The Royal Marines at Gavrelle

- Private Harold Swalwell
- Lance Corporal Wilfred Swalwell

Virtually forgotten in the never ending saga of the First World War, Gavrelle, a small North Eastern French village positioned at the eastern end of the Arras battlefield, had nevertheless, been the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the Arras Offensive. Lost between the battlefields of Ypres and Passchendaele to the north and the Somme to the south, and overshadowed by Vimy Ridge a few kilometres to the north, the village is rarely visited by the thousands of pilgrims who flock each year to the Western Front even though many hundreds of soldiers, airmen, civilians, and especially Royal Marines and sailors of the 63RD [Royal Naval] Division had lost their lives there.

At the start of the Arras Offensive Gavrelle had been a fortified village in the third line of forward defences of the Hindenburg Line and had lain some miles behind the fighting line. However, by the second week it was to become a prominent target for the British Army because of it’s importance as part of the Arleux Loop defensive line, and in addition, if Gavrelle and the high ground to the north of the village could be taken, then the British Army would have had excellent observation of practically the whole of the Douai Plain beyond.

The task of capturing the village had eventually been given to the men of the Royal Naval Division, who, despite sleet, snow, and bitter fighting had captured Gavrelle on St George’s Day, the 23RD of April 1917. During the days after the twenty third the German artillery had become ‘very active’, by continuously pouring artillery fire into the R.N.D. and their newly won possessions. However, during Saturday the twenty eighth of April a second attack around the village had been planned for.

The purpose of this assault had been to support attacks by the Canadian Corps and British 2ND Division at Arleux and Oppy Wood to the north. The objectives had been the capture of the village’s ruined windmill and high ground to the northeast, which had been barring any advance out of, and threatening the British hold on Gavrelle. Furthermore, the attack had been intended to support an assault to the south by 37TH Division on a German position known as ‘Greenland Hill’.

The attack had allocated to the 188TH Brigade of the Royal Naval Division, which had consisted of the First and Second Battalions of Royal Marines Light Infantry, supported by the First Battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company from the Division’s 190TH Brigade. First Royal Marines had been required to form a defensive flank for the 2ND Division on its left, thus protecting the Second’s right flank. It had been planned that this would be achieved by an advance in three stages, capturing three lines of trenches and penetrating to a depth of 1000 yards. Their first objective had been some unfinished trenches behind the German front line. Once these had been taken the unit was then to send fighting patrols out and then link up with units from the Second Division in the north and Second Royal Marines in the south.

The second part of the plan was to be carried out by Second Royal Marines. They were to advance out of Gavrelle and move down the Fresnes road to a depth of seven hundred yards. Starting from within the village the unit had two separate objectives, the capture of the mill on the high ground to the north east, and a section of unfinished trenches to the south of the Gavrelle to Izel road, where, once the supporting artillery barrage had passed over they had been ordered to patrol up and consolidate the trenches. Hereabouts the battalion should have linked up with 1st Royal Marines to the north and the Division’s Anson Battalion to the south.

The third phase of the assault had been allocated to the sailors of ‘C’ Company of the Anson Battalion. This unit would follow after 2ND R.M. and peel off to the south to form a flank guard, as there had still been an enemy presence just outside Gavrelle in that area. The Anson’s task had been to protect the southern flank and to form a link from the village cemetery, to the south, to the final objective of 2ND R.M.

Accompanied by a creeping barrage First Royal Marines had begun their assault at 4-25am on Saturday the 28TH of April. Beginning from just north of the village the four companies had soon made their way to the enemy’s barbed wire, which they had found to be uncut by the artillery bombardment. Here many of the men had settled into shell holes in front of the German line where they had been eventually cut to ribbons by the enemy’s fire from a nearby strongpoint. To help alleviate the desperate straits that the Marines had been in at 6-30am the men of 1ST Honourable Artillery Company had been ordered forward to try to suppress this strongpoint with mortar fire. An officer from the unit had later written;

‘At any rate we went along to this blockade where the railway was and the attack started and nothing happened. We could see these fellows, fifty yards on our left the nearest of them were. They were getting hung up on the wire and it was absolutely hopeless. They were a battalion of Marines, but they, poor chaps, could not get through the wire’…

Nothing had been heard from 1ST Royal Marines since the beginning of their assault, however, at 7-15 news had been received at Headquarters that a wounded Marine had said that the wire had been very strong, but a number of the men had got through and gone on. An aircraft flying over the area had also reported that a group of around twenty marines had been seen in the first objective the men had fired flares to alert the plane. This had been the last that had been seen of First Royal Marines.

Accounts of what had happened to the unit had eventually been gleaned from the wounded and it had been learnt that the first two waves of the battalion had got to their objectives, but had then been hit hard by a massive counter attack, which despite desperate hand to hand fighting had overpowered the right hand battalion of Second Division and the marines.

