Courtney Isaacs’s Story
Courtney Isaacs, Ben Gaylard, Ewart Palmer and Edward Gillman were all in the 7th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry. Courtney and Edward Gillman both died in the autumn battles of the Somme in 1916.
Courtney’s father arranged his children very neatly in two bites of four. He and his first wife, Jane, were both from Dorset. They had four children, Bertie, Kate, Beatrice and Mabel. Jane died in 1892 aged 46, and John then married Courtney’s mother, Martha Wilton, and they had four more children: Courtney, Benjamin, Albert and Joseph.
Martha was a Stoke girl. She and her mother both married men older than themselves. Martha was twelve years younger than John Isaacs, while her mother, Elizabeth, was twenty one years younger than Martha’s father, Benjamin Wilton. Benjamin was a stone cutter and the family lived on Ham Hill.
Martha’s father died when she was four years old and thereafter the family consisted just of Martha and her widowed mother, Elizabeth. In 1881, they were living at “Lower Shed” near Cartgate. Elizabeth was 59 and a seamstress. Martha was working as a glover and was aged 19. Ten years later, they were back on Ham Hill but Martha has only aged seven years as she gives her age as 26. Perhaps she is beginning to feel that marriage is soon going to be beyond her grasp and she will be left on the shelf.
Happily, by 1893 she has met and married the widower, John Isaac, and by 1901 they were living in The Hollow with two daughters from John’s first marriage, plus Courtney, Edward and George. Courtney is six. Not far away lived Ben Gaylard (aged 11) and his family. They would have grown up knowing each other. They were still close neighbours in 1911 when Courtney was sixteen (a baker’s apprentice) and Ben was twenty one and working in the stone quarries. They were both to enlist in the 7th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry.
Photograph of the Stoke volunteers, Horace Brooks patriotically waving a ?flag/walking stick middle of back row. Walter Gomm – front row second from right – looks thoughtfully at the photographer. Courtney is seated furthest to the right in the second row from the front. He gives the impression that he has been swept up in the general enthusiasm and is a little perplexed by it all.
I don’t know when Courtney enlisted but Horace Brooks joined up in September 1914 so I assume Courtney enlisted fairly early on in the war. We know that Courtney enlisted in Yeovil and that he left England for France on 24th July 1915.
The 7th Battalion SLI was part of the 61st Brigade and the 20th (Light) Division, which is described in “The Long, Long Trail”:
“This Division was established in September 1914 as part of the Army Orders authorising Kitchener’s Second New Army, K2. Early days were somewhat chaotic, the new volunteers having very few trained officers and NCOs to command them, no organised billets or equipment. The units of the Division first assembled in the Aldershot area with brigades at Blackdown, Deepcut and Cowshott. Artillery was particularly hard to come by; 12 old guns arrived from India in February 1915! When in the same month the Division moved to Witley, Godalming and Guildford, the artillery had to go by train as there was insufficient harness for the horses. Another move was made, to Salisbury Plain, in April 1915.
The division was inspected by King George V at Knighton Down on 24 June 1915, by which time all equipment had arrived and the Division was judged ready for war.
On 26th July 1915 the Division completed concentration in the Saint-Omer area, all units having crossed to France during the preceding few days. Early trench familiarisation and training took place in the Fleurbaix area.
The Division served on the Western Front for the remainder of the war, taking part in many of the significant actions. [http://www.1914-1918.net/]
Courtney arrived in France with the rest of his Battalion (and Edward Gillman) on 25th July 1915. He would have taken part in the second attack on Bellewaarde – part of the Battle of Loos.
BATTLE OF LOOS – September 1915
The Battalion were situated north of Loos and had orders to distract the enemy’s attention from the main operations between Loos and Givenchy. The 7th Somersets had been in billets in Le Rossignol from the end of July to 10th August, carrying out training and listening to the guns in the distance, wondering when it would be their turn. On 12th September, they moved into trenches east of La Cordonnerie Farm.
Early on the following morning, two enemy mines exploded, throwing men and equipment into the air. 20 men had to be dug out. Five men were killed and 12 wounded in the explosion.
On 19th September, the Battalion was relieved and returned to billets but on 24th September they were back in the front line. The Diary states, “Most of our artillery having gone south to help the real battle, we were practically without artillery support.” Luckily, the aim of the enemy artillery was poor and did not do too much damage. However, “the Hun machine guns were busy all along the line” and “the Rifle Brigade alone had 300 casualties.”
This is a photograph taken in August 1915 of the front line trenches at Bois Grenier, near Armentieres, just north of where Courtney was in September 1915.
