“Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”
Words attributed to Sir Launcelot Kiggell, Chief of Staff to Sir Douglas Haig, when he broke down in tears after first seeing the morass across which the Battle of Third Ypres had been fought.
207 Machine Gun Company
In the aftermath of the Battle of Third Ypres, the exhausted commanding officer of 207 Machine Gun Company sat down amid mud, shell craters, and corpses, and penned a short letter on gridded paper, used normally for artillery projection. He wrote to a Lancashire housewife, asking after the health of her husband, Lance Corporal Richard Fletcher, who, until very recently, had been serving within his unit. This man had been wounded during a ferocious artillery bombardment, and had been evacuated from the battlefield.
Richard was born in Bury in 1886, but was raised in the Salford industrial slums immortalised in the Robert Roberts classic autobiography A Ragged Schooling. As a young man, he had travelled to the USA to find employment working in Buffalo, New York state, on railway steam locomotives.
In 1908, he had married Lucy Warburton, who had been orphaned as a child when her parents, both travelling actors, died in County Durham of a ‘plague’. She had been taken in by a quarry manager living in Turton, Lancashire, and was raised as a member of his family.
By 1914, Richard and Lucy were living and working in the Lancashire cotton mill town of Darwen. In 1915, Richard volunteered to join the 1st (Regular) Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, and was allocated to the Machine Gun section. He then took part in the Battle of Loos, and in the disastrous attack against the Hohenzollern Redoubt, which claimed 3,643 British casualties in the first few minutes.
During the winter of 1915-16, the Machine Gun Corps (MGC) came into being. At Brigade level, all of the trained gunners and machine guns were brought together, to form a single MG Company, equipped with sixteen Vickers Mk.1 guns. Each gun required a team of six men. The team leader was normally a Lance Corporal, who fired the gun, assisted by the No.2, who fed the canvas ammunition belts. No.3 acted as range taker, using a complex optical device. No.4 was the signaller, maintaining contact with Brigade HQ. Nos. 5 and 6 acted as ammunition carriers. The 16 guns thus required 96 men, whilst an additional 24 men formed a transport section, using horse-drawn limbers to carry the guns, spare parts and ammunition when the Company moved up to the line and back.
The primary function of an MGC Company was to provide a short-range artillery battery, which would operate from behind the lines, and would bring down a hail of bullet rounds upon designated targets, using the water-cooled Vickers machine gun, which operated at 450 rounds per minute, using indirect plunging fire at targets up to 4,500 yards (4.1km) away. These batteries were used against road junctions, trench systems, and troop forming-up points, with devastating effect.
Richard was initially attached to No.2 MGC, but following a wound, he was then transferred to 207 MGC. From the start, 207 MGC was commanded by Captain Morris Gelsthorpe, a graduate of Durham University, whose older brother Bernard was reported as missing in action in September 1916, and never came home.
The killing fields of Third Ypres
The Battle of Third Ypres comprised ten separate engagements between July 31 and November 10, 1917, all of which were intended to expand the Salient to encompass the high ground east of Ypres, from which German observation enabled devastating shellfire to make the Salient so dangerous to Allied forces. By the signing of the Armistice, it is believed that at least 200,000 men of the Commonwealth forces had died here.
From the Menin Gate, the Menin Road runs straight and level across the Salient, before visibly rising at Hooge. Between this point and the village of Gheluvelt, the corridor of the Menin Road must contend as one of the most fought-over plots in the history of warfare. It was here, in 1918, near the sinister German strongpoint known as ‘Tower Hamlets’, that war artist Paul Nash painted his iconic battlefield image The Menin Road, which now hangs in the Imperial War Museum. It was across this corridor that the Battle of Polygon Wood was fought, as the fifth engagement of Third Ypres, and it was in this vicinity that the men of 207 MGC briefly held the line against a massed German infantry and artillery assault.
