Harry Turner’s Story
Henry Charles Turner came from an Oxfordshire gloving family. Generally, the Oxfordshire glover would arrive here looking for work and find a girl from Stoke to marry. In Harry’s father’s case, he brought his wife with him.
Harry’s grandfather, Joseph Turner, was a glove cutter from Witney in Oxfordshire. He married Selina Boyce in Woodstock in 1860.
By the 17th century Woodstock was becoming the centre of the gloving industry in Oxfordshire and by the 18th century was a major national centre of gloving. The decline in agricultural incomes led farm-worker’s wives to take on gloving at home to supplement the family income. The quality of hand sewing in the area was internationally renowned at 8 stitches to the inch.
By 1871 Joseph and Selina had six children with ages ranging from ten to 6 months. Harry’s father, Cecil, was the fourth child. He was four. Then there was Flora Lavinia aged two and Amy aged 6 months. Little Lavinia died later that year.
Cecil lost his mother, Selina, when he was 13. His father married again, a Mary Ann Wells, in 1882, and four more children arrived. His father then died at the age of 53 in 1891 so that at the time of the 1891 census, when Cecil was 24, he was living with his stepmother, Mary Ann, his younger sister Amy, and four younger step-siblings. They were living in the village of Coggs in the parish of Witney. Cecil was a glove cutter and Amy was a gloveress. They lived not far away from the Harwoods – Job and Matilda and their son and daughter, Harry and Edith. Harry was a leather grounder and Edith and her mother were both gloveresses.
In 1891 Cecil Turner married Edith Harwood and by 1901 they had moved to the High Street in Stoke, where their eldest son, Ernest, was born. Our Harry followed three years later, then Francis and Sidney. By 1911 a further three children had arrived – Linda, Hubert and Cyril. I presume Harry was named after his mother’s brother.
Harry followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and became an apprentice glove cotter. He was 19 when war broke out in 1914.
Harry enlisted in 6th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry. Percy Trott, George Ralph and Howard Rice were all in the 6th Battalion. They all died before the end of 1916. George Ralph died the day before Harry did. Horace Brooks started out with the 6th Battalion but was in the 8th at the time of his death. Arnold Ridley who played Private Godfrey in “Dad’s Army” was in 6th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry.
The 6th Battalion was part of the 14th Division which was one of the new divisions of Kitchener’s Army. It was formed of volunteers. Initially without equipment or arms of any kind, the recruits were judged to be ready by May 1915, although their move to the fighting front was delayed by lack of rifle and artillery ammunition.
We know that George Ralph, Howard Rice and Horace Brooks all arrived in Boulogne with their Battalion on 21st May 1915. We also know that Harry was in France by 6th September 1916 because of a letter he wrote home on that date but it is possible that Harry Turner was with the other Stoke lads in the 6th Battalion who arrived in France on 21st May 1915, so I have included information about what his Battalion was up to between May 1915 and September 1916.
Everard Wyrall – The Somerset Light Infantry 1914-18
The Battles of Ypres were drawing to a close when the 6th (Service) Battalion of the Regiment landed in France. Since the raising of the Battalion in August 1914, the 6th had spent the first three months in hard training at Aldershot. A move was then made to Witley Camp, Godalming, the Battalion returning to Aldershot again in February 1915, where brigade and divisional training was continued until the middle of April. The 6th Battalion, Somerset L.I. was now in the 43rd Infantry Brigade of the 14th (Light) Division, braded with the 6th Duke of Cornwall’s L.I., 6th K.O.Y.L.I., and 10th Durham L.I. A month later (about the middle of May) spare kit had been sent home and all ranks awaited embarkation orders. A few days later they came, and on 21st May the Battalion crossed the Channel in an S.E. & C.R. mail boat and, on reaching Boulogne, disembarked. The night was spent in the rest camp on the hills overlooking the town.
In June, the battalion had its first taste of life in the front line trenches, almost 2,000 yards north east of Wulverghem. The war diary for Sunday, June 13th : “The trench life was very quiet. A little shelling early in the morning and desultory rifle fire during the day.”
After a week of being in the trenches, the war diary says “The Battalion who were our instructors were full of praise of the bearing and behaviour of the ‘Kitcheners’, whom they saw for the first time.”
At the end of June 1915, the 6th Somersets marched to Ypres. Harry would have witnessed the desolation of Ypres – whole streets of shattered houses.
