Company faced many an unpleasant task here as the bad weather had caused the sides of the trenches to collapse but when they tried to make repairs they disturbed bodies of both French and German soldiers that had not been buried. Constant mining was another unpleasant aspect of being in this sector. The Company spent a lot of time repairing and consolidating trenches and mine craters as a result of this activity. It was whilst working on a crater that Lieutenant Glyn Robertson was killed by a German sniper on the 14th March, he was buried at Mont St Eloi the following day.
An example of the type of actions taken at this time was an action that took place near B4 trench on the 28th March. A camoflet charge was fired at 6:50pm that would cause an enemy sap to collapse. A platoon from A Company 1/6th South Staffords and a party of bombers, Lewis gunners and six sappers from 1/2nd North Midland Field Company moved in to occupy the crater behind the Germans. Their task was to connect the crater to the existing front line trench by digging a Communication trench and placing wire entanglements around it. Despite being under heavy trench mortar fire and a torrent of hand grenades, the operation succeeded and the crater was consolidated by the following morning.
Captain Burn was replaced as Officer Commanding by Captain L.J. Coussmaker M.C. on the 15th March. He had served with the Company since 1913. He had been mentioned in Despatches for his part in the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt and had also been awarded the Military Cross, which was gazetted on 14th January 1916.
April - June 1916
The start of April saw them move to Ecoivres and also suffer another loss. Lieutenant Charles Jones who had commanded the Company when in Egypt was killed on the 10th April. He was buried with full military honours on the 12th April. The Company remained in the shadow of Vimy Ridge until the beginning of May when the 46th Division moved south to take over a new sector.
On the 17th April, Second-Corporal Thomas Adams was awarded his Distinguished Conduct Medal that he had earned on the Hohenzollern Redoubt. A parade was organised in Sheffield where Adams was serving following his return from hospital. The Walsall Observer reported this on the 22nd April.
In May, 46th Division entered the line at Fonquevillers facing the German held village of Gommecourt. This was on the Northern tip of the Somme front, which the British Army had taken over from the French in August 1915. During May it became clear that there would be an offensive in the Somme area and that 46th Division was destined to be given a leading role in a diversionary assault on Gommecourt.
To prepare 1/2nd North Midland Field Company carried out field training at 46th Division’s Battle School, including courses on bayonet fighting and gas warfare training. Their role was to support 137th Infantry Brigade during the advance. They also dug a mock-up of the German defences around Gommecourt.
The company was also involved in carrying out major trench improvements around Fonquevillers in preparation of the attack. The newly built communication trenches were given names such as “Stafford Lane” and “Raymond Avenue”.
This work was carried out throughout June and the weather made it very hard work (the Sappers often worked in knee deep water and mud with little chance of drying their clothes). They also constructed 137th Brigade’s Advanced Headquarters dugout. This activity continued right up until the day of the attack. On the 25th June the British artillery began to bombard the German line along the Somme front with the intention of smashing down the barbed wire in front of the trenches in preparation for the advance of the infantry.
The assault was originally intended to take place on 29th June but instead took place on the morning of the 1st July 1916. The 46th Division were given the task of attacking the northern end of Gommecourt, with 56th (1st London) Division advancing from the south. The attack itself was intended to divert from the main offensive to the south. A few minutes before “zero” smoke was released in front of the British trenches to cover their advance, however due to the denseness of the smoke it was difficult for them to advance. Even though the British had been bombarding the German line since the 25th June the barbed wire was still virtually intact. The German machine gun fire and counter bombardment had a devastating effect on the advancing British troops. The few small parties that managed to advance to the German trenches were forced to withdraw. 1/2nd North Midland Field Company was withdrawn at 11:30am due to the failure of the attack on the 46th Divisions front, having suffered with one man killed and another 14 injured. Two of these eventually died in hospital.
Major-General Montague Stuart Wortley was relieved of his command due to the failure of his Division’s attack and a refusal to order a renewed assault on the afternoon of the 1st July. On the 3rd 1/2nd North Midland Field Company moved closer to the 46th Divisional Headquarters at Bailleulval. They were soon engaged in works in the trenches and constructing reinforced dugouts. It was also heavily involved in trench raiding. The new Commander of 46th Division Major General Thwaites had a policy of harassment of the Germans that included trench raiding and dominating No Mans Land to restrict the German’s movements.
