Thursday, 10 November 2011

Remembrance: Albert and the Great War

My great grandfather, Walter (known within the family as 'Pop') was born in 1883. It was his younger brother Albert, my great uncle, whose story really brought home to me the reality of the First World War. It was a stark illustration of how it lured in such ordinary people, and sent an entire generation into oblivion.

For Remembrance Day, this is the short life and death of Albert.

Albert was born into late-Victorian Liverpool, around October 1890. His father, Frederick  was a joiner, born in Banbury and his mother Elizabeth was the daughter of a Policeman from Ripon.

Baby Albert had a sister, four years older than him, and a brother Walter, seven years older. The family lived at number 8 Rupert Grove, a newly-built, typical terraced street off Heyworth Street about a mile away from the city centre of Liverpool. Another brother, Arthur, was born three years later.

Living in the heart of a flourishing maritime city it is not surprising that after leaving school, Albert found employment with a shipping company, working as a stationer. Similarly, his younger brother Arthur became a 'Shipping Clerk'. Older brother Walter became a joiner like his father, both of whom worked for a building company.

At the start of the decade that would see the world change forever, this ordinary Edwardian family was living at 67 Stanfield Road in Liverpool.

Signing Up

Three years later, and a thousand miles away, on 28th June 1914, a Bosnian-Serb student called Gavrilo Princip fired two shots at Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie, killing them both. Within days, all the powers of Europe had declared war on each other, including Britain upon Germany.

Three months on, in the old watch factory at Prescot, the 17th (Service) Battalion (1st City) was formed by Lord Derby. The '17th Liverpools' has the distinction of being the first of the 'pals' battalions. In April of 1915 this 17th Battalion was attached to 89th Brigade, 30th Division.

At some point during 1915, Albert left his job as a stationer and signed up with the 17th Liverpools. Not long after, and with no more military background than I have, this young man who'd just turned 25, boarded a ship destined for France. He landed at Boulogne on 7th November 1915.

What must have gone through his head as he marched through France? Did it seem a great adventure away from home? Was he thrilled to be doing his duty? Or was he frightened, homesick and tired? Either way, it was only the beginning.

Into Battle

The Liverpool Pals' first battle came during the infamous 'Big Push' on 1 July 1916 - The first day of the Somme Offensive. The 89th Brigade, under the Earl of Derby's brother Brigadier F.C. Stanley, comprised Albert's 17th Liverpool Battalion, plus the 19th, and 20th Pals.

In the opening phase of the Battle of the Somme, the British and French fired 1.7 million shells during a 7-day preparatory barrage at the Germans. But the shells were not effective and the enemy waited it out.

The 'creeping barrages' were supposed to land artillery fire between the advancing British troops and the German troops, and then push the Germans back to their own lines as the Allied troops attacked. However, faulty implementation of this system resulted in the barrage starting on the German lines and then lifting beyond, leaving the advancing British troops to face unsuppressed defenders. XIII Corps which included Albert's 30th Division abandoned the creeping barrage altogether.

The southern flank of the British line was held by XIII Corps whose objective was the village of Montauban. The two assault divisions - the 18th (Eastern) and Albert in the 30th Division, seized all their objectives. They were one of the few divisions during the offensive to claim such success but it came at the cost of over 3,000 casualties each.

On 29th July 1916, after four deafening, bloody and horrifying weeks of fighting in the Somme, the fighting had abated. A photo was taken of the soldiers of the 17th Service Battalion of the King's Liverpool Regiment praying during a church parade before entering the trenches.

To me, soldiers are a particular breed of men. Those who feel capable, ready, tough and adventurous. I am not saying that Albert wasn't all of these things, but the only thing I really know about him was that a few years before this photo was taken, he was just a young man bearing my surname, with a desk job in an office in Merseyside - just like me. I find it hard to reconcile that familiarity with this image. That young man is suddenly a soldier, kneeling with his comrades in a field a very long way from home, praying they would endure the next battle.

Having survived the Somme, Albert next fought in the Battle of Le Transloy, including the capture of Eaucourt l’Abbaye, Le Sars and the attacks on Butte de Warlencourt.

He fought at the First and Second Battles of the Scarpe at Monchy le Preux and Guemappe in April of 1917.

He fought at the Battle of St. Quentin in March of 1918, at the Somme corssing, and at the Battle of Rosieres.

Then, in April 1918, the Germans made their 'Spring Offensive' in an attempt to defeat the Allies before the full resources of the United States joined the war. The Germans' objective was to capture Ypres to force the Allies back to the channel. Also known as the Third Battle of Flanders or The Battle of the Lys, this was the war starting to reach its conclusion.

A sequence of bloody battles were fought during April which culminated, on the 29th April 1918, in the final attack of the offensive. German forces were able to capture the hill to the northwest of Mount Kemmel - the Scherpenberg.

It was on the 29th of April 1918, whilst defending the Scherpenberg that Albert was killed, at the age of 27.

When Albert's letters stopped, my great-grandfather Walter wrote to Arthur to ask if there'd been any word from their brother.

They waited, but there were no more letters from Albert.

Shortly afterwards, French units re-enforced the Allied position, and German attacks in front of Hazebrouck were failing, which resulted in German High Command calling off the offensive.

One month later, the 17th Battalion was reduced to minimum strength and on 30th June 1918, the remaining men returned to England.

If Albert had survived two more months, he would have come home to Liverpool, and today he would have grandchildren and great-grandchildren of his own. But like so many young men, he had no future because of the Great War and instead it falls to his brother's descendent to remember him.
Albert is named on the Menin Gate, six miles from where he fell.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. So you still have his letters in the family? Yet another sad sad story from WW1 but isn't it great that we now have blogs to preserve and share those memories

  3. Wonderful post that brought Albert to life for me. Thanks for sharing.

  4. So beautifully written ~ what a wonderful tribute.