The 6th Battalion took part in the 2nd Attack on Bellewaarde from 25th to 26th September 1915 – part of the Battle of Loos. The 6th Somersets were attached to 42nd Brigade during this time and afterwards the G.O.C. 42nd Brigade sent the following letter to the C.O:-
“Dear Colonel Rawling, I have to thank you and your fine regiment for the great assistance you gave me on the 25th. It was not an easy thing to reinforce, in broad daylight, as you did, and the movement was exceedingly well and quickly carried out. You arrived at a critical time and your dispositions were exactly what was required. The company of your Regiment which formed the garrison for the trenches rendered valuable assistance and I much regret to hear of the losses they sustained.”
[Somerset Light Infantry 1914-18 by Everard Wyrall]
The total casualties suffered by the 6th Somersets during the month were: officers, 3 killed, 4 wounded; other ranks, 26 killed, 107 wounded.
At the end of October 1915 the 6th Battalion are billeted at Poperinghe. The Diary records: “Spirits of the men splendid. With incessant, rain, plenty of fatigues and no change of clothes and no chance yet of getting warm they can still stand for hours playing and watching football matches.”
Everard Wyrall writes: The first three weeks of November were passed under the most wretched conditions, but on 23rd the Battalion marched to the front-line trenches just north-east of St Jean, relieving the 10th Durham L.I. Two days in and two days out of the front line was the rule at this period, but between the miserable conditions of the billets and the filthy state of the trenches there was little choice. On 14th December the 43rd was relieved by 71st Brigade, the Somersets marching to a camp, described in the Diary as ‘G.5.d’ On 16th the Battalion moved to ‘our old Rest Camp A’ occupied six weeks previously. Here the Somerset men stayed until the close of the year without any incident with the exception of a rumour that the 14th Division was going out to Egypt, which rumour was subsequently dispelled by the receipt of orders for the Division to relieve the 49th Division in the Ypres Salient next to the French.”
I would imagine after the misery of the trenches in winter, the idea of going to Egypt must have been particularly attractive.
The 6th Battalion were not in any more major actions until the battles of the Somme in the summer of 1916. Through the winter of 1915 they suffered “the usual period of torment inseparable from winter in the trenches” (Everard Wyrall). The conditions in the line in January 1916 were terrible. “The front line is in an almost impossible condition and no troops can remain there more than 48 hours without much sickness.” (Battalion Diary)
In February 1916, the Battalion was just south of Arras. They were in a quiet sector of the line and March passed with very few casualties. In April and May, there was a gradual increase in activity. Shelling became more frequent and snipers claimed more victims. The German 150 lb trench mortars (“Crashing Christophers”, the 6th Somerset called them) were beginning to make life uncomfortable in the trenches.
The actor, Arnold Ridley, describes arriving in France around the middle of March 1916. He writes that the 6th Battalion was in the field just south of Arras. It was heavy, sleeting weather. Ridley was wounded within a few days of joining the battalion and was sent home to recover. He was back in France in July.
From the book, “Famous 1914-18” by Richard Van Emden and Victor Piuk
“He must have been relieved to hear that his Division was not immediately earmarked for battle. In fact it remained near Arras during July, making its way south to the town of Albert, just to the rear of the Somme battlefield, only on 7 August.
Eleven days later, the 14th (Light) Division with the 6th Bn Somerset Light Infantry was pitched into the fighting, Arnold going over the top on 18 August. ‘I fought all the way through Delville Wood’, he later remarked, recalling that even before they set off for the attack, much of the preliminary British barrage had accidentally dropped on them and not on the enemy. Fifteen men were killed or injured.
The concept that surviving an attack was not the end but only a hiatus between actions was hard to accept, and seemed to come as a shock to many men once the enormous adrenalin rush of going over the top finally dissipated…
‘It wasn’t a question of “if I get killed”, it was merely a question of “when I get killed”, because a battalion went over 800 strong, you lost 300 or 400, half the number, perhaps more. Now it wasn’t a question of saying, “I am one of the survivors, hurrah, hurrah”, because you didn’t’ go home….Out came another draft of 400 and you went over the top again.”
This must have been the case for Harry as the 6th Battalion fought one battle after another on the Somme in 1916.
DELVILLE WOOD (15th July to 3rd September)
Delville Wood was sometimes known as Devil’s Wood. It was a tract of woodland, nearly 1 kilometre square. On the west, it touched the village of Longueval, on the east, Ginchy. On 14th July 1916, most of Longueval village was taken by the 9th Division, and on 15th July, Delville Wood was captured by the South African Brigade – all except the north west corner. The South Africans then held on grimly for six days until they were relieved. On 18th and 25th August, the wood was cleared of all enemy resistance by the 14th Division (Harry’s Division) The fighting at Delville Wood was particularly ferocious.
