Sixty-six years of death in twenty-four hours… and one man in particular.
One hundred years ago today, on the 13th November 1916, exactly three thousand five hundred British military died[i]. It is a surprisingly precise, neat number given the unprecise, horrific conflict it stems from. But let’s just consider it. Three thousand five hundred. 3,500 deaths, in one day.
That is more British military dead than died in Korea, the Falklands, the Gulf war, the second Iraq war, Afghanistan and all of the Northern Irish troubles, combined. Just let that sink in. More British military dead on that single day, than in every conflict (including those I haven’t listed) since 1950[ii]. Sixty-six years of death, in one day.
The numbers are staggering, but by First World War standards, although more than the combined Commonwealth deaths on the first day of the Gallipoli Landings, it doesn’t actually qualify the 13th November 1916 to be in the top ten of single-day casualty figures. Nor even in the top twenty. It comes in at Number 21[iii]. (See the table at the foot of this post for a full listing).
Still, it’s quite a total and you may be asking, why so large a number? Because it marked the first day of the Battle of the Ancre. The final British offensive during the Battle of the Somme. A five-day campaign that actually, in the terms of the Western Front was a relative success. To paraphrase “Blackadder”, the British managed to move Field Marshal Haig’s drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin[iv]. In fact, they moved it quite a bit more than six inches and the events of the 13th/14th November marked the furthest advance made in one leap, during the whole of the Somme Campaign. But at a withering cost.
A cost that in terms of looking back and putting it into context is difficult, if not impossible. But perhaps easier if we were to frame it in a single life. An individual soldier. Private Mark Armstrong. East Yorkshire Regiment. Aged thirty-nine. Married. Father to seven children. A boiler stoker in a cement works before he joined up with his mates. That’s him, looking quite dapper. We’ll return to him later.
The Battle of the Ancre is described in detail in numerous sites on the Internet but in simple terms, it involved six divisions stretching from the south, against the north bank of the River Ancre, to the northern-most point, in front of a German strongpoint surrounding Serre.
The southern and central advances went well. The Royal Naval Division in the south, comprising Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and Royal Marines especially succeeded, but were decimated in the process. The Royal Marine Battalions ended the day with only their CO and 1 other officer left. The German artillery-fire and machine-gun fire was so effective that all company commanding officers of the 1st RM Light Infantry were killed before reaching the first objective.[v]
In the north, opposite Serre, the losses were also severe, but for no return in advancement. It took a particularly heavy toll on the East Yorkshire Regiment, who were sent to aid in an attack just north of a place called John Copse.
Now I understand that divisions and regiments and unit numbers can be a little confusing but I’d like you to remember that every one of them was made up of men. Small units of men. Regardless of divisions and regiments, battalions and companies, they all came down to individual soldiers. Like Mark.
Especially in the First World War when Kitchener’s recruitment drive had seen the formation of Pals Battalions. Men from similar trades and towns joining together to fight together and sadly, on so many occasions, to die together. In Hull, in East Yorkshire, they formed four specific Pals battalions. The 10th (1st Hull Pals) were formed from the commercials of the town. These were the ‘top end working class’ and ‘lower middle classes’ so mainly clerks working in offices and factories as well as teachers.[vi] The 11th (2nd Hull Pals) were the Tradesmen. The 12th (3rd Hull Pals) were the Sportsmen and the 13th (4th Hull Pals) were known, in a particularly Yorkshire manner, as T’others.
On 13th November these Commercials, Tradesmen, Sportsmen and T’others formed the majority of the 92nd Brigade of the 31st Division and were sent to aid 3rd Division. Their day is also discussed in detail elsewhere but from the battalion’s own records it played out like this:
At 0500 the first platoons of the attacking companies moved out into No Man’s Land and found fog so thick visibility was down to 1-2 yards. At 0530, Zero Hour, the attack started and the leading troops found their way into the German lines despite the thick, almost knee deep mud.[vii]
The fog rendered cohesion and direction in the attack impossible. In places, men had to pull each other out of the mud before going on. On the left of the 3rd, the 92nd attacked under similar conditions.
