Tracing the last days of a vanished family member on the Western Front and how to go about it
In the wake of the 80th Anniversary of the end of the Great War of 1914-1918, it seems that our remembrance of that tragic, murderous war has come to a head, perhaps propelled by the British Legion's campaign to reinstate the two-minute silence on 11th November. This is as it should be; somehow in recent years it seemed that the Great War was somewhat overshadowed in the popular imagination by the Second World War. However, the 1914-18 war was the pivot on which the 20th Century turned, every aspect of the old social and political order falling and leading directly to the 1939 - 45 conflict that finally destroyed the old empires. Every family in Europe was to some degree affected; the echoes still reverberate today.
My mother's uncle was a survivor of the Somme battles but his life was changed forever. As I was still a child when he died in 1969, I was never able to speak to him about his experiences, although it is presumptuous to assume he would have wanted to speak of them. He was wounded by machine gun fire during the Somme campaign and returned to the family farm, still grimy with French mud. He never married, and lived the rest of his life in what had been his parents' house on the farmyard, the house remaining unchanged by the passing of the years.
On the other side of the family, another great uncle was less fortunate. Stanley Butwright was killed on 27th August 1917. He was 18 years old - just a boy. All we knew was that he had been killed within 6 weeks of going to France with 1/8th Battalion ("Btn"), Royal Warwickshire Regiment and has no known grave, just one of the countless thousands that were sacrificed into the furnace of war.
In that, my family is no different from many others, however, when I found a photo of Stanley standing nervously in his uniform I determined to recover his memory from obscurity.
By 1917, the Ypres Salient had stood fast for three years. It was already an ancient battlefield fought over time and time again and had become a charnel house that sucked the wounded and the unwary into the glutinous clay. The German guns had pounded Ypres into dust and the surrounding land into a drowned, surreal landscape but had been unable to evict the British from their lines, nor could the British push the Germans from the surrounding slopes. The official history of 'Third Ypres' as the 1917 battles are officially titled, not known to often lapse into sentiment, noted:
"The memory of this August fighting with its heavy showers, rain-filled craters and slippery mud, was so deeply impressed on the combatants . and such stories were spread at home by the wounded, that it has remained the image and symbol of the battle".
In the paralysis between 1915 and 1917, the Germans settled into their lines and in the area behind, they started to dig.
After the long and futile slaughter of the Somme in 1916, Field-Marshal Douglas Haig was heartened by the recapture in June 1917 of the Messines ridge, south of Ypres. However, the ghastly carnage of the Somme campaign had killed not only the cream of a generation, but also the spirit of the armies and the people. Haig's star had faded in Whitehall as Lloyd George and the War Cabinet had correctly divined that the mood of the nation had changed; no longer was jingoistic patriotism enough. Haig hoped that a final 'Big Push' in Flanders would break the stalemate by taking the pressure from the French armies still slogging it out at Verdun and might also bring him back into favour with his political masters. Flanders was attractive not only because of the success at Messines but also as it had none of the tarnish of failure associated with other sectors of the Western Front- the Ypres salient had been held since 1914 despite German assaults in 1914 and 1915. Initially the War Cabinet resisted the plans fearing a further bout of pointless bloodletting but unexpectedly Haig was backed by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jellicoe who mistakenly feared that failing to take the Belgian ports would enable the German U boats to blockade the Channel. The Flanders Plan was reluctantly approved for summer 1917.
The Flanders Offensive opened on 31st July 1917 after 9 days of bombardment. Initially much of the news was good with many of the initial objectives being comparatively easily taken. The British moved towards the ditch known as the Steenbeek which was overlooked from the far bank by fortified German positions glowering down from the gentle slopes leading up towards the Gheluvelt plateau and Passchendale beyond. On the second day of the offensive, the fine summer weather was suddenly swept away and heavy rain fell continuously for the next four days and nights, soaking further the already waterlogged Salient. Heavy shelling by both sides continued to stir the mud making No-Man's Land virtually impassable; a churned slough of soggy clay, pockets of old gas and the remains of the shattered dead. The liquid mud could suck a helpless man down; in places even the pack mules bringing up supplies could not pass. The offensive petered out in the dreadful weather, but by mid-August, the rain had eased and the land dried just enough for the advance to recommence. We can scarcely imagine the conditions endured, but one of the junior officers of the 1/8th Btn, Edwin Vaughan, described a typical billet in the reserve area:
"My poor frozen troops were led across the open to some shell holes roughly covered with tarpaulin and corrugated iron, where they were crammed in and went to sleep rolled in their great coats "
Now the attackers came up against the prepared German defences - massive reinforced concrete bunkers that the wily Hun had prepared behind his lines long before.
