- Private George Hill
- Corporal Charles Hill
High above the Ancre River on a ridge bearing the same name stands a now insignificant Somme village which, if it was not for the abundance of war cemeteries and memorials commemorating the thousands of men who had lost their lives in the terrible fighting which had taken place in the now placid fields would barely raise an eyebrow of the passing traveller. It had however been a very different story in that terrible summer and autumn of 1916 when the very name of Thiepval had stirred terror in the hearts of the boldest of men.
Without a doubt the village of Thiepval had been the most strongly fortified of the objectives that Fourth Corps had faced on the first day of the Somme Offensive. Standing on the highest ground for miles around the village had been of vital tactical and strategic importance to the Germans [and British] that had been in possession of the community since September 1914. In the ensuing two years of occupation the Germans had made the place into an impregnable fortress above and below ground. Above ground the village had been encircled with an intricate network of interlinked blockhouses, redoubts, concealed machine gun nests, and concrete vaulted shelters which had been incorporated into every fold of the surrounding ground, in addition there had been a continuous line of heavily defended trenches themselves protected by yards deep impenetrable fields of barbed wire.
Behind the front line to the north of Thiepval had been the strongest position of them all, the infamous ‘Schwaben Redoubt which would defy assault for four dreadful months. To the east had been another series of fortifications bearing names such as ‘Goat’ and ‘Stuff Redoubt’s and to the south east had been the fortified Mouquet, or as it was more commonly known by the British ‘Mucky Farm’.
Below ground the Germans had constructed an equally strong labyrinth of shellproof bunkers, and dugouts, some of which had been thirty feet deep, which had housed headquarters and every amenity, including baths, to sustain the garrison which had been the 99TH Reserve Infantry Regiment, a proud and determined band of men drawn from the Wurttenburg region of Germany.
British artillery had begun bombarding the some days before the first assault on the fortress. Day and night without let up shells of all calibres had been fired at the ridge reducing the ninety three houses that had once been Thiepval to piles of rubble, the shellfire however had not obliterated the dense barbed wire as had been expected by the British high command, an expectation the infantry would pay a high price for in the days, and ultimately weeks to come.
The first British assault on Thiepval had been conducted by Fourth Army and had begun at Zero Hour [07-30am] on the morning of Saturday the first of July 1916 when under a clear blue summers sky the Ulstermen of 36TH Division from had gone ‘over the top’ into No Mans Land on their way to their objective the Schwaben Redoubt, which they had secured by 8am, albeit with appalling losses due mainly to intensive machine gun fire. Nonetheless the surviving Ulstermen had pressed on to their second objective which had been a series of trenches to the east of the Schwaben where a handful of men had held out until they had been wiped out almost to a man in the German counterattacks which had taken place during the night. The casualties incurred by the Ulster Division had been grievous, 216 Officers and 5,266 men had been killed, wounded, or were missing for little gain.
A similar fate had befallen the 32ND Division who had been given the task of undertaking a frontal assault on Thiepval itself. Amongst the units which had suffered terribly in the subsequent carnage had been the 15th 16th and 19th Lancashire Fusiliers [the First, Second, and Third Salford Pals Battalions] who by the end of the catastrophic day had also suffered over 5,000 casualties.
Following this first disastrous attack on Thiepval Ridge the British High Command had wisely focused their attention to consolidating the few gains which had been made elsewhere on the first of July and had left the deadly position virtually alone from July to August, during the lull the Germans had strengthened their defences even more.
Interest in the capture of Thiepval Ridge had been rekindled in late September when the British C in C Douglas Haig had given instructions to General Sir Hubert Gough the Commander of the Reserve [in October renamed Fifth] Army to conduct a further attack with the objective of taking all the high ground remaining in enemy hands extending over a front of some 3,000 yards north and east of Thiepval and in addition to the village itself, the Zollen, Stuff, and Schwaben Redoubts, and all their connecting lines of trenches, no easy task.