With 1ST Royal Marines virtually wiped out by this time, pockets of Marines, trapped behind the German counter attack had nevertheless fought on until they had either been killed or taken prisoner. A flare had been seen hovering over the unit’s second objective at 9-40am, this had been the last sighting.

The Second Battalion had in the meantime captured the enemy’s first line of trenches near the windmill and had gone on to find the wire in front of the second line cut in only one place. ‘A’, ‘C’, and ‘D’ Companies had streamed through the gap to reach their objective only to be cut off and suffer heavy casualties, eventually, with no hope of relief the survivors of the three companies had surrendered. Number five platoon of ‘B’ Company, commanded by Lieutenant Newling, had nevertheless captured the windmill by 7am and sent a number of prisoners back to the British line, throughout the remainder of the day repeated enemy counter attacks on the windmill had been beaten back, albeit with severe casualties, by the marines assisted by artillery fire.

The remainder of ‘B’ Company had spent the day pinned down by machine gun fire and finally succeeded in joining Newling’s gallant band after dark. At 8-30pm the German’s had launched their final counter attack on the windmill, by this time the Marines of ‘B’ Company, who’s rifles and machine guns by this point had been so choked with mud that practically none of them could be fired, had been reinforced by sailors of the Anson Battalion, this assault had also been beaten off with the aid of artillery. In all the Germans had launched thirteen counter attacks. By the end of the days fighting forty Royal Marines had still been in possession of the mill and outposts around it, in all they had repulsed over a dozen determined counter attacks.

The cost to the Royal Marines had been appalling and remains to the present day as the largest casualty list for one day’s fighting in the Corps history. Out of close on two thousand officers and men of the two battalions who had taken to the field that day over a thousand had become casualties. The Second Battalion had incurred six hundred all ranks killed, wounded, and missing, whilst the First Battalion had lost over five hundred officers and men killed, wounded, and missing, including the unit’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel F.J.W. Cartwright D.S.O., who had lost his life along with six other officers. Also amongst the dead had been a twenty years old Private belonging to ‘C’Company’s No.12 Platoon; Chatham/19242 Private Harold Swalwell.

Born in Scarborough on the 7TH of November 1896, at No 91 Hampton Road, Harry had been the fourth son of Annie Eliza [formerly Abram], and Robert Swalwell, who, at the time, had been employed as an auctioneer’s porter. Harry had spent most of his formative years in Scarborough, however, following the death of his father at the age of fifty six, on the sixth of August 1910, Annie had taken the younger members of her family, including Harry, to the village of Burniston, on the outskirts of Scarborough where they had lived for a number of years with her parents, Francis and Ann ‘Granny’ Abram, at No 24 High Street. [1]

By the outbreak of war in August 1914 Harry had been living in Scarborough with eldest brother [born in Scarborough during 1887] Edgar and his wife, Elizabeth, at No 5 Chapman’s Yard, in Globe Street. Previously employed as a butcher’s assistant, the seventeen years, ten months, and twenty eight days old had enlisted for twelve years service [Royal Marines recruits at this time had been given the option of becoming a professional by enlisting for twelve years, which had been the norm, or for the duration of the war only] with the Royal Marines at York on the fifth of October 1914. At the time, according to his Service Record, Harry had stood at five feet six inches tall and had a fresh complexion, grey eyes and brown hair, following a rudimentary medical examination, which had evidently found no apparent or visible defects, Harry had sworn the customary oath of allegiance to King and Country, and accepted the offered ‘King’s Shilling’ which in effect had bonded him heart and soul to the Corps, for which he had received the princely wage of six shillings and eightpence per week.

Harry had eventually been sent to the Royal Marines Recruit Depot at Deal in Kent where he had been issued with uniform, webbing equipment, eating utensils [which had consisted of a bowl, spoon, and a mug], and a mattress cover filled with straw to sleep on.

Like all military establishments at the beginning of the war the Recruit Depot had been chock a block full of returned reservists and recruits. Private John Clegg had enlisted a little later [November] than Swalwell, he describes;

‘I have got into barracks, we are overcrowded. The room is supposed to hold 18 fellows. There are 41 in it now all sleeping on the floor. Our diet is bread and tea with either butter or corned beef, potatoes, and meat for dinner’…

Before the war a Royal Marines recruit had trained for a year in infantry tactics ashore, Naval Gunnery, signalling, and training for sea service, hence the well-worn term; ‘soldier an sailor too’. However, for the duration of the war training had been shortened by six months. ‘Whipped into shape’, often literally, by cane wielding N.C.O.’s, Private Swalwell had endured life at Deal for five months. During this time he had undergone physical, infantry, gunnery [a course which he had failed], and musketry training, at the end of which he had been classed as a Second Class Marksman.

