The Great War – our family link

 

 

WWI cemetery in France

The Great War

The 1914 to 1918 war, WWI, ‘The Great War’- in the next few days, the end of this world war will be marked across the world. A war that killed millions, the ‘first industrial war’ – where flesh and bone were overwhelmed by the destructive power of technology. A death count on the battlefield, never seen before in human history. Is there a town or village in the UK that doesn’t have a memorial to the fallen of this conflict (later adding names from WWII) Be it a memorial on the village green or a roll call plaque on a church wall. It seems as if every UK family had someone in the conflict or lost someone due to it. For our family, our connection is Ralph Bagshaw.

Ralph Bagshaw. Born March 1885, Fernilee, Derbyshire, to Samuel & Ann Bagshaw.

Ralph was my great-great-uncle, the younger brother to my great grandmother, Louisa. Both died young.

The 11th battalion, Sherwood Foresters

So what do we know? We have no photographs of him, we’ve only got a couple of Louisa. He married Florence Parker (from Salford) in 1909, at St James’s church in Taxal. A church that features heavily in my family history. My grandfather, George, was probably at the wedding. If he was, he would have been aged seven months.

Ralph and Florence lived in Whaley Bridge. Ralph worked at the local Bleachworks. They had no children.

His enlistment papers help paint some sort of picture of him. They state that he was 5’4″ tall, (1.62m) weighed 112lbs (8 stone or 51kg), 36″ chest, hazel eyes and brown hair. That’s all the military records say. He enlisted on September 15, 1914, in Derby (having been in the Territorials). He would join Kitchener’s Army, in the 11th (Service) Battalion of the Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Regiment (The Sherwood Foresters). Said to be mostly made up of miners from the area.

Private Ralph Bagshaw, aged 29, service number 7309.

After training in Surrey (just down the road from where my wife’s family live now), his battalion went to the Western Front at the end of August 1915. There is no personal war diary, no letters that we have, just fragments that we can find from official records and accounts in books. The records show some details of his service…

27-08-15  Embarked at Folkestone.

September 1915 – battalion enters the trenches south of Ypres

16-10-15   Septic toe problem.

March 1916 – battalion moves to Authuille Wood (The Somme)

08-04-16  In hospital, rejoins battalion

1st July 1916 – The Battle of The Somme

August 1916 – battalion moves to the Ypres Salient

September 1916 – battalion moves back to The Somme

Oct/Nov 1916 – back to Ypres. Sanctuary Wood, Hill 60, Messines Ridge

17-11-16   Promoted to Lance-Corporal

03-03-17  Promoted to Corporal

26-04-17   Wounded in Action

24-06-17  Rejoins the battalion

21-07-17  Promoted to Lance-Sergeant

September 1917 – Commended for gallantry at Passchendaele by his Corps Commander

03-10-17  Promoted to Sergeant

Nov 1917 – battalion moves to Italy – San Sisto Ridge (fighting the Austrians)

April 1918 – home leave back to England.

September 1918 – battalion returns to France.

He served in some famous locations in WWI – Ypres, Hill 60, Messines Ridge, Passchendaele, The Somme.

The Battle of the Somme

That first day of the battle, July 1st 1916, the bloodiest day in British Army history. Almost 20,000 dead, by the end of the day – over twice that wounded. The 11th Sherwood Foresters were in the centre, at Authuille Wood. They would start that day, part of 70th Brigade, with a battalion strength of 27 officers and 710 men. They ended the day, with, still standing, 6 officers and 202 men. We assume Ralph was one of these?

