In late 1917, a young mother and the wife of a serviceman received the telegram she and millions like her had dreaded. Her husband, it said, had fallen on the Western Front. Also grieving and shocked, the soldier’s mother subsequently wrote to his unit sergeant, asking for the return of his possessions and for further news on his death and final resting place. The story above was replayed time and time again during the First World War, but in this case, the wife was my great grandmother, Maude Adams.
For the military machine the death of a soldier had become a routine matter by 1917. But for the family members, the violent death of a loved one would haunt them for many years to come. The scars were often so deep that the dead – Alfred Adams in this case – were remembered, but rarely spoken about.
Lt Young, Alfred's commanding officer, wrote a second letter of condolence to Maude, dated 8 December 1917:
Dear Mrs Adams,
I read the letter your mother-in-law wrote to my sergeant and so I write to you again to tell you your husband was killed by a shell when working in a trench. He was killed instantaneously and suffered no pain at all. He was buried by a Church of England clergyman in a British Cemetery and I myself had a cross made and I went and saw it put up.
He had already sold some of the goods sent out of the parcels and so we are continuing to sell them as they were mostly promised already, and I will send you the money.
I pray and hope you may be comforted,
P Young, Lieut. 243 Machine Gun Coy BEF, France
The last details in the letter proved invaluable, for Young had listed the unit in which he and Alfred fought. I quickly discovered that 243 MG Coy was assigned to 31 Division on the Oppy-Gavrelle sector during 1917. The divisional and company diaries are both held at the National Archives, with the latter recording the death of Alfred and those who fell with him on 26/11/17. The entry for that date is quite stark to modern eyes and shows just how dangerous the Western Front could be even on a ‘fairly quiet’ day: 'Situation fairly quiet, enemy artillery fairly active during afternoon. Few shells fell in the vicinity of TYNE BATTERY one dropping in the trench causing 7 casualties to this company i.e. 4 killed 3 wounded. One section in rest and training.'
Frustratingly, the individual files held on private Adams have been destroyed: 60% of soldiers' files from the Great War were lost to Luftwaffe bombing in World War Two. Meanwhile, the Corps’ files and other histories were lost in a storage fire during the early 1930s. No private correspondence survives to shed any further light on Alfred’s life or army ‘career’. For reasons I do not understand and can not fully comprehend, Alf’s eldest son Ron (long deceased) decided to burn materials and possibly photographs of his father many years ago.
Half a world away
But from my mother’s recollection of what others said about him and from some surviving paperwork held by my late grandfather, the second son, I quickly realised that Alfred must have been an intelligent man with quite an entrepreneurial spirit. There is also a flash of his humour surviving in a personal autograph and message book, the type that were popular in the late Edwardian/pre-war period. In it he writes:
Scribbling in albums Friendship assures, 'Avec grand plaisir' I'm scribbling in yours.
Alf Adams, March 28 09
So Alfred, I could see, liked to be called Alf. He came from a relatively humble southwest London background. His father, William was an insurance agent. Alfred’s mother, Eliza, and his two sisters, Constance and Winifred, completed the family. Constance was something of an artist – rather than sign the same autograph book, she drew a bright and vivid still life of fruit.
As a teenager, Alf managed gain a place at Battersea Polytechnic, where he studied basic physics and, for that time, the new world of electronics. A school-leaving reference for Alf from one of his teachers survives, emphasising his potential and good character. Through hard work, Alf and a business partner were able to establish a record and gramophone shop on Lavender Hill, southwest London. My grandfather also talked of premises in north London, but this can not be confirmed.
Alf’s company was called ‘The Coliseum Record Co’ and was listed on 67 Sugden Road, Clapham Common – his home address at that time. Alf may well have been involved in record distribution, acting as a middle man between manufacturer and other sellers. In such a new industry names and job titles were yet to be fixed and, in the 1911 census, Alf listed his job as a 'Music Manager'. Whatever his exact position, he was certainly in the right business: records were now being mass produced for a burgeoning market hungry to hear the latest hits. Alf also married Maude during this period and they soon went on to have their two boys, Les and Ron.
Waiting for the call
By 1914, it would be safe to say that Alfred Adams was a respectable shopkeeper/entrepreneur making good headway in the world – a world that changed forever that summer, when war was sparked by the assasination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo.
