Here are some remarkable stories of Murch heroism and courage.:
1. Harold Murch - The Tahiti Affair
2. Queenie Rosa Murch - WRAF Member
3. John Murch - Arras 1918
4. Henry Walter Murch 1917
5. John Murch - Battle of Ctesiphon
Harold Edward Murch - The Tahiti Affair 1918-1919
Private Harold Edward Murch, Born 1901 Service No.79380 of the 40th
Reinforcements B Coy. Occupation - Driver.
Harold Edward was the son of Mrs A Fraser, who had remarried when she was
abandoned with her two sons in 1903 by her husband, George Francis, who
apparently had scuttled off to San Francisco and a new life.
Following their basic training in Featherston Camp, Edwards’ battalion travelled on foot through the mountain range of Rimutakas and joined the Tahiti in Wellington for the trip to England. In what was to become known as the ‘Tahiti’ affair Edward faced the horror of seeing many of his companions perish, not from battle or attack but from a more deadly enemy – the influenza virus. This journey was poignant for Harold as his brother, George Henry, had been injured in Gallipoli and had contracted influenza on his return journey, dying in New Zealand only days after returning home.
The ship sailed on 10th July 1918 with 1117 troops on board and 100 crewmen. The officer in charge was Lieutenant Colonel R.C Allen. Their destination was Plymouth, joining a convoy of other ships part way through the trip. It would turn out to be a long arduous journey.
After setting sail the ship visited Sierra Leone to collect supplies and join the
rest of the fleet. However, one of the other ships in the convoy, HMS Mantua
had suffered an outbreak influenza only weeks before and there were also
reports of Spanish flue ashore. All the ships were quarantined, but officers,
ignoring the quarantine order, attended a conference on board the Mantua. The
supplies to the ship were delivered by local workers, further risking spread of
infection. On the day the ship sailed out of the port, several men reported sick
with influenza. This quickly raged through the ships company and troops, who
were crammed on board, with catastrophic and inevitable results. Day after day
more men succumbed to the virus. The appalling number of servicemen and
crew who perished as a result of the influenza epidemic was almost certainly
due to the poor conditions, poor or non-existent containment methods and lack
of diligence on the part of the convoys’ officers.
The Tahiti became known as the ‘death ship’. A diary documenting the journey
was written by Private Marcus C Hansen, a bandsman, and was transcribed by
his grandson, John W Hansen, and is the only known unofficial written account of
the ships journey. It is as a result of this diary that we know some of the story of
Harold Murch, so we are grateful to John Hansen for the publication of the diary.
The influenza outbreak should have been contained, however the ship was overcrowded and lacked enough medical staff or medical treatments for so many men. Prior to the outbreak Marcus Hansen had written in his diary that the ship was packed to the gills with troops, not unusual for a troop ship, however the conditions on the ship quickly became insanitary. The hospital on the ship quickly became overcrowded as the virus raged through the men and resulted in sick men being treated on the deck of the ship and along corridors. The few medical staff on board, unable to deal with such an epidemic, were totally overwhelmed, and medical supplies soon ran out. What medical treatments they did have would have been totally ineffective against such a virulent strain of influenza.
Marcus Hansen writes:
Tue 27 Aug
Fairly warm and showers of rain occasionally. An epidemic of influenza seems to have broken out on board. Sixty odd on this morning’s sick parade and 24 admissions to the hospital. Have caught it myself of course but so far am able to get about & think I will hang out all right but feel very crook, Saw a few porpoises quite near the boat today. We are still travelling in the same formation but the distances from each boat varies. No band this morning, as a lot of the members are not well. This afternoon we pasted some music on to cards instead of practicing. This morning we had a lecture for half an hour on transport etc in England and was a most idiotic lecture too. Had no object in it that I could see.
Despite the outbreak plans for their entry into the field of battle continued with little regard for the loss of life that was already occurring on the ship as the journey progressed. The plentiful stocks of food now began to perish and became almost inedible as the ships cooks also succumbed to the sickness. Poor organisation meant that the food that was served up was of poor quality, so many men refused to eat the food supplied. This had the effect of weakening the once strong and healthy men making them even more liable to infection.
