Friday 7 July 2023

The Abbots Leigh Battlefield Crosses

As the number of men killed whilst fighting on the Western Front during the First World War mounted, it became necessary to consider how the final resting places of the dead could be marked and registered. Initially, dedicated British Red Cross ambulance units operated alongside the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), but the scale of the losses soon overwhelmed what was a relatively small-scale operation. Fabian Ware, a director of the Rio Tinto Company, served as a commander of one of the ambulance units having volunteered at the outbreak of war. Ware went on to apply his considerable organisational skills to the setting up a system of recording grave sites. In March 1915 the unit which Ware had organised for the British Red Cross, was transferred to the British Army and named the Graves Registration Commission (GRC). From its' inception the GRC dealt with enquiries from relatives and requests for photographs, and this expanded mandate was formally recognised in the Spring of 1916 when it became the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries (DGR&E).

Example DGR&E Enquiry Response

From 1917, the Labour Corps supplied Grave Registration Working Parties - known as Graves Registration Units (GRUs) - which were attached to the DGR&E. Initially numbering about 1,500 men these working parties were at first tasked with building and exhumation work in cemeteries taken over from Corps and Divisions of the British Army in France and Belgium. After hostilities ended on the Western Front, the job of exhumation and the concentration of graves and cemeteries was scaled up ten-fold with much of the manpower coming from China. Given the state of the battlefield and the quantity of unexploded munitions in the ground, the work was difficult and dangerous.

Noyelles-sur-Mer Chinese Cemetery

On 21 May 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) was established - an organisation which, in 1960, was renamed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The fascinating history of the IWGC / CWGC is beyond the scope of this story, but suffice to say that by 1921 the Commission had established 1,000 cemeteries based on architectural principles set out by Sir Herbert Baker, Sir Reginald Blomfield and Sir Edwin Lutyens, garden design from Gertrude Jekyll and memorial inscriptions by Rudyard Kipling. Once the new cemeteries had been built, all temporary grave markers were to be removed and replaced by a generic headstone. The information on each headstone was prescribed and the resultant uniformity plus the fact that the repatriation of bodies had been banned from 1915 onwards, meant that all were equal in death irrespective of rank or status. 

At the point where wooden grave markers were replaced by formal headstones, British and Commonwealth families (with the exception of New Zealand casualties) were offered the opportunity to add a personalised inscription. Unlike the Canadian Government which offered the service free of charge, British families were asked to pay three and half pence pence per character (in equivalent current value £100 for the maximum of sixty letters). They were also given the chance to take ownership of the original displaced grave marker, on the proviso that they paid for shipping and collection. Many of these original markers were repatriated and they can often be found in parish churches, museums, archives and occasionally in other settings. There are two such markers in the Holy Trinity Parish Church at Abbots Leigh in North Somerset. These two markers look very different to each other, and it is interesting to understand why this is so.

James W. Gittings - Abbots Leigh

The simpler cross of the two, is the one that originally marked the grave of Lance Corporal James Walker Gittings (Service No. 2594), 1st Battalion Hertfordshire Regiment who died on 19 July 1916. We know from the 1911 Census, that pre-war James was a gardener at Tyntesfield House (the ancestorial home of the Gibbs family and now in the care of the National Trust). James was entitled to the 1914 Star, so it seems that he originally went to France with the BEF in September 1914. As far as the circumstances of Gittings' death is concerned, the Battalion had taken over a frontline trench system in the Festubert area on the 15 July 1916. The relevant War Diary entry for the 19 July four days reads as follows:

A party of three Officers and sixty Other Ranks raided the enemy trenches at 10:40pm. The part of the trench that had been evacuated by the Germans. The party was in the enemy trenches for ten minutes as arranged but was bombed from the support line. No prisoners were taken. Our casualties on the evening were three Officers wounded, three Other Ranks killed, one Other Rank missing, twelve Other Ranks wounded.

Gittings is buried with two of his companions at Le Touret Military Cemetery, Richebourg- L'Avoue so it is safe to assume that he was amongst the three Other Ranks specifically mentioned as having been killed during what had proved to be an unsuccessful trench raid. It is unlikely that Gittings would have been buried by his comrades-in-arms at the point where he fell in the German lines, so it is probable that his body was recovered later, date unknown. The cross, in this instance, is a simple wooden crucifix with the standard Graves Registration Unit (GRU) information attached on metal strips - the date of death, the IWGC plot reference, service number, name, rank and unit.

Gittings is remembered on Abbots Leigh War Memorial

It is likely that James's parents, Charles and Emma Gittings (who lived in a cottage in the grounds of Abbots Leigh Priory) sought the return of the marker. Indeed, the chosen inscription on Gittings' headstone at Touret reads 'Dearly Loved Son of Mr and Mrs Gittings, Abbots Leigh, Bristol'. Charles and Emma died in 1936 and 1931 respectively and James is commemorated on his mothers' grave in the churchyard at Abbots Leigh. Whether they ever had the chance to visit their son's grave is unknown but having his original grave marker in their local church would, no doubt, have provided a small degree of comfort.