Alf may well have felt a pang of regret he was not among the men rushing to fill the ranks but as a family man in his late 20s, he was not the sort of person the War Office wanted. It was the younger, unmarried men that were predominately chosen to fill the ranks. But it soon became clear the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was in urgent need of expansion as industrialised, modern warfare exacted its terrible toll in lives. Those who had been turned away in late summer were again asked to volunteer or, a little later on, called up through a universal draft.
Alf may have enlisted in 1915 as part of Kitchener's grand plan to create a civilian army built up of Pals Battalions, although this would have been unlikely: there were simply too many risks and commitments for a man like him. But by 1916 universal conscription was introduced and all men of service age were called up. Alf may well have been conscripted during this period, although, again, we cannot be certain. Whatever the reality, it is likely he missed the bloody summer offensives of that year and, if anything, was more likely to have been involved in basic training during this period.
Once in the Army, Alf became a number: 98533. He would have begun his intensive training, including drill, square bashing and weapons handling in order to turn him from a shopkeeper to soldier. After this, Private Adams became a fully-paid member of the PBI – the Poor Bloody Infantry. However, Alf was intelligent and, with his technical knowledge, was the perfect sort of person to become a member of the newly-created Machine Gun Corps (MGC).
New Corps, new career
While it had only come into official existence in October 1915, the MGC was quick to earn an elite reputation. It was also well known for its fearsome casualty rates – because of their power and the level of threat they posed, machine guns were prime targets for enemy fire.
In a similar vein of humour to Blackadder* with its spoof Royal Flying Corps unit called ‘The Twenty Minuters’ – the joke being that life expectancy was twenty minutes – the MGC was nicknamed ‘The Suicide Club’ by their infantry counterparts. Coming from the men who were expected to do the bulk of the fighting and dying, this wry but grim sobriquet was high praise indeed.
*A British comedy show that, in the fourth series, deals with World War One. Historians will cringe at for me mentioning it, but I won’t tell if you don’t.
By the end of the war around 170,500 officers and men had served in the Corps. Of this figure, 62,049 were either killed or wounded.One of the strangest facets of the Machine Gun Corps was the way it was formed and the way it ‘recruited’. The MGC was created by pooling existing regimental machine gunners into the new Corps. In typical British Army fashion, these soldiers – and officers too – frequently kept cap badges from their old units and mixed them with the new MGC insignia, a pair of crossed Vickers machine guns. One veteran from 6 MG Coy* recalled this peculiar anomaly, pointing out that the mixed use of badges was a sign of pride and veteran status.
*Companies in the field ranged from No. 1-286. In early 1918 the MGC was reorganised and the companies formed battalions, taking their number from the Division they were attached to. Thus Alfred’s company, No. 243, went on to become part of 31 MG Bn.
‘I was sometimes asked why so many of 6 MGC Coy wore various regimental badges instead of our crossed guns… It was a hint to the rookies that they were veterans… I noticed this former regiment badge wearing in other units of the MGC right up to the end of the war.’
Later on, men continued to be transferred from their initial regiment to the Corps; more often than not this occurred during their basic training. This is probably what happened to Alf. Having completed basic training and then been selected for the MGC, Alf’s next stop was to attend a machine gun training course at a special centre near Grantham.
Grantham and its satellite depots and camps, such as Belton Park, were not recorded as salubrious places, although they infinitely better, of course, than the frontlines. In training, Alfred would have familiarised himself with the workings and intricacies of the Vickers .303 inch heavy machine gun, a relatively new weapon and one that was far superior to the older maxim guns preceding it.
According to a press release from 1917*, the course was meant to last ten weeks (in reality it was often six weeks given the demand for machine gunners at the front). The first five weeks were spent learning about the Vickers – and how to handle stoppages – how to use pistols and work with range finders and clinometers. Following this, the men spent three weeks studying 'bench work', where the gunners learnt about riveting and soldering. The men then studied joinery and carpentry skills in the final two weeks.
*Held by the Imperial War Museum reading room.
Alf would have become a team player: each gun was ideally manned by a crew of eight. Four men were involved in the firing (‘Number One’ being the man with his finger on the trigger) and the others responsible for the sighting, preparation and the bringing up of ammunition. Crews in the field normally numbered six, simply because of the manpower shortage. The men of the Machine Gun Corps were called 'Emma Gees'* and they were proud of the role they had to play and the power their weapons had upon the battlefield.
*Say MGs quickly and out loud and you'll see why.
