When you’re a historian of the First World War, there isn’t much that doesn’t interest in you. From details of large scale offensives, to the fine details that you find when only reading through a war diary. And it is one of these details that has piqued my interest today and resulted in this blog post.
If you didn’t know already, I have a keen interest in the 46th (North Midland) Division, with a particular focus on 1st/5th South Staffordshire Regiment so it’s quite often that I just dip into the war diaries for the division to glean little details about the everyday goings on of the unit. And today I discovered just one of these instances.
I was reading the war diary for 137th (Staffordshire) Brigade for early 1916 when 46th Division had been sent to Egypt and then returned to the Western Front within the space of about six weeks. I found myself reading the month of February 1916, when the entry for 28th caught my eye…
Such an inconspicuous little entry. The entry even includes the fact that on that day there was some snow fall. I knew that in order to find some more detail, I would be better off looking at the battalion war diary, which was indeed my next step. And yes, there is more detail about what happened on that day in February 1916. There is an account given by the Major commanding the battalion (I am struggling to read what his scribble of a signature says to able to put it in this blog post!) which details the events of the day. As it is a handwritten account, I will also transcribe what the account says:
An accident occurred on the morning of the 28th February 1916 whereby the undermentioned officers and other ranks met with their injuries.
Whilst the No1 Platoon of the 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment were engaged in grenade throwing, in which practice live grenades were used, Sergt G Pritchard No 8007 a qualified bomber, withdrew the pin of a No 5 Mills Grenade preparatory to throwing same. Immediately on withdrawal of the pin, the Grenade exploded in Sgt Pritchard’s hand.
No blame attaches to any person present at the time of the accident.
Casualties – Killed 983 Pte. Hough W D.O.W 7986 Sgt. Rooker S Wounded Capt. W. E. Moore/Lt. P. W. Robinson/Lt. J. P. Thorne/ 2/Lt. J. E. M Cooke/ 8360 C.S.M Cartwright A. H./9603 Cpl. Betteridge J./9865 Pte Hingley W./9489 Pte Burns J. G. / 9643 Pte Timms H. /921 Pte White A./9677 Pte Leach F./8007 Sgt. Pritchard G./773 Pte Whitehouse W.
The two men mentioned as killed as Serjeant Sidney Clifford Rooker and Private W Hough. Rooker has been easier to research, as his age and family details are given on the CWGC website. He was 23 years old when he died and was the son of Thomas and Ester Ann Rooker of 128 Station Road, Brierley Hill – which is about a ten minute drive away from where I live today. In 1911, he was 18 and living with his parents, brothers (eldest two siblings – a brother and sister had already left the family home) and nephew and his occupation shows a glassmaker, a large industry in that part of the West Midlands, even still to this day. His medal card shows that he entered France on 5th March 1915, which is the day the division arrived as a whole bar the few who were already there preparing. This means that Rooker was one of those who had served with the division in France since its arrival on the continent. Rooker has an inscription on his headstone which reads ‘FOR HONOUR, NOT HONOURS’ which I think is most poignant.
The other soldier who was killed was initially a little harder to track down as there is no first name given on the CWGC website, and no family details given either. However, a bit of digging on ancestry.co.uk by using his service number and last name led me to his enlistment details which shows a first name of William and a date of enlistment as 26th October 1914 into 7th Bn South Staffordshire Regiment (not 1st/5th) at the age of 19 years and 6 months. The paperwork also shows that his father was Henry Robert Hough and they lived at 69 Beacon Street in Walsall and that he was a miner. Curiously, he was discharged on 5th November 1914 as he was considered to be a recruit ‘not likely to become an efficient soldier’ due to having flat feet! There then is a period where I cannot find further details at this time (won’t give up looking though!) until his medal index card shows him arriving in France as part of 1st/5th South Staffords on 10th December 1915, potentially as part of reinforcements to replace those who had died during the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt (click here to read about the attack). You will notice that he was killed only two months after joining the division.
Both of these young men are buried in a churchyard local to where this incident occurred. They are the only two buried in this particular location – a place called Prouville, 15 miles northeast of Abbeville. The picture of their headstones on the CWGC website appears to show them in good condition and well-tended, with flowers placed on the graves, maybe by local residents. There are many places that we are all looking forward to going back to when we are allowed to, but this one has certainly rocketed up my list!’