ROBERT HENRY ELLIOTT 1885 – 1916
2738 Private Robert Henry Elliott, 1/6th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry was killed in action 16 September 1916, aged about 30. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France1 and the Witton Park War Memorials.
Robert Henry Elliott was born about 1885 at Sheffield, Yorkshire, the son of John and Mary Elliott. In 1901, the Elliott family lived at High Street, Howden-le-Wear where 40 years old John (born at West Auckland) was recorded as an, “Organist and Colliery Clerk”. There were at least 6 children:
- Eveline aged 18 born at Sheffield
- Robert H. aged 16 born at Sheffield
- James C. aged 13born at Witton-le-Wear
- Olive aged 11 born at Bishop Auckland
- May aged 6 born at Howden-le-Wear
- Gladys aged 5 born at Howden-le-Wear
Robert was recorded as a, “Apprentice Blacksmith”.2
- Margaret Ann born 6 July 1907
- Wilfred born 14 March 1909
- Richard born 16 June 1911
- George Henry born 27 February 1913
- James born 31 August 1914
By 1911, Robert and Margaret lived at Victoria Row, Howden-le-Wear with their 2 children, Margaret and Wilfred. Robert, now 25 years old worked as a, “coal miner (hewer).5 At a later date, Margaret lived at 27 Low Thompson Street, Witton Park 6and 33 Low Thompson Street, Witton Park.7
The service record of 2738 Private R.H. Elliott and the 1/6 DLI Battalion War Diary have not been researched.
Private R.H. Elliott was a member of the territorial force and enlisted into his local battalion, the 6th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry. In August 1914, as part of the DLI Brigade, the Northumbrian Division moved from Bishop Auckland to Boldon Colliery, then to Ravensworth Park then were stationed at Newcastle in October. The battalion landed at Boulogne, France 17 April 1915 and 14 May 1915 became part of the 151st Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Division. The 50th (Northumbrian) Division comprised the 149th (Northumbrian), 150th (York & Durham) and 151st (Durham Light Infantry) Brigades. The 151st included the following units:
- 1/6th DLI
- 1/7th DLI left 16 November 1915 to become a Pioneer Battalion
- 1/8th DLI
- 1/9th DLI
- 1/5 Loyal North Lancashire Regiment joined 11 June 1915 left 21 December 1915
- 1/5 Border Regiment joined 149th Brigade December 1915
After taking heavy casualties at the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April – 25 May 1915) throughout April and May the 1/6th and 1/8th Battalions merged to form the 6/8th Battalion in June but its original identity was resumed by August 1915. 8 Private R.H. Elliott entered France 19 April 1915 9 with the battalion. The Division served on the Western Front throughout the war at Ypres, a quiet front at Kemmell and Armentieres, a return to the Ypres Salient, Sanctuary Wood, the Bluff, Hill 60, Mont des Cats, Vierstraat, back to Kemmell then the Somme in September 1916 for the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.10
The Battle of the Somme 1 July – 18 November 1916 11
The Battle of the Somme was viewed as a breakthrough battle, as a means of getting through the formidable German trench lines and into a war of movement and decision. Political considerations and the demands of the French High Command influenced the timing of the battle. They demanded British diversionary action to occupy the German Army to relieve the hard pressed French troops at Verdun, to the south.
General Sir Douglas Haig, appointed Commander-in-Chief in December 1915, was responsible for the overall conduct of British Army operations in France and Belgium. This action was to be the British Army’s first major offensive on the Western Front in 1916 and it was entrusted to General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army to deliver the resounding victory. The British Army included thousands of citizen volunteers, keen to take part in what was expected to be a great victory.
The main line of assault ran nearly 14 miles from Maricourt in the south to Serre to the north, with a diversionary attack at Gommecourt 2 miles further to the north. The first objective was to establish a new advanced line on the Montauban to Pozieres Ridge.
The first day, 1 July, was preceded by a week-long artillery bombardment of the German positions. Just prior to zero-hour, the storm of British shells increased and merged with huge mine explosions to herald the infantry attack – at 7.30am on a clear midsummer’s morning the British Infantry emerged from their trenches and advanced in extended lines at a slow steady pace over the grassy expanse of a No Man’s Land. They were met with a hail of machine gun fire and rifle fire from the surviving German defenders. Accurate German artillery barrages smashed into the infantry in No Man’s Land and the crowded assembly trenches – the British suffered enormous casualties:
- Officers killed 993
- Other Ranks killed: 18,247
- Total Killed: 19,240
- Total casualties (killed, wounded and missing): 57,470
In popular imagination, the “Battle of the Somme” has become a byword for military disaster. In the calamitous opening 24 hours the British Army suffered its highest number of casualties in a single day. The loss of great numbers of men from the same towns and villages had a profound impact on those at home. The first day was an abject failure and the following weeks and months of conflict assumed the nature of wearing-down warfare, a war of attrition, by the end of which both the attackers and defenders were totally exhausted.
