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Saturday, 5 May 2012

14. Last Year of War - France

A large number of WWI service records are missing, believed to be lost in a fire. Amongst those missing are Bert's and those of his Captain, Clement Bailhache. This makes it difficult to piece together exactly what happened to them in the last 18 months of the War.

Family stories say that Bert first saw his daughter, Emily Grace, known as Grace, when she was 2. For that to be so, he must have had leave between May 1917 and April 1918, more likely in 1917. We know that the British Army withdrew troops from Salonika from June 1917, although the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers remained there until June 1918.

The photo of Bert and his family, Nell, Albert and Grace, could not have been taken long after Grace's 2nd birthday, which was late in May.

It also seems that two of Bert's brothers, Sydney and Stanley, had enlisted, for a photo of the Emily Grace Ray's family was taken at the same time. Bert's son, Albert, documented this photo as Emily Grace Ray and her children.

The men would be, from left, Bert, Fred, Les, Stan and Sydney, with Emily Grace Ray centre with the young Albert, and Doll seated right.

Amongst Bert's possessions was a postcard he had sent to Nell from Orange, South of Paris. The military postmark bears no date, but Bert has dated it 15 June 1917.  It reads " Just arrived here. The weather is quite hot. We have just been having a feed of oranges and cherries. They were grand. Hope you are quite Well (you know). With my best love, Bert."

From this, it seems likely that Bert has arrived in France after leave in England and is hoping that Nell is pregnant again. No child survived from this time, but we do know that Nell had a three miscarriages or still births between 1917 and 1929.

Also amongst Bert's possessions was a book of postcards of the Somme.

Although the 3rd Battalion was still in Salonika, numerous other Fusilier battalions were fighting on the Somme in 1917, and receiving reinforcements from wherever the Army could find soldiers.

Many of the postcards are of Peronne. All emphasise the destruction by the Germans.

 Even though these must have been purchased some time after the event, it seems likely that Bert took part in battles in this area, but this is hard to verify without the missing records.

The 3rd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, arrived back in France through Dieppe in July 1918 and rested and trained there for two months. Bert may have rejoined his regiment there. He kept several postcards of Dieppe and its environs.
 On October 3 the regiment marched North as one of the battallions of the 149th Brigade 50th Division. They marched through the night of 3 October and at 6.10am on 4th October they advanced down the slope of the Scheldt Canal, up the valley on the opposite side to take Richmond Copse.

They made a clean sweep by 7.30 am, taking 300 prisoners from machine-gun teams but then had to retreat because they found themselves isolated. The 4th Kings Rifles were able to recover the ground that evening with little German resistance. The Fusiliers had lost ten officers and there were 139 other-rank casualties.

The regimental historian, H. C. O'Neill says:
Few actions of the Fusiliers had been more tragic. Many had been more costly, but few had carried the troops to their objective only to see them compelled to fall back almost to the starting point with the bulk of their leaders killed. The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War (p319).

On October 17 the Battalion took part in the Battle of the Selle to open up a ten mile front between Benin and St. Souplet. By now the battalion consisted only of 11 officers and 308 men and in this one day of battle lost 98 officers and men.

The final action of the War for the battalion was on 8th and 9th November 1918, pushing through the Forrest of Beugnies under machine-gun fire. They withdrew to billets at Mont Douriers on 9 November and were there when the Armistice took effect on 11 November 1918.

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