They were the reserve battalion of the Brigade’s four. To follow up the first attack. They had difficulty moving forward, the communications trenches being full of wounded from the opening attack. In the book “24 hours at The Somme”, a Major at 70th brigade HQ is quoted, as he remembers the Brigade commander having to order the 11th forward. Already, the slaughter was becoming obvious, at this command level at least. “Brigadier-General Gordon fully realised the gravity of the order he was giving when he ordered the 11th Sherwood Foresters to continue their forward movement. There was a tense silence in the dugout after he had given his decision and General Gordon was never quite the same again”

They were cut to pieces by machine gun fire, much of it coming from a ridge to their left (Thiepval), from which there was little hiding. The Brigade had been told,  “You will meet nothing but dead and wounded Germans. You will advance to Mouquet Farm and be there by 11 am. The field kitchens will follow you and give you a good meal”. But the days of artillery bombardment hadn’t worked. The German machine guns were still intact and very active. Mouquet Farm would not be taken until late September. For many of that battalion, it would be their last day.

Advancing across this ground, from the Authuille wood in the background, the 70th Brigade were cut to pieces. Ralph survived this slaughter. We have nothing in the records to suggest that he wasn’t with his battalion then. To have his own story in writing!

An excerpt from the 70th Brigade’s commanding officer’s report on that morning, dated 9th July 2016…

The centre of the 70th Brigade had crossed the first and second German lines and were in the third line; both flanks were thrown back and had not been able to make headway further than the first German trench. Both of these flanks were completely exposed. Machine gun fire from Ovillers and also from Thiepval were bringing a cross fire to bear upon No Mans Land. The enemy’s artillery barrage was intense upon our support trenches…The 11th Sherwood Foresters were moving up very quickly to our front line following closely in support of the 9th Yorks and Lancs and at 8.56am Col Watson (Commanding officer of the 11th Sherwood Foresters) reported that his first wave was across No Mans Land and had entered and passed over the front German trench. His second line with Headquarters was about to cross our parapet; he had received no news from the front…(the brigade next to them was now reported to have fallen back to their trenches)…orders were given to O.C. 11th Sherwood Foresters to consolidate the first German trench and hold on to this…

The Sherwood Foresters suffered serverely crossing No Mans Land being enfiladed on both flanks by M.G and much hostile shrapnel fire which was now barraging our front line whenever troops attempted to advance. It was impossible to stand at all in No Mans Land and the Battalion crawled forward on hands and knees to the help of the Battalions in front. It is doubtful if any of the second wave ever got further than just outside the German front trench…”

The 11th’s CO, Lt Col Watson was wounded, he later said,

“I was wounded about 100 yards from the German line. The advance was practically at a standstill. Every man who endeavoured to follow me to the German line was hit, and a very large number of our men lay dead close to our wire.”

A private in the 11th, Frank Carroll, said of that morning,
“At six o’clock, the whole guns opened fire along the line for an hour’s bombardment before we went forward. The earth shook with the guns and the mines somewhat resembling an earthquake. At the end of the hour, the guns lifted from the Huns’ front line to his second and the time had come for the infantry to go over to the Huns’ first line. They took Fritz with surprise, and he was soon on the run. The next line were more prepared for them and got their machine guns to mow them down. At nine o’clock, our time had come. We had waited and we were in a hurry to get over. At last, the words came — Sherwood’s over! We were soon over but not a man out of my platoon got more than 60 yards. Nothing could live in it.
We were enfiladed by machine-gun fire on both sides, also on our front. I think I was the last one on my pins in our lot. I got one in the right elbow, and went down close to one of our officers, who had the calf of his leg blown away. I crawled into a shell hole and began to remove the pack as best I could. I dared not show myself much, as Hun snipers were about, and I could hear the crack, crack of the explosive bullets as they were picking off our wounded as they tried to crawl back to our lines. I then decided to be dead for a few hours. It is not very nice being dead when there is someone whom you can’t see keeps having a pot at you. After four hours, things began to steady down a little, so I crawled out of the shell hole. But when I had gone a few yards, I had to give up. I was weak through loss of blood. After a time, I thought I would risk it, so I got up and walked the rest of the way.”

 

This is the view today, from where the German first trench cut across the lane, looking back down to the British line. Now the edge of a turnip field, as maybe it was before the armies descended on this quiet part of France?

German frontline at The SommeNow a turnip field, the Somme battlefieldThose that got past the first trench and many in the first wave managed to, headed up this slope (below) to the next line of defences.  Many of the fallen that day still lie in these fields.

