Why write about this?
In 2013 I carried out research on Major Hubert Symons, an officer of the Royal Field Artillery of the 14th (Light) Division who lost his life on 22 March 1918, dying of wounds received the day before. Information suggests that he died in enemy hands and was buried in mass grave in a wood north of the French village of Benay, which was captured by the Germans on 21 March. He now has no known grave and is commemorated at the Pozières Memorial. But it has been in the back of my mind ever since: is he still in the wood? Are there others there, too? How many more might still be in this area?
Soon after the project I had the opportunity to see the area. This is Lambay Wood, the nearest north of Benay, seen from Lambay Farm on an atmospheric misty morning. It was reported to be in enemy hands by 1.30pm on 21 March 1918. Does the wood still contain the remains of men killed on that day?
Location of units
The British front line before the German attack is shown below by the solid black line. It was being held, right to left, by 6th Somerset Light Infantry, 9th and 8th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. By day’s end, the German advance had forced the division to withdraw to the line of the Crozat Canal, shown as dashed black. The remains of men who lost their lives during the day were now all in enemy-held ground.
Locations of the dead
The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reveal that 78% of those who died have no known grave today.
The records searched are restricted to those readily identifiable as being with the division. They total 450 officers and men.
Pozières Memorial (listing those with no known grave): total 354
7th, 8th and 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps – 138
7th and 8th Rifle Brigade – 72
6th Somerset Light Infantry – 54
11th King’s (Liverpool) – 41
5th Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry – 16
Divisional Royal Field Artillery – 14
14th Machine Gun Battalion – 13
61st, 62nd and 89th Field Companies Royal Engineers – 6
St. Souplet British Cemetery: total 39 (of whom 34 are identified as having been buried in Urvillers German Cemetery)
7th, 8th and 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps – 32 (30)
6th Somerset Light Infantry – 5 (3)
5th Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry – 1 (1)
7th and 8th Rifle Brigade – 1 (0)
Divisional Royal Field Artillery – 1 (0)*
* I am discounting this man, Gnr. 57798 Samuel Joseph Peat. German records clearly show that he died of wounds on 28 March 1918 and was originally buried at Saint-Quentin.
Grand-Seraucourt British Cemetery: total 36
7th and 8th Rifle Brigade – 15
7th, 8th and 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps – 9
6th Somerset Light Infantry – 3
5th Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry – 3
11th King’s (Liverpool) – 2
61st, 62nd and 89th Field Companies Royal Engineers – 2
14th Machine Gun Battalion – 1
Divisional Royal Field Artillery – 1
Chauny Communal Cemetery British Extension: total 5
7th and 8th Rifle Brigade – 4
7th, 8th and 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps – 1
Montescourt-Lizerolles Communal Cemetery: total 4
5th Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry – 2
61st, 62nd and 89th Field Companies Royal Engineers – 1
14th Machine Gun Battalion – 1 (possibly 2, but the unit of one man is not given)
Other cemeteries (some being behind German lines or in locations that suggest the man died of wounds, having been evacuated to the British rear): total 12
7th, 8th and 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps – 4
6th Somerset Light Infantry – 3
Divisional Royal Field Artillery – 3
7th and 8th Rifle Brigade – 1
14th Machine Gun Battalion – 1
The Pozières Memorial (354 men commemorated)
CWGC says that the memorial “relates to the period of crisis in March and April 1918 when the Allied Fifth Army was driven back by overwhelming numbers across the former Somme battlefields, and the months that followed before the Advance to Victory, which began on 8 August 1918. The Memorial commemorates over 14,000 casualties of the United Kingdom and 300 of the South African Forces who have no known grave and who died on the Somme from 21 March to 7 August 1918”.
