As we approach the centenary year of the outbreak of World War 1, it seems fitting to reflect on some of the war time experiences of my great great grandfather, William Burton.
William enlisted for service on September 1, 1914, travelling from his home at Abertysswg to Newport to join the South Wales Borderers. Unlike many of the other men who made a similar trip that day and in succeeding months, he already had experience of serving as a soldier. At the age of 18 he had enlisted with the Royal Worcestershire Regiment and went on to serve with them for eight years as a drummer and then as a reservist for a further four years. During his time with the colours, he saw active service in the Boer War, South Africa, between 1902 and 1903.
In 1914 William was working as a coal miner and living at 32 Charles Street, Abertysswg with his wife Ada and their three children: Elizabeth, Henry and Ellen (my grandmother).
Shortly after his enlistment he was attached to the 7th batallion of the South Wales Borderers and subsequently sent for initial training. The location is unclear – the official history of the Borderers shows they were stationed variously in 1914 at Seaford and St. Leonards on Sea in Sussex. In May 1915 the batallion moved to Aldershot prior to departure for France in September of that year as part of the 22nd Division of the British Expeditionary Force.
The war diary of the batallion shows they landed at Boulogne on September 6 and then marched towards the lines along the Somme. They were one of the most fortunate of batallions, escaping serious loss of life and injuries during their 3 months at the Front. Most of the diary entries are about training, gas demonstrations and inspections rather than attacks though they did experience some shelling incidents.
On October 1, 1915 while on the road between Vauvilliers and Framerville they did come under fire. The commanding officer noted:
The battalion went to Hot Baths at Harbonniers in the morning
The battalion marched from here to Framerville at 3pm. The road is open to shell fire for about 1/2 mile. Platoons were at 100 paces intervals and when the leading platoon had crossed the danger portion, the Germans opened on the road with shrapnel – several shots fell short and one too far over. None hit the road. the battalion was lucky to get over without casualties.
More serious incidents occurred a few weeks later. On October 11 two lieutenants went on early morning reconnaisance to a sniper’s post
…it was exceedingly difficult to locate and Lieutenant Wiguard had constructed a special observation post and had watched many hours to try and locate it. ….they were fired upon and saw 4 Germans in a concealed trench. The two officers then moved to a flank but temporarily lost the position of the trench which had been given away again by one of the Germans firing. Ltd Davies then threw a Mills bomb timed exactly which exploded in the air in the trench, Two Germans only came out – one running straight for the German lines whilst one followed Ltd W Wiguard fired two quick revolver shots at him whether wounded or not was not ascertained – but as daylight was appearing rapidly the officers returned at one to our lines – it was reported to the brigadier who congratulated the two officers upon their enterprise
The following day, the officer recorded the death of a Private Buck who was killed by a sniper. Private Thomas Buck, number 18357 from Newport, was aged 29 at the time. And then on October 20, Second Lieutenant C G (Claude Gladstone) Robinson was killed in a trench about 20 yards behind the front line – he was shot through the head and died an hour afterwards.
Within 24 hours, they batallion received news of new orders – they were to prepare immediately to leave France and to join the forces holding the Serbian front. William set sail from Marseilles on HMT Lake Manitoba on October 30, 1915. He arrived in Salonika on November 7, 1915.