Staff Serjeant Benjamin Hartley,
T/658, Royal Army Ordnance Corps
Until the autumn of 2003, I never knew I had a relative who had been killed in the Great War. I had researched my maternal grandfather's service with the 17th Battalion, Manchester Regiment and was just starting on a new project to try and identify the men on the war memorials near where I live. I was at a family funeral and was chatting to an older cousin. I had not seen her for some time. "What have you been up to, then?" she asked. And I told her of my new "hobby". "You know we had a great uncle who was killed in the War," she said. I had never heard that and, the circumstances of the day meant that I didn't feel like asking details. But I already knew I had to find out everything I could about his military service
When I got home, I immediately turned on the computer and logged on to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. I keyed in our surname and up came the full list. 490 Hartleys - many serving with Lancashire or Yorkshire regiments. I felt that to identify him was going to be a long shot. A couple of days later, however, my cousin confirmed his name as Benjamin so I again looked at the CWGC website. This was much more manageable - only 9 men listed as Ben, Benjamin or, simply B. I looked at all of them. Only one had a local connection. I rang my cousin and asked her if she knew the name of Benjamin's wife. She did. I now knew my great uncle was Staff Serjeant Benjamin Hartley, Royal Army Ordnance Corps.
|It was lucky that my relative had been able to confirm that Ben's
wife was called Alice. Ben had died on 29 June 1916 whilst attached to 124th
Brigade, Royal Field Artillery and was buried at Hannescamps New Military
Cemetery, some 20 kilometres south west of the French town of Arras. He was
40 when he died.
First on my research agenda was a visit to Stockport's Central Library. The Local Heritage Library carries an extensive archive of local newspaper obituaries of soldiers killed during Great War. But there was nothing on Benjamin.
Next I wanted to see if he was commemorated on any local war memorials. A glance through a local family history website (carlscam.com) indicated that he wasn't. But I spent a very pleasant Sunday morning driving round East Manchester and North Stockport double checking. I saw some very fine memorials but none with Benjamin's name on it. The one local to his home was in a sorry state. Unlike most, where there is a brass plaque or names are engraved in the stone, this one had metal letters stuck onto the stone. Over the years, many letters had become damaged or were missing.
I did see the house where he had lived with Alice. 36 Brighton Avenue, Reddish is at the end of a small road of well kept terraced houses, with a very small garden at the front and a yard at the back. Apart from the modern cars and the satellite TV dishes, it was probably very much the same as in Benjamin's time.
By now, the internet had also told me that Benjamin was commemorated on a "special memorial" in Hannescamps Cemetery. These are erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for soldiers believed or known to be buried in the cemetery or elsewhere - the actual location of the graves having been lost.
So what did I know about my great uncle. There was no family history about him (at least to my knowledge). No photographs. No newspaper reported him killed. The local community did not remember him on its war memorial. And he didn't even have a marked grave. Effectively, he had been lost since 1916.
I couldn't leave it there.
The 1901 Census revealed Benjamin to be still living at the family home, aged 25. 65 Brunswick Street, Manchester was home to eight members of the Hartley clan. His mother, Georgina, was 44 and seems not to have been working. His father, also called Benjamin, was aged 46 and was working as a storekeeper for an engineering firm. It is possible that Ben and his brother, my namesake, John, worked for the same firm as they were both recorded as earning a living as mechanic/fitters. Also at home were the four younger siblings, Edna, Harry, Alice and Robert. By then, his older brother, Herbert (my grandfather) had married Edith and had moved to Reddish, Stockport. My Uncle Eric was only 9 months old.
It seems that Benjamin got married in 1903 and he and Alice probably moved to Reddish around that time.
My research now moved to military history - ground with which I was familiar. I was reasonably confident that, if there was more to find out, I could find it. I knew that officers were often mentioned by name in official documents but rarely were the names of ordinary soldiers. However, I wrote to "Firepower", the Museum of the Royal Artillery, and asked if they had the War Diary for the 124th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. Several weeks passed by before the Museum replied. They sent a copy of the Diary for the month of June and, there, listed at the end of the page as a casualty, was my Great Uncle.
It showed him to be an Armament Artificer, on attachment from the Army Ordnance Corps. The Artificer was, effectively, the Chief Mechanic for the Brigade. As far as I can establish, the need for these posts was realised within weeks of the outbreak of War in August 1914. With no-one "on the spot" with technical knowledge, every gun in need of repair had to be returned to England. In December 1914, an appeal was made for skilled mechanics to apply to become Armament Artificers. Benjamin, no doubt sensing an opportunity to serve his country whilst practising his own trade, will have applied. He will have travelled to London for a week-long trade test at Woolwich Arsenal. After passing the test, he will have been enlisted into the army. By April 1915, Benjamin had been attached to 124th Brigade and become responsible of the day-to-day repairs of the 16 guns.
The Brigade left for France, as part of 37th Division, on 30 July 1915 and was initially based around St Omer. By June 1916, it was at Bienvillers, a large village some 18 kilometres south west of the town of Arras. The troops were involved in major activity in preparation for the opening of the Battle of the Somme, scheduled for 29th June (later postponed to 1 July). The area around Bienvillers would not be part of the actual offensive, which would take place a few kilometres further south. The artillery would, however, be in action so as to prevent the Germans from knowing exactly where the attack would be launched. The Brigade War Diary describes the first half of the month:-
"The artillery of the Division was employed at high pressure in strengthening gun positions. Dumps were made of 650 rounds a gun at each position. Communications between batteries and Brigade Headquarters and between the latter and 125 and 126 Brigades were buried. All batteries had buried lines to their O.Ps (observation posts). Bombproof shelters were constructed for battery personnel and for 1st aid requirements. Emergency rations and water were stored."