Trench Raids had three purposes. These were to gain intelligence on German units in the area by capturing prisoners and documents, inflict casualty on the enemy and to cause damage to their positions. To ensure that the Germans could gather no intelligence from the trench raiders soldiers would have their faces and bayonets blackened as well as any identification, badges, letters etc being removed. The artillery, machine guns and trench mortar support were synchronised to the raids.
September - October 1916
A successful raid took place on the 2nd September that 1/2nd North Midland Field Company contributed to. Before the raid the detachment from the Company moved their equipment into the forward trenches. Artillery and mortars bombarded the wire entanglements to create the gaps for the military to advance. The raiding parties moved into the German line at 11:03pm. The raid lasted 15 minutes where they destroyed the dugouts and secured four prisoners. Corporal W.J. Price and Second-Corporal J.W. Morris both from Cannock were later awarded Military Medals for their part in this raid. Corporal Price was injured in the raid when a stray bullet hit him in the knee. The London Gazette on 21st October 1916 spoke of these medals.
Raids continued throughout the autumn of 1916 and 1/2nd North Midland Field Company continued to support the 137th Brigade in trench raids of the sector. Six members of the unit were awarded the Military Medal for their parts in raids. The London Gazette on the 11th November 1916 reported of Sapper David Benton from Brownhills, Second Corporal Patrick Downey from County Kerry (Killed in Action), Sapper Horace Lote from Brownhills and Second Corporal Job Willets from Cannock being awarded their Military Medal.
December 1916 - early 1917
The London Gazette on the 21st December 1916 spoke of Sapper John Alfred Bray from Bridgetown was also awarded the Military Medal “For gallant conduct during a raid on an enemy trench near Monchy.”
The 46th Division was allowed a period of rest in early November and were moved to camps and billets behind the lines around Doullens. Here the Transport Section adopted a stray dog and he was named “Whizzbang”. He was a treasured companion of the Drivers.
The Division moved back into the trenches in December 1916. They carried out more trench raids and trench maintenance. The winter of 1916/17 was very severe resulting in an increase in trench repairs.
In the New Year’s Honours of 1917 Company Sergeant Major Albert Statham from Brownhills was awarded the Military Cross. Albert Statham who had also been mentioned in Despatches in June 1916 was presented with his decoration by General Sir Edmund Allenby, the Commander of 3rd Army on 8th January.
The Company carried out routine engineering sessions through early 1917 but did so under a new name. From 12th February they were called All Territorial Force Royal Engineer units had previously had designations which reflected their origins such as 1/2nd North Midland Field Company but this system was abolished in favour of numbering. 1/2nd North Midland Field Company now became 466th Field Company. This was the name they were to serve under for the remainder of the war.
February - March 1917
By the end of February the Germans started to withdraw to new defensive positions; the “Siegfried Stellung” or “Hindenberg Line”. This meant that the Germans had abandoned territory. The British 3rd and 5th Armies took this ground to pressure the Germans into giving up more land. 46th Division was included in this advance moving towards the abandoned defences around Gommecourt in the early part of March. They had marched on this land before in July 1916. 466th Field Company were involved in searching the defences for booby traps, of which there were several. The Sappers also had to construct “corduroy tracks”, fill in craters. The Germans had also polluted some of the water supply and had left snipers amongst the ruins. As a result, the advance was slow. During the early hours of 14th March, 137th Brigade made an unsuccessful attack on two German positions, they suffered from many casualties. 46th Division was withdrawn from the advance as the British line had contracted and didn’t require as many troops to maintain the advance.
For those in the Transport Section, the time of German withdrawal had them spending a lot of time on the roads, in very difficult and muddy conditions. 466th Field Company were also engaged in salvage work on the old battlefield at Gommecourt. This involved trying to identify the remains of fallen comrades whose bodies were in a state of decomposition, although it was horrid work it did allow them to give those fallen a decent burial.
466th Division was soon on the move again, as 46th Division had been ordered to move north to come under the command of the 1st Army. In the early hours of the 29th March, the Company took the train from Doullens and went to Lillers. The North Midlanders then spent nearly a month training and refitting. 46th now moved towards Lens which was the centre of the coal mining industry in Northern France. The men of 466th Field Company must have felt some affinity with the local population because of their mining background and the surroundings may have reminded them of the Cannock Chase coalfields.
April - May 1917
The Company arrived at Bully-Grenay on 20th April. There they faced the constant threat of artillery and gas which was to cause many casualties to the Company during the coming weeks. The Canadian Corps had earlier in the month captured Vimy Ridge from the Germans. Lens had briefly been abandoned but the Germans had now reoccupied it. The British had also captured several other enemy positions that required 466th Company to constantly work on to make them serviceable.
