McNeally R.J.

ROBERT JAMES McNEALLY 1886-1919

251960 Serjeant Robert James McNeally, 6th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry died 3 June 1919 aged 33 [1] and he is commemorated on the West Auckland War Memorial.

Family History

Robert James McNeally was born 1886[2] the son of James and Margaret McNeally.  There were at least 3 children to this marriage, all born at Newfield, County Durham:

  • John bc.1876
  • Margaret bc.1881
  • Robert James born 1886

In 1891 the family lived at Back Lane, Byers Green near Spennymoor, County Durham where 42 year old James (born in Ireland) worked as a coal miner.  Son John, 15 year old also worked as a coal miner.[3]

By 1901, 14 year old James lived at 22 West Road, Bishop Auckland with his 52 year old widowed mother, now recorded as Jane.  Jane was the head of the household.  Her 16 year old son John and 4 year old granddaughter Mary J. Dryden also lived with her.  Both 16 year old John and 14 year old James were employed as coal miners (pony drivers).[4]

By 1911, the family lived at 26 Tenters Street, Bishop Auckland.  Jane recorded as 59 years old was head of the family and illiterate.[5]  Her 2 sons, 26 year old John and 24 year old Robert James were both single and lived there with 2 granddaughters 6 year old Catherine Holland and 5 year old Elizabeth Thompson, all born at Bishop Auckland.  Christopher Wafer, 24 year old single man was a lodger.[6] Both John and Robert James worked as coal miners (hewers).[7]

In 1914, Robert married Edith Denham at St. Peter’s Church Bishop Auckland and a son Robert James was born 16 November 1914.[8]  At some time, the family lived at 3 Railway Gates, St. Helens, Bishop Auckland.[9]  At the time of his death, Robert J. McNeally lived at 1 Bridge Row, St. Helens [which is near the railway crossings and possibly the same place].  He worked as a coal miner [hewer] and is recorded as ex-quarter master sergeant, Durham Light Infantry.[10]

Service Details

Robert James McNeally was a member of the Territorial Force, allocated the regimental number 2368 and served with the 6th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry.  8 September 1914, Private R.J. McNeally embodied to serve overseas. [11]  At this time he was aged 28 years and 3 months and was 5’4¼” tall.  He had a fresh complexion, brown eyes and light brown hair.[12]

5 March 1915: Private R.J. McNeally agreed to serve overseas.[13]

20 April 1915: Private R.J. McNeally entered France with the 1/6 DLI and the Northumbrian Division.

The 1/6th Battalion were formed in Bishop Auckland in August 1914 as part of the Durham Light Infantry Brigade, Northumbrian Division and in May 1915 became the 151st Brigade of the 50th Division. The Division moved to France 16 April 1915 and served with distinction on the Western Front throughout the war. Other battalions were: [14]

  • 1/7th Battalion, DLI
  • 1/8th Battalion, DLI
  • 1/9th Battalion, DLI
  • 1/5th Battalion, the Loyal North Lancs. joined June 1915

Following heavy casualties in June 1915 the battalion merged with the 1/8th to become the 6/8th then it returned to its original identity 11 August 1915 and was then joined by:

  • 1/5th (Cumberland) Battalion, the Border Regiment joined December 1915
  • 151st Machine Gun Company formed 6 February 1916
  • 150th Trench Mortar Battery formed 18 June 1916

                       Up until autumn 1916, the Division took part in the following engagements:

  • The Second Battle of Ypres
  • The Battle of Flers-Courcelette (6th phase of the Battle of the Somme 1916)
  • The Battle of Morval (7th phase of the Battle of the Somme 1916)
  • The Battle of Le Transloy (8th  phase of the Battle of the Somme 1916)  [15]    

 The Northumbrian Division had been allocated land at Steenvoorde, west Ypres, Belgium (Belgian Flanders) in which to concentrate and train.  The last units arrived 22 April and the men would have expected a short period of training behind the line.  That was not to be.  At 10.40pm, news came in of a German attack near Langemarck/Bixschoote.  10 minutes later an order was received to have 6 companies of the York & Durham Infantry Brigade fully equipped, ready to move by motor-bus.  At 11.29pm, another order came requiring all units to stand by billets, fully equipped and ready to turn out immediately.

