Corporal MacKrill was only 15 years old when he died and this might explain his double identity. It is possible that shortly after enlisting in the Bedfordshire Regiment he was identified as under age and sent home. With a modification of his name he could then have reported to a recruiting officer in Northamptonshire, an adjoining county, to re-enlist.
Major Robert Gregory M.C.
We were pleased to be invited by a descendent to investigate the last action of Major Robert Gregory.
Robert was a talented sportsman who represented his country (Ireland) at cricket. In 1915 he volunteered to serve in the 4th Battalion Connaught Rangers but when they were retained for home defence duties, Robert decided to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. He joined 66 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps and from July 1917, he was based at Grossa airfield between Vicenza and Padua. The British had sent over 78,000 troops to prop up our Italian allies as they fought Austrian forces along their mountainous border.
On 23rd January Major Gregory was killed in a friendly fire incident when an Italian pilot mistakenly shot him down. His death had a lasting effect on his friend, W. B. Yeats who featured him in four of his poems including ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’, and ’An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’. Yeats said that he once asked Robert why he joined the war effort. Gregory’s reply: “Friendship.” Robert is buried with 24 other British servicemen in Padua cemetery, Italy.
Private Ernest Green
We recently investigated the last action of Ernest Green, a private in the 1/14th London Regiment. This battalion was the first Territorial Army unit to fight on the Western Front.
On the 31st October 1914, Ernest and his comrades boarded converted London buses for the short trip from Ypres to Messines. Within an hour they were under attack and the first time they tried to fire their rifles they realised there was a problem. These antiquated weapons had been recently adapted to take modern bullets in clips but they didn’t work and each bullet had to be loaded individually. Nevertheless the ‘London Jocks’ managed to hold their lines, and then at the height of the fighting, they became aware of kilted infantrymen approaching cautiously from the rear. An officer quickly issued a surprising order; about face and fire at will! The officer had noticed that these soldiers were not only wearing kilts but also German spiked helmets. This attack was followed by another in which the Germans advanced behind a brass band! Fighting was hand to hand and after many hours of fighting the London Scottish lost 40% of its men. Pte Green was among the dead but his body was either never identified or his grave subsequently became lost. He is commemorated with 58,000 other ‘missing’ British soldiers on the Menin Gate, Ypres.
Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Henry Brewis
Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Henry Brewis, 2nd Warwickshire Regiment was killed in action on 18th December 1914. On that day, his battalion attacked the German front line at La Maisnil near Bois Grenier.
As they made their way at night through the communication trenches to the front, the Warwicks waded through knee deep mud and freezing water. Their attack was scheduled for 4.30 a.m.
Captain Arthur Blakeney Coussmaker
Arthur was born to Mary and John Octavius Coussmaker (vicar) on 27th July 1885. He had one sister and two brothers. He left Tasmania where he worked in mining and returned to Britain where he enlisted in the 1st Welsh Regiment on the 2nd March 1915. Arthur served on the Western Front with this unit and later with an un-named battalion of the South Wales Borderers with whom he attained the rank of captain. He was twice wounded.
Unusually Arthur also fought in Russia where in 1918 he commanded part of the ‘White Army’ which was fighting the ‘Red Army’ of Lenin. In 1920 he was awarded the British Military Cross for bravery displayed in Russia.
Colonel Lannoy John Coussmaker
Lannoy John Coussmaker (brother of Arthur Blakeney Coussmaker, above) joined the Royal Engineers - on 16th January 1915 having previously been a captain in the Territorial Army. From January 1916 Colonel Coussmaker and his Royal Engineers colleagues were very busy in the area of the Somme creating the infrastructure for an army of over a million men.
The tracks that served as roads in that part of France were completely inadequate for military use. These had to be widened and all bridges strengthened to carry the mass of traffic required for the forthcoming battle. To give an idea of the scale, along one road during one day of the Battle of the Somme there travelled 813 trucks, 95 buses, 330 motor ambulances and 63 artillery guns. There were also 3756 horse drawn wagons, 5400 riding horses and 26500 men on foot.
Private John Palmer
Pte. John Palmer’s death was recorded on 14th July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the missing. His unit was not in action on the day he died.
His battalion, the 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers (K.O.S.B.), arrived on the Somme at the end of April 1916 and for the next two months they were based north of the River Ancre close to Newfoundland Park.
The Somme initially had a reputation for being a ‘cushy sector’ where the protagonists had adopted a ‘live and let live’ attitude. However this was not a view shared by the K.O.S.B. as their arrival coincided with an enemy artillery barrage that had been provoked by an earlier British bombardment and raid by men of the South Wales Borderers. In that brief spell the Scots suffered 7 killed and 44 wounded.
