Private Gerald Raymond, a soldier on the Somme

As part of their “Every Man Remembered” campaign, the British Legion are giving out cards with the names of soldiers who died on the Somme during WW1. I wrote about Private David Thomson, the name on the card I received, before. This post is about Private Gerald Raymond the name on another card received by a friend.

Gerald’s entry in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records is relatively sparse. Luckily, through looking at his unit’s war diaries as well as other sources and records it’s possible to build up a fuller picture of his life.

A kid from fulham

Gerald was born in July 1897. He was the eldest son of William and Elizabeth Raymond who’d been married for just over two years by that point and had wasted no time starting a family. Gerald’s elder sister, Gladys had been born the year before and they’d have one more child, Cecil in 1902.

William was a House Steward – essentially a sort of personal assistant to a wealthy family or man – and the family lived at 22 Burnfoot Avenue in Fulham. Both Gerald and Cecil went to school just round the corner.

The family were still living there when war broke out in 1914, although by that point Gladys had already moved out (although she doesn’t appear to have married). By that point Gerald was 17, which made him too young for the army at that time. I suspect he was disappointed by this, largely because when we encounter him on the Somme he is serving in the 6th Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI).

Kitchener’s army

What’s important to know about the 6th Battalion of the DCLI is that it was formed as part of Kitchener’s Army. This was the nickname given to several calls for volunteers made by the then Minister of War Lord Kitchener, starting in 1914. The goal was to replenish the British Army, which had suffered heavy losses in the first stage of the war and also to expand it. One of the results of this call for volunteers was the Pal’s Battalions that would suffer so badly on the Somme, resulting sometimes in entire generations of young men from some villages and towns being wiped out together in a matter of hours.

For Gerald (and Britain), all this was still in the future. Kitchener’s first call for volunteers went out on the 11th August 1914 and its target of 100,000 men was quickly met. Gerald may have thanked his ‘luck’ – the call for volunteers came just after his 18th birthday, meaning he was now eligible to serve. It’s possible that he did so when Kitchener put out a second call for volunteers a few weeks later, as this is when the 6th Battalion was formed.

Harry Patch, “the Last Tommy” also served in the DCLI (in the 7th Battalion).

Once in the army, Gerald was sent off for training in the UK. Then, in June 1915 the 6th Battalion were sent was off to France.

Before the Somme

If Gerald did indeed sign up during Kitchener’s call then by the time of the Somme he would already have seen bloody combat on the Western Front. The 6th Battalion arrived in France too late to really take part in the 2nd Battle of Ypres where many other soldiers of the DCLI were fighting and dying. Over the next six months, however, they would be rotated into the front line regularly in order to build up trench warfare experience. They would also play a role in the Battle of Loos.

Both there and in various minor clashes with the Germans around Ypres before, the men of the 6th Battalion would have experienced the full savagery of trench warfare. They were bombed, shelled, attacked – at one point being on the receiving end of an attempt to dislodge them by German troops armed with flamethrowers. The Battalion itself also took part in various attacks on the German lines.

By winter 1915, however, the Battalion had been moved to a quieter part of the line, before being withdrawn to reinforce and train ahead of the Somme. If Gerald hadn’t signed up at the outbreak then it is likely that he would have joined as a replacement at this time.

A DCLI soldier on the front, winter 1915

tHE Somme begins

Whether by this point Gerald was something of a veteran or not, the fighting on the Somme would have been of a scale that he – and indeed all of his fellow soldiers – would never have seen. To begin with, Gerald’s luck seemed to have held. The 6th Battalion were held back from the first bloody assaults in July during which so many men died, being deployed in a supporting role behind the lines.

By August 1916, however their role had changed, and the Battalion were sent forward to take part in the vicious fighting in and around Delville Wood.

‘The Devil’s Wood’

Before the war, Delville Wood had been an area of Beech and Hornbeam trees, surrounded by dense thickets. By the time Gerald arrived there in August 1916, however, the scene was very different.

