By Mark Purchase (PhD. L/cp RNZI 3rd Auck Nth Bn. N78340) email@example.com
and Times of a Survivor
in the Great War.
Pte William Purchase S4 144085 (ASC) 44877 (KRRC)
30/1/1887 - 12/3/1974
Englishman - New Zealander
The Western Front 1915 Stalemate and Stagnation.
Losses for the British army up until late 1915 were huge. (1) The location of William during Dec 1915 to August 1916 with the ASC requires more study. Since he was in the theater of conflict from 18/12/1915 he may or may not have seen action. The Army Service Corps had a task of supply, catering and servicing fighting men, it's unknown the part he played.
1916 The Great Slaughter
Having been transferred to the First battalion of the King's Royal Rifles Corps (1/KRRC) he came under their command on the 20th August 1916 at the age of 28 (According to the "Descriptive Report on Enlistment" part 1 & Medical History). While this form is faded in some places this date is reasonably clear. William was now day by day with this unit. It's amazing to realize that the events that occurred with this battalion can be traced and relate to William's war experience. An officer in the 1/KRR's kept a war diary. On the 20 Aug. 1916 -
"Divine Service was held in the field adjoining the huts. At 1.15 p.m. the Battalion moved to new quarters at Bus-les-Artois, taking over billets from the 4th Battalion Grenadier Guards. We passed the starting point (crossroads E. of Authie) at 2.24 p.m. immediately behind 22nd Royal Fusiliers, and arrived in new quarters about 8 p.m. This completed the “rest,” to which everyone had looked forward. The Battalion had been almost daily on the move since the 18th August, and had therefore no opportunity of giving systematic training to the new drafts."
It could be possible William was attached to the 1/KRR before the official paper transfer. With my experience in the New Zealand Army we would often have men attached to companies without official record for various reasons. Or it could be William was one of the "new drafts" on this date. The 1/KRRC had been at the front since 1914. In this month they are in the area of Amiens, Naours, Gezaincourt and at Vauchelle & les Authie (map). "During 1916 the average British soldier spent a 100 days at the front for the remainder he was in reserve, resting or on leave".
On the 21st Aug. 1916 1/KRR's and its various companies and platoons divided up and 'moved off' for various tasks. Some of these Companies came under fire. But the most significant event for all in this area on this day was the ammunition dump in Coigneux which caught fire. "A number of explosions were heard, and from the fire, flames, and smoke, it was evidently a big dump. We heard afterwards that a number of bombs of our latest heavy type were there. The village of Coigneux was very badly damaged. News came in the evening that the son of our Brigadier (General Kellett) was severely wounded by pieces of bombs, and later we heard that he had died of wounds."
Not until the 25th was the whole battalion together again. They relieved the 23rd Royal Fusiliers in Hebuterne southern sector. The 1/KRR diary, "leaving bivouacs by platoons at 6.45 a.m. ‘D’ Company on right, ‘B’ Company on left of front line, ‘C’ Company Sector right, and ‘A’ Company left support". Hebuterne was a village in the southern part of the Pas de Calais 9 miles north of Albert. Due to unforeseen circumstances, "The relief was consequently much delayed, and was not complete until 10.50 a.m." This was after all, the front line with the "1st Royal Berks on our left, 18th Essex (of 6th Brigade) on our right."
On the 26th Aug., KRR companies worked to repair trenches. And the wire was very poor and "a lot of work was therefore required on it. The old front line trench had been knocked in, and was now held by a series of bombing posts. The communication trenches were good. There were, however, only two deep dugouts in the sector. Fortunately the enemy artillery confined its attention almost entirely to our batteries, and our trenches were consequently not shelled much. Two 5. 9 in. shrapnel burst over our left Company during the morning, and a salvo from light guns was aimed at one of the trenches of the same Company. A few rifle grenades came over at intervals during the day and night. Our casualties very slight."