The usual tour of duty was one week in a front line trench followed by similar spells in support trenches and then at rest. The next time the 1st K.O.S.B. were in the line was opposite Y Ravine (in Newfoundland Park). Battalion H.Q. was at that time in Engelbelmer which has been described as a “smelly, flea bitten but picturesquely struggling village”.
Preparations for the Battle of the Somme had begun in earnest with the building of infrastructure such as roads, light railways and the laying of hundreds of miles of water pipes and telephone cables.
Corporal Edward MacKrill
Image: Medal Index Card of Edward MacKrill unusually showing two regiments and two service numbers.
Corporal Edward MacKrill was killed in action on 26th September 1916 in that phase of the Battle of the Somme known as ‘The Battle of Thiepval Ridge’. Edward caused us some problems initially until we discovered that he served in two different regiments (the Bedfordshires and then the Northamptonshires) and had two different service numbers. He also had two different names serving both as Edward and then as Edwin.
Image 2: Edward MacKrill's name will be forever engraved on the Thiepval Memorial.
Image: The London Scottish Memorial stands close to the spot where Private Green died on 1st November 1914.
Image: Major Robert Gregory who was killed 23rd January 1918 and was awarded the British Military Cross and the French Legion D'Honneur.
Image: 2nd Warwickshire Regiment being transported through Belgium in October 1914. It is possible Lieutenant-Colonel Brewis is in this picture.
What happened next is described by C.T. Atkinson in his book ‘The Seventh Division 1914-18’ (adapted)....
"The attack by the Warwickshires was preceded by a quarter of an hour's artillery bombardment - all the ammunition supply would permit. They formed up in lines on a front of 200 yards and advanced on the close of the bombardment… They went forward most resolutely in face of very heavy fire from guns, rifles, and machine-guns, and were lost to sight in the dark. About 5 o'clock, however, a N.C.O. came back and reported that the battalion was held up just short of the German trenches, had lost heavily, and needed reinforcements. The bombardment had inflicted little damage on the German wire and had not prevented the Germans from manning their parapet in force and opening a heavy fire. Our troops got so near (to the German lines) that our guns could not fire for fear of hitting their own men. Major Brewis was killed at the head of his Warwickshires within a few yards of the German wire, and several other officers were shot down close to him or in trying to work their way through the wire. One small party established itself in a small trench just outside the German parapet and held on there all night, only to have to surrender when the morning light revealed the hopelessness of their position.”
Image: A typical trench in the Bois Grenier sector.
Image: Allied troops in Vladivostok and since Arthur was there at that time, he may be in the picture.
Image: Regimental badge of the Royal Engineers
The rail network also needed to be upgraded and 55 miles of track were laid towards Albert to cope with the required 128 daily supply trains. Locals were advised to leave as cities of tents were erected to accommodate half a million soldiers. Sanitation arrangements had to be put in place and bore holes were dug for water and massive field hospitals were constructed. To help officers manage the troops 50,000 miles of telephone cable were laid.
Colonel Coussmaker commanded around 700 men (divided into 3 or 4 units) to the north of the Somme front. He was attached to the 46th (North Midland) Division facing the fortress of Gommecourt. Here he was at the centre of decision making about specific preparations for the coming attack.
One immediate issue that must be addressed was the distance of No-man’s land. This was 800 yards wide and would put the advancing British at a major disadvantage as exposing them longer than colleagues elsewhere to enemy machine gun fire. He would certainly be involved in the decision to construct a new front line trench in the middle of No-man’s land. The Royal Engineers then drew up plans and marked out the line of the proposed trench with white tape. They then supervised the infantry as they did the digging. The new trench had to be 2 miles long and over 6 feet deep. It had to follow a zig-zag pattern and must be linked to the old front line by communication trenches totalling another mile and a half. Over several nights from 26th May, thousands of infantrymen were involved in carrying out this excavation work while Colonel Coussmaker and his staff supervised. This did not make them popular!
Lannoy was also involved in an innovative piece of construction work designed to save British lives. He perhaps initiated but certainly supervised the creation of ‘Russian saps’. These were shallow tunnels dug under the newly erected British wire from which troops could emerge into No-man’s land and dash forward. They could also be used as offensive positions for traditionally defensive weapons such as machine guns or Stokes mortars.
The 46th Division (along with the 56th) attacked at 07.30 on 1st July 1916 and were annihilated. The British army that day suffered 57,000 casualties with 20,000 fatalities. Colonel Coussmaker was one of the lucky few that returned home after the war.
Image: A cutting from the Edinburgh Evening News featuring John ‘Jock Palmer’ ( top right).
Each account will provide you with an insight into the life of that soldier and the experiences he faced on the Western Front in the First World War. Many of our Last Action Hero accounts reveal a courageous story, often previously unknown to family members.
