(William) Percival Hannaford
William Percival Hannaford was neither born nor lived in Dartmouth, but is commemorated on the Town War Memorial because his parents moved there during the war. He was a native of Kingsbridge, born in 1896 and baptised in St Thomas a Becket, Dodbrooke, Kingsbridge, on 6th September of that year. He was the elder of two sons of William Hannaford and his wife Florence Creber.
William (senior) came originally from Slapton but his family had moved to Kingsbridge by the time of the 1891 Census, when they lived in Fore Street. William was apprenticed to a painter. Florence was born in Kingsbridge and in 1891 was working in domestic service in Fore Street, for William Harris and his wife Elizabeth. William and Florence married at St Thomas a Becket on 26th November 1894.
The couple's second child, Francis Henry, was born two years after his brother on 13th December 1898, and baptised at St Edmund's, Kingsbridge on 25th June 1899. In 1901, the family lived at Duncombe Street, in Kingsbridge, round the corner from St Edmund's. William worked as a House Painter. They were still in Duncombe Street in 1911. William continued to work as a House Painter and both boys were still at school - Percival, as he was known in the family, was 14; Frank was 12.
Percival's individual service papers have survived, though are badly faded and in many places quite difficult to read. They record that he was first called up on 11th May 1916, aged 18 years, 10 months. He lived with his parents at 88a Fore Street, Kingsbridge, and worked as an ironmonger (though other papers describe his occupation as "labourer"). He was 5' 8" tall, with a 33in chest, and was medically assessed as category "B1", although the doctor recorded that he "should develop" (the Category B1 was used for "fit for service abroad in Garrison or Provisional units, but not general service"). Perhaps for this reason, he was posted to the Army Reserve for just under three months, and (presumably) sent home to await his mobilisation.
On 5th September 1916, he was posted with the number 5858 to the 2/8th Durham Light Infantry (this delay appears to have caused confusion later as some of the records in his file date his service from this point). The 2/8th was the reserve battalion for the 1/8th DLI, which had gone to France in April 1915. It was based at Catterick Camp, near Richmond, Yorkshire.
On 27th October 1916, he was transferred to the 5th(Reserve) Battalion DLI, formed in August 1916 from the amalgamation of several third line battalions, with another number, 17486. The 5th (Reserve) Battalion moved to Catterick in late 1916 so it would appear that Percival remained there throughout his training.
He went to France on 10th January 1917, travelling from Folkestone to Boulogne and arriving at 35 Infantry Base Depot in Etaples. Clearly there were no longer concerns about his fitness (or perhaps they were ignored) - he was rapidly posted to the 1/8th Battalion, on 12th January 1917.
1/8th Battalion DLI were part of 151st Brigade in 50th Division. At the beginning of 1917 they were in the Somme sector, where fighting by now was over and the task was "normal" trench warfare. The Battalion's War Diary refers on 15th January to reinforcements arriving at the front line near Flers:
Reinforcements came up from Detail Camp [at Bazentin] "B" Coy 13 men, "C" Coy 5 men, "D" Coy 11 men.
It seems highly likely that one of these was Percival. The Battalion was spending its time working on "reclaiming" and improving the trenches and dugouts. Conditions were extremely challenging - it was cold and very wet:
All men had their feet rubbed with whale-oil two or three times a day in the Posts and hot food brought to them at night, the latter was warmed up in the post by solidified paraffin.
This was of course in addition to working under enemy fire.
On 19th January 1917 they moved to Mametz Wood and the following day went back into the line to relieve their sister Battalion, 1/9th DLI. The War Diary comments:
In view of cases of trench feet which occurred during the last tour in the front line, every man carried a pair of gum-boots thigh [sic].
They continued to reclaim and improve trenches until they were relieved on 24th January, when they returned to Bazentin, then Becourt, and then to Ribemont on 30th January for rest and training, moving to Hamel on 10th February 1917 "into very good billets". Two days later they marched to Foucaucourt, south of the Somme. Here:
Coy Training continued with special attention to Bombing & Gas helmet drill, this being an area in which gas is much employed by the enemy.
On 17th February, the cold and frosty weather broke; a thaw caused conditions to deteriorate rapidly. The Diary noted: "trenches becoming very waterlogged". Monday 19th February was the last day spent in camp before moving up to the line:
Special attention paid to treatment of men's feet in view of the possibility of wet in the trenches due to rapid thaw. Gum boots were taken up at the rate of eighty per Coy.
