I was first introduced to Bertie, (also known as Bert), when as a child, I saw his name recorded on a local war memorial in the churchyard of St Helen’s, Cliffe at Hoo, Kent. Since Bertie and I shared the same surname, I immediately asked my Dad whether we were related. He confirmed that we were indeed: Bertie Batchelor was my grandfather’s first cousin. Growing up on neighbouring farms and of a similar age, they would have known each other very well. After his name were engraved the initials, “M. M.”, which Dad told me stood for “Military Medal”, a special medal awarded to soldiers in recognition of an act of bravery that they had performed. I felt sad to learn that this courageous soldier had lost his life in the War and ever since then, I have endeavoured to learn more about Bertie and his life.
Bertie was born on December 21st 1891 in Cooling, Kent, which is situated on the Hoo Peninsula, close to the marshes of the River Thames estuary, as the river fans out to the sea. His parents, James William Batchelor, a farmer, and his wife, Ann Deborah, née Smith, had eleven children altogether and of the nine who survived infancy, he was the fifth of seven sons. His family home was Cooling Court Farm.
Growing up, Bertie would have had plenty of young cousins to play with as his uncles, all with large families of their own, also farmed in the local area. Cooling Court was down a narrow lane that led from the village and further down the road was New Barn, where his Uncle Charles farmed. His Uncle George farmed at Gattons on Cooling Street, a short walk across the fields, and also on Cooling Street, his Uncle Jim (John James) kept the Staff of Life public house, farming some of the adjoining land. The family were Wesleyan Methodists and every Sunday, Bertie attended chapel in the hamlet of Spendiff, known as the chapel in the orchard, that his father had founded just before he was born in 1890.
When Bertie left school, he worked for his father on the farm, as did his brothers. Bertie seems to have had a flair for business and had the role of finding buyers for the market garden produce that was grown. This was an important job, for British agriculture had been in decline for many years and prices were being squeezed by cheap imports. When war broke out in 1914, the country imported up to 60% of the food it needed, particularly cereals, as well as fuel and fertilisers. Believing that the Royal Navy would be able to protect supply routes, the Government was initially slow to increase agricultural production at home.
On August 25th 1915, Bertie married his sweetheart, Ethel May Rogers at Hatcham Park, New Cross:
Bertie and Ethel settled into married life at Berry Court, Cooling Street, a farm owned by Bertie’s father.
Just two weeks before the happy couple were married, both Bertie and Ethel would have had to fill in a form for the National Register. The information provided was to be used to identify those aged between 15 and 65 (both men and women) who were suitable for military service, (as well as those more suitable for civil employment or non-military occupations).
That autumn, canvassers were appointed to visit eligible men aged between 18 and 41 in their homes who were not in starred occupations, (and exempt), to persuade them to sign up for war service. Discharged soldiers and former veterans were found to be the most effective recruiters. All were given a copy of a letter from the Earl of Derby explaining the programme and each man had to attest verbally whether they would enlist or not. Those that said they would enlist had to present themselves to the local recruiting office within forty eight hours. It seems that Bertie was persuaded to attest, as he travelled to visiting the recruiting officer in Maidstone, the headquarters of his local regiment, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent, on December 11th 1915 (the last day of the scheme). He was sworn in and would have received a signing bonus of 2s 9d. The next day, the enlistees were transferred to Army Reserve B. Each person who enlisted under the scheme was assigned to one of forty six groups, some for single and some for married men. A group could be called for service with only fourteen days notice, but the single men would be called first. Married men were also assured that unless conscription was introduced, they would not be called up.
Service papers for non-commissioned officers and other ranks who served in the First World War (and did not re-enlist prior to 1939) are held by the National Archives in series WO 363. (Note that the equivalent records for the Coldstream, Grenadier and Irish and Welsh Guards are held by the Ministry of Defence). Sadly they are also known as the ‘Burnt Documents’, as in 1940, a large proportion were destroyed by fire as a result of an incendiary bomb. In fact, only forty percent of the 6.5 million records have survived so it is very fortunate that Bertie’s are amongst them. The records have been digitised and are available on both Ancestry and FindmyPast:
Bertie’s short service attestation form, (see above), records Bertie’s answers to the recruiting officer and is the first page of his service papers. It would have been easy for him to calculate his age, as he was just a few days shy of his 24th birthday.