22-23 April 1915: the Battle of Gravenstafel

22 April:  at about 5pm, the first use of gas by the Germans on the Western Front hence the order to have the Northumbrian Division standing to.  After the war, the Canadians erected the Brooding Soldier Memorial in honour of those troops who were killed (see Photo Gallery).

23 April:  The York & Durham Infantry Brigade arrived at Camp A between Vlamertinghe and Ypres in the afternoon.  The Northumbrian Division did not take part in any fighting.

24 April – 4 May 1915: the Battle of St. Julien

24 April: the enemy’s guns opened fire and for the first time the York & Durham Brigade was shelled, wounding several men and the Northumbrian Division suffered its first casualties of the war.  The 4th Yorkshire Regiment (the Green Howards) and 1/4th East Yorkshires were detailed to move up to the line near Potijze Chateau.  The Germans occupied St. Julien by 3pm and were moving out of the village southwards when they were attacked by the 4/GH and 4/EY.

“Casualties during this affair were severe but the counter attack was completely successful and besides preventing the Germans from making any further advance on the 24th reflected the greatest credit upon the 2 gallant battalions.”

The 50th (Northumbrian) Division Memorial is erected at St. Julien in memory of this gallant attack (see Photo Gallery).

5/GH and 1/5th DLI moved forward from the Yser Canal to St. Jean to support the 3rd Canadian Brigade and both came under shell and rifle fire.

The night of 24/25 April was miserable with constant rain and heavy German shell fire.  The Northumberland Infantry Brigade and Durham Light Infantry Brigade were at Brandhoek and Vlamertinghe respectively and did not move until late in the day.  The Northumberland Brigade got to Weieltje by 4.30am, 25 April.  The DLI Brigade received a succession of orders, one countermanding the other but eventually 1/6th DLI moved to beyond Ypres and relieved 7th & 9th Shropshires in the line and 7th & 9th DLI bivouacked in Potijze Chateau grounds under shell fire.  8th DLI marched to Zonnebeke via Vlamertinghe, Ypres, Potilze and Verlorenhoek frequently being shelled.  Then they were ordered to relieve the 8th Canadians at Boetleer Farm. They arrived there at 3am (25th).  The situation evidently was chaotic.

26 & 26 April: fighting.  As an example of the ferocity of the fighting, the casualties recorded in the Diary of the “A” and “Q” Staff of the Division to the morning of the 27th (inclusive) are as follows:

Officers

  • Killed 26
  • Wounded 45
  • Missing 14
  • Total 85

Other Ranks

  • Killed 332
  • Wounded 1,143
  • Missing 1,169
  • Total 2644

The strength of the Division on land in France was 572 officers and 16,858 other ranks.[16]

Captain B.M.S. Sharp described the scene:

“at dusk, through that hell on earth by now strewn with dead animals and bits of everything recognisable in the way of equipment, through St. Jean, now utterly destroyed and slightly more objectionable than even Ypres; church gutted, graveyard shelled and a heap of coffins and battered headstones.” [17]

The Battle of St. Julien ended and it will remain memorable in the history of the 50th Northumbrian Division.  The Territorials had not been found wanting.  There is no statement of collective casualties for the period from 26 April to 4 May.  The following estimated is from the Diary of the “A” and “Q” Staff:[18]

Officers

  • Killed 27
  • Wounded 81
  • Missing 14
  • Total: 122

Other Ranks

Killed 445

  • Wounded 1,915
  • Missing 1,264
  • Total: 3,624

The next engagements soon followed.