That night they went into the line at Genermont, near Fresnes. The communications trenches were:
… very muddy and sticky, so that by evening movement became practically impossible except over the open. The enemy have entire observation of our line, particularly the CTs and movement during the day has a result to be reduced to a minimum, as any movement provokes hostile artillery fire.
As a result little could be done during the day; work and carrying parties had to operate at night. Supply of fresh water was a problem, due to "shortage of petrol tins" and the muddy conditions, which made bringing it up to the front line very difficult. They were relieved by the 9th DLI overnight on 23rd February; the relief took a long time for the same reason. The following morning, after they had arrived at Berny-en-Santerre:
… all the men's feet were bathed and treated … no working parties were detailed … the men being given the day to recover from the effects of the trying conditions in the front line … As Berny was under enemy observation and the CTs were practically impassable, movement in day time was reduced to a minimum. At night parties were detailed to continue the overland trenchboard track commenced by 9th DLI leading to the front line … work was also done in baling and pumping trenches. All visiting of Coys was also done at night. Cases of chilled feet and trench feet began to occur …
Evidently one of these cases was Percival, whose records show that on 25th February he was evacuated sick to 1/3rd Northern Field Ambulance due to trench foot. He remained in the Field Ambulance unit for six days. According to the War Diary he was one of "about 50" men who had gone sick. According to Charles Messenger:
The cause of trench foot … was not just long immersion of the feet in cold water. It was the combination of this and restricted circulation to the feet caused by closely bound puttees and tightly laced boots. In its secondary form gangrene would set in, almost inevitably resulting in amputation. GHQ's immediate solution came in the form of instructions issued in January 1915. Whale oil was issued for rubbing into the feet prior to going into the trenches. Puttees and boots were not to be too tightly bound and laced. Each man was to take a pair of dry socks into the front line to change into, and the men were to wash and dry their feet thoroughly on coming out of the trenches …
The 1/8th DLI had, apparently, taken the necessary precautions, but as Charles Messenger says: "the grim winter of 1916-17 proved a particularly severe test".
Percival was discharged from the Field Ambulance on 3rd March 1917, as the Battalion was relieved in the line and moved to the rear, first to Foucaucourt and then to Morcourt, on the Somme. However, it would appear that Percival was still suffering, because five days later he went sick again due to trench foot, this time being admitted to 2/2nd Northern Field Ambulance. This time he was away for nearly three weeks, rejoining the Battalion at Morcourt on 26th March 1917. At this point he was allocated his new regimental number of 302842, following the renumbering of the Territorial Force.
On 31st March, the Battalion was moved by bus to Talmas and then marched to Naours, north of Amiens. Although the billets were good the village was "very muddy". As the Battalion gradually moved towards Arras, Percival was evacuated sick due to trench foot for a third time, to 2/1st Northumbrian Casualty Clearing Station at Agnez-les-Duisans. His condition had apparently worsened considerably because this time he was sent first to hospital in Le Treport, where he stayed for just under two weeks. On 17th April 1917 he was transferred to England in HMS Donegal. Where he was cared for in England is not clear from his records, and there is no detail about his treatment, but he must have been badly affected since he was not discharged from hospital until 9th November 1917, having been assessed as Category AIII - fit to return to service once "hardened". Perhaps William and Florence were able to see him while he was recovering in hospital.
He was once again posted to the 5th Reserve Battalion DLI, now at Hornsea, Yorkshire, and, presumably having undergone appropriate refresher training to equip him once again for combat, was sent back to France, travelling from Folkestone to Boulogne on 30th December 1917. On 2nd January 1918, he was posted to his old unit, 1/8th DLI, joining them on 10th January. The Battalion's War Diary duly reports that a draft of 74 other ranks arrived that day together with two officers; they were posted to "D" and "A" Companies. Percival's records show he was posted to "D" Company, commanded by Captain R H Guest Williams, who also arrived with the Battalion that day with the draft.
During 1917 the Battalion had fought at Arras and in the later stages of the Third Battle of Ypres. By January 1918 they were in training at Eecke, between Hazebrouck and Poperinghe. On 17th January, after a long journey due to rail delays and marches over very wet roads, the Battalion arrived in Moringhem, west of St Omer, where the training area was prepared to represent Passchendaele Ridge. For the rest of the month, the Battalion trained in the Brigade "defence scheme" and in counter-attack.
