Charlie

Charles Robertson Morris was born in Colwyn Bay in 1897. All I knew about his time in the army was that he joined up with Bertie, was under age and died of shrapnel wounds to his lungs. Compared to the other two brothers there were no photos of him in uniform and very little to go on. This was even more baffling when I discovered that he wasn’t even included in the official records for war dead.

CR Morris in the family Robertson tartan

CR Morris in Robertson family tartan

Enlisting on the same day as Bertie he’d added exactly 2 years to his real age, he declared his age as 19 and 1 month which probably felt less of a lie, and gave his trade as: “ex-public school boy”. He’d attended Caernarfon County School and according to IWM records is included on their war memorial. His complexion is described as pale, with fair hair and blue eyes. He would have declared an oath to:

“Swear by almighty God, that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth… defending his dignity against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders..”

Finally discovering his records, I was staggered to find he was a tiny little fellow at 5ft 3.5 – although the average for the time is regarded to 5ft 5 inches he must have been pleased that his extra half inch was enough to meet the Welsh enlistment criteria comfortably. Later on shorter men would be able to join the ranks of the Bantam battalions. Despite his stature he would be route marching across northern France carrying a 109lb pack, a Lee Enfield rifle plus 150 rounds and enduring months on the front line – and two major battles.

GlodAs the days became milder the new recruits moved from their guest house billets to tents at Gloddaeth Park. Further training took place in Winchester including a shooting course with each man rationed to only 24 rounds each before being declared ready to go.

After a notably cold voyage to Le Havre in early December 1915, they marched their way through 100 hours of rain, the worst for 39 years, until they reached billets behind the front line sleeping in leaky barns or bivouac tents along the way…

France

They were to take up the line at Givenchy-lez-la Bassée, described by Lt Llewellyn Wyn Griffith as having “a bad reputation….. possessed by some demon unrest”  and a place where “the fire of bitter antagonism never died down“. In the 4 months before their move down to the “Somme” the battalions of the 38th were engaged in the Trench Cycle. This would be a rotation shared between battalions meaning time on the Front Line, then in Support, followed by a period in Reserve and then Rest. Daily life meant Stand To where infantry men would rise at dawn, lining the trenches with fixed bayonets in case of an early morning attack. This would be followed by breakfast and weapon cleaning. Time spent at the front would vary so not to give the all knowing enemy any opportunity to take advantage over the shifting battalions.

Duck's Bill trench at Givenchy La Bassee

Duck’s Bill * at Givenchy (blue British, red German)

Here they were under constant artillery bombardment – on the receiving end of “daily hate” and taking part in brutal night time raids to catch the enemy unaware. On May 15th a fifteen man bombing party attacked Germans repairing their wire near “Duck’s Bill” causing considerable casualties. Two 16th RWF men were killed and five wounded.

Holding the line would shred nerves, as apart from the shellfire from above, there remained a fear that they could be blown to kingdom come by the work of tunnellers below. Their raised vantage point on “this accursed hill” at Givenchy made this a prime target. The largest mine here was detonated by the Germans and named Red Dragon crater in memory of the men of the 2nd RWF who’d died in the explosion. The same explosion caused British tunnellers, working nearby, to be cut off and buried alive. It was here that William Hackett was awarded a posthumous VC for his heroic efforts in refusing to give up on the last man.

CRMDuring these months, the 16th RWF occupied the front line not just at Givenchy but at Le Touret and Festubert while going back to camps at Gorre for rest, recreation and more training.

By June 12th 1916, it was time to move on. Sensing that something big was about to happen, they marched to La Gorgue and on to Ostreville for 9 days trench fighting practice. Following this, it was on to Puchevilliers then Ribemont arriving on July 3rd. By 10pm on the 4th they had relieved the 2nd South Staffs in trenches between Mametz village and the wood. The 16th RWF consisted of 15 officers and 600 men.

Mametz Wood although not as well known as High Wood and Delville Wood, was at 200 acres, the largest  on the Somme. Approaching it from the south, seeing this shattered mass of trees loom into view – machine guns and a well trained enemy waiting – attempting to take it must have looked “sheer lunacy“. These men of Lloyd George’s Army had yet to go into battle and had received none of the specialist training needed to fight in such an entangled environment.

