Over 100 years ago the landscape pictured below was a scene of devastation. When Phil Comley sent me this photo in 2016, ready for an article in our parish magazine, he commented, ‘you can see how they were reminded of home’.
I’ve never visited the battlefields myself, nor have I conducted the in-depth level of research that Phil has undertaken over the years; all thanks to him that we can record names and histories here.
Yesterday, I walked along a field margin lined with poppies in Shipley Bottom (just down from the Ridgeway National Trail along the Swindon Road) The landscape reminded me vividly of the modern images of the battlefields of the Somme.
At 0730 hours on 1st July 1916, the shrill sound of whistles pierced the air along the 18 miles of British front line trenches on the Somme signalling the start of a 5 month joint British and French offensive. The aim was to relieve the pressure on the French Army fighting at Verdun, while stretching and weakening the German Army to breaking point. In the subsequent fighting well over a million men from all sides lay dead and wounded and despite making an overall gain of 6 miles, the Allies were unable to break the German line and the war continued for a further 2 years.
The first day of The Somme has become the stuff of myth and legend and is best remembered for the lost generations of young men, many from the Northern ‘Pals’ Battalions, who went ‘over the top’ and walked into a hail of machine gun bullets and searing shell fragments. In the ensuing chaos and amid suffocating clouds of dust and smoke, many of these men disappeared forever and to this day, still lie where they fell. Of the 100,000 British soldiers who went ‘over the top’ on that hazy sunny morning, 19,240 were killed outright with a further 38,230 wounded, sick or captured. Staggeringly 60% of the officers who led their men into the maelstrom of bombs and bullets were killed on that fateful day.
So, what became of the village boys who were there? Having survived the first few days relatively unscathed but it wasn’t long before the Somme took Aldbourne in a vice like grip leaving many families broken and devastated.
22905 Pte Edwin John Sampson of the 1st Wiltshire Regiment was the first to die. He was killed in action 6th July 1916 at the Leipzig Salient near Thiepval after the Germans unleashed a day-long barrage of shrapnel shells, trench mortars and rifle grenade fire. At just 17 years old Edwin was dead. Not only was he underage but he had only been at the front for a mere 3 weeks. In the ensuing fighting, his body was lost and he has no known grave.
Just 5 months later on 18th November 1916, his brother 8589 Pte Arthur William Sampson of the 97th Machine Gun Corps was killed. Tragically his death was ‘presumed’ meaning he simply disappeared without a trace. Arthur was 19 years old and echoing his brother demise, has no known grave. The teenage boys were the sons of William and Emily Sampson of Beaconsfield Cottages on The Green.
18311 Pte Thomas Cox of the 2nd Wiltshire Regiment was killed in action 8th July 1916 in the vicinity of Bernafay or Trones Wood. The 2/Wilts tucked in behind the Yorkshire Regiment, were held up by dense, impenetrable undergrowth and they soon became disorientated. They had been tasked with attacking Maltz Horn Trench but on leaving Trones Wood at the South Eastern tip, they were cut down by withering machine gun fire and pounded by German artillery. Thomas was 39 and listed as a resident of Aldbourne by ‘Soldiers Died in the Great War’ but neither the Memorial Hall or the Church Memorial Plaque bears his name. He has no known grave.
The next to fall was 19855 Pte Robert Edward Hawkins of the 8th Devonshire Regiment. His death was ‘regarded’ as being on 20th July 1916 during a night time assault on Bazentin Ridge, but again, nobody really knows for sure. Robert was 20 years old and the son of Henry and Emma Hawkins of The Butts. He has no known grave. By a cruel twist of fate, his brother 19283 Pte Frederick Thomas (Tom) Hawkins died just 8 days later in Mesopotamia while serving with the 5th Wiltshire Regiment. To lose one son is tragic but to lose two within a week of each other is unimaginable.
2361 Pte Oscar Cook of the 28th Australian Imperial Force was the next to die and he was killed in action on 29th July 1916. Oscar was 23 years old and has no known grave, his brothers Albert and Henry also died during the war. All were the sons of Charles and Annette Cook of Castle Street.
3/9223 Sjt Charles Haddon Cozens of ‘C’ Company, 1st Wiltshire Regiment died of wounds 13th September 1916 at the 3rd Southern General Hospital in Oxford. Upon his return to the UK he became gravely ill and soon faded away. He is buried in a civilian grave in Bourton Churchyard near Bishopstone. Charles was born at Lower Upham in 1892 but his name is not listed on either of the Aldbourne memorials.
19121 Pte Thomas George Tilley of the 2nd Wiltshire Regiment was killed in action 18th October 1916 in or around Flers Trench in Courcelette. He was 23 years old and the son of George and Ruth Tilley of Aldbourne Warren. In return for losing his son, his father received a gratuity of £2 16s and 8d from the War Office. Thomas has no known grave and is not listed on either of the Aldbourne memorials.
On 3rd November 1916, 21234 Pte William Thomas Dew of ‘C’ Company, the 6th Wiltshire Regiment was killed by artillery fire in the trenches near Albert. William was one of 13 killed on the day with a further 43 wounded and 1 missing. He was 23 years old and the son of John and Annie Dew of Lottage Road. He has no known grave.
745A Pte John Harold Liddiard of the 7th Australian Imperial Force was killed in action on 6th November 1916. Although born in Aldbourne in 1891 he had emigrated to Mildura, Australia where he worked as a farmer. He was 25 years old and has no known grave.
Although the Battle of the Somme officially ended on 18th November 1916, the fighting in this area continued long after this date. Therefore, this list includes one more name.
18594 Acting Cpl Frederick Woolford of the 6th Wiltshire Regiment was killed in action on 21st November 1916 in the trenches near Aveluy. Frederick was 24 years old and the son of Ambrose and Sarah Woolford of Clay Pond Cottage. Interestingly a memorial service was held in his honour 14th March 1917 suggesting news of his death took some time to filter through. His body was never recovered and he has no known grave.
Tragically the vast majority of the men listed above have no known grave. Seven are commemorated among the 72,000 names on the Thiepval memorial dedicated to the missing whilst another two are named alongside the 10,890 others on the Australian Memorial at Villers- Brettoneux. The numbers on these memorials do not include those soldiers whose bodies were recovered, named and given an official burial.Author – Phil Comley (Dabchick Magazine October 2016)