They moved back towards the front line at the beginning of February, moving into Brigade Reserve near Ypres on 4th February 1918 and into the front line at the Passchendaele Ridge two days later, "D" Company being positioned at Crest Farm (now the site of the Passchendaele Canadian Memorial). As they left the line on 9th February, the dump where they were leaving stores and guns to be picked up by Battalion transport was heavily shelled. Fortunately "D" Company, on its way to the dump, was warned and diverted by a member of the transport section, preventing heavy casualties. Other than this, the situation was generally quiet and casualties were low.
In early March, however, whilst in the middle of further training, they received orders to move south - 50th Division had been ordered back to the Somme sector. By 11th March they were in billets in Army Reserve at Marcelcave, on the Somme river. The War Diary does not say so, but the move was due to the expected German offensive (for further background on this, see the story of Reginald Drake). They continued to train in the new defensive system which was being implemented all along the line; they were in reserve and were detailed to provide counter-attacking forces.
The German Spring Offensive: Phase 1: The Battle of the Somme
On the morning of 21st March, as the German Spring Offensive began, the 1/8th DLI were in the rear:
At dawn the enemy commenced his expected attack along the whole Fifth Army front. At 5.30am orders were received for the Battalion to be prepared to move at 4 hours notice …
At 6pm the Battalion (apart from 6 officers and 126 OR kept behind as a cadre) moved up to the front. They arrived at Brusle at 11pm and bivouacked in a field before moving forward at 3am to the "Green Line" (the front of the Rear Zone of the "defence in depth" system). D Coy was to the rear of the Battalion's position, in reserve.
A separate report in the War Diary then covers the events of the next ten days. There was no question of a counter-attack - instead what followed was a fast-moving retreat, interrupted by the occasional rearguard action, as the Fifth Army fell back.
The 1/8th DLI did their best to improve the extremely limited defences of the Green Line. The overall situation "remained obscure", but by late afternoon the 24th Division and remnants of 66th Division had withdrawn through the Battalion's position and "the Green Line was now the British front line". Fortunately their Lewis guns and small arms ammunition had at last arrived and at 7.30pm they established communication with the artillery.
At 1am, still in the Green Line, 50th Division was ordered to withdraw "owing to the situation on the Fifth Army Front". No rearward defence system had been prepared - at 4.30am "a start was made with linking up Coys in the new line which required consolidating in posts as no trenches existed".
They were ordered at 6.45am to withdraw further, which they duly did at 8.30am, "without any serious infantry action on the Brigade front having materialised. Enemy patrols had been slightly engaged but no casualties ensued." But at about 12.30pm, when they had reached Cartigny, a substantial enemy attack developed around both flanks. At 1pm an order was given for "methodical retirement to the Bridge [over the Somme] at Eterpigny". No support was available from artillery, which was retiring also.
The whole Brigade was able to retire "in good order" and "with very slight casualties" and by 2.30pm was assembled on the west bank of the Somme; after all the British troops had crossed, the bridges were blown up. At 3.30pm the Battalion was ordered to hold a line of posts along the bank of the Somme and remained there overnight.
That morning they were ordered to withdraw to an "old prisoner of war camp" near Foucaucourt, close to where they had been accommodated just over a year earlier. At 11.30am they were in billets and were able to eat. Their casualties were, so far, light: one officer and 30 men wounded or missing; three Lewis Guns had been destroyed by enemy action.
By 6pm they had established a defensive line, using the old French support line, which was well-wired and with good trenches. This they held overnight without facing any attack.
At 8am they were ordered to be prepared to move "at a moment's notice" but without any indication of direction or destination. Finally they were ordered to move to the south-east, towards Marchelepot. The situation was clearly very confused as they took up a line along the railway embankment to the south-west of Marchelepot; there was "no touch with anyone on the left flank" and the Germans were now across the river and working round behind Marchelepot. Not for the first time in the chaos, British artillery firing short caused casualties. But at 3.30pm they were ordered to hold the position "at all costs" until 9pm that night, to cover the continuing withdrawal. On the left flank, C Coy, reinforced by a reserve platoon of B Coy, caused considerable enemy casualties.