During the night and the days of the 26-27th they continued working 'putting up wire and improving trenches". Large numbers of men were required to carry up wire and other material from R.E. Stores to the front line. The work came to a halt on the 28th Aug. "At 9.26 p.m. a telephone message was received from Brigade that gas was to be discharged “to the south” at 9.30 p.m. All working and wiring parties were accordingly withdrawn, and Companies ordered to “stand to.” The operation was subsequently postponed to 10.30 p.m., and afterwards again to 11.30. Whether it actually took place or not it was impossible to find out. As what little wind there was favoured the Germans, and as no machine gun or artillery activity was observed, presumably no discharge took place"
On the 29th the O.C. decided that Companies should stand down with the 'Gas Alert' order. They were relieved in the morning by the 23rd R Fusiliers, completed by 10.45 am as Companies marched to the reserve area in Couin where the battalion took over the bivouacs of the 22nd Royal Fusiliers. It was from one mess to another. "The accommodation was exceedingly unsatisfactory and limited. During the afternoon a heavy thunder storm helped to make the bivouacs more uncomfortable than they naturally were. The conditions were somewhat ameliorated by the supply of trench boards which we obtained."
On the 30th the 1/KRR worked all day (which was a miserably wet one) on draining the camp, and on building new sheds and repairing the old ones. And it was announced a number of NCO's and men were awarded the Military Medal.
During September it was the usual trench warfare routine carried out with intervals of rest in billets and camp. On the 25th Sept an abortive trench raid was organized but failed, "The chief cause of its failure was the discovery of a new pattern collapsible wire entanglement employed by the Germans and worked from behind the trenches. It appeared to “pop up out of the ground” and quite disconcerted the gallant raiding party. Although unsuccessful in reaching the enemy’s trenches they withdrew with few casualties".
The first week of October the KRR were in the trenches, and relieved on the 7th Oct., and marched to billets at Mailly Maillet Wood. The weather now and to the end of the month "was very bad with continuous rain". On the 8th Oct., they moved to Raincheval and prepared for an attack they would be involved in. And returned to billets on the 17th Oct for one night, the next day they 'reconnoitered the sector of proposed attack' and remained in these trenches until the 22nd Oct when they were relieved and went to billets in Bertrancourt. However, (perhaps because of weather) the operations which they prepared for 'were postponed indefinitely'.
1st Nov., opened with heavy artillery activity directed on Beaumont Hamel. And the 1/KRR moved up into trenches in the Redan sector on the 2nd Nov. Trenches there were in a "bad state owing to bad weather". Then followed shelling. "The Germans being thoroughly irritated by our experimental barrage, retaliated with much vigour and landed three direct hits on our Battalion Headquarters. The poor dugout bore up bravely and showed no sign of collapsing. The following day we had another experimental barrage, but this time the Boche refused to be drawn." Shelling was the biggest killer of the war.
On the 6th Nov., they moved to their old billets in Mailly Maillet and the following day to Arqueves. But because someone had made a mistake there was no room for them. They had to remain out in the rain most of the night. "We said nasty things about the Town Major." On the 13th Nov., the whole battalion moved from Bertrancourt to "the assembly trenches". The column started at 2.50 am and by 5.40 am were in their first battle position in Cherroh Avenue. And then at 'zero' (5.45 am) moved to the trenches allotted to them, and awaited orders.
Battle of Ancre 13-19 Nov.1916
The 1/KRR lost their way in this confusing affair. The attack on Redan Ridge is mentioned in other records. And indicates the confusion that occurred. "At 7.30 am 99 Bde began to move forward ...twice 99 Bde were ordered to attack but on both occasions the orders were postponed". But the 2nd Div battled their way to the Beaumont Trench.
On Tuesday 14 Nov 1916 "at 6.20 a.m. 99 Brigade attacked Munich Trench with the 1st KRRC and 1st Royal Berkshire. They left Beaumont Trench one hour before zero and suffered from the effects of an erratic barrage, losing many men and also their way in the mist. On the right, the Rifles wandered into 51st Division's area and Leave Avenue, thinking it was Munich Trench. Although they realized their error, they could not make any headway on their objective. Some isolated groups stayed on in Leave Avenue for most of the morning, then withdrew to Wagon Road.
The Berks, however, reached Munich Trench but with depleted numbers. The result was totally confusing: some Germans wanted to surrender, others did not. On the left, Lager Alley was swept over, the troops not even recognizing it, and went on to extend the hold on Serre Trench. Later in the morning the troops in Munich Trench fell back on Wagon Road where part of 23rd Royal Fusiliers, in support, joined them." Efforts after this by other units were equally unsuccessful. And the 2 tanks that were supposed to assist both were stuck in mud before they could enter action.
