This is one of the smallest graveyards I have visited on the First World War battlefields of the Somme. There are just two rows of tombstones like this. Many of the graveyards were originally close to front-line casualty clearing stations. Most of the bigger ones were assembled after the war from large numbers of little graveyards like this one.
Two things are unusual. The tombstones are shoulder to shoulder. More commonly, there is a little breathing space for the dead. Then there is that lonely German tombstone at the end of the line. How did he come to be buried here?
Ironically, the motto of the Welch (sic) Regiment is "Ich dien", which must have caused many a pub punch-up. But in the context of this photo, it makes that German grave all the more poignant.
If you’re specially observant, you’ll see there is one headstone that spells it "Welsh" while all the others spell it "Welch". According to David Langley in his book Duty Done. 2nd Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers in the Great War, the two spellings (ancient Welch and modern Welsh) coexisted for centuries before the Great War, when official publications and regimental badges all used Welsh. The soldiers, however, stuck to Welch, and after the war, the spelling was officially changed to follow that ancient custom. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission fell in line, using Welch on the official headstones, all of which were erected after the war. But in 1985 the CWGC decided in a fit of bureaucratic enthusiasm that headstones that wear away and are replaced, as all are sooner or later, will bear the Welsh spelling.
My granddad, Stan, was a linesman in the Birmingham Pals, which attacked Morval. I’ll have to read up a bit to see whether his company was involved. If so, he may have seen some of the landscape around here – only not much, I imagine. Smoke, snipers, gas, machine-guns and bursting shells probably limited the opportunity for sightseeing.
Stan enlisted in the 1st Birmingham Batallion on 10 September 1914 aged 22 years and 4 months, to serve in the 14th Service Batallion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, C Company, Platoon number X. He stood 5’9 and a half inches tall, had blue eyes and brown hair, and claimed to be a Baptist on his enlistment documents.
At first he served as a signaller, responsible for maintaining communication between trenches and with the headquarters. Some of this time he spent as a despach rider, using a motorcycle to carry messages from the lines back to the staff. He later became a linesman, whose job was to repair cut communication wires.
"Signallers were … separate [from the bayonet men, the bombers, mortar men, machine gunners and Lewis gunners] and a good example of a tribe within tribes. With eighteen in a battalion under their own sergeant, they had their own billet out of the line and were exempt from fatigues. They went up the line an hour before the rest and just carried their own equipment. Most of trench time was spent in their own dugout, testing lines and sharing private jokes on technicalities with other ‘iddy umpties’. Each quarter hour they would buzz all lines and, if there was no reply, the course of action expected gave them the prestige they enjoyed among the bayonet men. Under the heaviest shellfire, and in pairs, they went out to run a finger down the line, clothed and muffled to the ears in goatskins and comforters, chatting and whistling in their casual way. It was their duty, too, to dispense tea from frowsty dugouts and keep anxious-faced NCOs waiting in the vicinity, for they were the ‘news wallahs’, first into action and last out, propelling their outrageous handcarts packed with musical instruments, braziers, kettles and blankets, at which the greatest martinet would turn the blindest of eyes". [from Denis Winter (1978) "Death’s Men"].
For his gallantry under fire Stan was awarded the Military Medal. The citation reads: "Immediate Award. 14th (S) Battn. Royal Warwickshire Regiment. 14/707 Private William Stanley Sharman. Immediate Award. For great devotion to duty and pluck in front of Merville during the period of 13th to 21st April 1918. This man is a batallion signaller and during the period mentioned above showed the greatest possible devotion to duty. He was continually out mending telephone wires which owing to the fact that they passed through an area which was heavily shelled by the enemy were always being broken. It needed no order to call out Private Sharman to repair wires, but, whenever they were broken, he found this out for himself and went out to repair them without being told to do so. On several occasions he was very nearly sniped by the enemy but this fact never put him off from carrying out his duty. If had not been for his energy and courage telephone communication from Coy. to Batallion Hd.Qrs. would have been very much curtailed. [Signed] R. Richard[?] Lt. General, Commanding XI Corps".
This citation is ironic because he often told me "the only thing I learned in the Army was – never volunteer for anything". The medal came with a card that is now (1995) partly obliterated. It reads: "The Military Medal. Awarded to: /707 Pte. W.S. Sharman. R. Warwick [smudge] Date: 13/[smudge] Action: for gallantry and great devotion to duty in action".
"Birmingham Batallion" describes that period of the war in the following words: "Our line was firmly established facing Merville, with the 61st Division on our right and the Guards Division on our left. We had to dig in with entrenching tools, and the line consisted merely of a number of holes hurriedly dug out; there were, of course, no established support positions. The morning of the 13th found the batallion posted and ready for any emergency. At 11am the enemy delivered a determined attack on the batallion front at Les Lauriers, but this was repulsed everywhere except at Le Vertbois Farm, into which the enemy penetrated and from which we were forced to withdraw. [The farm was later retaken and lost again.] More attacks followed, but the enemy could gain no further advantage. The gap in the line had been filled in and attack after attack was repulsed during the day, merely by rifle and machine gun fire. The supply of ammunition often proved a source of great anxiety, for at times the front line was reduced to five rounds per man; all spare ammunition was kept for the Lewis and machine guns…. no less than 2.25 million rounds were sent up to replace expenditure at the front line. Determined attacks were resumed against us on the 14th… our artillery, with plenty of ammunition, had now come up into position, and put down some accurate and devastating barrages, thereby smashing up several attacks. The front line batallions were relieved on the night of the 14th-15th, and the batallion moved back into the woods, as reserve. The dead lay thick in the fields in front…. We returned to the line on the 18th. Little movement was possible by day, as we had no continuous front line, and communication trenches were conspicuous by their absence. After three days, the Brigade was relieved, and the batallion moved back to bivouacs in the woods for a rest. During the relief, the enemy sent over a quantity of gas shells. Our greatest enemy in the forest was gas. The Germans drenched the front part of the forest with mustard gas shells, causing many casualties and often temporary blindness…. The Corps Commander made the following awards for gallantry and devotion to duty: D.C.M. – Sergeant D.W. Tuffley; M.M. – Corporal N. Mooney, Privates W.S. Sharman, G.J. Smith, and G.O. Smith."
Stan was gassed, losing part of a lung and suffering wounds that would later require surgeons to remove much of his stomach and intestine. Mustard gas left superficial scars on the skin; until he died Stan had a long, broad yellow scar on his forearm that continually itched and would break open if he scratched it. After recovering in hospital from the gas attack he rejoined his company and was involved in several attacks "over the top". He lost nearly all of his friends in the trenches. He became a first-class poker player, playing for cigarettes and wages.
He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre in the 3rd battle of Ypres (Passchendale), and the Mons Star. He was promoted to King’s Corporal for an act of valour and confirmed Lance Corporal on the Somme. He refused to go to officer training school on the grounds, I think, that officers tended to get killed.
He became a machine gun expert ("and how" is his laconic comment) and was awarded the distinction "first class shot" at 400 yards. He became Assistant Instructor for signalling and was honourably discharged, having, in his words "passed the Army Poker and Solo [Whist] Exams, also Pontoon, Farmer’s Glory, Banker, Nap, Shove Ha’penny, Pitch + Toss, Cribbage and various other forms of sport".
His few trophies of the war include a German spiked helmet and a sugary picture postcard from a French woman. He became a driver in an ambulance convoy for the A.R.P. immediately after the war.
My feeling is that his survival through the whole war as a front line soldier owed something to his age at recruitment, and to his sense of what was important and what was necessary.
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