At the beginning of the offensive, the 1/8th Btn of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment had entrained to move up from the Somme where they had reformed after suffering 90% casualties in the first attacks on the first day of that other infamous battle. Initially held in reserve, the 1/8th Btn route marched to Border Camp in the rear area of the Salient on August 12th. Three days of kit inspections and the daily routine of an army unit were to follow before a move forward to Dambre Camp near Vlamertinghe on August 14th or 15th, taking over the bivouacs of the Buckinghamshires. This camp was nothing more than "a little field furrowed with deep channels full of water with knolls and shell holes everywhere and a few leaky old tents". From this vantagepoint, the soldiers of the battalion would have all too easily been able to see the dereliction and desolation of the battlefield that they would shortly experience at much closer quarters. This must have been an uneasy time for every man there and indeed they would already have been at risk from enemy fire.
On August 16th at 2am, three companies of the Battalion left Dambre Camp to move up to the front on the Steenbeck in the neighbourhood of St Julien, almost halfway between Ypres and Tyne Cot, whilst one company remained in the reserve trenches. Battalion HQ was initially established on the east bank of the Steenbeek, but was twice moved during the day as the initial position was judged to be too far in advance. At 4.45am the attack opened with a barrage that continued into the daylight of morning. That evening the Battalion moved forwards by some 100 yards with heavy enemy shelling of the area being reported as well as intensive sniping. Lying ahead were the heavily fortified positions of Pond Farm, Gallipoli Farm and Somme Farm and as the Warwicks tentatively probed forwards, these virtually impregnable positions opened up with machine guns and bombs. From further back, the German big guns spat fire that danced heavily around the ruins that had once been St Julien. The Warwicks advance was halted. The next day, the 17th, the artillery duel recommenced as the British called down their own fire on the German positions in an attempt to dislodge the defenders. This was the last day of the tour in the front line for the Warwicks. The Battalion drew back to a tented camp at Reigersberg Chateau on the Yser canal some 500 yards to the north-west of Ypres where the 1/8th Btn war diary records the casualties - 14 other ranks killed, 1 missing and 79 wounded and 6 officers killed.
From August 18th to 22nd the Battalion remained in the rear area of the Salient, resting and reorganising. Other units continued the offensive, which was continuing with heavy fighting around Langemarck. Although resting, the Battalion had not yet seen the last of the front line or the Salient and the war continued on their doorstep. Their immediate neighbour at Reigersberg was a big 12-inch naval gun that was firing at the enemy lines continually during the day and which naturally attracted the attention of the enemy.
On the 22nd, the Battalion HQ together with 'A' and 'B' Coys moved from the camp into dugouts on the East bank of the Yser canal. Even this far back the movement was observed and the German artillery laid down a gas attack with mustard oil shells that caused gas masks to be worn for 90 minutes but no casualties were reported. The following day was given over to further regrouping of the Battalion from its position in the dug outs but on the 24th a further move took place to another group of dug-outs some 500 yards to the north. In the evening, 'B' Coy was tasked to support 5th Btn, Royal Warwicks in an attack on enemy gun pits. For reasons that the war diary does not comment on, B Coy made the attack themselves, apparently successfully and without casualties.
Later in the night of 24th/25th the Battalion Intelligence Officer and the 2nd in Command made a reconnaissance of the forward area to the east of St Julian, a few hundred yards further north from the area in which they had fought less than a fortnight ago. Another major attempt to push the Germans back towards the Passchendale heights was planned and jumping off positions had to be located and prepared. The 7th Royal Warwicks were to attack first, their objective being to take and hold the enemy front line from Winnipeg Farm to Triangle Farm. The men of the 1/8th were then to move through the captured front line to take the top of the Langemarck Ridge from Arbre to Genoa Farm. The final objectives were the line of fortified farms further on that were to be taken by the 4th Berkshires.
The following day, the process of preparations for the attack continued and a party of 75 men was taken into the forward area to prepare the jumping off positions by digging out old shell holes under cover of darkness. The plan called for the positions to be camouflaged to protect them from observation by German aircraft, but the camouflage material was destroyed by shellfire before it could be brought up from the rear and the digging was abandoned.
At 8pm on August 26th, the Battalion HQ, two companies of the 7th Btn Royal Warwicks and three companies of the 1/8th together with a fourth in support took up position on the outpost line and dug themselves into the glutinous mud as best as they could. Even the war diary was moved to comment on the appalling weather, noting constant torrential rain throughout the night that made even normal movement across the ground increasingly difficult. So that the noise of tanks being brought up to the front was not detected, from midnight onwards a constant barrage of machine gun fire was directed towards the German lines. With the noise of battle all about them, the thoughts of the soldiers must have been of their families, their homes, their own mortality.
