Remembrance The Story of my Granddad: An Involuntary Hero | Addendum
"War is not life: it is a situation,
One which may neither be ignored nor accepted"
(T S Eliot - "A note on War Poetry")
This story is dedicated to the cherished memory of my Grandparents, Fred and Clara Cumpstey, and all the Cumpstey Family. Please use the following link in order to see a photograph of Private Fred Cumpstey.
2014 being the Centenary Anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War in Europe I thought it appropriate to put down in writing my personal association with this Conflict which concerned a Hero, my Hero, my paternal Granddad, Fred Cumpstey.
From an early age I was aware that he fought and was severely wounded in this War. I know of his old Regiment and other basic scraps of information which my Dad passed on to me. I never heard anything about it from my Granddad, quite simply because he never mentioned it. Had I asked him I think he would have smiled wistfully, said nothing and moved the conversation forward.
Until I started my research I had no idea where or when he was engaged in the fighting nor had I any idea where or when he was wounded in action. The closest inkling was that there was an association with the Battle of Loos and that 1915 rang a bell. It was only through the sifting of facts and information that I was at last able to pinpoint the very day when he was wounded, and for him the War was over. Or was it? Because the severity of his wounds meant that throughout his life he would be reminded of what happened on September 1915 - physically and mentally.
My journey in writing this story became increasingly emotional - at times I felt I was with him in those trenches - but it was hard even to hazard a guess of what he might be thinking throughout his time away from his young family. Being a committed family man I am certain that his thoughts and prayers were daily with my Grandma Cumpstey and his children, Alice Fred, Ivy and Rene.
I am just eternally grateful that he safely returned to our family and I was given the opportunity to know him and to be with him and to love him. I could easily have been writing this same story except with a less happy ending and with my knowledge of him being committed to a name on a War Memorial in the Laventie/ Faquissart area of France.
This, therefore, is my small contribution to the Great War but I am just as passionate about the role my Granddad played and made in securing peace, unfortunately squandered some 21 years later. He was from the "other Ranks", he wasn't decorated with a V.C. or M.C.; he wasn't mentioned in Dispatches nor did he feel the need to shout it from the rooftops about what he'd done in the Great War. That was my Granddad, proud yet understated. His silent witness respected the comrades who had made the ultimate sacrifice - I would think with every passing day they weren't too far from his thoughts. He made me proud that I was his Grandson and bore his name. He was an Involuntary Hero - My Hero.
With grateful thanks to Fred Cumpstey for allowing Cotton Town to publish this article January 2020. Copyright Fred Cumpstey.
On the wall in the porch of my home, I have a picture of a soldier from the Prince Consort's Own Regiment, which eventually became the Rifle Brigade. That self-same picture once hung on the wall at the top oif the stairs of my Grandma and Granddad Cumpstey's terraced house at 14 Avondale Street, Blackburn, Lancashire.
As a boy on my regular visits there I remember it well. Apart from being a picture of a soldier, which appealed to me, I never knew of, nor gave a second thought to its significance. I certainly didn't believe it could have any connection with my Granddad, despite the fact, that from an early age I knew he had fought in France in the Great War. The fact that he had been in active service, and survived was borne out by the Medals he used to show me and which were kept in a case in the drawer of the large mahogany corner cupboard in the front room.
He bestowed great pride on those cherished medals and cleaned them on a regular basis, none more so than every Remembrance Sunday in November when he joined the Muster in Blackburn Town Centre and proudly marched to the Garden of Rembrance at the entrance to Blackburn's grand Victorian Park, Corporation Park. The other obvious outcome from the War was that my Granddad was rendered disabled, as a consequence of being severely wounded in action. Those were wounds, both mental and physical, which he carried with him for the rest of his life. His right leg was pinned at the knee, which meant he couldn't bend his leg. He had a large hole, almost crater-like on his calf. He delighted in giving his Grandchildren a glimpse every so often and he even gave it a name - we all knew it as "little Joey". I understand that he had shrapnel wounds to his buttocks whilst he was also left with a bad chest, which I can only surmise was the consequence of gas attacks on the battlefield. Despite these injuries he never complained, he led an active and fulfilling life and had a mischevious sense of humour, very often, at the expense of my Grandma and other members of the family.
It was only after his death, that my Grandma, during one of my visits, gave me the picture of the soldier saying that "your Granddad would have wanted you to have it." It was at that point that I asked my Dad why my Granddad had this particular picture. He told me that this was my Granddad's Regiment, the Rifle Brigade, and that although the picture depicted a soldier of the Prince Consort's Own, this was the fore-runner of the Rifle Brigade. He also told me that the Brigade marched at the fastest pace in the British Army - 140 paces per minute with a 15 inch stride, whereas other Regiments marched at 120 paces per minute, 18 inch stride. I gained one or two more small pieces of information which I stores away in my memory not thinking or believing at that time that I would be able to learn more about my Granddad's service.
At that point I knew he served in the Rifle Brigade in the Great War, was based at Winchester, was severely wounded in action, had the medals to prove it and thankfully survived the horror of War. That was about it. Apart from the snippets my Dad told me, I never asked my Granddad - you didn't ask questions in those days, and I doubt he would have told me anything either, because I never heard him talk about his service or the War - Ever.
Fred Cumpstey was born on 7th November 1883, the third child of John Thomas and Alice (nee Walkden) Cumpstey at 16 Whittaker Street in Blackburn. He attended St Barnabas C.E. School Blackburn. His siblings were Margaret Ann born 1877, Annie born 1879, Jacob born 1882, Emily born 1887, Charles William born 1890 and Ada born 1894. My Great Grandfather, John Thomas Cumpstey was a Tallow Chandler in the family firm of
A & J Cumpstey (Tallow Chandlers), and also, a highly renowned and regarded musician both locally and beyond. He was a Church Organist and Choirmaster and specialised in performances of sacred and secular music. At one special performance of the Church Choir he was described as "indefatigable". His wife, my Great Grandmother, Alice Walkden was a Weaver and they married at St Paul's C.E. Church Blackburn on 16 October 1876.
John Thomas's Father, Jacob Cumpstey was a Specialist Brushmaker, who had his premises on King William Street, Blackburn (later to be occupired by Dowsons and now an Irish theme Bar), who was twice married. His first wife and John Thomas's Mother was Sarah Ann Aspinall who sadly died in 1862 at the tender age of 26 years. Jacob re-married to Jane Kenyon who bore him three more children. Sadly, Jacob died in 1874 aged 40 years.
My Great Grandmother, Alice Walkden was the daughter of William Walkden and Margaret Slater. William Walkden was a Tailor who had his premises on West Northgate Blackburn.
As a boy my Granddad knew tragedy when his elder brother, Jacob was killed on 10 August 1894 when he was hit by a cart when crossing the road, whilst two of his siblings died not long after birth. However, further heartache struck, when John Thomas walked out on his Family to set up home with another woman. I have no information when this occurred and can only surmise that it happened some time between 1895 and 1901, because he did not appear on the 1901 Census. He did, however, reappear on the 1911 Census living on Bolton Road Darwen.
