METCALFE R.T.

RICHARD THOMAS METCALFE 1881 – 1916

 14704 Private Richard Thomas Metcalfe, 15th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, died of wounds 2 July 1916, and is buried at Mericourt-L’Abbe Communal Cemetery Extension, France.  He was about 35 years old and is commemorated on Witton Park War Memorial.  [1]

Family Details

Richard Thomas was bc.1881 at West Auckland [or Evenwood] the son of William and Hannah Metcalfe.  There were at least 5 children, the first 4 born at Evenwood and the 5th Thomas [presumably he was known as Thomas rather than Richard] possibly at West Auckland:[2]

  • John bc.1867
  • Joseph bc.1869
  • Mary bc.1873
  • William bc.1875
  • Thomas bc.1881

In 1891, the family lived at Cheapside, Shildon and 58 year old William and his 3 oldest sons all worked as coal miners.  10 year old Thomas was a scholar.  By 1901, it is likely that William had died and 20 year old Thomas lived with his mother at Hudson Street, Shildon.  Thomas worked in the railway engine shop.[3]

Richard Thomas Metcalfe married “Mrs. E. Metcalfe” who lived at 4 Jackson’s Row, Woodside, Witton Park, Bishop Auckland.[4]

Thomas’ father William was born at Marrick in Yorkshire and presumably moved to Durham in search of work.  He worked at pits near Evenwood, West Auckland and Shildon.  Thomas did not follow his father into the pits but worked at the railway works, Shildon.  By the time of his death, his wife lived at Woodside near Witton Park.

 Military Details

 The service details of Private R.T. Metcalfe have not been traced but he enlisted into the DLI being posted to the 15/DLI and was given the regimental number 14704.  He enlisted at Bishop Auckland.[5]

The 15th (Service) Battalion was formed at Newcastle in September 1914 as part of K3.  It was attached to 64th Brigade, 21st Division.[6]  By 1916, the 64th Brigade consisted of the following units: [7]

  • 1st Bn., the East Yorkshires joined November 1915
  • 9th (Service) Bn., the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry joined October 1914
  • 10th (Service) Bn., the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry joined October 1914
  • 14th (Service) Bn., the DLI joined September 1914 left November 1915
  • 15th (Service) Bn., the DLI joined September 1914
  • 64th Brigade Machine Gun Company
  • 64th Trench Mortar Battery

The Division crossed to France in September 1915 and served with distinction on the Western Front throughout the war.

14704 Private Richard Thomas Metcalfe entered France 11 September 1915 [8] with the 21st Division.  Its first experience was truly appalling.  Having been in France for only a few days and lengthy forced marches brought it into the reserve for the British assault at Loos in September 1915.  The Division was sent into action on the second day, the 26th whereupon it suffered heavy casualties for very little gain – there were no less than 450 casualties in the ranks.[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.

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.  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.

The Battle of Albert – Fricourt and Mametz

 The 21st Division [11]

The XV Corps was under the command of Lt-General Henry Horne.  The Division faced the Fricourt and Mametz spurs which ran down from Pozieres Ridge and were separated by Willow stream.  The terrain was ideal for defence and the Germans took full advantage.  The 2 villages had been converted into fortresses with a supporting trench system and deep dug outs of great complexity.  The 21st and 7th Divisions were to overrun both spurs and advance up to the second German line – White Trench to Quadrangle Trench and then consolidate.  The village of Fricourt was not to be directly assaulted but pinched out by attacks driving in from either side.  Later, the Corps reserve, the 17th Division was to continue the advance through Mametz Wood.

Although they were attacking a position that combined natural and man-made defensive strength, one thing in their favour was that in this sector of the front the German artillery had been thoroughly targeted and to some extent silenced. This success rendered the German defences substantially more vulnerable than otherwise would have been the case. The gap between the front lines was also considerably less than many sectors assaulted – narrowing in places to just 100 yards. A further advantage to the assaulting troops was the use of a creeping barrage.

On the left, the 21st Division faced the fortress village of Fricourt. They were helped by the detonation of three mines of 25,000lbs, 15,000 lbs and 9,000 lbs under the German lines opposite the small British salient, known as the Tambour, which gave them their collective name. In this case the mines were a pure diversion as the craters were not to be rushed, and it was hoped that the lips thrown up around them would provide an interruption to the deadly flanking fire of the German machine guns. On the left the 64th Brigade, and to a lesser extent the 63rd Brigade, made some considerable progress despite the dangerous irritation of flanking fire from Fricourt itself and La Boisselle on the left.