Somme battlefieldThe view (below) from where German machine guns could rake them with bullets, from the Leipzig Salient. (note the pile of turnips, next to the road, as seen in the previous photo). This is the ground over which the brigade was advancing on July 1st. (from right to left)

The cemetery at Blighty Valley (below), where many of the 70th Brigade are buried, just behind Authuille Wood. There are many other names on the Thiepval monument. Their bodies were never found. When the battalion returned to the area in September 1916, they searched the ground for the bodies of their friends killed on July 1. Burying those they managed to find and identify.

Blighty Valley cemetery100 years to the day

So this brings us to our recent trip – both to the Somme and to where Ralph’s life ended, aged 34, some 50 odd miles away, at Pommereuil. The timing of the trip was key.

24th October 1918 – the war has 18 days left, not that anyone knew that then. Talk of an Armistice was in the air but the fighting continued. The Allies were now out of the trenches, pushing the Germans back to the Belgian border. The 11th Sherwood Foresters were in the area of Le Cateau (south of Cambrai). Pushing the Germans back towards the Sambre canal – where the last major battle of the war would take place. On the 23rd, the small village of Pommereuil had been taken by the 75th Brigade. The 70th Brigade dug in next to the nearby wood.

4.30am, 24th October 1918 – the Brigade begins it’s attack. Two supporting tanks break down. So the infantry heads to their objective alone. According to the book, “The Men from the Greenwood”, a history of the 11th battalion Sherwood Foresters, published in 1921, this is probably where Ralph fell. “..the advance began, but almost immediately came under heavy machine gun fire, and later came upon a belt of barbed wire, that had been uncut. It was in negotiating this, under the fire of snipers and machine guns, that most of the casualties of the day occurred.”

The historian, Peter Hodgkinson, in his book “The Battle of The Selle” describes this action on page 237. In the appendix he notes, “There were eleven casualties amongst the other ranks of 24 October, including Sergeant Ralph Bagshaw, twice mentioned in despatches…” Unfortunately, he has been unable to find his notes as to where he saw these mentions for Ralph. Maybe more research will unearth this?

Ralph is buried in the British cemetery at Pommereuil. It’s where myself, my father, along with my son and daughter, went on a soggy October morning. 24th October 2018. To lay a wreath on his grave, exactly 100 years after his death. He had no children. We half expected to find some Bagshaw relatives there doing the same. We don’t know what the family tree is for Ralph’s other brothers and sisters. So it was just us. (Another family had made a similar pilgrimage to a grave in this cemetery, the day before, again 100 years to the day).

Had any relatives been to Ralph’s grave since 1918? We just don’t know. His sister, Louisa, died in 1920, aged 39. His wife, Florence, died in 1952. We believe that they are buried in the same, unmarked, burial plot at Taxal church. The church records call her Florence Bagshaw, so maybe she never remarried.

Clive Beddall lays a wreath on his great uncle, Palph Bagshaw's grave in France.(My father laying the wreath on Ralph’s grave)

Ralph Bagshaw Sherwood ForestersThere are 158 burials at this small cemetery, sat between gardens on the western side of the village. Most are the fallen from the 23rd and 24th October. Many from the Manchester Regiment. Of the Sherwood Foresters, there are eight. One Sergeant (Ralph) and seven privates, six of which also died on October 24. Five of them are placed in a line, alongside Ralph. As the Sergeant, the second in command of a platoon – were these his men? Where they all caught up together, in that barbed wire and gunned down on that October morning in 1918? Two grave plots the other side of Ralph’s, is that of the Battalion’s commanding officer, Lt Col Young, killed by an artillery shell on the 25th October.

The research continues…maybe one day we’ll find a photograph. On a WWI forum, I found someone who had bought his service medals but he says he sold them on…didn’t say where. Maybe this is all we will ever know about this man. Ralph had survived over three years of conflict, only to be killed just days before the end of this war.

The research goes on…

A day on The Somme

A few images from our day touring around the battlefields near Albert.