The 1/KRR lost 3 officers, and other ranks 17 killed and 109 wounded. The Rifles consolidated their position on the 17th and were relieved at 3 pm."
On the 30th they reached Coulonvillers."The Battalion remained the whole of this month at Coulonvillers and carried out winter training."Various Brigade sports were held which the battalion took part. So for December 1916 the 1/KRR were in billets at Coulonvillers on winter training.
1917 Year of the Mud.
The BEF now numbered more than 50 Division, Haig had more men at his disposal than ever. Rain, mist, cold, wind, and frost describe Jan 1917. Winter was the coldest on record until finally the mud froze. Ironically better for troops than mud and damp. Some took rest,
But for most, "Conditions generally were bad. The ground had been frozen, but now was thawing out, (Jan.13-29) leaving the battlefield muddy. There were no trenches as such, they had been blown away, at best there was a line of shell holes… there were no landmarks, making it difficult to orientate units… only map and compass to find your way around"(Thiepval Memorial Mr.2).
1/KRR had some part in the 'Actions of Miraumont' (17-18 Feb 1917). The Berks were "part of the operations in the Ancre Valley during February 17/18. Official histories refer to the Actions of Miraumont, Battalion history to the Battle of Boom Ravine." The 1/KRRC were in this area, Frank Trevett, "Lance Sergeant A/203124, 1st Battalion, Kings Royal Rifle Corps, 2nd Division (was) Killed in action (at) Petit Miraumont, 17 Feb 1917. Aged 38".
"The 2nd Division (right flank) attacked Boom Ravine northwards towards Pys and Petite Miraumont". The aim to take high ground and remove a bulge in the British line west of Courcelette/Pozieres. "The attack was an unqualified success… The ground taken was valuable…. If you go there today, you will see the view is amazing, you can see for miles, certainly view to kill for."
July-Dec. 1917. British and French troops are now reluctant to die needlessly. The Battle of Cambrai (Nov 1917) was a primarily a 'tank' victory but the 1/KRRC was involved.
The Cambrai Memorial commemorates more than 7,000 servicemen of the UK and Sth Africa who died in the Battle of Cambrai in Nov - Dec 1917. Cpl. Joseph Mason "B" Coy (1/KRRC)" who was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in October 1917, was killed in Action 29 Nov 1917 during the Battle of Cambrai."
Loraine Purchase (daughter-in-law) mentioned that William at some stage captured a German bunker and was awarded a medal. But he laughed and 'played it down'. He said, "Why they gave that to me I don't know, I just threw a grenade, and out they came with their hands up". The date and place for this is unknown. But it was not uncommon for WW1 soldiers to disregard awards and medals.
William was on leave in England for some time in Sept 1917, as his wife gave birth in May 1918.
2nd Lt H. F. Sargood (only 19) Middlesex Reg., his last letter from the Front. Found in his kit, left there just before going into action. "My own dearest parents, I don't suppose you will ever get this, and I certainly hope you won't as it is only to be sent to you if I am killed while on the "Trench Stunt". I expect you have wondered (or will do so) how I regarded the prospect of death, for of course, the possibility of it is always before one. As you know, I have always been expecting it, so it has not taken me by surprise. As for the rest, well, I have never been able to express it better myself for you, so I don't suppose I can do any better for you. Although I have not regarded the prospect with pleasure (I should imagine that in a young man that would be unnatural) yet I can say that it caused me no fear. I have, of course, such feelings to buck me up as the thought of being an Englishman, a gentleman, the descendant of soldiers, and so on; but when it comes to the point such things are of little or no value.
No, I have an assurance which is of far more use to me than any of these things, the knowledge that Jesus Christ is my Saviour, and that He will be with me after death, the same as He has been with me for the last three or four years. This has been of the greatest comfort to me, and - under God – I owe it all to you, my dearest parents, and I could never, if I lived a thousand years, tell you what I would want to, or thank you for all that you have done for me, and especially the best thing of all, in bringing me up in the knowledge of my Saviour. And if I am killed, remember that it is our Lord's will, and He Who is our Friend, knows far better than we what is good for us; and after all, none of us would wish it otherwise, would we? I know you wouldn't, and though it means more for you than for me, yet I'm sure you wouldn't. 'And now, as I hope you will never get this, I'll leave off. Good-bye, my dearest parents. Don't sorrow".