As the leading battalions pushed forward, the support battalions followed hard on their heels. The combination of rattling machine gun fire, whistling rifle bullets and occasional shells was enough to daunt even the bravest.

“Left trench 7.30 a.m. couldn’t have faced it unless afraid of funking before the men. Scrambled from shell hole to shell hole through the wire and craters and awful havoc, terrible sights. Terrible slaughter by the Hun artillery and machine guns, the latter with snipers hurling bullets from every direction. Even behind us men were mown down right and left. Hun trenches simply myriads of shell holes. Not so many casualties as expected, as they were crowded into deep dugouts and surrendered to attackers. Stopped a bullet on my head about 8 a.m – dazed for about an hour or so. My steel helmet saved my life without a doubt, it cannot stop a direct bullet hit, but this one was glancing – a huge dent. Can remember shooting Hun officer who was shooting into backs of our men in front. Had dozens of close shaves and admit to being in frightened stew throughout the whole advance. One Hun machine gunner held up his hands but this line could not stop to secure him prisoner, leaving this for the second line. As soon as first line passed over he turned his gun and mowed them down from the behind. Can vouch for this. Such cases makes you want to skin every Hun you see alive. Never stopped to explore Hun dugouts or prisoners. 9.15 a.m. saw four Hun lines (1,200 yards) cleared. Still murderous machine – gun fire. Dug in.”

Captain Rex Gee, 15th Battalion, D.L.I, 64th Brigade, 21st Division

Later that afternoon, the nixed remnants of the assaulting and support battalions tried to push forward from their positions in Crucifix Trench on to Shelter Wood. The result was disastrous. As they went further forward, away from their reserves and the cover of their field artillery, the Germans just grew stronger and ever more threatening.

“Attempted two charges from our hasty trenches, but no use. Was only survivor from second charge. Critical situation, strong enemy position in front, attackers on left withdrawing, leaving our left flank exposed. Held on firmly all day and repulsed two enemy attacks to bomb us out. Very trying. Relieved shortly after midnight. Am only officer left in the company. Cannot understand how anyone escaped alive, never mind capture and hold Hun trenches. Haven’t got much left in the way of nerves.  Had no sleep for fifty hours and no proper meals or rest. Am dog-tired and not worth much. Everything was horrible, ghastly and awful. May I never experience the same again. Saw scores horribly wounded, horribly killed. Am being converted to conscientious objector. Words cannot express horrors of it all.”

Captain Rex Gee, 15th Battalion, D.L.I, 64th Brigade, 21st Division

15/DLI [12]

1 July:  15/DLI was ready to advance behind the 9/KOYLI, who led upon the right. Day broke beautifully fine, and the German reply to our terrific gunfire was of no great strength. At twenty-five minutes past seven the heavy artillery lifted from the German front line, and the eager Yorkshiremen began to climb out of their trenches and advance into the smoke as the shrapnel barrage came down. The Fifteenth followed in their turn, with A and B companies in front. German machine guns-hastily hoisted from deep dug-outs which were little damaged by our hurricane of high explosive-opened on the Durhams, who covered 200 yards of “No Man’s Land” without a pause and entered the shattered German line. Men in field grey came out of the earth and surrendered, but others were fought with bomb or bayonet where they resisted in shell craters and bits of standing trench. So the Fifteenth won their way until they joined the Yorkshiremen in the sunken road and what had been Round Wood upon the left.

More prisoners were gathered in the dug-outs under the bank, but the men of the Fifteenth went on over the open and before half-past eight had taken Crucifix Trench, which ran out beyond. The shrapnel barrage moved ahead, but the ground in front was swept by machine-gun fire from the right, where the Germans still held Fricourt, and from the left, where they lay in Birch Tree Wood.

The sunken road and Crucifix Trench were put in a state of defence, and in the road at the entrance to one of the dug-outs – now all filled with British and German wounded – headquarters were established. The brigade had gone far ahead of the troops on the flanks, but with Lewis guns in Round Wood and Lozenge Wood all was in readiness for the German counter-attacks which were bound to follow.

At twenty minutes to two came orders to try for Shelter Wood, even if the advance were carried no further: but the protective barrage had come down ten minutes before, so that the venture had to be made without artillery support. Fighting patrols went forward to gain what ground they could, and in this advance Capt. D.H.J. Ely, already wounded in the foot, was killed by a German sniper. Pte. J. Jolley spied the slayer as he prepared for a second shot, and British and German fired together. A bullet grazed Jolley’s nose, but he got his man through the head. 2nd Lieuts. F.J. Cartman and A.S. Morley, who had each replaced a fallen company commander, thrust forward with their men until shell holes only 40 yards from the woods were reached. In these positions the Durhams sniped at the enemy as could be seen and, despite repeated attempts to dislodge them, held on until relieved eight hours later. Both officers eventually received the Military Cross.