By 1917, huge advances in the art of handling machine guns had been made. They were frequently used in battery formations laying down barrage fire onto the enemy at targets by map reference. Barrage fire was also useful in helping the infantry fend off enemy assaults. Indeed, so effective was this method, that attacking units were often shot to pieces in a hail of machine gun bullets before they even came into the range of defensive small arms fire.
Enfilade fire was used when the guns were carefully positioned to offer both support and covering fire. None of the machine guns were directly aimed ahead; instead they were placed at angles of 45°, with one position facing leftwards and the other to the right. This arrangement would create crossfire along a broad front, with the technique used either at close quarters or as a barrage. Harassing fire was usually conducted by one or two guns aimed at specific enemy points, with short bursts fired at irregular intervals day and night. In skilled hands and with its long range, the Vickers could also fire single shots at problematic targets, such as a sniper’s position.
Have machine gun, will travel
Despite all the training that Alf would have received, very little of it would have prepared him for the reality of life on the front lines. Detailed knowledge of war could have only come from active service. But experience is only one side of the coin when discussing a soldier’s chances of survival. Luck is the other.
Alf's team would have (usually) formed part of a four-gun battery. His gun mates would have been the members of his 'Trench Household' when in the line. It was to these people he would have day-to-day contact with. His closest friends, or 'mucking in pals', he would help above all others and they would do the same for him. We can be sure that Private Adams was with 243 MG Coy when it was posted to the Arleux-Fresnoy and Oppy-Gavrelle sectors under the command of 31 Division; the company arrived at the Front on 18 July, 1917, and Alf drew up his will on the next day.
'In the event of my death I give the whole of my property and effects and monies in the bank to my wife, 132 Battersea Park Road, Battersea, SW.
PS any army money owing must be paid in full direct to my wife.'
A few days beforehand, on July 13, the company had arrived in France and had probably been processed at Camiers, a central MGC base near Etaples. Here they would have also tested the efficiency of their gas masks, a vital piece of equipment.
Alf and 243 MG Coy then arrived in the Arras region of the Western Front, which had witnessed major successes earlier in the year, most notably with the great Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge. As the Allies had pushed forward in this sector, the Germans retreated to major pre-prepared defence lines, which in Alf’s zone stretched north to south from Acheville, around Fresnoy, on to Oppy and just past Gavrelle.
Ostensibly, the fighting in this area had died down by July, with Flanders and other locations now the primary focus for Allied attentions. But even on a 'quiet' sector, the chances of being killed or maimed were relatively high. There was a constant level of attrition from mortar fire, gas, snipers and artillery shells – with German five-nine shells, known as 'Jack-Johnsons', a particularly dangerous threat.
The village of Gavrelle had recently seen some major fighting, including a series of the bloody assaults by the Royal Naval Division that pushed the Germans just east of the village. However, one of the key features in the area that had not been secured was a windmill (that was soon destroyed) on higher ground to the northeast of Gavrelle. Great efforts had been made to take this location, but the Germans replied with concerted and successful counter attacks.
Oppy Wood had also witnessed some particularly vicious fighting and with its eerie and emaciated totem-pole trees, became a renowned location on the Western Front. It was immortalised by John Nash in his painting Oppy Wood, 1917, Evening. As was often the case with the most dangerous locations, British soldiers responded with a heavy dose of gallows humour. A gunner from number 205 MG Coy, who was at Oppy Wood in the spring of 1917, remembered being jokingly told its name derived from the fact that the Germans and the British were continuingly 'hopping in and out of the place’.
Fresnoy was just east of Arleux; the famous German writer Ernst Junger was in stationed in the small hamlet during this period and recorded the horror of battle here in his famous work Storm of Steel. By the time Alf was in the lines, the Germans still held what remained of Fresnoy*, their lines looping around its shattered houses.
*Initially, the village had been taken by the Canadians after their thrust through Arleux. British and Canadian forces lost Frenoy on 7 and 8 May, 1917, after ferocious German counterattacks.
The bulk of 243’s time when Alf was alive was spent in lines southwest of Fresnoy, near the village of Willerval at Willerval South. Overall, the landscape in this area is flat and fertile, used to grow crops. Because of the lack of cover, movement during daylight hours was a risky business, although many veterans and commentators noted that the communication trenches in the area were in excellent condition and that there were numerous saps and galleries for the men to take cover in.