Harry had completed his ‘basic training’ on the third of March 1915, shortly afterwards he had been transferred to his Divisional Depot at Chatham where he had undergone further training whilst waiting for a posting either to the Chatham Battalion of the Royal Marines Brigade, which had been serving in the Dardanelle’s, or a ship borne detachment. During June he, and a number of men, had been issued with tropical gear, a sun helmet, and given forty eight hours embarkation leave before embarking in a transport at Plymouth on the twenty third of the month bound for the usual ‘unknown destination’. Which as everyone aboard the ship had already guessed to be the fly infested, dysentery ridden, Gallipoli Peninsular.

The newcomers to the Peninsular had eventually landed on ‘W’Beach at Cape Helles during mid August. A far cry from the sands of Swalwell’s native Scarborough, the beach is described by Private Denis Buxton;

‘The shore is covered with men asleep and awake, mules, horses, G.S. wagons, limbers, Maltese carts, bikes, motor bikes, [with despairing riders!], barrels, and cans of water, boxes of beef, jam, bacon, cheese, and potatoes, dixies, ammunition, rifles, and large coils of Turkish barbed wire, cut and piled in heaps. The rising ground is spattered with bits of equipment, etc, and a few dead’

At the time that Swalwell had joined the formation, the Chatham Battalion, veterans of three months of bloodshed on the Peninsular, had been in reserve in the front line trenches above ‘W’ Beach where they had been sent following the Third Battle of Krithia, which had taken place on the fourth of June. During this operation the Battalion had been attached to the 42ND Division, although they had played no active part the unit had suffered over a hundred and twenty casualties from Turkish shellfire. In the end the operation had been a hopeless and costly failure and had barely advanced the allied line by a few yards.

Although the ‘Chatham’s’ had not been involved in any major operations following Third Krithia, the unit had nonetheless had to endure the heat and privations of full summer in the cramped confines of the trenches, Lieutenant Arthur Chater R.M.L.I describes; ‘By now the weather was getting hot. Apart from our completely useless helmets, we had no tropical clothes, and were still wearing our thick serge tunics, breeches and puttees. The seams of our shirts were alive with lice. The flies were indescribable; it was difficult to put food in one’s mouth without putting in flies at the same time. The result was universal ‘tummy trouble’ with the consequent weakening effect. Tins of bully beef were more than plentiful; some trenches were revetted with them. All jam was apple and plum. The supply of fresh water was very limited, and as time went on, it became very contaminated’

Despite a steady trickle of reinforcements there had never been sufficient to replace the enormous casualties suffered by the R.N.D. during the Gallipoli campaign [the Chatham Battalion had suffered twenty officers and five hundred and thirty three other ranks killed, wounded and missing, and possibly as many incapacitated by sickness during June and July alone]. Therefore, at the end of July the seriously under strength Division had been radically reorganised by amalgamating the Chatham and Deal Battalions to form First Royal Marines Light Infantry, likewise the Portsmouth and Plymouth Battalion’s which had become 2ND R.M.L.I., the titles they would keep for the remainder of the war. Originally composed of three Brigades of infantry, furthermore, the Division as a whole had been reduced to two, the First Brigade comprising Drake, Hawke, Hood, and Nelson Battalions. Second Brigade had consisted of First and Second R.M.L.I., plus the Howe, and Anson Battalions.

Summer had turned to autumn and then winter. On the 27TH of November Swalwell had been in the trenches at Helles when the Peninsula had been struck by a violent thunderstorm, which had literally washed the Allies [and the Turks] out of their trenches. No sooner had the storm ended than the wind had veered round to the north and the already soaked marines had been assailed by an intense blizzard, which had raged for two whole days. The men had hardly any protective clothing, their blankets were frozen solid, rifles jammed, and sentries were found frozen to death. [At Suvla Beach there had been over 12, 000 cases of frostbite and exposure, 3,000 at Anzac, and about a thousand at Helles].

Private Swalwell’s service at Gallipoli had come to an end with the evacuation of the Helles Sector between the seventh and ninth of January 1916. Following the evacuation the Royal Naval Division had been split up. The First Brigade had been sent to the Aegean to garrison the islands of Lemnos, Imbros, and Tenedos. Whilst the Second [including Private Swalwell] had been sent to the Salonica Front.

Behind the scenes the future of the Royal Naval Division had been in doubt. In possession of a unique identity and fiercely defiant of Army rules and regulations by their insistence in the use of naval ranks, and the upkeep of the naval traditions such as growing beards, the R.N.D. had rankled many in the higher echelons of the Army. Moreover, the Admiralty, seemingly keen to be rid of their ‘enfant terrible’ had almost seen the demise of the unit. However, vigorous lobbying by Paris and many prominent people in England had saved the day. On the 16TH of April 1916 the R.N.D. had been transferred to Army administration [except for payment and drafting which had remained the concern of the Admiralty] and renamed the 63RD [Royal Naval] Division. During May the various units of the new formation had begun to board transports, which had subsequently taken them to the fighting in France.