Thu 29 Aug
A slight breeze and sea a bit choppy. Much cooler and fresher which is greatly needed on this stinking tub. Two or three hundred more on sick parade today and the nurses and doctors have their hands full all right now. I believe two nurses, the skipper and some of the officers, four or five engineers and 11 firemen are down with this rotten malady now & I heard also there are about 700 down all told, quite a catastrophe all right but only to be expected when men are packed in such a small space and have to eat and sleep and live there and then going through the tropics and anchoring 4 days in a fever stricken port. The cause of the sickness which may be an African fever of some sort may be due to the water we took in at Capetown. Three more ships in our fleet today.
Sat 31 Aug
Warm and calm and sea smooth. A few are able to move about but still an awful lot down. I was able to give a hand today to move a few off our deck on to another deck while we scrubbed the place down and then shifted them back. We have about 50 down for meals but the muck we get to eat does not tempt any one to eat, They get it on their plates look at it, turn it over a few times, taste it and that is the finish of it. There are tons of meat etc wasted just for the want of cooking into a decent dish, but it is the same every time, no-one can cut it and then if you could, it has no taste to it. The ship has also run short of medicine now, this sickness must have been something they did not bargain for.
Thu 5 Sep
Fine again with a shower or two and a stiff breeze blowing. Much cooler now and sea a bit choppy this morning. More deaths and burials, total now 42. A crying shame but it is only to be expected when human beings are herded together the way they have been on this boat. We have not had a fair deal at all. One of the Officers, one of the crew and one of ship’s engineers are included in today’s list of dead. Am mess orderly again today. We are all hungering for the sight of land and are all heartily sick of the sea. Where ever any one goes, the same old topic is spoken, “When we get on shore again”. Oh well a few more days will do it now if we don’t get torpedoed.
Aware that conditions were disgusting the sergeants mess received a request from the captain to sign a document stating that the supplies were ‘sufficient’ and that the men were comfortable and cared for, however, Marcus Hansen wrote in his diary that the men of the mess refused to sign such a document.
Sun 8 Sep
Weather very cloudy and windy, sea very rough and some very big waves at times. We have to travel at very slow rate on account of one convoy not being able to keep up with the rest. One burial today. Orders now to wear our life belts continuously. Owing to the disease on board we have been advised to destroy any letters we have written so as not to spread the disease. Heard today that the Sergeant’s mess have received from the skipper a certificate asking them to sign to the effect that the food and general comfort on this ship was all that could be desired and not one would sign it. This speaks for itself in face of all the deaths on board from sickness and lack of medicine, and general comfort, why the only place we can sit on deck is the floor and that is often wet.
The officers in charge of the convoy were clearly aware that a disaster was unfolding and hoped to influence any enquiry at a later date with the document. The effort was futile as the conclusion of the official enquiry was that overcrowding and poor ventilation had contributed to the exceptionally high infection rate and death toll. The over-riding poor conditions coupled with poor medical provision and treatment contributed to the outbreak and was inefficiently dealt with by the military leadership. Harolds mother must have been beside herself with worry following reports in the papers at home in New Zealand.
Thu 28 Nov
Wet most of the day. King, Battalion parade, Guard and Piccadilly were all a wash out for us. Battalion parade 1.15pm. Practice 1.30pm to 3.30pm. Dance 6pm to 9pm. The NZ mail is coming in, in dribbles. One man named Murch of the 40th, received word from home saying his name was entered in the papers as having been dumped overboard in the Tahiti affair.
In total 68 men died on board and were buried at sea, a further 9 died after the ship docked. Over 1000 men became ill with influenza on board. Many survived despite the conditions, including Harold, who never saw action in the remaining months of the war, remaining in Britain until his return journey home.
He arrived back in New Zealand safe and went on to marry Amy Andrews and then had a second marriage to Doris Gill in Nelson. Later he fought in the second world war. He passed away at the age of 78.
Queenie Rosa Murch - WRAF Member
Queenie was born in 1902 in Bexleyheath in Kent. She had a complicated early life with her father dying when she was five and her mother dying when she was fourteen.
