Ahead of Armistice Day this year, I picked up a brass poppy. These are part of the Royal British Legion’s limited edition run to commemorate those who died 100 years ago in the Battle of the Somme. It’s made out of shell fuses retrieved from the battlefield. The centre made of mud from the battlefield mixed with the enamel.
Each one marks the life of an individual soldier, as part of the Legion’s “Every man remembered” campaign.
In this case, that man is David Lyell Thomson, a Private in the Machine Gun Corps in the 47th (London) Division.
Despite serving in the London Division, David was actually Scottish. His records show that he had been living with his mum, Melville and his dad, John at 21 Teviot Place in Edinburgh when he joined up.
So how did he end up in the London division?
A displaced Scot
Digging through military records, it looks like young David did actually sign up locally in Edinburgh, joining the Royal Scots – one of the oldest regiments in the British Army. He seems to have done so in late 1914 when Kitchener put out his call for volunteers.
Luckily, I actually have a copy of the 47th’s official WW1 history. According to that, the 47th had been in France since the beginning of 1915, having fought both in Flanders and on Vimy Ridge and suffering heavy losses. In June 1916 they were pulled out of the line to rest and reinforce ahead of the Battle of the Somme.
This, it seems, is when David joined them – drafted in from his own Scottish regiment to join the 142nd Machine Gun Corps, which then itself joined the 47th as part of the 142nd Brigade.
“Men of different parts of the country now came to our London battalions…” Says the official history, “But the spirit of the Division did not change, and each unit had a strong enough character and tradition to absorb any reinforcement that came its way.”
Just days later the 47th London began training for the Battle of Somme, launching training attacks alongside a brand new (and secret) weapon of war – the Tank, several of which would eventually accompany them during their attack.
That attack would be at High Wood in September, although by then High Wood was no longer really a wood.
“Imagine Hampstead Heath made of cocoa powder,” Says the official historian – who by chance had himself fought in this battle. “and the natural surface folds further complicated by countless shell-holes each deep enough to hold a man.”
On the 15th September 1916 the 47th were ordered to take High Wood and secure the British right flank from German attack. Take it they did, in one of the bloodiest encounters of the whole offensive. Subject to enfilade fire by the Germans and having watched the tanks that were meant to shelter their advance break down, the 47th advanced, were pushed back and counter-attacked again.
On that first day of the battle alone, the 140th Battalion – comprising 17 officers and 550 men was reduced to a nominal strength of 2 officers and 60 men. The 141st Battalion was no better off. As the Germans counterattacked, parts of the 142nd – seemingly including David – were thrown forward from reserve to reinforce the two frontline battalions. It was enough to help tip the tide and although bloody, brutal fighting continued for four days, High Wood was held.
The cost, however, for what was a few hundred metres gained (albeit one that secured a key part of the line) was incredible. High Wood was a meatgrinder, pure and simple.
“Battalions went in fit and strong, full of confidence to take their part in the great British offensive.” the official history notes, sadly. “They came out, a few days later, a handful of men, muddy and tired out.”
A handful is no exaggeration. In just four days, the 47th had lost 4,500 men either dead or wounded.
As far as I can tell, David was one of them. At some point in those four days, he seems to have fought, been wounded and been carried from the battlefield.
I don’t know (and probably never will) how serious his injuries seemed at the time, whether he was in pain, whether he was conscious or whether he thought he was going to die. What I can tell from the records is that he survived long enough to make it back to a military hospital at Calais, which suggests that the army at least thought there was a chance he would live.
Maybe he did too. Maybe he was conscious, looking out over the English Channel towards home, longing to be back at his parent’s flat sandwiched between Edinburgh University and the Medical college there. Maybe he hoped he’d see it all again soon.
He never did. David died on 26th September 1916, his entry in the military records plainly stating: ‘D of W’ – “Died of Wounds.” He is buried today in Etaples Military Cemetery, just outside Calais.
David was just 21 years old.
“Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them.”
If you get a poppy with a card, then If you want to know a bit about your forgotten soldier, just comment me and I’ll try and find out what I can about them for you.