The Germans had converted the ruins of Coron making them good shelters and comfortable living quarters. The Germans had left in a hurry leaving large amounts of clothing behind, however the cellars needed to be searched first and 466th Field Company provided search parties for this.
The Company now settled into their work routine. The Company Headquarters and Transport Section was based in Bully Grenay. Field Sections worked in alternate shifts with two sections as work parties in the 137th Brigade positions in Lievin, with the remainder staying at Bully Grenay. The shifts also alternated between day and night work. Work included cutting brushwood, camouflaging, clearing roots and digging firebays.
The sappers who had stayed at Bully Grenay carried out work with fatigue parties from 137th Brigade or the Divisional Pioneers; 1/1st Monmouths. They also carried out repairs on gas blankets and making billets gas proof. These precautions were very necessary as the men of the 466th Field Company found out on the 7th May. The Staffords and two sections of the sappers had their trenches at Lievin bombarded by gas projectiles. 27 sappers had to be placed under medical supervision due to being slightly affected by the gas.
The Transport Section suffered on the evening of the 8th May. A wagon column under the command of Sergeant Tom Sharratt from Norton Canes was travelling along a dangerous section of road close to the billets at Bully Grenay. As they approached the village, they arrived close to a crossroads known to be under German observation and registered by their artillery. To avoid being fired upon, the wagon teams had to gallop across the gap to escape detection. The first wagon was driven by Bill Yates who was closely followed by his younger brother Fred in another wagon. The Germans had been alerted to their presence and opened fire. A shell landed in front of the third wagon which killed the horses and the two drivers. Bill Rose who was also with the column recalled vividly many years afterward seeing one of the unfortunate horses impaled on the pole shaft of the wagon as a result of the blast.
The two drivers that were killed were Driver George Pickard and Driver Herbert Price. George Pickard was from Pelsall and joined the Company in December 1914, he got married in the February whilst on leave. Herbert Price was from Norton Canes and Captain Sullivan wrote to his parents who lived in Hill Street, Norton Canes. He said “We all mourn the loss of so gallant a soldier and wish to express our deepest sympathy with you in terrible bereavement.” Tom Sharratt and Fred Yates also offered their sympathies to his parents by writing to them. Both George Pickard and Herbert Price were laid to rest in the village cemetery in Bully-Grenay on the evening of 9th May by their comrades.
June - July 1917
Sergeant Ernest Lester D.C.M. was also buried in the same cemetery. He was a former Norton Territorial who had won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions during the Hohenzollern Redoubt in October 1915. He was killed on the 9th June along with three other men from his section of 468th Field Company whilst they were at breakfast. An Officer paid tribute to Sergeant Lester and the action he had been in the previous day saying “and I can truly say that it was greatly due to him that we came through without a single casualty.” The four men were buried together.
The nature of 466th Field Company’s activities in the area continued as before through June and July. Some of the Sappers were also involved in trench raids, such as the demolition parties that joined 1/5th South Staffords in their attack on a position called “Nash Alley” on the 3rd June. Between the 24th June and the 1st July the 46th Division were involved in heavy fighting around Lievin. On the 24th June 1/6th Staffords captured Hill 65. On the 28th June, 137th Brigade captured Abode Trench at 7:10pm and on the 1st July an assault was made on Cite de Moulin, however the Germans resisted and the British faced heavy casualties. 466th Field Company provided support in providing work parties to consolidate the captured positions as well as repair the damage caused by German retaliatory shellfire.
August - September 1917
In the August, 137th Brigade took over a new sector of the line near Hulluch, with the Hohenzollern Redoubt lying to the North. Life became very monotonous for the men of 466th Field Company as they fell into a routine of shift work, fatigues and work parties. Time was broken up however by frequent trench raids. On the evening of 28th August 1/6th South Staffords raided Posen Crater and part of the Company took part. They killed nearly 40 Germans and captured 5 prisoners. 46th Division also supported the Canadian Corps in an attack on Hill 70 ON 15th August.
On the 1st September the Transport section faced shelling from the Germans and 40 horses were either killed or wounded. The section moved to Verquin and again to Sailly Labourse. On the 5th September they were again shelled. Some drivers also faced injury from their horses such as being bitten or thrown from their horses. On the 24th August Driver William Marklew died as a result of being thrown from his horse.