St. Souplet British Cemetery (40)
St. Souplet lies outside the area held by the 14th (Light) Division. A cemetery was begun there in October 1918 but greatly expanded after the war by bringing in remains found on the battlefield and in smaller plots that were to be cleared from a very wide area. CWGC says that almost 750 men (of all dates and divisions) are commemorated in total at St. Souplet, of whom 591 are named. Some of the named, however, are not physically there: they include the men originally buried at Urvillers German Cemetery. CWGC says on its website that “a large Franco-German cemetery north of [Urvillers] contained 14 graves of the 14th (Light) Division, from March 1918“. This is clearly an error (see image below). Note that these men were not exhumed from Urvillers but they were known to have been there.
The simple mathematics therefore suggests that more than 150 commemorated at St. Souplet are un-named, and in theory some, perhaps many, depending on when they died, are listed at the Pozières Memorial.
St. Souplet was captured by American forces in October 1918. Soon afterwards they created a cemetery, containing 371 American and seven British graves, on the road to Vaux-Andigny seen above. A smaller British cemetery was made alongside. The American cemetery was later completely cleared (to Bony) and the separate British plot was expanded through battlefield clearance. With thanks to nycattar.org for the use of this image.
Grand-Seraucourt British Cemetery (39)
Grand-Seraucourt, or Seraucourt-le-Grand, lies outside the area held by the 14th (Light) Division, but not far away and inside the area held by the adjacent 36th (Ulster) Division. The village was captured by German forces on 21 March 1918.
The red cross marks the position of the cemetery.CWGC says that the cemetery was made in 1920-26 by the concentration of graves from the battlefields and from other burial grounds. Almost 2000 men (of all dates and divisions) are commemorated in total at Grand-Seraucourt, of whom 479 are named. The simple mathematics therefore suggests that more than 1500 commemorated here are un-named, and in theory some, perhaps many, depending on when they died, are listed at the Pozières Memorial.
Chauny Communal Cemetery British Extension (5)
Chauny lies outside the area held by the 14th (Light) Division, inside the area held by the adjacent 58th (2/1st London) Division. The village was captured by German forces on 24 March 1918.
The CWGC of the cemetery makes it clear that this was a post-war concentration cemetery and contains remains of men from a very wide area. Over 1000 men (of all dates and divisions) are commemorated in total, of whom 437 are identified.
Montescourt-Lizerolles Communal Cemetery (4)
This village lies within the area held by the 14th (Light) Division. It fell into German hands on 21 March 1918. A total of 30 men are buried here, of whom 21 are named. The earliest deaths (from 3 February 1918 onwards) are of men of the artillery. 10 of the named graves are of men who died on 21 March 1918. In addition to the 4 that I have identified above are more men of the artillery and two of the 94th Company of the Labour Corps. Again, simple mathematics says that there are 9 men commemorated here who are un-named, and in theory some, in this case probably all, are listed at the Pozières Memorial.
Where are the “missing”?
At the most, 150 of the men named at the Pozières Memorial are buried as unknown soldiers at St. Souplet.
Probably 9 of those named at the memorial are buried as unknown soldiers at Montescourt-Lizerolles.
That still leaves a minimum of 195 unaccounted for.
It is likely that at least some of the 195 are buried at Grand-Seraucourt and perhaps a few more at Chauny.
Some men may never have been found and unlikely to be so in the future: the effect of high explosive shells could in effect make a man disappear, or bury him without anyone ever seeing or knowing it. The area was subjected to heavy bombardments again later in 1918 too.
The upshot of all of this? My study is inconclusive, but I can’t help but get the feeling that there is a very considerable number of men whose burials have never been found and remain to be found: are some of them in Lambay Wood? There is work still to be done. There are surely similar stories in the areas of 36th (Ulster) Division and others on the northern flank of the 14th, too.
Footnote: the recapture of Benay and Lambay Wood
When the allied forces advanced across this area during the final “Hundred Days” offensive, Benay was within the zone of operations of the French Army. The village and Lambay Wood were recaptured in September 1918 by the 169e Division d’Infanterie. My next step is to see whether German and French records talk of mass graves in the area.