Monday, 30 April 2018
Richard William Laws: Back in hospital again.
This was shocking news at home, but at least they could be glad he was removed from further dangers of the battlefield. Later the family received a small parcel in the mail. It was a tobacco tin with some pieces of shrapnel – some of the bits removed from Dick's head. It was kept for years and many remember it. But now its whereabouts is not known.
Dick's recovery was slow, and the family always believed he was not properly fit when he was sent back to France to fight again. In a letter to his father dated 17 July 1918, Dick reassures the family he is well - “Close on 12 stone now, and feeling pretty fit”. (Dick was ten and a half stone when he enlisted.) He plans to use his leave to visit his father's Goodall relatives in Gosport, and expects to be sent back to France after that -and this did happen.
He is philosophical about going back to the front line. “I will not be sorry in a way as a man will never get on in England.” However at the end of the letter, he perhaps reveals his true feelings - “But a man would be much better off at home.” Here is a great contrast between this Dick and the eager young Dick impatiently waiting to leave England for the first time to get into the fighting in France.
It seems to us now that his severe head wound should have been enough to send him home. Soldiers with a severe leg wound were sent home. But Dick Laws could still march and still shoot a gun, so he was OK to be recycled to build up the numbers for the big new offensive to end the war.
Months before this from 21 March 1918,The Germans had launched their Spring Offensive in the Somme area, and for a while made big advances. They were stopped with desperate fighting, and the Ninth were in the thick of the action. Now the Allies had launched their offensive to end the war, and the Ninth was part of this too. They were in the battle on the victorious 8 August, which was the greatest success of any day's fighting on the Western Front, one that the German commander, General Erich Ludendorff later described as “ The Black Day of the German Army in this War”. This 8 August was the very day Dick Laws left his camp in England, and it was to be a Black Day for him too.
After landing at Le Havre and being taken up to the village of Vaire, Dick was marched in to his Ninth Battalion there, one of 30 reinforcements. This was on 15 August. The Ninth had recently been engaged in heavy and successful fighting around Creepy Wood at the cost of many casualties, including 5 officers, and now were moved back to Vaire to rest and regroup. The weather was very hot, and as their camp was beside the river and the lagoon, all ranks enjoyed swimming. After a Sunday church parade and a battalion Sports and swimming carnival, it was announced their 5 days rest was over, and they would be marching back to the front.
The next day YMCA officers issued cigarettes to the men, which was most welcome, as these had been in short supply and for some time soldiers had been on half ration. It was a very hot day. At 2pm the battalion left Vaire and marched across country for 2 hours. After a good hot meal for all, they were ordered to rest, but to be ready, by day and by night, to march at one hour's notice. They remained at this rendezvous for 2 days. Then on Friday 23 August at 1 am, Reveille was sounded. All companies received a hot meal and moved off at 2.30 am, marching back to the front line 7 days after most of them had left. But Dick Laws was going back after 9 months away.
Again it was planned in detail, again advancing the first part of the way in the dark, again using the Creeping Barrage and the Leapfrog Method. The objectives were reached, so overall it was a success, but this method was no protection against artillery and snipers positioned on a height, as were the Germans on the mountain hump ahead known as Froissey Beacon.
At 4.45am, zero time, the Allied barrage began. The 1st Brigade moved behind the barrage and captured the first objective, the Red Line, by 11am as planned. Next the plan was for the 9th Battalion to move up to this Red Line now securely held by the 1st Brigade, and using this as a jumping off point advance to the Blue Line behind the next gun barrage set to start at 2 o'clock. This plan was successfully carried out. The Blue Line was occupied by 4pm with 110 war prisoners and a great deal of war materials.
However, Dick Laws never did get even to the Red Line.The War Diary of the 9th Battalion coldly records the bare details for 23/8/18, including this advance starting in the middle of the day. “At 11.30am the hot meal was issued to all ranks, and the companies were informed that the Battalion would move off punctually at 12.30p.m. This allowed sufficient time for the troops to reach the Red Line in an easy march. En route to the Red Line the battalion had to pass through a terrific enemy barrage consisting of 8 inch and gas shells, before reaching the jumping off trench. This barrage inflicted the majority of the casualties on this operation.”
The advance was in a line parallel to the Somme river canal, the Ninth being on the left flank and closest to the German guns on Mt Froissey Beacon, ahead of and above them . Without the protection of a covering barrage, once out of the trees they were clear targets for the guns above. And with the 2 pm deadline to keep, they had to push on with as little delay as possible. It was a brave feat of the Ninth that they did keep advancing here. But that one hour of Hell brought 50 casualties.
It is most likely that Dick was killed here. If it was not here, he lived through this horror and was killed a little later that day. The family always said he was killed while stretcher bearing. There is nothing in his army record to indicate he was a stretcher bearer. The Red Cross information service after the war found the 9th Battalion Sergeant Ernest Menadue whose job had been to record the names of his D Company killed each day, and he said he knew Dick well and remembered recording his death, adding “while stretcher bearing”. The medical report of the Ninth for the month of August 1918, records with feeling that 2 regular bearers were killed at this time, but does not mention Dick. So it is likely Dick took over from a bearer and was himself killed while stretcher bearing. “Killed instantly by shell”, this sergeant stated.
Thus, amidst violence and horror and noise, ended the earthly life of Dick Laws – on a warm summer day in what previously was, and is again, the beautiful peaceful French countryside.