I am out of the closet (or should that be the crypt?) as a self-proclaimed taphophile. Graveyards have long held a fascination for me and many hours over my fifty plus years have been spent in cemeteries both here in the United Kingdom and across Europe.

On occasion, on my forays into these tranquil spaces, a particular grave will pique my curiosity. This may be for a variety of reasons, an association with local history, an intriguing epitaph or a family connection.... it doesn't take much. The online availability of censuses, official registries and newspaper archives have in recent years made it possible to learn something more about the lives lived by those remembered only as fading names carved in stone. These resources provide an opportunity to put 'flesh on old bones' as the turn of phrase goes, hence the title of this blog 'Beyond the Grave'.

If anyone reading these posts has anything to add please feel free to contact me at adrianandrews@myyahoo.com.

Tuesday 21 February 2023

Remembering Private 29387 Fred Brisco 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers


Extract from the 'Leigh Journal' reporting the death of local volunteer Private Fred Brisco.

It was a different sort of pilgrimage that took us to the town of Leigh on a Saturday morning last December. Leigh forms part of the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan and was the birthplace of the musician who went by the name of Pete Shelley. His band, Buzzcocks, were a major player in the UK punk scene of the late 1970s. Following Pete's premature passing four years ago, family and friends funded a mural of him on the gable end of a property close to the Town Hall. We came, we saw, we took pictures. Since the bus journey to Leigh from central Manchester is quite a trek we decided also to take the time to also view the small museum located within the Town Hall. 

Now if you find yourself in Leigh, to say 'Hi' to Pete or whatever, I would recommend you to spend 20 minutes within the museum. It has such a warm sense of civic pride and it was a pleasure to view the panels and exhibits that describe the proud industrial past upon which Wigan and Leigh grew.

Not far from an area dedicated to Pete and his band I spied a cross.... that's always going to turn my head. It was clear that this corner of the museum was intended, by way of one individual, to commemorate the huge sacrifices that the men and boys of the many Lancashire Regiments made during The Great War. 

The exhibit consisted of a reproduction of the piece that appeared in the local newspaper that reported the fact that Private 29387 Fred Brisco had been killed in action on 1st July 1916, a date seared into the minds of the British for more than a century... truly the 'blackest day in British military history'. It was the opening day of what became known as The Battle of the Somme, a British offensive that together with the efforts of the French fighting to the south would finally break the German lines and bring the war to a swift conclusion, or so it was believed. Only it wasn't decisive at all and the fighting ground on until November with very little achieved. But of 1st July 1916, it was a day that goes down in infamy as British losses were close to 60,000, killed, wounded or missing. Amongst the casualties were thousands of young men that formed Kitchener's Army, volunteers that in most cases had not been in France for more than a few weeks. Fred arrived in France just a month before the battle. The second exhibit was the makeshift cross made to mark his grave. When a permanent headstone to his memory was erected in Auchonvillers Military Cemetery, at the families request, the wooden cross was sent back to Leigh.

The cross is simply carved, bearing the words:

'In Memory Of
Pte 29387 Fred Brisco
Killed In Action
1st July 1916'

On that fateful day thousands of individual tragedies were played out across the battle's 25 mile front. Fred as a soldier of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers was to be engaged in one of the better known engagements that took place on 1st July. The fighting that took place in the area in front of the village of Beaumont Hamel carries all of the hallmarks what 'The Somme' has come to mean in the intervening years. A lack of understanding of the enemy positions and their ability to endure the most ferocious and prolonged artillery bombardment, the effectiveness of the shelling in fragmenting the thickets of barbed wire that protected the front line and of course the resultant slaughter of thousands of men. 

1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers formed part of 86th Brigade of the 29th Division. The objective of the 1st Battalion on the morning of 1st July was the fortified village of Beaumont Hamel a small cluster of buildings around a church. Whilst the settlement was/is nothing to write home about, it occupies higher ground on one side of the Beaumont Hamel valley. For this reason the village was heavily fortified.