Into the line
The journey from the comparative safety of the rear zones to the front was laborious and morale sapping. The men would be gathered together in marching order along with transport section of mules that was responsible for delivering the machine guns as far as the support lines. A gunner from 62 MG Coy recalled the scene often resembled '[the] training days around the lanes of Grantham...[but] as soon as the order "no smoking" was given, one sensed the nearness to this sector of the line we were to occupy'.
The men of 62 MG Coy had arrived at the communication trenches at dusk, and now prepared for the tough task of taking over from other gunners leaving the lines. 'Each gun team took over its own guns and equipment and began the long trek through communication trenches to be allotted positions in the front line. Ammunition, water and rations all had to be manhandled, which entailed several journeys, before finally taking over from the outgoing gun teams.' The work was backbreaking. 'My shoulders and limbs felt pulverised,' the 62 MG Coy veteran remembered. His section sergeant, an old soldier, grimly joked: 'You'll get used to it; if you live long enough.'
Given their role, the machine guns were always carefully sited and as well protected as could be, usually with sand bags. Sometimes the gun would be positioned in an ‘elephant shelter’, a sandbagged strongpoint with curved roof of corrugated iron. While it would not withstand a direct hit from larger calibre shells, an elephant shelter at least offered some elementary protection. The greatest danger the gunners faced was for their position to be registered by the enemy artillery observers, who – just like the British – kept a constant watch over the frontlines looking for potential threats and high-priority targets. Machine guns were both. If a gun emplacement was located, or even suspected of being present, then the Emma Gees could expect a hefty measure of incoming fire to come their way.
During the lulls, Alfred and his comrades would have cleaned the machine gun and readied the ammunition, a job, given the conditions, which always needed doing. When in their dugouts – if they were not on duty – the men frequently spent time destroying an enemy even more disliked than the Germans: lice. To confess to being ‘chatty’, was to admit to having lice, which almost all soldiers in the line suffered from. One way to try and get rid of these pests was to cross the seams of clothing over an open flame, with the heat destroying the parasites and their eggs.
Food was fairly basic, frequently bully beef, Tickler’s jam and other rations – all of which were stodgy and, back in the civilian world would have considered decidedly taste free. Cooking usually took place using a primus-like stove. Much of the food brought up the lines was transported in empty sand bags, the threads and fragments of which often cropped up as an unwanted dietary supplement. If this was not bad enough, water was commonly transported in disused petrol cans and drums – the taste very much eau du essence*.
*Franglais for petrol-flavoured water.
Parcels from home were keenly awaited – with socks and warm clothing, particularly in the winter months, the most popular items for understandable reasons. It appears that Alf was turning a shrewd profit by selling on the contents of parcels sent out to him; Lt Young’s alludes to this in his letter, with the inference that there was a fair sum of money involved.
Catching out the enemy
The first positions 243 MG Coy occupied were in support lines near Vimy (probably the Farbus-Vimy-Levin Line) and the ‘back areas’, which, while safer, still remained in range of the heavier shells. Posted on to Willerval South, 243 MG Coy’s work became more intensive, with much of their time spent firing at strategic points held by the enemy at irregular intervals during the night. Often they were hoping to catch enemy working parties in the open. They would do this by whipping the bullets back and forth in a curving motion and along different angles. This action would have increased the chance of killing any enemy who had ducked at the first salvo and then stood up thinking the fire had moved along: a fatal mistake.
There are numerous actions recorded in the Company diary along these lines, with cross roads and supply points 243’s favoured targets. On 12 November, for example, 243 MG Coy used enfilade fire on ‘ULSTER and FLICKER’ trenches ‘with the object of catching work parties at work on trench destroyed by artillery. Enemy retaliated on TIRED ALLEY. On information [from] our artillery that a relief was expected to take place in the enemy lines, short bursts of fire were concentrated on them in conjunction with the artillery at 8pm, 10pm, 11.15pm, 1am, 1.15am, 1.25am.’
Assuming that Alfred fired the gun, and bearing his musical knowledge mind, he might, if he was good, have hammered out the bursts in time to a musical ditty. Strange as it may seem, many gunners built up a ‘repertoire’ and, on a number of occasions, other guns would accompany the 'song', creating what the troops called a machine gun orchestra. Some of these gunners became well known and were given nicknames like 'Duck Board Dick', 'Parapet Joe', or 'Happy Harry'. But grand standing in this manner could help the enemy pinpoint the gunner's position. One MGC veteran remembered how his unit, stationed on the Somme, 'smoked out' a particularly annoying German counterpart this way. Although a fairly lengthy extract, it is worth highlighting.
