Perviously, in Bertie, Tracing a First World War Solider, I pieced together the story of Bertie’s enlistment and his time with the 2/8th Manchesters in 1917. By looking at the Regiment’s war diaries, I discovered the circumstances that had led to him being awarded his military medal for bravery and his appointment to the rank of lance corporal in October 1917.
For the next few months, the 2/8th Manchesters were in various camps in the Ypres Salient area, undergoing specialist training and forming working parties to assist the Royal Engineers as part of the 66th Division. Encounters with the enemy were few and far between and their time here was largely uneventful. However, a big change was on the horizon. As part of a reorganisation of the British Expeditionary Force, the 2/8th Manchesters were disbanded on February 13th 1918, and Bertie was posted to the 2/5th Manchesters, one of 184 other ranks who joined, along with 10 officers. A few days later, the 2/5th Manchesters marched to Proven and from there, took a train to Guillaucourt, twelve miles east of Amiens. The train consisted of one officer carriage, seventeen flat trucks and thirty covered trucks that could contain up to forty men. They were n their way to the Front Line, joining the Fifth Army at the Somme Sector.
On arrival in Guillaucourt, the 2/5th Manchesters marched to Harbonniéres, fifteen miles east of Amiens before journeying on to Villeret, near Hargicourt, arriving on the 27th. Here the Front Line ran through the undulating valleys of the tributaries of the Somme that had seen such fighting and devastation just two years previously. The 2/5th Manchesters were to hold the Front Line at “The Egg”, the Division’s Headquarters, relieving the 9th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment.
It wasn’t long before the 2/5th Manchesters were to see action. On their very first night, it was reported that the enemy tried to board one of their posts under the cover of artillery bombardment, though fortunately the attack was repulsed with just five casualties incurred. The men must have been feeling apprehensive and jittery with rumours of an imminent enemy offensive in the air.
On March 20th, the author of the Battalion’s war diary reported:
War Diary of 2/5th Manchester Battalion WO-95-3144-6 courtesy of The National Archives https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
“It is considered likely that the enemy will begin his offensive tomorrow”
March 21st 1918 is considered to be one of the most bloody days in the history of the British Army. It marked the start of the German Spring Offensive, a series of attacks against the British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army along the Front Line. The Americans had entered the War in April the previous year, and the Germans wanted to ensure victory before American troops and resources arrived in Europe. The intention of the first attack, Operation Michael, was to break through Allied lines and outflank the British forces who held the line from the English Channel to the Somme River. It was hoped that the French would then seek an armistice.
The diary of the 2/8th Manchesters gives a detailed account of how the battle unfolded:
4.45 A.M. Enemy bombardment opens on one front, with a large proportion of gas shells.
5.00 A.M. Telephone communication with Brigade destroyed, but still in touch with all Companies. At dawn a thick ground mist obscured observation.
8.30 A.M. Front line companies report all ok. They have listening patrols within 50 yards of enemy’s wire; considerable noise is reported from enemy trenches.
10.00 A.M. All o.k. reported from Companies.
10.15 A.M. A cook appears, and reports the enemy has disarmed the cook near Battalion Headquarters. Lt Urie (Intelligence Officer) goes to destroy his maps etc. Lt Schofield (Signalling Officer) destroys his telephones etc. Lt. Col Maxwell M.C. (C.O.) with Capt. McBeath M.C. D.C.M. (Adjt) with 30 available men, retire fighting to Red line, and warn the 2/6th MANCHESTER REGT. that the enemy have broken through the outposts.