By dawn on the 27th, the heavy rain of the night had given way to showers and wind but the ground remained almost impassable with some areas being covered with deep impassable pools of water that stretched for 30 yards or more. The British barrage had stopped by 8am and an ominous silence hung over the Salient. The morning wore slowly on with the men remaining in their scraped out holes until zero hour for the attack - 1.55pm; broad daylight. Under cover of a creeping British artillery and machine gun barrage that largely missed the German strong points and the batteries beyond, the men struggled forward, but the advance was futile. Worn down by the clinging mud, an answering artillery barrage and scything German machine gun fire, the attack withered away and none of the objectives were taken. Edwin Vaughan led the advance of the support company from the reserve trenches to the jumping off points and described the scene:
"Shells were pouring onto the St Julien - Triangle road as we advanced, and through the clouds of smoke and fountains of water I saw ahead the lines of figures struggling through the mud. It only took us 5 minutes but in that time I saw, with a sinking heart, that the lines had wavered, broken and almost disappeared".
A pillbox known as Springfield that had been heavily defended when attacked by British tanks a few days earlier, however, had been taken. A defensive line was consolidated to the east of a 'road' between Winnipeg Farm and the Springfield pillbox until the units were relieved in the night by 1/4th Btn, Royal Berkshire Regiment. The survivors returned to Reigersburg Camp and then on to billets in Popperinge a few days later. The war diary states that the attack had cost 35 killed, 83 wounded and 54 missing from the 1/8th, although Vaughan states that of the 90 men of the reserve company only 15 remained. One of the dead or missing men was Stanley Butwright.
Already the Flanders Plan had degenerated into the savage bloody scramble that the War Cabinet had dreaded with nearly 70,000 casualties sustained. At the end of August with the Big Push seemingly stalled and in disarray, the focus of the battle passed from General Gough and the Fifth Army that held the northern part of the Salient battlefield to General Plumer's Second Army which occupied the area south of Ypres. The struggle and slaughter continued for almost another three months until November 1917 when finally the almost exhausted British armies pushed to the top of the ridge at Passchendale. They left behind them over a quarter of a million casualties, 90,000 of which had melted away into the mud never to be found again. Lieutenant Angel of the 2/4th London Btn, Royal Fusiliers, quoted by Lyn Macdonald, recalled of the forward area around St Julien that:
"The stench was horrible, for the bodies were not corpses in the normal sense. With all the shell-fire and bombardments they'd been continually disturbed, and the whole place was a mess of filth and slime and bones and decomposing bits of flesh..."
After such intensity of slaughter as to dwarf even the Somme battles of the previous year, the positions were held only until the following April when the Germans counter attacked, sweeping across the land bought by the British only months before for a price that was all too high. For the survivors of the 1/8th Btn, the Salient was finally left behind in October 1917 when the Regiment was posted to Italy. Despite their inevitable anxiety about what the future might hold, the spirits of the men must have soared as they finally left the blood choked mud of Flanders behind them for the final time.
Although then I had no details of regiment or service number, we knew Stanley had died in the latter part of the war, on the Western Front. I wrote to the Commonwealth War Grave Commission ("CWGC") who swiftly replied with the only name in their records that matched. My search was aided by the unusual family name; for soldiers with less distinctive names precise detail might be needed to find the match. The CWGC have recently put all their records onto the internet which would help anyone trying to trace members of their own families and regimental details if not known can be found at the Public Records Office ("PRO") at Kew. The PRO also has a CD-ROM available which lists the names, date of death and in most cases, service number and regiment for the soldiers that were killed. From the CWGC we learnt that Stanley is remembered at Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres - just a name on a plaque along with 35,000 others that have no known grave. My father and mother went out with a cousin to visit the site, as far as we know the first time that any one from the family had been out to pay our respects. In an odd way we were relieved as we'd 'found' Stanley, even though there were now no living members of the family left that had known him.
The next step was to find out where and how he died and for this I visited the PRO. Here a bewildering amount of information is available and some patience will be needed. If the regimental details are not known, these can be found from the First World War Medals index, WO372. The next step is to search for the personal records that are in one of two records held on microfilm - WO363, which covers war survivors, and WO364 that covers the fallen men. Unfortunately WO364 is incomplete as the papers suffered bombing and subsequent fire damage in 1940. There is something like a 1 in 4 chance that any particular record survived, but the 'burnt records' are currently being restored as far as possible and are slowly being released for access. These records may include attestation and discharge papers or medical and casualty records. For Stanley I was unlucky, his record being one of those that is absent.