The first unit of the newly formed Division to land on French soil at Marseilles had been the twenty five officers and one thousand and twenty one N.C.O.’s and men of First Royal Marines Light Infantry. By the 24TH of May the unit had been concentrated near Abbeville where the remainder of the Division had also eventually congregated.

[During June 1916 the Division had been reorganised to the standard British Army format of three Brigades of infantry. The two battalions of Royal Marines with the Howe and Anson Battalion had formed the188TH Brigade, whilst the Hood, Drake, Hawke, and Nelson Battalions had made up the 189TH. The third Brigade, the 190TH, had been formed from four battalions of Army infantry, the 7TH Royal Fusiliers, 4TH Bedfordshire Regiment, 1ST Honourable Artillery Company, and 10TH Royal Dublin Fusiliers. In addition the division had, for the first time in it’s existence been provided with it’s own supporting three brigades of Royal Field Artillery guns, moreover, the Royal Marines had supplied the manpower for the supporting divisional engineer, transport, field ambulance, and signals units].

The Division had eventually been transferred at the beginning of July to the relatively quiet trenches of the Souchez Sector, where the various units had received instruction from the veteran British 47TH Division in the arts of trench warfare. The R.N.D. had subsequently relieved the Forty Seventh there and had remained in the sector throughout that terrible summer of 1916. A few miles to the south the British Army had been almost bled dry by the appalling casualties of the Somme Offensive [over 57,000 killed, wounded, and missing on the first day [1st of July] alone].

Private Swalwell had remained in the Souchez Sector until October, on the fourth the whole of the Naval Division had marched in a howling gale accompanied by heavy rain the eight miles or so to the village of Ligny St Flochel, where the men had boarded trains that had taken them inexorably southwards towards the quagmire of the Somme battlefields.

The R.N.D. had eventually arrived at the miserable Forceville No.1 Camp, where the men had found huts with leaking roofs, no facilities for drying their sodden clothes, no shelter for the kitchens nor or even a place for making a fire. However, any plans to improve the living conditions at Forceville had been curtailed on the fifteenth of October when the division had received orders to move up, and take over the British line in front of a village named Beaumont Hamel.

The part of the line, which the formation had taken over, had extended between the village of Serre in the north and the River Ancre to the south, which by October had been reduced by persistent heavy falls of rain to little more than a morass of evil smelling mud. Floundering in the most abominable sector of the whole of the French section of the Western Front, Swalwell and the remainder of the R.N.D. had invariably been standing in anything up to nine inches of freezing water in a front line which had consisted of little more than a series of joined up shell holes.

The area where the men of the R.N.D. had now found themselves had been the scene of much savage fighting since the opening of the Somme Offensive on the First of July. Beumont Hamel, [a village in name only by October] had been one of the strongest positions then on the Western Front and had resisted many British assaults. Nonetheless, the British Commander in Chief, Douglas Haig, desperate for one last victory before full winter had descended on the Somme had met with Commander of Fifth Army [to which the R.N.D. had now belonged] General Sir Hubert Gough, where he emphasised the importance of capturing the village. In reality he had believed that the capture Hamel would improve his stature in a forthcoming Allied conference. Gough bowing to the wishes of Haig had eventually put in motion a plan to take Beaumont Hamel and the nearby village of Beucourt for once and for all scheduled to begin on the thirteenth of November.

For the attack the whole of the R.N.D had been used and had been given the task of capturing Beucourt. Their first objective had been the German front line complex of three trenches know to the British as ‘the Dotted Green Line. Beyond this had lain their second objective, ‘the Green Line’, a fortified ridge along which the road to Beaucourt station had run. Beyond this again had been the unit’s third objective, ‘the Yellow Line’, a trench running parallel to the British front and across the southwestern edge of the remains of Beaucourt. ‘The Red Line’ beyond Beaucourt had been their final objective, here the division where to supposed to have stopped and ‘’consolidated’.

The battalions were to leap frog through each other as each line had been taken. The capture of the Dotted Green Line and Yellow Line had been allocated to 188TH Brigade consisting of 1ST Royal Marines, the Howe, Hawke, and Hood Battalions, whilst the Green and Red Lines had been the target of 189TH Brigade, 2ND Royal Marines, Anson, Nelson, and Drake. [The remaining 190TH Brigade had remained in divisional reserve].

In the early hours of the twelfth the various units had begun to make their way towards their starting points, at 3am the men of 1ST and 2ND R.M.L.I. had crawled through the mud into No Man’s Land and up to the German wire to await Zero Hour. At 6am the attack had begun. The German artillery and machine gunners reacting swiftly had poured an intense fire into the marines decimating the two units as they had moved forward. By the time they had reached their first objectives the two battalions had suffered over fifty percent casualties, including every company commander in 1ST R.M.L.I.. The Hood Battalion on the other hand had passed through the first three lines of German trenches [The Dotted Green Line] virtually unscathed. The Hawke, Howe, and Nelson battalions had suffered huge casualties from a redoubt in the enemy defence system on The Dotted Green Line; however, part of the Howe had managed to fight through the German first and second lines to the third where they had ‘consolidated’.