4.00 P.M. Major Fisher and all details man the Brown line by HERVILLY WOOD. Transport proceeded to BERNES.
7.00 P.M. Major Fisher ordered to reinforce the 2/6th MANCHESTER REGT at CARPEZA COPSE and hold on as long as possible.
8.00 P.M. Transport move to CARTIGNY.War Diary of 2/5th Manchester Regiment WO-95-3144-6 courtesy of The National Archives https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
The Germans had quickly penetrated the outposts of Villaret and the headquarters at “The Egg” had come under attack from the rear. Since the 2/5th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment had outposts 50 yards into No Man’s Land, they were in the forefront of the gas shelling and artillery bombardment. Lt. Col. Maxwell M.C. had broken out with about 30 men to join the 2/6th Manchesters at the Red Line (the Battle Zone) to desperately hold the railway bridgehead at Péronne, the last bridge standing over the Somme in this sector. The enemy was active with rifle and machine gun fire whilst the British were retreating over it. To make matters worse, on the evening of the 24th, the Battalion was shelled by their own artillery, causing many casualties. A desperate attempt was made to check the enemy’s advance but to no avail, and the 2/6th Manchesters, along with the remnants of the 2/5th Manchesters, were forced to fall back to the Green Line at Hébécourt, destroying the bridge in their wake. The leading officers of the 2/5th Manchesters, Lt Col Maxwell M.C. and Capt. McBeath M.C. D.C.M. were reported as missing. The map below shows the changing position of the Front Line:
Operation Michael was a devastating attack. The Germans advanced and retook much of the land that had been laid waste two years earlier at the Battle of the Somme. The artillery bombardment had begun at 4.40 am over an area of 150 square miles, the biggest barrage of the First World War. Over a million shells were fired within five hours. After this had ended, appearing like ghouls out of the dense fog, hordes of German stormtroopers were able to penetrate deep into British positions undetected. After two days, the Fifth Army and the right flank of the Third Army were in full retreat. When the casualty lists were drawn up the following month, the 2/5th Manchesters reported the loss of 2 officers and 3 ordinary ranks killed, 8 officers and 22 ordinary ranks wounded, and 23 officers and 670 ordinary ranks missing – killed or captured. Bertie was amongst the latter. The Battalion had lost three quarters of its total strength, leading to its disbandment in July 1918. Altogether, the British suffered the loss of 7512 men with over 10,000 wounded on March 21st alone. 21,000 British soldiers were made prisoners that day. However, the vital towns of Amiens and Arras were successfully defended and although the Germans had made a significant advance, they had lost many of their best troops for land that was hard to defend and of little strategic value. Ultimately, the Germans failed in their objectives. Supply lines were overstretched and the arrival of large numbers of Americans into the area as reinforcements curtailed their advances.
Lance Corporal Bertie Batchelor, like so many others, was reported as missing just over a week later. Given the carnage and because the territory was now in German hands, it had been impossible to retrieve the bodies of the British dead. Given the lack of a body, no doubt many families back home hoped against hope that their missing loved ones were still alive and had been made prisoners of war. As a result, many would be contacting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) over the next few months, seeking further information. The ICRC acted as an intermediary and also as a clearing house for the exchange of information between combatant nations, which included the missing and the dead, as well as prisoners of war.
A few years ago, the ICRC opened up their First World War archives so it is now possible to search their records online. These are organised alphabetically and idly searching one day, with no particular hope of finding anything of interest, I stumbled across the following card that related to Bertie:
The card revealed that Ethel, Bertie’s wife, had made enquiries with the ICRC, writing to them to see if she could learn anything about the fate of her husband. She told them that Bertie had been missing since March 21st and that he was in No. 1 Platoon, ‘A’ Company with the Manchester Regiment. She received a reply of “Negatif envoye” on July 10th, as at this time, nothing had been received from the German authorities. However, the ICRC wrote back on 18 September 1918, telling her that according to information from a Reserve Infantry Regiment (German), on 14 April 1918, Bertie “B.O.R. Batchel” (44841) had been killed. He had been buried 300 metres south east from Hargicourt. Poor Ethel had confirmation that her beloved Bertie was dead. The information had been extracted from the German register of British war dead:
When I first viewed this information, I thought that Bertie had been initially captured by the Germans but had died three weeks later, whilst in captivity, on 14 April 1918. I also noted that he is recorded as a prisoner of war in his service papers. However, after discussing the puzzle with experts on the Great War Forum, it would seem most likely that Bertie’s body was found by the Germans on April 14 1918, though he had been killed in the initial attack on March 21st. The Germans had been able to identify Bertie through his dog tag and buried his body 300 metres south east of Hargicourt, probably where he was found, as this was where the 2/5th Battalion were based at The Egg. This interpretation is supported by the fact that according to the family story, a friend of Bertie’s had reported that Bertie’s body had been seen at the bottom of a trench and that he had died ca. 6.00 a.m., probably in the opening artillery bombardment.