At the age just sixteen on 24th June 1918 Queenie joined the Womens Royal Airforce as an unskilled worker at the 86th Wing Air Station at Kenley. When she joined she became a ‘member’ as officers were drawn mainly from the upper classes. Those of the working classes became ‘members’. The age limit was set at eighteen and the selection process complex. Stringent health checks often excluded many poor candidates from polluted cities so we know Queenie was fit and healthy. Queenie would not have fulfillled the qualifying requirements for the service due to her age, however, she did join up so it is possible she lied about her age. This was paid work and for someone from a difficult background it must have seemed like an opportunity to earn a decent wage.
Once in unform, Queenie trained as a communications operator and became an expert radio operator. During her time on the base she met her future husband, a handsome, hero airman.
The WRAF service was formed in April 1918 and was formed to utilise the skilled workforce of women who had served in either the WRNS (Womens Royal Naval Service) or the WAAC (Womens Army Auxiliary Corps) on air bases around Britain. Those who were already serving were given the option to join the new service and approximately 9000 decided to join.
There were four basic trades: Clerks & Storewomen, Technical and Non-Technical trades and Household trades.
Although Queenie was initially unskilled she quickly learnt the communications system and may well have spoken to her hero airman on the radio while he was on operations.
Most women worked as clerks and the shorthand typists were the highest paid of the service. But some work was more physical and required long hours and extreme stamina, such as those in the household sections, although low paid. Skilled trades such as welding, fitting or tin plating were allocated to the technical section. There were two types of WRAF member, those that lived at home and worked on a base ‘immobiles’ and ‘mobiles’ billeted on the base and could be relocated to other bases. Queenie was, we believe, an immobile that lived at home.
The dashing Stanley Wood
Queenie in 1928
In total, until the service was disbanded, there were fifty trades open to women. Some of them sound bizarre but made a significant contribution to freeing up men to engage in combat. Although the war ended in November 1918 the contribution of the women of this service cannot be overstated. The women who joined became the backbone of the military service and demonstrated that very few occupations could not be done by women. These pioneering women ensured that all future conflicts were assisted by skilled and professional women replacing men who were needed in combat. In all 32,000 women had joined the service and had worked in all manner of professions such as: metal fabricating, engineering and even pigeon keeping and any of the following:
Clerk, Storewoman, Cook, Waitress, Laundress, Housemaid, Vegetable Woman, By-Product Woman, Pantrymaid, General Domestic Worker, Acetylene Welder, Camera Repairer, Coppersmith, Electrician, Fitter (Aero engine), Fitter (General), Instrument repairer, Machinist, Magneto repairer, Rigger, Tinsmith and Sheet Metal Worker, Turner, Vulcaniser, Wireless Mechanic, Wireless Operator, Carpenter, Motor Car Driver, Draughtswoman, Upholsterer, Painter, Photographer, Shoemaker, Assistant Armourer, Packer, Storewoman (Non-Technical), Tailor, Fabric Worker, Motor cyclist, Washer (Motor Car), Telephone Operator.
Some of the mobiles and members were sent to Germany in 1919 to assist the services overseas, however, Queenie decided to leave the service in 1919 and get married. And who can blame her?
Queenie had met the handsome and dashing Stanley A J Wood, who was an accomplished airman and war hero. Instead of remaining in the service, on 12th September 1919 Queenie was demobbed and married Stanley in early 1920. They had many years of happy marriage together. Stanley remained a pilot and became the standby pilot/engineer for the Alcock & Brown trans-atlantic flight. He also became the oldest person to hold a valid flying licence. During his lifetime he built his own glider, which he flew from Dichling Beacon and was in the Royal Flying Corps. Sadly Queenie died after more than forty years of marriage leaving Stan on his own until his death at 92.
Grateful thanks to Rebecca, Queenies great niece and family for sharing the photos of Queenie and Stan, and for letting us tell her story.