There was time for recreation and when this happened the Sappers visited Bethune which was acknowledged as one of the best towns to visit. There they could buy egg and chips and pints of bass beer, they could also buy picture postcards. 46th Division had a postcard in the town and the there was also “The Whizzbangs” Concert Party who regularly put on shows for the units in the area.
During this time 46th Division set up its own football league. All the teams in league were given codenames. 466th Field Company’s team was called the “Wires”. The codenames were given to stop the Germans finding out which units were in the areas. The names weren’t very imaginative though as 1/6th South Staffords were called “Wolves” and the Sherwood Foresters were called “Forest”.
October 1917 - January 1918
On the 7th October Major L.J. Coussmaker M.C. left 466th Field Company and shortly afterwards was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. He was to be awarded the Distinguished Service Order in the New Year’s Honours of 1918 and would become Commander Royal Engineers (C.R.E.) of 46th Division when the Territorial Army was reformed in 1921. His replacement was Major H.T. Davies M.C.
466th Field Company stayed with 137th Brigade in the sector south-west of Hulluch until the end of January 1918. It was another tough winter of rain and snow which made the trenches very muddy which then needed to be repaired. Bill “smacker” Yates had managed to escape this though as he’d been picked to join the Divisional football team as goalkeeper which would play in Paris against a French side. He began his training on the 15th January. Whilst in Paris he was able to visit attractions such as the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.
466th had a brief period out of the line based near Busnes but they then provided sections for supporting 137th Brigade again when they took over Annequin-Cuinchy sector. As well as working on the front line the work parties were engaged in strengthening defences, placing barbed wire behind the lines, constructing machine gun emplacements and other strongpoints in readiness for use if the Germans attacked in the area. These precautions had come about by the reduction in manpower imposed on the B.E.F. by the Government at home who refused to release more reinforcements. The result of this was that the infantry in each brigade was reduced from three to four battalions. Manpower was stretched even more as the British troops had taken over areas from the French south of the River Somme. 1/5th North Staffords were transferred to 59th Division as part of the reorganisation. The Germans soon took advantage of this weakness.
March - April 1918
Early on the 21st March, the Germans launched a massive onslaught on the 3rd and 5th Armies. The stretched troops were overwhelmed and were forced to withdraw over the ground that they had fought so hard to take over the previous two years. There had been a large amount of shelling along the front held by 46th Division but there had been no attack. However on the night of the 28th/29th March the Division had moved a few miles south to relieve the 4th Division near Vimy Ridge with 466th Field Company moving to Albain St Nazaire. The movements were carried out at night due to heavy German bombardments restricting movement in daylight, and gas shells frequently landed in the area. On the 2nd April, 466th Field Company, now billeted in Le Brebis, came under heavy bombardment and had to vacate the village.
The Germans launched an offensive around Neuve Chapelle on the 9th April. They had attacked 46th Divisions sector with Yellow, Green and Blue Cross gas shells as preparatory measures. As a result of the attack the North Midlanders were relieved by 3rd Canadian Division on the 11th April and then moved into 1st Corps Reserve on standby to be used to counter any enemy thrust.
466th Company then began to move north again to Barlin which they reached on 16th April. They were forced to move on 24th April due to heavy shelling. 46th Division then received orders to counter the Germans advance on Bethune. Bethune had now been ruined by German artillery fire. Civilians had been forced to flee in a hurry leaving a lot of their belongings behind. The Divisional Royal Engineers Headquarters was established at the Chicory Factory in the town.
46th Division moved close to the villages of Gorre and Essars on the 25th April, their main task being the construction of new defensive positions, the “Liverpool”, “Manchester” and “Newcastle” lines. There was a lot of water in the sector so breastworks had to be built us as trenches couldn’t be built up. Ruined cottages and farm buildings became strong points with “Elephant” shelters which were reinforced with concrete. These would become billets and had corrugated iron placed on them as well as earth and sandbags for camouflage and protection. As well as troops providing labour some was done by unemployed French miners.
137th Brigade were in front of the Sappers and they were involved in heavy fighting around Route “A” Keep which was captured by the Germans on 26th April and then recaptured two days later. Mustard gas shells were used by the enemy that affected those in the front and 466th Field Company in the rear. German artillery constantly shelled the roads also making it harder for the Transport Section to move between locations.