SAMPLE SOLDIER RESEARCH
At nightfall some survivors crawled to safety but some were disorientated and crawled towards the enemy. We can only guess what went through the minds of other casualties although near Gommecourt a diary was found on a dead officer that indicated that he had survived his wounds for a week. Would-be rescuers were deterred by vigilant snipers and by incessant flares that kept no man’s illuminated throughout the night giving a ghostly vista to approaching British reserves. Edmund Blunden described this scene as he marched up the Ancre valley towards the front line from the comparative safety of Albert. He recalled how his comrades were alarmed by an incessant high pitched screech that all could hear but none could identify. This was the sound of human agony and as the hours and days passed the noise subsided as the wounded died. Was John Palmer initially among them? The scale of disaster for the British army was truly awful. The 29th Division started the battle with around 10,000 men and suffered 5,115 casualties (mostly in the first hour of the attack). By comparison, the Wurttemberg Regiment who successfully defended the Mary Redan Redoubt lost only 292 men. The 1st K.O.S.B. had 552 casualties out of a starting total of around 800 men.
On 2nd July the battalion was moved to trenches in the Ancre valley near Hamel and remained there for a week repairing the trenches, burying dead Ulstermen and watching the battle on their right near Thiepval. On the 8th July they left the trenches for rest in Acheux and on the 10th July they were inspected by the Corps Commander. Their last tour of duty was opposite Y Ravine and while the Battle of the Somme was raging in other areas, this part of the line was relatively quiet. This does not rule out the possibility that John Palmer was killed here. Deaths of ordinary soldiers through ‘natural wastage’ were too many to be recorded in history books - the British army at times sustained on average 5,000 casualties per day! It is also possible that John died of wounds in a field hospital as his battalion were not in offensive operations after 1st July. If his body was identifiable then his grave should have been marked but it is possible that this became lost when fighting resumed along the Somme front in March 1918. At that point the British army was forced to retreat in the face of Ludendorff’s offensive although by August that year it was the German who were fighting a rearguard action through Picardy.
Wounded soldiers lay bleeding throughout the day with no shelter from the baking hot sun. It has been claimed that more of the wounded died from dehydration than from their wounds.
The K.O.S.B. remained in the front trenches till 4 p.m. when they were withdrawn to Fort Jackson (a defensive redoubt to the rear of the support line) and passed a quiet night. A party of 20 were left behind to dig graves for the dead.
Image 10: This photo has been taken from the Ulster Tower looking towards Newfoundland park (the wooded area on the horizon). The white chalk lines on ploughed land were once British front line trenches.
Thirty minutes after the R.I.F. attack petered out the “battered” men of the K.O.S.B. were sent over to attack the Mary Redan Redoubt. The fact that this order was not rescinded suggests that either the boffins did not know what was happening ... or they didn’t care. The 1st K.O.S.B. advanced without hesitation and despite comrades spinning and tumbling around them the survivors carried on. They later described the air being full of both smoke and lead and men trying to dodge death by zig-zagging as they dashed forward. They could hear bullets striking home and the resulting groans of men as they became casualties. Some hit the ground dead, others tumbled into shell holes.
Image: The detonation of the Hawthorn Redoubt mine would have been witnessed by John Palmer. His unit was less than a kilometre away.
The 1st K.O.S.B. took up position behind the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers who would be part of the initial wave at 7.30 next morning. Their direction of advance would be virtually parallel to Y Ravine.
At 07.20 the British detonated the Hawthorn Redoubt mine and this was taken by the Germans as a signal to race from their deep dugouts and set up their machine guns. What happened next was slaughter. As the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (R.I.F.)went over the top they were met with terrific bursts of machine gun fire while German shells smashed into the K.O.S.B. who were waiting in the support trenches.
During their spells in the front line, the men of the K.O.S.B. improved their dug-outs and ‘refuges’ to better protect themselves against enemy counter barrages. Another worry was the strength of the German defences opposite which appeared to them to be ‘a Vauban masterpiece’ in contrast to their own wire entanglements that looked both haphazard and weak. (Vauban designed the walled defences around such towns as Ypres and Arras). The K.O.S.B. Regimental historian records that in a despatch to General Haig an officer had warned ...
“The German trenches are protected by wire entanglements many of them in two belts forty yards broad, built of iron stakes, interlaced with barbed wire often almost as thick as a man’s finger”.
On the night of 30th June the battalion marched back to the front line. Shells from the British guns roared overhead as the week long bombardment reached a crescendo. The Regimental Historian describes the march of the K.O.S.B. as ....
“steady and slow, reminiscent of the purposeful step of a mountain guide. The men had coats and all sorts of weighty equipment. There was a note of solemnity, something processional about these grave men on their way to victory or disaster”.