8 – 13 May: the Battle of Frezenberg Ridge

24-25 May: the Battle of Bellewaarde

The 50th Division emerged from the Battle of Ypres sadly depleted in numbers.  The total British losses from the 22 April to 31 May 1915 in the above battles  and the attack on Hill 60 amounted to almost 60,000, 2,150 Officers and 57,125 Other Ranks.  The Divisional History states:

“Owing to the large number of all ranks given in the diaries as “missing” who  were subsequently accounted for it is impossible to give an accurate figure of the casualties sustained by the 50th Division.”

The Division occupied trenches to the south east of Ypres around Sanctuary Wood and Hooge for the remainder of the month and into June.  It was called into action again.

16 June: Action at Bellewaarde

It was estimated that 50th Division lost 90 all ranks during the course of this action.[19]

17 – 19 June: move to Neuve Eglise – Lindenhoek – Kemmel

The 50th Division was to take over the line opposite Messines and Wytschaete.  The 150th Brigade moved to Dranoutre and went into the line during the night of 21/22 June and by 24 June the Division had taken over the new sector.  Compared to the Ypres Salient this was a relatively quiet sector.[20]

17/18 July: Armentieres

The Division assumed command of this new sector at midnight 17/18 July.  Some communication trenches were not so good.  Tom mentions Plank Avenue in his diary.  The Divisional History describes it thus:

“Who will ever forget “Plank Avenue” – a double row of planks laid suspended over a ditch for several hundred yards and perilously slippery in wet weather, as many an unhappy member of the ration party discovered to hid cost?” [21]

Tom also names various enemy projectiles and these are described as follows:

“Whizz-bangs represented a particularly nasty type of shell, while sausages and footballs also adequately describe the shape of other objectionable contraptions which the ingenious Boche had invented for our annoyance.”

9 August: Hooge

The 6th Division including 2/DLI was engaged in re-capturing Hooge which had been lost in July.  The 50th Division knew this area well and the tremendous bombardment was heard “up north”.[22]

24 August: Private R.J. McNeally was promoted to Lance Corporal

11 September: promoted to Corporal. [23]

25 September: the Battle of Loos

Although not involved, the 50th Division were given orders to make demonstrations of “pretend attacks” – artillery, rifle and machine gun fire and setting fire to straw and phosphorous bombs out in front of the trenches in order to deceive the enemy into thinking that a gas attack was imminent.[24]

August, September, October and early November was spent in the Armentieres sector.  It came to an end 12 November 1915.[25]  Every battalion went into the front line and served several days in varying degrees of comfort and discomfort, suffered casualties which were relatively few compared with totals later then handed over the line to troops and went to Armentieres for a short rest.

“The word rest however was somewhat of a snare and a delusion for frequent “working parties” gave very little leisure and made one feel that the front-line trenches were far more preferable.” [26]

The 50th Division moved back to the Salient and was allocated the sector which ran from the Menin Road (Ypres) to south west of Hill 60.

3 April 1916: The Division moved to the Wytschaete sector, south of Ypres.[27]

21 April 1916: Corporal R.J. McNeally was promoted to Lance Serjeant.

21 July 1916: He was then promoted to Serjeant.[28]

10 August 1916: the Division moved south to the Somme.[29]

The Battle of the Somme: 1 July – 18 November 1916

An overview [30]

 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 1916:  the first day 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 title, “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.

6/DLI saw action at the Battles of Flers-Courcelette, Morval and Le Transloy throughout September and October.  Then came an assault on the Butte de Warlencourt 5 November 1916.

5 November 1916 The Butte de Warlencourt

The 1/6th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry were to see action at Butte de Warlencourt, an ancient burial mound, located between the towns of Albert and Bapaume in northern France.  Bapaume was occupied by German troops. The British front line had advanced from a few miles north east of Albert in the direction of Bapaume to the feature known as the Butte de Warlencourt which lay a few miles to the south west of Bapaume.  The Butte stood about 50 feet higher than the surrounding land and in theory provided a useful observation point for the Germans particularly towards High Wood and Martinpuich.  The Butte was honeycombed with tunnels and dugouts which provided shelter for the German garrison.  It had already resisted numerous British attacks over the previous month, October.

