My Grandad, George Archer, was a very short and slightly built man, only about 4ft 11inches tall. When war broke out in 1914, he was 19 years old but he was too short to sign up for the army. He continued in the woollen manufacturing industry in Dewsbury, which made cloth for the Army, including blankets and cloth for uniforms. After huge losses on the Somme battlefield, the Government introduced “Bantam Battalions” for shorter men and Grandad was now to join up. Read George Archer and the Bantams.
George was enlisted in the Army in Leeds in January 1917 and was placed in the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own), 17th Service Battalion, 2nd Leeds (a Bantam Battalion), which was attached to the 106th Brigade, 35th Division. He was 21 years old and, after basic training in England, he was shipped out to France in June 1917, arriving just in time for the great offensive in Flanders, now called simply “Passchendaele”.
Grandad’s Brigade was placed in the 5th Army under General Sir Hubert Gough, an Irish-born Officer, Sandhurst trained. Gough had served in the 16th Lancers in the Boer War at the relief of Ladysmith and he still maintained an “over-confident belief in the value of cavalry attacks”. This was a modern war being fought with old-fashioned ideas.
After three years of battle, costing millions of dead and wounded, the Western Front comprised a long line of trench workings from the North Sea to France’s border with Switzerland. The fighting had reached a stalemate but the British planned a new offensive.
The main stated strategy was to break through Flanders to the coast, where German U-Boat pens were sited, so that they could be destroyed. Food supplies to Britain were continually being cut off by the U-Boats, who were attacking and sinking merchant shipping. Since Britain imported about two thirds of its food supplies, there was real concern that the Germans could starve them into submission if the war was extended another year.
Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander on the Western Front, also believed that German morale was low after their defeat at Messines and that advancing through Flanders would be a breeze, so he was very keen to go ahead, in spite of objection from Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
Spurred on by the success at Messines, Haig decided to press on to capture Passchendaele Ridge, with the objective of taking and controlling the Belgian city of Ypres. The Russian regime was suffering instability and if the Russians left the war, that would free up German troops to re-inforce the Western Front, so Haig believed that time was short and he ordered the Third Battle of Ypres to begin with a major artillary bombardment, as was the norm. The bombardment naturally alerted the Germans to the forthcoming major offensive and they were ready!
The British and French advance began on 31st July, along an eleven mile front, making only small gains over the first days in the face of stronger than expected defence by the enemy and progress was soon halted by the German 4th and 5th Armies. Casualties were high.
The 106th Brigade of the West Yorkshires, in which my Grandad was serving as an infantryman were, at this time, fighting alongside the Lancashire Fusiliers, Sherwood Forresters, Gloucesters and Scottish troops. Typically a Brigade would be at the front for four days, then be relieved for four days, in rotation and this seems to have been the pattern of his life…four days of advancing and being under fire, followed by four days of rest, when the soldiers must have dreaded and anticipated the likelihood of suffering mutilation or death the next time they were moved up to the front.
At the beginning of August, the soldiers’ misery was added to by the onset of rain. The earth had already been churned up by the artillery bombardment and was full of shell holes. Now my Grandad experienced the worst rains in 30 years (more than he had experienced his lifetime), which effectively changed the already marshy land into a mud-bath filled with dangerously deep holes, which could not properly be seen, especially in darkness. Tanks became stuck in the thick mud. The shell holes, in which soldiers would previously take cover, were filled with water and rendered useless for cover. The flatness of the plain made cover impossible to find and soldiers were more able to be picked off by snipers and injured by shrapnel. Rifles were clogged up and men and horses drowned. The noise of battle was deafening.
Meanwhile, Haig blamed the lack of progress on Gough, rather then the weather, and moved Gough north, replacing him with Plumer. Gough had favoured a fast sweeping advance, but Plumer changed tactics in favour of small advances to positions that could be permanently held. The Battle of Menin Road Bridge, the Battle of Polygon Wood and the Battle of Broodseinde were fought between September and October 1917, the Allies taking hold of territory, bridge by bridge, road by road and farm by farm. Between October 9th and 12th, two battles were fought at Poelcappel and Passchendaele. German soldiers had been transferred from the Eastern front to bolster the defence there and now they used mustard gas on the advancing Allied troops.
