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IOW Remembers 27234 Private Stephen James Millard

© 2017 TIM MOREMAN ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

30th November 2017 is the 100th Anniversary of the death of another serviceman from the Isle of Wedmore - this time a young farmer from Great House Farm in Theale.

27234 Private Stephen James Millard, 7th (Service) Battalion Somerset Light Infantry (1886-1917).

Stephen James Millard – Steve to his family - was born on 26th December 1886 at Theale, the son of George Millard (1843-1922) and his wife Emma (1844-1914) nee Slocombe. He had five brothers – Herbert, Henry John, Robert, Walter and Charles – and five sisters – Agnes, Sarah Jane, Louisa, Bessie and Emily. Stephen was educated at the Bagley Board School until the age of 14. In April 1911 24–year old Stephen was employed at the family business at Great House Farm in Theale.

27 year-old Stephen voluntarily enlisted at Minehead in November 1914 where he joined the West Somerset Yeomanry (a mounted unit that formed part of the part-time Territorial Force), likely at the same time given his service number as Ralph Bannell from Theale and Clifford Bethell from Mudgley. He served in East Anglia during 1914-15, but probably on medical grounds did not accompany the unit when it was sent to Gallipoli. In 1916 Stephen transferred to the Somerset Light Infantry. Following infantry training at the regimental depot and 3rd Battalion, he was sent late in 1916 as part of a reinforcement draft to join the 7th (Service) Battalion Somerset Light Infantry. This ‘hostilities only’ infantry unit had been raised at Taunton in September 1914 as part of the second wave of Kitchener’s New Army and formed part of 61st Brigade in 21st (Light) Division. Following training near Woking, Godalming and Salisbury Plain, late in the afternoon of 24th July it boarded two trains at Amesbury en route to a troopship waiting at the Quayside at Southampton. At 11.00pm that night it landed at Boulogne and after a short rest it moved by train and then on foot to the Western Front. The battalion took part in heavy fighting on the Somme during 1916 and after a bitterly cold winter in the trenches the following year participated in the pursuit of the Imperial German Army to the Hindenburg Line and then took part in the Passchendaele campaign during the autumn of 1917. The battalion suffered heavy casualties during intense fighting at Langemarck and near Eagle Trench.

The 7th (Service) Battalion Somerset Light Infantry was withdrawn on 28th September 1917 from the mud of the hard-fought Ypres Salient, along with the rest of the 20th (Light) Division, to rest, reorganise and absorb reinforcements in a quiet sector of the Western Front. Between 15th October and 10th November it rotated in and out of the frontline. On 10th November 1917 the battalion entrained in great secrecy and arrived at Bray far behind the frontline where it began training in co-operation with tanks and using aerial photographs, maps and dummy trenches it carefully rehearsed for a surprise assault on part of the Hindenburg Line. The plan for the ambitious British assault on the heavily fortified German frontline near Cambrai involved 26 divisions drawn from 3rd Army, commanded by General the Hon. Sir Julian Byng, with six divisions (including 20th (Light) Division) in III and IV Corps tasked with making the attack. This strong German defensive position consisted of two lines of heavily fortified deep trenches, belts of barbed wire six feet high and ten yards wide, concrete emplacements and deep dugouts. Villages or hamlets in the frontline had been converted into strongpoints. New methods of attacking the German defences were developed. To ensure surprise a lengthy preparatory bombardment was dispensed with and artillery batteries were brought up at night to their firing positions and carefully camouflaged. The guns were registered ‘silently’ on the German defences using maps and aerial photographs. A key element of the plan was the employment of tanks in unprecedented numbers – over 400 ‘male’ and ‘female’ Mk IVs with a top speed of 3.7mph were tasked to make the assault on the enemy positions closely escorted by highly trained infantry. As part of this offensive 20th (Light Division) would attack north-east across the Hindenburg Line and Hindenburg Support Lines, with two brigades – the 61st Brigade and 66th Brigade - in the frontline and the 59th Brigade in reserve. 61st Brigade would capture the heavily fortified village of La Vacquerie and enemy trenches to its NE as part of its initial objective after which the second and third waves would pass through to make their attack. The first wave of the attack consisted of the 7th Somerset Light Infantry on the right and 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry on the left, with nine male and female tanks in close support.