On 6th September, Harry wrote a letter to his brother, Ernest, thanking him for his letter and the tobacco he had sent. He was in billets in a village – “we are having a very nice time now, back in the village. We are all in old barns etc., but I might tell you it’s a treat after being in the trenches. I don’t know how long we are staying here, but I expect it will be another week at the least.”
Ernest had to “attest again this month” – presumably he had a job which meant he didn’t have to join the army – Harry writes, “Well, Ern, take my tip and keep out of it if you can. I know for certain that you couldn’t stick it out here. Our Batt has done some splendid work out here lately and have been highly praised for it. You will see a machine gun that they captured on the 18th August on view in Yeovil shortly.”
Harry was three years younger than Ernest but obviously feels, after his time and experiences in the front line, that he is the older of the two.
He goes on to say he has “come across a good few Stoke boys since I’ve been here. I tell you, it’s a treat to see old faces once more. The chaps out here are pretty jolly and we enjoy ourselves pretty well when we are out of the trenches…. Wardle, H Rice, G Ralph and ?C Male are here in the 6th and are all looking pretty fit, except G. Ralph and he’s got thinner than ever.” Howard Rice, Courtney Isaac and George Ralph were all to be casualties in the September fighting.
I don’t know whether the family received this letter before they had news of Harry’s death, but if not, the final paragraph must have hit home:
“Well, Ern, look after mother and cheer her up as much as possible, don’t worry about me, for I’m quite alright (never felt better). Please give them all at home my fondest love and best wishes. Hoping to see you all again in the near future. From your loving Brother, Harry.”
“After the Battle of Delville Wood, the 6th Somersets spent several days in billets in Fricourt. On the 26th August, however, the Battalion moved forward again to reserve trenches 300 yards in front of Bernafay Wood……. The 28th and 29th were days of great discomfort. Rain fell heavily and the working parties supplied by the Battalion carried on their duties under wretched conditions. Relief, however, came on 30th, the 6th Somersets returning first to temporary billets in Fricourt and then to a rest camp. On 31st, the Battalion entrained at Mericourt for Selincourt, 20 miles west of Amiens where, until the 12th September, all ranks enjoyed a complete rest.” [History of the Somerset Light Infantry 1914-18 by Everard Wyrall]
Then, the Battalion is back in action again. Harry, together with George Ralph and Harold Rice, take part in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette – the first action which saw the use of tanks.
BATTLE OF FLERS-COURCELETTE – 15th to 22nd September 1916
On 14th September, the Battalion was just south of Albert and began to move up towards the front line. Somewhat sarcastically the Battalion Diary states that at 2 p.m. the Somerset marched off ‘to occupy trenches which did not exist between Delville Wood and the Switch trench’. Here, as no tools had arrived, the men began to dig themselves in, using their entrenching tools. The Battalion were ordered into the front line. No rations had arrived, and so the Somerset men had to go into the trenches without them.
Lieut.-Col. T F Ritchie (commanding 6th Somersets) was told he was to attack the enemy at 9.25 a.m. on 16th September. No time was given the Battalion for a reconnaissance of the ground over which the attack was to take place and this resulted much confusion. The barrage was also quite inadequate and heavy machine-gun fire met the advance with the result that the attack broke down with heavy losses.
“The casualties of the 6th Battalion in this affair were truly terrible. Every officer who went over the parapet had become a casualty. Three had been killed, 12 wounded and 2 were missing. In other ranks the Battalion had lost 41 killed, 203 wounded and 143 missing. The ridge between “A-A” and “X-X” Trenches was a veritable death trap, and here the Somerset men, as they advanced, were shot down in dozens by German machine gunners firing from the north and east. [History of the Somerset Light Infantry 1914-18 by Everard Wyrall]
At least nineteen of the men from Stoke who died in the 1st World War were in the Somerset Light Infantry, and many of the Stoke men were killed or wounded during the fighting on the Somme in the summer and autumn of 1916. All along Castle Street one could see the blinds drawn in mourning for husbands and sons and brothers.
6th Battalion War Diary for 15th to 16th September
September ALBERT – GUEDECOURT
15th Bombs, 100 rounds S.A.A. per man & Flares were issued. The Battn. moved off at 7.30 and arrived Pommiers Redoubt at 9.30.
11.15 Orders received to occupy the check line in front of Bernafay Wood.
2 pm To occupy trenches which did not exist between Delville Wood and the Switch trenches, men commenced digging themselves in with their entrenching tools as no tools had arrived. The Transport Officer later brought up the tools under heavy shell fire.
