This article is the story of a man from a working class background who joined the British Army as a private soldier in 1899, and served in the ranks for seventeen years, before being commissioned in the field during the Great War. He proved to be an outstanding officer, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel; his military élan was recognised by the award (with bars) of the DSO and MC. During the Second World War he gave sterling service in the Air Raid Precautions.
At this juncture I would like to acknowledge much of the information contained in this article emanates from Andrew Johnson, the Treasurer of the Wolverhampton Branch of the Western Front Association. Without his wholehearted assistance, it would have been extremely difficult to obtain and consolidate details of Harry Carter's service record, personal history and photographs.
Harry Carter was born on 1 April 1879 at Wolverhampton, the son of William John Carter, a gas tube maker, and his wife Annie, nee Dingley. The 1891 census showed he was the eldest of seven children, and educated at St Luke's, Blakenhall, before taking employment as a gas tube worker. William Carter, known as Harry, enlisted in the British Army at Wolverhampton on 20 December 1899 (aged 20 years, 9 months), on a seven-year engagement plus five years in the Reserves. He was attested into the 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment; his service record shows him as small in stature being 5 feet 4¾ inches tall, weighing 8 stones 3 pounds, with a 34 inch chest.
After initial recruit training at the Regimental Depot from 20 December 1899 to 29 May 1900, he was temporarily drafted to the 1st Battalion for the South Africa Campaign until 21 October 1902. Here Private Carter saw active service in the Boer War; he was the recipient of the Queen's South Africa Medal with Cape Colony, Orange Free State, and Transvaal Clasps, and the King's South Africa Medal with 1901 and 1902 Clasps. On 11 August 1901 he was promoted to Lance Corporal.
Following the end of hostilities, Harry Carter resumed peacetime activities with the 2nd Battalion, soldiering in India from 22 October 1902 to 28 November 1907. This was followed by further service in South Africa until 15 February 1911, when the Battalion returned to England. Whilst in India he was promoted to the rank of Corporal in 1906, and Lance Sergeant the following year. In South Africa, after passing an Assistant Signalling Instructors Course, he was advanced to Sergeant rank on 22 March 1910.
In the United Kingdom the 2nd Battalion of the South Staffs was based at Lichfield between 1911-1913, and at Aldershot from 1913 until the outbreak of the Greart War. On 12 August 1914 the Battalion embarked for Le Havre as part of 6th Brigade, 2nd Division, in Douglas Haig's I Corps. At this juncture Harry Carter was the Battalion Signals Sergeant.
As with the majority of the BEF, the 2nd Battalion South Staffs Regiment was heavily engaged in the Battle of Mons, taking part in the Retreat from Mons including rear guard actions at Landrecies and Villers-Cotteret. This was just a foretaste of the severe fighting that was to follow. The 2nd South Staffs War Diary records their involvement during the Battles of the Marne (7 -10 September), the Aisne (12-15 September) and First Ypres (19 October - 22 November) particularly Langemarck, Gheluvelt and Nonne Boschen.
Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, peacetime promotion for both officers and other ranks was very slow. Harry Carter was obviously an efficient and good NCO, but his promotion to substantive Sergeant in 1910 had taken ten years. Stemming the German advance on the Western Front between August and December 1914 decimated much of the operational strength of the BEF, and particularly severe was the loss of junior infantry officers. From November 1914 onwards "officer deaths on the Western Front began to run at the rate of 1 in 7 and officer casualties - that is killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner - at 1 in 2" (1).
In the British Army during 1913, just seven officers were commissioned from the ranks. In August 1914 alone, five hundred Warrant Officers and NCOs were commissioned. By the end of the war the numbers had risen to 6,713, 41 per cent of the total number of permanent commissions. The contribution made to the British war effort by these individuals is scarcely recognised by the general public, the majority of whom erroneously assumes that officers were exclusively drawn from a public school background.
