Robert James Thomas Hunt
Robert James Thomas Hunt was born (according to family information) on 20th June 1893 in Bethnal Green, Middlesex, London. He was the eldest surviving son of William Joseph Hunt, a farrier, and his wife Emma Bird. They had married at St Leonards, Shoreditch, on 2nd August 1890. William came from London, but Emma from Oxfordshire. They were not well off. At the time of the 1901 Census, the family lived in Maidstone Street, Shoreditch, near St Leonard's. The contemporary Booth Poverty Map for the area shows the street as light blue: "poor - 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family". The street no longer exists, being part of the area absorbed into Haggerston Park, after the large gasworks nearby was hit by a bomb in the second world war.
By the time of the 1911 Census, William and Emma had moved out of London and the East End, to the suburbs, and lived at 5 Gilpin Crescent, Edmonton. Their two younger children, Emily and Sarah, were born in Edmonton. Robert was recorded working as a labourer at a pottery; their other son James was working on a farm in Stokenchurch, Oxfordshire, for his great-uncle (and namesake) James.
Some time between April and June 1915, Robert married Hilda Maud Pope, in Edmonton. How Robert and Hilda met is not known, because Hilda came from Dartmouth. She was born on 14th November 1893 and baptised at St Saviours, aged 4, on 14th March 1898, together with her elder sister Elizabeth, aged 5, and her younger brother Frederick, aged 2. The date their parents chose for their baptism was the eighth birthday of their eldest son, Alfred.
Hilda was the second daughter of James Pope, a carpenter, and his wife Elizabeth Alice Efford. They had married at St Saviour's on 11th May 1884. James was born in Dartmouth and Elizabeth came originally from Slapton. At the time of the 1901 Census, James and Elizabeth, and their four children lived in St Saviour's Place; the 1911 Census recorded them living in St Saviour's Court. Hilda, age 17, was working in domestic service, though still living at home.
Hilda was a witness at the wedding of her brother in law, James, only a few months after her own, in Edmonton, suggesting that she and Robert settled in London. However, she seems to have come back to Dartmouth for the birth of their son, Robert James Noel Hunt, who was born on Christmas Day, 1915, in the Totnes district.
Robert's service papers have not survived so we have only small fragments of information about his early service. Other records show that that he lived in Edmonton and enlisted in Ponders End; that he first joined the East Surrey Regiment, and then transferred to the 55th Brigade Company of the Machine Gun Corps.
The Machine Gun Corps was a new part of the British Army. At the beginning of the war, there were two belt-fed machine guns per infantry battalion or cavalry regiment, and the sections were deployed with their battalions. However, experience during the first year of the war proved the need to concentrate these vital resources, for much greater effectiveness. The Machine Gun Corps was formed by Royal Warrant on 14th October 1915, with Infantry, Cavalry and Motor Branches (a fourth branch, called the Heavy Branch, followed in March 1916).
The Corps was equipped with the Vickers machine gun, fired from a tripod, water-cooled and belt-driven. It needed a six-man crew to carry the 30lb gun, 10lb of water, and 20lb tripod, plus condenser tubes and ammunition belts. Each belt held 250 rounds and lasted 30 seconds at the maximum rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute. In action, it was operated by a team of two, the others bringing up more ammunition and water supplies. Each crew also had two spare men.
The Infantry Branch was formed by the transfer and amalgamation of battalion machine gun sections into specialised machine gun companies. Thus, the 55th Brigade Machine Gun Company was formed from the machine gun sections of the infantry Battalions in the Brigade, namely:
- 7th Bn Queens (Royal West Surreys)
- 7th Bn Buffs (East Kents)
- 8th Bn East Surreys
- 7th Bn Queen's Own (Royal West Kents)
That Robert transferred from the East Surreys to the 55th Brigade MGC suggests that he may have been first posted to the 8th Bn. The 8th Battalion had arrived in France in July 1915 as part of the 55th Brigade in the 18th (Eastern) Division, for service on the Western Front. However, Robert's Medal Index Card indicates that he did not go overseas during 1915.
The 55th Machine Gun Company was formed at the Machine Gun Training Centre at Grantham. With its companion companies, the 53rd and 54th, it moved to France and joined the 18th Division on 13th February 1916 at Ribemont, south west of Albert. Robert's MGC number - 4179 - indicates that he was an early member of the Corps, so this suggests that he arrived in France some time during the early part of 1916. Whether he first joined 8th Battalion East Surreys in France, and then transferred, or went straight into the Machine Gun Corps in England after his initial training with the East Surreys, is not known. The War Diary of the 8th Battalion East Surreys refers to separate training of the Machine Gun "specialists" in the Battalion but does not mention the formation of the Brigade Machine Gun Company. Neither the War Diary of the 55th Brigade Machine Gun Company, nor the 18th Division HQ War Diary, provides information about the formation of the company.