Lt Llewellyn Wyn Griffith provided what is regarded as the defining narrative for the battle in his book Up to Mametz. There is a poignant account of the personal loss suffered by Padre Evans in the days before all hell broke loose once again.

mametz-revised2After the tragedy of a failed attack on the “Hammerhead” on the 7th, the 38th Welsh Div were ordered to go again, making a frontal assault on the southern edge of the wood. Among those defending the wood were the elite Lehr Regiment who had not long arrived from the Eastern Front. Around 3am, the 16th RWF gathered at the Queen’s Nullah to sing hymns and hear their C/O, Lt-Colonel Carden’s appeal: “Boys, make your peace with God! We are going to take that position and some of us won’t come back, but we are going to take it.”

As he waited, writer and artist David Jones in his iconic literary masterpiece, In Parenthesis, wrote of what he heard:

“Glory Allelujah – and the Royal Welsh sing: Jesu lover of my soul…to Aberwystwyth. But that was on the right with the genuine Taffies..”

After the service the men moved from the Nullah to the top of the hill. At 4.15 they were to advance in 8 lines of men, 100 yards apart.carden

Confusion reigned when Carden, who’d gone off to liaise with the nearby 114th Brigade, failed to return for the 4.15am attack. His second in command was forced to order the advance at 4.30. This soon fell apart when men from the 14th Welsh were heard to shout “retire’.

However Carden did return to re-organise the men. The delay meant they’d lost valuable time and without the advantage of smoke cover from the earlier artillery barrage, the 16th RWF were horribly exposed to enemy machine gun fire from Strip Trench, Wood Trench and Quadrangle Alley on their left.

mam-menAs they went over, Lt Col Carden  who’d tied a coloured hankie to his walking stick shouted: “This will show you where I am!” Soon after he was hit, he struggled on but was then killed by the edge of the wood. The 16th RWF bombing party successfully dealt with Strip Trench while chaos set in as small groups set off in different directions to look for the enemy. From other accounts I’ve read it soon became hellish as artillery fire from both sides rained down on the Welsh. Trees fell making movement impossible while men ripped apart from the explosions, hung from the shattered trees. Their own shells were falling short exploding on contact with the tree tops while in other parts of the wood there was hand to hand fighting. Sgt Tom Price of the 13th Welsh Regt felt the turning point of the battle came when Germans ran out of the trees to bayonet the wounded on the ground. Seeing this, the boys of the 10th and 15th Welsh Regt flew in a “screaming temper” to take their revenge.

“Sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.”

David Jones – In Parenthesis

mametz-banner

Charlie’s battalion had the shortest distance to go before they reached the wood, however German records note the considerable losses they suffered even before reaching the tress. Men from the 5th Company Lehr Regiment surrendered as they became trapped between the 16th and 14th RWF Battalions. The battalions to the east had a seemingly impossible job to cross the wide exposed slope up to the trees and were forced back again and again until reinforcements help push their way into the wood. Among them was Welsh rugby international Lt Frank Hawkins MC (I like the story about his car) who captured two German machines guns during the day.

The 16th RWF called on the 14th RWF for support but all telephone wires back to the Nullah had been cut by enemy shelling. At one point the Welsh feared a trick as Germans came out of the wood waving a white flag while further over to the east the chaos continued. The 15th RWF moved in without proper orders to help the 16th. On reaching the first objective the two battalions became dangerously overcrowded close to Wood Support Trench. This was recalled by David Jones who would be wounded in the fighting:

But which is front, and which way’s the way onDJones

and where’s the corporal and what’s this crush

and all this shoving you along, and someone shouting rhetorically

about remembering your nationality –

and Jesus Christ-they’re coming through the floor,

endthwart and overlong:

Jerry’s through on the flank. . . and: Beat it!-

that’s what one said as he ran past:

Bosches back in Strip Trench-it’s a

monumental bollocks every time

and but we avoid wisely there is but death

The congestion meant that the 16th and 15th RWF were withdrawn while the battle raged on against a German counter attack in the Hammerhead. By the afternoon fresh Welsh Battalions had replaced the weary men from the morning attack and pressed on to the second objective. During the night the enemy poured 1000 troops into the wood. Snipers, machine guns, flamethrowers and hand to hand fighting all added to the unfolding nightmare. Recent aerial research revealed an enormous German command centre in the middle of the wood. This perhaps goes a long way to explain the difficulties faced by an inexperienced army in clearing out the enemy to General Haig’s satisfaction.

