What's on in Stoke

John Henry Stagg’s Story

John Stagg’s father and grandfather were both shepherds and the Staggs have lived in Stoke for many generations.

John was one of the Stoke lads who was working in Wales at the time of the outbreak of war. He was living in Abertridwr in Glamorganshire, and enlisted in Caerphilly in the 15th Battalion of the Welch Regiment.

Glamorgan, Abertridwr in the1910's

Glamorgan, Abertridwr in the1910’s

He was still living with his family in North Street in 1911, working as a cowboy on a farm and aged 16 (born in the autumn of 1894) . His younger brothers, Edgar and Tom, were still at school. His cousin, Lily Chislett, aged 21, was living with the family.

His parents (Henry married Mary Jane Bailey in 1882) had eight children, all of whom survived. The eldest, Albert, was born in Stapleton, on the outskirts of Martock in 1883. Bessie, Ethel and (Gilbert) George were then born in Stoke between 1885 and 1889, followed by Laura and John in South Petherton in 1891 and 1894, then the family was back to Stoke again for the births of Edgar and Tom. They were living in West Street, Stoke, in 1901.

I think Mary Jane Bailey may have been born Mary Jane Chislett. Her sister, Selina, gave birth to Lily in 1890 and this was the niece, Lily, who was living with the Stagg family in North Street in 1911.

The parents of Mary Jane and Selina Chislett were Walter (born Martock) and Ellen (born Stoke). There is a record of a Mary Jane Chislett marrying an Albert Bailey in 1879, and there are several Albert Baileys who died young between 1879 and 1880 (though not in the Yeovil area). There is a Jane Bailey living as a lodger in East Street, Martock in 1881. She is aged 22 and “married”. Possibly she was only just widowed. She would have been married and widowed and re-married all within three years.

I don’t know where John Stagg was working when he moved to Wales after 1911 – there was a colliery in Abertridwr – or when he enlisted, but the Western Gazette reports that “he was working in Wales until the outbreak of hostilities”, which sounds as if he enlisted fairly soon after war broke out.

image004

15th Battalion, Welsh Regiment – A Potted History
(From The Welshman-1919)

Raised as part of the Welsh Army Corps, the Carmarthenshire Battalion had a glorious career during the war. The Battalion was first raised in Swansea during October and November 1914, by the Carmarthenshire County Committee, attached to 129 Brigade, 43rd Division, and was composed at first of men recruited from Lancashire.

Recruiting in Lancashire was stopped at the end of 1914, and all subsequent recruiting was carried out in Carmarthenshire and South Wales. The preliminary training of the battalion was carried out at Rhyl.

From 28 April 1915 the Battalion became attached to 114 Brigade, 38th (Welsh) Division, part of K4. In the summer of 1915 the Battalion moved with the remainder of the Welsh Division to Morn Hill Camp, Winchester, where it completed its training and equipping, and embarked for France from Folkestone on 5 December 1915, disembarking at Boulogne the same day.

During the winter and spring of 1916 the Battalion held nearly every section of the British line from Givenchy on the La Bassee Canal to Laventie, about six miles South of Armentieres. At the end of May, 1916, the Battalion moved South with the remainder of the 38th (Welsh) Division to the Somme area, in readiness for the First Battle of The Somme, which commenced on 1 July 1916. After the attack on Mametz Wood on 11 and 12 July the Battalion moved north to Hebuterne, where it remained for about a month.

In August 1916 the Battalion moved North again to the Ypres Salient, where it remained for twelve months, during which period it held different sections in the northern-most part of the Salient, from Ypres to Boesinghe. It took part in the attack on Pilckem Ridge on 31 July 1917, with the remainder of the 38th Division.

On 16 August 1917 the Battalion was temporarily attached to the 20th (Light) Division for the attack on Langemarck. For its work on the latter occasion it received a special letter of thanks from the G.O.C., 20th Division.

We don’t know when John joined the Battalion, or whether he was with them through 1916 and the early part of 1917, but as he died on 1st August 1917, he would have taken part in the Battle of Pilckem Ridge.

The Battle of Pilckem Ridge – 31st July – 2nd August 1917
[Taken from, “The Welch Regiment, 1914-18”]

Battle of Pilckem Ridge, Langemarck

Battle of Pilckem Ridge,
Langemarck

The Battle of Pilckem Ridge is the official title given to the first phase of the Third Battle of Ypres. Offensive operations were limited to the capture of all the high ground overlooking Ypres to the east, and were entirely successful by the end of the first day – 31st July – with the exception of the village of Westhoek on the front of the II Corps, and this was captured on 10th August. Heavy counter-attacks to recover St Julien, Frezenberg, and the outskirts of Westhoek were made on 1st and 2nd August, but were repulsed after determined fighting.

