Then men who fought and returned home
Corporal Frederick George Head (2357) 17th Royal London Regiment (The Stepney and Poplar Rifles)
A few years ago I undertook to research some family history with regard to my grandfather and his role in The Great War. Corporal Frederick George Head (2357) 17th Royal London Regiment (The Stepney and Poplar Rifles) died in June 1974 when I was 12 years old and I have very fond memories of him as a loving granddad. When I look bock now at photographs of me perched on his knee, or him tending to his garden or indeed him relaxing at family functions, it is easy to recall his grandfatherly way with all of us and the pride which he showed in all our activities. I can also recall his mannerisms, his cough and his robust, resilient nature. What I would not have understood, as a young boy was by what horrific or traumatic means his resilience would have been tempered.
At his cremation my father had the vicar describe him as a lion and a lamb. Even then I felt moved at my dad's pride in his own father.
How many grandsons then have contemplated their grandparents heroic, harrowing deeds during their turbulent young lives? How many proud sons have eulogised at their fathers' sacrifices? How many lions had to learn how to become lambs, come home from war to rejoin their families and readjust to civilian living?
I can only wonder at the kind of courage it must have taken to exist in the hell that was the western front. Reading accounts of soldiers' activities in the published histories can still bring tears to my face or feelings of astonishment and even great mirth. I sense an even greater courage than this however in the thousands of untold stories of how the "lions" returned with battered bodies, battered emotions and battered souls. Empires had been lost. Individuals had to carry on.
In August 1914 for Fred Head, my grandfather, a bricklayer and his pals from Bromley-by-Bow in East London, there was only one thing to do. Kaiser Bill had to be taught a lesson and German aggression had to be repelled. A trip to Tredegar Road was required to join the 5th London Brigade. During the course of the next few months this band of volunteers became the 17th London Regiment known to all as "The Stepney and Poplar Rifles". (In the published conversations with The Great War veterans, there are very few references to the "Pops" as they became shortened to, despite the fact that they were involved in many of the major campaigns of 1915 and beyond. during my research the reasons for this have become ominously clear.) Fred and his mates had responded to Kitchener's call. The heady drug of patriotic fervour and foreign adventure became a potent force.
After training in the Home Counties and the war of course dragging on into the New Year, the "Pops" as part of the 47th London Division embarked for France in March 1915. Many lambs on their way to be slaughtered, many lions in the making. The Battle of Aubers Ridge and then Festubert were the first real taste of action for the 47th but such conflagrations were only a foretaste of the late summer bid proposed by Joffre for the British First Army including the 17th London Regiment to break through the German lines at Loos. In tandem with French efforts south of this point this was supposed to be a "knock-out punch". As in many later cases however the punch delivered was not quite the "knock-out" needed and because of confusion, over deliberation and lack of resources where they were required, the follow up blows were not added. The "Pops" had begun to taste the bitter frustration and heavy casualties they were to experience on numerous occasions in the coming months.
Fred's winter was pretty miserable. November and December were wet and cold and life was carved up between consolidating existing positions and light training well back from the front line. Despite Christmas in France, Fred was beginning to emerge as one of the battalion characters and his friends were starting to celebrate his bravery in the face of the enemy. In his role as "runner" Fred was well known to the whole regiment. Presumably running messages meant that he got to meet many more people than other soldiers. One of his best friends wrote home endearingly of him to another pal back in England.
"'Pluck! My word, he's small but as brave as any London man can be. I remember him at Loos walking along with messages, smoking a pipe as if the world's trouble were nothing to him. "What's Smiffee, heard from Webzell yet?"
Later in the some letter Will Smith, his friend, recounted an episode of almost suicidal courage.
"Freddy has been mentioned in despatches three times. Once, a shell burst through the roof of the signallers dugout and did not explode. It was a good size one too. Freddie did not run. He Just picked it up and put it over the top out of harm's way, a deed that it takes a British soldier to do. There is no thinking twice with him."
In the Spring of 1916 the 41st Division's task was to become part of the British Armies effort at wearing down the German resources and morale in the build up to the summer's "Big Push" on the Somme. Such was the situation in mid May when the "Pops" found themselves beneath the steep fortress that was Vimy Ridge. Sandwiched into the narrow dip between the German front line and their own HQ behind them up at Cabaret Rouged they and the rest of the 141st Brigade were being pounded relentlessly by enemy artillery fire and communication was completely lost Divisional HQ was at a loss to know whether to reinforce or withdraw Confusion reigned Later in hospital. Fred recounted the story in the infirmary's own publication "The Stebonheath Journal".
