Friday, 16 September 2016

George Edward Spencer

George Edward Spencer was a clerk working for the Great Eastern Railway when on 3rd September 1914 he and a couple of his mates from the office answered Kitchener’s call for volunteers and joined the 2/3rd Battalion of the London Regiment (Territorial Force). George was nineteen years old but his Medical Inspection Report stated his apparent age as “21 years and 2 months”, height 5’ 8.5”, girth when fully expanded 39 inches, vision “good”.

The 2/3rd Battalion embarked from Southampton in December 1914 to sail to Malta where George disembarked on 1st January 1915. He remained in Malta until April 1915 when he sailed for Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The battalion later moved to Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal and from there on 18th October to Cape Helles on the Gallipoli peninsula. George was in hospital in Egypt at this time and rejoined his unit at Mudros on the Greek island of Lemos on 13th December. Mudros was the base of operations for the campaign in Gallipoli but it is unclear if he ever set foot on the peninsula himself as the evacuation of troops was already in motion. On 18th January 1916 George was promoted to Lance Corporal.

George's Certificate of Medical Examination

With the close of the Gallipoli campaign in early 1916 many of the British units were sent to France and George arrived there on 17th April. The Territorial force was undergoing reorganisation at this time in preparation for the forthcoming Somme offensive and in May 1916 the 2/3rd battalion was disbanded. George was transferred to the 1/3rd battalion London Regiment on 23rd May 1916. The battalion formed part of 167th Brigade, 56th (1st London) Division.

Against the advice of his own Generals, Sir Douglas Haig ordered the 56th Division along with 46th Division to attack the Gommecourt salient on the first day of the battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916. The action was a diversion to draw enemy reserves away from the main attack further along the line. Haig and his staff appeared not to realise that Gommecourt was probably the most heavily defended point on the entire Western Front.

View from the British front line at Gommecourt

The 1/3rd battalion did not take part in the direct assault on Gommecourt but were tasked with constructing a communication trench from the British front line across no-man’s land to the German front-line trench. This trench would be necessary in order to bring up reserves and supplies safely once Gommecourt had been captured. However, the advance stalled although the 1/3rd were still ordered to commence digging at 8.00am. By 10.10am the attempt was abandoned after receiving heavy casualties from enemy shellfire.

Extract from 1/3rd London's war diary for 1st July 1916

There is no direct documentary evidence in his records that George was involved in the action but it seems highly likely as all leave was normally cancelled in advance of a “big push”. If he did take part one can only imagine his experience of trying to dig a trench across a battlefield under shellfire whilst approximately one fifth of his comrades were killed or injured around him.

On 9th September 1916 George was transferred from the 1/3rd London’s to the 1/23rd London’s joining them at Lahoussoye. By 14th September they had moved forward to High Wood in preparation for their participation in the advance towards Flers-Courcelette due to start the next day. A subsidiary attack of the Somme offensive the Battle of Flers-Courcelette was notable for the introduction of tanks. The attack was launched across a 12 km front from Rawlinson’s Fourth Army salient on 15th September.

The 1/23rd Londons were part of 142nd London Brigade, 47th London Divison. They appear to have taken no part in the opening day of the battle on 15th September but the war diary entry for 16th September shows that they were heavily engaged that day. At 8.55am the battalion moved out over a crest to their front and as they passed to the east of High Wood they were subjected to a heavy artillery barrage, possibly from their own guns. Further on they encountered very heavy machine gun fire from the area of a sunken road. At 2.00am on 17th September the battalion handed over its position to the 6th London’s. The War Diary states that during the period from 16/09/16 to 19/09/16 the 1/23rd London’s lost 16 Officers and 565 other ranks.

Extract from 1/23rd London's war diary for 16th September 1916

At some point during 16th September 1916 George Spencer was killed in action, he was just 21 years old. He has no known grave. His name appears on the Thiepval Memorial in France on Pier and Face 9D 9C 13C & 12C and also on the Great Eastern Railway war memorial in Liverpool Street Station, London.

On 20th November 1916 an entry was made on his service record simply noting him as “missing”. On 7th August 1917 his record was again noted this time with “Regarded for official purposes as DIED on or since 16.9.16”. His length of service is recorded as “2 years and 14 days”.

George Edward Spencer was my great uncle. I only found out about his existence relatively recently as he was never spoken of within the family. The information here has been pieced together from records held at the PRO and other sources on the internet.


KEV. said...

Ian- have read every word about your Great Uncle George- an altogether terrible loss of one of our young men -and an end-story one that was all to familiar of loved ones fighting in Europe. We too lost our Great Uncle 'Edgar Stephenson' from Australia who served with the AIF during WW1 in Europe. Towards the end of hostilities- Edgar passed away from his wounds at Reading War Hospital- England and was buried at Reading ( a long way from Home- though thankfully a marked grave in a friendly- known land). A very sad loss. I knew both his Sisters- my Great Grandmother Annie Stephenson and younger 'Lil' Stephenson - Aunt Lil was totally deaf and lived at New Castle (New South Wales)....I will endeavour in a future Blog-Post of mine to outline some more information - as you have done. Strange that earlier to-day I put in an order to the USA for some 1/32nd Plastic WW1 British and German Troops...these will be special. Regards. KEV.

the Archduke said...

Congratulations on finding these records. Somehow your efforts embellish his life. I salute your Great Uncle George.

Steve-the-Wargamer said...

Powerful writing - I think because to all intents and purposes George's experiences would have been the same for most soldiers - long periods of boredom/illness/leave interspersed with moments of sheer horror - but then you multiply that by the unthinkable number of casualties for the whole war - well written and well remembered! RIP...

The Good Soldier Svjek said...

A very moving story well told , Tony

Wellington Man said...

These events of a 100 years are almost too dreadful to relate.

I've been doing a lot of work recently on the Somme from the New Zealand perspective. The NZ Division was just to the south of your Great Uncle George, attacking between High Wood and Delville Wood on 15 September 1916. German machine guns in High Wood took a dreadful toll. The 2nd Otagos on the left flank was practically destroyed, suffering 70% casualties. Altogether the division lost about 600 killed on that day, the worst loss in NZ military history up to that point. Only Passchendaele would exceed this. Nevertheless, Flers was taken and the attack chalked up as a victory.

By early November, when the last New Zealand elements were finally relieved, they'd advanced just shy of 3km, but at the cost of 8,000 casualties, of which 2,000 died. It had taken less than 8 weeks for the division to accumulate casualties equivalent to those suffered at Gallipoli in 8 months. For a small country like NZ, the impact of such losses was devastating. The surviving accounts from the NZers who took part describe scenes which are simply heartbreaking.

A very moving post, Ian.


lewisgunner said...

It s difficult to read stories such as this and Matt's NZ experience and not believe in the 'Lions led by donkeys' theory of WW1 generalship. They make a sensible case that the generals are trying new techniques each time, but whenever the casualty numbers are put against the yardage gained and the failure to break through it makes the loss of life seem rather pointless.

MSFoy said...

Marvellous post, Ian - my sincere compliments and thanks for your work and skill in putting this together and sharing it with us, and all respect and honour to your Great Uncle George. Very moving.

Anonymous said...

A very moving story, thank you for sharing.


Matt said...

A thoroughly well researched little piece. Also very moving - another soul never given the chance to raise a family or realize his full potential by the monster of war.

When you read the history books you sometimes forget they were all young men with a history of their own like Great Uncle George.

I also have to say the family resemblance is quite uncanny.

Stryker said...

Thanks for all the comments - much appreciated