The 38th Division attacked the Pilckem Ridge with the Guards Division on its left and the 51st Division on its right.

The 114th Brigade [John’s Brigade] on the right and the 115th Brigade on the left were given the task of capturing the German Blue line, the Black line and the Green line – a total advance of about a mile and three quarters. The 15th Brigade, in reserve, was then to pass through the two assaulting Brigades and establish bridge-heads across the Steenbeek, about half a mile further on and within 600 yards of Langemarck.

Zero hour was fixed for 3.50 a.m. on 31st July, and there was considerable anxiety lest the enemy should delay the assembly by bombardment. However, thanks to our Heavies shelling the enemy batteries with gas shell and to the fortunate occurrence that the infantry on the German side were carrying out a relief opposite the 38th Division, only six casualties occurred. The German Division which had carried out the relief was the 3rd Guards Division, of which the Guards Fusilier Regiment, the famous “Cockchafers” so popular in Berlin, took over the defence of the Pilckem Ridge, and these received very rough treatment from the Welch and R.W.F.

The 10th Welch on the right and the 13th Welch on the left, led the attack of the 114th Brigade, their objective being the Blue line – 1,000 yards distant.

The 15th Welch on the right and the 14th Welch on the left, were to pass through them and capture the Black and Green lines.

One hour before zero, the assaulting Battalions reported their safe assembly in No Man’s Land, well ahead of our front trenches on which the enemy’s counter-barrage would descend immediately our intense bombardment commenced. Punctually to the moment, the Divisional Artillery, made up of six Brigades of field guns, belched forth on the supposed enemy front trenches for eight minutes, while the Brigade Machine Gun Commander played on the trenches further back. Thanks to the bombardment of the enemy battery positions with gas shell the German artillery reply was comparatively feeble. The artillery barrage moved forward 100 yards every four minutes, resting 200 yards beyond each captured line to enable troops to consolidate and reorganise. It was dark when the assault started, the ground was churned up beyond recognition, all landmarks had been destroy,ed and direction was at first only maintained by the bursting shrapnel of our barrage, which was reported to be perfect.

The 10th and 13th Welch captured the Blue line with little opposition, the 10th Welch taking 20 benumbed prisoners out of dugouts in Caesar Support and Reserve trenches, and the 13th Welch rounding up a good many in Mackensen Farm, while many others surrendered in the trenches.

A machine gun from the direction of Hindenberg Farm, in the 51st Division area caused some casualties to the 10th Welch, but was captured by them and five machine gunners accounted for. The 14th Welch on the left and the 15th Welch on the right, now passed through the 13th and 10th Welch respectively and advanced on Pilckem Ridge. These supporting Battalions, waiting in our front and support trenches, had to bear the brunt of the enemy’s counter-barrage which the leading Battalions had escaped, and suffered some casualties, among them being Captain Humfreys commanding a company of the 15th Welch.

It was now light, but although Battalions had practised on a replica it was not easy to recognise farms and buildings as shown on the map, so destroyed were they. The Germans in “pill-boxes” showed more fight, and each centre of resistance had to be outflanked and dealt with separately by a platoon, sometimes with the aid of a Stokes Mortar which the men of the Brigade Trench Mortar Battery brought up as quickly as they could. The 15th Welch dealt with Marsouin Farm, capturing a machine gun and two officers and 12 other ranks, and then took prisoners 36 men out of Candle Trench. They now headed for Stray Farm, mistaking it for Jolie Farm which lay in a hollow. Fortunately the 154th Brigade of the 51st Division tackled the latter spot, and the 14th Welch finding little opposition, the two Battalions arrived at the Black line up to time, joining here the Battalion of the 113th Brigade which had captured Pilckem Village after stiff fighting.

Pilckem Ridge and Langemarck August/September 1917 John’s Brigade (114th) were given the task of capturing the Green Line

Pilckem Ridge and Langemarck
August/September 1917
John’s Brigade (114th) were given the task of capturing the Green Line

The actual top of the Ridge as seen from the canal bank had now been occupied, but secure from direct observation from our artillery, the enemy opposition began to increase, especially from the “pill-boxes”, which appeared in greater numbers.

Advancing to the Green line, the 15th Welch were held up by a “pill-box” in their immediate front, but outflanked it and captured two machine guns and 16 other ranks, and pushing on were caught on the flank by fire from Rudolphe Farm in the 51st Division area. As that Division was not up in line, a platoon under 2nd Lt F H Jordan was detailed to capture the farm, which it did in fine style, taking 20 prisoners and two machine guns, and repaying the 51st Division for its capture of Jolie Farm. Liaison was then established with the 154th Brigade on the right. Stray Farm was captured with 10 prisoners.