Cross at Lochnagar craterLochnagar crater la Boiselle SommeThiepval MemorialLost family member at the SommeSomme fieldsOld WWI trenches near Beaumont HameltrenchesHawthorn Ridge crater todayWWIA very brief trip to France. Agincourt, The Somme and Pommereuil. But on our way back to the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais, two more stops,

First, another wreath laying. This time near Arras. My wife’s great-uncle, 2nd Lt Thomas Elworthy, 1st Battalion King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) – killed 3rd May 1917, aged 24. Killed in a disastrous night attack. This cemetery lies in the shadow of the A1 motorway, unseen by the countless holidaymakers zooming past. His brother died at Gallipoli in 1915, also aged 24.

Brown's Copse cemeteryThe final stop, Bray-Dunes, Dunkirk beach, as my daughter had not seen another family history location. Where Ralph’s nephew, George, waited three days for a boat home in 1940.

Dunkirk beachThe death toll

Finally, a temporary art installation at Thiepval. “Lost Lives’ by the artist Rob Heard – marking the number of deaths on each day of the First World War. On display in the grass, near the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, at The Somme.

Lost lives art installation by Rob HeardLost lives art installation by Rob Heard at Thiepval

R.I.P.

 

UPDATE: We now have a picture and we have more info…

One thing leads to another…a small article about our trip to Ralph’s grave, on the 100th anniversary of his death, in the Buxton Advertiser, bore fruit. Or at least, their facebook page did. Julian Thompson, who owns Adeva hair salon in Whaley Bridge, got in touch. He had done research into the men from Whaley who had been killed in WWI, including Ralph. He had a snippet of a newspaper article about Ralph’s death – the hunt was on then to find the rest of the article.

With clues from Julian and the help of staff at New Mills and Buxton libraries and after a series of emails and searches, it was found. On Friday this last week, November 9th, we found the article.

An article published in the High Peak Reporter, on November 9th 1918 (spooky).

Here we have more info…

“We regret to state that Sergeant Ralph Bagshaw, of the Sherwood Foresters, one of the best known of Whaley Bridge soldiers, was killed in action in France, on October 24th.”

Here’s that mention…

“Sergeant Bagshaw was twice mentioned in despatches. Four times he was recommended for distinction but no medals were awarded to him.”

Of his death, an officer, also from the Whaley Bridge area and formerly a local headmaster, wrote to his wife, Florence…

“He passed away almost immediately after being shot by a sniper and I am thankful to say he did not suffer any pain. Your husband was very highly appreciated by his officers and amongst the non-commissioned officers and men was very popular. He set a fine example to his men and on several occasions that day had shown great coolness under heavy fire. Your husband was buried today and all due respect was shown to him. Your husband was the first person I met from Whaley Bridge district when I joined this battalion and we had several enjoyable chats about home. Again assuring you of our deepest sympathy, and trusting that strength may be given to you to bear your heavy loss”

“Company Quarter Master Sergeant G. H T(name obscured), wrote stating Sergeant Bagshaw was killed while fighting hard against the Germans. “He was buried properly with religious rites along with others from the battalion. I know it will be a terrible blow and I offer you the most sincere and deepest sympathy in your great bereavement. Poor Ralph was liked by everyone with whom he came in contact. I have known him since 1914, and always in the same company.” “

“Lance-Corporal E. Smith, who joined up with Sergeant Bagshaw, and was with him at the end, wrote to Mrs Smith: “I have lost the best pal I ever had, and you can tell how he was respected when a Brigadier and a Colonel attended his funeral” “

Ralph was the captain of the bell ringers at Taxal church.

Sgt Ralph Bagshaw.

Sgt Ralph Bagshaw 11th battalion Sherwood Foresters

 

Another update: Ralph’s older brother, James – who had previously been in The South African War, as had Ralph’s father, Samuel – came back from Canada to enlist in 1915. He was aged 36. He served as a sapper, in The Royal Engineers, in Egypt and Palestine. He survived the war and went back to Canada, with his wife, Prudence.

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