As can be imagined his Father's departure was a hammer blow to my Granddad, and, from all accounts, he didn't take to kindly to what had happened. My Dad told me that when he personally had met John Thomas with my Granddad, the relationship between Father and Son appeared strained and uneasy.
After a time, Alice Cumpstey, to all intents and purposes now 'single' moved to Blackpool where she opened 'Apartments' later to be known as a Boarding House, on Palatuine Road in the Resort between 1909 and 1918. This proved to be a highly successful business venture. As can be seen this coincided with my Granddad's service in the Great War. It did, however, prove to be a boon since the Cumpstey siblings used to decamp en bloc every Summer holiday to their Grandma's by the seaside' almost a peaceful haven away from the knowledge that their Father was away on active service overseas.
Pre this period, happy days looked to be on the horizon when on 27 September 1902, Fred Cumpstey married Clara Heyes at St Philip's C.E. Church Blackburn, both were 19 years of age. Clara was the daughter of Thomas Heyes and Ellen Withrington, who themselves had married on 13 April 1873 at St Peter's C.E. Church Blackburn. Thomas hailed from Sharples near Bolton, whilst Ellen was a Blackburnian living just off King's Street in Blackburn. Clara had 6 siblings, Mary Ellen, Arthur, Isabella, Peter, Thomas and William. Sadly, my Great Grandmother died in 1891 at the age of 38 years, when my Grandma was 8 years old. My Great Grandfather, Thomas never re-married.
Following two infant deaths, the Cumpstey Family at the outbreak of the Great War was Alice, born 1906, Fred (my Dad), born 1907, Ivy, born 1910 and Irene (known to the Family as Rene), born in 1913. At the time of his enlistment my Granddad was working in Dugdale's Griffin Cotton Mill as a Maker Up and Packer.
In his youth and prior to War service my Granddad excelled at Sport. He was, I understand a good footballer and a particularly excellent cricketer, whilst he was also, I'm led to believe one of the original members of Blackburn Harriers. He was also a regular at the Witton Skating Rink. His love of, and enthusiasm for sports meant that he always encouraged his Grandchildren to participate in sporting activity.
BLACKBURN, THE GATHERING STORM AND A DECLARATION OF WAR
Recorded in the Doomsday Book as "Blacheborne", Blackburn can trace its origins back to 1086. From the mid 18th Century to the early 20th Century the Town had evolved from being a small market town to becoming the "weaving capital of the World".
At the outbreak of the Great War, it was indeed a thriving Mill Town centred around the textile industry which had existed from the 13th Century when wool was woven in people's houses under the domestic system. Blackburn was considered a boom town of the Industrial Revolution and, as such, became one of the first industrialised Towns in the World. It is interesting to note that in the period leading up to the Declaration of War, the local newspapers, the Northern Daily Telegraph and the Blackburn Times both carried a considerable amount of news reporting on the events across mainland Europe. The disquiet in Europe was followed on a daily basis and readers in Blackburn at the time could have no complaints that they were not being informed of the imminence of War. An example of this was included in the 4th August 1914 edition which headlined that :-
"ON THE VERGE
BRITAIN AND THE GREAT WAR
NAVY READY AND ARMY MOBILISING"
Even at this early stage in the proceedings the Press were calling it the "Great War".
On the 4th August 1914, Britain declared War on Germany. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith had given the German Government an ultimatum to get out of Belgium by midnight on 3rd August 1914. Britain had guaranteed Belgium's neutrality since 1839.
Asquith, in making his decision had to ponder two questions. Firstly, should he do nothing about a War on mainland Europe which many believed would have little impact on Britain ? Secondly, should he stand up to the bullying tactics of Germany and be seen by his fellow Countrymen as the man who was on the side of right and decency. He chose the latter.
Winston Churchill, at that time First Sea Lord to the Admiralty had noted the War telegram which basically said "commence hostilities against Germany" and that message had been flashed to all ships and establishments under the White Ensign all over the World. He had then reported to the Prime Minister and other Ministers in the Cabinet Room that the deed was done, and so Britain was at War.
The Northern Daily Telegraph's headline the following day screamed the inevitable :
WAR DECLARED ON GERMANY
REJECTION OF THE ULTIMATUM
SEVEN NATIONS NOW AT STRIFE
KING'S MESSAGE TO THE NAVY" - "The sure shield of Britain and the Empire"
The Declaration of War had a devastating effect on the Country and no more so than in Blackburn itself, where a true Blackburnian, the Viscount Morley of Blackburn (John Morley), who was at the time Lord President of the Council, and who opposed British entry into the Great War, resigned from the Government. On this announcement Morley had, over time, a consistent recorded viewpoint on his distaste for imperialism and although his decision was deeply felt it was, nonetheless, totally expected.
Locally, it was reported that Reservists were leaving Blackburn with "affecting scenes at the Station", and, almost as an aside, Blackburn Bakers had decided to increase bread by a halfpenny a loaf.
Life, however, moved on and to exemplify this it was reported the "1500 poor children ranging in age from 6 to 12 years had their anual seaside treat to St Annes on Sea under the auspices of the Ragged School - Mr J Chilman, the School's Superintendent, and a band of 60/70 workers accompanied the youngsters". For the rest of the Town there was an opportunity to purchase for 1d the "Telegraph Football Annual" for the 1914/15 season. Remarkably, the season went ahead despite the barrage of criticism from Politicians, the Clergy and the National Press, who thought it was a disgrace that games would be played whilst young men were going to War.
Come Saturday 8th August 1914, the Telegraph was reporting:
"BLACKBURN MEN READY FOR SERVICE"
"FIFTY ONE RECRUITS ENLISTED"
"Blackburn has made an admirable response to the call for recruits - the Recruiting Office on Ainsworth Street having been thronged with inquiries from early morning until late at night".
In the scale of things, this didn't seem a great many, but, as with any great cause there has to be a starting point and this was Blackburn's. After all it was the start of the annual Blackburn Holidays and "the Mills and Workshops in Blackburn had closed down last night for the annual holidays. Nothing very definite seems to be known how long the looms will remain idle.......it seemed likely that work would be resumed on Monday week."
Even in a crisis somehow there was still room for optimism particularly during the holiday period with Blackpool taking out an advert in the Northern Daily Telegraph assuring:
"BLACKPOOL: Visitors to Blackpool are hereby assured that all the conditions in Blackpool are just as usual - Blackpool breezes still blowing".
The Telegraph further ratcheted up the anxiety levels by advising that there would be 3 editions of the Newspaper in the forenoon, afternoon and evenings on SUNDAYS.
It was a time when the Town's Clergy felt the need to intercede and used their sermons to preach and pray for the Country as witnessed by Rev Harold J Smith, Vicar of St Silas who said " people should place whole-hearted trust in God and maintain perfect confidence and quietness."