'We had a Number One who could play a tune on his Vickers; “pop-tiddy-pop-pop”. There was one German Maxim gunner among the group in the wood opposite who got into the way of reply with a slower “Poop-Poop”. That particular gunner was a nuisance to us, as his weapon was laid exactly to spray our dugout entrance to our rear. We lost more than one of our section going to and fro, especially when the rations were coming up at night. We decided to get rid of this “Poop-Poop” marksman.
We got two teams ready to move to left and right with periscopes*, at the blow the whistle. The next time that Fritz opened up, our Number One waited until there was a pause, and then played a “pop-tiddy-pop-pop”. Sure enough, the Jerry responded with a “Poop-Poop”, and exchanges continued while our watchman took exact sightings of his flashes, and drew converging lines on a trench plan until we had its position and range exactly.
*To safely see over the trench parapets.
At dawn on the following day, Jerry began his usual pre-breakfast shoot-up. All our four guns had been carefully laid and, at the blow of the whistle, they all opened up on him and Jerry suddenly stopped in the middle of a belt. Over the next few nights we were able to carry out our ration fatigues uninterrupted.'
Barrages, bullets and gas
Above him, as he worked, Alf would have heard the buzz of aircraft engines as the British and Germans vied for aerial supremacy in fierce dogfights. The area was noted for the number of crashed aeroplanes and one veteran recollected that there were a least 'half a dozen pitiful wrecks dotting the fields near Gavrelle'. Fitting in with this, Alf’s company was involved in light anti-aircraft defence and there are a number of references in the diaries to fire being directed at the enemy overhead. Early in the morning of 26 August, for example, a number of 243’s guns fired at and forced off hostile aircraft flying directly overhead.
When the infantry initiated a raid, Alf's company, possibly along with another machine gun unit (all depending on the size of the action) frequently acted in a support role, using the barrage technique. On September 13, for example, ten guns were used to fire a barrage two hours after the infantry had launched a successful raid on lines southeast of Arleux. The idea was simple, but deadly: a wave of bullets would strike any enemy reinforcement parties sent into the area once the alarm was raised. Around 49,000 rounds were fired.
Alf was also involved in a sizable operation on 9 November, with the diary recording that all 16 of the Company’s guns were deployed alongside twelve guns of 94 MG Coy. This was a major effort and the details were scrupulously recorded, including the number of stoppages etc. From 12pm to 1pm the machine guns added to a creeping artillery barrage. Around 150,000 rounds were fired.
Meanwhile, the horror of chemical war was never far away. At , on 16 October, the Germans put down a brief barrage of high explosive and gas on the support lines, including 243 MG Coy positions. ‘The gas had an inflammatory effect and a foul smell. The double blankets at the entrances of the dugouts proved entirely satisfactory,' the diary notes. 'The gas had a very marked effect on the guns in the affected area, which could not be fired before they had been thoroughly cleaned,’ it adds. At the receiving end of this gas attack was the Accrington Pals Battalion, which suffered 35 casualties.
The night’s disturbances were not over, however. At 6.00 am an SOS flare was fired over British front lines, bringing about a barrage of artillery support and, with their machine guns promptly cleaned and primed for action, fire from 243 MG Coy.
Rest and relaxation
Alfred was never constantly in the line: his company was relieved on a rotating basis. Marching back to billets in the rear zones, 243 MG Coy would return to the civilised world, which probably seemed a million miles away when at the Front. Unlike many infantry units, who could be grabbed by the engineers to help work on repairing trenches and support lines, Emma Gees were primarily concerned with equipment overhaul during their time out of the line. That said, from August 6 to August 16, it seems that the newly-arrived 243 MG Coy was collared for the menial task of building winter standings for animals*.
*Which was actually a very important task, although one can easily imagine what the response of an average Emma Gee would have been.
J Gadsby, of 142 MG Coy, also remembered these periods were often filled with ‘never-ending parades and field practice attacks, which, I am afraid, did not interest me much…the only thing one existed for was to lug boxes of ammunition here, there, and every old where, at the behest of one, two and three stripers and pippers [lieutenants and captains]. What it was all about no one seemed to know or care. Just “muckin us abat” I think, to make us fit, and eager to do anything to ease the monotony.’