Grandad would have seen men fall, injured or dead, heard the screams of the severely wounded…seen things that no man should ever see. Even when on a rest period, living conditions were unbearable. Makeshift tents, erected each night, were just simple bivvies, created by stretching canvas sheets tightly over a pole and pegging the sheets down. Each bivvie slept eight men. In some cases, pumps were used to try to remove water from trenches and dugouts but never were the soldiers able to be comfortable.
Disease was another threat. Lice were prevalent and men caught disease from them, known as “trench fever”, causing headaches, muscle aching and high temperatures. Rats fed on the bodies of the dead and invaded the sleeping areas, biting the living and spreading more disease. In the continual unhealthy wet conditions, trench foot was common, an infection caused by continual exposure to wet conditions. Affected feet became numb, turned red or blue as a result of poor blood supply, and feet may have begun to have a decaying smell due to the early stages of necrosis. As the condition worsened, feet may have swollen. Advanced trench foot often involved blisters and open sores, which led to fungal infections. If left untreated, trench foot results in gangrene, which can lead to amputation.
Added to the sights and terrifying sounds of battle, there was the smell…of mud mixed with rotting corpses, gas, open latrines, unwashed bodies and infection, which would together have made an unbearable stench.
Grandad must have thought he was in Hell. I believe YES, he WAS in Hell. The ordinary soldier was struggling on in the most challenging and desperate of conditions and danger but they were still not making much forward progress. Many soldiers must have become accustomed to the idea that they would never return home.
In late October, three further attempts were made on Passchendael Ridge and the town was eventually taken on November 6th. In an advance of a very few miles and over three months, the Allies lost 325,000 men and the Germans 260,000…over half a million young men lost for a few miles of muddy earth.
I don’t know if my Grandad made it to the capture of the town on November 6th. I know that he was wounded at Passchendaele and would have been evacuated for treatment, but I don’t know for sure on which day he was injured. However, the history of the 35th Division (by Lt Col H M Davson) describes a bombardment by the Germans on 20th October 1917, which resulted in a high number of casualties in the 106th brigade (Grandad’s brigade), which lost about 25% of its men either killed, missing or wounded. It is possible that is when Grandad was wounded too, but I may never know for certain.
Each Division had three Field Ambulance Units – these were mobile medical units who provided stretcher bearers and field ambulance stations. Grandad would have been sent to a dressing station and returned to his unit when deemed fit enough to serve. If he had been more seriously wounded, he would have been evacuated to a base hospital in France or “back to Blighty” to one of the UK’s Military Hospitals for the most seriously injured.
After Passchendaele, the number of casualties led to a manpower crisis and some Brigades had to be amalgamated at the end of November 1917 and early 1918. Re-organisation caused the 17th Service (Bantam) Battalion of the West Yorkshires (2nd Leeds) to be amalgamated with the 15th Service Battalion of the West Yorkshires (1st Leeds) (AKA the Leeds Pals) to become the new 15th/17th Battalion. In 1918, the West Yorkshires took part in actions at the First Battle of Bapaume, the Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Courtrai and the action of Tieghem.
I know that Grandad was wounded twice before the end of the war and I remember that one of his hands had restricted movement, possibly due to a tendon injury from shrapnel. Grandad’s second wounding was said to be at Ypres, presumably at the 1918 battle. However, we don’t know the extent of his injuries or how he was treated. He simply didn’t talk about it.
Grandad continued to serve until he was finally discharged in April 1919. His war record was lost with the many soldiers’ records that were destroyed in a fire in the 1940s, but his medal sheet survived and is shown here.
This tells us quite a lot:
The medal sheet shows George Archer, West Yorkshire Regiment, Regimental No. 60431, Rank of Private. We can see that he was Enlisted 5th January 1917 and Discharged 2nd April 1919. The cause of Discharge was “Para 392/xvi/KR”…that is paragraph 392 in the King’s Regulations, which indicates by the code (xvi), that he was now “No longer fit for further war service”. Initially, I assumed that this was because of one of the injuries that he received in the war. However, the “S” written into this box indicates he was unsuitable for further army service because of sickness, as it would have been a “W” there if he was discharged because of his wounds.