At 7.50pm, however, they were ordered to withdraw to the old French trench system south-west of Ablaincourt; the withdrawal began at 10.45pm but was not complete until 3am the next morning "owing to the tired condition of the men, difficulties of the terrain, and necessity for concealment of withdrawal".
At 9.05am they were under attack and at 11am orders for a general retirement were issued; while under heavy attack they withdrew yet again and by 2.30pm "the majority of the Battalion were assembled in position 600x East of Rosieres [en-Santerre] digging in". They were able to hold this line overnight; they were ordered to wire the front but there was no wire available.
At 7.55am the enemy were seen advancing from Meharicourt in force and the Battalion's machine guns and Lewis Guns "did much execution". However, "casualties from our own shell fire became heavy in all Coys, but no communication could be obtained with the Artillery" as almost all telephone wires had been cut. Nonetheless successive attacks during the day were successfully resisted. The War Diary report of the action observed:
The greatest difficulty by day had been lack of orders & difficulty of communication (which was by runner); by night the difficulty was to keep the troops awake, as everyone was worn out by the recent strain and heavy fighting … all Coys [were] very weak in numbers and L[ewis] Guns and small arms ammunition …
At this point much of what is written in the War Diary is very difficult to read, but clearly the withdrawal continued. At 5pm the Battalion was ordered to withdraw to the west to Moreuil, following a German breakthrough to the south, as part of a general withdrawal:
The whole of the line was to fall back on the Aure River to Moreuil and then north to Villers-Bretonneux. A rearguard was being fought by composite forces, and transport and stores and troops marched without halting to west of River Aure. During the march the roads were being shelled and harassed by machine gun fire. The artillery were withdrawing by batteries a mile at a time and firing over open sights at the advancing enemy. Armoured cars were in great use.
During the past four days, the 1/8th had suffered more heavily. By 10pm, when they reached Moreuil, their approximate strength was 12 officers and 150 other ranks.
As other Battalions had suffered similarly, 151st Brigade at this point formed a composite Battalion. The remnants of 1/8th DLI, which we must assume included Percival, were formed at that point into two companies. At 12 noon the Composite Battalion went into support of the French at Demuin, north-east of Moreuil.
At 7am French and English line withdrew; a combined cavalry counter-attack was delivered through the line the Composite Battalion was holding; there was a further French withdrawal at 2pm and the Composite Battalion withdrew to high ground "at the G of Hangard", just to the west of Demuin. This position was held overnight.
Under severe shelling, the Composite Battalion took up a new position in reserve, east of Gentelles.
At this point, the German attack at last paused as their supply lines became more and more overstretched. There was a lull in the fighting, enabling reinforcements to be brought in by the French and the British so that the men who had been fighting continuously for several days could finally be relieved.
On 2nd April, the remnants of the Battalion were reunited at Saleux, west of Amiens, with those who had been kept out of the battle. Total strength was now 26 officers and 460 other ranks - although down, they were not out. They were taken by bus to Bethune, where they were able to regroup. Here they received two large drafts, on 5th and 6th April, of 160 and 105 other ranks.
But they were not allowed to rest for long. There were real strategic targets close behind the British lines in Flanders - if the Germans struck there next the strategic threat was very high. British forces were very stretched - of 56 British Divisions, no fewer than 46 had already been involved in the battles on the Somme and at Arras.
The 50th Division were ordered to move north to relieve the Portuguese 2nd Division in the Laventie sector of the Lys valley. They had been in the line for quite a long time, and their ability to mount a strong resistance to a heavy German attack was in question. The relief was due to take place on 10th April - if the attack came before the relief, the 50th Division would be in reserve, but close behind. 151st Brigade was responsible for the defence of the crossings of the River Lys and Lawe, near the town of Estaires. The 1/8th DLI was responsible for the bridges over the Lawe at Lestrem. They moved north on 7th April - that evening, the German bombardment opened between Armentieres and the La Bassee Canal.
The German Spring Offensive: Phase 2: the Battle of the Lys
The attack came on 9th April. The relief had not taken place and at 7.30am the Battalion were ordered to move into their reserve positions. By 10am it was clear that the Portuguese had been overrun. The 8th DLI position consisted of a series of detached posts, in the form of redoubts, covering the crossings over the River Lawe, which at this point flows in a large loop. On the left flank was Pont Riqueult Post; in the centre were Le Marais Posts East, West and South. South-west of Le Marais Post South was a garrison, holding a footbridge and a Royal Engineers bridge across the river. The posts were held by "A" and "B" Companies, with "D" Company in support on the banks of the Lawe. "C" Company was in reserve near Battalion HQ.