The Company remained in this sector through the summer of 1918. The German offensive had reduced by mid-May but life was still unpleasant in the sector particularly Gorre and Le Quesnoy. Le Quesno became a target for the Germans as it was an Engineer Store dump known as “Kantara”. Gorre had a canal bridge which was also fired on and the brewery there was also targeted regularly. The chimney was the aiming point for the bridge so the Sappers blew up the chimney.
Corporal Jim Slater from Heath Hayes was awarded the Military Medal for performing two separate acts of bravery in Gorre at this time. His citation read: “For conspicuous courage and devotion to duty on two separate occasions. For excellent work in re-building Gorre Bridge on July 9th 1918, under heavy shell fire, setting a magnificent example to all ranks. On the same night, this N.C.O. , under heavy shell fire, stopped a runaway artillery team, which was making straight for the broken bridge. By this action, he undoubtedly saved the lives of the drivers and horses at the risk of his own. On Aug.5th 1918, when erecting the new barrel pier bridge in lieu of Midland Bridge near Gorre, the enemy shelled the bridge and dispersed the working party. This N.C.O. attended a wounded man, who was left behind, under heavy shelling, and carried him to a place of safety. Then reorganising the party, finished the work on the bridge.”
Sergeant Harry Huffer of Cannock, was awarded the Meritous Service Medal for “Valuable services in France and Flanders”. The London Gazette of 17th June printed this. Sergeant Huffer was later presented his medal at a ceremony held in Cannock Market Place.
On the 4th August Captain Sullivan left 466th Field Company to take command of 529th (East Riding) Field Company in 3rd Division.
On the 25th August the Company held a sports da at their billets in Fouquires. The events consisted of Wrestling on horseback; tug of war; driving picket; tilting the bucket; mile and half mile races; relay and football. Each section provided a team for each event, with the Drivers winning three of the seven competitions.
Meanwhile in the South, the war and begun to turn in favour of the Allies. On the 8th August, the Australian, Canadian and Third Corps had punched a hole through the German line in front of Amiens and advanced several miles. The Germans began to retreat.
August - late September 1918
By the 5th September, the Germans had also began to withdraw. Again on the 5th September 466th Field Company who were now under the command of Major H.M. Fordham M.C. moved to new billets in Burbure. 46th Division now had orders to move south and moved to Lillers on 12th September. They got on the train and left the area that had been their home for a year. They arrived at Heilly at 12:30am on the 13th September. 466th Field Company moved to the Somme to train for its part in the forthcoming assault by 46th Division on part of the formidable German fortifications known as the Hindenburg Line. The role was to assist the 137th Brigade to force a passage across the St Quentin Canal near Bellenglise establishing a foothold on the eastern bank of the canal. The operation would be made extremely difficult due to the strength of the German defences. On the western bank was the German outpost line, after which lay the canal cutting. The cutting was 30-50 feet deep, with the canal consisting of about 8 feet of muddy water, although some parts had been drained. There were some footbridges across the canal, as well as Riquerval Bridge to the north of the Divisional sector. As the only intact bridge, it was of paramount importance that this was secured before the Germans had any chance of destroying it. On the eastern bank of the canal were concrete pillboxes together with deep trenches and dug-outs. There were also thick belts of barbed wire to contend with.
The Company were involved in intensive training, at Sailly they practised with 137th Brigade. Collapsible boats and cork matting would allow the first parties of infantry to get across, with portable footbridges being brought up in reserve. Scaling ladders would allow the infantry to climb the steep sides of the canal cutting. Cables would be thrown across the water to allow the Lewis Guns to be transferred over without getting wet. 3000 lifeboats were ordered for the troops that couldn’t swim. Each of the three battalions of the 137th Brigade; 1/5th and 1/6th South Staffords and 1/6th North Staffords, were to have a section from 466th Field Company attached to them for their attack. It was clear from the beginning that the Company had been given a chance to prove itself and that they would be crucial to the outcome of the operation.
Practice exercises took place until 24th September. On that day Lieutenant-Colonel H.T. Morshead D.S.O. the C.R.E. of 46th Division was wounded by shrapnel and had to be taken to hospital. Major W.H. Hardman M.C. who normally commanded 465th Field Company replaced him. A further rehearsal took place at Brie before the Company returned to its billets to prepare to move forward.