3rd Army’s attack on the Hindenburg Line that began at 6.20am, as dawn was breaking on the cold and misty morning of Tuesday 20th November 1917, vastly exceeded all expectations. The combination of a crushing artillery barrage by 1003 massed guns and the unexpected presence of 400 ‘male’ and ‘female’ Mk IV tanks closely escorted by infantry secured near complete surprise. Overhead low-flying British aircraft swept over the German frontline strafing anything that moved. The 7th Somersets advancing on a 500 yard wide front assaulted La Vacquerie 1200 yards away with three Mk IV tanks allocated to each of its three infantry companies. C Company advanced on the right, B in the centre and D Company on the left, with A Company moving up behind in reserve. As one eyewitness described:

It was one of the grandest sights of an advance ever witnessed. Looking to the left and right as far as one could see was a double line of tanks. “Females” in front, supported in each case by two “Males’ and they in turn supported by a bombing section. Three tanks per company and nine per battalion was the order, with one company supporting. From “D” Coy’s position especially, looking to the left, one got a view of a double line of tanks with supporting infantry creeping forward, stretching away into the distance as day was breaking.

A creeping barrage preceded the leading tanks and their escorting infantry that made steady progress across No-Man’s Land, with the initial German response to the surprise attack proving muted and largely ineffective. Enemy machine guns were quickly neutralised or destroyed by the lumbering tanks that crushed the belts of barbed wire encircling the village and allowed the infantry to enter the enemy trenches. The Somersets quickly cleared enemy dugouts whose dazed occupants mostly surrendered. Within a few minutes the final objective was reached after the Germans mostly turned tail and ran allowing the Somerset to consolidate the position and send prisoners to the rear while the rest of the brigade continued the advance into the Hindenburg Line. By 7.30am the whole village had been captured and consolidated and within an hour the enemy trenches to the north of the village were also cleared. Losses were minimal – six men killed and 36 wounded.

The opening phase of the Battle of Cambrai had overall been a huge dramatic success, primarily as a result of the element of surprise, sophisticated artillery tactics and the presence of unprecedented numbers of tanks on the battlefield. By the end of the day the carefully prepared defences of the Hindenburg Line had been breached by the sudden and completely unexpected advance by the 3rd Army, who had captured 10,000 yards of the German first line defensive positions, a similar length of the Support Line and four miles of the third German defensive line. The tanks that had spearheaded the assault, however, quickly fell victim to mechanical failure. To celebrate this dramatic success - standing in stark contrast to the Passchendaele campaigns – church bells were rung throughout England in celebration.

The 7th (Service) Battalion Somerset Light Infantry, after enjoying a brief rest in La Vacquerie, followed the advancing cavalry that had been ordered to push forward to Cambrai if at all possible. Unfortunately German resistance gradually hardened. The battalion moved up to near the village of Masnieres near the L’Escaiut Canal where it dug a defensive trench near Les Rues Vertes just behind the frontline on the other side of the St Quentin Canal. Despite sporadic German shellfire elements of the unit assisted in clearing nearby Masnieres of the last remaining parties of enemy troops and was deployed in support of 87th Brigade in event of a German counterattack. On 26th November the battalion began four days in brigade reserve, occupying some captured German trenches in considerable discomfort amidst growing rainfall and snow, from where the spires and towers of Cambrai were visible in the distance. It did not get much rest, however, with its men heavily employed in trench building and providing carrying parties for other units. While in reserve Stephen sent home a pre-printed a Field Service Post Card on 28th November that only allowed him to inform his family he was ‘quite well’ and that a letter would follow at the ‘first opportunity’.

At 9pm on 28th November the still-exhausted 7th Somerset Light Infantry relieved the 7th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the frontline in the Crevecoeur Salient, south of Masnieres, with its men occupying a series of widely spaced outpost trenches on an exposed hillside that sloped down to the canal and the German-occupied village beyond. Three companies held the frontline and one in reserve. To the right the 12th King’s were holding a defensive position bending sharply back to the right following the curve of the canal and just out of sight over the crest of the spur. Since the existing positions were poor on the night of 29/30th November work began on building a new line of outposts, arranged in a chequer pattern to provide mutual support, located 100-200 yards closer to the enemy positions across the canal.