Harry Carter was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the field on 4 January 1915, and full Lieutenant on 18 June 1915. In the next three years, following rapid promotion, he proved himself to be a superb and highly regarded infantry officer, showing bravery and leadership qualities during some of the heaviest fighting on the Western Front.
His exploits can be judged by the four citations that accompanied his DSOs and MCs.
2nd Lieut W H Carter att 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regt (London Gazette 23rd Dec 1915) Military Cross:
"For consistent good work throughout the campaign, notably on 24th November, 1915"
"The enemy exploded a mine under Gibson's Crater, south of the La Bassée road, killing and wounding most of the garrison. Lieutenant Carter at once went up and commenced reorganising the defence of the crater. He was slightly wounded, but remained at his post, and it was mainly due to his courage and example that two hostile bomb attacks on the crater were repulsed. He also organised a bomb attack on the enemy, thus keeping them quiet for four hours, while the position was consolidated."
This award related to an action at Cambrin near Cuinchy. The Battalion War Diary noted that 25 men of the Battalion lost their lives that day. Lieut Carter continued to display great prowess: on 1 January 1916 he was Mentioned in Despatches, and promoted temporary Major on 1 July 1916. He and his Battalion were involved in the Battle of Delville Wood (July - August 1916).
On 8 September 1916 he was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross for his conduct on 30th June at Vimy.
Lieut William Henry Carter, South Staffordshire Regt, Bar to Military Cross:
"For conspicuous and consistent gallantry"
"Hardly a week passes without his name being brought to notice for some act of devotion and gallantry. Lately he carried out most gallant rescue work under fire after a night raid. He arrived in France in August 1914, as a Signalling Sergeant of the Battalion, and has been with it in every action. Nothing affects his courage and nerve."
(London Gazette Issue 29740 9 Sept 1916)
The severe losses of the British Army during the Somme Battles had a debilitating effect on manpower, especially infantry formations, with shortage of officers being particularly acute. 6 Brigade consisting of the 2nd Battalion, South Staffs, the 17th (Sportsmans') Battalion, Middlesex and 13th (Service) Battalion, Essex Regiments was no exception. Often the shortage of Majors and Lieutenant Colonels was addressed by temporary inter-battalion transfers.
The service record of Major Harry Carter shows that for short periods he commanded the 17th Middlesex and 13th Essex. For example, an entry in the War Diary of the 17th Middlesex on 8 August 1916 reads:
"Major W H Carter (2nd South Staffs, but acting CO of the 17th Middlesex), commanding the Battalion was called upon to organise a strong bombing party to isolate ‘Machine Gun House' from the German system of defences."
This action took place during the attack on Guillemont when the 17th Middlesex were attacking from Trones Wood.
Record also shows that on 1 October 1916 he temporarily joined the 13th Essex in the field, from the 2nd South Staffs, with the rank of Acting Lieutenant Colonel. He participated in the Battle of the Ancre in November 1916 during the tenth and final phase of the Battle of the Somme. On 4 January 1917 he was again Mentioned in Despatches.
On 20 October 1916 he was awarded the DSO as a result of his leadership and acumen during the period 29 July to 9 August. At this stage he was a substantive Lieutenant but Temporary Major - not an uncommon occurrence during the Great War. The citation in the London Gazette (issue 29793) reads:
"For conspicuous gallantry during operations. He commanded the Battalion after his CO was wounded, and displayed great skill and personal courage. He went about everywhere encouraging his men and making personal reconnaissances during three days of heavy fighting. He set a fine example to his command."
On 15 February 1917 the London Gazette (Issue 29945) noted the award of the Order of St Stanislas, 3rd Class (with swords) to Lieutenant (temporary Major) William Henry Carter, DSO, MC, South Staffordshire Regiment, attached Middlesex Regiment. The circumstances leading to the honour are unclear; Harry Carter said in a local newspaper (Express & Star) on 18 January 1931:
"I was recommended for the VC for carrying a chap out of the line, but I didn't get the VC but got the Russian Order." (2)
There was some respite for Harry Carter from the grinding, attritional conflict on the Western Front during the early part of 1917 when, in April of that year, he attended a Senior Officers' course at the Infantry School at Aldershot. Here his performance was rated as ‘Very Good'.
