Sewell M.A.

MAURICE SEWELL ARMSTRONG (1894 – 1916)

17453 Lance Corporal Maurice Sewell Armstrong, 15th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry, was killed in action 1 July 1916 and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.[1]  He was 21 years old and is commemorated on the Butterknowle War Memorial and the memorial plaque in St. John the Evangelist Church, Lynesack.

He was known as Morris Sewell and is commemorated under this name on both Butterknowle memorials but Army and CWGC record him as Maurice Sewell Armstrong.

Family Details:

Maurice Sewell was born 1894 [2] at Evenwood to George and Mary Jane Sewell.  There were at least 4 children:

  • Maurice born 1894 at Evenwood
  • Ida Mary bc.1897 at Evenwood
  • Lillian bc.1899 at Evenwood
  • Richard Abraham bc.1901 at Evenwood  [3]

In 1901, the family lived at Lands Bank where George worked as a coal miner (hewer). [4] By 1911, George was an innkeeper of the Black Swan Inn at Wham near Butterknowle.  Mary Jane was assisting in the business.  Maurice then 16 years old was a coal miner – a pony driver underground.  Ida Mary, Lilian and Richard lived at the Inn together with Amy Lowson an 18 year old domestic servant. .  Also mentioned is Sophia Sewell aged under 1 month noted as “daughter.”  There was a visitor, 28 year old John C. Blackett. [5]

Maurice had a child (born 6 December 1914) to Annie Henning, Stone Row, Butterknowle to whom he paid a Maintenance Order.  Annie appears to have received a Separation Allowance. [6]

 Military Details:

 Maurice Sewell Armstrong attested 8 September 1914. [7] He was 19 years 11 months at the time and described as 5ft. 5ins. tall, fresh complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair.  He worked as a miner.[8]

The 15th (Service) Battalion was formed at Newcastle in September 1914 as part of K3.  It was attached to 64th Brigade, 21st Division.[9]  The 64th Brigade consisted of the following units:

  • 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 D.L.I. joined September 1914 left November 1915
  • 15th (Service) Bn., the D.L.I. 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.

Private M.S.  Armstrong entered France 11 September 1915 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.  [10]

Private M.S. Armstrong survived.  He was promoted to Lance Corporal 8 January 1916.[11]

The Battle of the Somme 1 July – 18 November 1916 [12]

 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

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: in action [13]

1 July 03.00am:  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. 15/DLI 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 15/DLI 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 15/DLI went on over the open and before 08.30 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 13.40 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. Second Lieutenants 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 such of 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 17.00 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 12 July.

In the evening two companies of the 10th Yorkshire Regiment 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 15/DLI, a long and difficult operation which was not completed till dawn.

2 July 6.00am:  parties were still arriving in the original British front line, where 15/DLI 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 440.

For their gallantry, Sergants E. Willison and T. Jones, Corporals F. Connor and J.B. Lauder and Privates J. Gray, J. Robinson, J.W. Robson, G. Tait and S.S. Dennis were awarded the Military Medal.

The captures of the brigade – it is impossible to say what fell to each battalion – were 200 prisoners, one field-gun and numerous machine-guns.

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

Later research records that 6 Officers and 123 Other Ranks serving with the 15/DLI were killed in action or died of their wounds between 1 and 3 July 1916 [14] including 17453 Private M.S. Armstrong who was killed in action in the field 1 July.  He has no known grave.[15]

He had served a total of 1 year 298 days[16] and was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War and Victory medals.[17]

Summary

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.[18]

The personal effects of Lance Corporal Maurice Sewell Armstrong were forwarded to his father George Sewell in October 1916.  He also received the commemorative plaque and scroll in August 1919.

Press Article

County Chronicle: Thursday 3rd August 1916

“Mr. & Mrs. Sewell of the Black Swan Hotel, Wham have been notified by the War Office of the death of their son Maurice who was killed in action on 1st July.

The deceased young fellow who was attached to the 15th D.L.I., enlisted at the outbreak of the war.  In a letter to his parents which is dated 7th July, Pte. John Craggs, one of the deceased’s pals, regrets to announce the death of Maurice and says he died a hero fighting for his country and that all the men and officers deeply regret to mourn the loss of such a promising young soldier.  He was greatly beloved by all his companions as a faithful and generous boy.

It is only a short while ago since he was paying a short visit home.

Much sympathy is expressed with Mr. & Mrs. Sewell and family.”  

Commemoration [19]

 Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme:  Lance Corporal M.S. Armstrong is commemorated here.  The Memorial bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the UK and South African forces who died in the Somme sector and who have no known grave.  Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916, the duration of what we now call the Battle of the Somme.  The memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, was built between 1928 and 1932 and unveiled by the Prince of Wales, in the presence of the President of France, on 31 July 1932.

References:

[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a. p.242 Auckland 1894Q4

[3] 1901 & 1911 census

[4] 1901 census

[5] 1911 census

[6] Army Form B.282

[7] Army Form B.2065 Attestation Papers are clearly in the name of Maurice Sewell Armstrong and his next of kin are George Sewell (father) Mary Jane (mother) Richard Abraham Sewell (brother) Ida Mary Sewell and Lilian Sewell (sisters).

[8] Description on above form

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

[10] www.1914-1918.net/21div.htm & “Durham Forces in the Field 1914-1918: Service Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry” Capt. W. Miles p24

[11] Army Form B.103

[12] Various sources including “First World War” J. Keegan; “The Somme” P. Hart, CWGC http://www.1914-1918.net

[13]  Miles p.46 – 48

[14] Officers & Soldiers Died in the Great War

[15] Army Form B.103: Casualty Form Active Service

[16] Military History Sheet

[17] Medal Roll

[18] “The Somme” Hart p.183&184

[19] CWGC

Photographs:

Black Swan Inn Wham

Black Swan Inn
Wham

ARMSTRONG M.S. 15/DLI otherwise known as Morris Sewell

ARMSTRONG M.S.
15/DLI
otherwise known as Morris Sewell

M.S.. ARMSTRONG 15/DLI & friends

M.S.. ARMSTRONG
15/DLI
& friends

1 July 1916: The Attack from P. Hart "The Somme"

1 July 1916:
The Attack
from
P. Hart “The Somme”

1 July 1916; the route

1 July 1916;
the route

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME 1916 The Campaign

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME 1916
The Campaign

ARMSTRONG M.S. Medal Roll

ARMSTRONG M.S.
Medal Roll

THIEPVAL MEMORIAL

THIEPVAL MEMORIAL

ARMSTRONG M.S. Inscription Thiepval Memorial

ARMSTRONG M.S. Inscription
Thiepval Memorial

One thought on “Sewell M.A.

  1. Pingback: BUTTERKNOWLE | The Fallen Servicemen of Southwest County Durham

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