Now it was the turn of the 151st (Durham) Brigade who moved into line as part of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division.  The 151st comprised:

  • 1/5th Border Regiment
  • 1/6th DLI
  • 1/8th DLI
  • 1/9th DLI

The 3 D.L.I. Battalions took over the front line positions and the 1/5th Borders came up behind them as the reserve battalion.

The 1/6 DLI was a battalion recruited mainly in Bishop Auckland and the upper valley of the river Wear, who to the rest of the D.L.I. were known as the “black-buttoned bastards”.  The 1/6 DLI was in the centre of the line.  The 1/8 DLI was to the right and the 1/9 DLI, known as the “Gateshead Ghurkas” were to the left.  Together they would attack the Butte 5 November 1916.

The 1/9 DLI was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford, a remarkable 24 years old man.  His father, George Bradford was manager of Henry Stobart & Co. Ltd. collieries in the Bishop Auckland area and West Carterthorne Coal Co. situated in the Evenwood Parish to the north of Ramshaw. He and his family lived at Carwood Cottage, Witton Park until 1894.  The young Roland Bradford was educated at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Darlington before attending Epsom College, Surrey then pursuing an Army career with the DLI.   [31]

It is recorded that:

“Under Roland, the 9th became one of the finest battalions in the British Army.  Known for its “esprit de corps”, much of the battalion’s efficiency and camaraderie can be traced to Roland’s leadership and the keen interest he took in the well being of his men.” [32]

1/9 DLI was charged with capturing the Butte and a quarry beside its west face.  1/6 DLI and 1/8 DLI were to seize the Gird Trench and Gird Support Trenches.  The 28th Australian Division was to attack alongside 8/DLI.  In support, to the right were the 1/4th Northumberland Fusiliers, to the left, the 1/6th NF and the 1/5th Border Regiment was in reserve.

Zero hour was set for 0910 on Sunday 5 November.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, the companies moved forward to man the front line trench.  The weather was dreadful – heavy rain, a howling gale, it was bitterly cold and there were rumours that men had drowned in the mud.  Owing to the boggy ground, progress was extremely slow.  The trench was in a deplorable condition and the men had to march along the parados to reach their allocated places.  Unfortunately, they were in full view of the enemy – shell, machine gun and rifle fire were thrown at them.

“The enemy kept up a ceaseless bombardment of our trenches in conjunction with the merciless rain and cold.”                                                    Lance Corporal Harry Cruddace, 1/6 DLI

As Zero Hour struck, all the available artillery laid down a barrage some 200 yards in front of the jumping off line.

“Nothing but HE was used.  We began with a stationary barrage of four minutes whilst the infantry were getting out of their trenches and thereafter the creeping barrage was lifted in range 50 yards every minute and firing continued at the rate of 4 rounds per minute.”

Brigadier General Hugh Tudor, Commander Royal Artillery, 9th Division.

The Durhams went over the top – with mud high above their knees, wading, slipping, stumbling and falling forward, laden with the usual infantry equipment necessary for such an attack (rifle, packs, grenades, entrenching tool, pick, Lewis gun drums) – it was worse than they could ever have imagined.

“The officers’ whistles sounded the advance.  Immediately, the first wave mounted the trench and made off in the direction of the enemy trenches.  They were met by terrific and annihilating fire and crumpled up like snow in summer.  The second wave was by this time on its way.  I was in that wave and placed my gun sections in single file to make a less target.  The enemy barrage was doing enormous damage and our fighting strength was fast diminishing.”    