Those who were ill faced a rather awkward situation; because the MGC was hastly created, there was no cadre of Medical Officers within its ranks. A man feeling ill had to report sick and then trek to the medical officer of the nearest neighbouring unit. Of course, Emma Gees were quick to realise that there was silver lining within this. One veteran remembered how, as a wheeze, he and his comrades marched off to the nearest MO to report sick. The MO had them all take ‘number 9’ pills* and sent the lot packing. On the way back the Emma Gees made a surreptitious visit to a café and restaurant. Undoubtedly this sort of incident was not a one off.
*The number 9 was legendary for being dished out as a cure-all for every ailment. One veteran recalled that number 9 ‘was expected to cure trench feet, the aching tooth and ingrowing toe nails, to lower temperature, restore lost appetite, regulate the pulse, heal the boil on the official place and cure scabies'. There was a widespread conspiracy theory that the number 9 was a placebo.
‘Entertainment’ was usually found at a local café or restaurant, although the troops were usually kept under relatively close scrutiny. During Alf’s time in 243, the men were billeted in Roclincourt and Ecurie and probably made use of whatever establishments were to be found there. Roclincourt – as we have noted – was the location of Alf’s final resting place.
Alf Adams was killed on 26 November 1917. Just before his death some major events had taken place: the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia early in November, while on 15 November, Georges Clemenceau became premier of France. But more important, as far as Alf was concerned, was the battle of Cambrai occurring southeast of the Arras region. Tanks had been used in concert and in appreciable numbers for the first time on 17 November and had made a notable impact against the Germans. However, the ground that had been gained was soon being eaten away by strong counter attacks.
On 24 November, 31 Divisional Command were concerned that the Germans were moving units away from Oppy-Gavrelle sector to support their efforts at Cambrai. The British decided to direct artillery fire on German lines in an effort to provoke counter fire ‘and make him give away his arty dispositions, it not being known whether he has taken away any artillery from the area to the CAMBRAI front’.
Meanwhile, 243 Company had arrived in the immediate support lines of Oppy-Gavrelle sector – possibly between Tyne Alley and North Tyne Alley, which was unfamiliar territory. Although they were now much closer to enemy positions, the job remained the same. On 20 November, for example, the diary records ‘1,000 rounds were fired at irregular intervals throughout the night at targets Gavrelle, Fresnes les Moutauban Road.’ This road was also targeted the following day.
The next few days were all noted as quiet in the Company diary, with relatively little enemy activity to report. For Alf and his gun mates 26 November probably began like any other, with the team kept busy with all the usual concerns that filled the lives of Emma Gees. But German observers had carefully registered their position and a small barrage had been called for… And another four men suddenly lost their lives on the Western Front:
Alfred and Maude as newly-weds, wearing their best clothes on a holiday in Eastborne, southern England. Alf was a successful record salesman by this stage and was able to buy some of the finer things in life.
Alf and his business partner pose for an unusual shot at a trade fair. By the 1910s records were no longer novelty items but goods to buy and consume on a regular basis. It was still a new industry, however, and one open to entrepreneurs.
Gunners manning the line on a Vickers .303 machine gun. These men are also wearing gas masks. 243 MG Coy had to contend with gas on a number of occasions and the horror of chemical war was never far away.
A plaque placed by MGC old comrades in France in Easter 1939 - just before the start of the Second World War. Just under 14,000 men of the MGC were killed in action. (Click on image to enlarge).
Where he fell
Click on map to see rough area where Alf Adams probably fell.
On the other side
A German concrete-enforced dugout somewhere on the Western Front later in the war. German defence lines in the Arras region were noted as well constructed and well sighted. For an attacker, this was bad news.
Into the sky
Enemy aircraft were constantly present on the front and Alf's company was often involved in sending up anti-aircraft fire.
'The gas had an inflammatory effect and a foul smell'
243 MGC Coy diary
A British burial party laying two soldiers to rest on the Somme battlefield in 1916. Perhaps the scene would have been similar when Alf and his comrades were buried. 'He was buried,' his commanding officer wrote, 'by a Church of England clergyman in a British Cemetery and I myself had a cross made and I went and saw it put up'.
'He was killed instantaneously and suffered no pain at all'
The original cross, showing Alf's name and number. Although difficult to see here, under close examination the date given for his death is two days out. Thankfully this error was corrected on the formal gravestone at Roclincourt Military Cemetery.