Since the end of July, British and South African troops had been engaged in a prolonged offensive to try and dislodge and overrun the German line through the area. Sometimes when we picture the Battle of the Somme, we tend to imagine two single parallel lines of trenches separated by a wide stretch of no man’s land.

‘The Devil’s Wood’ (a nickname given to it by the South Africans) however bore little resemblance to this, especially by the middle of August when Gerald arrived. By this point, the whole area was a vast maze of  rival trenches often in close proximity to one another. These trenches had been taken and retaken many times by both sides, often in short, swift assaults. Counter to the stereotype, by this point the Army had already realised the futility of a simple “over the top” attack and, at Delville Wood a variety of tactics were used in an attempt to get through. Attacks would be launched at night, or behind rolling barrages of artillery, or under cover of smoke shells.

By Ed. H.W. Wilson – Official British Military drawing. First published in “The Great War” Ed. H.W. Wilson, 1917, Public Domain

Sometimes these tactics worked, sometimes they didn’t. When they did, the troops would reach the German trenches and the fighting would become bloody and personal – fought at point of bayonet or with bombs. Even when the Germans were successfully dislodged, the fighting wouldn’t be over as a German counterattack would swiftly follow to try and force the British back before they could regroup and reinforce their newly-occupied trenches. The general maze of trenches often meant these attacks could come from any, or almost all, directions.

When they didn’t work the results would often be all-to-familiar to those who had seen the early fighting on the Somme – the attacking troops would be mown down by machine-gun fire, often from both the front and the side.

On the 18th of August, it was the 6th Battalion’s turn to lead one of these assaults, starting with a massive artillery barrage at 6am. The official war diary describes what happened.

Heavy bombardment of the enemy trenches until zero at 2:45pm, when attack was launched. Intense bombardment by field guns from 2:45pm – 2:50pm. ‘B’ Company with one platoon of ‘A’ Company on the right, and ‘D’ Company on the left. Objective was reached in perfect order, under coverage of our barrage. Three platoons of ‘A’ Company followed immediately in support, while ‘C’ Company (in reserve) was thrown in at 3pm.

We don’t know what company Gerald was in, but by 3pm 6th Battalion was fully engaged. And whilst, as the war diary notes, they had reached their objective it was not without loss. ‘D’ Company in particular had suffered heavy casualties, the twisting network of trenches meaning they had been exposed to withering machine gun fire on their left as they advanced.

Reaching the enemy trenches was also only part of the battle. For the next three hours 6th Battalion were engaged in brutal close combat with the Germans, casualties mounting as they clung desperately to over 500 yards of new trench line. On the right, things got so bad that only the bravery of a single young officer – Lieutenant Jessup – prevented them from being overrun. With all bar one of his entire squad dead or wounded, Jessup held the line against German assault (earning himself a DSO in the process). Elsewhere, the war diary provides a grim picture of the state of the 6th Battalion by revealing that the rest of the captured ground was held only by the ‘remnants’ of companies ‘B’ and ‘C’.

As night fell, the German counterattacks fell away to be replaced by heavy shelling. More lives were lost, as the survivors hunkered down and prepared to be attacked again the next day.

oNE LIFE AMONG MANY

The 6th Battalion would ultimately manage to hold a key portion of the gains they’d made and the survivors would be relieved a few days later. Gerald, however, was not among them.

His inscription records that he fell on the 18th August, but notes elsewhere in his records suggest it’s not quite so clear cut. There, Gerald is recorded simply as missing in action ‘on our around’ the 18th.

This vagueness, alongside the fact that no body was ever found, suggests that Gerald perhaps died during the early stages of the assault. Perhaps he was blown apart by artillery or hand-thrown bombs, or buried by the same. One death among the hundreds that day that went unwitnessed or perhaps – more starkly – simply witnessed only by men who themselves failed to survive.

Just a month earlier, Gerald had turned 19.

You can buy your own special poppies here and find out more about Every Man Remembered on the campaign’s website.

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