The War Diary of the 55th Brigade Machine Gun Company begins a couple of weeks after their arrival at Ribemont, on 1st March 1916. On that day they were at Dernancourt, a village on the Ancre, just south-west of Albert, and were relieved in the front line by 14th Brigade Machine Gun Company. After a period of training at St Gratien, the Brigade marched to Suzanne, a village on the Somme, south of Carnoy. The Diary commented on 30th March that:
Our system of reliefs was as follows: - Each section of 4 guns did four days in billets in Suzanne, 4 days in support trenches and 8 days in front line trenches, twelve guns therefore always being up and 4 guns in Suzanne.
As this shows, there were four sections in the Company, each of four guns.
They remained in Suzanne until 3rd May, when they were relieved by the 90th Brigade Machine Gun Company. Much of the time things had been quiet, although one man, Private L J Leatherland, had been killed on 29th April, having only joined the company, as part of a draft of five men, a little over three weeks earlier.
On 4th May they billeted overnight at Sailly Laurette, a little further west on the Somme, and on 5th May at Bonnay, further west still, on the Ancre. On 6th May they arrived at Piquigny, north-west of Amiens, after a twenty mile march. "Only two men went sick with sore feet", according to the War Diary. Whilst at Piquigny they trained, including practising the forthcoming attack.
On 11th June they went into the trenches near Carnoy for the build-up to the attack, taking over 12 gun positions from 53rd Brigade. The front line was heavily bombarded on 14th and three men were wounded. They spent "every day making preparations for the attack".
On 24th June (the day after Robert's 23rd birthday), as the bombardment began, "C" Section took up positions in the front line, while "B" Section "remained firing every night on the German trenches to prevent enemy repairing wire etc, and withdrew at dawn". These sections remained in position during the next six days, while the bombardment continued. On 30th June, one man, Private F J Simpson, was killed. During this period, as much equipment as possible that would be needed during and after the attack was brought up to three points on the front line, left, right and centre, so that as the sections went over, they could load up at these points.
The 18th Division, of which the 55th Brigade was a part, was part of XIII Corps, which was responsible for the southernmost sector of the British assault at the Somme. Next door to the right were the French. Next door to the left was 7th Division, part of XV Corps (and amongst them, Robert Phillips Willing in the 9th Bn Devonshire Regiment). In this sector, the line ran west-east, before turning south around Maricourt to run down to the Somme.
As elsewhere along the Somme front, the German "front line" was considerably more than a line, being a fully developed trench system consisting in itself of three lines about 200 yards apart, linked together by communication trenches and incorporating several villages, which had become fortresses. All was well-constructed; in the trenches there were many deep dugouts able to accommodate an entire garrison, whilst the cellars of the houses in the villages had been strengthened, extended and connected to form an extensive underground system. Also within the front line system, or close to it, were trench-based strong points. In the sector faced by the 18th Division, there were several such strong points, such as the Glatz Redoubt and the Pommier Redoubt, constructed so as to break up any attack across the front line. Behind them was the fortified village of Montauban. However, the front line had been disturbed by previous mine warfare in front of Carnoy earlier in 1916, and so instead of a continuous line, there was instead a mixture of barbed-wire obstacles and machine-gun strong points in the old craters.
Behind the front line system was a second-line system, of similar proportions and complexity. In this sector, the second-line system ran along the Bazentin Ridge, between the villages of Longeuval and Bazentin. The aim on the first day, however, was to take the whole of the front line system, including Montauban, as far forward (ie northward) as a long trench called Montauban Alley, which connected back to the second-line system.
All three of the 18th Division Brigades were in line for the assault, 54th on the left, 53rd in the middle, and 55th on the right. The War Diary of the 55th Machine Gun Company records that their orders were:
- "C" section, four guns, to open covering fire from our front line five minutes before Zero
- "B" section, to proceed to Pommiers Line (the second line of the German front line system) with fourth companies of attacking battalions
- "A" section, to proceed to final objective, as soon as it had been taken by the infantry
- "D" Section, to open overhead fire from positions in Bedford Avenue (British trench) and then to form part of Brigade Reserve in Carnoy Valley.
The whole company breakfasted at 4.30am and the attack began at 7.30am. At 7.27am:
- "C" section was firing from the front line and from a Russian sap
- "B" section was fully loaded up, ready to go
- "A" section was preparing to load up
- "D" section was firing overhead
Though the War Diary does not mention it, at 7.27 two mines were detonated, one on the western edge of the sector intended to destroy a nest of enemy machine guns, and another much larger one under a strong point on the front line called "Casino Point". In this sector, the preliminary artillery barrage had been effective (unlike elsewhere) and very little front line German artillery was still functioning. Though there was still stiff resistance, the initial attack was successful, and the infantry were able to get through the first line of the front line system to tackle the stronger second line of Pommiers Trench.
