3124 Private Robert Wilson 1/6th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry was killed in action 5 November 1916 and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.[1]  He was 21 years old and is commemorated on the West Auckland War Memorial and the Roll of Honour, West Auckland Memorial Hall.

Family Details

Robert Wilson was born 1895[2] at Bishop Auckland the son of Thomas and Jane Ann Wilson.  There were 6 children, all born at Bishop Auckland:[3]

  • Elizabeth bc.1887
  • Jane bc.1890
  • Robert born 1895
  • Alice bc.1897
  • Ella bc.1899
  • Ada bc.1900

In 1901, the family lived at Woodhouses, Bishop Auckland and 48 year old Thomas worked as a “colliery boilersmith”. [4]  In 1911, the family lived at Spring Gardens and Thomas worked as a “boilersmith”, 21 year old Jane was a factory hand and 14 year old Robert worked as a “screener – above ground.[5] [a colliery worker] Later Mrs. Wilson lived at 3 Johnson Terrace, West Auckland.[6]

Military Details

Robert Wilson enlisted at Bishop Auckland and joined his local Territorial Force, the 1/6th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry and was given the regimental number 3124.[7]

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: [8]

  • 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

The service details of Private R. Wilson have not been researched.  Private R. Wilson entered France 27 June 1915.[9]

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)  [10]    

The Battle of the Somme: 1 July – 18 November 1916; An overview [11]

 The Battle of the Somme was viewed as a breakthrough battle, as a means of getting through the formidable German trench lines and into a war of movement and decision.  Political considerations and the demands of the French High Command influenced the timing of the battle.  They demanded British diversionary action to occupy the German Army to relieve the hard pressed French troops at Verdun, to the south.

General Sir Douglas Haig, appointed Commander-in-Chief in December 1915, was responsible for the overall conduct of British Army operations in France and Belgium.  This action was to be the British Army’s first major offensive on the Western Front in 1916 and it was entrusted to General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army to deliver the resounding victory.  The British Army included thousands of citizen volunteers, keen to take part in what was expected to be a great victory.

The main line of assault ran nearly 14 miles from Maricourt in the south to Serre to the north, with a diversionary attack at Gommecourt 2 miles further to the north.  The first objective was to establish a new advanced line on the Montauban to Pozieres Ridge.

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
  • Courcelette: 15 – 22 September
  • Morval: 25 – 28 September
  • Thiepval: 25 – 28 September
  • Le Transloy: 1 – 18 October
  • Ancre Heights: 1 October – 11 November
  • Ancre: 13 – 18 November

Adverse weather conditions i.e. the autumn rains and early winter sleet and snow turned the battlefield into morass of mud.  Such intolerable physical conditions helped to bring to an end Allied offensive operations after four and a half months of slaughter.  The fighting brought no significant breakthrough.  Territorial gain was a strip of land approximately 20 miles wide by 6 miles deep, at enormous cost. British and Commonwealth forces were calculated to have 419,654 casualties (dead, wounded and missing) of which some 131,000 were dead.  French casualties amounted to 204,253.  German casualties were estimated between 450,000 to 600,000. In the spring of 1917, the German forces fell back to their newly prepared defences, the Hindenburg Line, and there were no further significant engagements in the Somme sector until the Germans mounted their major offensive in March 1918.

The 1/6th Battalion, 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 DLI 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.   [12]

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.” [13]

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

  • 11 officers killed, wounded or missing
  • 34 other ranks dead
  • 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

  • 17 officers 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.  Later research records that 10 officers and 264 other ranks of the above DLI Battalions were killed in action or died of wounds 5 November 1916. [14]  Other local men to be killed in action or died of wounds as a result of this action are:

  • 1672 Private Alfred Brown 1/6 DLI from Staindrop.  He is buried at grave reference VIII.B.7 Warlencourt British Cemetery.
  • 2211 Corporal Ralph Hebdon, 1/6 DLI from Tindale Crescent.  He is 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.  He is buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery, grave ref, VIII.B.11.
  • 3472 Corporal George T. Cox, 1/6 DLI from Evenwood.  He has no known grave and commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
  • 7421 Private Charles Russell, 1/9 DLI from Cockfield who died of wounds 8 November 1916.  He is buried at grave reference III.E.6. Douchy-les-Ayette British Cemetery.  His body was re-interred having been brought in from an isolated burial or small cemetery.15]

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 MM and Bar, “A” Section, 151 Machine Gun Company.  He was a pitman from Cockfield.   [16]

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.

Private R. Wilson was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War and Victory medals. [17]

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 [18]

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.


 Private R. Wilson has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.  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 before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave.  Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November. [19]

 Private Robert Wilson is commemorated on the West Auckland War Memorial, the Roll of Honour, West Auckland Memorial Hall and those memorials dedicated to the 50th Northumbrian Division and the 6/DLI at Wieltje, Belgium, the Butte de Warlencourt, Somme, France, Durham Cathedral and St. Andrew’s Church, South Church, Bishop Auckland.


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.10 p.201 Auckland 1895 Q2

[3] 1901 & 1911 census

[4] 1901 census

[5] 1911 census

[6] CWGC

[7] Soldiers Died in the Great War

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

[9] Medal Roll

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

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

[12] “The Fighting Bradfords” H. Moses

[13] Hart

[14] Officers & Soldiers Died in the Great War

[15] CWGC

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

[17] Medal Roll

[18] Imperial War Museum Autumn 2006

[19] CWGC


WILSON R. photo


Thiepval Memorial