German mine explodes at “Auchy Left” 6 May 1916

Part of Imperial War Museum panoramic photograph HU00597, said to be taken on 7 April 1916

Background

On 15 December 1915, the experienced regular unit, the 1st Battalion of the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), transferred to the newly arrived 100th Infantry Brigade of 33rd Division. Shortly afterwards, the division took over a sector of the front line south of the  Aire-La Bassée Canal in an area that had seen heavy fighting in the Battle of Loos in September-October 1915. Like Givenchy on the opposite side of the canal, it was gaining a notorious reputation as a place of intensive underground mine warfare. For the infantry, it meant the ever-present danger of death from explosion below. It also meant that if a mine was blown, both sides would try to seize it – for the rim of the crater that resulted could give important tactical advantages to the occupier. Numerous mines were exploded in the sector held by the  division during the first months of 1916, and many casualties resulted from the “crater fighting”. Nowhere was this form of warfare more intense than in the sub-sector known as “Auchy Left”.

The area of relevance is between Cambrin and Auchy-lez-la-Bassée, which at the time of the Great War was called Auchy-les-Mines. Until recent times this was a major coal mining area.

The position (red) of the British Expeditionary Force in May 1916. (British Official History of Military Operations). The sector was held by First Army. Opposite was the German Sixth Army.

After dark on 4 May 1916, the 1st Queen’s returned to the trenches of “Auchy Left” for another turn of duty, relieving the 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Their previous spell in this location, of four days 26-29 April, had been quiet with just one man killed and five wounded.

255 Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers was working below them. Sadly, no war diary of this unit exists for this period.

6 May 1916

Battalion war diary 6 May 1916 (for reference see below)

At 5.55am enemy mine blown S of Baby Crater; 2 men buried in sap head in Eastern Twin crater. Barrage of 77mm and 4.2 inch shells for half an hour, and again after an hour. Party of B Company occupied lip at once, and prevented enemy from leaving his trenches by rifle fire and bombs; 2/Lt Crichton, 8867 Sgt Elderkin, 8814 L/Cpl Wyber and 981 L/Cpl Harding did very well, 2/Lt Crichton being slightly wounded ([remained] at duty) by shell fire. 2/Lt Crichton recommended for Military Cross, the other three ranks for Military Medal. Work on saps all day. Light shelling and heay minnies [minenwerfer] about mid-day and in afternoon; heavy bombardment with LHV, 4.2 inch and minnie for an hour at dusk. Day’s casualties 4 killed, 8 wounded (2 at duty), and 2/Lt Crichton wounded (at duty). New crater called Queen’s Crater.

“Baby Crater” was said by the division’s war diary to have been at grid location A.27.b.7.5. The explosion created a new crater, soon to be christened “Queen’s Crater”, about 50 yards south of it and the debris partially filled in “Baby Crater”. The explosion also threw up a high lip of earth, which “B” Company quickly occupied.

German unit involved

The British intelligence summaries of the period and sector do not provide this information.

Jan Vancoillie informs me that Pionier-Mineurkompagnie 298 and 299 were active near Auchy at the relevant time. Both had been formed in April 1916 from what had previosuly been Bergbataillon 16 under Oberleutnant Storb (a makeshift mining unit created by Infanterie-Regiment 16).

The grid map location A.27.b.7.5 is marked on this map with a red X. The map is dated to 10 June 1916. British trenches are shown in blue and German in red. Note the many asterisk-like shapes: they represent craters. There is no crater exactly where the X (which is supposed to be where “Baby Crater”) was and none to the south of it, so the two may not yet be marked on these maps. The two red asterisks near to the cross may be Eastern Twin. Note too that some craters are held by the British and some by theGermans.

Casualties

Killed in action

The three men listed below lie in adjacent graves (row M, graves 25-27) in Cambrin Churchyard  Extension

Pte G/1553 Henry O’Neill
A resident of Baltinglass, Wicklow, Ireland.

Pte L/8301 William Sergant
Born in Streatham, lived in Brentwood.

Pte G/5411 Eric Sucksmith
Lived in Southport (see below). Aged 20.

This man has no known grave and is commemorated at the Loos Memorial

Pte G/3986 George Sidney Mills
A resident of Upper Kennington.