Meanwhile, behind them, "it was very misty and difficult to observe the progress of our infantry". "C" Section ceased its covering fire as soon as the infantry advanced; in "B" section, the two gun teams on the right, "attempted to advance with the infantry and were practically wiped out, the survivors managing to get the guns into the German front line, but the Officer (2nd Lt G S Gray) was wounded and the Sergeant was killed". The other two gun teams of "B" section on the left "were unable to advance owing to the craters still holding out".
"C" section meanwhile attempted to take cover in the sap shafts, as they had been ordered, but "this was impossible as they were quickly full of wounded and the gun teams were busy tying up the wounded".
"A" section then advanced. The two gun teams on the right got through to the front line trench but the two left gun teams "were practically wiped out and the guns were not recovered until the evening". 2nd Lt Rose, commanding the two guns on the right, took over the remnants of the two gun teams from "B" section and reorganised them. The two guns of "B" section on the left were still out of action. By 9.30am, the four guns from "A" and "B" section under 2nd Lt Rose had "pushed on a bit".
At 9.45am, 2nd Lt Gray, although he had been wounded, got back to Company HQ "and reported that his two gun teams had been wiped out. He was in a good deal of pain and gave a very pessimistic view of the state of affairs, saying that the whole of the front line was blown in, and probably "C" section had suffered very heavily, and that "A" section had also lost heavily". "D" section, as the reserve, was therefore ordered forward. At 10.30am:
- "C" section was still in the British front line
- "B" section's guns on the left were still out of action in the craters; the two on the right were in "the Warren" under 2nd Lt Rose
- "A" section's guns on the left were out of action but the two on the right were also in "the Warren"
- "D" section were getting ready to move
The Company CO, Captain H M Heyland, then went forward to the Pommiers trench to "see if we could find any men of "B" section" but was not able to do so. By this time, 2nd Lt Rose had reached Montauban with his four guns. At around noon, Captain Heyland met Captain Claire of the 8th East Surreys, who asked for two guns to protect the left flank of the Brigade, so 2nd Lt Rose was sent off to help. By this stage "D" section had successfully brought their four guns over and the two guns of "B" section prevented from advancing due to opposition from "the craters", had also got through.
- "C" section, 4 guns, was still in the Carnoy valley, in reserve
- "B" section, 2 guns had reached the final objective and 2 were in the Pommiers line
- "A" section, 2 guns had reached the final objective but 2 were out of action
- "D" section, 4 guns were in the Pommiers line; Company HQ was also there
Casualties at this time were 1 officer and 29 OR.
More widely, by the end of the day the 18th Division had achieved all its major objectives and was able to consolidate a new front line along Montauban Alley and to link up with the neighbouring 7th Division on the left.
During the night of 1st/2nd, Montauban Alley and the Pommiers trench were "rather heavily shelled" (presumably from the German second-line system) and 2nd Lt Rose and 4 OR became casualties. The War Diary does not state whether the OR were killed or wounded - the loss of 2nd Lt Rose (who must have been wounded, as records indicate he survived the war) apparently had a severe impact: "owing to the loss of this officer and the exertion of the previous day, this section did not show enough energy in the early morning and I [Captain Heyland] regret that some targets were not fired upon". The following morning the 2iC, Captain Hibbert, took over "A" section and the positions in the Montauban line were consolidated - "by this time the six guns in the Pommiers line were well settled in".
Captain Heyland also took the opportunity in the War Diary to observe:
It was clearly shewn that when possible MG sections should not have to advance against trenches not yet cleared of the enemy, as their heavy loads make them particularly vulnerable, and they can only with difficulty take an active part in the fight. The loss of two or three men puts the whole team and the gun out of action for a further advance.
The available records do not give Robert Hunt's section, but from the account of the action in the War Diary he must have been in either "B" or "A". The War Diary says nothing about what was done to retrieve the bodies of the dead. CWGC and other records indicate that Robert was first buried close to Montauban, but was later transferred into Dantzig Alley Cemetery on the road between Montauban and Mametz.
On 21st July 1916, the Dartmouth Chronicle included the following announcement of Robert's death:
Hunt - Killed in action on July 1st, Robert James, the dearly beloved husband of Hilda Hunt, King's Quay, Dartmouth
Robert is commemorated on the Town War Memorial.
The War Diary of the 55th Brigade Machine Gun Company is downloadable from the National Archives, fee payable, reference: WO 95/2051
The Somme, by Peter Hart, publ Cassell, 2006
For an overview of the Battle of the Somme, please see:
and many, many other websites and books.
Information Held on Database
|Forenames:||Robert J T|
|Military Unit:||Machine Gun Corps|
|Date of Death:||01 Jul 1916|
|Age at Death:||23|
|Cause of Death:||Killed in action|
|Action Resulting in Death:||Battle of the Somme|
|Place of Death:|
|Place of Burial:||Dantzig Alley British Cemetery, Mametz|
|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?||No|