The Battle of the Somme can be broken down into 12 offensive operations:
- Albert: 1 – 13 July
- Bazantin Ridge: 14 – 17 July
- Delville Wood: 15 July – 13 September
- Pozieres Ridge: 15 July – 3 September
- Guillemont: 23 July – 3 September
- Ginchy: 9 September
- Flers-Courcelette: 15 – 22 September
- Morval: 25 – 28 September
- Thiepval: 25 – 28 September
- Le Transloy: 1 – 18 October
- Ancre Heights: 1 October – 11 November
- Ancre: 13 – 18 November
Adverse weather conditions i.e. the autumn rains and early winter sleet and snow turned the battlefield into morass of mud. Such intolerable physical conditions helped to bring to an end Allied offensive operations after four and a half months of slaughter. The fighting brought no significant breakthrough. Territorial gain was a strip of land approximately 20 miles wide by 6 miles deep, at enormous cost. British and Commonwealth forces were calculated to have 419,654 casualties (dead, wounded and missing) of which some 131,000 were dead. French casualties amounted to 204,253. German casualties were estimated between 450,000 to 600,000. In the spring of 1917, the German forces fell back to their newly prepared defences, the Hindenburg Line, and there were no further significant engagements in the Somme sector until the Germans mounted their major offensive in March 1918.
The Battle of Flers-Courcelette – a summary 12
15 September 1916: The Battle of Flers-Courcelette commenced. The attack was no local affair. It was a big effort. It was the last chance to win the war in 1916. The attack was preceded by a bombardment lasting 3 days consisting of some 828,000 shells, at twice the concentration of that delivered on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. To assist, 18 tanks of D Company, Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps were commissioned although only 14 managed to get to their starting points. The tanks would be used in small groups along the front with the aim of moving ahead of the infantry to suppress German strong points. However, a creeping artillery barrage was not to be employed on these identified strong points. Thus, if the tanks failed then the infantry would be left to its own devices. The infantry was still the primary force on the battlefield.
The Battle of Flers-Courcelette began on the morning of 15 September and lasted until the 22 September. The 47th London Division held the area to the right of the 50th Northumbrian Division and on the left was the 15th Highland Division. The 50th Division held the salient between High Wood and the village of Martinpuich. The battle plan had 3 objectives:
- Hook Trench from the north west of High Wood to just south east of Martinpuich (the Brown Line)
- Martin Trench, The Bow and a portion of Starfish Line (the Green Line)
- Prue Trench and the left of the Starfish Line (the Blue Line)
The 149th attacked on the right, the 150th Brigade was on the left and the 151st was in reserve. 13
Following a 3-day bombardment of German positions, the British attack went in at 6.20am under a “creeping barrage” put down by the 50th Divisional Artillery. Tanks were used for the first time (for experimental purposes) and 2 were put at the disposal of the 50th Division being worked on the left moving between the left flank and the village of Martinpuich. 14
15 September: 149th Brigade (4th Northumberland Fusiliers & 7/NF) and the 150th Brigade (4th East Yorkshires, 4th Green Howards & 5/GH) advanced and took the first objective, Hook Trench by about 7.00am. Little progress was made by the 47th Division which meant that any further progress onto the Starfish Line by the NF battalions would be subject to enfilade fire from machine gun fire in a German strong position in High Wood. NF casualties were severe and 9/DLI from 151 Brigade was called up to support the attack on the Starfish Line.15
As the attack started, 6/DLI moved from Shelter Wood to the south west corner of Mamtez Wood and then later in the day into the wood itself. Orders were received that 151st Brigade was to attack Prue Trench. 6/DLI and 9/DLI moved into the recently captured Hook Trench.
By 7.20am the 149th and 150th Brigades advanced and captured the second objective, Starfish Line, The Bow and Martin Trench but firing from both flanks caused very heavy casualties and the 4/NF were driven back to Hook Trench. Both 5/NF and 6/NF were now involved in the battle. On the left, 150th Brigade experienced heavy fire from the ruins of Martinpuich but the 4/EY reported that their second objective had been reached.
By about 10.00am the 150th Brigade reported the capture of their third and final objective and the situation appears to have been 4/EY in Martin Trench, 4/GH and 5/GH holding 30 yards of the extreme left of Prue Trench and about 100 yards of the extreme left of the Starfish Line. The Divisional Front ran in a north-westerly to south-easterly direction between High Wood and Martinpuich. The 149th Brigade met with the greatest opposition.