As the afternoon wore on the captured area was heavily shelled, while machine-gun bullets whipped along the sunken road. At five o’clock Germans were seen assembling near Birch Tree Wood, and a party of 300 advanced but were dispersed with heavy loss by Lewis gun fire. While watching this affair Colonel Fitzgerald received a machine-gun bullet in the thigh and was carried to his headquarters. Fourteen hours passed before he could be conveyed to the rear and, though he reached a London hospital, he died there on July 12th.

In the evening two companies of the 10th Yorkshire arrived in Crucifix Trench to establish touch with the 63rd Brigade upon the right. It was much later when the Lincolns and Middlesex appeared to take over the positions held by the fifteenth, a long and difficult operation which was not completed till dawn. At six o’clock on the morning of the 2nd parties were still arriving in the original British front line, where the Fifteenth assembled under Major R.B. Johnson.

Grievous losses had been suffered. Among the other officers killed were Captains J. East and L.H. Sanger-Davies and Second Lieutenants R.O. Cormack, C.S. Haynes, J.M. Jones and M.L. Huddlestone. Captain F.P. Stamper was among the wounded and casualties in the ranks numbered about 440.  Serjeants E. Wilson, T. Jones, Corporals F. Connor, J.B. Lauder and Privates J. Gray, J. Robinson, J.W. Robson, G. Tait and S.S. Dennis were awarded Military Medals.

3 July: 15/DLI carried up water, ammunition and bombs to the 62nd Brigade, who had taken Shelter Wood.

Private R.T. Metcalfe was one of the 440 casualties suffered by the 15/DLI – he succumbed to his wounds the following day, 2nd July 1916.  Later research records that 15/DLI lost 121 other ranks killed in action or died of wounds on the 1st and 2nd July 1916. [13]

Private R.T. Metcalfe was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War and Victory medals. [14]

Summary [15]

The attack of the XV Corps had been far more successful than that of its neighbours to the north. The reason was the far more effective counter-battery work that had preceded the assault. The German artillery was almost quiescent and as the narrower space between the opposing front lines allowed the British troops to get across No Man’s Land correspondingly quicker, they were able to catch the German front-line troops, in some cases before they had emerged from their dugouts. Ironically, the much vaunted artillery experiments with a creeping barrage, which would later provide a partial template for most infantry attacks on the Western Front, was not particularly relevant to their success. The line of bursting shells was too ‘thin’ in that there were insufficient shells bursting and there was a lack of masses of high explosive shells needed to give it a real bite.  The over ambitious speed of advance also meant that in reality the line of shells quickly outpaced the struggling infantry, who were left far behind to fend for themselves. But the successes such as they were had come at a cost. The 21st Division suffered 4,256 casualties while the 7th Division lost some 3,380 men.

Burial [16]

 Mericourt-L’Abbe Communal Cemetery Extension:  Mericourt-L’Abbe is about 6km south east of Albert on the road to Amiens.  In the early summer of 1915, Commonwealth forces relieved French troops on this part of the front and Mericourt-Ribemont station became a railhead.  This cemetery was begun in August 1915 and was used chiefly by field ambulances until July 1916.  Private Richard Thomas Metcalfe is buried at grave reference I. D. 10.

References

[1] CWGC

[2] 1891 census Note the census records that Thomas was born at West Auckland but SDGW records Evenwood and details of his birth have not been traced

[3] 1901 census

[4] CWGC- details of the marriage have not been traced

[5] SDGW

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

[7] www.1914-1918.net/21 div.htm

[8] Medal Roll

[9] “Durham Forces in the Field – the Service Battalions of the DLI 1914-1918” W.Miles p.24

[10] Various sources

[11] “The Somme” P. Hart various pages

[12] Miles p.46-48

[13] SDGW

[14] Medal Roll

[15] Hart p.183 & 184

[16] CWGC

Photographs

METCALFE R.T. Medal Roll

METCALFE R.T.
Medal Roll

METCALFE T.R. Headstone

METCALFE R.T.
Headstone

METCALFE R.T. Headstone Detail

METCALFE R.T.
Headstone Detail

Witton Park War Memorial

Witton Park War Memorial

Witton Park War Memorial Detail

Witton Park
War Memorial Detail