John Murch Trench Raider - Arras 1918
One of 15 children of William and Sarah Murch (Sarah always called Lizzie by her family) of Higher Batson, Nr Salcombe, John left the family farm at the age of 15 and emigrated to Saskatchewan,. Following his brothers Harry, Stan, Tom, sister Dolly and Ben, he had high hopes for his future after being tempted by the opportunity, and encouraged by his father William, to take up the offer of prairie land available to establish a homestead and farm. On 5th June 1913, John gained a plot of land of 160 acres in Shaunavon. It was his intention to farm the land, as his brothers were already doing nearby on similar plots.
When war broke out expatriates in Canada were encouraged to join up to support their home country. After long discussions with his brothers over who should enlist John joined the 152nd Battalion Saskatchewan Regiment on December 2nd 1915. He was part of the second wave of enlistment drives by the government as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). John was sent to Camp Hughes to do his basic training.
Camp Hughes was a huge WW1 Training Camp, located near Brandon, Manitoba. The current Canadian Forces Base Shilo, is located at approximately the same spot today. The camp trained over 30,000 at any given time and was a virtual city of tents, two cinemas, stores, leisure facilities - including the largest outdoor heated pool in Canada, and extensive training areas including fully equipped and revetted practice trenches.
After months of basic training John and his newly formed clan of friends (all sergeants) were transported by ship from Halifax to Britain – the ship was packed with hundreds of ordinary ranks, officers, equipment and horses. They sailed on the SS Missanabie on 3rd October 1916 to Liverpool. John was a sergeant was accompanied by his best friend, John Parker, when he disembarked the SS Missanabie on the 13th October 1916. Throughout the war, the two friends faced every fear and hardship, battle and attack together side by side.
On arrival back in Britain, John was stationed at Shorncliff Camp in Kent and was not shipped to France until he relinquished his rank, along with all his friends. On arriving in France the battalion settled into a period of waiting in the reserve camps behind the lines, they were then dispersed to new Battalions – for John and his best friend, the 5th Battalion. Their first experience of the trenches was working in parties to rebuild trenches damaged by continuous rain and snow that had left men cold, wet and miserable over the winter.
His first major battle was at Vimy. Vimy Ridge is a seven-kilometre-long hill rising amid the open countryside north of Arras. To the east of the ridge was German occupied territory on the Douai plain; to the west, the British lines. The Ridge had been in the hands of the Germans since the early days of the war and provided them with good observation on the Allied rear area, while denying the Allies a view of the wide Douai Plain behind. The French had made an unsuccessful attempt to take the ridge in May 1915. Thought their operation failed, the areas was a constant thorn in the side of the Allied armies. As a result, Vimy Ridge, was one of the most heavily defended points on the whole Western Front.
9th April 1917.
Following the issue of orders and maps with positions marked, the men gathered in position awaiting the ‘curtain up’. Four Battalions of the Canadian forces were instructed to take up positions at four points around the ridge.
Army engineers also dug extensive tunnels under the battlefield to bring the infantry more safely and closely to the German lines. The men approached through the tunnels to emerge at curtain up.
After a week of intense Allied bombardment, the Canadian Corps attacked the ridge at 5:30 am on 9 April, Easter Monday, or Bloody Easter as it was known later. Timing and co-ordination were critical — the troops moved up the long western slope of the ridge, just behind a rolling artillery barrage designed to keep the Germans hidden in their bunkers and away from their machine guns as long as possible.
In wind, sleet and snow, an initial wave of more than 15,000 Canadians stormed the ridge and captured most of the German positions by the afternoon of the first day.
As John ran across the battlefield he was shot in the shoulder and lungs. Cold, and no doubt in great pain, it would be many hours before the stretcher bearer crews found him and took him to the dressing station. The next morning his mother received a telegram informing her that John was missing presumed killed in action.
Once the Battle of Vimy Ridge was over the many thousands of casualties were counted and accounted for. John was one of the casualties.
Canadian casualties amounted to 10,602, of which 3,598 were fatal. The Canadian Corps had achieved the greatest single Allied advance on the Western Front, to that point in the war.
However, John had survived but was badly wounded. The roll had been called and John was listed as missing as he lay buried in a shell hole in no mans land. His name was posted in the Winnipeg Chronicle as being missing in action.