General Plumer’s Second Army were to follow the Battle of Menin Road with an advance to take Polygon Wood, scheduled for 26 September 1917. The 1st Anzac Corps were to advance through the Wood, supported on the right by the 33rd Division, which was to take the valley of the Reutelbeek stream, and Polderhoek Chateau. To the south of the Menin Road, the 39th Division were to move against the ‘Tower Hamlets’ defensive bastion. Three Machine Gun Companies were to supply a barrage capacity from behind the front line, these were 207 MGC, 248 MGC, and 19 MGC.
By 1am on the morning of 25th September, Captain Gelsthorpe had stationed 207 MGC about 150 yards behind the front lines of the 33rd Division, the machine guns being spaced 30 yards apart. But at 3.30am, the German artillery commenced a ferocious bombardment on the 33rd Divisional front, and SOS flares appeared along the line, requesting artillery support. 207 and 19 MGCs responded immediately with a barrage on a trajectory against the enemy front line.
At dawn, the German barrage ceased, and a massed infantry attack of no less than five divisions commenced upon the 33rd Divisional front, which was badly mauled and pushed back, suffering thousands of casualties, many being burnt by Flammenwerfer. As the German infantry cut through the British front lines and advanced towards them, Gelsthorpe’s men levelled their machine guns and took aim over open sights.
The records of the MGC during Third Ypres recount what happened next:
“The 207th Company…opened fire with sixteen guns at almost point-blank range into the massed hordes of the enemy. The enemy was concentrated behind Polderhoek Chateau Ridge, and as soon as their bodies were seen down to the knee topping the lines, Captain Gelsthorpe’s batteries opened a murderous fire into their ranks. Low flying enemy aeroplanes soon, however, detected him and both by machine gunning and directing artillery upon the 207th MGC, the enemy inflicted very severe casualties amongst the gunners”.
L/Cpl Richard Fletcher’s own testimony of his last hours on the Western Front relates the fate of the brave men of 207 MGC. A shell or mortar round landed in his own gun position, killing his entire team and destroying the gun, but miraculously leaving him with only an arm wound. As the ground heaved from the constant impact of artillery shells he ran, stopping only to help a fellow gunner with a leg wound. More than half of 207 MGC were now dead or wounded, and the latter, if they were able to, made their way to the nearest dressing station, probably at Clapham Junction on the Menin Road.
The MGC records continue:
“Captain Gelsthorpe realized that his position was untenable and withdrew his guns, excepting four which had been totally destroyed, in perfect order to a new position east of Stirling Castle, dug in, re-laid his lines and personally reported what he had done. During the whole period Captain Gelsthorpe and his two remaining officers, one of whom was wounded, and his whole Company, such as were left of them, displayed the most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty and inflicted enormous losses on the enemy…”
Despite all of this, by 27 September, the Germans had been thrown back, and Captain Gelsthorpe returned to bury the dead of 207 MGC. They were probably given shallow graves with wooden crosses; but it is likely that this burial place was churned over by artillery in subsequent actions, as well as being reoccupied by the German advance in 1918.
The survivors of 207 MGC, now somewhat less than 50 in number, fought on in the remaining engagements of Third Ypres, but before Polygon Wood was taken, L/Cpl Richard Fletcher would have joined the thousands of wounded taking the Menin Road through the Salient, to pass through the shattered ghost town of Ypres, to gain safety.
By train, he was then taken to No.18 General Hospital at Le Treport, on the French coast near Dieppe. He was admitted with a gun-shot wound to his left hand with fracture of the 3rd metacarpal. He was operated on, and a piece of shrapnel removed, before he was invalided to the UK on 4 October 1917. He returned to civilian life; but was not formally discharged from the ranks of 207 MGC until 27 March 1919.
Wounds seen and unseen
Very few serving men on the Western Front could have avoided being hit by bursts of red hot shrapnel, whether by artillery barrage, or by trench mortar. Ernst Junger, in his powerful memoir Storm of Steel, relates how he was wounded no less than twenty times during his service in the German infantry.
Whatever his physical condition upon his discharge, L/Cpl Richard Fletcher probably came to consider himself a lucky man, especially when he was later made aware that from the First Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, a total of 1,800 Bury men had fallen to Turkish guns in the Dardanelles.
