FRED HIRST 1893 -1916

30240 Private Fred Hirst, 20th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry died of wounds, 1 October 1916 and is buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-L’Abbe, France.[1]  He is commemorated on the War Memorial in St. John the Baptist, Hamsteels (Quebec) Parish Church, Co. Durham.

Family Details

 Fred Hirst was bc.1894 at Evenwood, the son of Allen and Mary Hirst.  There were at least 9 children:[2]

  • William H. bc.1876 at Noresthorpe, Yorkshire
  • Harriet bc.1878 at Noresthorpe
  • Hiran bc.1881 at Noresthorpe
  • Joseph bc.1886 at Oakenshaw, County Durham
  • Robert bc.1889 at Oakenshaw
  • Sarah bc.1892 at Witton Park
  • Fred bc.1894 at Evenwood
  • Allen bc. 1897 at Evenwood
  • Mary bc 1900 at Lemington, Northumberland

The family moved from west Yorkshire up to County Durham to Oakenshaw near Willington between 1881 and 1886.  They then moved to Witton Park c.1892 then to Evenwood about 1893. [3]  The family stayed in Evenwood until 1897, possibly until 1900 – his sister Mary was only 4 months old at the time of the 1901 census and she was born in Lemington, Northumberland, possibly December 1900. By 1911, the family lived at 5 Church Street, Quebec in the Parish of Esh near Lanchester.  Alan and Mary had been married for 35 years and he worked as a coal miner (a hewer).  Fred was 17 years old and was also a coal miner (a putter).  Allan aged 13 and Mary aged 10 were still at school.  The older brothers and sisters are not recorded in the family details so presumably lived elsewhere.[4]

Military Details

 Army Form B 2512 Short Service Attestation of Fred Hirst

  • Address: 3 Church Street, Quebec
  • Age: 22 years 2 months
  • Date: 12 December 1915
  • Date signed by the Approving Officer: 28 January 1916.

He joined the 17th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry.  He was unmarried and worked as a coal miner.

Military History Sheet

  • Attested: 12 December 1915
  • To Army Reserve: 13 December 1915
  • Mobilized: 28 January 1916
  • Posted 29 January 1916
  • Posted to 20/DLI: 10 March 1916
  • Died of Wounds: 1 October 1916
  • Total Service: 295 days

 Medical History

  • Date: 28 January 1916
  • Height: 5’2½”
  • Weight: 112 lbs. (9st.8lbs.)

 Army Form B.103 Casualty Form – Active Service

  • Regiment: 20th (Service) Battalion DLI
  • Enlisted: 12.12.1915
  • Embarked: Southampton: 4.5.16
  • Disembarked: Havre 5.5.16
  • Wounded: In the Field 30.9.16
  • GSW Head[5]: In the Field 1.10.16
  • Died from Wounds (GSW Head): 1.10.16

His attestation form indicates that he enlisted into the 17/DLI but he served with the 20/DLI being posted to that battalion 10 March 1916.  The 20th (Service) Battalion (Wearside) was formed at Sunderland 10 July 1915 by the Mayor and a local committee.  In January 1916 it was attached to the 123rd Brigade, 41st Division.[6]

Other units of the 123rd Brigade were:

  • 11th (Service) Bn., the Queens joined June 1915
  • 10th (Service) Bn., (Kent County), the Royal West Kents joined October 1915
  • 23rd (Service)Bn., (2nd Football), the Middlesex joined November 1915
  • 123rd Brigade Machine GunCorps
  • 123rd Brigade Trench MortarBattery.

The Division moved to France on the 6th May 1916 assembling near Steenwerck and getting familiar with trench warfare near Ploegsteert and the Douve Valley south of Ypres, Belgium.  It remained there until August 1916 before moving south into the Somme, France.[7]

30240 Private Fred Hirst arrived in France 5 May 1916 presumably with his battalion and the Division.

The 20/DLI arrived to take part in harassing action in the Armentieres sector before moving south to the Somme.  The 20/D.L.I. was involved in a large scale raid on the night of the 26th July 1916 in the sector north of the river Lys near Armentieres but the action was unsuccessful.

“As nearly half the 140 men engaged were killed or wounded by the enemy barrage which broke up the assembly, the raid was doomed to failure.”[8]

Private Fred Hirst survived.  On the 16th August, the 41st Division was relieved handing over their billets to the13/DLI.  A week later it entrained for the Somme region and carried out battle training at Yaucourt Busses.  On the 6th September, the 20/D.L.I. commenced their move to the Somme battle front.[9]

The Battle of the Somme 1 July – 18 November 1916 [10]

 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.

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.  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, the autumn rains and early winter sleet and snow turned the battlefield into morass of mud.  Such intolerable physical conditions helped 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.  In terms of casualties, the cost was enormous – 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.

Flers-Courcelette 15 – 22 September 1916

 The XV Corps (New Zealand, 41st & 14th Divisions) under the command of Lt/General Henry Horne was responsible for the capture of Flers – 18 tanks of D Company, Heavy Section Machine Gun Company assisted but only 14 reached the starting point.  The 41st Division was to seize Flers then advance onto the neighbouring village of Gueudecourt – 10 tanks were allotted to assist but only 7 moved forward.