Lance Corporal Harry Cruddace, 1/6 DLI

Clearly, the Germans were not caught by surprise and with such a narrow front attack they could concentrate all their machine gun fire on a devastating onslaught on the hapless Durhams.  The British artillery failed to eliminate the German batteries.  They opened up a barrage of shells all along the sector.  They succeeded in isolating the British front line and cut off the assaulting troops from any reserves.  The Durhams were isolated and fought the battle on their own.

On the right the 1/8th was badly hit by a combination of both German shell fire and British shells dropping short.  They were even hit from behind by their own long range machine gun barrage that was meant to be supporting them!  Many men had difficulty getting out of the trench and needed assistance from their mates – all under heavy fire.  Despite this, the left of the line managed to get within 30 yards of the Butte before they were overwhelmed.  The few survivors fell back in disarray to their original front line.

Meanwhile, men from 1/6 DLI were dying one by one as they found themselves marooned between the lines:

“By this time the whole line was held up and Lieutenant Ludgate ordered me to proceed and engage the enemy machine guns, a task almost impossible.  Out of my 2 sections of fourteen men there were two of us left – a No. 1 on the gun by the name of Private Allen and myself.  I pushed on with one gun and a quantity of ammunition to about 30 yards from the German trench and took up position in a shell hole.  We opened fire on the opposing troops who formed an excellent target….After firing one or two magazines, the enemy found us with a machine gun and succeeded in wounding my No. 1 in 4 places down his left side….I carried on until want of ammunition forced me to withdraw to our troops in the rear…we set about organising and consolidating in preparation for a counter attack from the enemy.” 

Lance Corporal Harry Cruddace, 1/6 DLI

The wounded were left scattered around No Man’s Land, marooned in shell holes and slowly sinking down.  Many who were too weak to save themselves must have slowly drowned.

 The only success came on the left where the 1/9 DLI directly faced the Butte.  Why this should have been is unclear but they swept up and over the Butte and by 10.00 the Durhams grabbed most of the low mound and the surrounding trenches, including the German front line trench, Gird trench.  But the first German counter attack commenced at about 12.00.  Bombing attacks then hand to hand fighting took place.  The 1/9 DLI were entirely cut off from any reinforcements by the accurate German artillery fire and well directed machine gun fire.  As their numbers gradually dwindled, they fell back from their advanced position around the Butte to Butte Alley to where the 1/6 DLI had its bloc.  Despite the desperate need for assistance, they hung on until 18.00 when the enemy launched another determined counter attack preceded by a terrific bombardment.  Yet more German reinforcements appeared, hand to hand fighting and bayonet charges bit deep, the exhausted Durhams had been fighting all day with no respite.  Retreat had become inevitable and the precious gains of the morning were lost to the German counter attack.

“At about 11 pm battalions of Prussians delivered a fresh counter attack.  They came in great force from our front and also worked round from both flanks.  Our men were overwhelmed.  Many died fighting, others were compelled to surrender.  It was only a handful of men who found there way back to Maxwell Trench and they were completely exhausted by their great efforts and the strain of the fighting.”

Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford, 1/9 DLI

Eventually the survivors fell back across No Man’s Land and the hard pressing Germans were soon threatening even the jumping off positions of the British front line.  Back in the front line the Durhams rejoined their comrades of the 1/6th and the 1/8th Battalions who had fallen back hours before.

“The expected happened and the enemy counter attacked under the cover of darkness but we staved off the assault at a great price.  Despite our weakened condition we held on till the night of 6th November.”

Lance Corporal Harry Cruddace, 1/6 DLI

After hard fighting, the Germans were held back and so, after a day of drama and death, the situation was exactly as it had been before they started.  On the evening of 6 November, they were relieved by the 1/5 DLI who formed part of the 150th Brigade.

“Snag Trench was full of mud and water with bodies sticking out all along.  It is in fact no exaggeration when I say that in our part we had to tread from body to body to get past.  Dead from all regiments were there, including our division, South Africans and Jocks of the 9th Division and hands, arms and legs were sticking out of parados and parapet where the dead had been hastily buried.”

