By Rebecca Dyde
Mary Watson was born in 1887 and lived in the village of Hartshill, North Warwickshire. She had six brothers. The Watson family lived in a small cottage near the village green. Mary’s father William worked in the local quarry as a stone quarry man.
In the 1900’s, the quarrying industry was one of the main employers in Hartshill and the local area. Coal mining, ribbon weaving and canal maintenance also contributed to the increase in village’s population at this time. This was also a time when it was quite usual for sons to follow into their father’s trade or work of employment after leaving school. However, by the autumn of 1917, four of Mary’s younger brothers had tragically lost their lives.
|Mary Watson is seated to the left with younger brother Sidney to the right of the picture.||Hartshill Village Green c 1900s (photograph from Windows on Warwickshire)|
Sidney Watson, Mary’s younger brother seen in the photograph above met a tragic untimely death. As a young boy he suffered with epilepsy, a medical condition not really fully understood at the time. One day he wandered off along the canal towpath which runs north of the village. The family never saw him again. Three weeks later a coal barge dredged his poor body up from the bottom of the canal. He had suffered an epileptic fit, fallen in and drowned, aged just 13 years.
In 1914, life in a rural Warwickshire village was to change forever with the outbreak of the ‘Great War’, the likes of which the world had never seen before. When war was declared in August 1914, celebrations had taken place throughout the country. Many believed it would be over by Christmas that year and many young men, caught up in a wave of patriotism fuelled by government propaganda, rushed to volunteer. The Secretary of State, Lord Kitchener, asked for 100,000 volunteers, but got 750,000 in just one month. Each man signed up for three years service, or the duration of the war (whichever was shortest), and agreed to serve either at home or overseas. Many chose overseas as a way of seeking adventure in a foreign land and as a release from mundane jobs at home. These new battalions that were composed of volunteers were usually termed ‘service’ battalions (or ‘Kitchener’s army).
|Left:One of the Watson brothers, believed to be Harry in full marching order uniform, (site of photograph taken either at Port Slade or Shoreham Camp).Note the entrenching tool on his right hip – he would have to use this to help dig trenches, dig latrines and help bury the dead where possible. On his left hip is the haversack which would have contained rations, eating utensils and personal effects. When in the trenches the haversack was worn on the back, containing a waterproof ground sheet and two day’s rations of corned beef and biscuits.Below his haversack in the picture is his bayonet scabbard, with the entrenching tool handle attached to it. On his chest are right and left cartridge pouches, five each side. Whilst on duty in the font line the bayonet was fixed to his rifle as shown in the photograph. The large pack on his back was made of khaki material with leather fittings. This was standard to the infantry soldier’s uniform of Kitchener’s army units from early 1915. It contained his great coat and other extra clothing. It was very unpopular with the soldiers as it did not distribute weight evenly and created pain and pressure in the lower back region. This was never worn in battle or carried into an attack – it was only normally worn on the march, as seen in the photo opposite. He is also wearing khaki coloured puttees, which supported the muscles of the lower leg especially during long marches.|
|Right:One of the Contalmaison trenches in the Somme, situated in the area Private Harry Watson was on active service in1915; note the shelters dug into the side of the trench. (Part of the’ Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection’ photographed by Lt. J WBrooke 9/16)|
All three Watson brothers joined what was to become the 11th battalion of the Royal Warwickshire regiment, raised in Warwick in October 1914. On the 30th July 1915 the regiment travelled to France.
One can only try and imagine what it must have been like for soldiers like the Watson brothers serving in the trenches. The First World War was characterised by the trench warfare. Harry and his brothers would have spent two to four days in the trenches then a few days away from the front line in billets or shelter huts. A rotation system was used because conditions were so unpleasant: the noise of shells was so constant that sleep was difficult and men needed to be alert whilst active in the front line trenches.
The trenches were built up with wood and sandbags, and had to be maintained by the soldiers themselves. They also had to dig toilets here and life in the trenches was a real health hazard – soldiers being unable to wash or change their clothes for weeks at a time. Vermin, particularly rats and lice infested the trenches. Rats grew to the size of small cats, ran over the bodies of the soldiers when they were asleep and scavenged on human remains, spreading disease and contaminating food. Maggots and flies also thrived on the nearby remains of decomposing human and animal corpses. 97% of soldiers in the trenches were afflicted with lice which bred in the soldier’s filthy clothing causing them to itch unceasingly. Lice also spread trench fever, which caused severe pain and high fever, a debilitating illness which could take up to 3 months to fully recover from. A soldier in the trenches would also have to cope with the stench of rotting animal and human corpses and odious body odour.
