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This article has been written by Katharine Harris, the Great Granddaughter of Private Herbert Mercer. Thanks to Katherine for allowing me to publish this story.

 

My memories of my Great Grandfather, Herbert Mercer are somewhat sketchy, as I was quite young at the time, though I do recall that he had a ‘funny thumb’ on one hand. There are many questions I would like to ask, but as is the way, I was too young to comprehend that he had had such an adventurous and rather tough life in many ways. His quiet, calm exterior gave no inkling of the rather dramatic events in his life, prior to the 1960’s.

I do not know when I first became aware of his War Service in World War 1, but thought it would be fascinating to find out what was available. Therefore with the scantiest of information with respect to him enlisting, I have, through the use of internet records, the International Red Cross Records of Prisoners of War (details from Red Cross POW document), and a researcher near the National Archives, been able to access what information there is to hand.

I have managed to establish that Herbert’s War service records were destroyed during the Second World War, along with the majority of other WW1 records. However the Service records of a fellow soldier, Albert Manley, who enlisted with Herbert and has a service number one removed from Herbert, survive, and serve as a fairly reliable guide to Herbert’s service.

Herbert was born in Rishton in 1879, the youngest of 10 children. He was the son of Henry Mercer and his wife, Mary (nee Duckworth).

In 1902 Herbert married Margaret Ann Coonan at Blackburn Register Office. Four children followed, all arriving shortly before the outbreak of WW1. In December 1915, Herbert enlisted in the Royal Lancaster Regiment (Kings Own) on 11 December 1915 at Barrow (No. 35395). For Christmas 1915, Herbert was undergoing his military training in preparation for his departure to France in January 1916. It seems likely that he joined his Battalion, after training on Salisbury Plain, on the Western Front in the trenches, on 17 Jan 1916 or 29 Jan 1916.

It must have taken some adjustment to Trench life from the relative peace of Rishton, even with the preparation he had had on Salisbury Plain. He did not have to wait long, with his first two battles being those of the Ypres Salient, with the Actions of the Bluff and St Eloi Craters, taking place between Feb-April 1916. Life now, was one of time spent on Front Line with his Battalion in the Trenches, all weathers, with approximately one week in the front line, before being relieved for a few days rest behind the lines. This respite was necessary for all concerned, as it enabled the men to have a bath, hot meals, and some extra sleep, all of which were in short supply whilst in the trenches. At intervals, their respite from the Front Line was extended for extra training, or in the lead up to a major offensive, efforts were made to ensure they were well rested beforehand and were familiar with the tactics to be employed in the next attack. Whilst this was going on, other troops remained at the Front Line who would not be part of the next battle. During heavy fighting, food rations may or may not get through and it was rarely hot. This only added to the discomfort of being out in the cold and wet, as it meant that they were rarely dry or warm. Even with frost on the ground or snow, they remained outside for the duration of their duty. On top of this was the ever present threat of being killed in battle. Therefore living conditions were fairly grim. This was particularly the case in the Battles of Menin Road and Polygon Wood, which were part of Passchendaele, where extremely heavy rain in August 1917, together with heavy shelling and fighting had turned the area into a huge sea of mud. In the Trenches, the men were often thigh deep in mud, which clogged up rifles and tanks; men and horses drowned in it too. Indeed conditions were so bad for both sides, that fighting was delayed for a month to allow conditions to improve.

Many of the battles shown below for 1916 were part of the Somme Offensive, which saw huge losses. At one point, between 11-27 July, in Herbert’s Division alone, 5854 men and 248 Officers were killed. There was not much improvement in 1917, the Scarpe Battles , Arleux and Roeux were part of the Arras Offensive, whilst the others were part of the Flanders Offensive, the lead up to the major battle of Passchendaele.

From the War Diary accounts, much of Herbert’s War service was spent on the Western Front, in the France and Flanders regions, where some of the heaviest fighting took place. It seems a wonder that he survived.

