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They were heroes, every one

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: February 23, 2014

By John Workman

  • A prayer to a loved one in France from the "PATRIOT" series of Bamforth postcards

  • A Bamforth Co. Ltd. postcard from the "SONGS" series

  • Tom Hunter( second from the left) watching as the Prince of Wales visits Dudley in 1927 to open the Birmingham to Wolverhampton New Road

  • Tom Hunter (far left) enjoying camp life before confronting the reality of the fighting on the Western Front

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THEY were heroes, every one; the miner, the youthful office clerk, the burly foundry man, shopkeepers, tram drivers, railway workers, and those who worked in local government, plus countless other occupations. When Britain went to war in 1914 and for the next five years, thousands of young men stepped up to the plate to fight for King and Country, and every single one deserves a mention.

Here at the Bugle we continue to publish your stories of family members who went to war a century ago, some of whom never returned, while others came home severely injured or mentally scarred for life. The Reveille has been well and truly heard across the Black Country and Isobel Byrne of Dudley is another reader who has responded to our call.

This is the story of her uncle Tom, of the 46th North Midland Division, a story which Isobel narrates with pride. "My father Fred Hunter was born in Dudley Road, Tividale, in 1915 and was the youngest of eight children. When dad was born my gran already had her eldest son Thomas fighting at the Front. He was an engineer by trade and joined the Terriers in 1914. Unfortunately the Territorials were referred to as 'week-end soldiers' by the regulars, which was grossly unfair. They were created as a homeland defence force in the event of an invasion, while regulars fought overseas.

"When war was declared in August 1914 the Terriers were enjoying a Bank Holiday Monday summer camp, but it was soon realised by the generals and the government that the regulars, members of the British Expeditionary Force, may not be sufficient in number to defeat the Germans. The homeland defence was therefore needed to support the regulars, and to their great credit the majority volunteered.

"Tom joined the 1st North Midland Field Company Royal Engineers, attached to the 46th Division, a company that in battle supported infantry units in tasks such as wiring and destroying defences. When there was a lull in the fighting they would be found working on dug-outs and trenches, etc. A field company was commanded by a major with six officers, 23 NCOs and 186 men, and as well as being an engineer Tom also carried a rifle and ammunition.

"The 46th was based at Lichfield and drew men from Walsall, Wolverhampton, as well as Burton, Leicester, Newark, Nottingham, Derby and Chesterfield. The field companies were from Smethwick and Cannock. By the middle of August 1914 Tom was sent with the Division for training at Luton, and after inspection by King George V on February 19, 1915, the 46th were ready to embark for France, and finally assembled at Boulogne for a move to the Front on March 8.

"There followed a series of engagements and the 46th were to be involved in some of the most ferocious fighting seen at the front during the whole war. By July they were at Hooge in Belgium when flame throwers were used for the first time by the Germans, and in October they saw action at the Battle of Loos when the British first attempted to use gas, but a change in wind direction sent the plumes of gas across our own front lines.

"In the following July the Battle of the Somme began, probably the best known of all the Great War battles in which 19,240 soldiers were killed on the first day, July 1, 1916. But few people realise what happened at Gommecourt, one of the worst areas of the battle. It was the most northerly place and was intended as a diversionary attack to draw the enemy fire from elsewhere on the battlefield and engage the German reserve infantry. But the attack, a joint one by the 46th Midland and 56th London Division, was a complete disaster.

"The men were told to make their preparations in full view of the enemy, thus advertising the coming attack. Only 20 rounds per gun were allocated and only one aeroplane dispatched for reconnaissance. After a lengthy artillery attack against the enemy positions, most of the German guns had survived unscathed, and when the Germans saw the British advance, the men of the 46th and 54th stood no chance, incurring 2,455 and 4,314 casualties respectively.

"Even after the war survivors of that terrible day could not believe how their mates had been sacrificed for no real purpose. To make matters worse the officer in command, General Snow, said at a later enquiry, 'The Midlanders showed a marked disinclination to leave their trenches".

"Following this military debacle the 46th was considered a weak unit of poor quality men, unreliable in battle, and as a consequence for the rest of 1917 the unit was posted to less important sections of the theatre of war. But they would have the final say when called upon during the last 100 days of the war, showing their true mettle at the Battle of St. Quentin Canal and Bellenguise.

"At Bellenguise the Germans were well dug in, but the men of the 46th were sent in to take an almost impregnable position and took the enemy completely by surprise, becoming the first Allied troops to break through the notorious Hindenberg Line.

"I may have glossed over the part uncle Tom played in all the action, but apart from early in 1916 when he was sent to Egypt, he almost always ended up in the thick of it all. En route from France to Egypt the troopship he was on was torpedoed and sank. Being one of the few who could swim Tom grabbed a piece of wreckage and hung on until another ship came to his rescue. His reward? He was sent back to France.

"In the years that followed the war, and invariably after Tom had enjoyed a few beers at his local pub, he was often overheard telling the following story. It was all about the sinking of the troopship, and how the men who could not swim crowded up to the bows until the ship went down and how they screamed with terror.

"I only knew him when I was a young child, but dad remembered him coming home on sick leave suffering from trench foot, a terribly painful condition. To me uncle Tom was a person to look up to, standing ramrod straight with a full head of beautiful white hair and a white handle-bar moustache. Sadly he died in the late 1950s, well before I was old enough to appreciate perhaps just a little of the experiences he must have endured during the war.

"Last year, with a group of friends, my husband and I had the privilege of visiting the site of the 46th Division's greatest triumph and laid a wreath in memory of Uncle Tom and all those so called 'week-end' soldiers who showed what Midland men were made of. They were the bravest of the brave!"

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