Adding to the rich tapestry of life it was reported that "Lewis Beard, Town Clerk of Blackburn, and his wife had arrived back in Blackburn yesterday (11th August 1914) having curtailed their holiday to Norway by three weeks, on account of the War". They weren't the only ones, with other professional people from the Town being reported as having to make hurried arrangements to return from mainland Europe holidays.
Meanwhile the rest of the Town's population lived in the knowledge that:
There was no shortage of butter, bacon and eggs and that there had been a bumper British harvest. The Maypole Dairy Company Ltd confirmed that Maypole Tea was priced at 1s 4d, butter at 1s 4d per pound and that there was no increase in the price of Bovril.
Other advertisements in the Telegraph highlighted Waverley cigarettes at 10 for 3d, Simpsons of Market Place Blackburn were selling Axminster carpets at 3s 11d per yard, "ready September - DIG-DAG Corsets - wait till then", whilst Miss Ada Duxbury of 3 Shear Brow, Teacher of Pianoforte, Harmony etc was assuring "special attention given to beginners". For those seeking business skills it was noted that the De Bear Schools Ltd (for modern business training) at Richmond Chambers, Richmond Terrace Blackburn was re-opening after the Summer Holidays on Monday 17 August 1914.
Even the world of local sport echoed the times, when it was reported that Blackburn Rovers had received notification from the Football Association that they could play a public practice game that Saturday with the proceeds going to the National Relief Fund.
For those wishing to take their minds of the impending conflict, entertainment was available at the Town's numerous theatres including - at the New Empress Theatre "Pride of the Prairies", at the Theatre Royal, "Mr Wu", and "Behind the Footlights" at the Olympia, whilst the Picture Houses all had full programmes.
The Blackburn Times also reported on the events developing across the Channel with increasing concern and certainly following the Declaration of War the emphasis moved rapidly to local interest and involvement in the War. Certainly, by October 1914, there was an increase in the number of casualties being reported. The 30 October 1914 edition headlined that: " BLACKBURN MEN KILLED, WOUNDED AND MISSING". The article included some basic details together with photographs of the men involved.
The Newspaper also updated, in successive editions a running total and details of the "Prince of Wales Relief Fund - Blackburn" and the "Belgian Fund - Blackburn", whilst there was updated versions of the efforts of the "Blackburn Relief Fund Committee. At the Town Hall, the Mayor had opened a Council meeting in early October 1914 remarking on "perilous times."
Despite causes for concern, the Blackburn Times continued to report local news including the fact that the tower on St Silas Church had been completed, there had been an Athletics event at Ewood Park - "large entry but poor attendance", bemoaned the Times. Two young boys had drowned in a Blackburn quarry and Rifle Ranges had been erected on the embankment of the Darwen End and under the Riverside Stand at Ewood Park.
At ' Ellerslie' a former private house on East Park Road, Blackburn, had been fittedout as a Hospital, run by the Red Cross and the St John Ambulance Brigade to receive and treat wounded Belgian soldiers who had arrived in Blackburn in November 1914. In addition, Belgian refugees had also been accommodated in the Town, and their sad and care-worn faces were evident in the photographs.
In the Autumn of 1914, following the Declaration of War, there were strong concerns being expressed in the Town concerning the number of recruits Blackburn had provided towards the War effort. There was a definite opinion that more could be done to stimulate and increase recruitment. Feelings were running high to such an extent that Blackburn Corporation felt it was their responsibility to become heavily involved in moving things forward so they did what Local Government does best and set up a Committee to mount a recruiting campaign. This endeavour was processed through convening bi-monthly public meetings held outside the Town Hall. It is interesting to note that 'conscription' as such, only came into being on 2nd March 1916, with the Military Service Act. This piece of legislation along with the Defence of the Realm Act placed Britain on a 'total War' footing.
The Act meant that every British male subject who on 15th August 1915, ordinarily resident in Great Britain, and who had attained the age of 19 but was not yet 41 and on 2nd November 1915 was unmarried or a widower without dependent children, unless they qualified for the exceptions, was deemed to have enlist for general service with the Colours or in Reserve.
ENLISTMENT, TRAINING AND "OVER THE TOP"
Fred Cumpstey enlisted for the British Army as one of Kitchener's 2nd Army, on 4 September 1914. He was recruited into the New Army (or as sometimes irreverently referred to as 'Kitchener's Mob') whose members were used to form complete Battalions under existing British Army Regulations. My Granddad joined the 12th (Services) Battalion Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own) and, as a recruit, was first sent to his Regimental Depot, where he received his kit and was introduced to exhaustive Army discipline and training.
Following this initial period of training he was assigned to his main Army Training Camp, based at Winchester, to join his Battalion. Thereafter, there followed a prolonged period of training initially at Blackdown, the environs of the Royal Military College Sandhurst at Camberley, then in February 1915 to Witley and finally, training in April 1915 at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain.
Blackdown was a house that was owned by a Rifle Brigade family of a couple of generations. The son had been recently killed in France, however, the family allowed the Rifle Brigade to use one wing of the house for quartering and for a Company office. The training at Camberley in the vicinity of the Royal Military College Sandhurst was probably undertaken in tented accommodation.
I have a very faded postcard, with a simple but loving message, written in pencil from my Granddad. I am presuming it is written to my Auntie Alice, the eldest Cumpstey sibling. There is no date and I can only guess that it might have been enclosed in a letter home because there is no address or recipient's name on the postcard. I am also presuming it was written just before Christmas 1914 during my Granddad's period of training. The view on the postcard is of the lake at York Town, Royal Military College. The message is.....
' Dear Little Sweetheart
How do you like this postcard - this is where we used to go bathing when we were at Camberley. Isn't it a nice place?
How are you going on, are you being a good girl and do as your Mother tells you?
What is Father Christmas bringing you - have you asked him yet?
Goodnight little sweetheart. Think of your Father at night.
In February 1915, my Granddad moved into training at Camp Witley which was a temporary Army Camp set up on Witley Common near Godalming Surry. The Camp was about 7 miles from Bramshott and it appears it was set up in the early part of the War. It was one of three Camps in the Aldershot Command area and it is believed that it was established by the Canadian Army.
It is interesting to note that there was a reference in March 1915 relating to the costs on the huts to the Tax payer which apparently equated to £13 per man, of which £4 represented the hut and £9 for the recreation room, stores, lighting etc. The Camp at this time would have been undergoing construction.
The final training was undertaken at Larkhill which was a Garrison town in the Parish of Durrington Wiltshire. The settlement had long been associated with the British military and grew from the establishment of military Camps. It is now one of the main Garrisons on Salisbury Plain.
During World War 1 it was a 34 Battalion sized hutted Garrison built for use by all different types of Military Forces. There was even a light railway line constructed to carry troops to Larkhill.