Soldiers could not leave the frontline trenches without orders or they would be accused of desertion. The British held trenches were separated from the German trenches by ‘No Man’s Land’, a barren area of land filled with barbed wire and bombs in clear view of the enemy. Trench positions were reinforced with barbed wire belts. Machine guns would be permanently trained on the gaps left in the wire. As land was gained or lost each side took over the trenches of the enemy. This was a different world; a world of carnage and terror for the Watson boys who had never seen life outside that of a quiet rural village back home in England.
Silk postcards were first introduced in 1914 through to the end of 1918. Ten million were produced during the war. They were generally hand embroidered on strips of silk mesh and were mostly made by the French and Belgium women refugees who worked in their homes and refugee camps, sending the finished strips to factories for cutting and mounting onto cards. Because of their uniqueness they were very popular with the British soldiers fighting in France. This is one of the reasons why many of the silks produced like this one sent from Harry are of a patriotic nature depicting British and French flags. This card has a pocket on the front containing a small printed greeting card depicting poppies. Most of the cards did not have postage stamps as they were mailed home at no charge to the soldier in military mail pouches. These cards became treasured mementos from the soldiers serving overseas.
The Battle of the Somme began on the 1st of July 1916 at 7.30am in the morning. It was a 25 mile front, north and south of the River Somme in Northern France. Sixty thousand British soldiers climbed out of the trenches in an attempt to push forward over ‘No Man’s Land’. Within one hour, half of them were dead or wounded.
On the 7th July 1916, Harry’s Battalion marched through the village of Albert and received orders to proceed to the frontline trenches along the Contalmaison-La Boiselle Road. On July 15th at 3am in the morning operation orders arrived that the combined 112th Brigade would attack Pouziers early that morning. Harry’s regiment, the 11th Warwick Battalion, was to assist two other battalions to consolidate ground gained at the southern end of the village. Two assaults were attempted to push forward that day, the second assault being signalled by a red rocket fired at 6pm in the evening. One of his commanding officers wrote in his diary – ‘’July 15th 1916. The bombardment very intensive, failed to put out the hostiles machine guns and the assault was met with such a fierce fire that it collapsed, though our infantry did not give way – they held their ground with great tenacity’’.
250 men were killed during the assault on Contalmaison, (which was part of the battles of the Bazentine), on July 15th 1916, including Private Harry Watson. Many lay dead in ‘No Man’s Land’. Their bodies could not be recovered whilst the fighting and bombardment continued and the ceaseless pounding of artillery meant that many were lost for good. The sad reality was that if an area was subject to continual artillery bombardment, explosions fragmented the remains or buried them away from the original position so that quite often it was difficult to locate any remains at all. If a dead soldiers comrade had time to retrieve an identity tag or papers from the body he would give them to his commanding officer. Where bodies were not recovered they were commemorated in memorials. Private Harry Watson had no known grave and is commemorated at the Theipval Memorial in France– the largest of the First World War memorials; his name and 72,000 others are inscribed on it.
All World War I soldiers wore identity discs tied around their neck on a cord. The discs were in pairs, an octagonal green disc and below, attached by a shorter connecting cord, a round red disc. The soldiers name, regiment number and religion were stamped on both tags. If the soldier was killed where at all possible the red tag was cut off and collected to count the casualties, and the green tag was left on the body. Soldiers popularly associated red tags being the same colour as the blood of the body and the green tag the colour of the grass which the body was buried in. Harry Watson’s red identity tag was sent back to his family after his death.
|Harry Watson’s identity tagThis tag was taken from his body after he had been killed in battle. It is damaged on the upper left hand side, could this be a clue to the fatal injuries he may have sustained given the area the tag was worn? This tag would have been with him to the very end.|
|Extract from Georges letter – being wounded, describing it like being in Hell out there, glad to be coming home to England once more|
Recently, it was also discovered through a family letter sent home in September 1916 that Harry’s brother, George, had also been at Albert on the Somme. George had been one of the luckier ones, being wounded in the leg and sent home to England to recover for a while. However by the summer of 1917, he and his brother Walter (known in the family as ‘Mick’) were serving together on the frontlines in the Flanders area of Belgium. In a letter dated August 26th 1917, George asks for the two brothers ‘not to be forgot when the fruit is ripe’. Scurvy was rife – lack of vitamin C was a problem for the soldiers whose staple diet consisted mostly of corned beef, biscuits and bread. Fresh uncontaminated drinking water was also scarce; to save their rations soldiers used cold tea to shave with instead.