The following lists the battles in which he was involved:

  • Actions of the Bluff. 14-15 Feb 1916.
  • Actions of the St. Eloi Craters. 27 Mar-16 Apr 1916.
  • Battle of Albert. 1-13 Jul 1916, including the capture of Montauban, Mametz, Fricourt, Contalmaison and La Boisselle.
  • Battle of Bazentin. 14-17 Jul 1919, including the capture of Longueval, Trones Wood and Ovillers.
  • Battle of Delville Wood. 15 Jul-3 Sep 1916.
  • Battle of the Ancre. 13-18 Nov 1916, including the capture of Beaumont Hamel.
  • First Battle of the Scarpe. 9-14 Apr 1917, including the capture Monchy le Preux and the Wancourt Ridge.
  • Second Battle of the Scarpe. 23-24 Apr 1917, including the capture of Guemappe and Gavrelle.
  • Battle of Arleux. 28-29 Apr 1917.
  • Third Battle of the Scarpe. 3-4 May 1917, including the capture of Fresnoy.
  • Capture of Roeux. 13-14 May 1917.
  • Battle of the Menin Road. 20-25 Sep 1917.
  • Battle of Polygon Wood. 26 Sep-3 Oct 1917.

 

From the corresponding War Diary: 
Trenches SW of Verbran Denmolen, Renningheist: 17 Jan 1916 Draft of 50 arrived.
Trenches SW of Verbran Denmolen, Renningheist: 29 Jan 1916 Draft of 20 arrived.

 

From Renningheist, the Battalion moved to Poperinge and then to Eecke in North Eastern France, south east of Cassel.

For the remainder of his service with the Royal Lancasters, they remained in France moving at frequent intervals according to the demands of battle.

From Eecke they went to St. Omer, then Mericourt and Courcelles, both to the south east of Lens. Other places included Halloy in the Somme region, Wanquentin, Pas de Calais and then Arras. Ambrines, north west of Arras followed, Arras again, before a move to Le Bucquiere, south west of Douai; a return to the Arras area, to Fremicourt and Bullecourt both to the south east of Arras itself.

Shortly before Herbert was moved to the 10th Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, his battalion of the Royal Lancasters were in Barastre, south east of Bapaume and finally Winnezeele very close to the border with Belgium, north east of Cassel.

The rest of his current battalion moved just after his departure to Mory, north of Bapaume. However for Herbert, his move was not to Mory, but to the 10th Bn Loyal North Lancashire Regiment on 22 Oct 1917 (No. 28739), joining them at Ypres. Therefore he was back in Belgium, close to where he had been almost two years earlier. After Ypres, it was to Locre, south of Poperinge and then back to north eastern France, this time to Wallencappel, south of Cassel.

A return to Belgium followed, to Vierstraat south west of Ypres, back to France, to Racquinghem east of St Omer before returning to a small village called Wippenhoek, just inside the Belgian border. During the few months with the 10th Loyal North Lancs, Herbert and his fellow soldiers took their turn in doing a regular stint on the front line, sometimes with hand to hand combat as described in the War Diary. Other than that, they seem to have been used as Working Parties.

Shortly before Christmas 1917, the War Diary describes the men as being of lesser physique than previously, and exhausted due to the long hours and the constant strain of battle. On 29 th Dec 1917, they started another stint in the trenches, remaining there over New Year 1918.

Conditions in the trenches were poor, cold and very wet. In fact the day, before they returned to the trenches they had to rub whale fat on their feet to try and stop foot rot occurring. On 4th February 1918, 10th Bn Loyal North Lancashire Regiment were given notice that they were to be disbanded, much to the dismay of the men concerned. At this point, they came under the command of the Fourth Army, 22nd Corps moving on 21 February 1918 to Wippenhoek , just inside the Belgian border. The men were to be used to form the 15th Entrenching Battalion. No diaries or service records survive for this entrenching battalion. 

Thus, his movements after this date are open to conjecture until the third week in March 1918, when he was taken prisoner. At that point, he must have been reassigned to the Fifth Army, as he was near Hesbecourt.

The Fifth Army at this particular stage, had only recently taken over a stretch of front line, previously occupied by the French, south of the river Somme. Therefore it was unfamiliar territory. Furthermore it was the newest Army and contained the largest number of reorganised divisions.

On the 21 March, this area bore the brunt of the opening phase of the German Spring Offensive, known as Operation Michael. The German Army led by Georg von der Marwitz of the 2nd Army, 76th Division, launched the attack on the 66th British Division. The Commander in charge was Sir Hubert Gough, but the failure of the Fifth Army to withstand the German advance led to Gough’s subsequent dismissal and the disbanding of the broken army.

On 3 March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had been signed, which marked Russia’s withdrawal from WW1. The effect of this, meant that German soldiers who had been guarding the front with Russia were no longer needed and were therefore available to mass on the Western Front for a surprise attack, the Spring Offensive, on the British Troops. The aim of this was to break through enemy lines, to regain land lost earlier in the War and to seize control of supply routes to the Allied Forces. Though it failed ultimately in separating British and French armies, it came close to seizing Amiens which was key to supplying food and weapons to the Allies.

