Bill’s War – Everyday heroes of WWI

While I was writing Letting in the Light, the story of the Spindrift artists’ community during WWI, my brother Julian was compiling our family tree. Coincidentally, he was looking into our grandfathers’ military service in WWI at the point I was writing about my characters leaving for the Western Front or volunteering on the Homefront.

Many of us have been told stories of family members who served in the Great War and the difficulties and privations they faced. Many of these ordinary men rose to meet the challenges of war to become everyday heroes. Both my grandfathers may be counted amongst them.

Archer Wilfred Spooner

My paternal grandfather, Archer Wilfred Spooner – Grandpa Bill to us – was a kindly, quiet, smallish man, the son of a surgeon. After the war he was a National Provincial Bank manager for many years and died in 1973. Bill never talked of his war experiences, not even to his children. The youngest of three brothers, he was a Londoner and was working for the Post Office when he enlisted as a Private, an infantryman, later a Corporal in B Company, 2/1 Battalion Honourable Artillery Company (HAC).

Training for battle was focused on fitness, ‘musketry’ (rifle practice) and forced marches. 2/1 Battalion spent six months as the guard at the Tower of London, then three months at camp in Richmond Park before entraining at Waterloo for Southampton on 1st Oct 1916. They arrived in France on the 5th and were at the front line at Ploegsteert on the 6th. The battalion was immediately under fire and a private was killed on the second day. It’s hard to imagine the emotional shock this must have created in a 25 year-old, let alone many who were much younger than Bill.

Civilians, including Bill’s wife, could (reportedly) hear, in London, the big guns across the channel. This, together with the high numbers of dead and wounded, the cinema, papers and the occasional Zeppelin raid must have made the families of the serving soldiers feel a part of this war, in a way that had never been the case previously.

The regiment’s war diaries reveal appalling attrition rates. The Battalions arrived in France at full strength of 800 men but attacks often reduced the force by a quarter in a few hours. At Bucquoy in late January 1917 they lost 200 men. On 3rd May, they lost another 200, charging through tangled wire into concentrated machine gun fire. They cleared a trench in hand-to-hand fighting taking 50 prisoners but by then the battalion was down to 250 men. On 14th May there was a German counter-attack which resulted in 80 men killed, leaving the total battalion strength down to 4 officers and 94 other ranks – less than an eighth of its original strength.

There were further losses in July and during the Passchendaele ridge offensive in October, one shell killed all 26 men in a fatigue party bringing stores forward. Eight officers and 82 other ranks were killed and 189 wounded. On 26th October they went back into the line but and were unable to keep up with the barrage and were mown down by machine guns as they floundered through the mud. Bill was wounded in this battle.

After this decimation, 7th Division was sent to Italy, expected by most to be a holiday compared to the Western Front. 2/1was part of the assault team sent to shore up the defence against the Austro-Hungarians following the catastrophic defeat of the Italians at Caporetto.

During the night, the unit crossed the fast-flowing and very wide River Piave in small boats under heavy artillery and machine gun fire and took the island of Papodopoli.

Bill remained in Italy as part of the peace-keeping force until 22nd March 1919 when his unit returned home.

Reading the war diaries, battalion orders and memoirs, it is difficult to see how anyone who managed to return home after the war could ever re-integrate into society. The ferocity of the fighting, and the huge and continuous human destruction is hard for later generations to comprehend.

The most lasting effect on families must have been the loss of their young men. Bill’s brother Bernard was killed on 23 May 1918 in Ligny-Saint-Flochel, near Arras. His cousin Charles was killed on April 10th 1918 in Palestine. So many parents and siblings of this generation of soldiers can never have fully recovered from this war.

By complete coincidence, my maternal grandfather, Tom Brand, was posted to the Piave at the same time as Bill Spooner and, although they didn’t meet, they will have been in close proximity to each other- first on the Western Front, and then on the river Piave.

To read about Tom’s experiences in WWI click here.

Thanks to Julian Spooner for his research. Sources: National Archives: War Diaries HAC 2/1 Battalion (Diaries and Orders.) Honourable Artillery Company History G Goold, Beckett Chapter 6, Reflections of a Regiment: The Honourable Artillery Company and the Great War in Pictures: Justine Taylor

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