William Hann’s Story

“The whole village has been moved to sadness by the pathetic death of Gunner William Hann RFA.”

Stoke Military Band about 1912 - William Hann front row right

Stoke Military Band about 1912 – William Hann front row right


William Hann was one of our older soldiers. He was 48 when he died and had served in the Boer War before joining up at the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Hanns were a Montacute stonemason family. William’s father, Henry Hann, had lived in Stoke since at least 1871 – their eldest child, Kate, was born there in 1870. William’s mother was a Selway; her father, John, was a butcher living in Lower (North) Street in 1841. He died in 1847, leaving Elizabeth Selway a widow with numerous children. Susan would have been five when her father died. Life must have been hard for Elizabeth Selway and her family, and by 1861 she is living in Paradise Row, a notoriously poor area of Stoke.

Six years later, Susan married Henry Hann and in 1871 is living back in Lower Street again, with Henry, baby Kate, one year old, and Henry’s niece, Mary. William is born later that year, and two more boys follow, Frank and John.

In 1883, when William was 12, the school log reports that he was punished on two occasions for playing truant – together with another boy called Palmer.

According to his obituary in the Parish Magazine, William served “all through the Boer War”. This must have been the 2nd Boer War, starting in 1899 and finishing 1902. I have not been able to find his army record – perhaps it has not survived – so I don’t know when he came out of the army, but he married Ellen Johnson (ten years younger than himself) in 1904.

Ellen was born in Rotherham in Yorkshire, but her father was a native of Stoke and the family moved back toStoke when she was about six. Her father was a boot repairer and according to the 1901 census, Ellen was one of eight children.

William joined up again directly war broke out in 1914. The Parish Magazine describes him as “a fine soldier”. He served in the Royal Field Artillery with an Indian Regiment in France, taking part in the battles of Neuve-Chapelle and Loos in 1915.

The Battle of Neuve-Chapelle was the first major British offensive on the Western Front. Half of the Commonwealth fighting force, 20,000 men, were Indian Army soldiers.

General John French, commander-in-chief of the BEF in France at this time, planned to take the village of Neuve-Chapelle, which formed a German salient (bulge) in the British line, and if possible to take Aubers Ridge, a modest but nevertheless important observation post overlooking the plain. French also thought it might well be possible to get behind the German front and threaten the defences of nearby Lille.

On 10 March four divisions, comprising 40,000 men, gathered on a sector of the front which was only three kilometres wide. The infantry attack was preceded by heavy but concentrated shelling from 342 guns, guided by reconnaissance planes of the Royal Flying Corps.

After an initial success, in a matter of hours, the British became paralysed by poor communications and a lack of munitions, and their advance ground to a halt. Fighting ceased on 13 March with British gains limited to an area two kilometres deep and three kilometres wide for a loss of 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian soldiers, either killed or wounded.

The battle of Loos, which began on 25 September 1915, was the largest conflict for the BEF in the war to that time: six divisions, that is 75,000 men, would take part. The battle was fought before the artillery reduced the landscape to churned up mud. The troops went into battle in flat caps holding their rifles with attached bayonets and advanced over woodland, over coal slag heaps and also fought in built-up areas.

Since the first use of poison gas by the Germans on 22nd April 1915, the British had been developing “Special Companies” for poison gas warfare. It was decided that the first British gas attack against the Germans would be at Loos at dawn on the 25th September 1915.

During September 1915, 150 tons of chlorine gas in 5,500 high-pressure steel cylinders had been transported across the Channel in unmarked wooden boxes under conditions of great secrecy. For reasons of security, the gas was known only as ‘the accessory’. On arrival in France it was transported to Loos by rail. From the railway sidings there, the cylinders were man-handled into the trenches under the highest possible level of security, including aerial surveillance.
By midnight, 24th September 1915, all the cylinders were in place in the forward trenches. Major Foulkes waited at the General Haig’s chateau battle headquarters for the order to commence the release of the gas along the 6.5 miles of front from the slagheaps south of Loos to the La Bassée Canal. Haig hesitated as the wind was light, with a tendency to blow towards the British lines. Nevertheless, at 0550 hours on the 25th September 1915, the orders were given to release the gas in the various sectors.

