Seven officers and men of the Royal Marine Artillery, all of whom served with Number 5 Gun of the RMA Howitzer Brigade and who lost their lives on 9 November 1917, lie in Steenkerke Belgian Military Cemetery.
My interest in these men stemmed from study for my most recent book, and a visit to the cemetery. Although it is primarily place of burial of men of the Belgian army, it contains a plot of 30 British and Commonwealth troops, almost all heavy artillerymen who lost their lives in October and November 1917. It was instructive to find what happened to them, for their deaths took place a considerable distance from the cemetery although they appear to have been brought directly there for burial.
I explained the circumstances of the incident in my book:
On 14 March 1917 Major-General Honoré Drubbel, commanding Belgian 2nd Division, submitted an appreciation that considered offensive operations against enemy forces at Diksmuide. It was stated that the devastated and strongly fortified and defended town could only be tackled by encirclement, although at some point the task of advancing through it must also be undertaken. An estimated 27000 field artillery shells and some 17600 medium and heavy shells would be required for the operation. At a normal firing rate, the Belgians simply did not have the artillery resources to undertake it. The launching of the British offensive at Ypres in late July brought pressure onto the Belgians to support it and the idea was revisited.“”From the Channel to the Ypres Salient: the Belgian Sector 1914-1918” by Chris Baker (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, Battleground series, 2021
Drubbel ordered the formation of a [Belgian] special operations group on 9 September and began to reconsider the operation, scaling it down to a short and explosive raid on the Minoterie [a strongly fortified former industrial flour mill on the bank of the River Yser at Diksmuide]. The officers and men were to be young, fit, intelligent and keen and would be taken off normal operations for special training. Each battalion and brigade would provide a small selected detachment: typically each battalion provided 12 men.
Fourteen Siege Batteries of the Royal Garrison Artillery and Royal Marine Artillery, organised as a group under XIX Corps Heavy Artillery that would work with the Belgians, moved into the area from 7 October. They included guns of every heavy calibre up to the huge 15-inch weapons of numbers 3 and 5 Batteries of the Royal Marine Artillery which had both been in action in the Nieuwpoort sector. Before it could move to its allotted position, 5 Battery RMA had to wait for the bridge at Oostkerke to be strengthened to bear its 94-ton weight. The gun was damaged three times by enemy fire during the period 31 October to 7 November and a decision was taken to dismount it and take it to a repair workshop. While this activity was underway during the night 8-9 November, another German shell struck, killing Lieutenant Charles Comyns and six men and wounding another 11.
Seven families devastated by loss in a single shell burst; another 11 men wounded, possibly with effects for life. A tragedy; one of so many in this war that it passed by scarcely noticed.
Number 5 Gun had arrived in France on 11 December 1915 but did not fire its first round until 24 June 1916. It then saw action in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and at Arras and Messines in 1917.
Lieutenant Charles William Comyns. Killed in action. Born in Dulwich in 1893 and the only son of Sydney and Lena Comyns of Hampton, Middlesex, Comyns was employed as a chief clerk at the London and Joint Stock Bank when he enlisted into the 15th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles). Commissioned as an officer on 3 March 1916, he landed in France on 9 September and joined Number 5 Gun a week later. He was decorated with the Belgian Chevalier of the Order of the Crown and the Croix de Guerre but sadly these awards were only publicly announced on 20 December 1917, just over a month after he had died. Comyns’ service record notes that he “has ability and is capable but is very impulsive”.
Gunner RMA/515(S) John Holland. Killed in action. Born in Ayr in 1895, he enlisted on 8 February 1915 and for a while served with HMS Cyclops, a repair ship at Scapa Flow. He landed in France on 20 June 1917 and was allocated to the team of Number 5 Gun on 15 July.
Gunner RMA/1910 (S) Arnold Wesley Jones. Killed in action. Born in Ludlow in 1890, he enlisted in Bristol on 4 March 1916 and at the time was a boot salesman and of the Wesleyan faith. He landed in France on 31 October 1916 and was posted to Number 5 Gun on 9 November – exactly a year before he met his death.
Sergeant RMA/11421 Percy Ketteringham. Killed in action. Born at Handsworth in Staffordshire (now an integral part of Birmingham), Percy enlisted in 1905. By the time of the Great War, he had accumulated significant periods of sea service and had reached the rank of Corporal. He was posted to the RMA Howitzer Brigade on 26 March 1915 and allocated to the team of Number 5 Gun. Ketteringham was promoted to Sergeant on 2 January 1917 and was the most senior soldier of the gun’s casualties in this terrible incident.
Gunner RMA/789(S) Frederick Robert Hutson. Died of wounds. Born in Plaistow in Essex in 1892, Frederick was married and employed as a Constable of the Nottingham Police when he enlisted in Leicester on 7 April 1915. He was posted to the RMA Howitzer Brigade on 6 December 1915 and allocated to the team of Number 5 Gun. Hutson was a qualified signaller and observer.
Gunner RMA/2247(S) Walter Taylor. Killed in action. Born in Leicester in 1894, he was employed as a clicker in the boot manufacturing trade when enlisted on 29 August 1916. He landed in France on 3 October 1917 and was allocated to the team of Number 5 Gun on 10 October. Of the known casualties, he had the shortest service with the gun team.
Gunner RMA/779(S) William Edward Woodward. Killed in action. Born in Desford near Leicester in 1888 was married and employed as a Constable of the Leicester Borough Police when he enlisted in Leicester on 7 April 1915 (the same date and place as his police comrade Hutson, above). He landed in France on 30 November 1915 and was allocated to the team of Number 5 Gun.
All of the dead appear to have been taken to Steenkerke for burial. The men lie in row.grave as follows:
- B.1 Hutson
- B.11 Comyns
- C.4 Holland
- C.5 Taylor
- C.6 Jones
- C.7 Woodward
- C.10 Ketteringham
British Newspaper Archive
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Royal Naval officers service records National Archives series ADM196 (Comyns)
Royal Marines other ranks service records National Archives series ADM159
War diary National Archives series WO95