11 pm Orders received that we had to relieve the 42 Bde in the front line, but first of all rations had to be fetched about 2 miles back, parties were sent back at once to get rations and water which had not been issued during the day.
1.30 No rations had arrived so we moved to the front line and relieved the 42 brigade who had attacked in the morning and had received heavy losses. The line was very vague but we managed to get relief over just before daybreak.
4.15 Rations only arrived for 2 companies. The other companies ate their iron rations. The worst difficulty was water which was very scarce.
9.45 B C A companies attacked Gird Trench and Gird Support supported by D Company but before reaching their first objective, they came under heavy machine gun fire from both flanks which inflicted heavy casualties upon us and we were obliged to dig ourselves in without reaching the objective. D Company was then sent to the front line but without any further advance. The 6 KOYLI were then called up and kept in reserve in our jumping off position.
3.15 Brigade asked us that if we thought it advisable we should attack again at 4 pm, but as we considered it impossible nothing was done.
6.20 Orders were received that the remnants of the battn and 2 companies of the 6 KOYLI would attack Gird Trench again but owing to the short time given us it was found impossible to get orders out, the 2 companies KOYLI attacked as they were already formed up, and a proportion of our men who had received orders but the barrage was again very feeble and heavy machine gun fire was turned on to us, with the result that the attack again broke down with heavy losses. Night had then commenced and parties were sent out to try and collect the various small parties and consolidate the ground won. After great difficulty the trench was discovered. Enough men were collected to hold with the help of one company of the KOYLI. This line was then held and consolidated until relieved by the 13th Batt. Northumberland Fusiliers in the early hours of the morning, just enable the remnants of the battn to get clear over the crest of the hill by daybreak. Our casualties were every officer who went over the parapet 3 were killed, 12 wounded, 2 are missing. Other ranks casualties were 41 killed, 203 wounded, 143 missing. Operation Orders enclosed with full account.
On 17th September the 6th Somersets were relieved and moved into billets in Ribemont on 18th September where the remainder of the month was spent.
Harry Turner and Harold Rice were among the casualties of September 1916. George Ralph was one of the 143 Other Ranks missing on 16th September.
There is a report in the Western Gazette on 29th September:
Wounded at the Front. News has been received that the following have been wounded in the recent fighting – Private Henry Follett, Wilts (now in hospital in Kent), Pte C Isaac SLI, Sgt H Turner SLI, Sgt H Rice SLI, and Pte Ewart Palmer SLI. It is sincerely hoped that all of them will recover. Stoke has already lost 16 killed in action.
There is a further report on 6th October 1916:
Sergt Turner dies of wounds. We regret to record that another of the brave lads has fallen in the fight. Sergt Harry Turner who has been reported seriously injured has succumbed to his wounds. Mr & Mrs Turner have been notified by the War Office of their son’s death. The sympathy of the whole parish will go out to them and all who knew the deceased will regret his premature end.
Harry was buried in Dartmoor Cemetery, Becordel-Becourt. He was 22 years old.
Becordel-Becourt is a village about 2.5 kilometres south-east of Albert.
From the D938 (Albert-Peronne) take the road C2 (Becourt-Becordel). The Cemetery is immediately north of the village on the road to Becourt opposite the Communal Cemetery.
Dartmoor Cemetery was begun (as Becordel-Becourt Military Cemetery) in August 1915 and was used by the battalions holding that part of the line; its name was changed in May 1916 at the request of the 8th and 9th Battalions of the Devonshire Regiment. In September 1916, the XV Corps Main Dressing Station was established in the neighbourhood, but throughout 1917, the cemetery was scarcely used. It passed into German hands on 26 March 1918, but was retaken on 24 August by the 12th Division. There are five burials of August 1918, in Plot II, Row E.
In adjoining graves in Plot I, Row A, are buried a father and son, who served in the same artillery battery, and were killed in action on the same day.
Dartmoor Cemetery contains 768 Commonwealth burials of the First World War.
The cemetery was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. [Commonwealth War Graves Commission]
I would guess that Harry was taken to the XV Corps Main Dressing Station at Dernancourt where he died of his wounds, and was then buried at Becordel-Becourt.
Walter Wardle, mentioned in Harry’s letter, became a prisoner of war in Germany in 1918 and underwent many hardships but returned home in January 1919.
Two of Harry’s brothers, Ernest and Sydney, served in the War and survived.
The following list contains information about Harry Turner. Click on the document name to open a pdf of the document.