The Germans – who the British high command wrongly believed were still weak and badly disorganised after the initial attack - were determined to recover lost ground. A completely unexpected German counteroffensive, heralded soon after it became light by a sudden increase in trench mortar fire (mostly smoke shells) that fortuitously fell on the battalion’s former positions, began with extended lines of German infantry from 30th Division appearing through the light mist and advancing towards the 7th Somerset Light Infantry new defences. As the regimental historian has described: ‘Line after line, in massed formation, the Germans advanced to the attack. By sheer weight of numbers they intended to recapture the line wrested from them. Swarms of low-flying aeroplanes, the observers using machine guns, crossed from the enemy’s side and flew up and down above the British trenches at an altitude of from one hundred feet.’ The initial two waves of German infantrymen, advancing almost shoulder to shoulder, were met by intense rifle, Lewis gun and machine gun fire that cut them down in droves. Unfortunately the 12th King’s deployed on the battalion’s right flank, whose defensive positions on the reverse slope and which were being heavily shelled and had a very limited field of fire, collapsed under heavy enemy pressure opening neighbouring troops to attack from the side and rear. As German troops poured through this hole and began appearing behind its right hand company, the Somersets had little option but to withdraw and in turn the rest of the battalion had to conform falling back towards the main support line that according to plan was to be held at all costs. The shaken and disorganised battalion carried out a fighting withdrawal, incurring heavy casualties each step of the way from long-range MG fire and aircraft, with German infantry advancing close behind, but the main line of resistance had In turn to be abandoned as it was also outflanked. Attempts to rally the disorganised and increasingly panic-stricken soldiers, all the while under repeated aerial attack, failed. The remnants of the Somerset Light infantry withdrew further back across the La Vacquerie Valley to some half-dug former German trenches on the far side where it made a further stand until it was again outflanked by advancing German troops. Casualties rapidly mounted. The British briefly brought the Germans to halt along a sunken road, but then fell back to a position in the former Hindenburg Support Line where the German advance was eventually halted.

The German riposte on 30th November, intended to cut off at its neck the salient in the Hindenburg Line created ten days before, had been a striking success, sending surprised British units reeling back in disorder, inflicting heavy casualties, recapturing much lost ground and even securing parts of the former British frontline trenches. It had been a disaster for the 7th (Service) Battalion Somerset Light Infantry which effectively destroyed it as a fighting unit, with only a single organised group of 50 men remaining in the frontline out of an initial fighting strength of 744 men. In two hours the Germans had overwhelmed the battalion’s position and more than half its men had been killed, wounded or had gone missing. 5 Officers and 72 Other Ranks had been killed and 116 other men – mostly wounded – had been taken a prisoner of war by the Imperial German Army. The total strength of the battalion eventually reached 12 officers and 332 men as stragglers were rounded up the next day. On 2nd December the remnants of the battalion were finally relieved after spending fourteen punishing days involving heavy fighting in the frontline amidst appalling weather.

30 year-old Private Stephen Millard was reported missing presumed dead and then later rather confusingly as having died of wounds at some point on 30th November 1917. Despite extensive enquiries made by the Red Cross on behalf of his distraught parents, who asked fellow servicemen from his unit serving overseas, men in hospitals in the UK and released Prisoners of War for any information about the missing soldier, it proved impossible to uncover any more news about the circumstances of their son’s death or his final resting place. As his body was never found following the war his name is instead commemorated on the Cambrai Memorial, Louveral, Department du Nord, Pas de Calais (Panel 4 and 5). This imposing monument commemorates 7057 other men from the United Kingdom and South Africa who died during the Battle of Cambrai in November-December 1917 and who have no known grave. Millard left £230 to his father George. For his services his family at Theale received a named British War Medal, Victory Medal and a Memorial Plaque and Memorial Scroll. The Millard family later commissioned a rectangular marble memorial tablet, mounted in a black basalt shelf, that adorns the northern wall of Theale Christ Church inscribed: ‘In loving memory of Stephen James Millard Killed in Action at Cambrai Nov. 30th, 1917, Aged 30 years. “Life’s race well run, life’s work well done, life’s crown well run. Now comes rest.’ Stephen Millard’s name is also listed on the Memorial Board inside Christ Church and on Theale War Memorial just outside the building.

 

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