On the map above the section of the front line occupied by the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers ('1/LF') can be seen in red at the top. The 16th Battalion Middlesex Regiment and the 2nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers were located on the Lancashire Fusiliers right flank, facing the Hawthorne Redoubt. On the map, the British front line is marked in red with the German front line in green, forward of the village. No Man's Land separated the two lines. On the Lancashire front, between the opposing lines there can be seen a geographical feature that was to play a significant part in the day's fighting. Circled in blue on the map, this was known as the 'Sunken Road' (or 'Sunken Lane' in some accounts) and was a medieval banked track. This otherwise unremarkable track is also the location of some of the most famous images from the Western Front, but I will come back to that shortly. 

On the eve of 'Big Pushes' those at the top of the military hierarchy would visit the troops destined to go over the top to deliver speeches intended to remind the men of their duties to King and Country and to uphold the fighting traditions of their respective regiments.

One such speech was delivered to the men of 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers by G.O.C. of the 29th Division, General Sir Henry de Beauvoir De Lisle.

General Sir Henry de Beauvoir De Lisle addressing the soldiers of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers ahead of the assault on Beaumont Hamel.

'I cannot allow the battalion of which I am so proud to enter this great battle without coming to wish you good luck, and to give you the general situation.

We are now taking part in the greatest battle in which British troops have ever fought. At this great time all the previous engagements during this and former wars sink into insignificance. The forces that are engaged in this Fourth Army are five times as large as the whole of the original Expeditionary Force. We came out in August, 1914, with 4 Divisions, and here we have 21 Divisions.

All that military thought and science can do to make this a great success, has been done. For the first time, we have got into place as many guns as we can, and with unlimited ammunition. In this Corps alone we have just short of 600 guns. I say ammunition is unlimited. Dumped by the side of each gun is 1,000 rounds, and what they expend during the day is made up at night. We are firing away 40,000 tons of artillery ammunition; in other words, one and a half million rounds. In this Corps alone, if all the ammunition were placed in lorries they would occupy 46 miles of road.

Now, the importance of this battle cannot be exaggerated. On the eastern theatre the Russians have had a great success. They have already captured 200,000 of the enemy as prisoners. Our Allies in the West have destroyed thousands of the enemy, and now we hear that the Italians are moving forward. Now, this is the chance for British troops to show that they too, can be successful.

As you go into this great battle I want you to remember what you are fighting for. You are not only fighting to add to the glories won by past generations of the Lancashire Fusiliers. You are not only fighting to maintain the honour of the 29th Division which won its laurels on the Gallipoli Peninsula. You are fighting for your country. More than that, you are fighting for humanity. We are fighting against oppression; fighting for truth, honour and justice. We are fighting against slavery for liberty, and we are going on fighting until we have gained our object.

I would like to tell you that if we are successful during the next week, we hope to gain that object before the winter. Much depends on success, and our higher Commanders know - and I know - that all their arrangements cannot win victory. Victory must be won by the infantry, and only by the infantry.

Officers and men: Of all the battalions I have in this Division, you give me the greatest confidence of any. To you has been set the most difficult task - that of breaking the hardest part of the enemy's shell, and I expect you to break that shell in the German first system of trenches.

Officers and men: I wish you the best of luck, and I leave you with the highest confidence, that what any man could do, you will do, for your country.'

Rather than describe the events of the day, I have reproduced the official account of the fighting as it appears in the Battalion's War Diary. Written just hours after the events that are described occurred, the contemporary description of the action I think conveys something of the confusion and horror that is lost in secondary accounts.

All I need to say is that the preparations for the assault started as 3 am when soldiers of the Battalion passed through a tunnel that ran out into No Man's Land from the British Front line trench. This tunnel lead into a communication trench that ran into 'Sunken Road'.

The war diary account that follows picked up the events from 7 am on the morning of 1st July:

'Account of action 1st July 1916
Attack of 1st Lancashire Fus on BEAUMONT HAMEL.

At 7 am Battn H.Q. moved from White City to Sunken Road and at the same time the enemy began to shell the Sunken Road with 77 cm guns and inflicted about 20 casualties. They had probably spotted the communication trench leading from the end of the tunnel into the road.