1918 Year of Victories
The most significant event of early 1918 was the Germany Spring offensive.
William's location during this offensive is shown by the War Diary of the 2nd Royal Marine Battalion, "2 Jan 1918. Front Line 23rd Bn. relieved by 1st Bn. KRRC and proceeded to camp in Havrincourt Wood. One casualty." Havrincourt Wood is around the area of Bapaume.
The Diary of the 1st Bn Gordon Highlanders also mentions the 1/KRR. The Highlanders were at Neuville Vitasse, a village 6km south-east of Arras towards Croisilles. It has two entrees, "16th & 17th [Feb. 1918] Bn at Neuville Vitasse. Usual work on new HQ, wire carrying for KRRC". Whether William's battalion were in trenches or billets, this was their appointed area - Amiens and Bathune.
The Germans had no clear objective but simply to punch a hole in the front where they knew the British were weak. With Russia out of the war, Germany out-numbered the British 2 to 1. And so hoped to end the war before the Americans entered and because the public in Germany were starving and turning against the war more and more.
On 21 March in dense fog, thick with poisonous gas the German's attacked the 3rd and 5th British Armies where they knew the British were weak. After a barrage of a million shells in just 5 hours, the principle blow fell on a 12 mile gap. The British 5th Army "ceased to exist". The German's over ran trenches as the 5th Army disintegrated falling back 50 miles in 10 days. On their first day the Germans captured 21,000 prisoners. On the 24th March it was declared a national holiday in Germany the bells were rung and the war said to be over. Albert was captured but the advance lost momentum over the maze of old trenches of the battered Somme. Although the British front was in crisis the German's advanced so fast supplies ran out, so troops paused to feast themselves on captured food and drink.
Ludendorff then opened the offensive against the 1st & 3rd Armies in the Arras sector. The BEF there were seasoned professionals. (2) With "good visibility" they stopped the Germans causing them to cancel operations between La Bassee and Vimy. G Harper mentions when the Germans broke through between Hamel and Miramount, the gap was serious. He mentions a "2nd Div" at Hamel (near Albert) unable to fight. On 21 March "their numbers much reduced" and "exhausted". Unclear if this is the BEF 2nd Div., but Harper says the New Zealanders saved the front.
There is a mention of a KRR battalion on the 10th April. Germans crossed the R.Lys fighting in the village of Messines. The BEF fell back to Estaires on the River Lys (13th April). "At one point the British were almost surrounded, with only the slender link of the road to the north-west and the village of Dranoute between them and the BEF. Eventually they had no choice but to pull out, the Kings Royal Rifles acting as rearguard".
On 2nd April 1918 American troops entered the theater, the BEF had almost "100,000 missing". The 1/KRR saw action on the 8th May. Diary, "A large scale attack was launched in the vicinity of Becquoy. One of the objectives was to advance the outpost line to obtain a better observation of the valley in which the enemy was entrenched. Two companies of 1/KRRC's were detailed for the assault. Their orders were to attack the enemies outpost position" (Without "artillery" support). "They were to 'go over the top' at 2pm. Sgt Gregg (awarded the VC) was part of the right company". They obtained their objective under heavy fire. But "after a short while they were surrounded by a large enemy force and were forced to retire. In this action alone, the storming party had lost 60% of their number. "Bucquoy" (modern spelling) is only 9 kilometers from Arras. In this area William was shot, wounded and left in no man's land.
"In these scraps one gets so mixed up that they are sometimes missing for days, and then they turn up alive; so there is always hope until a man is officially reported dead". "A few soldiers came home on leave after the action and were questioned by relatives and friends of the missing. In the absence of official information, rumors began to circulate.
Phyl Purchase, (William's daughter) described what happened,
"During this battle, Dad went over the top on several forays, one time when he was returning to the trenches his mate fell beside him. You remember the size of dad? He managed to drag his mate almost to safety then was shot in the leg and got no further. An American Red Cross stretcher party found him and carried him to an American Field Hospital behind the lines.