The next day the 16th RWF were back in the wood along with battalions of the RWF, the Welsh Regiment and the South Wales Borderers to build on the solid but costly progress. There was still trouble on the northerly edges of the wood and Germans had re-entered setting up machine gun positions. Lt Llewellyn Wyn Griffith, due to casualties, found himself Brigade-Major and having to stop a British artillery barrage that was falling short as well as preventing a vital attack on a re-emerging enemy. After three runners he sent requesting a halt to the shelling failed to get through, he sent three more and the guns were halted. What he didn’t know until the next day was that one of the successful messengers was his younger brother, killed by German shellfire on his return back into the wood.

The Germans withdrew later that evening but followed it up with an almighty artillery barrage that carried on through the night as a last hurrah.

treesI’d have to admit that until my research began, I never realised high ranking officers took part in the actual fighting but there were Brigadier Generals, Lieutenant Generals with the figures for killed, wounded and missing reaching 4000. Officer casualties had been proportionately extremely high, leaving men leaderless adding to the disorder. German casualties are regarded to be something similar.

In the first movement on the 10th Charlie’s battalion suffered the loss of the Colonel, a Sergeant-Major and 43 other ranks with 201 killed or wounded and 64 missing. More followed including Caernarfon man 2nd Lieut Tregarthen Rees.

Following the battle there was strong criticism of the entire operation including the conduct of everyone involved, although much of the criticism of the fighting man was retracted and revised over time. Generals were removed in disgrace and the 38th Division was withdrawn from any immediate action. Wales would remember this for a long time as telegrams bearing bad news were delivered up and down the country more or less on the same day. It would take other divisions weeks to capture High, Delville and Trones Woods and with vast losses. Over 20000 for High Wood alone. Almost unbelievably the German spring offensive of 1918 meant that Mametz Wood fell back into their hands once more and the 16th RWF would play a significant part in reclaiming it all over again in the August.

Llewellyn Wyn Griffith expressed the awful sense of loss at having to leave his young brother and fellow soldiers behind:

“..as dawn was breaking over Bazentin, I turned towards the green shape of the Mametz Wood and shuddered in a farewell to one and to many. I had not even buried him, nor was his grave ever found”

The 16th RWF withdrew from the wood at 12.00 noon travelling by train and bus to Mailly-Maillet very close to where Bertie had been since the opening day of the Somme. For the rest of the month they supplied working parties to the 252nd Tunnelling Company RE. These very same Royal Engineers had dug the mine filmed by Geoffrey Malins under Hawthorn Redoubt and exploded it on the 1st July. It would have been tough work for the Welsh, going deep into the mine shafts and lugging sacks of earth to be deposited secretly elsewhere at night. On August 3rd the remnants of the 38th arrived at Ypres to relieve the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders to take up positions in the trenches rotating duties with the 15th RWF and the SWB once again. This would be regarded as a quiet part of the line. Somewhere where they would have time for their wounds and minds to heal. The opportunity to re-gain their honour would come the following year.

‘Wipers’

On the night of 29th-30th October the 16th RWF took part in a raid on the enemy trenches. Sixty men and three officers meticulously prepared using model replicas of raid-picthe German lines to be attacked. Every man had been given the opportunity to go into No Man’s Land to get experience of being close to the enemy “in the form of fighting patrols”. Before the raid luminous discs were placed at the point of attack while tape was rolled out back to the “jumping off” point.

British field guns and howitzers opened up on the German Cactus and Cable trenches while they in turn swept No Man’s Land and the canal with machine gun fire. At 11.27pm enemy artillery sent over high explosive (HE) and shrapnel while Belgians retaliated with mortar fire. The shelling continued until 12.40am while the raid was still taking place.

A full report was compiled in the aftermath of the raid. It was recorded that the German trenches were inferior to their own with willow hurdles being used and “not bullet proof“. Prisoners were reluctant to be led in and had to be persuaded “by tying ropes around their necks“. They were pleased with accuracy of the British guns and also their own machine guns which sprayed No Man’s Land during the raid. German artillery had failed to do much damage. Casualties were recorded as “1 missing, 5 wounded”. One German officer who was found in a dugout trying to open a knife was shot.