John was shipped to the number 32 Stationary Hospital at Wimereux, which was also known as the Australian Voluntary Hospital. His temperature was beginning to rise as infection set in. This was before penicillin was available to deal with infection. Two days after he was found John was flagged as a ‘Blighty’ case to be shipped back to England.
Four days later he was shipped back to the Ontario Military Hospital in Orpington in Kent, arriving there on 16th Apr 1917. His wound was a clean ‘through and through’. He was quickly stabilised and started to recover. After two months in hospital in Britain recovering from his gunshot wound, John was transferred from the Ontario Military Hospital to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital in Bromley. He stayed only for a couple of days until 12 Jun 1917. . He transferred to 2nd Canadian Convalescent Depot, Bramshott - 18 Jun 1917 from where he was declared fit. John returned home to Salcombe to recuperate. Only two months later he was recalled to the front lines.
John returned to his regiment. The 5th Battalion had remained in the same area around Arras, although the battle lines were now slightly further to the east. The Germans had launched their spring offensive with many thousands of extra troops moved to the Western front from the Eastern Front. Several battlefronts were opened up, some as a diversion from the main thrust of the German offensive. They were headed by Stormtroopers who were fighting a last ditch campaign to move forward from the war of attrition to a war of movement. The Allied forces were faced with desperate, starving, aggressive enemy troops. However, the weight of the Allied forces was backed up with enormous amounts of armaments, planes, tanks, reinforcements and American troops, who had also joined the lines. Johns experience of both training and the front lines had resulted in a soldier who was one of the more experienced fighters. John had taken further training and became a specialist trench raider with a small group of 20. The small band of raiders were so stealthy that the small group spent almost every night in No Mans Land reconnoitring the enemy lines. This type of observation was essential for forward planning and the Canadian forces had perfected the art of raiding. Raiding parties like Johns lived at great risk of death but were the lynchpins of any successful raid. Any man entering No Mans Land at any time knew that death was a certainty if caught by the enemy. In fact, being spotted by their own troops could result in mistaken firing in the darkness. John was fearless and put his life on the line every time he ventured out.
July 26th 1918
A large raid was planned for July. The Battalion's "Scouts, trench raiders and sniper section" was put in to action for weeks in the build up to the raid. For nine nights preceding the raid the band of 20 raiders (both John and Parker were in this unit) dodged the almost constant barrage from the Canadian and British heavy artillery to scout the enemy lines, reporting back on the enemy facing them: numbers of enemy troops, which German Battalions were in opposite positions, location of machine guns, the layout of the enemy trenches and barricade positions in particular. During their night raids each night, they would cut the wire and note where it was impossible to do so, whereupon the artillery would target the wire prior to the raid in order to cut a route through. The best route for the attacking parties was worked out based on the scouts information. Then on the night of the raid the small group would lead the parties of raiders through no-man's land and enemy wire in order to push men through quickly.
During the night preceding the raid, hundreds of men moved stealthily into underground tunnels. Men then sat to wait for the signal. John and the forward party crept out into No Mans Land from the tunnels, under cover of darkness, and silently began to occupy shell holes and pits in the area only yards from the German lines. As the rain fell overnight and the temperature dropped, the forward party waited. All forms of identification were removed, they wore no I.D. tags or badges of any kind, but each man had been issued with a number for the officers to identify returning men when they reached home trenches. The barrage was heavy and only minutes before curtain up the artillery increased its shelling tenfold. As whistles blew to begin the advance, men rose up out of the tunnels to find the forward party waiting to lead them forward through enemy barricades.
The creeping barrage was supposed to provide smoke cover and prevent the Germans leaving their dugouts. Under cover of falling smoke shells, the men progressed forward quickly and into enemy trenches, inflicting as many casualties to the enemy as possible – 200 followed the lead party followed by hundreds more in waves every 15 minutes, fanning out and covered by machine gunners to left and right, with Engineers behind each company, providing bombs to blow out the enemy trenches and dug outs. The battle parties advanced immediately and every 15 minutes after. The smoke barrage caused confusion amongst the forward men. Some men at the front were hit by the creeping barrage of falling shells.