0720. The mine under HAWTHORNE REDOUBT was fired and although it was not visible from the road, all felt the ground shake. B & D Coys (Companies) were lining up in position for the assault. D Coy had to be careful not to expose themselves as the Northern end of Sunken Road is shallow, and B Coy had to carefully select their exits, as the bank is overhung & lined with trees at the Southern end. 86th Stokes gun battery opened hurricane bombardment on German first line. 

0730. The leading sections of B, D and bombing Company dashed forward in extended order, D Coy being led by 2 Lts CRAIG, GORFUNKLE & SPENCER, B Coy by 2 Lts PRESCOTT, EDWARDS & KERSHAW. At the same moment 1 platoon B Coy under Lt WHITTAM & 2 platoons bombers left our trenches S of BEAUMONT road. A Coy began to leave front line trenches in support of B & D Coys.

The leading 2 lines of B & D Coys had a few moments grace and then enemy M.G. (machine gun) opened & a storm of bullets met the attack. The third and fourth lines of B & D Coys were practically wiped out within a few yards of Sunken Road though some wounded, including Caps NUNNELLY & WELLS the two Company Commanders managed to crawl back.

‘A’ Coy had also suffered in their advance to Sunken Road, the three subalterns all being hit & many men. Capt MATHEY reached the road and dashed on with the men who entered the Northern End.

C Coy caught the M.G. fire as soon as they left the trenches. Capt DAWSON and C.S.M. NELSON being hit on the parapet, when giving orders to Coy to advance. 2 Lt CASEBY and about 60 OR (other Ranks) reached the Sunken Road, but one platoon under Lt Jones got blocked in the Communication trench by wounded.

The bank into the Sunken Road is a steep drop of about 15 feet & men encumbered with coils of wire , mauls etc rolled down this to the bottom.

There now ensued some delay whilst C Coy & remainder of A Coy who had entered down steep bank were collected & sorted from the 100 wounded who had by now collected in Sunken Road, preparatory to further advance.

Sgt CAULFIELD a Lewis gunner had located a M.G. behind some debris in the village, and he pointed this out to CO. Two Lewis guns were established towards it. Planned to put it out of action, but the German artillery and observation was very quick and they were immediately shelled by 77 cm guns & 1 gun was hit, still the M.G. ceased firing from that position.

It took nearly half an hour organizing the further advance & at 0815 the CO ordered the Stokes guns to open a rapid burst under cover of which 2 Lt Caseby led forward about 75 OR who had been collected.

This reinforcement was launched from the N end of the road to try & gain a footing towards Northern end of the village, where the ground is higher.

All ranks dashed forward bravely, but on topping the crest, just 10 yards from the Sunken Road, they were met by the same heavy M.G. fire & only Lt Caseby and about 10 OR reached the German wire.

It was now 0830, and no reports had come from the front, & it was not possible to see from the Sunken Road what was happening on the flanks, so CO returned to our trenches to get news there.

Major UTTERSON reported that besides the 10% reinforcements, who were holding front line system there were about 30 men, who had not gone over the top owing to being blocked by wounded. These were collected.

Very little movement could be seen in the German lines & the village was certainly not occupied by our troops & fire had died down. Around HAWTHORNE REDOUBT about 25 Germans under an officer could be seen working round the crater. One of our M.G.s opened on them, but had to cease almost at once as enemy artillery blew in the parapet by them in under 3 minutes.

Returning to the Sunken Road there was nothing to be done, as we had no reinforcements. At about 0945 there was a sudden retirement on our right or Southern flank, presumably Royal Fus & Middlesexs. Everyone thought for the moment the Germans were counterattacking, (illegible) seemed to more possible from our point of view. We had over 100 wounded in the Sunken Road & they tried to make a rush for the tunnel. This was soon quelled & about 50 fit men were made to line the bank at either end. 25 under Sgt Green began digging at the Southern end & making a barricade & about 35 did the same at the Northern end. 

11.45. Time passed & at 1145 GS43 from GOC 86th Battn was received. GM17/1 sent in reply*. There was no time to receive an answer to GM17/1 & orders were given to Major UTTERSON that at 1230 he was to advance with his 25 men with all that was available in our front trenches, exclusive of the 10% who were not under our orders.