Training completed. It was time for the real thing and on 21st July 1915, my Granddad's Battalion left these shores not knowing whether they would ever see them again.
The drama of my Granddad's War unfolds courtesy of the 12th Battalion Rifle Brigade War Diaries. The landscape painted would have been beyond anything they had undergone or foresaw in their training. The place names which would have a familiar and painful ring were they to survive would have meant nothing to them and, in some cases, would most probably have been unpronouncable.
21 July 1915 at 6.45am my Granddad's Battalion was commencing embarkation for Service overseas.
At 11am the Battalion had arrived at Southampton Docks.
At 7.40pm the Battalion had embarked on the SS Viper bound for France.
22 July 1915 at 7am the Battalion disembarked at Havre, France and marched to the No 1 Root Camp.
23 July 1915 at 1.10pm the Battalion entrained.
ST OMER, FRANCE
24 July 1915 at 9.50am, the Battalion arrived at St Omer and marched 2.5 miles into Billets at Tatinghem.It was reported that 1 man was run over by a cart whilst asleep on the Docks and was admitted to Hospital suffering from a fractured pelvis.
25 July 1915 the Battalion undertook a route march over 10.5 miles.
26 July 1915 the Battalion undertook a route march of 10.5 miles whilst a Senior Officer attended a lecture on machine guns at Wisques Convent and an Officer and a Sergeant went to Sailly for instruction on bombing.
27 July 1915 the Battalion undertook a route march of 4 miles whilst 8 Officer attended a machine gun lecture at Wisques Convent.
28 July 1915 the Battalioin marched 8 milkes into Billets at Compagne.
29 July 1915 the Battalion marched 11.5 miles into bivouacs at Borre. The Battalion found it difficult to walk along bad p;rivate roads which resulted in them having to halt on several occasions with the consequent difficulty of having to uegently notify men further down the column to halt and remove their packs.
Sir John French, the Chief of Staff - British Army and Commander of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) inspected the Battalion as it marched into Hazebrouk. During the march, 24 men fell out of the line.
(Note Sir John French was to be replaced in this capacity during the year by Field Marshal Douglas Haigh)
30 July 1915 the Battalion marched into Billets at Outtersteen.
From the beginning of August to the 9th August 1915, the Battalion stayed in Billets, however, at midnight on 10th August 1915, the Battalion paraded with the 12th Battalion Kings Royal Rifles Company and the Brigade Bombing Company and then marched to Fleaurbaix arriving at 4.30am. A,D and C Companies went into Billets close to the Town, whilst B Company went into advanced Billets at Elbow Farm. At 7.45pm two Platoons of A, B, C and D Companies went into the trenches and were attached to the corresponding Companies of the 2nd Battalion Royal Rifles Brigade for instruction. Sentries consisted of 1 man 12th Battalion Rifle Brigade, fatrigue parties and working parties consisting of equal numbers from both Battalions. It was reported that the Germans remained very quiet all night - there was no shelling and very little sniping and, more importantly, there was no casualities.
On 11th August 1915 at 7.45pm the remaining two Platoons of each Company went into the trenches and relieved the Platoons already there. Again the day was very quiet and like the porevious day there was very little sniping. Sadly, however, 1 Rifleman was killed and 1 man wounded.
On the following day the 12th August 1915, one Platoon from each Company went into the trenches and was attached to the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles who relieved the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade. From this date each Platoon was given a frontage of its own to hold and take over its own section and the Machine Gun section and 2 Lewis Gun Companies went into the trenches. Unfortunately it was found impossible to use these guns at night as they had no flash protectors fitted, which meant that when fired the flash of the guns firing gave away their position completely and attracted heavy fire in return. Sadly, 1 man was wounded whilst standing to arms.
Over the next days the Platoons from each Company occupied the trenches and everything was quiet both by day and by night. In general terms there was nothing to report except that heavy rain had been falling at intervals making the communication trenches very difficult to get up and down - there was 1 man killed as he was kleaving the trenches outside a communication trench.
At 8pm on 16th August 1915, the Battalion paraded and marched back to Billets at Outtersteen arriving at 2am. C and D Companies moved into fresh Billets at Bailleul.
Over the next days the mechanics of trench warfare were carried out with working parties being formed to undertake vital maintenance of the trenches and the digging and construction of walls. This often tedious but necessary work was repeated over time for at least one week.
The monotony was ended on 26th August 1915 at 4pm when the Battalion was back on parade with the 12th Battalion Kings Royal Rifles before marching into Billets at Estaires. Here the whole Battalion bivouacked for the night in one large field on the outskirts of the Town.
On 27th August 1915, the Battalion again paraded at 6pm and marched independently to Billets around Ferme L'epinette about 2 miles beyond Laventie. A Company was occupying the defended posts in the rear line and Lonely Post with 3 Platoons and Winchester Post with 1 Platoon.
Orders were received on the 29th August 1915 for the whole Battalion to man "B" reserve line of trenches. Relief was carried out at 8pm. The Garrison of various posts being releived by 6th Battalion KSLI. It had been raining heavily most of the day and the trenches were very muddy and slippery. The relief was completed about 10pm. The night was very quiet with no shelling taking place.
On 30th August 1915, working parties were again hard at work all day carrying out strengthening and improving the trenches. This included digging work to the dugouts. A German machine gun seemed to have the range of the trench and fired continuously throughout from 2pm to 6pm. The Battalion guns bombarded shrapnel bursts near the trench in reply but did no damage. At 7.25pm, orders were received for the Battalion to re-occupy its original Billets and posts and by 10.15pm relief was complete. On the last day in August 19015, working parties were working all day on the reserve trenches - working under the direction of the Royal Engineers.
The first day of September 1915 saw working parties of 290 men working under the Royal Engineers on the reserve trench - the enemy throughout were relatively quiet, although 3 shells were fired close to the Headquarters at about 8.30am apparently in an endeavour to silence the Battery behind the Billets. The same activity continued the following day accompanied by rainfall at intervals.
Come the 3rd September 1915, the Battalion was relieved by the 12th Battalion Kings Royal Rifles in the front line trenches occupying the right of the Brigade line and A Company occupied Grant Dreadnought and Erith Posts with 1 Platoon in reserve at Battalion Headquarters at Winchester House. It continued to rain hard all day and the communication trenches were about 6 inches deep in mud. The relief started at 8pm but was not completed until 2.15 am owing to the difficult conditions in the trenches which made progress slow. There was very little firing whilst the relief was taking place, however, 1 man was killed in a Listening Post during stand to.
4th September 1915 there was practically no firing took place during the day. The enemy, however, fired 2 shrapnel shells at a working party of the 65th Oxford and Bucks working on the rescue trench, behind the right of the Battalion's own line, and killed 2 men and wounded 3 others. At night there was very little sniping. At around 12 midnight 2nd Lt B A Knights Smith and a Rifleman were killed in a listening Post. They had been out about an hour to spot an enemy machine gun emplacement.