They quickly captured a German Machine gun and the small raiding party at the front moved on forward to the 2nd and 3rd objectives. Parties following behind occupied the trenches and cleared them.
Fortunately, the Germans had previously moved their men back from the trenches and they were lightly manned. Conflicting accounts state that they were caught unawares with no preparation for the sudden attack and that return shelling was minimal, so return fire was mostly single shots or machine gun. However, this conflicts with later accounts that state that the Germans did fire some light shells into their own positions where the Canadians were now swarming.
Running alongside Sergeant Bossunbury, John was pushing forward at the front of the line bravely running into the smoke filled battleground with two of his best friends by his side. Not just into the smoke but into the shells falling from the heavy guns of the artillery of the allied Army guns firing from far behind them. At dusk the red followed by green flare was fired to stop the Allied shelling. They had captured the three objectives faster than they expected.
The Artillery, following the battle plan failed to react and continued shelling.
John and a handful of raiders were at the end of the captured trenches and had heard the return signal. They were preparing to make their way back to the start point and had been chatting to other men in the company. Although the boys were still cautious and alert, the smoke was clearing, dusk was approaching and all the prisoners had been removed. All the other men of the battalion had gathered near the 1st objective to make their way back to their own trenches. Suddenly a round of shells burst in the captured trenches.
John and four other men disappeared under the explosion. They were obliterated and probably buried under tons of mud. Search parties tried to locate the men that night but time was against them. The next morning, again, the mopping up parties tried to locate injured men or the dead. They could not find either John or the two boys he had been standing with. An enquiry concluded that the men had most likely been killed.
Five men were buried at Duisans Cemetery. John and his two friends, as they were never found, are commemorated at the Vimy Memorial in Arras.
As a man of extraordinary courage who volunteered for the danger of the trenches and prospect of death, leaving behind his farm and family, he was well aware of the risk and danger. He had accepted his fate and knew he would never return. John had spent over a year at the front, earned his wound stripe and watched thousands die in the most horrific conditions. But he was a courageous and fearless fighter and one of Devons' finest.
The family couldn’t accept his loss and waited for him for months to come home following the receipt of the letter informing him he was KIA. Their loss and grief was unabated. They scanned the papers for faces of men who had lost their memory, to no avail.
In 2018, I went to the spot where John and his two friends were killed. With some professional assistance, I found the position of the last objective and exactly where they had stood in their last moments. It was in a vast, peaceful, flat field just outside Feuchy, where Barley whispered and swayed gently and poppies lined the edges of the field. Somewhere, still, on this piece of unremarkable field, lie the bodies of John and his two friends.
My father was named after John by my grandfather, who was John's baby brother. Alfie was also sent to the front with the Salcombe RGA HAG, a driver with a 60lb heavy gun. The story of the two boys and their war is within my book The Spirit of the Salcombe Boys.
Harold Walter Murch - Lance Corporal - The Buffs
Henry Walter Murch. Lance Corporal, G/749. 7th (Service) Battalion, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment).
Died 3 May 1917.
Born St. Mary’s, Cirencester, Gloucestershire to Robert (a Station Master, originally of Colyton, Devon) and Elizabeth Manuel.
Henry was a Drapers Assistant living in a boarding house in Paddington, sharing a room with Paul Roper, another Drapers Assistant from Camden Town, in a 9 room house at 28 Hatherley Grove. There were 14 others squashed into the lodging house with him - all of whom worked in Owens Outfitters nearby – in rather insanitary and damp conditions, which may have been part of the reason Henry answered the call and signed up. On 30th August 1914 at the age of 25 he enlisted in Dover, with the Buffs (East Kent Regiment) and was allocated to the 7th (Service) Battalion. The Battalion was a new one, formed in early September 1914 at Canterbury as part of the Second New Army (K2).
