Sunday, 23 April 2017

22nd April 1917 on 22nd April 2017

I'm just back from a few days visiting Arras. We took in: the Wellington Tunnels; Hervin Farm Cemetery where RGH is buried; the Vimy Memorial and the Arras Memorial before heading home. We visited Robert's grave on the hundredth anniversary of his death. A more detailed blogpost will follow soon, but in the meantime, here are some images from that day and the Hervin Farm:






Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Arras novel is taking shape...

Edited extract from a draft section of the book I'm writing about Robert Gooding Henson and the Battle of Arras:

Thousands of Tommies, all together, were training for the battle that would soon come. Flagged courses were constructed over the rough terrain, where they would rehearse movements over and over again. The weather was cold, storms intermittently battering them in every way over and over again. The only relief was the resumption of the sporting tournament. One day, when the snow fell and obliterated the pitch, the officers decided they should forego football and a boxing tournament was organised. 

Whilst thousands of soldiers were accommodated in secret rough-hewn tunnels dug under the decimated city of Arras, Robert’s Battalion were shifted in buses to Dieval for Brigade exercises, then marched to Hermaville, a farming village just eight miles west of Arras. This day, 7th April, was an auspicious day for the Somerset regiment. This was Jellalabad Day, which celebrated the regiment’s successful escape from a trapped position in Jellalabad during the Afghan War in 1842. Celebrating one of Somerset’s greatest military victories on the eve of their greatest sacrifice was an irony that was yet to occur to most of them. Huts were set up with a piano, crates of beer, and a musical evening was provided for all the men. 

On 8th April, the men were settled into tents just outside a larger, more industrial village named Maroeuil, which was four miles closer to Arras. Unlike the twenty-four thousand soldiers who surged from the hidden tunnels in the city to take the Germans by surprise, Robert’s Battalion camped out. Whilst in a heavily wooded area, they were still more vulnerable and more likely to be spotted by German aerial reconnaissance. A party of officers, in an unusually intrepid operation, reconnoitred the trenches north of Arras ahead of the attack, and a plan was hatched.

They followed their orders but were not yet to know the full scope of what lay ahead of them. Troops from Australia, Canada, France, Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales were all defending the Ypres Salient and driving the Germans back long the line of the River Scarpe, and had been doing so for months that extended into years. The Fourth Division, of which the Somerset Light Infantry was a part, had orders to capture a section of the German trench system known as the Hyderabad Redoubt, north-east of the village of Fampoux...

Whilst this is taken from the book, it doesn't include anything to do with plot or characters. We'll save that for another day. I've taken the factual framework and constructed a fictional narrative that focuses on Robert's imagined experiences and later, how this relates to events after the war.

The 100th anniversary of the First Battle of Arras was recently commemorated on 9th April. Robert died on 22nd April. More on that soon...


Monday, 10 April 2017

Every Man Remembered

A little plug here for this website: http://www.everymanremembered.org

From the website's home page:

"Over 1.1 million Service men and women lost their lives during the First World War. We invite you to create a dedication to one of them, and to place a poppy on our map in their memory".

There's a really interesting interactive map, which enabled me to locate Robert Gooding Henson there along with the many also buried at Hervin Farm cemetery.

9th April was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Arras, bringing with it some strange family synchronicities which I will detail in a later blog post and also in the book. The book now has something of a structure. I have taken what I know of Robert's life (very little except where he lived and when and some sketchy family history)  and the movements of the Somerset Light Infantry, and woven it into a fictional narrative. Robert Gooding Henson is a character in the story. 20,000 words in and I'm close to the end of 1916. I don't know for certain whether Robert saw action in 1916, but the dates of everything else make it plausible, so my story has him at thr front during the winter of 1916. The book's second section will then move us to 1917 and the Battle of Arras. I have this roughed out but will be seeking out more detail to help with this when I visit Arras shortly. Subsequent sections of the book will bring the present into play, where I will be using a section about my father and then about my trip to Arras. After 1917, it's fairly fluid at the moment.

In 12 days, it will be a hundred years since Robert Gooding Henson died, just one of a great many remembered this month at Arras. A great many Scottish fell at Arras, as commemorated here, and Canadians too, at Vimy Ridge, as seen here. 

Another interesting article here: http://51hd.co.uk/history/battle_of_arras


and here: https://somersetremembers.wordpress.com/category/somerset-light-infantry/page/3/

Image result for football somerset light infantryIn November 1916, a "light company" sporting competition was organised whilst they were in a rest and train period away from the Front Line. Was RGH ever in a football team such as this?

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The writing begins and newspaper clippings of Robert Gooding Henson's death

Time for a quick update.

After some thought, with the working title of 'A Hundred Years To Arras', I'm using my research to write a fact-based novel. Beginning in 1916, just after my assumed date of when Robert Gooding Henson was sent to France, the first section of the novel will follow the 4th Division's deployment at the Battle of the Somme. The 4th Division, of which Robert was a part, were involved in the attack on 1st July 1916. The attack of the VIII Corps was carried out by the 29th, 4th and 31st Divisions in that order from south to north. The first objective of the 4th Division was to support the the Roayal Warwickshire Regiment to captaure a section of the German front line, romantically designated O6C93-Q6C99-K36C35-K36a82. The 3 Battalions that formed the second line behind the Warwickshires were the 1st Hampshire Regiment, the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, and some more of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, with the intention of advancing through the leading Battalions to capture the objective.