Despite its serious losses 1ST R.M.L.I. had reorganised in the first and second lines, but only small parties had gone on to reach the third line. The survivors of Second R.M.L.I. had experienced some hard hand to hand fighting to get to the third line but part of the unit had fought their way forward to the Green Line where they had made contact with the 51ST [Highland] Division on their left.

The advance to the third objective had been due to begin at half past seven, and on cue the supporting artillery barrage had begun. Following in the wake of the bombardment had been the Hood and remnants of Drake battalion, which had seized the trench in front of Beaucourt assisted by the Anson, and survivors of the two Royal Marine Battalions.

Ferocious fighting had continued throughout the night. At daylight on the fourteenth two tanks had gone forward, and with their held the strongpoint, which had caused so many casualties the previous day, had been taken. By this time only two officers, including the Commanding Officer [Lieutenant Colonel A.R.H. Hutchinson], had remained in First Royal Marines, and in the Second only the C.O. [Lieutenant Colonel F.G.W. Cartwright] and two other unwounded officers. The 63RD Division had eventually been relieved during the fifteenth of November. Of the four hundred or so marines of First Battalion who had gone into action on the twelfth, only a hundred and thirty eight had remained two days later.

Amongst the lucky few to survive the battle at Beaucourt, Private Swalwell had also survived in the waterlogged Ancre Sector throughout the remainder of the bitterest winter in living memory, whilst there he had inevitably taken part in the routine patrols, local actions, and trench raids which had resulted in a steady stream of casualties. The first major action of 1917 that he had taken part in had been the disastrous attack on a German strongpoint known as ‘The Pimple’, near the village of Miraumont, which had begun on the seventeenth of February [see January—February 1917]. Again First Royal Marines had suffered heavy casualties. Of the sixteen officers and five hundred men who had begun the assault only three officers and a hundred men had been fit for duty by the end of the operation five days later.

On the opening day of the Arras Offensive [9TH of April 1917] the various units of the R.N.D. had been attached to various units of the assault force. However, a few days later the division had been brought together and moved into the line to the west of Gavrelle on the fourteenth of April. Nine days later the mud bound sailors and soldiers of 189TH and 190TH Brigades [the Royal Marine Brigade had been left behind in Divisional Reserve] had launched their attack on the village which had quickly become badly disorganised due to uncut wire, and smoke, nonetheless the various units had fought their way forward, albeit with severe casualties, and by the end of the day’s bitter fighting the R.N.D. had been in possession of the village. The Official History, not a volume accustomed to giving praise says of the Division;

‘Full justice has not been done to the achievements of the 63RD Division, because the details of the street fighting in which it showed skill and determination are too intricate for description. The division had taken 479 prisoners and in defeating the counter attacks had obviously inflicted heavy loss upon the enemy’ [3]

The formation may have ‘inflicted heavy loss upon the enemy’, nonetheless, the capture of Gavrelle had not been without it’s price The casualties of the Royal Naval Division for the day had been around 1,500 killed, wounded, and missing.

Amongst the very fortunate to have survived thus far, Private Swalwell’s, and the remainder of the few Gallipoli veterans luck had begun to run out on the twenty sixth of April when the 188TH Brigade had taken over the line from the exhausted 189TH and 190TH , two days later none had remained.

News of Private Swalwell’s death had reached Scarborough by the beginning of June. Officially recorded as the marine’s next of kin, elder brother Edgar had himself been serving in France [with the Royal Field Artillery], therefore, the first person in the family to find out had been Harry’s sister in law, Elizabeth Swalwell, who had been living at the time at No.2 Gawnes Cottages, which had been situated in Queen Street. The tidings had fleetingly been mentioned in a ‘Scarborough Casualties’ list, which had appeared in the ‘Mercury’ of Friday the fifteenth of June;

‘Marine killed - Private H. Swalwell, Royal Marines, 2 Gawnes Cottages, Queen Street, has been returned as killed in action on April 28TH. He was single, 20 years of age, and a butcher by trade’…

Officially recorded as killed in action on Saturday the twenty eighth of April, the identifiable remains of Private Swalwell had never been found, either after the battle, or during the many searches of the battlefield, which had been made after the war. His name had eventually been included in Bay 0ne of the Arras Memorial, which commemorates almost 35,000 servicemen from the United Kingdom, South Africa, and New Zealand, who had lost their lives in the Arras Sector between the spring of 1917 and the seventh of August 1918[the eve of the Allied Advance to Victory] for whom there is no known grave.

