One man in World War 1
Here is a brief, personal story of one of the 19,240 British soldiers who died on the first day of the Battle of The Somme.
Three years ago, in May 2013, we were driving from Calais back to St. Jean de Losne in Burgundy. En route we stopped at The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial to pay our respects to Percy Kershaw, Jan's uncle. He is buried there having died on 1st July 1916.
He was fighting with the Border Regiment alongside the Newfoundland Regiment as part of the 29th British Division.
While researching her ancestry Jan came across Percy, her Dad's brother, which led us to his grave. She has subsequently discovered that 2 years prior to his death, he was fighting in Flanders, mere metres from where we currently moor our boat.
On the internet She came across the following on the Ypres Battlefields forum:
He (Percy) wrote a letter dated November 1914 from Brand Lodge Hospital, Malvern which contained some uncensored details.....
“On the morning of the 29th October the battle had been in progress for 36 hours, and the whole of that time we had been holding a position near Diksmuide (Belgium) firing at each other the whole time, and we could not advance as we were not strong enough, and we were waiting for reinforcements which never came. In the meantime the Germans got up their reinforcements and they came on in great masses until they were 50 yards from our trench, and to save ourselves we had to charge, and the mix up lasted about half an hour. Then off went the Germans as fast as they could go with us hard on their heels. During the mix up I got my arm ripped up,. This happened about 11 am and at 4pm I got a bullet through the leg. After that I knew nothing more until it was quite dark and all was silent. At first I could not tell what had happened, then I tried to rise, but I could do nothing beyond getting on my knees. I then looked round and found the direction I had to take to get back to a field hospital, at least two miles, so I started crawling, rolling, anything to get back. At last I became exhausted again and lost consciousness. The next I knew I was laid on some straw in a temporary hospital in Ypres, and I was told that I was to be sent to England that day. I am getting on splendidly, so I should be home soon.”
In a further letter dated 14th November he wrote:
“I shall not be home quite as soon as I expected, because I have had to undergo another operation”.
On the 16th November he had four bullets extracted from his leg.
We might have expected that with such injuries he would remain in England but no. On Saturday the 1 July 1916, Littleborough (Lancashire, England) born 24 year old Sergeant 10358 Percy Kershaw, 1st Bn Border Regiment was killed in action in France, (his Bns objective on the 1st July was the capture of Beaumont Hamel, his Bn suffered 575 casualties, Beaumont Hamel was eventually captured 13 November 1916) He is buried in Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No 2 Auchonvillers, Somme, France Grave Number A. 2.
We're not sure exactly where Percy was fighting when he was wounded in 1914 but we can be sure it was close to where we moor the boat on the River Yser in Diksmuide. There is a preserved trench a few hundred metres north, probably a replica of where Percy and his colleagues spent terrified hours. It's now a 'tourist' spot known as The Trench of Death and hundreds of visitors come to glimpse the past and try to imagine the horror and claustrophobia of life in a filthy trench.
Percy recovered from his injuries, returned to duty and rejoined his battalion in France.
The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial site is the largest area of The Somme battlefield to have been preserved and one of only a few where you can see trenches. The 74-acre site was purchased by Newfoundland in 1921 and was one of six Newfoundland memorial sites set up following the first world war. (Newfoundland was a dominion of the British Empire at this time till it became part of Canada in 1949). The memorials themselves are huge bronze caribou that stand atop mounds of Newfoundland granite. The caribou stand facing their former foe with their heads held high in defiance, not dissimilar to the lion atop the Menin Gate in Ypres. The site also contains three commonwealth cemeteries including Hawthorne Ridge Number 2 Cemetery which houses Percy Kershaw's grave.
Shortly after 7.30 AM Percy would have gone over the top. God only knows the fear he must have felt but listening to interviews with survivors many years later they would have put personal feelings aside and gone, not least for fear of letting down their mates.
Jan thinks that we are the first family members to visit his grave. The day we visited it was raining. Puddles had begun to form in the (now) grass-filled bomb craters and trenches but we don't even begin to get an idea of the nightmare it must have been for Percy and his comrades amidst the mud and murder in 1916.
Jan was given a copy of an official card that documents Percy's various campaign medals. Written on the card, K in A. The card was centre stage on our mantelpiece as we watched the 100-year commemorations and at 7.30 1st July 2016 we shed a tear for our brave relative, just one of far, far too many.
© Jo May 2016