The next group of records that can be checked are the War Diaries, held in record WO95. Each unit kept a daily record of their activities, but to find the correct record, Battalion details are needed. These records give an astounding insight into the daily life of the unit; although only officers tend to be mentioned by name. In some ways the records seem heartless as in the midst of nameless death, the army ensured that the paperwork was kept up to date. At the PRO counter the diary for Stanley's Battalion was handed to me in an anonymous HMSO cardboard document box. On opening the box I was faced with a pile of carefully hand-written foolscap pages bound into monthly sets. The first pages I took from the box were a shock - the 1/8th had been one of those that were in the first wave over the top on the first day of the Somme offensive on 1st July 1916. Bound into the pages were typed copies of the orders for the attack, listing movements, supplies, times, objectives. Later pages recorded that the unit took 90% casualties in its attack on the Beamont-Hamel sector. I was unprepared for the immediacy of the unemotional language of these records and it was as if I was somehow spirited from the peace of the PRO reading room into the noise and stench of the trenches in a way that no historical text or novel can ever do. I was also lucky to discover a published eye witness account by one of the junior officers of the 1/8th that detailed the period up to 28th August 1917 and gave colour to the unemotional language of the official papers.
Stanley was a Private and so the war diary is silent on his individual fate although a family story has surfaced, telling that he may have been a runner, one of the most hazardous occupations on the Western Front battlefields. Maybe he was the man that brought the reports back from the advance units to the Battalion headquarters where the papers I had read at Kew were written up. Vaughan's diary tells how he waited during the attack on 27th August with the Commanding Officer at Battalion headquarters; time and time again runners were sent out to establish how the attack was developing, but none returned. Hours later a single man arrived from the advance units reporting that the attack had been completely held up; and casualties were very heavy. Whether a runner or not, Stanley was surely hit during the attack, maybe by a sniper's bullet or caught in the machine gun and shell fire. Hopefully his death was swift rather than the lingering and lonely demise that many wounded men suffered. Vaughan also relates how in the aftermath of that very attack as he waited in the captured Springfield pill box after bringing up the reserve company;
"A more terrible sound now reached my ears. From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men, faint, long sobbing moans of agony and despairing shrieks. It was horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into shell holes and now the water was rising about them, and powerless to move, they were slowly drowning. And we could do nothing to help them."
Some wounded were able to crawl back into their own lines or were recovered and taken to one of the casualty clearing stations behind the lines where many died - many of the large cemeteries on the old battlefield areas were established close to the clearing stations. Many of the wounded were never brought in, as the stretcher-bearers were all too often killed themselves. If Stanley was formally buried, it would have been close to the line or somewhere in the area behind, the grave was then probably lost in the mud that was fought over until November 1917 and then again in the German counter attack of 1918. More likely, his poor remains simply slipped deep into the Flanders mud without the dignity of burial.
The work of but a few days had brought my Great Uncle's last days in the vicinity of the Belgian village of St Julien to light after 82 years of darkness. By an odd coincidence, my brother's name is Julian; seeing the familiar name repeated in those old pages of the war diary was as if a dead hand had run a finger along my spine. Even from the midst of grisly death and war it seems that solace and hope can be found. I pray that that simple fact may help Stanley's shade rest easy.
+ Stanley Butwright, 1898 - 1917. RIP +
For a direct link to the author of this article, email Andrew Wegg
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
2 Marlow Road
Tel: (01628) 634221
Fax: (01628) 771208
Web site: http://www.cwgc.org/cwgc/main.htm
Public Records Office
Tel: (0181) 392 5200
Web site: http://www.pro.gov.uk/
Ministry of Defence
(Contact for a paid search for records that the Army may still maintain)
PRO Readers Guide No 18 - First World War Army Service Records In The Public Record Office
S Fowler, W Spencer and S Tamblin, 2nd Ed revised by W Spencer
Public Records Office, 1998
By God They Can Fight! A History of 143rd Infantry Brigade 1908 to
published privately by 143rd (West Midlands) Brigade
(NB The Royal Warwickshire Regiment was part of 143rd Brigade.)
They Called It Passchendaele
Penguin Books, 1978
Some Desperate Glory - The diary Of A Young Officer, 1917
Edwin Campion Vaughan, ed John Terraine
Passchendaele - The Untold Story
Robin Prior & Trevor Wilson
Yale University Press 1996
Ieper En De Frontstreek 1914-18 (Ypres Salient)
Uitgeverij AG Claus pvba
Copyright © Andrew Wegg, August, 1999.
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