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Young despatch rider killed in Spring Offensive of 1918

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: July 04, 2014

By Gavin Jones

  • Private Humphries' medals. From left: the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal

  • James Humphries' bronze plaque, known as the Dead Man's Penny

  • The only surviving photograph of Private James Humphries

  • German troops march past an abandoned British trench in the early days of the Kaiserschlacht

  • The intense bombardment of British lines left little more than mud and a few tree stumps

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HERE is another small collection of items which amount to all that is left of a young man's short life.

James Humphries of Reddal Hill Road, Cradley Heath, signed up to serve in the army during the First World War, and as with so many young men who were moved around to fill the gaps left by the endless slaughter, he served both with the Worcestershire Regiment and the Welsh Fusiliers.

James's nephew Tony Humphries brought in these items, which have been framed in tribute to the young soldier who signed up at 17 and was killed at 21, just before the war ended in 1918.

His last actions were on March 22, at Flemincourt, during the Kaiserschlacht, the German Spring Offensive of 1918. Private Humphries was a despatch rider, and was killed in the line of duty, hit on his motorbike while carrying messages between two camps.

The Kaiserschlacht, or Kaiser's Battle, was a huge, co-ordinated series of German attacks along the Western Front, with the aim of breaking through the Allied lines and splitting them into two. It began on March 21, just the day before Private Humphries was killed, and was a last throw of the dice by the Germans who knew that the sizeable American forces were on their way.

With many divisions available to them following the Russian surrender, the Germans were suddenly able to outnumber the Allied forces along parts of the Western Front, and they launched their first wave of attacks on the British Army between the River Somme and the English Channel.

On March 21, as part of Operation Michael, an enormous artillery bombardment was launched, with over a million shells fired in five hours. By the end of that day, around 20,000 British soldiers were dead, and far more than that number wounded and out of action. The Western Front had been breached and within two days the British Army was in retreat. Private Humphries was killed in this initial, intense attack.

James had managed a trip home some time earlier, but had not eased his mother's worries any when he turned up at Reddal Hill Road. His uniform was so infested with maggots that she made him change in the kitchen.

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