The remaining men in Sunken Road were got ready to advance, if Major Utterson’s reinforcements reached the road.

Although there was no chance of achieving anything on our own front, there were about 700 men in our trenches opposite the Hawthorne Redoubt, & to help them it seemed necessary to attract as much M.G. fire as possible on ourselves.

Unfortunately only Major Utterson and 4 OR reached the road, and the troops on our right never moved, so our sacrifice was in vain. Still it showed us that the enemy still held the village and that his M.G.s were intact. 

There was now nothing to be done except to hold on to the Sunken Road.

Further steps were taken to improve entrenchments already begun, & the wounded who could move by themselves were allowed to crawl back to White City via the tunnel.

1 pm. Received BM & reply CM15/1.
1.50 pm. CM16/1 despatched.
2.10pm Capt FULTON (attached to Brigade Staff) arrived and talked over situation & informed me that Sunken Road must be held at all costs.

Nothing else changed the situation for the remainder of the day, except the German shells which dropped into Sunken Road caused a few more casualties, & the Germans sniped and killed a load more of our wounded whenever they moved or tried to put on their field dressings.

At 6 pm remainder of men except 1 officer and 25 withdrew from Sunken Road , that night all available stretcher bearers and men searched the field for wounded.

The day had cost the battalion many valuable lives. Casualties were 7 officers killed, 14 wounded & 500 ORs. The battalion fought well, but the enemy was ready for us & had plenty of M.G.s & against them no troops with a strength of only 1 ½ men per yard can hope for success.'

* Messages stating that the Sunken Road must be held at all costs.

So there you have the story of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers in front of Beaumont Hamel, one of the British units more or less annihilated on that 'blackest day in British military history'. Post battle, more accurate casualty figures were established, the widely accepted numbers being 165 killed, 312 wounded and 11 missing presumed dead.

Private 29387 Fred Brisco aged 21 years was one of the 165 fatalities. His headstone in Auchonvillers Military Cemetery bears the inscription 'HE NOBLY ANSWERED DUTY'S CALL HE GAVE HIS LIFE FOR US AND ALL'.

Presenting this information, so intimately connected with the death of Private Fred Brisco in the form of contemporary records prepared only a day or so either side of the 1st July 1916, does I feel strip away much of the tragic romanticism that has become part and parcel of the Somme story over the intervening decades. These are the facts, unencumbered by the analysis of the battle and its extraordinary aftermath. I think that the account is all the more shocking for that.

I mentioned that the battle would be the location of some of the most well known images of the war. 

Geoffrey Malins of the Gaumont British Picture Corporation and John McDowell of British & Colonial Films were sent by the British Topical Committee for War Films to record a documentary of the activities of British troops on the Western Front. Some of the footage was shot between the 26th June and 7th – 9th July and as such captured some of the preparation for and the opening of the Somme offensive. Malins captured the men of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers in the Sunken Road just prior to the start of the attack.

Still image from Geoffrey Malin's footage showing the men of 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers at around 0700 on 1st July 1916 ahead of 'going over the top'.

In contrast here's a photograph of the lane that I took about 20 years ago.

Malin's also witnessed the detonation of the mine under the Hawthorne Reboubt, a fortified German stronghold, mentioned in the account of the battle.

And this is a view into the creator in the early 2000's.

Malin's footage was used in the newsreel presentation 'The Battle of The Somme' which when shown in the UK in August 1916 attracted an audience of 20 million. This film marked the beginning of a new chapter in war reporting.

This photograph depicts a view towards the German lines from the British position in the Sunken Road (itself in the middle of No Man's Land). The wooded area centre left is Beaucourt Ridge where another German stronghold, The Berkwerk, was located. Machine guns from this area took many casualties. The spire of Beaumont Hamel Church can be seen on the right of the picture. Piognantly, in the centre of the photograph about half way between the Sunken Road and the Beaucourt Ridge the portland stone topped brick entrance pillars of Beaumont Hamel British Cemetery are just visible. A number of Lancashire Fusiliers and Middlesexes are buried here. This is as far as they got.