On 1 July 1917 he was made a substantive Captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He returned to duty on the Western Front on 4 July where he reverted to second in command of 13th Essex with the rank of Acting Major. This posting was of a very short duration because, on either 7 or 19 July 1917 (records show two dates), Harry Carter, aged 38, was appointed Acting Lieutenant Colonel as the Commanding Officer of the 7th South Staffordshire Regiment, in 33 Brigade, 11th (Northern) Division. This was an appointment he was to hold for the rest of the war.
11th Division was raised on 21 August 1914 as part of Kitchener's New Army (K1). It served first at Gallipoli, before transferring to the Western Front in 1916, where it gained a reputation as one of the best divisions in the BEF. It performed particularly well at the Third Battle of Ypres [more commonly known as Passchendale] between 27 July and 9 October 1917 at Langemarck, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde and Poelcapelle, and led the First Army's advance in the autumn of 1918. During this time Major General H R Davies, who had assumed command on 12 May 1917, identified Harry Carter as an indefatigable soldier with superb leadership skills.
Harry Carter's rapid advance from Sergeant to Acting Lieutenant Colonel in a two-year period, together with the award of the MC and DSO, quite naturally drew much praise from the citizens of Wolverhampton and its environs. As a result, on 23 March 1918, he was given a civic reception in Wolverhampton - receiving a silver sword, having his portrait painted and a street named after him (Carter Road in Whitmore Reans, previously Bismarck Road). Perhaps his most satisfying gift was a watch inscribed
"As a token of admiration from his friends in Blakenhall, Wolverhampton, upon gaining high military distinction during the present world war."
The last year of the Great War saw Harry Carter leading his troops with the same verve and determination; on 23 May he was again Mentioned in Despatches, and promoted Brevet Major on 12 June. Between 26 August and 5 November he was involved in the Battles of the Scarpe, Drocourt-Queant, Canal du Nord, Cambrai (1918), the Pursuit to the Selle, the Battle of the Sambre and the Passage of the Grand Honelle. During these battles, Harry Carter continued to be an inspiring leader, a fact which saw him again honoured by the award of a Bar to his DSO, for his actions only two days before the Armistice came into force. This is indicative of the mindset of a front line senior officer determined ‘to get the job done'.
The award was announced in the London Gazette dated 2 April 1919, but the citation was not published until Wednesday 10 December (page 15280). It reads:
"Capt and Brevet Major (Temp Lt. Col.) William Henry Carter, DSO, MC, Royal Warwicks Regiment, attached 7th Battalion South Staffs Regiment.
"For skilful leading of his battalion during the operations 8th and 9th November, 1918, in the advance from Autrappe to Geognies Chaussee. On 8th November 1918, he by his drive and initiative kept his battalion going forward through enemy opposition and by a personal reconnaissance reported his exact dispositions at the end of the day. He has at all times set a very fine example to those under him."
The Armistice did not bring Harry Carter's army career to an end. For a period he served with the Army of Occupation in Germany, eventually holding the rank of Temporary Brigadier General. He returned to England on 21 July 1919, and on 28 August 1919, age 40, he married Clara Elizabeth (the marriage produced five children). Following the end of the war, the numerical strength of the peacetime British Army was much reduced, and Harry Carter reverted to the substantive rank of Captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, the rank he achieved in July 1917.
This officer did not relish post-war soldiering; consequently he left the Army in 1922 with a gratuity of £1,500, having completed 21 years' service. He invested this money in a poultry farm near Kidderminister, but it was not a success. He later set up a taxi business but, again, it was not a successful venture. For some reason, in January 1934, Harry Carter was interviewed by a reporter from the Birmingham Post, who found him living with his wife and children at Rose and Crown Cottages, Penn, near Wolverhampton.