The arrival of the Americans in support of the French, helped to ensure that it was a victory for the Allies rather than the Germans. However both sides bore huge losses, in terms of those wounded or killed. Large numbers of British troops were rounded up and captured, 21 000 on 21st March alone, the first day of battle. So fierce was the attack, that the 5th Army was forced out of its lines, precipitating a chaotic retreat conceding 7 km of ground.

On 22nd March, Ivor Maxse ordered the 18th British Corps to disengage from the Germans, and immediately pull back to the Somme, thereby creating a gap in the line, forcing the Corps on either side to withdraw, losing more ground. As a result, the 3rd Army who had held their position well, were forced to drop back to safeguard its right flank as the 5th Army retreated. Despite the arrival of 5 French divisions brought in to reinforce the southern end of the line on 23 March, the retreat continued. The same thing happened on 24th, 25th and on 26th March when Albert fell to the enemy; fortunately on the 27th and 28th March, the 5th Army finally held its line.

Operation Michael began on 21 March 1918, launched from the Hindenburg Line, in the vicinity of Saint Quentin. In the Hesbecourt area on the day, there was considerable gas shelling going on.

The following is an extract from the War Diary of the 9th Loyal Sussex Regiment which gives the detail of what happened in the Hesbecourt region over 21-24 March, when Herbert was captured on 22 March 1918. The Entrenching Battalion referred to, was I am certain, Herbert’s battalion.

21 March 1918; 4.40am

Was awakened by a heavy bombardment and at once came to the conclusion that it was the beginning of the long expected German attack. The Battalion stood to and the cookers were not going.
6am Received orders to “Man Battle Positions”. There were 4 redoubts about 1 mile behind the Front Line of Y Division. They had been dug the night before last and had been fitted up with rations and SAA at Midnight 20-21st. The trenches in places, were however only 1 foot deep.
6.30am All Companies were clear of the village and on their way to their redoubts-about 2 hours march…..

22 March 1918; 2am

A and C Companies each captured a couple of prisoners in our wire during the night. Cavalry relieved D Company who then occupied trenches between Upstart Redoubt and Hesbecourt. Entrenching Battalion came up and dug in in front of B Company. I heard that they fought like devils next day. Received appreciation from BGC of the effect we had on other troops in neighbourhood. All Companies fetched their rations and water during the night.

Got a little food and rest during early morning.

8.18am D Company found that Upstart Redoubt was in hands of enemy.
1.50pm Enemy came through Hesbecourt in very large numbers with Artillery close behind him.

2pm The position in Hesbecourt became untenable and the Battalion was withdrawn to the Roisel-Montigny road where a rear guard action was fought by 30 men.

23 March 1918; 8.30am

Sent May on a horse to look for troops on our right-he rode for one and a half miles and found no-one.

Received orders to withdraw to Falvy on the Somme.

It would seem therefore that Herbert was taken prisoner on the afternoon of 22 March, one of the many British troops rounded up, becoming a Prisoner of War.

Herbert was taken to a POW camp and detained in II Munster i/W Camp initially.

By the end of April, he had been transferred to a camp in Metz, called Lazarette Saint Clement. This was a military hospital for POWs, under the orders of the XVI German Army Corps.

The camp at Munster was on the racecourse there and possessed a Catholic Chapel, a theatre and brick built barracks (originally intended for German Troops). This was a working camp where most of the prisoners were engaged in coal mining. It was probably whilst working here, in some sort of mining accident, that resulted in his ‘funny thumb’. In truth, the whole of his hand was likely to have been injured with the thumb being the most badly damaged. Whatever the cause, Herbert must have been injured to some degree, to have been moved to the Military Hospital in Metz. Whilst some medical care was provided, I gather that it was somewhat rudimentary. I suppose, at least he was no longer working in the mines. However he must have been made of stern stuff, to have weathered the long train journey to Metz from Munster. He seems to have remained in Metz until November 1918. He is likely to have returned home by the end of November, as POWs were released fairly swiftly at the end of WW1.

Sometime around 1920, he would have received the two medals to which he was entitled on account of his War Service, the British Medal 1914-1918 and the Allied Victory Medal. Sadly, I have no idea as to their current whereabouts.

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Paul McCormick

Paul McCormick is the creator and administrator for the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment website. Since 2010 he has been researching the soldiers that served during the First World War and sharing their stories on his website. You can contact Paul through the website 'Contact Me' page or on Twitter and Facebook.
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