Though the Derby scheme had some success, 38% of single men and 54% of married men nevertheless managed to resist the pressure to enlist. The Government therefore decided to introduce conscription in January 1916. All single men between the ages of 18 and 41 were called up and the upper age limit was increased to 51 in April. In May 1916, married men were also now conscripted. Bertie, already in the Army Reserve, would now be expected to serve. I imagine that Bertie’s family, particularly his young wife, Ethel, didn’t want him to go, especially as news of the bloody Somme Offensive began to reach home that summer. His father was naturally frightened of losing his son and also needed Bertie’s help on the farm. Over a third of male farm workers had gone to war. There was also a severe lack of machinery and huge numbers of horses had been requisitioned. Food shortages were looming. In 1916, merchant ships were being targeted by German U-boats and that summer, the harvest had been poor: there was only six weeks worth of wheat. It looked as if the country might be starved into submission.
Bertie’s father, James William Batchelor, decided to make an appeal at one of the military tribunals that had been set up locally to see if he could get Bertie exempt from service:
Cliffe at Hoo
Farmers’ Appeals – At Strood Tribunal
Mr J.W. Batchelor appealed for his
son, Bertie, 24, who was engaged on market
garden work, but the appeal was refused.Kent Messenger & Gravesend Telegraph – Saturday 05 August 1916 – via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Bertie’s father made one further appeal to the West Kent Appeals Military Tribunal in November 1916 but once again, the case was dismissed:
Bertie Batchelor, 24, foreman, etc.,
to his father, Mr J.W. Batchelor, mar-
ket gardener, etc.; dismissed.South Eastern Gazette – Tuesday 07 November 1916 – via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Most of the other applicants at the tribunal were farm workers and their appeals were nearly always futile. Instead of giving farm workers a starred occupation, the Government instead decided to use women (land girls), soldiers and prisoners of war to increase food production, (though later on in the War, ploughmen would be sent back from the Front). Price controls and a campaign to plough up pasture land and turn it over to arable production were also implemented. Rather belatedly, farming was being recognised as a vital part of the war effort.
With all means of appeal exhausted, Bertie travelled once more to Maidstone at the end of November to undergone a medical examination and have his medical history recorded:
Being healthy, Bertie was given an “A” rating for General Service. The next page of Bertie’s service papers also provides a physical description of him, along with details of his next of kin, his wife, Ethel May Batchelor. Details of their marriage are also recorded. The military history section underneath, filled in much later, notes that Bertie was part of the British Expeditionary Force in France and had received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal (though his Military Medal is not recorded here).
Bertie himself, like many others at the time, was probably torn between serving his country and leaving his family but now he had no choice. He reported for duty with The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment on January 19th 1917. Before he said goodbye to his wife and family, a visit was paid to a photographers in Chatham and some keepsake photographs were taken. Bertie, handsome in his new uniform, stares resolutely at the camera as his portrait was taken. His cap badge shows clearly the White Horse of Kent. Underneath was a scroll inscribed ‘Invicta’ (Unconquered) and Royal West Kent:
Bertie also had a photograph taken with his wife, Ethel:
After undergoing training with The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent, Bertie was posted to the 8th Manchester Regiment on June 4th 1917 and then on June 21st, transferred to the 2/8th Battalion. Most of his fellow privates would have been Mancunians but as replacements were needed, Bertie, a country lad from Kent, joined them. His new regimental number was 44841.
His service papers above provide a continuous a timeline of Bertie’s army career. On November 4th 1917 he was appointed, (unpaid), as a lance corporal. A month later on December 1st he received an appointment (paid) as an acting lance corporal. His rank was confirmed two days later and he would now have been entitled to wear a white stripe on his arm. Lance corporals were given this rank because their potential as future leaders had been recognised, though there were few practical benefits. Before moving on to 1918 and the circumstances surrounding his death I wanted to find out more about his medals. Perhaps Bertie had been promoted as a result of something he had done that had led to him to being awarded the military medal.
Medal index cards were created to record campaign medals that were awarded to soldiers. Each card records the regiment (though not the battalion), the service number, rank, and the medals awarded along with their references on the medal rolls. The date the soldier first entered a theatre of war and the theatre of war in which they served may sometimes also be added. Occasionally, additional information, such as a date of death, or cause of discharge may be noted in the ‘Remarks’ section. Bertie’s medal index card contains only brief details and confirms that he was awarded the Victory and the British War medals. The British War Medal was awarded for service abroad between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918, (1919-1920 in Russia), and the Victory Medal was awarded to all military and civilian personnel who served in a theatre of war. (The award of his military medal is not recorded here). The medal index cards can be downloaded for free from the website of the National Archives (U.K). They are also available on other genealogy websites.