The reporter elicited that he had worked for five years as a mechanic at AJS motorcycles, before moving to James Gibbon Limited as a steel erector. His failed businesses and subsequent employment in fairly mundane jobs did not affect him. The reporter noted he regarded his situation with equanimity, asserting that so long as he had employment he was satisfied with his lot, although he would have welcomed an opportunity to better his position. He also said,
‘Some of the old chaps who used to know me in the army - chaps the same as myself, you know - come and see me, because even when I was an officer, I hadn't any bounce'.
It was typical of the character of Harry Carter that at the outbreak of the Second World War, aged 60, he was very happy to be put in charge of Air Raid Precautions at his employer's premises (James Gibbons Ltd). This war service was interrupted by an old wound (believed to have been sustained when he won his MC at Gibson's Crater on 24 November 1915) requiring the amputation of his foot. He recuperated from the operation as the guest of the Earl of Dartmouth, with whom he had cordial relations.
Harry Carter did not enjoy good health after the end of the second war and, following a long illness, he died on 19 December 1951 aged 72. He is buried in St Bartholomew's Churchyard, Penn.
But for the onset of the Great War, it is highly unlikely that this outstanding individual would have envisioned himself becoming an officer in the British Army. In just four years, from being a Battalion Signals Sergeant, Harry Carter had progressed to the rank of temporary Brigadier General, and the recipient of the Military Cross and Bar together with the Distinguished Service Order and Bar.
As with numerous other individuals, either regular other rankers, Kitchener's volunteers, Territorials and to a lesser extent conscripts, Harry Carter seized the opportunity to become a commissioned officer. In a very short period, he transformed himself into an outstanding infantry officer, whose bravery and leadership was magnificent - readily acknowledged by generals, brother officers and other ranks. For me, looking at his service record, one entry epitomises his military ethos, namely the award of the Bar to his DSO for his leadership on 8/9 November 1918.
It was clear by October 1918 that the German Army was nearing denouement, and it was obvious to all participants that the war was inexorably drawing to a close. It would have been quite understandable for senior front line officers to anticipate the end, and adopt a more cautious approach to offensive operations. Lt Col Carter's actions just three days before cessation of hostilities indicated he thought the way to end the conflict was to press the German Army until they succumbed.
Harry Carter was just one of thousands of extremely brave men, on both sides, who participated in the Great War, a conflict conducted on a truly industrial scale. The words written by Field Marshal Douglas Haig describing the last three months of the war are a fitting tribute to the calibre of the British Army, and I believe they are particularly relevant to the contribution made by Lt Col Carter throughout his war service on the Western Front:
"In three months of epic fighting the British Armies in France have brought to a sudden and dramatic end the great wearing-out battle of the past four years ... The work begun and persevered in so steadfastly by these brave men has been completed during the present year with a thoroughness to which the event bears witness, and with a gallantry which will live for all time in the history of our country." (3)
The article was written by George F Wilson, and originally published in 'Trench Foot Notes', the magazine of the Hertfordshire Constabulary Great War Society.
Editor's note: this article first appeared in WFA Wolverhampton's excellent Branch Newsletter. It clearly merits a wider audience through the WFA website and I am very grateful to Andrew Johnson (Treasurer), Geoff Longmore (the Chairman of WFA Wolverhampton) and the Branch for their help and to be allowed to reproduce it here.
(1) John Lewis-Stempel: Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War (London: Orion Books Ltd, 2011) p 40
(2) The Order of St. Stanislas was founded in 1765 as a Polish Order and was named after the last Polish King. In 1831 it was decreed the Order was to be included among the Russian Orders. Awarded in three classes, the 3rd Class badge is worn on the breast; during the Great War just over 350 Orders of St. Stanislas were bestowed on British officers.
(3) John Terraine: General Jack's Diary (Oxford: Cassell, 2000) p 298