By 10.00am Martinpuich fell to the 15th Division and by 1.00pm, High Wood had been cleared of the enemy by the 47th Division. But by about 4.00pm the 150th Brigade had been driven pout of the Starfish Line. Martin Trench and Martin Alley were held. Estimated casualties up to 6.00pm were 31 officers and 1,265 other ranks. 16
At 6.05pm, 151st Brigade received orders to attack Prue Trench, the assault to be made from Hook Trench. 6/DLI and 9/DLI were already in this trench but 5/Borders’ guides got lost finally arriving at Eye and Hook Trenches, 30 minutes late. 8/DLI having been placed at the disposal of 150th Brigade moved up to Eye and Swansea Trenches. The battalion was heavily shelled throughout the day. The attack on Prue Trench commenced at 9.40pm but failed. An account of 6/DLI progress follows;
“The advance was made down the slope towards Prue and Starfish Trenches under heavy machine gun fire. Captain Badcock was wounded. The enemy fire became so accurate and fierce that the advance came to a halt and men took cover in shell holes and ditches. A few men who had reached Prue and Starfish quickly became casualties and were driven out by German counter-attacks.” 17
16 September: During the night of 15/16 September, orders were received to resume the attack:
- 151st Brigade to capture Prue Trench east of The Crescent and attack with all 3 battalions that had already been fighting ie 5/Border Regiment, 6/DLI and 9/DLI
- 150th Brigade to capture Prue Trench west of The Crescent
- 149th Brigade in reserve. Since, 14 September, it has suffered about 1200 casualties (killed, wounded and missing). 18
The results of the attack were the occupation of a short portion of Prue Trench and about 100 yards of the Starfish Line nearly as far as The Crescent. By 2.00pm the Divisional Line ran from the eastern end of Hook Trench, The Bow, part of Crescent Alley, Martin Trench, Prue Trench and Starfish Line, west of Crescent Alley to Martin Alley. The 151st Brigade was on the right and the 150th Brigade was on the left. At 8.20pm 5/DLI was ordered to make another attack on the Starfish Line and Prue Trench but it was not until noon on the 17th that anything was known of the result.
2738 Private Robert Henry Elliott was killed in action 16 September, together with 1 Officer Lt. R.J. Harris and 23 Other Ranks of the battalion.19
17 September: 6/DLI was scattered across the battlefield and Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffreys attempted to recall various units as far as was possible. By morning he had the following under his control – half of W Company under Capt. Cook, part of X Company under Lieut. Harris, a platoon of Z Company under Lieut. Hansell. Y Company was in reserve in a sunken road under 2nd Lieuts. McVicker and Richardson. Isolated groups lay out in front.20
At 5.30pm 5/DLI attempted to bomb the remainder of Prue and Starfish Trenches as far as The Crescent. They were assisted by bombers from 6/DLI and 8/DLI. Further attacks were made at 8.36pm and 9.24pm but all met with a heavy artillery barrage from the enemy. The 6/DLI action is reported as follows;
“An assault was made upon the German strongpoint known as The Crescent. It was carried out by 2 bombing parties, one each from the 6th and 8th Battalions under the command of the Brigade Bombing Officer, Second Lieutenant J.F.G. Aubin. The parties left Crescent Alley about 6.00pm but became considerably disorganized on coming under severe enemy artillery fire and were driven back. A further attempt was made a little later with the same end result.” 21
5/BR remained in The Bow. During the evening, orders were received to capture Prue Trench at 5.50am on the 18th.
18 September: Heavy machine gun fire broke up attacks. Twice 8/DLI tried to reach The Crescent. Heavy rain had fallen all day and mud proved to be an impassable obstacle. Even ration parties had difficulty getting food up to the half-starved men. No fires could be lit. 9/DLI was relieved and returned to Clark’s Trench.22
19 September: 6/DLI back in Sixth Avenue, Intermediate Trench and Jutland spent the day repairing trenches and salvage work.
20 September: 8/DLI held practically the whole line from The Bow to Martin Trench standing in 2½ feet in mud. During the evening, 151st Brigade was relieved by the 149th and moved back to Mametz Wood.
The total number of casualties suffered by the 151st Brigade from the 15th to the 20th September was 43 officers and 903 other ranks. 9/DLI lost 44% of the Battalion’s strength which went into action.