In the wake of an intense artillery bombardment which had lasted for three days and night[during which over a hundred thousand shells including gas had been poured onto the ridge] the advance had begun just after 12-30pm on Tuesday the 26TH of September when four Divisions of Infantry, the British 11TH[Northern] and 18TH[Eastern] on the left and the 14TH [Royal Montreal] and 15TH [48TH Highlanders]Battalions from the Canadian 1ST Division and the Canadian 2ND Division on the right flank had left their assembly trenches and struck out up the ridge across the 400 yards of No Mans Land to their respective objectives.
The objectives of the 15TH Battalion [48TH Highlanders] from the Third Brigade of First Division assembled near the recently hard fought for village of Courcelette had first been a trench named ‘Sudbury Trench. Their second objective, if all went well, had been to attack a section of ‘Kenora Trench’ which had been ahead and to their left, this was to have been followed by an attack on the formidable ‘Regina Trench’. At Zero Hour;
‘Fix Bayonets’! Came quietly along the line and the numbing tautness of the last few instants came only to be understood by those who know. 12-34pm. The machine guns opened with a storm of fire that utterly smothered a shout at arms length—and it was on! It had been unexpected, that machine gun racketing, and for an awful instant seemed to be the Hun’s. A long moment to wait then they were going over the parapet in the glare of noon for miles, as the barrage opened with a crash that blotted the German front line’.
‘The shrapnel breaks above it in rolling funnels of smoke and the H.E. [High Explosives] sending it spouting in geysers of black earth.
It was cracking down well beyond Fabeck Graben. The Highlanders were lining in No Mans Land under a terrific, unbelievable din that shut out thought. Faces were masks and men were moving as they do when facing a hail of fire, like automatons, appearing unafraid but with a white, strained look of waiting for something.
They were well away. But something was wrong. Too many of those coming out of the junction of the old trench and our front line were spinning and dropping though the Hun barrage had not yet locked down[found the range] and Highlanders fell just after leaping over the parapet, white knees showing and rifles held high. Then trouble was met in a breath, as it was always met in action. [Sudbury Trench] was alive with Germans. Their bucket helmets were thick along the parapet of the trench which had been ignored as but a blind trench, we had thought simply to jump in and go on. Just after breasting the slope and away from the surprise of [Sudbury Trench] there had been a right incline which was carried through in perfect parade ground style, officers well in front of the line, blowing whistles which weren’t heard…
Things were getting serious because of the casualties and the going became hard. The barrage was clamorous, though no doubt mostly ours, yet over every foot of ground men were twisting suddenly and going down with a crash of equipment as men do when hit hard. The machine guns were mowing…’at one point a number of Huns started advancing towards the centre of the Battalion’s line, firing as they came. They dared to within twenty feet or so, then threw up their arms or tried to run. Some of them got what they, perhaps deserved…It appeared they had meant to close the Highlanders in the open but hadn’t the heart to face the steel’ 
By mid afternoon the 15TH had achieved their second objective and with Regina Trench in sight the Battalion had followed in the wake of a British creeping artillery barrage towards their objective, it had however been unable to reach the position and instead of assaulting it had established a line of advanced posts opposite, thus forming a new line;
‘Shell holes were being connected and the trench was deepening with German prisoners sweating and digging as they had never done before, with bayonets jabbing at their rears to spur them on when they tired. The Battalion had changed in appearance beyond belief in that long advance of a mile or so of constant isolated fights. But the task was finished and the day won, and all ranks were elated’
The Highlanders had hung on to their improvised new front line until they had been relieved in early hours of Thursday the 28TH of September. During those ‘constant isolated fights’ the Battalion had lost two officers and a hundred and fifteen other ranks killed. A further ten officers and two hundred and thirteen other ranks had been wounded, one man gassed and two taken prisoner.
Amongst the units dead had been; 46585 Private George Hill.