Belts of wire protected the front-line trenches. Soldiers on all sides hated the wire and dreaded getting caught in it. [National Army Museum]
From 26th September to 31st December 1915, Courtney’s Battalion settled down to life in the trenches, without hostile attacks but engaged in the usual operations of sniping and patrolling No Man’s Land, with occasional rests behind the front line. Their sector was a quiet one, and casualties were small – an average of one per day when in the line, but the conditions must have been unbearable at times.
1916 – THE YPRES SALIENT
On 1st January 1916, the 7th Battalion was at Fleurbaix, moving to Steenbecque on 12th January. They then received orders which would take them into the dreaded Ypres Salient. On 23rd January, they were billeted at Waermers Cappel, in the Arneke area, and on 3rd February had good billets in Wormhaut.
On 23rd February the 61st Brigade (Courtney’s) relieved the 60th Brigade in the front line. In the first four days in the front line in the Salient, three men were killed and 16 wounded. The trenches were water-logged, and there were no dug-outs. Men and officers had to sit on the fire-steps up to their knees in water. They were in the front line for four days and then four days in support. At the beginning of April the weather improved and the ground began to dry up a little.
On 11th April, the enemy attacked. The 7th Battalion were standing to on the west side of the Canal Bank. An SOS went up from the front line at 7.15 p.m. and the Battalion crossed the bridges to the eastern bank. D Company was ordered up to the front line to bring up boxes of ammunition and helped repel the Germans who were trying to break through a gap between the battalions. It is a shame that we don’t know which company Courtney was in.
By 10 p.m. on 11th April the situation had returned to normal and the 61st Brigade were relieved by the 60th.
The 7th Battalion was sent to Calais for ten days’ rest. They were back in the Salient on 19th May, relieving the 2nd Coldstream Guards outside the Ypres-Zonnebeke Road.
On 21st May, the Somersets were under attack. The Germans were driven back but two officers were wounded, one other rank killed and 22 other ranks wounded. The only mention of Courtney in the Western Gazette is of him being wounded and then dying of his wounds – there is no account of his having been hurt or sick during his time in France so I assume that he came through all the fighting unscathed from July 1915 until his death in September 1916. You can understand why men became superstitious and relied on lucky charms to keep them safe when they saw friends being wounded and killed and falling sick around them while they, themselves, went on for month after month somehow escaping harm in horrendous conditions.
At the end of May, the 7th Battalion were in billets in Rue Boscehepe, Poperinghe – all four companies were all billeted together in a large factory.
THE BATTLE OF MOUNT SORRELL – 2nd to 13th June 1916
7th Somersets support the Canadians
At the beginning of June, the Germans attacked the Canadians north of the Menin Road and captured Maple Copse, Mount Sorrell and Observatory Ridge. The Canadians then made a counter attack and regained what had been lost as far as the foot of Mount Sorrel and the Ridge. It was essential to recover the remainder of the lost ground because of the advantage it gave the enemy over the Allied trenches. Courtney’s Battalion was to be involved in this.
On 8th June, the 7th Battalion was back in the front line between Railway Wood and “Y” Wood (west of Bellewaarde Lake) just north of the Menin Road. On 13th June, the final counter-attack was due to take place. The 20th Division (Courtney’s) was ordered to assist the Canadian attack by discharging gas cylinders and making raids. Two of these raids was to be made by the 7th Somersets.
At 1.30 a.m. the gas was discharged. The wind was in the right direction to take it towards the enemy but heavy rain had fallen the night before so that it was only possible for one of the raids to take place. This was carried out by ‘C’ Company – 30 NCO’s and men commanded by Lieutenant J C N Peard. The ground was sodden and gas still hung in the air so that they had to wear gas helmets. The wire in front of the trenches was supposed to have been cut by trench mortars but they found it to be still intact and had to cut it themselves, under fire. Ten men were wounded and three were killed. Wounded and unwounded returned to the trenches, but the killed had to be left out in No Man’s Land. ‘A’ Company were in the support trenches and had nine men wounded and four men killed. The Battalion were relieved the night of 13th June and moved back to Ypres.
COURTNEY MOVES SOUTH TO THE SOMME – July 1916
The 20th Division left the Ypres Salient around the middle of July and journeyed south. The 7th Somersets marched into Mailly Maillet on 27th July and the following day were moved into the trenches front of Auchonvillers. These trenches and the surrounding country were full of half-buried corpses. Many of these were the men from 1st Battalion who had fought in the attack on Serre on 1st July – “these were reverently laid to rest by their newly arrived comrades.” [The Somerset Light Infantry 1914-19 – Everard Wyrall] Archie Thorne and Hugh Grinter from Stoke had been in 1st Somersets and had died on 1st July 1916.
On 16th August, 20th Division marched further south to go into the line east of Albert and on 25th August the 7th Somersets went into the front line opposite Guillemont, a ruined, shell-blasted village which had been captured and lost again and again, 1,500 yards south east of Delville Wood.
