The sixth day of my count down to the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1.
Walter’s Military Medal award was first listed in the Routine Orders of Major General McCracken, Commander 15th Division, dated Thursday 23 November 1916 which means that he must have won it for action in September or October, after the previous list of medal winners had been announced.
While there is no proof that he won the MM in a “major” action, it is more probable that he did so and, based on his role, it is again probable that the action was associated with supporting Forward Observation Officers.
Now we turn again to the War Diary of the 71st Brigade RFA. The war diaries are very bland, dry affairs essentially documenting the basic facts of what the unit was doing on each day – usually a single line of facts and figures. In the period Sept/Oct 1916 there were two major actions in which the 71st were involved, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in September and the Le Transloy offensive of October. The latter action is recorded in the war diary with the specific mention of soldiers winning the MM (and it’s rare that they are named) but there is no mention of Walter. Now, the war diaries are notorious for their inconsistencies, some award winners being named and others not, especially when the recipients were rank and file rather than officers. Remember, these diaries were written hastily by exhausted officers at the end of days that were probably rather more fraught than a day at the office so I think we can excuse omissions. However, if Walter won his MM in the Le Transloy action with others then it seems improbable that just his name was omitted, especially as he was attached to brigade HQ.
So that takes us back to September 15th and the attack on Martinpuich outlined yesterday - this is recorded in the war diary with an entry longer than usual but there is no mention of medal winners at all.
Transcript: Division attacked at 6.20am and took objectives in outskirts of MARTINPUICH by 6.48. F.O.O.s were pushed up close with the assaulting waves and did good work in driving the enemy out of the village. At 3pm the whole village with 400 prisoners was in our hands. Hostile artillery fire quite slight. Amm. expended 4865.
What is interesting is the specific mention of “good work” being done by the F.O.O.s (and by implication their supporting signallers). I think this is typical British understatement; this kind of diary entry is exactly the kind of thing that gallantry awards are associated with and I think it is most likely that it was in this action that Walter distinguished himself and won his Military Medal.
Remember too, the quote from the German officer of 17th Bavarian Infantry Regiment - “artillery observers had advanced with the infantry and established [forward] posts with telephones in a few hours”. This precisely corroborates the 71st Brigade RFA diary.
So, here is what I envisage…
The creeping barrage of the artillery began to move on at 6.20 and the assault troops went over the top, lumbering Mark 1 tanks in support. They broke through the first line of German defences by 7am and by 9:30am were lodged in the outskirts of the village where they dug in. Then the RFA Forward Observation Officers with their accompanying signallers would have gone in.
Stumbling forward over the shell-holed ground hard on the heels of the assault troops, Walter and his mates would have set up the phone communications between the FOOs liaising with officers of the infantry battalion they were supporting and the batteries back at brigade. Then as counter-artillery fire from the German defence broke the lines he would have dashed out from cover to mend the wires so that the FOO could continue to call in some of those 4865 rounds fired by the brigade that day.
At 3pm the Scots infantry attacked again to clear the whole village of defenders, artillery fire called in by the FOOs supporting their attack. And somewhere amid all the chaos Walter’s bravery was recognised.
All of this is educated guesswork of course but the hypothesis seems reasonable. And, hey, I’m the one telling this story!
And that story ends tomorrow…