The Battalion moved to Purfleet and joined the 55th Brigade of the 18th Division. In July 1915 the Battalion mobilised for war and landed at Boulogne. Henry was then engaged in many actions on the Western Front including; 1916 the Battle of Albert, the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, the Battle of Delville Wood, the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, the Battle of the Ancre Heights and the Battle of Ancre. In 1917 he fought in operations on the Ancre, the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line and finally, his last, the Third Battle of the Scarpe,
Henry had survived his 3 years fighting with only minor injuries, one of which was suffered during the fierce battle for Trones Wood. However, in March the Buffs had been granted some extended rest and training time in the Regiment Corps position, during which they had baths, sports and recreation time, extensive training on new equipment along with inspections and parades in their cleaned up uniforms. They were able to go to bars and estaminets and swim and lark around in the river. Obsessed with football they played almost constantly wherever they could and many matches were enjoyed during their rest period. As April arrived an audacious action was planned for the 2/3 May 1917 at the village of Chérisy, to the south east of Arras, France, by the 7th (Service) Battalion, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment), and by the other battalions including the Queens Own, Surrey and the Middlesex Regiments, which was undertaken as part of the overall battle of the Scarpe.
On the night of 2/3 May 1917, Henry’s battalion was opposite the village of Chérisy with officers and other ranks of both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies standing by ready for zero hour which was set to start before dawn. A and B Co.’s were the assaulting companies to the front, followed by C Co. in support and D Company held in reserve in support trenches.
Zero hour was at 03.45am. When the whistle blew A and B companies set off towards Keeling Copse, the first objective. The German artillery had opened up a bombardment on their forward trench just shortly after they went forward and the men fortunately missed being killed by the falling shells, which blitzed the trenches and surrounding areas. With the bombardment behind them the men ran into the darkness and into utter confusion as platoons and companies intermingled as they crossed into No Mans Land. Almost all of the entire 12th (Territorial Force) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment ran across the front of the advancing Buffs in the confusion, risking the success of the launch of the attack. However, the men somehow managed to rectify the problem and continued on towards their objectives.
At dawn, they reached the village of Chérisy and quickly passed through. However, on the way they once again crossed the path of the Middlesex Battalion and the advance slowed and faltered. They regrouped and continued but the assault was beginning to fail badly. Past the village they came up to the river Sensée beyond Chérisy at which point Captain Black of A Co. stopped the Battalion from moving further and instead mounted a defensive line along the road running to the south of the village. Yet again the Battalions had lost contact with each other and the situation was going from bad to worse.
At this point the men of A Co. were trying to regroup when they came under heavy fire by the Germans with the result that messages requesting back up or transmitting their position failed to reach the other companies and no assistance was sent. By 9am, the boys of A Company were trapped to the right of the rest of the Battalion and unable to move. This resulted in B and C Companies, by that time also at the Sensee, losging the advantage they needed to press on. Fresh orders arrived ordering the Buffs to advance jointly with the 8th (Service) Battalion, East Surrey Regiment on to the Red Line and onwards to the Blue Line with the 55th Brigade, 18th Eastern Division and 7th (Service) Battalion Queens Own (Royal West Kent) to consolidate their position. It was a hopeless situation and no further progress could be made.
At 11pm confused reports were received saying that a general withdrawal was taking place. The parties started to move back however, stretcher bearers and mopping up parties were still working to recover bodies and the injured as the hundreds of men of A and B companies attempted to return to their muster point, causing further confusion and an inability to return fire across the area. Soon men of all parties were intermingled on the battleground. The retirement was then stopped and orders received that the Battalion attacking parties would turn and begin the attack again. At about 7.15 the 7th (Service) Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) attacking parties attempted to re-take Cable Trench with the Buffs in support.
The attempt failed as the momentum of the raid had slowed and the men were exhausted. Henry and his fellow Buffs, along with the men of the Queen’s (RWS), then came under further intense and brutal machine gun and rifle fire, driving them back to their original position in the front line trench where they had started their assault hours earlier.
At the dawn the next day, 2 Officers were dead, six were wounded and four were missing. Of the other ranks, 120 lay dead on the battlefield and 169 were wounded. Another 100, including Henry, were missing presumed either captured or dead. Sadly his name did not appear on any prisoners lists and he was not to be found among the injured. It had to be assumed that he had been killed and buried under the tons of mud displaced by the falling barrage by the Germans. His body was never found.
Henry is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, Pas de Calais, France. Bay 2. He was just shy of his 29th birthday when he died.