Between 20 and 28 June, only minor shelling of the enemy took place. On the night of 28/29 June, the brigade supported a raid by troops of the Leicestershire Regiment. The War Diary described it as "a success".
Such raids on the enemy's trenches were commonplace and were undertaken by both sides. They were designed to harass the opposing troops so they could never settle. They were also used to capture prisoners so that intelligence about the units opposite could be gained. This raid was devised as part of the plan for the diversionary attack, a few miles away, at Gommecourt that was planned for 1 July.
Around 70 men of the 7th Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment carried out the raid on the German positions at Bailleulmont. The Battalion's War Diary describes the troops as displaying great gallantry in reaching their objective, even though many were wounded. Some 30 Germans were killed in their trench and, it was estimated, another 30 killed by throwing grenades into their dugouts. Privates George Bissell and Harry Cross were killed. Neither has a known grave and they are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.
The guns of 124th brigade would have had three main targets that night. Firstly, they would shell the enemy front line, so that the Germans could not man their machine guns. Secondly, they would shell the support and communication trenches, so that reinforcements could not be sent. The final target would be the enemy's own artillery positions. This would be to try to ensure that the German's could not shell No Man's Land, catching the Leicesters in the open.
It is not possible to know exactly how Benjamin was killed. What is known is that, on such occasions, the opposing artillery would be shelling each other's positions - almost as a duel. As well as Benjamin, 2nd Lieutenant Norman Keith Paterson and Acting Bombardier Edwin Ellis had been killed that day. Both served with the Brigade's "A" Battery. It must remain a matter of speculation if all three were together when they were killed. If they were, had they been killed by an enemy shell? Or, had Benjamin gone up to repair a gun and there had been a tragic accident? It cannot be known, but this was now as much of the history of my Great Uncle that I was going to be able to establish.
In September 2003, I planned a trip to the battlefields. I had visited in 2001, almost passing where I now knew a Great Uncle was buried. On this trip. I also planned to visit a number of the graves of men commemorated on my local war memorials. After a night in Ieper, which included paying my respects to the Missing at the nightly ceremony at the Menin Gate, I drove to Arras. The next morning, I set off to drive the few miles south, stopping at three war cemeteries. Coming from the north, I passed through Bienvillers. Here I stopped and look towards where the front line would have been in 1916. There was nothing to be seen. It is now just quiet, peaceful farmland.
A couple of miles further on, I came to the village of Hannescamps and parked the car outside the village church. Some 21 Commonwealth soldiers who died before February 1916 are buried in the churchyard, amongst those of the local civilians. Walking past the graves, I came to the New Military Cemetery. This was opened in March 1916 as casualties began to grow. 102 soldiers are now buried here. I waved to the farmers on the other side of the cemetery wall but they did not acknowledge it. Perhaps, they didn't notice me or preferred not to disturb my visit. Off to one side, separate from the others, was a standard War Graves Commission headstone. It was inscribed to Benjamin Hartley and records that he is "Buried elsewhere in this Cemetery". Great Uncle Ben is, in fact, one of the 19 soldiers buried there whose gravestones are inscribed only "Known unto God".
I had brought a poppy wreath with me and I laid this at the headstone. Almost without question, I was the first person to come here to visit Benjamin since he was killed. It is difficult to describe the emotions I felt. But I now knew I could never come to this area again without visiting Hannescamps. My wife sat on the cemetery wall some yards away and left me to my thoughts.
It remains another mystery why his grave is unmarked. Lt. Paterson is buried a couple of miles away. Bombardier Ellis is, however, also buried at Hannescamps in marked grave. I looked to see if those buried adjacent to him were "Known unto God" and might have been Benjamin. But all were known. I could only presume that, at some stage of the War, there was damage in the cemetery and the crosses that would have been on the graves to identify them were damaged. But I know he's there somewhere.
Wiping away a tear, I walked back to the car. My wife gave me a hug. She knew what it meant to me.
Back in Britain, an "internet pal" of mine looked up Benjamin's medal details for me at the National Archives, in London. There was not much to be added, but it confirmed that he had been awarded the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
As a postscript to this account, I must mention that throughout 2003, I had been in touch with Stockport Council to ask it to consider adding Benjamin to the Reddish War Memorial, near his home. They quickly agreed in principle, but the wheels of government turn slowly. Eventually, the Council told me that it was not going to be possible to add him to that memorial, but he would be added to the town memorial at Stockport Art Gallery. This commemorates some 2200 casualties of the Great War as well as those from World War 2 and subsequent conflicts. And in early January 2004, I visited to view his newly inscribed name.
Just over 12 months previously, Benjamin Hartley was unremembered. Now, a family member has visited where he is buried. He is commemorated on a local war memorial. Readers of this article now know of him and his story. He is a soldier of the Great War who was lost and has been found.
To contact the author of this article, email John Hartley
Copyright © John Hartley, January, 2004
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