All were named in the War Office casualty list printed in the “Times” of 24 May 1916.

Wounded

The same list includes the names of 15 men of the regiment who were classified as wounded. It is never easy to conclusively prove that a list like this includes all men wounded in the same incident but during this period of operations in the trenches the battalion reported a total of 17 wounded, two of whom remained at duty.

Times 24 July 1916

Awards

Military Cross

Temp. 2nd Lt. Arthur James Crichton, 9th Bn. (attd. 1st Bn.), R. W. Surr. R.
For conspicuous gallantry and dash when the enemy exploded a mine. He at once rushed forward into the crater with two N.C.O.’s and commenced bombing the enemy. His promptness ensured our occupation of the crater. He was afterwards wounded by shell fire. (London Gazette, 31 May 1916)

From “The Sphere” of Saturday 23 September 1916.

Arthur Crichton was killed in action on 15 July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. He has no known grave and is commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial. Aged just 19, he was the son or Mr. & Mrs. Crichton of 71 King Henry’s Road, Hampstead. He went to France on 16 September 1914 as Private 2187 of the London Scottish and was commissioned as an officer on 26 March 1915. Arthhur had been a student of the Sutton Valance Grammar School and the University of London.

Military Medal

All were announced in the King’s Birthday Honours edition of the London Gazette,

Sergeant L/8667 Maxwell Elderkin
From Stoughton near Guildford, he married Ellen Arnold in June 1914 and had a son not quite a year old when his father earned his MM. He was a regular soldier who had enlisted in 1905 and was a Sergeant by the time he went to France in December 1914. In July 1916 he was promoted to Warrant Officer Class II and appointed Company Sergeant Major. He went on to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in 1917 but was killed in action during the Battle of the Lys on 12 April 1918. He has no known grave and is commemorated at the Ploegsteert Memorial. I had come across Maxwell when writing one of my books on the battle, and he is mentioned within. A newspaper reported him as the “well-known athlete of the battalion”.

Maxwell Elderkin – photo thanks to Andy Arnold

L/Cpl L/8814 Victor Epson Wyber
Born 1888, he was a pre-war regular who went to France with the battalion in August 1914. He was wounded in July 1916, leading to a transfer to the Labour Corps. Victor ended the war as a Sergeant of 126 Labour Company and was the only award recipient of the events of 6 May 1916 to survive the war. He died in Norfolk in 1933.

L/Cpl G/981 John Harold Harding
He had enlisted on 31 August 1914 at the age of 20 and was killed in action at the rank of Corporal during the Battle of Arras on 24 April 1917. He is buried in Bucquoy Road Cemetery, Ficheux (I.C.10). He was the son of William and Edith Harding of Priory Lane, Frensham.

The remainder of this tour of the trenches

Battalion war diary 7 and 8 May. The man killed on 8 May 1916 was Chichester man Pte G/669 Frank Woolgar. He was also buried in Cambrin Churchyard Extension, in grave M.24.

Miscellaneous

Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury 15 May 1916 (British Newspaper Archive)

Visiting the site of this action today

The site of the crater and the two front lines are shown overlaid onto a present-day map. The D75 road is now Rue Raoul Briquet. Note (marked with a red flag) the location of Cambrin Churchyard Extension, where four of the five 1st Queen’s men killed druing this tour of the trenches are buried.

Standing just behind the battalion’s front line, on the D75 looking towards the German front lines and Auchy beyond. The mien exploded in the field on our right, and like all of the many craters of this area there is now virtually no remaining trace.

The location of this incident is easy to find. In addition to Cambrin Churchyard Extension – a most interesting cemetery as it is to large extent laid out in battalion plots – there are many places of Great War interest nearby, not least as this was the area of the Battle of Loos in 1915 and, not far away, the Battle of Hill 70 in 1917. Accommodation and refreshment is not plentiful nearby but  the large town of Béthune is close by and there are cafes and restaurants in Auchy, Beuvry and elsewhere.

Sources

War diary 1st Queen’s (National Archives piece WO95/2430 Crown Copyright)
British Newspaper Archive
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
London Gazette

Links

Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment)

33rd Division

IWM photograph Q65661 “Aerial photograph of craters south west of Auchy Date 30 June 1916”