Although believed to have no known grave, there is a chance that the remains of Private Swalwell had been buried in one of the many British Cemeteries that dot the landscape around Gavrelle. Amongst these can be found ‘Orchard Dump Cemetery’, which is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery between Arras and Douai. Amongst over three thousand graves here, the majority of which contain the remains of unidentified servicemen, amongst them ninety unnamed men from the Royal Marine Light Infantry, most of whom had lost their lives in the fighting at Gavrelle, perhaps he is one of these.

During the night of the 29TH of April the Royal Naval Division had been relieved by the ‘Hull Pals’ of Thirty First Division. Out of the ruined windmill had trooped forty exhausted but determined Royal Marines. Their achievement was one of the great, yet virtually unknown, feats of arms in the history of the Corps. For his leadership Lieutenant Newling had eventually been awarded the Military Cross.

The fighting around Gavrelle had cost the R.N.D. in excess of three thousand men and had been the deathbed of the original unit as it was at Gavrelle that almost the last of the originals had been killed off, those Gallipoli survivors and those who had just returned to the unit following being wounded at Beaucourt. The Division had, nonetheless, been rebuilt by replacements that had inherited, and enhanced, the fearsome fighting reputation of the unit throughout the remainder of the war. The Division had eventually been disbanded, never to reform, during early 1919, by which time the unit had won six Victoria Crosses, and had suffered over 45,000 casualties.

Seventy five years after the capture of Gavrelle by the Royal Naval Division a memorial to their sacrifice and the destruction of the village had been unveiled in a ‘park of peace’ on the outskirts of the now rebuilt village. The memorial consists of a three ton anchor [the emblem of the Division] set in a bombed out building, which represents the destroyed village. Built with local red bricks [combatants who had taken part in the fighting in the village had been covered in red brick dust] the monument had been financed by the donations from various branches of the Royal Naval and Royal Marines Associations.

Four of Harry’s brothers had also served during the Great War. Edgar, born during 1887, had served with the Royal Field Artillery on the Western Front throughout the conflict and had returned to Scarborough following the Armistice. He had eventually died in Scarborough at the age of fifty years on the twenty third of April 1937, and is buried in the town’s Dean Road Cemetery [Plot B. Row 5. Grave 0.].Robert, born during 1889, had survived service with the Eighteenth Hussars on the Western Front, although wounded, he had returned to Scarborough at the end of the war. He had subsequently died at the age of eighty four years during July 1972 [buried on the 31ST] and is buried in the town’s Woodlands Cemetery [Plot B. Row 1. Grave 20] with his wife, Lily May Swalwell, who had passed away at the beginning of January 1974 at the age of eighty-five years.

Harry’s younger brother, Francis, born during 1900, had served with the West Yorkshire Regiment in France, and eventually, the author is led to believe, seen service in Russia. He had also survived to return to the town. He had eventually passed away during January 1984 [cremated on the ninth] at the age of eighty four years [Frank’s wife, Mabel Swalwell, had died shortly before her husband during December 1983].

The fourth brother to serve in the war had not been fortunate enough to return home, he had died of wounds two months before the Armistice, on Tuesday the tenth of September 1918 whilst in a German Prisoner of War Camp; 23534 Lance Corporal Wilfred Swalwell.

Belonging to the 21ST Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps [Infantry] Wilf had been born on the outskirts of Scarborough in the village of Burniston on the 31ST of January 1893, and had been the third son of Annie Eliza and Robert Swalwell [at the time of his son’s birth Robert had been employed as a factory hand in the oil cloth trade].

Employed by W.H. Smith& Sons in their bookstall situated in Scarborough’s railway station before the war, Wilf had also been a part time Private [Regimental Number 1174] in the Scarborough based Territorial Force, Fifth Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment [later renamed the Green Howards]. By the outbreak of war in August 1914 he had been a member of the unit’s machine gun section and had gone to war in this capacity during April 1915.

A survivor of the Fifth Battalion’s subsequent ‘baptism of fire’ during the second Battle of Ypres at St Julien [April 23RD to May 3RD], Wilf had soldiered on in the dreaded Ypres Sector until the beginning of November 1915, when he had been posted back to England to join the recently formed [22ND October] Machine Gun Corps, at the unit’s Depot at Halton Park situated near Grantham, in Lincolnshire. [2]

Swalwell had remained at Halton Park until the beginning of March 1916. During this time he had been promoted to Lance Corporal and had become a marksman with the Vickers Medium Machine Gun, the standard British Army medium machine gun throughout the remainder of the war and for some years afterwards. Prior to his embarkation for France Swalwell had been assigned to the newly formed 62ND Machine Gun Company [The 62ND M.G. Company had been renamed the 21ST M.G. Battalion on the 24TH of February 1918], the unit had subsequently moved to Northern France, where it had joined it’s parent formation, the 21ST Division on the fourth of March 1916, near Armentieres, where the division had been ‘refitting’ after their dreadful ‘baptism of fire’ during the Battle of Loos when the men of the formation had been cut to pieces on the 26TH of September 1915 due to their inexperience and the enemy’s uncut wire