Also available are the medal rolls, which can be downloaded for free from the National Archives (U.K.) website. (They are also available to view on other genealogy websites too). Arranged by regiment/battalion for soldiers, or by ship for sailors, they are then ordered by rank and name. A note of any clasps to which an individual was entitled would also be recorded. The tick by his name indicates that Bertie’s family received his medals. If they had not been delivered, the record would have been marked with a cross.
When tracing the army career of a World War One soldier, medal rolls and medal index cards are particularly useful if their service records in WO 363 have not survived. They provide a nearly complete “roll call” and supply information on regiments and regimental numbers.
From the war memorial at Cliffe, I knew that Bertie had been awarded the military medal, which was awarded to those below commissioned rank for bravery in battle on land. The military medal was established on March 25th 1916 and was retrospective back to 1914:
An example of a Military Medal
By Hsq7278 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61987808
Records of military medal awards can be found on the website of the National Archives (U.K.) and are free to download. There is also a helpful guide to searching these records.
Almost all gallantry awards to British nationals were announced in the official government newspaper, the London Gazette, which is free to search. Helpfully, the date of the publication in which Bertie’s military medal is recorded is given, albeit faintly: 24 Jan 1918. Searching the Gazette was not easy, and I found the best way of locating Bertie’s entry was to search by his regimental number, 44841:
In all likelihood, Bertie had been awarded the military medal a few months earlier in the autumn of 1917. As is usual, no details of why the medal was awarded is noted. A search of newspapers didn’t turn anything up so the next place to look was the regimental war diaries of the 2/8th Battalion, Manchester Regiment. These are free to download on the National Archives website. The diaries contain detailed orders and instructions and a brief day by day account of the Battalion’s activities and the actions in which it was involved. Occasionally, non-commissioned soldiers are mentioned by name, perhaps in a casualty list or because of an award.
The 2/8th Battalion Manchester Regiment was part of the 199th Infantry Brigade and the diary I consulted ran from September 1915 to February 1916 and then March 1917 to February 1918. When Bertie joined on June 21st, the 2/8th Battalion had recently moved to billets at Lapugnoy, five miles west of Bethune in France. However, only a few days later, they moved north by train to St Pol-sur-Mer, Dunkirk. The Battalion was to take part in Operation Hush, a secret and daring plan by the British to make amphibious landings on the Belgian coast, which since the “Race to the Sea” in 1914, was mostly in German hands. They would then link up with other forces who would be breaking through the German Front at Ypres. The aim was to remove the threat of the German submarines that operated out of the ports.
In the area, preparations were being made for the big attack, with intensive training of the new Divisions along the coast. Heavy guns were also being moved into the area. Bertie and the men of the 2/8th Battalion spent much of July in camps to the rear of the Front Line, either training, sometimes on the beach, or in working parties, moving shells and helping to improve the defences. However, the increased activity in the area meant that the Germans guessed what the Allies were planning and on 10 July 1917, they began a pre-emptive attack with Operation Strandfest (“Beach Party”), also known as the Battle of the Dunes. The British were defending a wedge shaped area in the sand dunes between the Yser Canal and the German Lines and the Germans capturing part of the bridgehead at Nieuport, (now Nieuwpoort). In the attack, two British infantry battalions, the 1st Northamptonshire and the 2nd Kings Royal Rifle Corps were surrounded and largely annihilated with the pontoon bridges linking them to Nieuport and Nieuport Bains destroyed. Mustard gas was also used for the first time.
On the night of July 30/31, the 2/8th Battalion moved close to the Front Line, taking over the right sub-sector of Nieuport Bains where they remained until they were relieved by the 2/7th Battalion on the night of August 11th. On August 2, the war diary reported that three men from the Battalion swam across the River Yser and reached enemy 2nd line. Fortunately, they all returned safely. During this operation, seven men were killed and twenty seven were wounded, including one man who was gassed.
Going into September, the Battalion were under canvas on the coast at St Idesbald and once again organised into working parties, this time assisting the Royal Engineers and the Australian Tunnelling Coy but on the 20th, they moved back to the Front Line at Nieuport Bains before returning to St Idesbald on the 25th. The next day, they moved on to Ghyvelde, again under canvas. On the 28th they moved out of the environs of Dunkirk and were taken south to the Renescure area. In the end, Operation Hush never took place. The German pre-emptive attack, Operation Standfest, had weakened the Allies and the anticipated advance from Ypres did not materialise.