“In many accounts the advance is seen as a walkover but there is no doubt that to the troops involved it was a tremendous battle.  Many of the men of the leading battalions started in No Man’s Land, sheltering in shell holes.  They would advance clinging as close as possible to the creeping barrage, willing to risk casualties from the occasional shell falling short.” [11]

 10 September:  the 41st Division entered the battle line.  The 123rd Brigade took over the front on that night in support trenches west of Longueval.  On the evening of the 11th, the Wearsiders were busy in No Man’s Land digging a chain of posts which resulted in the line being advanced by 100 – 150 yards without opposition.  They were relieved on the night of the 13th.  Enemy harassing fire resulted in 4 men killed and 30 wounded.  Hostile fire on the 14th & 15th accounted for another 25 men killed and wounded as the 20th occupied the former villages of Bazentin-le-Grand and Longueval.  At 6.20 am on the 15th the 20/D.L.I. and other brigades of the 41st Division went forward with tanks, broke the German line and entered the village of Flers.  They came through a heavy enemy barrage and by the evening occupied trenches astride the Longueval-Flers road – losses in the ranks amounted to 44.  Action around Flers continued for the next 2 days amongst much confusion and heavy bombardment of high explosive shells and tear shells, the 20th suffering 103 casualties before being relieved by the 55th Division.  The Wearsiders spent the next 8 days near Becordel in attack training then on the 27th September moved up to the reserve trenches near Flers.  A further 13 casualties were inflicted upon the battalion.  Their tasks involved improving the trench system but heavy enemy shelling accounted for another 38 losses before the 20/D.L.I. were relieved.[12]

This action is summarised as follows:

“The attack on Flers may have been a success but the men of the 41st Division had suffered severe losses in the course of the long day.” [13]

 “The Battle of Flers-Courcelette marked the writing on the wall for the old arme blanche as the world slowly awoke to a new era of mechanised warfare.  A thousand years or more of cavalry achievements and tradition were being consigned to the dustbin.” [14]

The battle raged on with offensives at Morval and Thiepval and it was clear that fighting on the Somme was fundamentally a battle of the artillery – the British could not advance without it and the Germans could not defend without it.  The roar of the guns was unceasing.[15]

Private Fred Hirst suffered a wound on the 30th September in the field.

Le Transloy 1 – 18 October 1916

As the campaign moved into autumn, Haig was convinced that German resistance was weakening and he was determined that the offensive would not be abandoned.  The plan was simple – to keep attacking culminating in another concerted attack all along the Somme front on 12th October.

In the meantime, on 1st October there was an attack on the villages of Eaucourt l’Abbaye and Le Sars in an attempt to eradicate a salient that bulged into the British lines.  Haig wanted to keep hammering on to prevent the Germans reorganising their defences but the weather thwarted plans.  A near continuous downpour began on the 1st October and it never ceased for 4 days.  However, actions at Eaucourt l’Abbaye and Le Sars went ahead and the big show was postponed until the 7th October. [16]  Regardless of the appalling weather, infantry attacks accompanied by artillery bombardment continued and actions such as that in which the 20/D.L.I. were involved to the east of Eaucourt l’Abbaye and north west of Gueudecourt were common place along the front.

The dawn of 1st October found the 20/D.L.I. in the line northwest of Gueudecourt and in the afternoon patrols were pushed out to find the strength of the German trenches – they were in fact held in strength!  Posts were dug within 200 yards of the enemy.  Heavy shelling and machine gun fire resulted in 30 killed or wounded before the battalion withdrew to Pommiers Redoubt.

Later research records that 20/DLI lost 4 OR’s died of wounds that day including Private F. Hirst, 1 OR died of wounds 2 October and another 3 OR’s died of wounds 3 October.  Private Fred Hirst received a gun shot wound to the head. [17]

The 20/DLI’s next action was on the 7th October.[18] The October offensive is summarised as follows:

“The miserable month of October had in effect decided the outcome of the Battle of the Somme.  The high hopes of a German collapse had dissipated in a quagmire of rain and blood.  The threat posed by the British onslaught had been held.  And yet the battle still dragged on.” [19]

Private Fred Hirst was awarded the British War Medal which his mother received in December 1920 and the Victory Medal received in August 1921.


 Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-L’Abbe:  The 36th Casualty Clearing Station was at Heilly from April 1916 and the cemetery was begun in May 1916. Private Fred Hirst is buried at grave reference V. B. 24.  It is a double grave, shared with 10866 Private J. Levy, the Queen’s who died 2 October 1916 aged 19. [20]


[1] CWGC

[2] 1901 Census

[3] England & Wales Birth Index 1893 Auckland

[4] 1911 census

[5] GSW – Gun Shot Wound

[6] http://www.1914-1918.net/dli.htm

[7] http://www.1914-1918.net/41div.htm

[8] “The Durham Forces in the Field: the Service Battalions of the DLI 1914-1918” W. Miles p.124 & 125

[9] Miles p.125

[10] Various sources

[11] “The Somme” P. Hart p.393

[12] Miles p.86-88

[13] Hart p.400

[14] Hart p.407

[15] Hart p.440

[16] Hart p.452

[17] SDGW

[18] Miles p.98 & 99

[19] Hart p.482

[20] CWGC


HIRST F. Headstone


HIRST F. Headstone Detail

Headstone Detail

Hamsteels Parish Church War Memorial

Hamsteels Parish Church War Memorial

Hamsteels Parish Church War Memorial Detail

Hamsteels Parish Church War Memorial Detail