46th Division had been involved in a minor operation on 24th September to secure the village of Pontruet. The Division was positioned on high ground about a mile and a half away from the canal, they were subject to constant artillery and machine gun fire. A further attack was made on 27th September in the area of Chopper Ravine which moved the line forward and shortened the decision to the canal. However the Germans counter-attacked and recaptured some of the trenches, at the expense of 137th Brigade the following morning. The operation for the canal was still on schedule.
late September 1918
28th September saw 466th Field Company move towards the front line. Officers present with the Company were Major Fordham commanding; Captain H.C. Daly as Second in Command and the Section Commanders; Lieutenants A.Fox, A.E.Hubbard, F.T. James M.C. and Second Lieutenant Midgely. Three Field Sections were detached to join the Staffords in the trenches whilst the remainder of the Company including the Transport Section moved to Vendelles. From here, 466th Field Company made a night march to positions between Ascension Valley and the Victoria cross-roads behind 137th Brigade, and was joined by the rest of the Divisional Engineers; 465th and 468th Field Companies and two companies drawn from the Divisional Pioneers; 1/1st Monmouths who were employed in carrying forward the Cork Pier Bridges. All units were in place by 5:00am. The weather during the night had been good, it had been dark but clear but at dawn the mist began to rise.
“Zero Hour” was set at 5:50am when a massive artillery and machine gun barrage began. The noise was so loud and made verbal communication almost impossible. The morning mist had developed into a dense fog, which turned out to be a great help for the assaulting troops.
The Staffords climbed from their trenches in waves with each of the forward companies being accompanied by a half section from 466th Field Section. For the section attached to 1/6th North Staffords, their main objectives was to secure Riquerval Bridge. “A” Company of this battalion, commanded by Captain Charlton was given this task to perform. Captain Charlton took a party of nine men forward with him one of them being Acting Lance Corporal Openshaw of 466th Field Company, who came from Bury. Using a compass because of the fog the group advanced along a lane that had been christened “Watling Street” by the troops towards the bridge. The German troops spotted them and opened fire. Captain Charlton and his party charged across the bridge with Openshaw personally bayonetting two Germans who were trying to detonate the charges they had laid and capturing a machine gun. Openshaw then assisted Charlton in disconnecting the charges while the remainder of “A” Company raced across the bridge and began to clear the eastern bank.
The Sappers had continued advancing which was going well. The Sappers pulled their cork rafts, collapsible boats, ladders and cables down the steep embankment and plunged into the muddy water.
The German artillery had begun to return fire. The men then scrambled up the steep sides and began clearing the dugouts and trenches at bayonet point and with grenades. 466th Field Company also provided demolition parties which dealt with the determined defenders by blowing up their dugouts. However, they found that many Germans were surrendering rather than fighting. Not all Germans were accounted for and it took two days to clear all the trenches and dugouts. The Sappers also had to diffuse several ammonal charges that had been left hidden. Acting Second-Corporal F.E. Hall from Stoke was noted for checking for booby traps and clearing trenches under fire.
They secured the Riquerval Bridge and Second-Lieutenant Midgely led his section forward to repair it. They were under fire but Midgely with the help of Acting Lance Corporal A. Halifax helped the section to carry out the work and they had the bridge ready to be used by 3’oclock in the afternoon which was 8 hours after it was captured. In tribute to his bravery the bridge was renamed “Charlton Bridge”. Whilst work on the bridge was taking place other Companies worked on “Watling Street”.
The rest of 46th Division and units from 32nd Division now crossed the St Quentin Canal to continue the advance. The Division had made more progress that day than any other neighbouring unit which was regarded as one of the greatest feats of arms carried out by the British Army during the Great War. 466th Field Company played a major part in this successful outcome.
Second Corporal Hall and Lance Corporals Halifax and Openshaw were later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Second Lieutenant Midgely was awarded the Military Cross for his leadership and repair of the Riquerval Bridge. The Transport Section was also commended for their work. A message was sent to Major Fordham by the acting C.R.E. Major Hardman commenting on the Transport Section saying “It was in a great measure due to their skill that we did not have more casualties both to men and horses.”
Three days after the attack 137th Brigade, with 466th Field Company returned to Riquerval Bridge for the benefit of the Official photographer. They were congratulated by their Brigade Commander, Brigadier-General Campbell V.C.
466th Field Company didn’t get much time to rest as they had to maintain their advancement. This involved working behind the advancing infantry repairing roads, filling in craters and constructing tracks to help transport sections. The Company was mainly employed around the village of Magny-la-Fosse. 3rd October saw the 46th Division attacking the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line, with the aim being to capture the villages of Ramicourt, Montebrehain and Sequehart. Ramicourt was taken and Montebrhain was captured but later recaptured. Heavy fighting took place but Sequehart, the aim of 137th Brigade remained German. The Division suffered many casualties and was later withdrawn.