It was to be a brief respite for Bertie for on October 3rd, the Battalion were required for service at the Front Line again. They marched to Arques and took at train east to Brandhoek, Camp Erie, just outside the Belgian town of Ypres on the road to Poperinge. Ypres was thought to be the most dangerous place on the whole of the Western Front for British soldiers. The British occupied a bulge in the lines of the trenches, known as a salient, which was surrounded by the Germans on three sides. It also meant that it was vulnerable to German artillery because it was overlooked by high ground. However, it was strategically important. Sir Douglas Haig believed that a decisive breakthrough, which could win the War, could be achieved if the high ground surrounding Ypres was captured. After having being fought over so many times, the landscape around Ypres had been devastated. A new series of offensives, the 3rd Battle of Ypres otherwise known as Passchendaele, had began on July 31st. Some ground was taken in the battles that followed but German counter attacks kept forcing the Allies back.
The village of Brandhoek had became a medical centre for the Allies but when the 2/8th Battalion arrived on October 3rd, no billets were available so at 7.30 p.m, they marched off down the road to Vlamertinghe, where they were accommodated in a ruined house. On October 5th, they relieved the 37th and 38th Regiments Australian Infantry after a “very difficult march” to the support sector. Atrocious weather, with unseasonably heavy rain, had created a quagmire. On this day, the weather was stormy but despite intermittent shelling, the writer of the war diary reports that the situation was quiet and there were only three casualties. Orders were then received to relieve the right front battalion of the 49th Division on the left front sector. On October 7th, it was reported that the situation was “fairly active”. There was no continuous trench system and the companies were having to occupy shell holes that had no overhead cover of any sort. There were five casualties from the Battalion and fourteen men were missing. The next day there was considerable shelling around the Front Line. The runners shed at the Battalion headquarters suffered a direct hit and the majority of the signallers and runners were casualties. After some prior reconnaissance, the assaulting battalions moved up to the point of assembly during the early hours of the morning of October 9th, between zero hours and 5.30 a.m. Information, obtained from observation and from the wounded on the progress of the assault, was sent to Brigade Headquarters. Communication was maintained by lamp and runner instructions. An order was received from 197th Brigade to stand by, ready to support the attack on the final objective. However, the order was cancelled, as the 2/8th Battalion failed to meet up with the 2/5th Battalion (Manchester Regiment). On this day, the Battalion covered a front of about 800 yards and there were eighty two casualties. Heavy shelling continued on the 10th but the Battalion was relieved by the Australian infantry at 11.30 p.m. There had been another thirty three casualties. This offensive became known as the Battle of Broodseinde.
On October 11th the men were resting at Erie Camp at Branhoek but the men were “suffering very much from bad feet and exposure generally”. There were another twenty two casualties. After breakfasting at 5.00 a.m., on October 13th the Battalion moved by train out of the area, back to Renescure and billets at Arques. Bertie was instructed to wear his steel helmets and carry one blanket and if wet, a groundsheet around his shoulders.
On October 18th it was announced that Lieutenant Porter and Hoal had been awarded military crosses for conspicuous bravery in the recent fighting. After being inspected by Sir Douglas Haig, Lieutenant Hoal, the Company Commander, was presented with his military cross (Lieutenant Porter was probably wounded). Twelve military medals were also given to men of ordinary rank for conspicuous bravery. Though no names were recorded, Bertie Batchelor must have been one of them. I now knew the circumstances surrounding the award of his military medal, even though there is no detailed description of his specific action.
A few days later, Bertie was appointed as a lance corporal, presumably for the leadership he had shown in the offensive.
The 2/8th Battalion Manchester Regiment had fought bravely but there had been a lot of casualties in the Battle of Broodseinde:
With the help of the Canadians, the ridge at Passchendale was finally captured on November 10th. The line had been advanced by five miles but at great cost. However, in 1918, the British abandoned their positions on Passchendale ridge without firing a shot. Were those hard-fought gains all for nothing?
In the next and final instalment, I will be looking at the events of 1918. Did Bertie really lose his life on March 21 1918 or was he made a prisoner of war, dying three weeks later? I will also be looking at the documentation produced as a result of his death and the sources that feature soldiers who died in the First World War.
© Judith Batchelor 2022
N.B. I would like to thank members of the Great War Forum who assisted me greatly in the writing of Bertie’s life story. They patiently answered all my queries and directed me to sources of information. I can’t recommend this website enough for anyone researching the career of a First World War soldier. Volunteers give their time and expertise for free but do consider making a donation to support their work. The Great War Forum can be found here: http://www.greatwarforum.org
For information on all sorts of topics related to the First World War, Chris Baker’s website, The Long, Long Trail is an amazing resource. This is a free website but donations are welcome: https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/