Lieutenant Cuthbert Marley, 1/5 DLI

It has been estimated that this action contributed the following casualties:

The 1/6 DLI

  • 11officers killed, wounded or missing
  • 34 other ranks dead including Private Alfred Brown
  • 114 wounded
  • 111 missing

The 1/8 DLI

  • 9 officers killed, wounded or missing
  • 38 other ranks dead
  • 100 wounded
  • 83 missing

The 1/9 DLI

  • 17officers killed, wounded or missing
  • 30 other ranks dead
  • 250 wounded
  • 111 missing

The 151st Machine Gun Company

  • 3 dead
  • 20 wounded
  • 8 missing

It should be noted that “missing” usually meant dead and some of the wounded would die.  In any event, almost 1000 casualties brought misery to many Durham homes!

It should be noted that “missing” usually meant dead and some of the wounded would die.  There are 10 officers and 264 other ranks of the above DLI Battalions with 5 November 1916 recorded as their date of death.[33]

  • 1672 Private Alfred Brown 1/6 DLI from Staindrop and is buried at grave reference VIII.B.7 Warlencourt British Cemetery.
  • 2211 Corporal Ralph Hebdon, 1/6 DLI from Tindale Crescent and buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery grave reference VIII.B.6.
  • 2264 Corporal George H. Smith 1/6 DLI from Barnard Castle, he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
  • 3429 Private Fred Brunskill, 1/6 DLI from High Etherley and buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery, grave ref, VIII.B.11
  • 3124 Private Robert Wilson, 1/6 DLI from West Auckland, he has no known grave and commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
  • 3472 Corporal George Thomas Cox, 1/6 DLI from Evenwood, he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
  • 7421 Private Charles Russell, 1/9 DLI from Cockfield who died of wounds 8 November 1916 and is buried at grave reference III.E.6. Douchy-les-Ayette British Cemetery.  His body was reinterred having been brought in from an isolated burial or small cemetery. [34]

No doubt in such close communities as they were in south west Durham, perhaps these men were known to each other.

One who survived this ordeal and lived to tell the tale was Corporal Monty Watson M.M. and Bar, “A” Section, 151 Machine Gun Company, a pitman from Cockfield.   [35]

151 MGC had 2 Vickers guns with each front battalion, 6 guns in support and 4 in reserve (16 guns).  2 guns were attached to 9/DLI and when the Butte was captured, Corporal T.H. Rutherford of “B” Section, established his gun on the Bapaume Road but very soon afterwards became casualties.  Corporal W. Mewes’ gun team attached to the same battalion suffered the same fate.  Corporal M. Watson then went forward to replace those knocked out.  Both flanks were open and Serjeant J. Glennell and Corporal M. Butler also went forward with their guns to help cover the exposed positions and the 3 guns played a vital role in repulsing the first German counter-attack which took place at about 11.00pm, 5 November.  The Germans counter-attacked again in strength and with the 151 Brigade decimated, it was forced to withdraw.  It was relieved by the 150 Brigade at night, 6 November.  A whole German Guards Division was rushed up from Bapaume to take part in the counter-attack at midnight, 5 November and these elite troops were well supported by guns of army corps strength.  A plan for a British attack 7 November was abandoned due to very heavy rain and the Butte remained in German hands.

The following account recalls the actions of Corporal M. Watson:

“The position was most precarious which made Captain Palmer, in charge of infantry on the spot, decide to climb the Butte and discover what was happening on the German side of the hill.  What he saw convinced him that the Germans were about to launch a counter-attack on a big scale.

Arriving back in our lines Captain Palmer immediately ordered his men to return to the original trenches and Corporal Watson was instructed to get his gun back right away to the old gun position.

Watson reached up to take the gun from the trench, turned round and found his solitary gunner Pte. McRoberts holding a revolver in the ribs of a Prussian Guardsman who had somehow found his way to the rear of the machine-gun post.

