This article is based on a tragic incident mentioned by James Edmund Henderson Neville, then a junior officer of the 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He was aged 19 at the time.
In his 1930 memoir “The war letters of an infantryman” Neville wrote:
Letter to BHAN February 16th, 1917 Fricourt. I was rather unlucky up the line this time, for my servant was killed. He used to look after me like a father. I never had to ask him to do anything; it was always done before I needed to ask. I had only had him a month and chose him out of my platoon. He came from Slough and used to supply m’tutor’s with vegetables. He was a quiet good chap, and now he has gone. He was killed instantly by a shell from our guns which burst in the trench not five paces from me, and yet I was untouched. Do you think there is anything I can do for Hastings’ family? I feel his loss most awfully.
He had mentioned the incident in an earlier letter, in which he had described a period of heavy shellfire and an enemy trench raid:
Letter to RJNN, February 15th, 1917 Fricourt. … We found that two men had been killed in the right corner of the trench, and they were our two servants. My servant was a gem. It was his first time in the line, too. We also found that a dud shell had fallen just where I had been squatting, and I think I had a narrow escape.
The battalion had returned to the front line of the Courcelette sector of the Somme on 9 February. Its makes no mention of the trench raid or give a good statement of the battalion’s location (a salutary lesson for researchers: unit war diaries, while being a generally excellent source of information, do not always tell the full story). It does however say that a heavy battery, presumably German and which had not been located, fired frequently on the battalion’s numbers 3, 4 and 8 Posts, two of which were company headquarters, during its period in the front line 9-13 February 1917. The diary also makes o mention of British shelling of its own front line.
The diary of the headquarters of 5th Infantry Brigade (under whose command the battalion came) gives a definition of the battalion’s front and it is well illustrated by this map which is contained with the diary of the staff of the headquarters of 2nd Division. Each post – for the front line was a chaotic mess of shell holes and muddy pools – is shown.
I have highlighted the positions of Posts 1, 3 (blue cross) and 8 on this trench map which dates to January 1917. British-held “trenches” are shown in blue.
Who was the servant?
A search of the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists just two men of the battalion who lost their lives on 12 February 1917: Pte 9870 Alfred Martin Crabbe and Pte 24821 Oliver John Hastings. The latter is the surname mentioned by Neville.
Oliver John Hastings was aged 35, married and a father of three children when he was killed. A volunteer who enlisted through the Group System, he was mobilised to begin training on 17 July 1916. He was the husband of Violet Sarah Hasting, of 7 Picton Villas, Langley New Town, Slough and had been employed as a gardener and nurseryman. Oliver’s youngest child Annie was born on 21 December 1915. Tragically she is unlikely to have much memory of him, if any. Her siblings John and Bertha, born in 1907 and 1911 respectively, lost their father at very tender ages. The family continued to live at 7 Picton Villas for many years.
Hastings buried in Courcelette British Cemetery (I.F.17) but was only brought there in February 1919 from an unmarked grave at grid reference R.24.57d ( a reference that makes no sense). Crabbe lies in I.E.11, having been found at R.29.d.0.9. His original grave was still marked by a wooden cross erected by the battalion.
The cemetery is which these men lie can be seen at the bottom left of the image. Despite being killed in the front line they appear to have been buried quite close to where the cemetery was eventually laid out. (The larger cemetery near to Post 8 is Adanac Cemetery).
From the D107 road just south of Adanac Cemetery, looking across to the battalion’s front line of 12 February 1917.
Imperial War Museum photograph Q4358. Four months before Oliver Hastings died but not far away from the scene. “Scottish troops taking sandbags up to the front line. Between Martinpuich and Le Sars”
The website “Buckinghamshire Remembers “includes two photographs said to be of Oliver John Hastings. (They appear to be two different individuals to me. The man on the left is certainly not of the correct regiment.)