During June 1916 Wilf Swalwell and the remainder of 21ST Division had travelled southwards to the Somme Sector, where, on the first day of the Somme Offensive [1ST of July] the formation had taken part in the bloody fighting for the village of Fricourt. After three days of intense fighting and heavy casualties the exhausted division had been relieved, only to return to the battle for the village on the 11TH of July. The division had remained in the slaughterhouse of the Somme Offensive until October 1916, during that period, apart from Fricourt; the Twenty First had seen action in the battles of Bazentin Ridge, Flers/Courcelette, Morval, Gueudecourt, and the Transloy Ridges.

Between the 29TH of March and 5TH of April 1917 the 21ST Division had been involved in various actions during the German advance to the Hindenburg Line. Service in the vicious fighting at Arras had followed; here the division had added two Victoria Crosses to the one gained on the Somme, in two of the three major Scarpe battles. Wounded in a thigh by shrapnel at the beginning of May 1917 Wilf had eventually been evacuated to Britain, where he had received treatment at St Martin’s Hospital at Cheltenham. Following a period of recuperation in Scarborough Swalwell had returned to the Front to take part in the Third Battle of Ypres.

During the Ypres battles [better known as ‘Passchendeale’] the formation had seen action between September and November 1917 at Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, and Passchendeale in the Ypres Salient. Before the end of 1917 the 21ST had been involved in a German counter attack at Cambrai, where on the third of December another Victoria Cross had been earned for the Division by Captain Arthur Lascelles of the 15TH Durham Light Infantry.

On the 21ST of March 1918 the Germans had launched their overwhelming Spring Offensive in Picardy. The 21ST Division had seen much bitter fighting around the town of St Quentin until the 23RD and then on the following day had fought near the town of Bapaume.

Totally exhausted by the beginning of May 1918, the Twenty First Division had been sent with three other equally worn British Divisions of 9TH Corps [8TH, 20TH, and 50TH] to the then relatively quiet Aisne Sector, where they had been attached to the French Sixth Army. By the nineteenth of May the four British Divisions had taken over from the French a section of the sector to the north of the city of Reims, which had extended along a ridge known as the ‘Chemin des Dames’, or ‘Road of the Ladies’ on the northern bank of the River Aisne. A part of the Western Front which had been in stark contrast to the desolation of northern France, Private Swalwell and the remainder of the Division may well have imagined that they had arrived in paradise; ‘To the battered, battle weary troops, whose only knowledge of France was based on experience of the northern front, the Champagne country in the full glory of spring was a revelation. Gone was the depressing monotony of Flanders, drab and weeping, with it’s mud and its mist, gone the battle wrecked landscapes of Picardy and the Somme, with their shattered villages blasted woods Here was all peace. The countryside basked contentedly in the blazing sunshine. Trim villages nestled in quiet hollows beside lazy streams, and tired eyes were refreshed by the sight of rolling hills clad with green woods’ [3]

Rest for the exhausted British soldiers had been shattered at 1am in the morning of Sunday the 27TH of May when the Germans had unleashed a storm of high explosive and gas shells which had been fired from over six thousand heavy artillery pieces and trench mortars. The enemy had literally plastered the twenty four miles of front held by the French and four British divisions, by it’s end almost two and a half hours later, the infantry in the forward zone had been overwhelmed, all communication cut, and all the artillery if not destroyed had been rendered useless. At 4am infantry from forty one German divisions had begun their advance behind a creeping barrage, their path over the ridge virtually unopposed.

The heaviest attacks had been centred on the French 22ND Division, outnumbered five to one it had been swept off the crest of the Chemin des Dames and forced back across the Aisne, where although the charges had been laid to destroy the bridges there had been no time to detonate them. By 8am the 150TH Brigade of the 50TH [Northumbrian] Division, including Swalwell’s former unit, the Fifth Yorkshire Regiment, had virtually ceased to exist as a cohesive fighting unit, it’s neibouring Brigade the 151ST had suffered so severely that it was no longer ‘an organised formation’. The remaining Brigade, the 149TH, had put up a desperate fight, until they had encountered enemy tanks, which had driven the survivors across the Aisne. The 50TH Division, including its artillery had virtually ceased to exist. The two remaining front line Divisions of 9TH Corps had fared little better. Having suffered grievous casualties during the artillery bombardment, their defences in the Forward and Battle Zones had been overwhelmed, the survivors forced to fight a rearguard action back to the Aisne.