But by this time his Battalion Officer had reported him missing in action, believed killed. A telegram was dispatched to his wife to this effect and she received it while still in hospital. Irene was born on 8th May 1918 the same day Dad was wounded. Later his wife received a letter from an American doctor to say they had found Dad – but because of the many hundreds of wounded in that battle, he was not identified immediately. The letter came several weeks after Irene's birth. The wound was very serious, but because of the care he received in the early stages, Dad did not lose his leg.
When he was able to be moved he was sent home by Hospital Ship and admitted to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary where he spent the rest of that year. Because of his action in battle, he was recommended for the Military Medal and was given the ribbon while still in hospital. Being our Dad and knowing his character – he never applied to the War Office for his Metal – he didn't really want to know about it."
Medical Records indicate while serving in the KRRC he suffered gunshot wounds on the 9th of May to the leg and buttock and was eventually admitted to Springburn Woodside Central Hospital at Glasgow where he remained from 15th May 1918 to 3rd Sept 1918 ("111 days"). As a result of these wounds he was classed as unfit and discharged from hospital on the 30th Sept 1918 and from the army on 15th Dec 1918. He then applied for a pension and the records show that he was still going before medical boards as late as 1921. The 'degree of disablement' on the 17/12/18 was 50%, overtime this went down to 30% and eventually he lead a normal life.
The American Field Service appear to be in this area (3) Our "stretcher-bearers", remarks an American officer, were not always "able to reach all the wounded, many died... lying out in the cold (we) could do little to help".
After the war, William was offered a good job in New Zealand and with his family sailed on the SS Rotarua to Wellington New Zealand in 1924. They were paid travelers not migrants. He was a professional cake decorator and his job lead him to Greymouth, Wanganui East and eventually Auckland. In Auckland, he worked as a Head Pastry Cook in New Market and opened his own bakery business (Henshaw's Bakery) teaching his sons (Eric, Bill and Ken) the trade. He lived and retired in Auckland enjoying visits from grand children. The strong Christian faith held by all his children and passed on to his grand children, is for me a tribute and lasting legacy of his life.
Footnotes for part 2
(1) The BEF "had almost ceased to exist, by the end of 1914 some 90,000 (or 90%) of the original BEF were casualties with 30% dead" Just a note. A division 'moved and lived as an entity and fought as a team'. A 'Corps' did not hold infantry or battalions permanently so battalions could swap between Corps. The ordinary soldier cared nothing of which corps his division was attached to. A Private had no excuse but to obey orders. 306 were executed during WW1 for refusing to fight. From 1914 – 1917 the Front is one long line of trenches. Battalions did their tour of 4-8 days in trenches, then returned to billets. They often stayed in the same sector for months. Even in 'quiet times' a battalion could lose 50 men per month through death, wounds, or sickness.
(2) The 1st Army had a variety of tasks one was training men. They had a "school of Trench Mortars" a "School sniping at LINGHAM", a "School at MAISNIL". Officers would refer men to the "1st Army rest Camp".
(3) History of American Field Service in France. Section Twelve. See "III Summary of the Section's History Under the US Army" R.N Barrentt. Also, M M Evans says, in 1918 150,000 of the AEF was "for the dispersion to British formations". British & French had Division of the AEF under their command.
I am waiting for the dawning
Of the bright and blessed day,
When the darksome night of Sorrow
Shall have vanished far away;
When for ever with the Saviour,
Far beyond this vale of tears,
I shall swell the song of worship,
Through the everlasting years.
I am looking at the brightness
(See, it shineth from afar!)
Of the clear and joyous beaming
Of the bright and morning star;
Through the dark grey mist of morning
Do I see its glorious light;
Then away with every shadow
Of this sad and weary night.
I am waiting for the coming
Of the Lord who died for me:
Oh His words have thrilled my spirit,
"I will come again for thee!"
I can almost hear His foot-fall
On the threshold of the door,
And my heart, my heart, is longing
To be with Him evermore.
Samuel T Francis 1834-1925
Mark Purchase ThD PhD Auckland (L/cp RNZI 3rd Auck Nth Bn. N78340)
Gratefully acknowledging help from Phyl Purchase, Lorraine & the late Ken Purchase. Information from Colin and Russell Purchase, Encouragement and advice from Bryan Purchase and Rebecca Purchase. Research Advisers; Irv Mortenson in Washington USA (KRRC expert) And Roger E Nixon in London (www.pro-search.co.uk Military Historian and Researcher).