George and Walter were to endure one of the worst winters of their life. The winter of 1916-17 in the Flanders was one of the coldest in living memory. Soldiers suffered with frost-bite and trench foot; a particularly painful condition causing gangrene of the feet as a result of being constantly wet and cold whilst being restrained in boots and puttees. Soldiers cried with the pain associated with this terrible affliction.
Unlike France, the battlefields of Belgium were low lying with poor drainage. When it rained, the trenches filled with water drained from the surrounding fields. George and Walter may have found themselves knee deep in mud and water as well as everything else they had to cope with in the trench system. George remarks in his letter dated August 1917, ‘’I don’t know what sort of weather you are getting – we are having a lot of rain out here…’’ A month after writing this letter, George was killed on the 23rd September 1917 in the Battle of Menim Rd, Ypres. The battles of the medieval city Ypres were launched at the beginning of August and continued until the fall of Passchendaele village in November 1917. The allies gained in offensive but at the cost of 310,000 casualties. The Passchendaele battle tactics were to become as controversial as those employed at the Somme, and this was the final great battle of attrition in the war. When George’s battalion pushed forward an advance around the Menim road, the German 4th army, who had been expecting them, were waiting to hold them off. Furthermore, continual heavy rain, the heaviest for thirty years, had churned the Flanders into a thick muddy swamp so soldiers were rendered immobile and helpless. Like many others, George’s body was never recovered.
A month later, in October it was still raining hard. An inch of rain fell over two days onto already saturated ground and in an area where constant bombardment had destroyed the field drains. Many shells disappeared into the mud and either failed to explode or explosions being absorbed by the mud. So when the British soldiers tried to push forward they found that much of the German barbed wire had survived bombardment.
Soldiers were already exhausted by the heavy mud and drenching cold rain even before battles commenced. Walter was involved with the attack at Poelcappelle, which failed – some units did manage to advance a short distance although they were pulled back later in the day. Walter died on the 9th October 1917, two weeks after his brother George, aged just 24 years. George and Walter Watson are remembered with honour at the Tyne Cot memorial in Belgium.
Throughout the Great War an average of 480 men from the United Kingdom were killed every day. The conflict resulted in 3.1 million casualties in all. Fifteen and a half thousand villages in England had men killed in the Great War (Daily Telegraph 10th Nov 2007).
|George Watson’s roll medal index card.It states simply ‘K. in A.’ – killed in action.||Opening ceremony/unveiling of Hartshill War memorial 1921(photograph from Windows on Warwickshire)|
In the years following the end of the war memorials were erected in many parishes to fulfil the desire of the local community to commemorate the dead especially because many of the fallen never had a grave to mourn over.
In the centre of Hartshill village stands a solitary memorial of remembrance in front of the former site of the old North School which was sadly demolished a few years ago. The memorial was unveiled in 1921, three years after the end of the war. The inscription reads:’ Erected by the voluntary contribution of the parishioners of Hartshill to perpetuate the memory of the men of this parish who fell in the Great War 1914-1919. For God, for King and Country…’
There are 34 names inscribed on its base (some now fading) to commemorate the men of the parish who lost their lives – a physical testimony to the loss felt by families, neighbours and friends in the parish. Everyone living in the village would have known someone’s son, brother, uncle, father or husband killed in the conflict. Near the very end of the inscriptions are the names of three brothers – G. Watson, H. Watson and W. Watson.
This was their story. All the other 31 names commemorated on the memorial would have had similar stories to tell. Mary’s father William died in 1918, the family believed ‘broken hearted’, three months after the death of his sons George and Walter at Flanders. Mary Watson was my maternal grandmother. I am the third generation descendant of the Watson family still residing in the village of Hartshill. My mother Joan is Mary’s youngest daughter. Mary never spoke much about the loss of her brothers, keeping her grief for them to herself until the end of her life. After the war, she never observed two minutes silence on armistice days – not out of disrespect but quite the opposite; quietly maintaining the fact that ‘’they couldn’t stop for two minutes silence – none of them, they just had to keep going till the very end…’’
|Hartshill war Memorial as it is today (2012)||Handkerchief belonging to Mary sent by one of her brothers from the front Her name has been hand embroidered and the word ‘remember’|
Information on WWI war dead and cememteries/ memorials can be found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website at http://www.cwgc.org