Sadly, although Bertie’s grave was probably initially marked in some way, the location has long been lost, Hargicourt remained deep in German held territory until September 1918 and the land around the village was heavily contested. There is a slight possibility that Bertie’s body was found after the War and buried in a military cemetery. According to the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, on or around 3rd September 1919, an unknown British soldier was recovered from an unmarked grave at the coordinates of The Egg and reburied in Plot 1, Row E, Grave 30 at Templeux Le Guerard Cemetery. Could this be Bertie? Though there it is a possibility, it is impossible to know for sure, as so many died that day. Perhaps his body is still waiting to be found. With no known resting place, Bertie is commemorated, like so many of his fellow soldiers, on the War Memorial at Pozieres.
After Bertie’s death, there was a lot of paperwork for his widow to sort out. Bertie’s service papers contain a document that gives the names and addresses of his next of kin and their relationship to him. His six brothers and two sisters, his wife, and his parents were all listed and a declaration to the veracity of the information was signed by Ethel on 30 October 1918. Perhaps not wanting to be alone, Ethel had recently left Berry Court Farm in Cliffe, her home with Bertie, and was living at 112 Kenveachy Gardens in Charlton, south-east London, probably with her widowed mother. She signed the form in front of the rector of Charlton who acted as a witness. The purpose of this was to ensure that the next of kin memorial plaque and scroll, along with a message from the King, could be received as a tangible memorial to loved ones.
Ethel’s change of address had caused a delay in sending the form back so Ethel wrote to the military authorities, explaining the reason and informing them that all communication should be sent to her new address. It is somehow very poignant to see her neat handwriting, her tone all businesslike:
The military authorities also had to ensure that any personal possessions and the medals of the deceased were sent to the next of kin and Bertie’s papers include an Effects Form:
As was standard practice, Bertie had made a will and probate was granted in London to his widow, Ethel, on March 15 1919, a year after his death. His estate was worth just under £200:
There is also an entry for Bertie in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects. This was a financial ledger and gives details of when, how much and to whom the balance of his pay and his war gratuity was to be sent. This would have drawn on his army records and Ethel received a one off war gratuity of £4 10s for Bertie’s 15 months of service:
Bertie’s widow, was also entitled to apply for a widow’s pension. The sum of 13s 9d was awarded to Ethel from August 18 1919, the delay probably as a result of the late confirmation of Bertie’s death. It appears that even then, there was some confusion about Bertie’s actual date of death. Initially, 21.3.18 is written down but then this is crossed out and replaced with 14.4.18 “on or since death assumed. Previously reported missing France then P of W [Prisoner of War]”. This perhaps indicates that Ethel may have misunderstood the letter that she had received from the Red Cross and wasn’t certain exactly when Bertie had died.
The pension record was amended when Ethel remarried in 1923. In fact, Ethel married Bertie’s cousin, Edwin Herman Batchelor, the younger brother of my grandfather, (though the record was incorrectly amended and her new married name was erroneously noted as Baldwin). They were married for thirty nine years until Edwin’s death in 1962. There were no children from the marriage.
Through examining several different records sources, I have hopefully illustrated how you can build up a picture of the military career of a First World War soldier. Obviously, I have been fortunate, as Bertie’s service and attestation papers have survived. The service papers are complemented nicely by the war diaries, which are an invaluable source of information. Many are free to download on the website of the National Archives. By looking at them, it is possible to trace the whereabouts of a particular soldier and learn more about their experiences during the War, even though it is unlikely that they will mentioned by name. From the war diary of the 2/8th Manchesters, I now know more about the circumstances surrounding the award of Bertie’s military medal. One lesson I have learnt from this research is that you sometimes find information in unexpected places. When the archive of the ICRC became available to search, I looked at the entries listed under the name of Batchelor without any real expectation that I would find anything of interest. Bertie’s inclusion illustrates that it can often be worth taking a look, just in case, especially if your relative was listed as missing in action. The information contained in the archives of the ICRC needed some analysis and it highlights the importance of interpreting records carefully. It appears that even Bertie’s widow, Ethel, had some confusion over the actual date of Bertie’s death.