Wilf Swalwell, grievously wounded by shrapnel during the artillery bombardment had been left for dead amongst the shattered remains of the eight man Vickers gun team and had lain in the open until the following day when he had been picked up by German infantry following in the wake of the spearheading storm troopers. With little enough medical supplies for themselves the Germans had been unable to do much to relieve the wounded Corporal, who they had believed to be on death’s door anyway. Nonetheless, Swalwell had somehow kept himself alive and had eventually been amongst the 60,000 British and French troops who had been marched into captivity in Germany by the end of the offensive at the beginning of June [Eventually named The Battle of the Aisne, Allied casualties incurred during the operation had been around 29,000 out of a total strength of 163,000 men, the Germans had suffered roughly the same, if an estimate for lightly wounded is included].

Initially recorded as missing in action, news of Wilf’s whereabouts had eventually reached Scarborough during August 1918; the tidings had subsequently appeared in a Casualty List, which had been included in the ‘Scarborough Mercury’ of Friday the thirtieth;
‘Prisoner of war and wounded - Information has been received that Lance Corporal Swalwell, M.G.C., 2, Gawne’s Cottages, Queen Street is a prisoner of war and wounded. It is believed that he had been taken prisoner on the 29TH of May. A postcard has been received from him stating that he has had a very trying time during the last month but that he is now going on well. The natures of his injuries are not disclosed’

After a tortuous journey Swalwell had arrived in Germany during August 1918 when at last he had received a modicum medical attention. Nursed back to reasonable state of health the soldier had eventually been loaded aboard one of the many crowded cattle trucks, which had transported him to the British Prisoner of War Camp, situated near the Saxony village of Langensalza. Already in a weakened state as a result of his wounds, the poor diet of a slice of bread and a bowl of thin soup per day had done nothing for his welfare. On Sunday the eighth of September Swalwell had lapsed into a coma and had died two days later at the age of twenty five years. Soon afterwards his remains had been buried in the Cemetery at Langenzala, which by the end of the war just two months later, had contained the graves of over two hundred British prisoners who had died in the camp between 1915 and the Armistice.

News of Corporal Swalwell’s death had been received in Scarborough after the war. The Scarborough Mercury of Friday the 29TH of November 1918 had announced in one of the newspapers last casualty lists of the war;

‘Died in Germany - Official news has been received that Lance Corporal Wilfred Swalwell, M.G.C., has died from wounds while a prisoner in Germany. Lance Corporal Swalwell, formerly of Gawne’s Cottage, served his time with Messrs. W.H. Smith and Co. and went out with the 5TH Yorks in the early part of the war. He was taken prisoner on the 27TH of May, but did not get into hospital until 23RD of August, having knocked about from one camp to another in the meantime. He was aged 25years, and single. The date of his death is given as 10-9-18. A brother Private Harold Swalwell, was killed earlier in the war’

One of twenty thousand British soldiers who had died whilst a Prisoner of War in Germany [12,000 of whom had died of starvation], during the post war years it had been decided that the remains of all the Commonwealth servicemen who had died in Germany should be brought together in four permanent Cemeteries. Amongst the four chosen sites had been Neiderzwehren Cemetery which is located some ten kilometres south of the town of Kassel, where, during 1922-3 the remains of Wilf Swalwell and the rest of the men at Langenzala had been re-interred. There are now 1,795 casualties of the First World War buried or commemorated in the cemetery, including special memorials commemorating thirteen men buried in other cemeteries in Germany whose graves had never been found. The final resting place of Lance Corporal Wilfred Swalwell is located in Section 4, Row J, Grave 1.

Almost a year after the death of Harold Swalwell an epitaph had appeared in the ‘In Memoriam’ section of the ‘Scarborough Mercury’ of Friday the 26TH of April 1918;

‘In loving memory of our dear brother, Private Harold Swalwell, who was killed in action somewhere in France, on the 28TH of April 1917.—‘In the midst of life we are in death’—His loving brother Bob and May’

[1] At the time of the 1901 Census of Scarborough’s population the Swalwell family had been living at No.91 Hampton Road and had consisted of General Labourer Robert, aged 44 years, born in Scarborough, Annie Eliza, 40years old, occupation listed as dressmaker, born Burniston, North Yorkshire, their daughter Florence, a 15years old domestic servant, born at Scarborough, Edgar 14years old, a bricklayers labourer, born Scarborough, Robert, a 12years old news vendor born Scarborough, Louisa, 11 years old, born at Hull, Wilfred, aged 8 years, born at Burniston, Harold, aged 4years, born at Scarborough, and one year old Francis, who had also been born at Scarborough.

[2] An excellent account of the part played by the Fifth Battalion during the Battle of St Julien is available in local author, Mark Marsay’s book, ‘Baptism of Fire’; Great Northern Publishing, 1999. The volume also includes a photograph of the Battalion’s Machine Gun Section, including Private Swalwell].

[3] A quote from The Eighth Division in War; Boraston and Bax. Medici Society, London 1929.

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