A Shephard joins the flock

 

9th February 1915

The most well-known account of life in the Dorsets during the Great War is A Sergeant-Major’s War by Ernest Shephard. It’s also perhaps one of the best accounts of life in the trenches by any regular soldier in the First World War.

Ernest Shephard, born in 1892, was a professional soldier to the core. He was a regular soldier who, like Frank, had joined the service from the Special Reserve. He had been promoted to Sergeant back in August 1914 and was assigned to recruitment duties in the Dorset region. He was a native of Lyme Regis but, interestingly for us, he was also familiar with Brixton. His elder sister, Ethel, something of a mother figure to Ernest, lived there with her husband, Thomas Francis. Each finished diary was posted to Thomas as 113 Elm Park, Brixton Hill.

100 years ago today, Ernest joined the 1st Bn Dorsets as part of a reinforcement draft. Shephard went into B Company. Not that the Dorsets’ diary mentions anyone joining them that day. His arrival, and those with him, was something of a baptism of fire. The 15th Brigade returned to the front, via Dranoutre and Wulverghem, in pouring rain.  His entry describes the difficulty men had getting back to the front in the dark.

On the way the enemy was constantly sending star shells which lit the country brilliantly over a large area. At each shell we halted and stood still. The ground leading to the trenches was very difficult. I only slipped once, quite enough, I was covered in mud.

The movement of so many troops sent the Germans into a frenzy of musketry and sniping. Again, the Dorset war diary doesn’t mention any activity. You can forgive Ernest for being on tenterhooks during his first experience of trench warfare. It must have been a surreal and very frightening experience for him.

The Dorsets took over Sector E at the very top of the 15th Brigade’s area of operations. They relieved the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) in trenches numbered from 14a in the south to 20 in the north. The brigade finished their relief at about 9.20pm. The night was bitterly cold.

Night raiders

26th January 1915

After a few weeks of two or three word grunts the Dorsets’ diary burst into life with the description of a raid.

Second Lieutenant Frederick Joseph Morley* went out at 3.30am with a patrol, found newly turned earth by some German saps and, on his way back, destroyed a sniper’s dugout.

Morley had been out with the BEF since the 17th August 1914 with the 11th Field Company Royal Engineers. At some point he transferred to the Dorsets, gaining his officer’s commission, making the awkward jump from the ranks  as a Lance Corporal to Second Lieutenant. His star continued to rise, gaining a DSO and the Military Cross in June 1915, and ending the war as a Major in the 6th Battalion Dorsets, which is some climb for a Lance Corporal. Sadly he didn’t survive, dying of wounds received in the last gasp German offensive of Spring 1918. He left a widow, Elizabeth Victoria Smith Morley.

After a day of shelling from the accursed light gun, the Dorsets were put alert for an imminent attack and so they thickened B Company in the firing line with one and a half platoons from D Company and a platoon from A Company.

One man was killed in all this shuffling around. The CWGC lists him as Serjeant William Ernest Ransome, a 27 year-old Yorkshireman. He left behind a widow, Elsie Linda, a native of Dorchester and a 3 year old son, Victor Ernest. Note the archaic use of Sergeant in the record which is apparently still used in The Rifles today. The Dorsets were merged into the Devons and Dorsets in 1958 and into the Rifles in 2007.

The Wytschaete line man

 

7th December 1914

The Dorsets remained in Dranoutre for another day but at 4.15pm A Company, along with Frank and a single platoon of B Company marched via Lindenhoek to relieve the Bedfords in trenches south of Point 75. Here they came under orders of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers of the 13th Division. No mention is made of this in the 13th Brigade nor the 5th Division’s war diaries. The fact that just over a single company of the Dorsets could replace the strength of an entire regiment of the Bedfords (who report in their diary that their strength of 200 men and  three officers) tells the story of the shortages faced by many British regiments up and down the line.

I only have limited internet access for now, but I think that their new position is just to the right of the Dorsets’ last location. So that’s where I’ve put them for now. Apologies if I am woefully wrong.

Deadlock holiday

27th November 1914

The Dorsets spent the night improving their trenches. In the morning the reserve trenches were heavily shelled. This was B Company which was just behind Battalion HQ. The rest of the day was quiet.

According to the war diary 1 man was killed and 3 are wounded. No deaths are listed on the CWGC website for the 27th November 1914 and I can’t find anything on Ancestry for that date.

They have no fear in them

### 16th November 1914

In the yesterday’s letter, Frank reports that the first snow has fallen. The weather was definitely turning. Gleichen reports that at the time “the weather had turned beastly cold—snowstorms and sleet during the day and a hard frost at night”.

Frank gives Mabel his location by referencing the London Scottish. They had achieved the dubious honour of being the first Territorial battalion to see action. They lost nearly half their strength preventing the Germans breaking through the allies’ lines on the 31st October at Messines. He also mentions the Indian Corps which would have been from his time at La Bassée and seems especially impressed by the Gurkhas, who allegedly terrified the Germans “with their knives in their hands coming after them they have no fear in them when they start”. The letter is the most expressive of all the letters so far. His description of the hopelessness of men trapped out in the open is very moving.

Frank mentions a winner of the “French Legion of Honour who was killed.” The truth of this story is quite tragic. The battalion was awarded a Médaille Militaire, a French award that could also be given to foreign nationals. Lieutenant-Colonel Bols had decided it should be awarded to the machine gun section for its work on the 26th August at Mons. It’s not clear what date this happened or why the battalion won the award. It’s a story I will return to. Private Thomas Anthony Skipsey was selected as its recipient by the rest of the machine gun section. He remarked that he “would be the first to meet trouble”. He wasn’t wrong. On the 13th October Skipsey was shot and killed. The medal isn’t listed on his Medal Card, nor in the Medal Rolls, but it is noted on his CWGC casualty details page.


The Dorsets began to withdraw from their positions, getting ready for welcome relief. D Company went first, assembling at Battalion HQ with C Company at 6am. The machine gun was withdrawn from A Company’s trench.

At 2pm tragedy struck B Company. Some high explosive shells burst in one of their their trenches and buried part of a platoon. Men from C Company were sent to support them. At 6pm A and B Companies were ordered to withdraw from their positions but that was cancelled just half and hour later.

11th Brigade had already been informed that the Dorsets were to remain in their command for another day so all this movement seems to have been rather a waste of time. The 11th Brigade’s diary also rather testily notes that snipers had infiltrated the lines behind Hill 63 and the Dorsets are ordered to catch them. Lieutenant-Colonel Butler “suggests” the Dorsets assign observation posts on the top of the hill. The lack of any mention of this in the Dorsets’ war diary suggest to me that this “suggestion” carried a bit more weight than that.

I get the impression from the 11th Brigade’s diary that they had a less than favourable impression of the Dorsets. Whether this was due to inter-divisional rivalry or that the Dorsets’ reputation was tarnished from their disastrous time at La Bassée it’s impossible to say. I might be totally imagining this but the Dorsets’ star has definitely waned since the broiling heat of September.

The Dorsets’ diary reports 5 killed with 2 wounded. CWCG lists 5 men killed too. One of these men, James Henry Budden aged 34, came from a Peabody Estate in Vauxhall. I’ve just come home from one on the Old Kent Road. That is all.