Known by family and friends as ’Barney’, George Hill had been born in Scarborough on the 25th of August 1876 and had been the second son of Alice and ‘builders labourer’ Thomas Hill, who had been living in Scarborough at No 27 Hoxton Road at the time of their son’s death.
A bricklayer by trade, George Hill had enlisted into the British Army before the war and had served for twelve years with The Royal Garrison Artillery, five of which had been served in China. George had eventually emigrated to Canada where he had lived in West Ontario with wife Naomi and four children at No 46 Stephenson Avenue, Milton a small town to the south west of Toronto. The thirty nine years old had enlisted for the duration of the war at the nearby Niagara Camp on the 26TH of May 1915. At the time, according to his Service Record, he had stood at five feet eleven inches tall. His complexion is stated as being medium, and had had grey eyes and brown hair. The rudimentary medical examination had also revealed that George had been tattooed on the right breast with a picture of a woman and an eagle, and in addition there had been a snake tattooed on each shoulder, a legacy of his service in China. 
The twenty dollars per month Private had begun his military service like all recruits destined for the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Valcartier Camp where he had been attached to the 17TH Reserve Battalion of the First Reserve Division. Whilst there he had polished up the skills that he had already acquired in the British Army and also during recent service in the Canadian Militia.
George Hill had eventually landed in France on the 6TH of September 1915, and had shortly been transferred to the 15TH Battalion, joining the unit some days later in the Ypres Salient, where the 15TH Battalion had received it’s ‘Baptism of Fire’ during the first gas attack of the war, which had been launched by the Germans on the 22ND of April and the subsequent three weeks of desperate fighting which had eventually been named the Second Battle of Ypres. During this period the Canadian 1ST Division had suffered over 6,000 casualties, some 2,000 of whom had been either killed in action, or had died of wounds.
The Canadian Corps had begun to arrive on the Somme in late August 1916, the First Division having been the first to lead the way south, and for many the first experience of the area came with the heavily damaged town of Albert. Positioned just behind the front the town had been shelled since the beginning of the war and had been the gateway to the front line for thousands of troops, a soldier had subsequently wrote;
‘In the valley below were the ruins of Albert, not all of the homes destroyed; and provoking voluble comment the Church of Notre Dame Brebieres with its ‘Hanging Virgin’. The legend surrounding the statue was well known, nor did its mysticism lose any spiritual qualities in the retelling. With more hope than faith the prophetic utterances passed along from the Imperial Troops, were repeated: when the Virgin toppled from her precarious perch, the war would end. It is not to be denied that those who found some comfort from the legend hoped longingly for the Virgin’s fall in 1916’ 
Passing through the devastated town the Canadian Corps had eventually made camp on the outskirts in a large billeting area which at one time had been a brick factory which had been known as ‘the Brickfields’. The Corps had eventually been posted to the sector around Pozieres and ‘Moo Cow Farm’, where Australian troops had been fighting since mid July. It had been at Mouquet Farm that the First Division had fought the first Canadian action in the Somme Offensive. Nevertheless, the fifteenth Battalion had not taken part in the savage fighting for possession of the farm, where the Division’s 16TH [Canadian Scottish] Battalion had suffered appallingly during five days of intense artillery bombardment, little wonder that amongst the wounded had been over sixty men suffering with shell shock.
George Hill’s name had been included with those of seven other men from the town in the ‘Killed’ section of a ‘Scarborough casualties’ list which had appeared in ‘The Scarborough Mercury’ of Friday the 17TH November 1916, and subsequently in an article which had appeared under the banner of ‘The Great Sacrifice’ which had been featured in the newspaper on the fifth of January 1917. The article had contained an account of a memorial service which had taken place in Milton to honour their late inhabitant which had originally appeared in the town’s newspaper, ‘The Canadian Champion’.