Battle of Guillemont – September 1916
[Taken from the War Diary of the 7 Bn SLI]
“3 September Came back to Craters Carnoy [south of Montauban] at 12 midnight. 2/3 September left Craters at 8.30 a.m. and marched to trenches W of Trones Wood and there assembled in support of attack by 59th Brigade. Advance in support at 12 noon. Companies in lines of two platoons in file. Men advanced steadily through German barrage. 59th Brigade having taken 2nd objective, two companies SLI pushed on and advancing close under our artillery barrage took 3rd Objective – the enemy garrison. 46 men and 1 officer being retired to two dugouts, surrendered on our arrival. Other units of 59th Brigade arrived and trenches consolidated. At 8 pm, two companies ordered to dig a support line E of Guillemont at 8 p.m. B Company sent to reinforce 47 Brigade on N side of Guillemont, Combles Rd. Casualties: 1 officer killed, 9 wounded, including C/O. 140 other ranks killed and wounded.
Everard Wyrall, in his history of the Somerset Light Infantry, expands on this Diary entry from a private narrative written by the C.O., Colonel Troyte-Bullock, where he describes the 7th Somersets advancing at 12 noon – “After crossing the Montauban-Guillemont road a hostile 5.9 barrage fell right across the front of the Battalion, but the platoons, in single file, never wavered for an instant, but went steadily through it as if they were on Salisbury Plain. About 40 casualties were sustained in going through this barrage.”
7th Battalion War Diary continues….
4 September Guillemont. A quiet day – consolidation proceeding at 8 pm. 2 companies sent to dig and hold a trench from SW corner of Leuze Wood to the Guillemont to Combles road – a front of 300 yards. A perfect deluge of rain came while this work was proceeding. This detachment was exposed to our heavy shellfire the whole night but maintained their position and dug in.
5 September 7th and 8th Inniskilling Fus. relieved the Battalion at 8 am. Enemy started sniping during relief on 3rd and again 2nd, J H Hill under orders reconnoitred Leuze Wood and found it unoccupied. Reached Craters Carnoy at 10 am. Very tired but in good spirits.
6 September Craters Carnoy. Battalion resting and refitting.
7 September Marched to Sandpits and Meaulte. Transport remained in Happy Valley.
8 September Meaulte. Marched to Mericourt L’Abbé with transport.
9 September Mericourt. Battalion resting and refitting.
10 September Mericourt. Church parade. Addressed by Divisional Commander, General Smith, on good work at Battle of Guillemont, and afterwards march past. Men bathed in river. New clothes and uniform issued.
11 September Mericourt. Battalion inspected by C.O.
12 September Sandpits, Meaulte. Moved from Mericourt to Sandpits, Meaulte.
13 September Sandpits. Companies under Company Commanders.
14 September Sandpits. Moved from Sandpits to Citidal.
BATTLE OF FLERS-COURCELETTE – 15th to 22nd September – first use of tanks
7th Battalion War Diary …continued
15 September Waterlot Farm. Moved in the morning from Citidal to Talus Boise [2000 metres SW of Bernafay Wood and south of Montauban] where the Battalion formed up and awaited orders. At Mid-day orders received and Battalion moved up to Waterlot Farm.
16 September – [Day of Edward Gillman’s Death and George Ralph’s disappearance, Harry Turner died the following day, 17th September] Trench in front of Lesboeufs. Midnight 15 – 16th, Battalion moved up through Ginchy to a position 600 yards in front of German lines, protecting Les Boeufs, and dug in at 9.35. ZERO + 10 the Battalion attacked and captured the German front line on a front of 150 yards to left of Ginchy Lesboeufs Rd and held this while a new line was dug just west of it. They captured in this operation about 50 prisoners and 2 Lewis guns. Having used up all their bombs and also all those captured from the Germans, they were forced to fall back into the new trench and hold this until relieved on the night of 16-17 by Shropshire LI. After relief, Battalion marched back to trenches E of Bernafay Wood.
17 September. [Day of Harry Turner’s death] Casualties of previous day found to be 10 officers and about 162 other ranks. C/O Major E L Lyons was killed.”
Everard Wyrall describes the fighting on 16th September:
“In this attack the objective of the 7th Somersets was the German front-line trench, which the Battalion was to capture and hold until a new line was dug just west of it, to the north of the Ginchy-Les Boeufs road.