But the psychological effects of trench warfare may have been much more serious. Richard Fletcher was haunted for the remainder of his days by what he had seen and done in the Ypres Salient. It is one thing to fire on a barrage trajectory towards a pre-registered co-ordinate which is out of sight; it is quite something else to discharge a Vickers machine gun, at ten rounds per second, into the flesh of living men whose faces you can see, as he had done during the Battle of Polygon Wood.
Only the well-heeled could afford the new ‘talking therapies’ offered at Craiglockhart or Seale Hayne; and only the well-connected could indulge themselves by casting their medals into the Mersey in protest against the Establishment. But for the average ‘Tommy’ it was just a case of stoical silence, survival, and keeping one step away from the ‘means test’ and destitution. In the decades which followed 1918, any dysfunctional behaviour by Western Front veterans was addressed by their neighbours with the simple exculpatory phrase: ‘Oh – he was in the Great War’.
Aftermath and Remembrance
In 1921, with three young children to provide for, Richard Fletcher took his bicycle across the West Pennine Moors from Darwen to Bury, having been made aware of a possible job as a ‘firebeater’ at the Star Bleach Mill, at Burrs, near Bury. Despite his disability, he managed to get the job, and he then brought his young family by horse and cart, to a rented house at Calrows village.
In part the work was dirty and dangerous, especially for a man working alone with only one good hand. One of his duties was to climb through a manhole into the cast-iron economiser chamber, to remove accumulated soot when the boilers had cooled at weekend. This required swathing oneself in fireproof grey bandages, mummy-like, to avoid burns. It was normally a job undertaken by two men, as the risk of being overwhelmed by pockets of lethal carbon monoxide was ever present. But the men who had witnessed the barbaric horrors of the Western Front were not likely to complain about harsh working conditions; they were just grateful to have found their way home again.
In 1953, Captain Morris Gelsthorpe returned from his chosen work as a missionary in the Sudan, and was appointed as Assistant Bishop to Nottingham and Southwell. Every year from then onwards, he hosted a reunion of the surviving men of 207 MGC. But L/Cpl Richard Fletcher was not among them. For in 1947 he had died of a stroke in the deserted bleachworks of Rothwell’s Croft, at Lower Woodhill, Bury, where he had worked as caretaker after leaving Burrs Mill in 1940.
On Remembrance Day, 11 November 2017, exactly 100 years to the day after Captain Gelsthorpe had written his letter to Lucy Fletcher, with countless others we stood beneath the Euville stone vault of the Menin Gate, to witness the haunting strains of the ‘Last Post’, followed by a lone piper playing the ‘Lament to the Fallen’.
207 Machine Gun Company
Dear Mrs Fletcher,
I am rather anxious to know how your husband Cpl Fletcher R who was in this company is progressing. The last we knew of him was that he was wounded, not severely, but after passing through the Dressing Station further information with regard to his progress is never sent to us but to you, his next of kin. When you next write to him please let him know how grateful I am for all his good work in this company. I am very sorry indeed to be losing him as he set such an excellent example to everyone of bravery and courage under shell-fire. At the same time I am very glad for your sake that the wound was not worse and that you still have such an excellent husband. The men of his section miss him very much especially as his section officer was killed of wounds. They were all the very best of men whom no-one can replace.
Wishing you and your husband the very best of luck and hoping soon to hear news of him.
A. M. Gelsthorpe Capt.
O.C. 207 Machine Gun Company
In the field
Mr Graham Sacker, Historical Research, MGC Database, for his kind research on Richard Fletcher’s army service in WW1.
Cave N 2015 Battleground Europe: Polygon Wood, Pen & Sword Books
Dendooven D 2001 Ypres as Holy Ground: Menin Gate & Last Post, de Klaproos
Gelsthorpe E 1973 A Corn of Wheat
Holt T & Holt V 2003 Battlefield Guide: Ypres Salient, Pen & Sword Books
Junger E 2003 Storm of Steel, Allen Lane
Lloyd N 2017 Passchendaele: A New History, Penguin Books
Moorhouse G 1992 Hell’s Foundations: A Town, its Myths and Gallipoli, Hodder & Staughton
Sassoon S 1930 Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Faber and Faber