"During our tour in the trenches at Vimy Ridge the Bosche exploded a mine on our front, and at about the same moment opened out a terrific bombardment. All wires were smashed and the officers at Headquarters were unable to get any news as to what happened. Thinking that the Bosche had captured our front line the Officer Commanding came and asked for two volunteers to go forward and find out what was happening. I said that I would go, providing I went alone, as it would be hard luck to have two men knocked out where one man might do it. It was then arranged that if I did not return within half an hour another would be sent.
I reached our front line (but how I cannot explain), and found our men still held on, and that the mine had fallen short. I obtained all the information necessary, and got back quite safe and reported to HQ. I was then asked to guide a Bombing section with bombs up to our right and again succeeded and returned safely I was recommended, and in June 1916 received the news that I had been awarded the Military Medal."
The news of the award of the medal was published in the London Gazette in August and in the East End News in September. In between times both friends at the front and back home toasted Fred. He received many letters of congratulation, some of which are still owned by my family. Among them was one from his old Headmaster. Thomas Rand of Marner Street school in Bromley -by Bow.
My dear Head,
On behalf of the whole school (boys and teachers) allow me to congratulate you most heartily on having the MM. (Military Medal).
We gave three Marner whispers (if you don't know what they are ask Smiffee") when the news was read to the whole school assembled in the hall and we are reserving a shout for you when you get back. So mind you come and take it.
I have heard that two other Marner boys have gained distinctions and you will hear about them if they are confirmed on enquiry from Webzell later on.
We have on roll 450 odd names and I know, everyone, dares to do his level best for his regiment or ship when the call comes.
The old school is proud of every one of you. God bless you all!
With our heartiest congratulations and best of good wishes.
Thos. R. Rand
That summer, The Battle of the Somme had exploded into action on the 1st July and was grinding on towards early autumn. North East of Albert and South of the Albert - Bapaume road an early opportunity to capture a commanding ridge looking down across the back positions of the Hindenburg line had been wasted. Having driven the Germans out of High Wood on the crest of this ridge, more deliberation and confusion had allowed the enemy to re-infiltrate the thick undergrowth and stay in control of this vital strategic point. After weeks of skirmishing, the thick woods and lush farmland surrounding it had been completely obliterated so much so that the area was unrecognisable and only smoking stumps remained where High Wood had once stood. Early in September the Stepney and Poplar Rifles were in training to take the strongpoint. Fred and his friends were girding themselves for something they knew may take many of their lives. In a local estaminet behind the lines they got themselves totally drunk the night before being sent up the line ready for one last bash at taking the ridge and driving on to take the prize of Bapaume before winter set in.
A bloody conflict was expected by all, but confidence was high. The British Army had a new secret weapon. Despite reservations by the 47th Divisional commander, Major General Barter, four tanks were to be ordered into and around what was left of High Wood to assist the infantry in it's bid to break through the German line. Fred recounts in a later letter seeing the new weapon in action or rather inaction as predicted failure among the smashed tree stumps proved well founded.
"The tank which should have smashed our wire broke down before it"
As tanks were to be used there was, it was deemed, no need for artillery fire in the immediate area of the wood itself. The failure of the tanks left the 141st Brigade including the "Pops" at the mercy of the omnipotent German machine guns.
"The barbed wire not being smashed the boys were held up and were absolutely slaughtered for about two hours by machine gun, rifle fire and artillery."
By 1pm the next day, through the sheer will power and doggedness of the 47th Division, High Wood was finally taken and within a week the Germans had been pushed as far back as Eaucourt L'Abbe in this sector. Any further efforts at driving on towards Bapaume however were scotched by a particularly resilient defence by the enemy and heavy autumn rain. By early October both sides were establishing new lines front before winter set in in earnest.
In their bid for High Wood, casualties for The Stepney and Poplar Rifles had been very high. They had lost a third of their men either killed or wounded. Among the dead was Fred's pal Harry Litchfield. The night of their drinking spree, Horry had kept everyone waiting while he sewed on his brand new corporal stripes. Whilst digging out the dead at a bombed mortar base Fred himself had come across Horry. at first identifying his new stripes on an arm protruding from the mud.
"I did not have to dig long when I saw that it was Horry Litchfield's face, all muddy, that I came to. I could not stay and dig him right up but I got to his tunic pocket and took his papers out of his pay book. There was nothing of any use there so I destroyed the papers and handed his pay book into HQ and reported him killed. I am not certain but I think it was the next morning when I saw them carrying Tom Harvey down on a stretcher. I gave them a little hand with him across a few trenches and shook hands with him before they took him right away."