Immediately the barrage fell on the German trenches the leading waves of the 13th Battalion on the right and the 12th on the left advanced as close up to it as possible and had entered the hostile trenches when the guns lifted. The wire in front of the two battalions presented few difficulties… the bombardment so effective that many men of the first wave passed over the German front line having failed to distinguish it. The first wave of the 13th Battalion, under Captain Laverack, experienced little difficulty taking the German front line though there was a certain amount of bomb throwing, machine-gun and rifle fire. Numbers of Germans surrendered and others were discovered in dugouts, where they were captured, or killed if they refused to come out. The second and third waves of the 13th went through the first without difficulty, but the battalion on the right of the East Yorkshires (the 2nd Suffolk Regiment) was in difficulties and could not get on. The consequence was that the 13th’s third wave took the German third line but were then attacked in the rear and right rear, some being cut-off and forced to surrender. By 0700 the Suffolks were back at their own front line, leaving the right of the 13th battalion entirely in the air and completely exposed to attack.
Three heavy counter-attacks were launched by the Germans against this flank, but were only partially successful, as certain portions of the East Yorkshiremen were able to hold on to the second line positions until 1900. A little later, however, with no chance of assistance the East Yorkshiremen withdrew to the German first line and then late at night, all the way back to their own front-line trenches from where they had begun.
Throughout that day the enemy’s guns had barraged the whole area occupied by the 92nd Brigade including front-line, support and reserve trenches. Because of this it was impossible to get either supplies or reinforcements across No Man’s Land, though several gallant attempts were made to do so. To the left of the 13th the 12th also gained their objectives easily and with few casualties before being counter-attacked in force twice and spending the rest of the day in smaller engagements. At night, with the prospect of being surrounded, they too gave up all their advances and returned to their starting points.[viii]
During the day, Private John Cunningham, 12th Battalion won the VC. His citation states: After the enemy’s front line had been captured, Private Cunningham went with a bombing section up a communication trench where much opposition was met and all the rest of the section were either killed or wounded. Collecting all the bombs from the casualties Private Cunningham went on alone and when he had used up all the bombs he had, he returned for a fresh supply and again went up the communication trench where he met a party of 10 Germans. He killed all 10 and cleared the trench up to the new line. His conduct throughout the day was magnificent.[ix]
Also on that day, at sometime, at someplace and probably due to German artillery, Private Mark Armstrong died. Originally listed as Missing in Action, he was subsequently declared Killed in Action. One of over three hundred East Yorks to fall that day.
From the 13th Battalion alone, seven Officers were killed, six wounded (two who would die later from their wounds) and four taken prisoner. Of the other ranks, including Mark Armstrong, two hundred and seventy-one would never come home.
Mark had been born in Hutton Ambo, a small hamlet in Yorkshire. His father was an Irish immigrant, one of many that came across from Ireland during the famine years to find work on the farms of Yorkshire. His mother was a native of Hull. Mark had been originally employed as a lamp lighter, as Victorian a trade as you could have, before he became a stoker in the local cement works. Joining up in his late thirties, he would have been one of the oldest in the battalion and when he died, he left a wife and family behind. A family that had already suffered heartbreak that year with the death of one of their sons. The second child they had lost.
Obviously religious, as were so many back then, he lends an insight into the true sacrifices that were made a century ago. Nowadays, were there to be a family tragedy, even if the soldier was on operations, all efforts would be made to get them home, but not then. As the transcript of Mark’s letter, written in August 1916, shows:
8th August 1916
My dear wife,
It was with great pleasure I received your letter. It turned to great pain when I read the sad news it contained about poor little Wilfred, god rest his soul, but as you say he will be better off now he has gone to meet his little brother. I don’t wonder that your heart is at breaking point, mine is broken already. It seems awful to think I am here facing death everyday for my country, and my little boy dying at home, and what made it worse was having to wait so long for a letter from you.
I got your cablegram telling me about him dying, and I sent you one back early next morning, I also sent a letter the same day, asking you to do certain things, but I don’t to think it will be any use doing so. Both my officers and headquarters officers tried their best to get me off. The district headquarters even sent for my regimental number and home address, but I have not heard any more about it and I don’t suppose I shall.
Now I wish with all my heart that I were with you to share the trouble with you, and also the pain. You asked dear heart, to show your letter to my officer, he could not do anything for me personally, as with such cases as ours have to go thought the war office.
But never mind darling wife keep your trust in god and he will make the trouble not so hard to bear. You remember the words dearest “oh you come to me heavily laden, and I will relieve you”. So bear that in mind dear. I can assure you that it has been my hope and prayer and has kept me safe many times while in the trenches, and also remember dear, when your thoughts turn to either of our two little boys that they have gone to the one who loves little children, and they are safe under his mighty arm, and think also they may both be waiting to receive us, when our time comes to follow them.
Well Jenny dear I yearn to see you again. Blacky’s alright I forgot to tell you before. This is all I can tell you this time, only tell the boy’s to be good for my sake. Have you got the rosary I sent you yet, it’s not much this time.