21 September: Information had been received that the enemy had retired and the 6/NF and 7/NF occupied both Starfish and Prue Lines without opposition.23
22 September: By the morning, the position was that 4/NF and 2 companied of the 5/NF held Prue Trench, 6/NF held Starfish Trench, 7NF were in their original front line and support positions and 5/NF HQ and remaining companies were in Clark’s Trench. After a week of fighting, the 50th Division had reached its final objective, the Blue Line – Prue Trench. 24
The Divisional Narrative gives the total casualties, killed, missing and wounded, between 15 and 24 September as “about 3,750 all ranks” and this will include those from the Divisional Pioneers and Field Companies, Royal Engineers, both of which suffered many casualties. The 1st Northumberland Field Company alone, on 16 September had 29 killed or wounded. 25
Research carried out at a later date confirms that between 15 and 24 September 1916, 1039 officers and other ranks died whilst serving with the 3 infantry brigades of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division:26
149th Brigade: 9 officers, 449 other ranks
- 4/NF: 5 officers, 219 other ranks
- 5/NF: 26 other ranks
- 6/NF: 1 officer, 99 other ranks
- 7/NF: 3 officers, 105 other ranks
150th Brigade: 11 officers, 332 other ranks
- 4/EY: 2 officers, 60 other ranks
- 4/GH: 3 officers, 82 other ranks
- 5/GH: 5 officers, 93 other ranks
- 5/DLI: 1 officer, 97 other ranks
151st Brigade: 14 officers, 224 other ranks
- 6/DLI: 3 Officers, 56 other ranks
- 8/DLI: 2 officers, 37 other ranks
- 9/DLI: 4 officers, 69 other ranks
- 5/BR: 5 officers, 62 other ranks
Total: 34 officers and 1005 other ranks. The most severe casualties were suffered on 15 September 1916 when the Northumberland Fusiliers lost 375 men including 4/NF losing 5 officers and 189 other ranks, 6/NF losing 1 officer and 71 other ranks and 7/NF losing 3 officers and 88 other ranks.27 Private R.H. Elliott was one of the 56 Other Ranks who died whilst serving with 6/DLI during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. He has no known grave.
Objectives achieved, the fighting moved on to the Battles of Morval (25 – 28 September) and Le Transloy (1 – 18 October). Horrendous casualties were suffered by the 50th Division at the Butte de Warlencourt, 5 November before the Somme offensive was called off as winter closed in.
Private Robert H. Elliott was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the Victory and British War medals.28
Private Robert H. Elliott, 1/6th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry is commemorated at pier and face 14A and 15C, the Thiepval Memorial, Somme. France. The Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme: Private T.W. Dunn is commemorated on this memorial which bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave. Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916. 29
Robert H. Elliott’s wife Margaret was his sole recipient of his effects and pension.
By 1911, Robert and Margaret Elliott lived at Victoria Row, Howden-le-Wear with their 2 children, Margaret and Wilfred. Robert worked as a coal miner (hewer). They had 5 children in total. At a later date, Margaret lived at 27 and then 33 Low Thompson Street, Witton Park Robert H. Elliott was a pre-war Territorial soldier serving with his local force, the 6th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry and entered France in April 1915 seeing action immediately at the Second Battle of Ypres. 6/DLI served at various frontline postings in Flanders and in September 1916, the battalion was introduce to the Battle of the Somme. Later known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, Private R.H. Elliott was killed in action on the 16th September, aged 30 or 31. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial together with 72,000 others. He left a widow and 5 children.
1 Commonwealth War Graves Commission
2 1901 census
3 England & Wales Marriage Index 1837-1915 Vol.10 p.324 Auckland 1907 Q1
4 Army Pension Recipient card index
5 1911 census
6 Medal Roll card index
7 Army Pension Recipient card index
9 Medal Roll card index
10 “The Faithfull Sixth: A History of the Sixth Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry” 1995 Harry Moses
12 “The Somme” Peter Hart & “The Somme: the day by day account” Chris McCarthy 1993 p110
13 “The Fiftieth Division 1914-1918” Everard Wyrail 1939 p.143
14 Wyrail p.148
15 Wyrail p.149 & Moses p.69-70
16 Wyrail p.152
17 Moses p.70
18 Wyrail p.155
19 Officers and Soldiers Died in the Great War
20 Moses p.71 and “The Story of the 6th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry” Capt. R.B. Ainsworth MC
21 Moses p.71
22 Wyrail p.156-157
23 Wyrail p.158-159
24 Wyrail p.159
25 Wyrail p.160-161
26 Officers and Soldiers Died in the Great War
27 Officers & Soldiers Died in the Great War
28 Medal Roll card index
29 Commonwealth War Graves Commission
30 Army Register of Soldiers’ Effects 1901-1922 Record No. 370266 and Army Pension Recipients card index