Watson knew that McRoberts’ revolver was unloaded for they had no revolver ammunition left.  Corporal Watson took over and both the gun and the Prussian Guardsman were safely brought back to 151 Machine Gun Company HQ where Major Grierson DSO, Croix de Guerre CO of 151 Machine Gun Company obtained valuable information from the prisoner.”      

So why had the Durhams failed?  Perhaps Brigadier General Hugh Tudor and Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford had the answers.

“The attack is fixed for tomorrow, in spite of the weather.  It seems rather hopeless expecting infantry to attack with any success in this mud.  The trench mortars have only their muzzles showing above it.  Yesterday we had 2 barrages by brigades.  They seemed fairly good but I should like more guns.  To be effective, a barrage should be an 18-pounder to every 7 yards of enemy front and the guns should be capable of firing 4 rounds a minute at least to start with, without the recuperator springs giving out.”  

Brigadier General Hugh Tudor, Commander Royal Artillery, 9th Division

 “There were many reasons why the 9th DLI was unable to hold its ground.  The failure of the troops on the right to reach their objectives and the fact that the division on our left was not attacking caused both flanks of the battalion to be in the air.  The positions to be held were very much exposed and the Germans could see all our trenches and control their fire accordingly.  It was a local attack and the enemy was able to concentrate his guns onto a small portion of our line.  The ground was a sea of mud and it was almost impossible to consolidate our posts.  The terribly intense German barrages and the difficult nature of the ground prevented reinforcements from being sent up to help the 9th DLI.  Four hundred yards north of the Butte the enemy had a steep bank behind which they were able to assemble without being molested.  The terrain was very favourable to a German counter-attack.” 

Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford, 1/9 DLI

Clearly, the contention was that they had not failed rather they had no chance of success given the shortcomings of the British artillery barrage, a narrow fronted attack against superior forces and appalling weather conditions.  With the benefit of hindsight, it is generally agreed that:

  • The possession of the Butte was not a major asset to the enemy
  • From the British trenches it was possible to prevent the Germans from using it as an observation point.
  • In any case, the Butte would have been of little use as an observation point
  • The Butte had become an obsession
  • The newspapers talked about “the Miniature Gibraltar”.
  • So it had to be taken

It was a local operation, so costly and rarely worthwhile.  Sadly, actions like the attack of the 151st Brigade on the Butte de Warlencourt on the 5th November 1916 had no real importance within the context of the Somme offensive.  This kind of attack achieved nothing but swollen casualty lists.

Any change in tactics would be too late for the gallant Durhams.

6 November 1916: Serjeant R.J. McNeally was admitted to General Hospital Dannes, Camiers, France

11 November 1916: He was admitted to the Military Hospital Trent Bridge, Nottingham.[36]

The service record for Serjeant R.J. McNeally shows that he suffered a gun-shot wound but the nature of the wound is unknown.[37]  He was treated in France then immediately taken to England for further treatment at the Military Hospital in Nottingham.  He did not serve overseas following this injury.

23 March 1917: Serjeant R.J. McNeally was posted to 5th (Reserve) Battalion DLI where he saw out his service.

23 January 1919: He was disembodied.[38]

Serjeant R.J. McNeally served a total of 4 years 138 days:[39]

  • Home: 8 August to 19 April 1915………………………………………………..224 days
  • Abroad: 20 May 1915 to 10 November 1916……………………1year 205 days
  • Home: 11 November 1916 to 23 January 1919……………… 2 years 74 days

It seems that his medical condition originally recorded as A1 had deteriorated to AIII.[40]

Serjeant R.J. McNeally was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War and Victory medals.[41]

Date of Death

Robert James McNeally died 2 June 1919, the cause was stated as “1] cerebritis from a war wound in head 2] exhaustion”.[42]

Burial

 To date, the location of his burial is unknown.  There is no headstone in either West Auckland Cemetery or St. Helen’s churchyard.  Perhaps he was buried without a headstone.