From your loving husband Mark.
P.S. love to all at home, goodbye dear for the present. May god bless and protect you all till I return.
Of course, he didn’t return but eventually life had to move on. In time, Mark’s widow remarried. Mr Lewis was a widower with three children of his own, living close by. The new couple went on to have two more children together. This extended family, some kin of Mark and some who would likely never have been had he not died on the battlefield, now stretches out across the globe.
On this 100th anniversary of his death, we should all be grateful for this soldier and the millions of others who, for our tomorrow, gave their today.
Private Mark Armstrong, 9/13 – 13th Battalion (4th Hull Pals T’others)
Awarded the 1915 Star, British War and Victory Medals.
Born 13 August 1877 Hutton Ambo, Yorkshire
KIA 13th November 1916 – Ancre Valley, North of Serre.
With no known grave he is listed on Pier and Face 2 C of the Thiepval Memorial
I walk no longer midst men or mud,
I should be grateful.
For both were clinging, torturous, pitiful,
Neither did me good.
Sucking clay, deep, feet deep, knee deep.
Clogging every waking moment,
Boots weighing a hundredweight,
Clothes wet, mired, dried, mired and dried,
Keen men, scared, bravely scared.
Wallowing in fear on sleepless nights,
Nerves, pulling down like lead weights,
Tears hidden, dried on muddy sleeves, minds fraught, taut,
Then my peace delivered. A flash,
A mighty flash, no noise, yet as I spun I knew.
My world turned slate grey and brown over and over, I knew.
I watched, interested as mud reached up, enveloping me
With the small hands of my precious boys,
Who went before and now guide their father.
In the aftermath of man’s insanity.
I shall lie torn asunder in mud. Unknown.
For my King and country, my comrades, my family and you,
Men, women yet unborn,
Your future bought with my blood.
Ian Andrew is the author of the alternative history novel A Time To Every Purpose, the detective thrillers Face Value and Flight Path and the Little Book of Silly Rhymes & Odd Verses. All are available in e-book and paperback. Follow him on social media:
Somme Battlefield Maps © http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/
Acre Valley Image © IMW
Ancre Valley Barbed Wire – One of forty seven photographs of devastated countryside, towns, villages, railways. Associated with World War One, Western Front (1914-1918).From a group of 550 photographs, compiled by Lord Henry Seymour Rawlinson while Commander in Chief in India, 1916 (c)-1919. Photograph, World War One, Western Front (1914-1918), 1916.
All other imagery © Armstrong & Lewis collection – L.Knock
Single Day Casualty Figures WWI
|Date||Major Battle||Commonwealth Deaths|
|1||1 July 1916||Somme||18771|
|2||25 September 1915||Loos||10294|
|3||21 March 1918||1918 Spring Offensive||8664|
|4||3 May 1917||2nd Bullecourt||7371|
|5||9 April 1917||Vimy Ridge||7135|
|6||15 September 1916||Flers Courcelette (Somme)||6773|
|7||31 July 1917||Pilckem Ridge (3rd Ypres)||6495|
|8||31 May 1916||Jutland||5890|
|9||23 April 1917||Vimy Ridge||5038|
|10||4 October 1917||Broodseinde Ridge (3rd Ypres)||4982|
|11||20 September 1917||Menin Road Ridge (3rd Ypres)||4630|
|12||9 May 1915||Aubers Ridge||4331|
|13||22 March 1918||1918 Spring Offensive||4135|
|14||16 August 1917||Langemarck (3rd Ypres)||4063|
|15||3 September 1916||Somme||4031|
|16||7 June 1917||Messines||3867|
|17||26 October 1917||2nd Passchendale (3rd Ypres)||3748|
|18||28 March 1918||1918 Spring Offensive||3727|
|19||9 October 1917||Poelcappelle (3rd Ypres)||3726|
|20||12 October 1917||1st Passchendale (3rd Ypres)||3651|
|21||13 November 1916||Ancre (Somme)||3500|
References / Sources
[iii] Codehesive, Op Cit
[iv] Curtis, Elton: “Blackadder Goes Forth” Captain Cook
[v] Jerrold, D. (2009) . The Royal Naval Division (Imperial War Museum and N & M Press ed.). London: Hutchinson. ISBN 1-84342-261-1, Pg 196-197
[viii] Wyrall, Everard. (2008) . The East Yorkshire Regiment in the Great War 1914-1918 (N & M Press)London: Harrison & Sons Ltd. ISBN 1-84342-211-5, Pg 181-184