466th remained in action whilst 46th Division was withdrawn. They continued on with engineering work whilst under fire and with the added danger of being attacked from the air. The German aircraft would fly over the British area on bombing raids, dropping parachute flares to illuminate roads or transport lines to enable them to attack.
On the evening of the 3rd October German aircraft bombed La Baraque crossroads. German prisoners were being marched to the rear. The aircraft dropped two bombs and about 40 German prisoners and 6 of their escorts were killed and many more were wounded. The carnage was indescribable and the evidence was seen around the crossroads for several days as wary transport drivers moved forward.
The advance continued over the next few days and on the 10th October Bohain was captured and 46th Divison started to move forwards to Le Cateau. On the 16th October they entered the line again to take part in what was later known as the Battle of the Selle. Along with the French 126th Infantry Division, 46th Division attacked Regnicourt, Andigny and Bois de Riquerval. The assault commenced on 17th October and lasted into the next day. They used a combination of artillery barrage and a “Chinese” attack using dummies as infantry and tanks had been used to great effect. 466th Field Company remained in a supporting role, carrying out repairs to help the Division with their advance. The reached Fresnoy Le Grand by the 20th October and remained there. The advance was going so well that Bill Yates had started a “book” and was taking bets as to when the war would finish.
At this time back in Cannock, 4 members of the Company that were on leave received gold watches when civic receptions were organised for them by the Cannock War Distinctions Fund. The Cannock Advertiser on the 19th October described the presentations:
“Sapper John Alfred Bray, North Midland R.E. (T.F.) of Longford Lane, Bridgetown: “For gallant conduct during a raid on an enemy trench near Monchy. This sapper was in charge of a party of engineers who exploded a 32ft tube of ammonal in the enemy’s wire. Owing to its length and the proximity of the enemy listening post, this was a difficult and risky undertaking. That it was successfully accomplished was due mainly to the coolness and presence of mind of Sapper Bray, whose name has been previously brought to the notice for successful work of a similar nature.”
“Sergt. J. Morris, 55, Hednesford Road, Cannock and Sergt. W.J.Price, Mill Green, Cannock both of the North Midland Field Company of the R.E. who gained the Military Medal on September 2nd 1916 at Berles-Au-Bois, during a raid on the enemy trenches. Of Morris, the official record states that this N.C.O. accompanied the infantry parties and displayed great gallantry. The record concerning Price is as follows: “He went forward and enlarged the gap in the enemy wire, after which he carried a trench ladder with the object of helping the infantry. This N.C.O. has taken part in previous raids, and on all occasions his pluck and good spirits have been an excellent example to others.”
“Corporal Jas. Slater, North Midland Field Co. of the R.E., son of Mr. and Mrs. W. Slater, Stafford Street, Heath Hayes, in recognition of his having gained the Military Medal for conspicuous courage and devotion to duty on two separate occasions in France on July 9th and August 5th, 1918, in connection with the re-building of Gorre Bridge under heavy shell fire.”
46th Division were now moving forward, with 466th Field Company a short distance to the rear. They were soon to be at the forefront of operations again as the Division reached the Sambre-Oise Canal. On the 4th November, along with other Divisional Engineers, 466th Field Company constructed three pontoon bridges across the canal south of the Catillion, where they suffered only light casualties despite being under fire. Their bridge building skills were soon needed again as the 46th Division needed to cross the River Chevreuil and the River Petit Helpe near Cartingies.
On the 7th November, 466th Field Company threw a pontoon bridge across the Petit Helpe which was flooded. This allowed cavalry and field artillery to cross in support of the infantry, who had managed to wade across the Chevreuil earlier that day. Heavy 60 Pounder guns were required to move forward to shell Asvesnes but because of their weight the existing bridge couldn’t be used. At 8:00pm 466th Field Company began to make a 75ft long trestle bridge. The work was carried out in dim light with a couple of lanterns so that they didn’t attract enemy fire. The river Helpe was fast flowing which made the work harder but they completed the work that evening and it was tested with a 60 Pounder gun team galloping over it. It passed the test and it was then used to transport 46th and 32nd Divisions as well as that of the French 15th Corps.
466th continued advancing and they marched behind 46th Division as the Germans continued to retreat. Four days later, Bill Yates made the following entry into his diary: “Nov. 11th Armistice begun 11am 11.11.18. Moved to Sains du Nord.”