Two days later on 6th September 1915, the Front was relatively quiet all day, although there had been a great deal of firing about 11pm to the Battalion's right. Sniping was at its normal level. Work continued to be carried out on the parapet and parade and wire. A Burrow Pit was started by B Company measuring 100 yards in length and 4 feet 6 inches deep in front of the parapet.
It is worth noting at this point all the amazing amount of preparatory work that was required in the siting, digging and maintaining the trenches. There was an inordinate amount of physical exertion by the men and this was exacerbated by the unbelievable deteriorating conditions in which they worked. Heavy rain was saturating the ground and because of the increasingly muddy conditions, made the trenches impassable at times.
On 7th September 1915, the whole Front was quiet all day, but at night there was a great deal of firing and the Working and Wire Parties were under continuously heavy sniper fire most of the time. During the night the Battalion exploded a catapult bomb over a German Saphead and apparently some damage must have been caused because distinct cries of hurt and anguish were heard. During this period 2 German soldiers were taken captive.
Work continued on 8th September 1915 on the Parados and Parapets whilst, in addition, new wire was put out. About 2.45am, the enemy exploded a mine somewhere in front of the Battalion lines but there was no damage recorded. General information about these actions had been given by the 2 prisoners, who belonged to the 17th Bavarian Regiment, and captured the previous day. At 10pm orders were received to move the Battalion Headquarters to Grant Post and to evacuate part of the line held by D Company. The remainder of the Battalion stood at arms at 2am. At 2.45am the wire exploded but because of the conditions it was difficult to identify the correct location with any certainty. Heavy fire then opened on the German parapet, with little or no reply from the enemy. Battalion Headquarters returned to Winchester House at 5am.
The 9th September 1915 had seen the Battalion relieved by the 12th Battalion Kings Royal Rifles. It was a fine and clear night and relief was completed uninterrupted with no casualties. The Battalion marched independently by Companies into Reserve Billets near Laventie. B and C Companies and Headquarters Company were occupying Billets in a large house in the Rue De Paradis. A and B Companies were occupying farms close by.
The next day, 10th September 1915, working parties of 462 men were detailed for worek under the supervision of the Royal Engineers in the Reserve Line and Communication trenches. Similarly on 11th September 1915, a further 500 men were employed on Working Parties again supervised by the Royal Engineers. The 12th September 1915, 150 men were employed on Working Parties whilst A and B Companies sent 60 men each to bathe at the Divisional Baths at Estaires.
13th September 1915, 350 men on Working Parties and 80 men of B Company bathed at the Divisional Baths at Estaires. Sadly 2 men were slightly wounded by shrapnel fire during the day.
On 14th September 1915, a further 410 men were involved in Working Parties and 4 men were wounded by shrapnel fire whilst working in the Support trenches. The Working Parties continued on 15th September 2015 and 380 men working in the Support trenches. The same day 100 men from each Company marched to the Divisional Baths at Estaires. It is interesting that the bathing facilities provided the first opportunity for men to get a thorough cleansing since they had landed in France.
At 7pm on 16th September 1915, after 200 men were employed on Working Parties on Reserve lines, the Battalion relieved the 12th Battalion Kings Royal Rifles in the Front Line trenches. This was at 7pm and by 9.45pm thge relief was completed. 1 man was hit in the Fire trench. Overall it was a quiet night with very little firing taking place. The trenches were quite dry and, as a consequence, the relief was finished in a much shorter time than on previous occasions. A, B and D Companies occupied the Front Line with B on the right whilst C Company furnished the Garrisons of Grant, Erith Dreadnought Posts and found 1 Platoon at Battalion Headquarters at Winchester House.
On 17th September 1915, the whole Front Line was quiet by day and sniping was normal. At about 10pm the enemy opened a heavy rifle and machine gun fire on one Working and Covering Parties. Following communication with the Battalion artillery they fired 8 rounds of shrapnel, 2 rounds of which fell right on the enemy's parapet and effectively silenced them. The enemy remained very quiet for the rest of the night. Work continued on the parapet and parados. A Burrow Pit 4 feet 6 inches deep was commenced in front of the parapet and running the whole length of the Line.
It was reported on 18th September 1915, by Officer patrols, that the German Front Line trenches were not vacated at night but appeared to be strongly held. The Front was quiet by day and night with little sniping taking place. Work continued on the Burrow Pit parapet and parados.
Disturbing and tragic news was received on 19th September 1915, when it was reported that, whilst on patrol an Adjutant Corporal, a 2nd Lieutenant apparently lost his way and approached up to the German wire, where he was challenged and fired at. He ran back towards the Battalion Lines but was bombed by a Listening Post and suffered wounds from which he subsequently died at Merville at 4pm in the afternoon. The Adjutant Corporal was reported missing.
Enemy snipers became more active all day and a considerable amount of firing took place at night. The Germans shelled the trenches at 5.30pm whilst work continued on the parapet and parades and the Burrow Trench in front of the parapet - 2 men were wounded.
The enemy again shelled the Battalion's Communication and Support trenches on 20th September 1915. Work, however, continued on trench activities. A patrol involving 1 Corporal, 1 Bomber and 1 Rifleman went out with the intention of waiting at a Saphead for enemy Line workers. They waited some 15 yards from the German Saphead for 2 hours, but the enemy failed to turn up - 1 man was wounded. At 9.30am Operation orders for attack on the German Front Lines, in conjunction with the Meerut Division on the right. This was the first day of the bombardment. The Battalion artillery bombarded positions behind the ewnemy Front Line for the greater part of the day and night. The enemy response was feeble and there was no damage. At night the German snipers and machine guns were far more active than usual. 1 man was killed and 5 wounded. Despite these setbacks work continued as usual.
Moving to 22nd September 1915, the Battalion artillery bombardment continued unabated on the enemy positions behind the German Front Line and also on the German wire and parapet which suffered considerable damage. Despite a Corporal being wounded very little sniping had taken place. Work, however, was practically suspended owing to the continuous artillery bombardment and also men having to move back to the Support trenches. The Battalion were relieved by the 18th Kings Royal Rifles at 6.45pm and that relief was completed at 9.05pm. The weather at this point was fine and the relief took place without a hitch. The Battalion then marched back into Billets in the Rue De Paradis at Laventie.
Parades under Company arrangements and rifle and kit inspections were undertaken on 23rd September 1915.
On the morning of 24th September 1915, parades under Company arrangements took place together with inspections. Ammunition was issued together with sandbags, tools and blankets. Preparations were put in place in readiness for the advance. The Battalion moved out of Billets at Laventie at 6pm. Each man paraded in fighting order with packs, carrying 220 rounds of ammunition and every alternate man carried either a pick or a shovel. Companies took up the follwing positions:
A nd D Companies occupied the Support trenches from Winchester Street to Lovely Erith Road with D Company on the right.
B and C Companies were in the Assembly trenches near Chapigny Farm with C Company on the right.