Commemoration

Robert James McNeally is commemorated on the West Auckland War Memorial.

The Imperial War Museum displayed a painting by Sir William Orpan RA (1878 – 1931) entitled “The Butte de Warlencourt 1917” and it carried the description:

“I remember an officer saying to me “Paint the Somme?”  I could do it from memory just a flat horizon-line and mud holes and water, with stumps of a few battered trees but one could not pain the smell.”

William Orpen “An Onlooker in France 1917-19” 1921. [43]

The scene in this painting is somewhat different – a white mound looming from the surrounding muddy morass.  The scene today is of an agricultural landscape and when visited in March 2007, the Butte was an isolated wooded area amongst ploughed fields, its military significance unrecognisable other than the memorial that stands there.  The Warlencourt British Cemetery lies some 300 yards or so to the west along the road leading to Bapaume.

References:

[1] Army Form Widows Form 3: Mrs. Edith McNeally’s pension commenced 3 June 1919 thus it is assumed that R.J. McNeally died on this date & England & Wales 1916-2005 Death Index Vo.10a p.243 Auckland 1919 Q2 Note: death certificate records date of death as 2 June 1919

[2] Army Form Z.11

[3] 1891 census The family name is spelt McNalley. Robert James was recorded as James

[4] 1901 census To date, I have been unable to trace the date of death of James snr., the date of death of his first wife, Margaret (1891) or the date of his second marriage to Jane (1901).  Margaret and Jane do not seem to be the same person since Margaret (1891) was born at Newfield and Jane (1901 & 1911) was born at Maiden Law which is NW Durham (not Northumberland as recorded in 1901).

[5] 1911 census Jane McNeally’s signature marked with a X.

[6] 1911 census Name could be Wiper.

[7] 1911 census

[8] Army Form E.502 Next of Kin

[9] Army Form Z.11

[10] Death certificate dated 2 June 1919

[11] Army Form E.502

[12] Army Form E.502 Description on Enlistment Certificate of Medical Examination dated 8 September 1914.  He was probably born June 1886.  Note: No details are recorded on the Medical History Sheet.

[13] Army Form E.624

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

[15] http://www.1914-1918.net/50div.htm

[16] “The Fiftieth Division 1914-1919” Everard Wyrall p.40 1939.  For further details refer to “Faithfull: the Story of the Durham Light Infantry” S.G.P. Ward 1962, “The Story of the Sixth Battalion The Durham Light Infantry from April 1915 to November 1918” Captain R.B. Ainsworth MC 1919 & “The Faithful Sixth: a history of the 6th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry” Harry Moses 1995

[17] Wyrall p.42

[18] Wyrall p.48

[19] Wyrall p.86

[20] Wyrall p.86

[21] Wyrall p.90

[22] Wyrall p.95

[23] Army Form B.103 Casualty Form-Active Service

[24] Wyrall p.93

[25] Wyrall p.100

[26] Wyrall p.97

[27] Wyrall p.118

[28] Army Form B.103

[29] Wyrall p.134

[30] “The Somme” P. Hart & CWGC details.

[31] “The Fighting Bradfords” H. Moses

[32] Hart

[33] Officers & Soldiers Died in the Great War

[34] CWGC

[35] “Machine Gunner 1914-1918” C.E. Crutchley  1973 p77-81

[36] Army Form B.103

[37] Army Form E.502 Military History Sheet – record is undecipherable

[38] The Military History Sheet on E.502 show that he served until 31 March 1920, a total of 5 years 206 days but 1 year 68 days is “forfeited”.  Perhaps part of the Army administration was not informed of his death.

[39] Military History Sheet

[40] Army Form E.11

[41] Medal Roll

[42] Death certificate dated 2 June 1919

[43] Imperial War Museum Autumn 2006