I don't know for sure whether RGH was involved in this battle, as about ten per cent of the regiment were left behind in billets at Mailly-Maillet, but for the purposes of the story I'm going to tell, he will be. The only spoiler of course that we can't avoid is that we know that he dies at the Battle of Arras.

My friend Garen Ewing, a brilliant writer and artist, and historical researcher extraordinaire, was kind enough to share with me a couple of newspaper clippings that he came across regharding Robert's death, as below:



Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Family Connection

The last month has seen quite some upheaval. I've had some surgery and can only sit or stand for short periods. I'm recovering well I think, but during my convalescence I'm trying to avoid just staring at the TV, so thoughts come back to this blog and Robert Gooding Henson.

I was in the middle of investigating the family tree and the precise link to Robert Gooding Henson. This was to be a project I would work on with my father. Sadly, suddenly a couple of weeks ago, my father died.

We had been told that RG Henson was my father's grandmother's sister's son, but this wasn't all that clear as my parents come from a generation where their parents knew little and shared less about family history. In a poor mining community in South Wales, the priority was bringing up children and putting food on the table. We had begun to dig around a bit more.

My father's maternal grandmother was Mary Tucker, from Devon. She had a number of siblings, one of whom was Lucy Tucker. Lucy married Robert Henson, and they had a son whom they named after Robert's father: Robert Gooding Henson. They moved to Somerset, where they took on the farm there. The further records that I've been able to uncover state that, as suspected, RG Henson died of wounds on 22nd April 1917 but as yet I don't know how those wounds were inflicted.

So, for my Dad as much as for myself, the investigation continues...

Saturday, 30 July 2016

First or Second Battle of Arras?

Reading up on the Battle of Arras has been interesting. I'm into the end of the first week of my summer holiday, which has mainly entailed back-breaking 'stuff-around-the-house' including setting up my new study in the spare bedroom. In amongst that I've gained some time to research a little bit more about the Battle of Arras and Robert Gooding Henson's possible role in it. It also strikes me that there must be relations around who are more directly related to Robert, so the other next step is to investigate the family tree a bit more. I was due to sit down with my Dad to talk about this a bit more but the car being in the garage all week (long story) has put paid to a long drive to Wales.

The Battle of Arras actually breaks down into three parts:
The First Battle of the Scarpe (9-14 April 1917);
The Second Battle of the Scarpe (23/24 April 1917);
The Third Battle of the Scarpe (3 May 1917).

The first battle was mostly a Canadian-led attack, with the British attacks at Arras intended to be part of a larger Anglo-French offensive planned for the spring of 1917. From what I've been able to ascertain (and an excellent summary of this can be read at Jeremy Banning's website), the night of 9th April represented the peak of success at Arras. The campaign was plagued afterwards by a lack of organisation, poor communications and terrible weather. It was also incredibly difficult to move artillery over the ground that had been bombarded and ripped up by enemy attack. Little happened on 10th April, and the collective failure to capitalise on the Canadian success of 9th April gave the Germans enough time to build up their defences in preparation for the next day.

11th April was when the First Battle of Bullecourt took place. This was pivotal, but the tanks that the Fifth Army needed failed to arrive in time. They needed the tanks to breach the German barbed wire defences. Barbed wire was a relatively new invention that foiled attack on many occasions. Many soldiers learned the hard way how easy it could be to get trapped in barbed wire and meet an end, hanging there, waiting to be shot or die from exposure. It was the Australians that had some success this day, breaking through sections of the wire to make for the Hindenburg Line. By midday, though, the Line was so well defended by the Germans that they were surrounded on three sides and had to retreat over No Man's Land. This made them easy pickings and by the end of the day, 2000 Australians were taken prisoner.

As far as Robert Gooding Henson is concerned, what I know so far is that, after 11th April, the 4th Division, of which his Somerset Light Infantry was a part, many troops were sent back to Arras and replaced. Others were fresh, alert and waiting in the wings. The rest was well deserved, despite the British failure to gain all of the ground that had been planned. However, the 4th Division had 'leapfrogged' the 9th (Scottish) Division on 9th April to capture the village of Fampoux. This was a massive advance of between 3 and 4 miles but they were foiled by the barbed wire.

The crest of the Somerset Light Infantry, as photographed at the cemetery at Hervin Farm.
A great deal more happened over the next few days, including the 1st Essex and Newfoundland Regiments capturing Hill 100 (known as Infantry Hill) on 14th April. But, as far as I've been able to tell, Robert and the Somerset Light Infantry were back in Arras, resting.

We know that Robert's death date is given as 22nd April, so the mystery - at the moment - is when and how he died. My first assumption was that he was wounded close to the end of the First Battle and died later of his injuries, but it appears that he was not involved in any attack after 11th April. So, the question is whether he was wounded on or before 11th April and then suffered from his injuries for a further 11 days, or whether something else happened.

The Second Battle commenced on 23rd April when the weather had improved considerably, but troops were assembling before then ready to attack, and there are isolated incidents of shelling between the two Battles, so the exact cause of his death I don't yet know. Is it possible that he made it to 22nd April uninjured, and then something happened prior to the official beginning of the Second Battle of the Scarpe on 23rd April?