All Companies were in position at 10pm. It had been raining during the day and the trenches were very muddy - the wind was in the South East.
Battalion Headquarters was established in the Advanced Brigade Headquarters dugouts at Chapigny Farm.
25th September 1915
This was the day my Granddad was severely wounded in action in the 12th Battalion's attack on Moulin Du Pietre near Fauquissart.
What follows is the timeline on that day, taken from the 12th Battalion Rifle Brigade War Diaries, and it gives an overview of how the day unfolded.
4am to 4.30am The Companies stood to arms. During the night the wind had shifted to the South West. At 4.30am a message was received stating the ' zero time' that was originally fixed at 4.50am was changed to 5.50am. Drizzle continued to fall.
5.48am A large mine was exploded in the salient at M30a.
5.50am Intense artillery bombardment commenced. The enemy replied, with the Support trenches being heavily shelled.
5.59am The Battalion artillery lifted 500 yards to the German second Line and positions and the Meerut Division on the right, left the Battalion parapet and prepared to assault.
6.00am The assault by the Meerut Division commenced.
6.25am A report was received that the Meerut Division had advanced as far as the Germin Lines.
7.30am Orders were received for the Battalion to advance and cement up with the left of the Meerut Division. D Company ordered to move up to the trench and prepare to assault and B and D Companies to support. Companies were to assault in lines of half Companies. A Company was ordered to commence the safe running out from the Battalion Lines towards Point 76.
8.10am Orders were sent to D Company to assault. Telephone communications were broken and the orders were shut down.
8.25am Orders for assault eventually reached D Company and the assault commenced.
8.45am Battalion Headquarters moved into the Front Line trenches and were established at the head of Chaplin Street communication trench.
9.30am B, C and D Companies were all across by 9.30am. All Companies suffered very heavily, whilst crossing No Mans Land, from rifle and machine gun enfilade fire from the left. The attack was made between points 76 and 61 but to the West of these points, from about point 55, the enemy were in full force and the Battalion artillery were apparently unable to silence them. This enfilade fire was at about 600 yards range. One of the Captains was killed in the first trench while preparing to cross with his last Platoon. A Major was wounded in the head by a piece of shrapnel in the German trench soon after he got there.
9.45am A Company of the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry arrived and relieved A Company working in the saphead. Very little progress was being made in this saphead owing to the heavy enfilade fire to which the men were subjected. It was by all accounts impossible to work and losses were heavy only 2 men surviving.
Meanwhile a Platoon of A Company under Lieutenant L C B Russen had managed to cross to the German Front Line on the right of the salient and had worked down to point 76 where they commenced to sap back towards the Battalion saphead. This work was also found to be impossible. They did break through to the German parapet and were 6 to 8 yards out when all the work was practically brought to a standstill owing to the heavy fire brought to bear on them from further down the enemy lines.
10.15am Message was received from Captain Finch commanding D Company that he had reached and was consolidating the German third Line. In the meantime A Company, having withdrawn from the work on the sap reformed behind the parapet and the Platoon went over. These 2 Platoons under 2nd Lieutenant Maltby wewre held up halfway across and were unable to advance and lay down in an open ditch.
10.35am Message was received from Captain Holland who had assumed command of B Company that the Division on his right were returning and that his supply of bombs had entirely run out and that unless reinforcements arrived and the machine guns on his left silenced, he would be forced to retire.
2nd Lieutenant Barker, who volunteered to bring a similar message from D Company, was killed as he reached the Battalion parapet. A Company of the 6th Kings Shropshire Light Infantry under Major Welch arrived at the first trench and prepared to assault, when a message was received that the Germand were delivering a counter attack on the left. This proved to be a false alarm.
11.15am Major Welch commenced his assault with his Company. Meantime B and D Companies, who had penetrated to the 3rd German Line and had almost reached the Moulin De Pietre and had gained touch with the Bareilly Brigade, found themselves almost unsupported. The Bareilly Brigade on their right had given way and left their right flank exposed. Their left flank was also exposed whilst the supply of bombs were not available. The Germans were now advancing in force, with a larger supply of bombs and commenced to bomb inwards on each flank of the Battalion Companies.
The artillery were shelling the parapet of the trenches that the Battalion had captured very heavily with shrapnel. The situation had deteriorated to such an extent that Colonel Wanchope commanding the 1st Black Watch met Lieutenant Stepphens who had assumed command of C Company, and told him he was going to retire and advised him to do the same. Finding the situation hopeless, and since he was losing many men, Captain Finch gave the order to retire. Captain Harris commanding B Company held on longer but he too finally retired. The Germans were there in force about 50 yards from the trenches that B Company were holding.
At 12.30pm all Companies were back in the firing line, they had re-organised and returned to the Support trenches.
Heavy rain began to fall.
1.30pm the Battalion had reassembled in the Support trenches and by 6pm orders were received from Brigade to evacuate these trenches and move back to Billets in the Rue De Paradis Laventie. This was achieved by 10pm.
During this action, the Battalion suffered the following casualties :
- 4 Officers had been killed.
- 43 Other Ranks had been killed.
- 213 Ranks wounded in action (including my Granddad)
- 76 Other Ranks missing (presumed killed in action)
Total - 4 Officers, 332 Other Ranks.
By all Military accounts, this attack did not go to plan and as with all failures there have to be practical reasons why this should have been the case. The assault proved indecisive with little or no movement in trenches or gaining ground.
According the the Rifle Brigade War Diaries, and as far as could be ascertained the major causes were as follows :
1. The Bareilly Brigade went on much too far. Their orders were to keep in touch with the 60th Brigade and having reached a specified position on the Battle Plan to consolidate there. Instead of which they went straight to the Moulin De Pietre and did not wait for the 12th Battalion attack, with the result that both their flank and the 12th Battalio's was exposed and no proper communication was established.
2. The Rifle Brigade's supply of bombs was not adequate. The Germans had apparently an inexhaustible supply of bombs. Also, owing to the heavy enfilade fire it was impossible to get bombs across to the Bombers. This was a common criticism not just of this particular action but elsewhere across the areas of conbflict.
3. The Bareilly Brigade was not equal to the strain and broke leaving the Black Watch unsupported.
On being severely wounded following this action I am unsure what happened to my Granddad. Excepting that somehow he would have received some initial treatment on the Battlefield (perhaps as described below). I have no conception of how long he may have lain on the Battlefield and to which or where the Hospital(s) may have been, perhaps initially in France and then back to England. My best guess would be that he was transported from the Battlefield by a Field Ambulance to a Casualty Clearing Station (CSS) which was usually some 6 to 9 miles behind the Front Lines. The CSS were advanced surgical units who were geared up to receive some 150 - 400 casualties. However, as can be imagined, these figures were grossly increased due to the ferocity of battle and the increasing number of casualties. From the CSS he may have been transported by an Ambulance train or, as happened in some cases, by barge to a Base Hospital and at some point back to England.