‘Grace Church’, it says, was filled to its utmost capacity on Sunday evening last with a large congregation to do honour to the memory of the late George Hill, a former resident who died in France from shell fire. He had been a gunner in the R.G.A., having been for twelve years in the British Army, five of which he served in China. He bore an excellent character, his discharge papers being endorsed ‘exemplary, no offence in regimental conduct in whole of service’. A memorial wreath of evergreen, with maple leaves sent by the family, rested on a pedestal in the chancel, draped with the Canadian ensign. The relatives present were the widow, Mrs Naomi Hill, Emily, Jack, Annie, and Winifred, children, and Harry Bowes, of Scarborough, England, and many personal friends’
George Hill had been reported as killed in action on the 26th of September 1916, exactly a year and four months after he had enlisted. No identifiable remains of the fallen soldier were ever recovered. Possessing ‘No Known Grave’ he had eventually been commemorated in Northern France on the Vimy Memorial situated eight kilometres north east of the city of Arras, which commemorates seventy one thousand Canadians who had been killed in action, died of wounds, or posted as ‘missing presumed dead’ as a result of the various actions which had taken place on French soil during the ‘Great War’.
George Hill’s name had also once been commemorated on a headstone in Manor Road Cemetery [Plot L, Row 24, Grave26] which in 2002 is indiscernible due to a mixture of passing years, weather, and I suspect vandals. Also included on the badly scarred stone are the names of his Scarborough born mother Alice who had died in December 1928 at the age of seventy two years, Birmingham born father Thomas Hill who had died a few days later on the third of January 1929 at the age of seventy five years, and elder brother;
24092 Corporal Charles Hill. Born in Scarborough in 1875 ‘Charlie’ had been the eldest of the Hill’s four children [sister and brother Mary A. and John Alfred born in 1882 and 1894 respectively]. A ‘joiner’ by trade he had also been a married man prior to the outbreak of the war, and had lived with wife Louisa Annie and three children at No 19 Gladstone Road [In 2002 the house on the corner of Gladstone Road and Gladstone Street is named ‘Arndale’]. 
Killed in action on Saturday the eleventh of August 1917, Corporal Hill and his unit, the 1ST/5TH Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment had been serving in the Arras Sector of Northern France where they had been manning a section of the British front line near the old spar town of Neuville Vitasse to the south east of Arras.
News of Charles Hill’s demise had reached his home in Scarborough a week later on Friday the seventeenth and had surprisingly been featured in the local newspaper the same day;
‘Mrs Hill 19, Gladstone Road, received a letter from his officer today [Friday] conveying the sad tidings that her husband, Sergt Chas. Hill, Yorks. Regt. met his death in action on the 11th August. He was killed instantaneously by a shell. The officer speaks of him, both as a soldier and a man, as having left a big gap which would be hard to fill.
‘I personally feel that I lost a firm friend, and apart from his sterling qualities as an N.C.O. he was a fine companion at all times’.
Deceased, who leaves a widow and three children, was 43 years of age. A native of Scarborough, he had spent his life in the town, serving his apprenticeship to the trade of joiner, and he was amongst the volunteers who joined the Army soon after the war broke out. Sergt Hill has left many close friends in the town. He was a good type of sportsman, and had excellent personal qualities. He formally played for the old Ebor Football Club, and later was for a number of years a member of the committee of the Liberal Whist Club, in which he took a very active interest. He was also one of the best billiard players at the Liberal Club.
A younger brother, with the Canadians, was killed a few months ago, and another brother, after ten months in the trenches is now on a locomotive in France’
The brother mentioned in the above article had been the unmarried John ‘Jack’ Hill, the youngest son of Alice and Thomas Hill who had served with the Northumberland Fusiliers throughout the war. He had fortunately survived and had eventually returned to Scarborough to live with his parents in Hoxton Road.
The remains of Charles Hill had eventually been buried near to where he had fallen in ‘Guemappe British Cemetery’ near the village of Wancourt, his grave can be found in Plot I, Row E. Grave 10.
 48TH Highlanders of Canada 1891-1928. K.Beattie; Southam Press Ltd 1932.
 The Service Records of all the men who had served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War One are preserved in the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa, copies of which are available on request to the public.