In this sector "the Germans were advancing rapidly in two columns, one northwards against the crossings over the Lys at Estaires, and the other westwards … against the crossings over the Lawe near Lestrem" (Official History). The 1/8th DLI War Diary states that the first post to fall was Le Marais Post East, at about 1pm; Le Marais Post West was captured shortly before 3pm; the garrison of Le Marais Post South held on until 4.30pm, but withdrew because it was almost surrounded, and fighting a rearguard action, dug a line with the garrison holding the bridges. Under Captain Guest Williams, who was still OC "D" Company, three platoons attempted a counter-attack, because a few of the enemy had gained a crossing at Lock de la Rault, but this failed due to intense machine gun fire. Captain Guest Williams was wounded.
At 1.30am on 10th April the enemy attacked the bridge head at Pont Riqueult in force, bringing up field guns to closest range, and most of the garrison there were killed and wounded. A counter-attack was impossible with the few men available, so the bridge was blown up. But it had not been completely destroyed, and at about 8.30am the Germans were able to force a crossing, under cover of a machine-gun barrage.
The 1/8th DLI (briefly at this point under command of 153rd Brigade) then formed part of a line across the base of the loop of the Lawe, east of the village. The position was held throughout the day, but at 8.15pm the Germans broke through to the south. By this stage they had brought their artillery forward to a position where it could cover the passage of the Lawe, and the Lestrem garrison was so heavily shelled that it had to withdraw. A new defensive line was formed about a mile back from the river.
Early on 11th April the Germans broke through at L'Epinette on the right of the Battalion's position, and by 2.15pm they had also broken through on the left. An urgent call for reinforcements could not be answered, while the Battalion's front was extremely heavily attacked. Casualties were such that it was impossible to hold the line. Orders were given to withdraw north of the Lys and destroy the bridges; the bridge in Merville was destroyed at 12 midnight.
During 12th April the fighting died down - according to the Official History:
The Germans … were beginning to feel the effects of an ever-lengthening flank along the canal; being also harassed by aeroplanes and artillery, they did not seem disposed to come on … it became possible to proceed with sorting out and reorganising.
The three Brigades of 50th Division overnight had occupied a three-mile front between the Lys and the road between Neuf-Berquin and Vieux-Berquin. During that day they slowly withdrew, aiming to hold out until the fresh troops of the 5th Division (which had come up from Italy) arrived on the field.
By 6pm the remnants of the 1/8th DLI were astride the road from Merville to La Motte au Bois. At 8pm, 5th Division "dug in just behind our outposts and when this was completed we withdrew and assembled at La Motte Chateau", arriving at 1.45am on 13th April. When the chateau was heavily shelled at 5.30am, a further move to the rear was ordered. Finally they were out of the battle.
By this time the strength of the Battalion was 9 officers and 158 other ranks, and it had to be temporarily reorganised as a Company. On 16th April, they rejoined the Battalion transport and other details at Wittes. Over the next few days they gradually reorganised and attempted to rebuild as a fighting unit, for the second time in less than a month.
By 20th April, "A" and "B" Companies were working as separate companies; but "C" and "D" Companies were working as a composite company. New officers arrived; and new drafts arrived - on 19th April, 28 "under 19" boys; on 24th April, 119 men from the Army Service Corps; 98 men from the Inland Water Transport; and 44 men from the 26th DLI. As they prepared once again to move, the Battalion totalled 26 officers and 782 other ranks. But though the numbers might have recovered on paper, the ASC and IWT men had had no infantry training, and the "under 19" boys of course had no experience. These were soldiers aged 18½ and over, who had had six months training - the Government had decided in March, in light of the need for men, that the "no service overseas under 19" rule had to be broken.