A more accurate account is provided, through my research, by Rev. Innes Logan who was posted to the 2nd London Territorial Clearing Station at the Battle and the aftermath of 25th September 1915 as the inevitable casualties flooded in to the Clearing Station. He reported that as the day wore on the news from the attack was not as good. The change in the mood of the wounded was more palpable. Rev. Logan recounted that the story was "about confusion and lack of support" - (this was borne out in the Rifle Brigade War Diaries). "The gas, our own gas, had lingered on the ground and drifted back to our own trenches. As we stepped out from among the blanketed forms I thought bitterly of the 'glory' of War. Yet if there was any glory in War this was it. It was here, in this patient suffering and obedience. These men might well glory in their infirmities."
Thus a poignant and tragic picture is painted in these words. Was this what enlistment had been all about? Had all that training led to this?
There was always the distinct possibility that any wounded soldier would not be recovered from the Battlefield. In a scribbled communication to H.Q., Captain Musgrove, Commanding Officer 12th Battalion Rifle Brigade wrote " The large number of missing that appeared on our Casualty List can be accounted for as follows : The majority were either killed or wounded in the enemy's lines and had to be left, also there are still a large number of bodies lying in the dead ground near the German trenches. It is absolutley impossible to recover these."
Being wounded in action wasn't the end of my Granddad's service - the Army was a tough taskmaster since retrurning to Britain he would have been placed with the 5th Rifle Brigade (Reserve) based at the Isle of Sheppey in Kent until his medical discharge. This was commonplace on the basis that a soldier could recover from his wounds and be sent back to the trenches.
Researching the events which unfolded on that early Autumn day became very emotional for me, and I cannot contemplate or even visualise how my Granddad must have felt as he went "over the top". Was the adrenalin pumping, was confidence high or was he gripped by fear and foreboding? I don't pretend to know. What I do know is that amidst the cacophony of battle and human carnage, there bestrode a young doctor, serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Medical Corps who was attached to my Granddad's Regiment the 12th Battalion Rifle Brigade whose devotion to duty and gallantry has made an indelible impact on my mind. His name was Lieutenant George Allen Maling, who on that day near Fauquissart, France was collecting and treating the wounded in the open and under heavy shell fire. Despite being stunned by bursting shells, which wounded his only Assistant, and killed several of his patients, he continued his work alone and treated more than 300 men. For his most prestigious gallantry he was promoted to Captain and awarded the Victoria Cross on 18 November 1915. It is interesting that at the time of the Battle, Lieutenant Maling was just 27 years old. After the War he practised medicine in London until his untimely death at age 40.
I have no evidence which would confirm this, but I would like to believe that Lieutenant Maling was a first responder when my Granddad was wounded in action that day and that he was able to tend his wounds as best he could and offer solace and comfort. It may well have been that his actions helped save my Granddad's life and give me and the rest of my family an oppoprtunity to know and love him.
One thing has long puzzled me and certainly since I have been researching my Granddad's War and that is, why would a young family man decide at the outset of the War to volunteer for such a conflict? Was it the thrill of adventure on foreign soil? Was it that the War was predicted by some to be over by Christmas in 1914? Was it a decision based on the underdog against the tyranny of the German aggressor? I have no way of knowing the true reason. There was something of a myth about the fighting being concluded by the end of 1914 - erroneously being attributed to Kitchener himself. The opposite was true. Kitchener believed that the conflict could last for years and his planning mirrored this viewpoint. Was a shiling a day Private's pay better than working in a Lancashire Cotton Mill? Whatever the reason for my Granddad's enlistment, it was a brave and bold statement of his intent. It must certainly have crossed his mind that he might never return to his loving family but, maybe there was a steely determination to see it through, which together with a strong Christian belief gave him the strength and resolve to win through.
He did just that. He was physically and, perhaps mentally, not the same man who marched through the gates of his Regimental Garrison at Winchester. Whilst his life was spared he carried the evidence of his wounds. Who knows how much treatment he underwent over the succeeding years, how much pain and suffering he had to withstand and how he coped with the clear evidence of seeing dear friends and comrades being killed in front of his very eyes. I do believe he could possibly have received ongoing treatment for his wounds because I can distinctly remember visiting him in what I think was a Military Hospital in Liverpool in the early 1950s. The scene was etched on my memory because I remember seeing him and all the other patients all similarly clad in matching blue single breasted jackets and trousers, with a red tie - to all intents and purposes they were still in the Army and bound by, at that time, Queen's Regulations.
Did those awful events play as a flashback in his waking moments? They must have done because once having witnessed the ravages of War it would be nigh impossible not to remember. I have often looked at the photograph of my Granddad with his comrades, rifles at the ready, and wondered how many of those men survived the War and returned home to their loved ones. That my Granddad was one of those fortunate ones, of that, there is no doubt.
Overall, in the Great War, the Rifle Brigade had 28 Battalions serving and achieving 52 Battle Honours - 10 Victoria Cross - 546 Officers and 11,575 other Ranks died in action or from their wounds.
The 12th Battalion Rifle Brigade (Prince Consorts Own) - 786 men died in action or from their wounds.
On returning to home life in Blackburn I am unsure as to whether my Granddad went back to work in the Mill but I do know that he started two small businesses. One, selling fruit and vegetables from a horse drawn cart, the other, the sale of ice cream. My Grandma Cumpstey made the ice cream in the kitchen at Avondale Street and my Granddads, along with my Dad and my Aunties, Alice and Ivy, helped to sell it. Pleasington Playing Fields was a particularly good point of sale, and the family became well known locally. In association with the businesses my Granddad kept two horses were stabled at the bottom of Lancaster Street, Blackburn. My Dad often told me the tale of being away as a member of the Ragged School Boy Naturalists Group at camp at Edisford Bridge, Clitheroe only to be summoned back home because one of the horses had bolted from the stables.
Later, my Granddad worked as a Clerk at a Town Centre Bookmakers - he did have a particular interest in horse racing, so much so, that every June he went to the racing at Royal Ascot. My Grandma wasn't an enthusiast and never went, so my Granddad went with a married couple who shared his interest. He used to call it his annual holiday.
In the aftermath of the Great War, Fred and Clara Cumpstey had two more children, Albert Edward born in 1919 and Jean born in 1927.
John Thomas and Alice Cumpstey never divorced and remained separated for over 30 years.
John Thomas Cumpstey was living in Burnley where he died on 22nd February 1926. Despite their long separation, Alice Cumpstey was named on the Death Certificate as his next of kin. He is buried in Burnley Cemetery.
Alice Cumpstey continued to live in Blackpool and she died in the resort on 11 August 1932 and is buried in Blackburn Old Cemetery.
Thomas Heyes remained a widower for the rest of his life and eventually returned to his roots and died in Turton in the 1920s.
Both my Grandparents, Fred and Clara Cumpstey died at home, 14 Avondale Street Blackburn, a home that was loving, caring and filled with laughter and hope.