The results were, at best, mixed. In a northern sector the officer commanding the Gas Company, concerned about the wind direction, refused to comply, only to be ordered directly to do so. As he had predicted, the wind was unfavourable and hundreds of the troops in his sector were gassed. In another sector, the keys for turning the release cocks did not fit and only a few cylinders were opened on schedule. The Germans, now forewarned, opened fire and several of the fully charged cylinders exploded releasing the chlorine gas into the British trenches, routing and stampeding the Gas Company personnel. Elsewhere in the northern sector, the wind blew obliquely between the trenches transporting the gas amongst the British and German trenches alike.

In the southern sector, the gas behaved largely as expected, and at 6 pm Haig received reports that the gas was rolling over the enemy trenches. Inexplicably, the Germans’ gas discipline was generally poor, and the respirators issued to the infantry, ineffective. German commanders reported panic in some trenches, casualties and deaths. By interspersing the releasing of the chlorine gas with smoke, the Gas Companies extended the period of the attack to 40 minutes; a period exceeding the ‘operational life’ of even the better German gas masks. The smoke added greatly to the confusion and disorientation of the Germans.

Casualties on both sides were high. Overall the Battle of Loos cost the British more than 40,000 casualties – of which some were their finest troops (and included 3 major-generals) – with gas casualties of around 2,600, and 7 gas related deaths. The total Germans losses were only around 20,000, with estimates of 600 deaths due to gassing.

The Parish Magazine reports that William Hann came through Neuve-Chapelle and Loos “unscathed,” but that “the Vicar got him a short home leave to study his nerves after those thrilling days”, so although he escaped physically, he was obviously affected emotionally.

MESOPOTAMIA

The Magazine goes on to say that all the Indian troops were withdrawn from France because “they could not stand the winter in the trenches”, and William went with his Regiment to Egypt, from whence he was sent to Mesopotamia to take part in the doomed expedition to relieve Kut.

On 13 August 1915, General Sir John Nixon, commanding Indian Expeditionary Force D in Mesopotamia, requested one of the Indian infantry divisions in France as reinforcements for his advance on Baghdad. Coincidentally, on the same day, the Secretary of State for India, Austen Chamberlain, told the Viceroy of India that he was anxious for the Indian infantry to be withdrawn from France before they had to endure another winter. The system for supplying drafts had broken down and the Indian battalions were becoming very weak after the heavy casualties they had suffered. Although the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, objected to their withdrawal from the Western Front, orders were issued on 31 October for the two divisions of Indian Corps (3rd (Lahore) and 7th (Meerut) Division) to embark at Marseilles for Mesopotamia. Indian Corps was relieved in the front line on 6 November by XI Corps and the two divisions were due at Basra in December, but their departure from Marseilles was delayed because of fear of submarine attack. 3rd (Lahore) Division finally arrived in Mesopotamia in April 1916 and joined Tigris Corps, too late to relieve 6th (Poona) Division at Kut-al-Amara. [Wikipedia]

On 4th August 1916, the Western Gazette reported that William had been sent home to England – “Private W Hann and Evan Phelps have been transferred from hospital in India to England after their strenuous experiences in the Persian Gulf.”

The Parish Magazine reports in October 1916 that, “P Dodge, R Batstone, Cyril Gold, Wm Hann and others have been home for a change.”

Conditions in Mesopotamia were terrible with extremes of temperature, arid desert and regular flooding, flies, mosquitoes and other vermin. This all led to appalling levels of sickness and death through disease.

According to the obituary in the Parish Magazine, William contracted a fever in Mesopotamia “from which he never properly recovered, though sent back to Egypt and England.” It was while he was based at Littleton Panell in Wiltshire that, “feeling very ill, he applied for home leave on Tuesday, May 22nd. The Regimental Doctor advised him to go into hospital, but he pleaded for home and got his leave.

He had great difficulty in walking up from Montacute station, and went to bed as soon as he got home, he died early Thursday morning, being quite unconscious the last 12 hours.”

William Hann died on 24th May 1917 and was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, East Stoke on Whitsun Day. He left a widow, Ellen, and four children. The last entry in the Parish Magazine about him reads rather bitterly, “the military authorities were unable to arrange a military funeral.”

The following list contains information about William Hann. Click on the document name to open a pdf of the document.