The German Spring Offensive: Phase 3: the Battle of the Aisne
Percival had survived two phases of the German Spring Offensive. Now he faced a third, but this was not to be third time lucky. The overall situation is summarised by Peter Hart:
The balance of opinion amongst the Allied High Command was that the Germans would try again in the Somme region, striking again towards Amiens or Paris. [Supreme Commander Field Marshal] Foch approved … the rotation of the worst-hit British divisions into one of the currently quietest sectors on the Chemin des Dames ridge where they would be incorporated as the IX Corps into the French Sixth Army commanded by General Denis Duchêne. The divisions selected represented a roll-call of pain from the battles they had collectively endured on the Somme and Flanders: the 8th, 21st, 25th and 50th Divisions … The relieved French divisions would then form a General Reserve for deployment by Foch as and when required … There proved to be only one thing wrong with this plan - this area happened to be the very location chosen for the next German offensive…
The German intention was to reach the Aisne River, and draw in Allied reserves before launching a new assault in Flanders in July, which would achieve complete breakthrough and overall victory.
On 28th April, the 1/8th War Diary duly records that, having arrived at Savigny after a "reasonably comfortable" journey, the 50th Division "now came under the command of the Sixth French Army, Commanded by Genl Duchêne with HQ at Soissons, being the first British Division so to be commanded".
In their camp at Arcis en Ponsart, the following day, all officers and platoon sergeants heard a lecture from a British staff officer about "the French army, its customs, and the commanders of 6th French Army". On 7th May, they went forward to the Corps reserve area, to the village of Chaudardes:
… a small village in the Aisne valley, partly in ruins with about 10 civilians still lving there. There were a number of deep dugouts fitted with beds but the men were billeted in ruined houses, very comfortable for all ranks …
The untrained men drafted from the ASC and IWT had been sent to a Brigade Training School. This was first set up at Arcis le Ponsart, but then moved to Crugny, some distance away. The 1/8th was thus well below strength in practice, and so "A" Company was divided, with one platoon attached to each of the other three companies and the fourth platoon kept at Battalion HQ. In addition, one company of 7th DLI (Brigade Pioneers) was attached for tactical purposes.
On 13th May, 1/8th DLI went into the line for the first time. The War Diary records that:
The 50th Division held a Divisional Sector with the French on both flanks, three Infantry Brigades in the line, 150-151-149 from left to right. The Battalion sector was as under:
On our left flank there was the Craonne Plateau and the famous Chemin des Dames, which had seen much fighting some 12 months before, when the French captured the position from the enemy. This plateau afforded excellent observation to either side and its retention was therefore of paramount importance. Echeloned to the right were two small tactical features known as Chevreux Hill and Lamoureux Hill, and on the northern edge of Bois de Beau Marais* a line of redoubts.
"B" Coy held Chevreux Hill with 1 platoon of "A" Coy, this position was in the front line and posts were pushed forward at night to the Craonne-Corbeny road. By day these posts were withdrawn and 3 sentry groups were placed along the top of the hill from which a full view of the front could be obtained.
Lamoureux Hill was garrisoned by "D" Coy with 1 platoon of "A" Coy … [it] was not considered a front line position ... but the garrison could not be used on any account as a mobile reserve. It was an excellent position and a good field of fire could be brought to bear on the plains on the right flank, also to the immediate front.
The line of redoubts on the northern edge of Bois de Beau Marais was a long Company front but platoons were each in defended localities … There was a considerable amount of wire on the Battalion front and on the lines in rear.
(*The Bois de Beau Marais is the large wood to the south-east of Craonne.)
As the above description illustrates, General Duchêne did not believe in keeping minimal troops in the "Forward Zone"; rather, no ground in the sector, which covered Paris, should be voluntarily given up - and particularly not the Chemin des Dames, won at considerable cost by the French the previous year. The British Divisional Commanders protested to General Hamilton-Gordon, in command of the British IX Corps - by this time they had learned all too well that front line positions should be held lightly with most troops concentrated in a "Battle Zone" sufficiently far back to deny the attackers artillery support. But Hamilton-Gordon could do nothing to change Duchêne's view. The dispositions remained as they were.
In the meantime, 1/8th DLI got on with such preparation as could be made. To speed up the training of the ASC and IWT drafts, the best 25 were selected from Brigade School and attached to the front line companies for a six day tour: "Special attention was paid to instructing men in trench routine as few had been in trenches prior to this". As the trenches were exposed to view, several were deepened and camouflage curtains erected. Accurate maps were drawn up. Men were taken out on patrols by old soldiers. By the end of "B" Coy's tour in the front line "trench discipline and general training … had greatly improved and had reached a standard much above expectations". That evening "C" and "B" Coys swapped over; "D" Coy stayed where it was in Lamoureux Hill. Percival's records do not state whether he was still in "D" Company at this point.