The reasons for the designation (xvi) being used was one of the following:
- A soldier with physical infirmity caused by wounds (where a “W” would be written in the “cause of discharge” box)…or…
- A soldier found to be medically unfit due to physical illness (with “S” written in the “cause of discharge” box). I imaging that this might include the effects of gas or trench foot, for example…or…
- Any man discharged for “insanity” or other diagnosed mental illness, which mostly would be shell-shock, sometimes called battle fatigue, combat stress, or what we may now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (this would also have had an “S” in “cause of discharge”).
So, it would seem that Grandad was suffering from either physical or mental illness by the end of the war.
The designation AO 29/19 in the “Cause of Discharge” further indicates that Grandad was awarded the Silver War Badge, which was awarded to officers and men who were honourably discharged or retired from the military forces as a result of sickness or injury caused by their war service.
“List 0/3585/2″ is a reference to the roll on which his Silver War Badge award is listed. Around the rim of the badge was inscribed “For King and Empire; Services Rendered”. The Silver War Badge became known as the “Services Rendered Badge”. Each badge was also engraved with a unique number on the reverse, not related to the recipient’s Service Number. Grandad would have received a certificate with the badge. The badge was made of sterling silver and was intended to be worn on the right lapel of a recipient’s civilian clothing to denote that the wearer had been honourably discharged from the service. Over a million wounded and sick soldiers were awarded silver badges on discharge and many ex-soldiers sold them in times of hardship in later years because of the value of the silver content.
His medals awarded were: the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, shown below.
Effects of war
I asked my father what his Dad had told him about Passchendaele, but he said that he had never talked about it. When asked, all he would say was that “it was too bad to talk about” but he once offered the opinion that he believed “it was even worse than the Somme”.
I have wondered how the war affected my Grandad long term. I know that his great fear of rats haunted him all his life. Those men who had resilience and were lucky enough not to be severely wounded, somehow managed to endure and he was one of those who endured for almost two years of the most terrible of wars. I wonder how many times bad dreams and flashbacks invaded his mind. The extreme stress of battle could and still can break even strong individuals. What was the illness recorded at his discharge that made him unsuitable for further service? How much of a toll had his time in Flanders taken on him?
In spite of hardship, those men who endured “soldiered on” to victory. Propaganda and patriotism must have played their part…the soldiers were fighting for their loved ones, they were fighting for their homes and for their freedom and they were fighting for King and Empire. They were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for all of that…and for a dream that some day they could return to a normal life, in freedom and peace. Naive? or Stoical? Above all, Courageous. Most would have experienced intense fear when under fire and some would not cope. 80,000 British men were treated for shell shock after the war ended, but many more must have suffered in silence and it must have changed their lives.
The Next Chapter
George Archer, Grandad, returned home in April of 1919 and on 10th January 1920 he married his sweetheart, Mary Ann Ellis, my Grandma.
He couldn’t have had a better wife…intelligent, practical and no nonsense, she would have been a great source of support. But trying to build a normal life could not have been easy. The birth of the first of their five children, my Auntie Laura, in July 1920, must have given him a sign that life could be positive and meaningful again. This little dainty, pretty blonde girl captured his heart. My Dad swore that he took many a punishment for Laura’s mischief when they were children. Well, of course he would!
Grandad was also pretty partial to his first grandchild! Below is Grandad with me at Blackpool in the 1950s. He always wore a flower in his buttonhole at weekends, which he put together himself.
After the war, Grandad returned to work at Aldham’s Mill in Dewsbury, which continued to manufacture blankets. He remained there until his retirement at the age of 65. He died in Dewsbury, from pneumonia, aged 78, in January 1974, leaving a widow, five children, six grandchildren and one great-grand-child.
See also: George Archer and the Bantams
© Christine Widdall
First published on 14th Feb 2014. Additional material added 1st Aug 2017.