The second, more elaborate battlefield marker, carries none of the standard GRU nomenclature. In this instance the basic crucifix configuration is augmented by four quarters of curved wood giving the appearance of a circle around the point where the vertical and horizontal pieces of wood intersect. The marker carries the message 'In loving memory of L.Cpl. S.H. Hall' along with the service number, the name of the regiment Hall served with (The Somerset Light Infantry), the date of death (7 June 1917) and the words 'Killed in Action' plus 'RIP'. From this we can conclude that the grave was established at the time of Hall's death and remained extant until the IWGC moved to replace the marker with a generic headstone.

Lance Cpl Stanley Hall - original grave marker

Interestingly, unlike James Gittings, Lance Corporal Hall is not commemorated on the Abbotts Leigh War memorial or the village Roll of Honour. He is, however, listed on a neighbouring village war memorial - that of Pill. The reasons for this can be surmised in the movements of the family over the First World War period. Stanley Herbert Hall, known as Bert, was born in Pill in 1881 - his father was a master mariner and there were five siblings - John, William, Jim, Sophia and Ada. On the 1911 Census Stanley is recorded as a school teacher in Pill. That same year he met Nellie Maud Hare, the daughter of James William Hare, the headteacher at Abbot Leigh School. Their marriage on 21 December 1911 was quickly followed by the birth of three children - Sybil, Lillian and Herbert and the family settled at Severn View in Abbots Leigh.

Lodway Cricket Club 1913 - Hall is bottom right

Unfortunately, Stanley Hall's service record was destroyed (along with thousands of others) when the War Office warehouse (Army Records Office) in Arnside Street, London, was set alight by a German incendiary bomb in 1940. However, by cross referencing other sources, it is possible to establish that he attested under the so-called 'Derby Scheme' which was a fairly heavy-handed process for getting men aged between 18 and 41 to make themselves available for service - operating in Oct, Nov and Dec 1915. It is likely that Hall attested in December 1915, was mobilised in June 1916 and joined the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in October 1916. The 7th Somerset Light Infantry (SLI), a 'Kitchener New Army' battalion, had suffered heavy casualties during the 1916 Battle of the Somme and Hall was included in one of the replenishment drafts which joined the regiment in October of that year.

The 7th Bn SLI War Diary entry for 7 June 1917, the date of Stanley Hall's death, is particularly informative. The Battalion had moved into the frontline trenches near Lagnicourt the day before. The German positions in front of them were formidable, bring part of the heavily fortified German Hindenburg Line. For less experienced units, the first few days in the front line invariably saw a spike in casualties - it took time for the relieving Battalion to understand where the hot spots and points of vulnerability were. Knowing where to duck as one traversed the duckboards could be the difference between life and death. It seems that this was so, for the 7th Bn SLI as their War Diary reveals.

7th June 1917. Battalion in line. Seven casualties; three sniped and four shell-fire - all killed.

The Hindenburg Line - Lagnicourt

Four of these casualties (including Stanley Hall) are buried together in Lagnicourt Hedge cemetery - a small plot containing just 63 graves of which the majority are from the 7rh Bn SLI. This original battlefield cemetery was incorporated into the IWG 'estate' without further alteration, and this explains Hall's grave marker. He lies where he was originally interred, and the cross was likely to have been constructed and placed by men who served with him.

So why is Lance Corporal Stanley Hall's grave marker in Abbots Leigh and not in Pill where his name is included on the local memorial and the associated Roll of Honour? One can't be certain, but it is probably a question of timing. The Christ Church War Memorial in Pill, which carries Hall's name was unveiled on 8 July 1920 (Mrs H.J. Palmer had moved quickly to raise funds for the memorial, on which her son is named). Given that Hall's family had deep roots in Pill and that he was an active member of the local Lodway Cricket Club, it would have been odd for him not to be included. Abbots Leigh War Memorial, which does not include Hall's name, was unveiled nearly a year later on 19 June 1921. It may have been the case that a family decision was made not to duplicate the name, given that the two memorials are within a couple of miles of each other. Whether the decision to return Hall's grave marker to the church in Abbots Leigh where Nelle Hall worshipped was made at the same time, or later, is unknown. The family did commission an epitaph on Hall's CWGC headstone at Lagnicourt Hedge which reads 'Until the day dawns and the shadows flee away' a biblical reference from the song of Soloman (there were a number of 'stock' epitaphs which were published in pamphlets at the time, although it is not known whether this one was chosen from such a source).

Stanley Hall - Restored grave marker & CWGC headstone

In 2023 the two crosses at Abbots Leigh were found to have been taken down from the church wall and put to one side. They are in the process of been remounted in a corner of the church which also features the original First and Second World War Rolls of Honour along with some framed newspaper cuttings relating to the unveiling of the nearby war memorial). Whilst this corner is ideal for ease of access and visual impact, it is interesting to note that when Arthur Mee visited Abbots Leigh in 1940, whilst researching the Somerset edition of his 'The Kings England' series of guidebooks, he noted that facing the Miles monument on the wall of the church tower 'there are two things much simpler and more deeply moving, wooden crosses from France, both looking as they must have looked when brought back from the battlefield'.

The Project Team: Simon Talbot-Ponsonby, Murray Stewart, Maggi Stowers, Nick Ball and Phil Curme. Sources: The National Archives, The CWGC, The Great War Forum, The South West Archive, 'The Returned' website, Lodway Cricket Club, Crockerne Pill and District History Society and Abbots Leigh Civic Society,