Again the 15th Welch moved forward and reached without opposition a house on the cross road 400 yards short of their objective, where they found a telephone exchange and took prisoners three officers and 67 other ranks.

Meanwhile the 14th Welch on their left had a brisk fight at Iron Cross, where they were held up by two machine guns. Outflanking and rushing them they killed 20 Prussian Guards and took 40 prisoners. The Green line was reached to time, Captain Sandbrook, Sergeant White and six men advancing to a house wheich was found to be a dressing stationa nd capturing 22 unwounded and 16 wounded prisoners.

The 113th and 114th Brigades had now gained their objectives and at 9.00 a.m. the 11th S.W.B. and 17th R.W.F. of the 115th Brigade passed through the consolidating Battalions and commenced their attack on the “pill-boxes” on the Steenbeek.

Enemy resistance was now stiffening and their artillery was more active, so though the brook was reached and parties pushed across, casualties were severe; and at mid-day one Company from the 10th S.W.B. and “B” Company, 16th Welch were pushed forward to continue the attack. A platoon under Sergeant Brown crossed the Steenbeek and captured a German post, holding it against counter-attack for three days.

“From 2 p.m. onwards, Germans were seen to be massing for counter-attack, and the attack developed at 3.10 p.m., and one Company of the S.W.B. which had occupied Au Bon Gite were forced to retire to the western side of the Steenbeek. The remainder of the line held repelled the attack, the artillery and machine gun barrage helping largely. Rifle fire was successfully employed in wiping out some 1,000 Germans who had got through our barrage” [History of the 38th Division, page 26]

In the afternoon, the weather, which had been dull and cloudy at the commencement of the attack, now broke and heavy rain poured down for three days, turning the shell-torn ground into a mass of sticky, slippery mud, pockmarked with deep shell holes full of water, where many a man and animal were drowned. The only way to get up to the Pilckem Ridge from the canal bank was by sticking to the duckboard tracks with reserve troops and Pioneers commenced to lay as soon as it was known that the ridge was ours. These tracks were of course plainly visible from the air, and they were mercilessly shelled day and night by the enemy, while at intervals enemy planes dartred down and swept them with machien gun fire. At the front it was impossible to do anything but lie in shell holes. There was great difficulty in keeping the mud out of the rifles, while nearly every Lewis gun in the Division was out of action, but these were speedily replaced by a reserve store at Divisional Headquarters. The Divisional Artillery moved forward slowly and laboriously to fresh positions under the Pilckem Ridge. It was marvellous how the drivers and ammunition columns managed to keep up a sufficient supply of shells, as they all had to be carried by men in specially made coats with deep pockets, or brought up a few at a time on pack animals.

The bad weather, however, had the advantage of preventing the enemy counter-attacking with success. The Division held on to its shell holes under heavily shelling till 6th August, when it was relieved by the 20th Division.

Tanks had been brought up to be used in this battle but none were allotted to the 38th Division. The ground with its mass of deep shell holes was eminently unsuitable for tank attack even before it rained. After the first day the whole country being turned into a quagmire, tanks were almost helpless.

The attack on the Pilckem Ridge was a fine example of the combination of artillery and infantry work.

While all units did what was required of them, the brunt of the casualties were borne by the 14th and 15th Welch, who had the most difficult tasks to carry out.

The War Diary of the 15th Battalion of the Welch Regiment states that they were “holding Green Line” on 1st August 1917, and gave a list of their killed and wounded.

This is the account of a man from John’s regiment who took part in the Battle of Pilckem (from the Imperial War Museum 1st World War Centenary website):

Ivor Watkins remembered the progress made by his regiment, the 15th Welch:

British troops on captured ground, 31 July 1917

British troops on captured ground, 31 July 1917

“As we got up from the canal bank to make our advance, we went through some light 18 pounders on the way up over the ridge. They were belting away as hard as they could.

The terrain was pretty difficult, owing to shell holes and most of all they were very, very deep so we had to be careful we didn’t fall in.

If I remember rightly there were tapes had been laid out giving some sort of direction on where to go but it was a scramble to get between the shell holes. But forward we went, under fire – definitely under fire – a little of everything, a little of everything. There were some casualties but we finally reached our destination and we landed up in a shell hole or two and gradually got into a position where we could defend whatever we had gained.”

A report in the Western Gazette on 24th August 1917 reads:

Private J Stagg killed. The sad intelligence has been received by Mr and Mrs H Stagg of West Street, that their son, Private J Stagg of the Welsh Regiment, has been killed in action in France. Private Stagg, who was 22 years of age, was working in Wales until the outbreak of hostilities. As stated in a letter from his officer he was a good lad and respected by all his officers and comrades.

John is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, along with Fred Taylor, Fred Trott and Percy Wines.

The following list contains information about John Henry Stagg. Click on the document name to open a pdf of the document.