TalgwyneddThe next few months appear to be relatively quiet with the enemy’s shelling of the 16th RWF’s positions providing the main action. December 1916 saw them relieved and moving to Poperinghe (“Pop”) and then on to Volckerinckhove for rest. The Carnarvon & Denbigh Herald reported that Charlie was home during the same month. I’m not sure if my Grandpa was working in England by now, so can only wonder if they were able to see each other and talk about their experiences of what they’d seen and done.

January saw the 16th RWF back in the same place at Boesinghe just north of Ypres with trench life continuing in much the same way as before. In parts they’d be no more than 30 yards away from the enemy line. Conversations could be overheard and even had with English speakers among the German ranks. Well behind the lines Haig and Plumer were planning to smash out of the Salient taking Messines and Pilckem Ridges and eventually pushing on to Passchendaele.

CRM_uniformOn March 9th Charlie was appointed Lance Corporal – a position that would make him personally responsible for the duties of a small group of men.

At the beginning of July 1917 the battalion move to Caestre and Rely in France, a safe distance behind the line, for special “attack schemes” training. Men from other battalions and regiments are brought in to bolster the ranks. They come from the Cheshires and Hertfordshires as well as other RWF. By  July 16th they were back in their usual Canal Bank sector at Boesinghe. Fighting patrols continue to go out into No Man’s Land challenging the enemy with grenades. On the night of the 22nd “an officer purporting to be RGA is apprehended in front line”. He is suspected of being a spy and sent back for questioning. He was most likely involved in routine Forward Observation work guiding in the shellfire, activities that Bertie would have carried out, however suspicion was rife and no one could be too careful.

The same evening the enemy sent over gas shells so respirators had to be worn all night. Twenty five men were gassed.

‘They called it Passchendaele’

The action that began on the July 31st would mean that Charlie’s life would never be the same again. the Third Battle of Ypres was about to begin. It would go on until the 10th November. Charlie’s part in the battle lasted no more than two or three days. Thousands of men from five Divisions were poised for the attack to break out of the Salient. Preluded by a 3000 gun artillery barrage that lasted for ten days, expending over 4 million shells, the 16th RWF (part of 113th Brigade – 38th Division) were to go over at Zero Hour 3.50am and make their way up the ridge to Pilkem. The weather up to this point had been hot and sunny however the worse rain for 30 years would fall during August turning the landscape into a sea of mud. Water filled craters that would swallow up laden men and horses, and scores of well defended concrete bunkers conspired to make this horrendous work.

A real point of interest is that Yorkshire Trench, from where the men moved “in perfect formation” survives today, and has been reconstructed for visitors to see. It’s now slap in the middle of an industrial estate and is yards away from all the preceding months of activities close to No Man’s Land and the German front line.

The official War Diary records their successes in the customary matter-of-fact style:

“During the advance which was most gallantly carried out, opposition was experienced from machine guns and snipers, and several officers were hit. The majority of the enemy met were dispatched with the bayonet except those who gave themselves up”.

Hostile fire came from Zouave House, however this was easily overcome. By 5am excellent progress continued with 150 Germans taken prisoner and 50 “bitter” enemy killed. Fresh companies would quickly move through those in front to renew and sustain the attack. Machine gun fire poured out of Stray and Marsouin Farms and the advancing Battalions moved dangerously close to their own creeping artillery barrage. Many officers were being lost so NCOs quickly took over their responsibilities “without hesitation. The behaviour of all ranks was excellent throughout”

The patriotic press and a number of books, including a well regarded account by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, would revel in the success of that day. The “heroic” Welsh who’d “swept over Pilckem Ridge” were embarrassed at their humiliation of the Kaiser’s favourite Potsdam Guards known as Cockshafers and regarded as “the best German Footguards on the Western Front”. A Welsh officer surrounded by loud and surrendering Cockshafers had threatened to punch one of them unless he “let him alone”. A Cardiff man described them “with their tails down” but also meek and amiable. German medics even treated the wounded Welsh in a large underground bunker already containing a 150 of their own men left behind in their rapid retreat.

Stray_Farm2

Stray Farm rebuilt today. Charlie was wounded close to here. The attack moved from right to left.

By midnight the 16th RWF were relieved by the 15th RWF but were back at the Front Line near Stray Farm at 7am on 1st August. On the 2nd August they held the whole of the Front Line in their sector close to the Steenbeek River.

