Originally published under
the nom-de-plume 'Joseph Edmunds'
in Country Quest and Great War.
Remembering the Lions
A sketch plan of the Battle of Festubert, Spring 1915.
Charles Humphreys was the fourth son of a very large family, and was born in 1894 . Like nearly all of his brothers, he left school at the age of 12, and then he went to work in the coal mines. Most of the young men in the Rhondda Valley at that time did the same thing.
Then, early in 1913 his mother died, after the birth of her last child - her eighteenth. Eleven of her children made it into adulthood, though only ten to the age of majority. It doesn't take much imagination to see the difficulties there would have been at home, with a baby and other young children clamouring for attention.
At all events, it was probably no surprise when later that year, on the first day of October, Charles enlisted as Private 5072 in the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Pontypridd, just down the valley from the family home in Pontygwaith.
The Royal Welch Fusiliers was a regiment with a long tradition. The original 'Tommy Atkins' was the real name of a soldier who fought in their ranks at Lexington and elsewhere in the American War of Independence. Robert Graves, the poet, eight months my uncle's junior, enlisted with the regiment in the Great War and was a young officer in a number of their campaigns. Graves arived in France on 17 May, 1915, though was initially attached to another regiment. May was to be when my uncle's story drew to its close.
Less than a year after Charles 'took the King's shilling', war was declared against Germany. Charles went to France along with other members of the British Expeditionary Force, on 1 November, 1914. He was posted between the First and the Third Battalions of his regiment, and probably saw action in the First Battle of Ypres and at Neuve Chapelle. A letter from the Ministry of Defence ends with a chilling note: 'died of wounds 19 May, 1915'.
Much of this information, and more, can be gleaned from this old letter and other official records. Charles is one of many thousands of soldiers of the Great War who are lying in France. His own grave is in Chocques, near Béthune, close to the Belgian border. But there is a question not answered by any of the official records. Exactly how and where did he die? The letter from the Ministry is incomplete. It carries the sentence 'the location of his unit at the time of his wounding is not recorded'. Why not?
With some careful research, more of the story can be pieced together. Less than a week after the Battle of Auber's Ridge had ended fruitlessly with the loss of 11,000 men - proportionately to the number engaged in the battle the highest number of casualties in the Great War - the military leaders had resolved to do something else to support the French campaign. That 'something' is today known as the Battle of Festubert.
The commanders believed that there had been no change in the German military dispositions in the few days since the earlier battle. General Douglas Haig and his staff resolved to try not to repeat the mistakes of that battle, and so planned a longer and better-targeted artillery bombardment, with a narrower infantry front making their attack. The following 'First Army Operation Order' was issued on 13 May, 1915:
'The general plan of the main attack will be as follows: to continue pressing forward towards Violaines and Beau Puits, establish a defensive flank along the La Bassée road on the left and maintaining the right at Givenchy. The line to be established in the first instance, if possible on the general line of the road Festubert - La Quinque Rue - La Tourelle crossroads - Port Arthur. The position to be consolidated and the troops reformed and communications established ...'
That same morning, the British bombardment duly opened. More than 101,000 shells were fired. All units of the attacking battalions were reported to be in position by 10:00pm the next day. The lead units attacked, and by 3:15am of the following day, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers joined the fray, advancing towards the School House, and the sandbag-parapet German communication trench known as the 'Northern Breastwork'.
They were immediately hit by heavy machine-gun fire, and numbers of them were killed or wounded. By 6:30am the survivors had managed to struggle forward to join with the advance guard, and met up with the Queens and Staffords in 'The Orchard'. Eventually they had to withdraw through lack of support on their left and heavy German shelling.
The fighting continued for a few more days, but only a limited tactical success was gained in capturing of a few German positions. The strategic gain was negligible. The total number of British casualties suffered was 16,648. No wonder 'the location of his unit at the time of his wounding' was unknown for Charles Humphreys. There were just too many soldiers that fell in Northern France at that time. He could have been caught in the 'heavy German shelling' in 'The Orchard', or he could have been cut down by 'heavy machine-gun fire' a few hours earlier at the 'Northern Breastwork'.
Sir John French wrote to Douglas Haig on 14 May, 1915: 'The Commander-in-Chief considers that you should be prepared to prosecute a deliberate and persistent attack. The enemy should never be given rest by either day or night, but be gradually and relentlessly worn down by exhaustion and loss until his defence collapses. As the element of surprise is now absent, it is probable that your progress will not be rapid ...'
These words were later widely regarded as the start of the 'war of attrition' that the Great War became. What French omitted to say is that the other side would have been equally 'prepared to prosecute a deliberate and persistent attack'. Lions led by donkeys indeed, in the most well-known saying associated with the Great War, though in fact it probably dates from the eighteen-seventies. We should remember those lions on this Armistice Day a century later.
Perhaps there was a more positive outcome to the slaughter. An article that appeared in The Times on 15 May, 1915 drew attention to unnecessary loss of life among the B.E.F. because of the shortage of ammunition. This scandal led directly to the fall of the Asquith Government and the appointment of the more vigorous David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions in the Coalition Government that took its place. But even here there is a downside: the army commanders interpreted this to a belief that if only they had more shells and soldiers to fling at the enemy, everything would be all right.
There is a dark individual footnote to this episode. A photographic feature appeared in the Western Mail later in 1915. This showed Charles and three of his brothers (there were to be more recruits from this family before the war ended) in uniform. Underneath Charles' picture was a caption that said he was 'to be invalided home with rheumatism'. Communication in those days was more than a little haphazard. How sad it would have been in the Pontygwaith household when the truth finally filtered back to the Rhondda Valley.