All the honours of war fell that day to the 7th Battalion. The attack, splendidly carried out, began at 9.35 a.m…the German front line on a front of 150 yards was captured and held while the new line was dug just west of it, and about fifty prisoners were captured. Having used up all their bombs, as well as a large quantity captured from the enemy, the bombers were unable to cover the Battalion, which then fell back to the new trench which had been dug and held it until relieved on the night of 16th/17th September by the Shropshire Light Infantry. That is the story contained in the official Diary. Bald indeed; bare of all those little details and thrilling episodes which make military history live. Yet none the less they did happen. Two incidents occurred which alone should live for all time in the history of the 7th Somersets. With bayonet and bomb the Battalion had cleared the Germans out of their front-line trench, two bombers of B Company – L/Cpl. Hill and Pte Barrow – single-handed, bombing the enemy out of 150 yards of his trench, using German bombs. Brilliant as was this bombing affair, it was outshone by the extraordinary gallantry of Private Hill (also of B Company, and a Lewis gunner). With another man of his section, Hill pushed forward with the gun to a new position some 60 yards in front of the Battalion’s most advanced posts. For no less than 36 hours Hill held on to his post, at one time, with his comrade taking a prominent part in breaking up a hostile counter-attack, by bringing heavy enfilade fire on the attackers. He fought on and on until at last, his comrade being killed and his ammunition exhausted, he picked up his gun and empty magazines and retired to where he imagined the Battalion to be, only to find that it had been relieved 12 hours previously. Eventually he rejoined the Battalion at Talus Boise.
Ten officers and about 162 other ranks were the casualties suffered by the Battalion on 16th September.” [History of the Somerset Light Infantry 1914-19 by Everard Wyrall
Courtney “died of wounds” on 1st October 1916. It is probable that he was wounded in the fighting at Les Boeufs on 16th September, where Edward Gillman was killed. Of the four Stoke men who had joined the 7th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry, by October 1916, Edward Gillman and Courtney Isaacs were dead and Ewart Palmer was wounded. Ben Gaylard had survived but would be dead before the year was out.
The Western Gazette reported on 29th September 1916:
News has been received that Henry Follett, C Isaac, H Turner, H Rice and Ewart Palmer have all been wounded in the recent fighting.
Courtney was buried at Amiens and it is likely that he was nursed at the New Zealand Stationary Hospital which was based in Amiens from July 1916 to May 1917.
The following describes the hospital at Amiens and comes from a book written by Hester Maclean and published by the Tolan Printing Company in 1932, entitled ‘Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences, Chapter XXXIX – New Zealand Hospitals in Britain and France:’
“Twenty-seven sisters and staff nurses left England on July 30th, 1916, to join the staff of the No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital at Amiens, France, some fifteen miles from the front line. After a couple of days spent in Boulogne, the party was divided, one half going to a British hospital at Abbeville, and the other half to Amiens to the No. 1 Stationary Hospital…..The hospital was in two buildings, the main portion of 350 beds was in part of a convent, ‘St. Famille,’ just above the station, where the more serious cases were admitted, and half in the Lycee Girls’ School, a few blocks away, which could accommodate 380 beds. A little later a third school was opened as an officers’ hospital, with 100 beds.
For nearly ten months the No. 1 Stationary Hospital was used as a casualty clearing station in conjunction with other British hospitals some distance out, and also for the serious cases from the barges on the Somme which could not travel. From here, when work slackened, surgical teams, consisting of a surgeon, an anaesthetist, a sister, and one, perhaps two, men, were sent up to casualty clearing stations for the big offensive. The patients here were British, some fifty German prisoners and some Belgian soldiers.”
The War Poet, Siegfried Sassoon, spent some time here at the end of July 1916. Across the ward in the bed opposite Sassoon lay a young officer concealed behind screens. The dying man was delirious, crying out names and raving about a wood and the loss of a friend. This reminded Sassoon of his own experiences on the Somme in Mametz Wood, and he was inspired to write the following poem:
Died of Wounds
His wet white face and miserable eyes
Brought nurses to him more than groans and sighs:
But hoarse and low and rapid rose and fell
His troubled voice: he did the business well.
The ward grew dark; but he was still complaining
And calling out for ‘Dickie’. ‘Curse the wood!
It’s time to go. O Christ, and what’s the good?
We’ll never take it, and it’s always raining.’
I wondered where he’d been; then heard him shout,
‘They snipe like hell! O Dickie, don’t go out’….
I fell asleep….Next morning he was dead;
And some Slight Wound lay smiling on the bed.
On 13th October, the paper reported Courtney’s death “of wounds received in action.”
“The sad news has been received by Mr & Mrs Isaacs that their son Private Courtney Isaacs, SLI has died of wounds received in action. The letter was sent by the Rev E Skilton, CF, stating that he was dangerously ill, and later that he had passed away. He was buried by the Rev E Skilton. Much sympathy is expressed for his family and friends.”
It must have been a comfort to Courtney’s parents to know that there was someone there at the hospital who knew him and who could be at his graveside when it was not possible for them to be there. Courtney is buried at St Pierre Cemetery, Amiens.
The following list contains information about Courtney Isaacs. Click on the document name to open a pdf of the document.