466th Field Company’s active role in the war was over.
On the 13th November 466th Field Company moved to Avesnes, the Company moved again on the 14th to Preux Au Bois. 46th Division stayed behind and were now involved in salvage work whilst the rest of 9th Corps moved forward to Germany as part of the Army of Occupation. Unfortunately an Influenza epidemic was sweeping across Europe and two senior members of the Company died as a result. Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Charles Boulton who had been collecting horses in Cannock at the start of the war died in hospital in Rouen on the 11th November. Three days later Farrier Sergeant Wilfred Rose also died at hospital in Rouen.
On the 29th November Patrick Elliot Welchman died of his wounds at 42nd Stationary Hospital near Charmes. He had left the Company in January 1916 and joined the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. Whilst with them he was wounded in the same year. On his recovery Captain Welchman joined the Royal Flying Corps. On the 4th June 1917 he was injured in a flying accident when his Bristol Fighter suffered a failure in petrol pressure which caused his plane to stall while turning, causing him to make an emergency landing. He successfully completed his training and joined 99th Squadron in France as a light Commander. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in September 1918 with the citation reading: “A gallant, capable and determined leader of long-distance bombing raids.” On taking part in a bombing mission over Metz on 26th September 1918 his De Havilland Mk.9 was shot down. Captain Welchman and his observer Second-Lieutenant Swann were wounded and captured. They remained prisoners until the Armistice. Unfortunately Patrick Welchman’s wounds had been neglected by his captors and he died as a result of his injuries.
December 1918 - June 1919
On the 1st December 1918, King George V, together with the Prince of Wales and Prince Albert arrived at Landecries to inspect 46th Division as he had done 4 years previously. The Royal Party then visited 137th Brigade together with 466th Field Company at Preux Au Bois.
Demobilisation of the army had begun. There was a severe coal shortage in the UK so miners were required to be demobilised early. Several members were ordered to return home before Christmas, including Bill Yates. He arrived home on January 1st 1919 after a 13 day journey.
May 1919 saw the remnants of 466th Company return home. On 24th May 1919, Empire Day, a “Heroes Reception” dinner was served at the Drill Hall for the men of Norton Canes who had served in the war, among them were men of the Company. Similar events were held around the district. On the 19th June 1919, 466th Field Company was disbanded.
The Norton Territorials was reborn in 1921 but under a new name. The new Company was called 213th Field Company, Royal Engineers (T.A.), the previous unit with that number having been raised in 1915 as a Fortress and later an Army Troops Company serving on the Western Front. Many of those that served in World War One re-joined the unit, including Bill Rose who was still serving as Company Quartermaster-Sergeant when the Second World War broke out in September 1939.
On the 2nd July 1927, the east window in St James the Great Parish Church in Norton Canes was unveiled during a special service attended by Major-General Sir Percy M. Hambro and the Bishop of Lichfield Dr W.E. Kempthorne. The window is primarily the war memorial for Norton Canes but it does have the crest of the Royal Engineers on it as a small tribute to 1/2nd North Midland and 466th Field Companies. In 1933, the link with Norton Canes was severed when 213th Field Company left Norton Hall, which had been suffering from mining subsistence for some years and had to be demolished and moved to a new Drill Hall on the Walsall Road in Bridgetown Cannock. The new Drill Hall was opened by Lieutenant Colonel C.V. Wingfield-Stratford who had been the C.R.E. of 46th Division for most of the war.
The bonds of comradeship were maintained after the war by the former members of the Company. Many of the men became leading figures in the new British Legion organisation. Major Chris Hatton, who was also active in organising reunions, an activity which he continued until the time of his death. In November 1960 the last major reunion was held for members of the old 2nd North Midland Field Company which was held at the British Legion Club in Norton Canes. 56 men who had served with the company when they arrived in France in March 1915 were present with the oldest being Joe Clifton who was 82 and lived in Hednesford. Major E.H. Wills suggested that the reunions should continue for as long as there were Norton Territorials left so that it would serve: “as a memorial to Chris Hatton, one of the finest gentlemen Cannock Chase has ever produced.”
As the years progressed the Territorials dwindled in numbers. The last surviving members of the Company, among them Bill Rose and Bill and Fred Yates, all died in the 1980s. Although they had often told people about their experiences no-one from the Company had ever written an account of what 1/2nd North Midland and 466th Field Companies had done during the war.