On 22nd May some changes were made in these arrangements:
Owing to the enemy having considerably delayed his attack in the north and lack of definite information other than abnormal train movement in the south, it was considered possible that an attack might take place somewhere in the south. With this in view the Lamoureux Hill defences were considerably strengthened and two Coys instead of one as hitherto were placed in this position.
On 25th May, a trench raid by two platoons of "B" Coy captured one prisoner. At 10pm "D" Coy relieved "C" Coy in the front line, who occupied the redoubt line.
On 26th May, at 7pm, the Battalion received a warning from Brigade HQ of enemy attack - the bombardment would open at 1am followed by attack at 4.30am. British and French artillery "were firing on all known approaches from 8pm onwards; heavy artillery opened counter-bombardment at 12 midnight".
On 27th May, at 1am, the bombardment began. The Germans used 5263 guns against the Allies' 1422, the greatest superiority ratio achieved in any of their battles during the course of the Great War. The effect of this concentration was catastrophic. As the Official History puts it:
All headquarters had been under fire, and most communications had been cut. The Front Zone had nearly everywhere been rendered untenable, the strongpoints obliterated. Casualties in the infantry had been very heavy, and most of the machine guns and artillery were out of action. For the second time in the War, the first time having been at Messines in June 1917, what had been so often attempted in vain had been accomplished; so thorough had been the preliminary destruction that all resistance was crushed and the infantry had only to advance to take possession of the front position.
At 4.30am, the expected attack began. This was, according to David Blanchard, "the greatest one-day advance on the Western Front since the beginning of trench warfare". Across 50th Division's front, and indeed considerably wider, the forward zone was completely overwhelmed and overrun.
The main War Diary of 1/8th DLI has no account of the events of that day, but in an undated "addendum", the CO later wrote:
The Battalion was completely disorganised in the forward area and only 10% of the troops in this area crossed the Aisne to the south side. From information collected today, it is understood that the casualties were very heavy in the front two Coys ("B" and "D" Coys with 2 platoons of "A" Coy). The enemy's main advance appeared to come over the plains to the SE of the Battalion Position and completely surrounded the two forward Companies. "C" Coy in the redoubt line were in a better position to fight but they had already sustained heavy casualties from the preliminary bombardment. The enemy's advance was considerably delayed by a platoon under Capt B M Williams MC on the railway embankment on the northern edge of Bois de Beau Marais. There is no information available regarding the fighting of any other Company as all Officers are missing and practically all other ranks.
The 151st Brigade War Diary includes the following account of the fate of the 1/8th front line companies:
At 3.30am the [1/8th] received a message from their Front Line Company to say that the bombardment had levelled out all their trenches, that they had very many casualties both from gas and shelling and that only the very Forward Posts were fightable.
At 4.30am the Company at the Lamoureux Hill defences reported extremely heavy casualties but those who were left were in touch with the enemy and managing to hold him up. The Company Commander here called his Officers together and they decided to remain and fight to the last. No one of this party escaped.
At 5am the Company Commander [in the redoubt line] came to Battalion HQ to ask for reinforcements. He had had very heavy casualties, his left platoon completely annihilated. He collected about 40 Machine Gunners, a number of 7th DLI and with this garrison manned the big gauge railway near Ouv de Chemin de Fer … This position was held for three quarters of an hour. At the end of that time the Garrison was considerably reduced by hostile artillery. Shortly afterwards the position was completely surrounded and no one escaped.
A last stand to the north of the Aisne was made by the acting CO of the Battalion, Major George Gould, and some survivors from both 1/8th and 1/7th DLI, but both flanks were turned and the remnants of the group were forced to retreat.
The CO, Lt Col Philip Kirkup, had been ill the night before, and was in a Field Ambulance. On the morning of the attack left his sickbed to organise a defence of Concevraux, on the river Aisne, with a disparate group of men from various units whom he was able to gather together. He survived to write the account of the action, as far as he could, included in the War Diary.
The fighting strength of 1/8th DLI at 25th May, before the attack, was 25 officers and 561 men. The casualty figures were:
It is clear from the above accounts that there was virtually no information about what had happened to the vast majority of the Battalion. Percival's records show that he was identified as "missing", with a date of 27th May 1918, by 7th June 1918. He was reported as such in the daily casualty list of 15th July 1918, published on 23rd July 1918.