Winter for the "Pops" was spent in Flanders. In the spring they were moved into the line near Messines, just south of the Commes Canal. After the detonation of the mines there, the 47th Division as a whole successfully completed their objectives with the Fred's team of runners coming in for particular praise in the Divisional history. In June the whole Division was moved back to a restful area well away from the front after being bogged down in the mud for the previous nine months.
August brought a move to the town of Ypres itself in readiness to take up positions around the Roulers railway. Heavy summer rain in this low lying, already battered area of the front line made conditions horrendous. At such a time the role of the runners became even more essential than normal. Trenches were full of water and liquid mud, and laying cables for phone lines was impossible.
By mid September Fred found himself in the line at Bellewarde Ridge, just north of the Menin Road preparing the trenches for the major offensive the following week. During this time night raids continued and general skirmishing took place. Whilst assisting stretcher bearers carry wounded bock to forward medical posts, a trench mortar base nearby was shelled. With artillery fire falling all around Fred went on his own, shovel in hand to see what he could do.
"On the night of __ September we were being shelled heavily and I was ordered to the left post of our battalion with a stretcher, and just previous to it getting dark I was ready to make a start on my journey when a chap came rushing up and said that a trench mortar position had been blown up and all the team buried. I found a shovel and rushed to where I knew there was a trench mortar position. When I arrived the first thing I saw was the Sergeant in charge of the team buried up to his neck in a small dug-out with a plank holding the earth above his head from falling on him. He was shouting for me to get him out first, but I could hear groans coming from the earth nearer to me, so I told the Sergeant to hang on, as he was able to breathe, while I dug for the chap I could hear groaning. It was hard work digging with the shovel, as I did not know if I was getting towards his head or his feet and was afraid of sticking the shovel into him. I got him out after a short struggle, and he was properly shaken up and could not stand. I left him lying where he was while I got the Sergeant out and then carried him to our Headquarters from where he was taken to our regimental aid post. There were no others of the team buried there, so I presumed they had hopped it when they saw the shell explode in their post. I was then recommended and heard that I had been awarded the Bar in October 1917"
Once again Fred's bravery had been rewarded.
As the main offensive began the 47th division were moved south to a quieter sector near Bourlon Wood. The quietness did not last for long however and the "Pops" were pressed once again into action in late November to take Bourlon Wood itself. As before there were differences of opinion in the way the troops should be deployed and how the battle should take place. Major- General Gorringe as Brigade commander of the 141st had made a number of suggested amendments to the plan devised by HQ as he had first hand knowledge of conditions in the area at the time, but once again this kind of knowledge was ignored leading to frighteningly heavy casualties. Among them this time was Fred. Whilst in the front line with his C.O. and adjutant he fell victim to chlorine gas and was almost completely overcome. Not being able to see and with breathing difficulties, Fred was helped back from the line by the two officers in order to receive treatment. Having rested and thinking he would recover quickly, he realised he could not go on and reluctantly decided to let himself be helped back to receive more lengthy medical care.
Such were the difficulties he had recovering his capabilities, by the middle of December Fred was back in the UK convalescing at Stebonheath Hospital, LIanelli, South Wales. Although it does seem strange to hospitalise a soldier so far away from his family and friends, it was here that he stayed until he was released sometime during February 1918. The rest of the war saw Fred on lighter duties in England. His demobilisation papers describe his role as "Instructing drill".
What then goes through a soldier's mind? Six months training for front line duty. Two and three quarter years spent mostly in France, a country you know little about and are unlikely to visit again, fighting the most dreadful war imaginable. Survival made into an art form. Sounds and scenes of horror commonplace. Acts of bravery an everyday occurrence. Then home. "Blightied". The rest of your regiment battling on at the front to the bitter end. Feelings of loss and bereavement, pride and guilt and relief and remorse must have tumbled through many a soldier's mind when coming to terms with what had gone before and what might come next. And so the "lions" had to learn to find the "lambs" inside themselves again. Counselling would only come in the form of comfort from what was left of families, friends and communities who would have no real concept of where a soldier had been psychologically. Speaking for myself I knew one old man who did find the "lamb" again. I am so glad he did. His family have stayed immensely proud of him as we should feel proud of them all, not only in their endeavours in foreign fields, but in the courage they showed in coming home to rebuild their lives.