Boys of the 7th (Service) Battalion, The Buffs in 1916
Private John Murch at the Battle of Ctesiphon 22nd November 1915
John was born in Holne in 1895 to parents Thomas Henry, a stonemason, born 1859 in Ashburton and Mary Anne Brace born 1856 in Holne. In 1901 census records show the large family living in Church Lane, Ashburton. John had two younger brothers, Sam and Tom, and six older siblings: Annie and Ivy, older sisters, George, Harry, Frank and Fred older brothers. Harry and Frank at 14 and 12 are errand boys working for their keep and the other children are all in school or at home.
By 1911 the whole family are working in the town and remain living in Church Lane with their parents. Thomas is still working as a stonemason, Fred is a gardener domestic, John and Samuel are employed as baker's assistants, and Tom aged 11 is at school.
As no service records are available it is uncertain as to when John enlisted into the army. However he did, and he served as a Private in the 1/5th Battalion Devonshire Regiment with a Service Number of 2512. John's Medal Index Card shows he entered the Asiatic theatre of war on the 26th May 1915, with the 2nd Batt Dorset Regiment in Mesopotamia, along with other volunteers from the 1/5th and 1/6th Battalions. The Dorset Regiment had been through a rough period and needed reinforcements and John was drawn from the Western Front to shore up their weakened numbers. Having been with the Dorset’s for only a few months, in the searing heat and dusty conditions, John and his Battalion were due to take part in an advance to Baghdad.
Ctesiphon was some 25 miles from Baghdad and had to be taken to enable the push by the Division to advance to take Baghdad. Between the 22nd and 24th November 1915, the Dorset Regiment, along with attached forces, were involved in a furious battle that ensued in the town as they advanced. British Indian and British Empire armies had joined forces against the Ottoman Empire in what was known as the Mesopotamian Theatre of War.
Sir John Nixon, Commander of the British Forces had had some success with his campaign to invade Mesopotamia and by late September his forces occupied the province of Basra including the town of Kut-al-Amara.
However, in November, Nixon ordered forward divisional commander, Sir Charles Townshend, to continue the offensive up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers towards Baghdad. Due to the fragile nature of British supply lines in the region and doubtful of the capabilities of his mostly Indian troops, Force ‘D’, who had already lost one-third of their number to battle or sickness, Townshend lobbied for a delay in order to wait for reinforcements. However, Nixon, intransigent to any argument or delay, ordered Townsend to proceed as ordered. His ambitions clouding his judgement in refusing wise counsel.
Following their defeat at Kut, the Turkish forces had withdrawn to entrenched, fortified defensive positions among the ruins of the ancient city of Ctesiphon. As the Dorsets and accompanying forces began their advance on the Ottoman positions, they were met by companies of, largely inexperienced, Turkish soldiers in two lines on either side of the Tigris. While the Anglo-Indian troops were able to capture the first-line of Turkish positions that first night, the Turks mounted a fiercely defended their position. Casualties on both sides began to mount. Among them was John, cut down by rifle fire.
The Turks launched a counter-attack the next day aimed at recapturing the ground they had lost on the 22nd. The British and Indian troops retreated to Kut, as they had no expectation of reinforcements. Approximately 4500 men lay dead at the end of the unsuccessful action. Once in Kut the forces regrouped however, the Turks then lay siege to Kut and after 12 days of futile fighting, with four attempts to push back their opponents, Townsend and his remaining force of 10,000 men surrendered on the 29th April 1916. It had been a brutal few months. It was the largest single surrender of troops in British history up until that time and the battle ended the British advance to Baghdad. It was one of the more resounding British defeats of the war.
John died on the 22nd November 1915, and is commemorated on the Basra Memorial, panel 11. On his death his father, Thomas, received his remaining un-issued pay of £1.4s.9p. John was awarded the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal and Victory Medal, both were issued to his parents.
John is remembered on the Ashburton Memorial and commemorated on the Basra Memorial (note: the remaining memorial is too dangerous to visit, however, part of it has been removed to the National Arboretum.
Many thanks to Bob Shemeld for allowing me to use his research.