Records show that Charlie’s war ended that day on the 2nd of August. The Germans were already attempting a counter attack with their heavy artillery causing many casualties. Charlie would be included in the 183 “Other Ranks” wounded in the 16th RWF’s War Diary.

trainHis available medical records detail a GSW (gun shot wound) however it is common to see this as shorthand to describe an invasive wound, in this case shrapnel damage to his right chest, shoulder and back. Stretcher bearers would have been called to carry him to a Regimental Aid Post. From there it was to an Advanced Dressing Station, probably at Stray Farm – the site of cleared German defences, and then on to to the Casualty Clearing Station by ambulance. Expert help has revealed that this was very likely to be at ‘Dozinghem’ which was covered by nos. 4, 47 and 61 Casualty Clearing Stations at that time. Over the first three days of the battle 3862 casualties went through the hospital here. There were doctors, nurses, wards and operating theatres where men would have been patched up ready to move on after a few days to a base hospital. The CWGC cemetery at Dozinghem contains forty two RWF men mostly from 113th Brigade including eight from Charlie’s Battalion who would have died of their injuries at the hospital.

gosfHe was shipped home on 2nd September 1917 and taken by train to the former St Nicholas Asylum, now renamed the Northumberland War Hospital at Gosforth in Newcastle.

He left hospital on 29th December 1917 and was discharged from the army on the 2nd May 1918 under King’s Regulation paragraph 392 XVI being deemed No longer physically fit for War Service.

After 3 years and 147 days in the army it was finally over. His “Military Character” was described as V.Good.

Character awarded in accordance with King’s Regulations:

A steady, sober, honest, industrious man. He served in France in 1915-16-17 and was wounded 2.8.17. Crossed out is Prior to enlistment he was employed at school. I trust he will obtain the employment he deserves.

charlie-blog

CRM with Silver War Badge, overseas service stripes and Wound stripe on right sleeve.

However one month before his discharge he is recorded as looking ill, pale and anaemic but his wounds are said to have healed well enough. By the March 1919 he is recorded as “wretchedly ill, anaemic and wasted.” The rest of the report by the RAMC in Bangor makes harrowing reading, charting a tragic decline that would continue until he died at home on 24th June 1920 aged 22.

My Grandpa would have arrived quickly to support his parents. His signature is on Charlie’s death certificate. He was buried in the Llanbeblig Public Cemetery between Caernarfon and Caeathraw, where his parents now lived.

The local paper Y Genedl Gymreig carried the news.

On Friday Mr Charles Robertson Morris, Bryneglwys, son of Mr and Mrs Henry Charles Morris died of wounds received in France. When war broke out he was in the county school. He joined the Pals in Llandudno and was with the 16th RWF after. He went through some fierce fighting but was wounded in the lungs. After receiving treatment he came home but he was poorly for two years. Condolences go to the family who had already lost one son Captain R Parry Morris MC, RGA and another wounded namely Lt G E Morris.

It was only in 2012 that I was told by a formidable RWF expert and archivist that Charlie’s name, together with Bertie’s, could be found on the Ebeneser Chapel in Caernarfon. The same kind man would also be instrumental in having Charlie’s sacrifice recorded. Unbeknown to me, as an authority on all things RWF, he’d discovered that Charlie had been omitted from the official lists of War Dead. Gathering evidence he contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and had him finally accepted into their records. I was extremely moved to find that a complete stranger had gone to such trouble to make this right.

He shares a grave with his parents. Their names are together on the headstone while Bertie and Charlie are named on each side of the tomb. In November 2020 I was delighted to hear from the CWGC that had installed an official “Gallipoli” tablet. This was due to the weathering of his parents’ grave. I am thrilled that he has finally received the public recognition that he deserves for his ultimate sacrifice.

I’ve visited his grave on three occasions. The first time was a family holiday with my Grandpa in 1970. He didn’t want go with us to the cemetery that day as the memories were still too fresh for him. I went again in 1990 while on a gloriously sunny walking holiday in Snowdonia. Most recently was in 2012, and perhaps being the most poignant, having gone with beginnings of the knowledge I have today.

end-baner2

Charlie’s grave at the Lanbeblig Cemetery. “Bryn Eglws/Hedd Fryn” the house where he died. My mother playing in the same garden in 1927. I discovered in 2021 that the home was bought by him for £1000.