Bertie had served for a total of fifteen months with the British Army before losing his life as a result of Operation Michael, almost certainly on March 21st 1915, in the overwhelming gas and artillery barrage that was directed towards the British trenches early that morning. The award of his military medal and his obtainment of the position of lance corporeal indicates that he was a brave man with promising leadership potential whose life was sadly cut short. Like so many others who died that day, Bertie has no known grave but the discovery of his inclusion in the archives of the ICRC does at least suggest that his body was found. He was probably buried by a British prisoner of war, close to where he fell. One feels for his widow, Ethel, who desperately sought news on her husband. All the communication with the military authorities and the necessary form filling after Bertie’s death must have been draining for her and other widows in her position. Unfortunately, Bertie’s medals are no longer in the family and some years ago, I saw a reference to them being sold at auction. It would be nice to think that the new owner will one day read about Bertie’s life and learn more about the man who earned them at such great cost.
© Judith Batchelor 2023
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/
If you have a relative who was a prisoner of war in the Second World War, please see my article on WW2 Prisoner of War Records from the Archives of the Red Cross:
9 thoughts on “Bertie – Tracing a First World War Soldier Part II”
What a very sad ending for Bertie and his wife and so many others who lived through those terrible times. I also have an ancestor who died during the Great War and would love to discover more information about him so I shall follow your research methods and see what I can find. Thank you for sharing Bertie’s story.
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It is a very sad ending, so many never came back and have no known resting place. I hope you find out more about your ancestor’s service.
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Another brilliant piece of research Jude and a wonderful example to everyone of how to research a WW1 soldier and how to locate and interpret the various records and turn that all into a thoroughly well written story.
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Many thanks! I love a happy ending but it wasn’t to be for poor Bertie. I found it quite chilling to think of that early morning attack on March 21st. Shells exploding everywhere, choking gas and then the enemy emerging out of the mist to surround you. The scale of the losses was huge.
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Just the huge number of shells in just a few hours is staggering
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Excellent writing and research! Very well documented with photos!
Bertie (Bert) was a well favored fellow (of course he was a Batchelor). It is sad he died at a young age in that horrible war leaving a young wife.
So your grandfather and Bertie were 1st cousins?
How far back have you researched your Batchelor line?
Again very fine writing and research!
Jimmy H Batchelor
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Thank you very much! My Batchelor’s go back to William Batchelor who married Mary Franks in West Farleigh, Kent in 1777. I have a potential baptism for William in 1744 but need a bit more evidence to go back further. They seem to be a family that moved around a lot.
Hope you don’t mind me addressing you by your first name? I know you do genealogy and history as a living plus the blog and many other projects. You’ve got a busy schedule I’m sure. I thank you for answering my reply to your Bertie article
You know there’s many spellings of the Batchelor surname. Bachelor, Batchelder, Batcheldor, Batcheller and probably many others. I think Batchelor is the correct spelling. What do you think?
My Dad and my Maternal Grandmother were double first cousins. Two Batchelor brothers married two Marshburn sisters. My Dad was the youngest of 13 children. All lived to be adults except one who passed away at 12 or 13 yrs. My Maternal Grandmother was the oldest of 14 children. All lived to be adults. So I guess me and my other six siblings got more than half a portion of Batchelor genes from that union.
I’m an off and on novice genealogist. One of my favorite subjects has always been history. I started genealogy after I read Alex Haley’s Roots.
I have traced my Batchelor line back to my great great Grandfather. He served in the Confederate Army and received a shoulder wound at Richmond, Virginia. His son my great Grandfather also served in the Confederate Army mostly in eastern North Carolina. They both applied and received pensions from the state of North Carolina for their service. I’m hoping to do more research on my Batchelor line from my great great Grandfather John Batchelor to more generations.
Jimmy H Batchelor
Thanks for telling me more about your own Batchelor ancestry. The name does appear with a variety of spellings though Batchelor is probably the most common one. When most people were illiterate, spelling wasn’t fixed so there is no “correct” spelling as such.
I know there are some great records for soldiers who served in the American Civil War so it is good that you have already found some good information on your great great grandfather and great grandfather.
This website gives some information on some of the early Batchelor settlers that you might find of interest:
All the best, Judith