Graves identified? 1st Leicesters’ raid, 22 July 1917

A raiding party of the 10th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) waiting in sap for the signal to go. John Warwick Brooke, the official photographer, followed them in the sap, into which a shell fell short killing seven men. Near Arras, 24 March 1917. Imperial War Museum image Q5099

The raid

Nine officers and 291 men of two companies of the 1st Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment, together with detachment of eleven Sappers of the 170th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers under Captain Braxton Bigelow, carried out a raid during the evening of 22 July 1917.

The map above pinpoints the location of the raid. Thanks to Geoportail for the use of this image.

The raid commenced at 9.15pm on 22 July and was aimed at gaining information by taking prisoners, and generally doing as much damage as possible. The raid area was boxed off by British artillery shellfire (so no Germans could get in or out of the area), and on either side other units carried out “demonstrations” to cause confusion. Fifty burning oil drums were projected into the German trenches, but no smoke or gas was used as the wind was not favourable.

The men of the Leicestershire Regiment were instructed to remove their normal personal identification.

The two red flags mark the left and right hand boundaries of the trenches to be raided. British trenches are shown in blue and German in red. The area of the raid edged onto the Hulluch Quarries: it was a complex network of trenches, dotted with many craters that resulted from underground mine warfare that had been taing place here since 1915.

The raid party found no difficulty in crossing no man’s land or entering the German line, and within two minutes had reached the objective as ordered.

After 95 minutes the raiding party withdrew, having taken a prisoner and killed or wounded an unspecified number of enemy. Many Germans took shelter in the warren of dugouts and tunnels in the area and proved difficult to “flush out”.

Casualties

The Leicesters’ diary reported that two of the battalion’s officers were wounded in the raid, and that Captain Bigelow RE had been killed. Of the “other ranks”, two were reported killed (of whom one was a Sapper), two missing and a total of sixteen wounded.

The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission show that the battalion’s dead of the period were:

  • Sergeant 8761 Arthur Tyers MM, aged 25, from Newark
  • Private 14303 George William Jepson, 37, from Chesterfield
  • Private 25360 George William Radford, age 26, from Leicester

All of whom have no known grave: they are commemorated at the Loos Memorial. The official date of death of all three is 23 July 1917.

The Loos Memorial: the names of the missing are inscribed on regimental panels that surround “Dud Corner” cemetery.

  • Private 37868 Thomas Horace Sutcliffe, 21, from Manchester, died of wounds on 24 July 1917 and is buried in Bethune Town Cemetery. It is likely that he was one of the casualties of the raid. Lance Corporal 155926 James Tighe of 170th Tunnelling Company RE also died of wounds that day and is buried near to Sutcliffe.

We shall return to the fate of Captain Braxton Bigelow RE.

The Three “Missing”

The official War Office casualty lists show that Bigelow, Tyers and Jepson were reported as “missing in action”: Bigelow in the list of 2 August 1917, the others six days later.

Extract from the official War Office list that named Bigelow as missing.

When men were missing, enquiries were made via the Red Cross and other neutral channels to determine whether Germany could confirm him as dead or a prisoner of war.

At some point, Bigelow’s identity disc was sent from German authorities (apparently under the administration of the Reserve Military Hospital at Munster, but it seems most improbable that Bigelow was ever physically there).

A Red Cross enquiry index card in which Bigelow’s details are shown. It refers to his disc being returned. There is a similar card for Tyers, but no tags or other details emerged. I have not found a card for Jepson.

1923 exhumation and reburial

Bigelow was found to be buried in the German cemetery at Bauvin, a town some distance away from the raid.

This burial return shows that an “unknown British officer” of the Royal Engineers, said to have died on 25 July 1917, was buried in grave 708 at Bauvin German cemetery. The Germans had erected a cross over his grave, and since then the British Graves Registration Unit had done the same. The officer had been identified from his clothing and “numerals”. But note that next to him in grave 709 is a Sergeant, said to have died on the same date, and in grave 713 is an unknown British soldier dated 26 July 1917. Are these men Tyers and Jepson?

This British map of 1917 shows a large cemetery at Bauvin. The German Cemetery is on the site to this day and contains 2211 graves of German soldiers, 7 Russians, 1 Portuguese and 2 Austro-Hungarians. French and British burials were removed.

Captain Braxton Bigelow was exhumed and taken for reburial at Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery – a long way from Hulluch and Bauvin, but one of few cemeteries still open for burial at this time.

Bigelow’s remains were reburied in Plot 15, row R, grave 14 at Cabaret-Rouge. His details have been manually altered – how and why we do not know, but it may be that a clerk had carried out an analysis and found that from the date and rank, it could only be him. The date was altered to 23 July 1917 – even though we know that Bigelow actually went missing the day before. Note that the unknown Sergeant and Private were buried next to him. Is this Tyers’ and Jepson’s last resting place? You will note that their dates have not been changed. Braxton Bigelow has a properly identified headstone at Cabaret-Rouge: the others do not.

CWGC records of the Loos Memorial show that the only other men, not of the 1st Leicesters or 170th Tunnelling Company, who died in the period 22-25 July 1917 are one Private of the 8th Buffs and three of the 1st King’s (Liverpool). In other words there is a chance that the men buried next to Bigelow were not from the raid, but the Sergeant’s stripes are strong evidence that at least Tyers is with him. The case for the Private cannot be proved and on that basis, I will not be submitting a case to CWGC for proper marking of his headstone at Cabaret-Rouge although I think a “believed to be” would not be inappropriate.

The fourth man: George William Radford

Radford is the only man of the battalion reported as “killed in action” in the raid: he appeared as such in the “Times” on 23 August 1917. There is some doubt about Radford’s status, though, as it appears that he too was the subject of Red Cross enquiry.

Why would the Red Cross handle an enquiry about Radford if he was killed in action? It suggests that he was also missing.

The 1923 exhumation and reburial documents do not lead us to a definite conclusion that Radford was buried at Bauvin with Bigelow, Tyers and Jepson but there is a chance. Note the burial in grave 657. It gives a date of 25-27 June 1917. Loos Memorial registers show six men who were presumed dead during that period so it could be one of them. …. but I do wonder whether the date given is simply wrong and that this man was in fact George William Radford. If so, he was reburied in the same row at Cabaret-Rouge to his comrades from the raid.

Puzzles

Why were these men taken as far as Bauvin for burial? Why are the dates of death given in the 1923 report a few days later than the raid? Where did those dates come from [perhaps the German crosses erected over the graves of Bigelow and Tyers]? Are the dates wrong – or were these men in fact taken as prisoners of war and subsequently died of wounds or killed?

[You will have seen the name of Pte G/52151 Sanders of the 23rd Royal Fusiliers. He went missing during a trench raid on 20 July but the burial return gives a date of death of 22 July – why?]

Next step

I will be submitting a case to CWGC for proper recognition of the grave of Sgt 8761 Arthur Tyers MM.

Links

Leicestershire Regiment

6th Division

Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers

Sources

War diary 1st Battalion, the Leicestershire Regiment – National Archives piece WO95/1621

War diary 170th Tunnelling Company RE – National Archives piece WO95/550

Commonwealth War Graves Commission www.cwgc.org

International Committee of the Red Cross POW records grandeguerre.icrc.org

War Office casualty lists at TheGenealogist www.thegenealogist.co.uk

Trench map from Great War Digital www.greatwardigital.com