Clara Cumpstey died on 23 December 1970 aged 87 years and was cremated at Pleasington.
Fred Cumpstey died on 21st March 1963, in his 80th year and is buried alongside his Mother, Alice at Blackburn Old Cemetery.
This has been an emotional but, I think a necessary journey for me. As I stated at the beginning I had a piecemeal account of what happened to my Granddad but through my researchand by committing it all to paper, I do feel that I have a better understanding certainly of what he went through particularly on 25th September 1915 at Moulin Du Pietre.
I cannot pretend to sum up my innermost feelings about the events of the Great War and that day in September 1915 so I have turned to the words again of the Rev. Innes Logan who, commenting on the events of 25th September 1915 and referencing those wounded, my Granddad included, said :
"This was heroism, the real thing, the spirit rising to incredible heights of patient endurance in the foreseen possible result of positive action for an ideal. The reaction from battle is overwhelming. Passions that the civilised man simply does not know, so colourless is his experience of them in ordinary days, are let loose, anger and terror and horror and lust to kill. So for a while, as nearly always happens, even wounds lost their power to pain in the sleep of bottomless exhaustion."
I have to gratefully acknowledge that my journey would not have been remotely possible without the help and support of others.
Grateful thanks to my family, my wife Audrey for her patience and her understanding even when I locked myself away for hours on end. To my daughters, Lisa, Justine and Pamela for their support and encouragement.
Principally, I would like to thank Andy Pay whose unremitting interest and expertise on the Rifle Brigade steered me through and uncovered a great deal of my research. I thank him for his advice, support and his patience particularly when I seemed to be assailing him with questions on a daily basis. I am also grateful to him for identifying within the Rifle Brigade War Diaries the pertinent extracts concerning my Granddad's service.
Thank you to the staff at Blackburn Central Library Community History Department for pointing me in the right direction and enabling me to access their wonderful archives.
Finally, my utmost thanks to my Granddad, without whose courage and heroism I would not have been led on this unknown journey into the past - you always inspired me and made me proud - my hero.
In April 2014, it being the Centenary of the start of the Great War, I embarked on writing an account of my Granddad’s service in the conflict.
My Granddad, Rifleman Fred Cumpstey of the 12th Battalion Rifle Brigade enlisted with Kitchener’s Army from the outset of the War and at the Battle of Moulin Du Pietre was severely wounded in action.
As I recorded in the above story, thankfully, he survived his injuries and was able to return to his family to lead a happy life until his death in 1963.
On completion of my account, I had no idea whatsoever what happened to him after he lay wounded on the Battlefield – I had no evidence of timescales or any evacuation details. Without my Granddad’s “Casualty – Active Service “Forms, which I have been informed by experts in this field, were probably destroyed by the Luftwaffe on a raid over London during WW2, it has not been possible to give a definitive answer to my question. Sadly, only 30 – 40% of records survived this blitz.
Without this documentary evidence I have been unable to find a definitive account of Granddad’s evacuation from the Battlefield and his subsequent return to England. Despite this setback, I have been able to peruse the records of other wounded Blackburnians who fought with my Granddad’s 12th Battalion on 25th September, 1915, and these do give me a clearer insight into the evacuation procedures which occurred following the events of 25th September, 1915.
It is worth recording at this stage that on the Battlefield it was pivotal to the evacuation procedures that treatment for the wounded was immediate and that casualties were moved out as quickly as possible.
At the centre of these network of measures were the Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS), who acted as a sorting centre to facilitate movement of casualties from Field Ambulances to Base Hospitals. Due to the evolving nature and network expansion it was possible for any patients who were recuperating to be retained for anything up to 4 weeks prior to either returning to action or transferring to hospital via Ambulance Train or Barges.
What is abundantly clear is that on the 25th September 1915, in comparison to some later Battles, the number wounded was such that the casualties were cleared from the Battlefield before the day was out which speaks highly of the organisational arrangements that were made and the efficiency of which they were carried out.
In normal circumstances, the 60th Field Ambulance (FA) would have been responsible for the 60th Brigade (which comprised the 12th Battalion Rifle Brigade), but, in reality, the bearers from the 60th FA had been sent to the 61st FA who were looking after the 60th Brigade in Battle. The Headquarters for the 61st FA was in Estaires whilst the Advanced Dressing Station was at La Flingue where the necessary preparations were made to support the Battle of the 25th September 1915. Dugouts had also been constructed at convenient positions for the collection of the wounded. As outlined in my original storyline, it was from here that the Medical Officer, Lt. Mailing was awarded his V.C. for conducting surgical operations on the severely wounded whilst under gun and shell fire.
An essential part of the evacuation network were the ships which ultimately set sail for England with their ailing cargo of the sick and wounded. At that time, the following ships were involved – the Oxfordshire, Asturius and the Jan Breydal. Those injured men remaining in France, following recovery, appear to have gone to the 5th or 20th General Hospital before returning to their Units.
In total, 235 soldiers were evacuated from 61st FA to Merville, whilst a total of 899 that day were evacuated by railway and Ambulance Trains.
I have surmised that my Granddad could have been evacuated by train on the 25th September 1915, or, because of the severity of his wounds he was perhaps retained by 61st FA overnight and evacuated on the 26th. On the 25th September 1915, it is confirmed that 3 Ambulance Trains arrived at 6pm and were loaded and departed for St Omer – in total carrying 399 wounded.
Through my research I have been able to identify some other Blackburnians from the 12th Battalion Rifle Brigade who fought alongside my Granddad, and, who sadly, lost their lives and I am proud to acknowledge their bravery and service:
- James Donnelan, Plane Street, Blackburn, Killed in Action, 5th September 1916
- Thomas Ellel, Florence Street, Blackburn, Killed in Action, 6th June 1916
- Percy Gray, Emily Street, Blackburn, Killed in Action, 25th September 1915
- Thomas Grice, Isherwood Street, Blackburn, Killed in Action, 25th September 1915
- Percy Haworth, The Croft, Blackburn, Wounded in Action, 25th September 1915, Died of his Wounds in Auxillary Military Hospital Tranmere, 15 October 1915.
Others survived and continued to fight in the Great War.
It has been an honour and privilege to re-visit my Granddad’s story and to add to the events of that day in September 1915. Sometimes you forget that those Doctors, Nurses, Bearers, Drivers who were an integral and important part of the casualty support network, played a brave and caring role in helping and supporting thousands of British and other Troops in securing their safety and wellbeing.
I’ll end on, what I think, for me, is a positive and encouraging note – during the conflict my Granddad sent one of his Aunts a photograph postcard of himself in Military uniform and on the back simply wrote: ‘Good Luck’ which for someone in the midst of carnage was a poignant and hopeful message.
Fred Cumpstey (Proud Grandson of Rifleman Fred Cumpstey, 12th Battalion Rifle Brigade)