By this time, William and Florence had moved from Kingsbridge to Dartmouth, and remaining in Percival's Army papers is a handwritten letter from her, dated 5th August 1918. It would appear that she had not yet seen, or received, any report about him - this may have been because the move was quite recent:
In your reply of my enquiry of the 23/7/18 for news of my son Pte William Percival Hannaford 302842 8 Durham Light Infantry, it is stated that it has already been reported to me, that he is missing.
I beg to say I have not received a rep[ort*] to that effect from you, as I stated in my enquiry. I will willingly write to the British Red Cross Society in London after receiving a report as to date etc of my sons Casualty.
Trusting you will oblige
Mrs F Hannaford
[*the letter is slightly damaged here]
No copy of the earlier correspondence, or of any reply from the Army or the War Office to Florence's letter, survives in the file. Many men reported as missing during the attacks of 1918 were later found to have been taken prisoners of war, and relatives sought information about them through the Red Cross. Whether Florence pursued this avenue is not known but surviving ICRC records do not include any record of correspondence in connection with Percival.
It was not until over a year later (and well after the end of the fighting) that an "official" date of death was confirmed for him. His file includes the following official letter, dated 23rd June 1919, to "C Casualties", from the War Office:
The Officer in Charge of 1701 Infantry Records York is informed that the unofficial report of the death of No 302842 Pte W P Hannaford 1/8th Durham LI has been accepted as sufficient evidence for official purposes, and that the date of death has been assumed to be 27-5-18.
The next of kin should be notified accordingly and the usual papers prepared, if not already done.
His service papers were duly annotated as "death presumed by the War Office on lapse of time as having occurred on or since 27th May 1918". His papers do not include the "unofficial report".
Commonwealth War Graves Commission records show that Percival's body was in fact originally buried in a marked grave, which may be located in a wooded area a little way to the north west of the village of Pontavert, well to the rear of the front line, not far from the location of 151st Brigade HQ. His body was identified by his identity disc, on which he was shown as 17486 Pte Hannaford, the number given to him in the 5th (Reserve) Battalion DLI.
Percival's body was one of those brought in after the war from battlefield burial sites in the area to the British Military Cemetery at the village of La Ville aux Bois. His grave there is marked by a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone.
In Dartmouth, Percival is commemorated on the Town War Memorial. Perhaps because the uncertainty about what had happened to him, his was one of the names added to the list for the memorial in 1921, just before it was finalised. His name was not included on the St Saviours Memorial Board, erected in 1920.
He is also commemorated as "P Hannaford" on the Kingsbridge War Memorial and on the War Memorial in St Edmund's Church.
Service records for William Percival Hannaford from National Archives reference WO 363, available through subscription websites
War Diary of 151 Infantry Brigade: Headquarters May 1918-August 1918, available from the National Archives, fee payable for download, reference WO 95/2839/4
Call-to-Arms: The British Army 1914-1918, by Charles Messenger, publ 2005, Cassell
1918: A Very British Victory, by Peter Hart, publ. 2008, Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Battle of the Aisne 1918: The Phantom Sector, by David Blanchard, publ. 2015, Pen & Sword Books
Military Operations France and Belgium 1918, volume II, compiled by Brigadier General Sir James E Edmonds, publ. Macmillan, 1937
Military Operations France and Belgium 1918, volume III, compiled by Brigadier General Sir James E Edmonds, publ. Macmillan, 1939
Information Held on Database
|Military Unit:||1/8th Bn Durham Light Infantry|
|Date of Death:||27 May 1918|
|Age at Death:||21|
|Cause of Death:||Killed in action|
|Action Resulting in Death:||Battle of the Aisne|
|Place of Death:||Near Pontavert|
|Place of Burial:||Buried La Ville aux Bois Cemetery, France|
|Born or Lived in Dartmouth?||No|
|On Dartmouth War Memorial?||Yes|
|On St Saviour's Memorials?||No|
|On St Petrox Memorials?||No|
|On Flavel Church Memorials?||No|
|In Longcross Cemetery?||No|
|In St Clement's Churchyard?||No|
|On a Private Memorial?||No|
|On Another Memorial?||Yes|
|Name of Other Memorial:||Kingsbridge War Memorial, St Edmunds Kingsbridge Memorial|