Lest We Forget
Compiled and copyright © 2004 Andy Pay & Martin Edwards
JOHN WILLIAM CHAPMAN
(Information gathered by Andy Pay)
John William Chapman, Jack, was born in March 1899 in Spaldwick the son of Frank and Topsy (Mary). He had. six sisters; Frances, Maude, Olive, Mary, Martha and Bessie and three brothers; Hector, Cecil and Horace. Cecil and Horace also served in the Great War, in the Army Service Corp and Royal Engineers respectively. Jack was a grocers apprentice at the time of his enlistment and his family had moved from Spaldwick to Newtown, Peterborough.
At the age of 18, in March 1917 Jack was called up and drafted as a private, number 74007, into the Devonshire Regiment. After a years training he joined the Devons 2nd battalion in France in March 1918, a fateful month for the BEF. To serve in a war zone a soldier had to be at least 19 years of age and Jack was just 19 years old when he left for the Western Front.
The war on the Western Front was heading for a climatic end; unbeknown to the combatants at all levels. 1917 had closed with the agony of Passchendael and its tremendous casualties on both sides. It had also seen the collapse of the Russian efforts following the Revolution and a cease-fire agreed with the Germans. This allowed the enemy to withdraw its troops from the east and deploy them on the Western Front.
The offensive in the west by the Germans had to come early in 1918 before the Americans, who had recently entered the war, could make an impression. The war on the Western Front was one of attrition where at the end of the day the side with the most troops would win. The entry of the Germanís Eastern Front Armies was a short-term boost for them but the entry of the Americans promised to be a longer term boost for the Allies. Once the Germans had exhausted their reinforcements they had no further replacements but America was an untapped source.
The German Spring Offensives were designed to defeat the Allies before the Americans arrived in force. It was one last tremendous effort that lasted from 20th March until the middle of July 1918,comprising five offensives. The enemy took much ground over a wide front, including all they had lost in 1916 and 1917. Each offensive in turn faded as the supply lines grew longer and the fighting troops lost the support and reinforcements they needed to sustain the advance. The main crippling factor became the loss of manpower. Between March and July the German casualties reached over one million. This was the last straw for them.
Unable to support further offensives they began their retreat from July until the Armistice in November still fighting, and still taking and inflicting heavy losses till the very end. The British and French had also received heavy casualties up to July but they had their own, and the American, reserves to call on. This gave them the edge but even with this they did. not reach Germany proper before the Armistice.
Jackís battalion, the 2nd Devons, was a regular battalion that had been serving in Egypt at the outbreak of war. They returned to England in time to join the 23rd Brigade, 8th Division and embarked for France in November 1914. They were just in time to be involved in the final stages of the First Battle of Ypres. In 1917 they again fought in this area from July through to November during the Third Ypres (Passchendaele).
The drain on manpower brought on by the 1917 battles and the lack of reinforcements necessitated the reorganisation of the BEF in early 1918. Before that time a brigade had been made up of four battalions and 23rd Brigade comprised the 2nd battalion of the Middlesex, West Yorks and Cameronians as well as the Devons. In February 1918 the Cameronians were transferred to 59th Brigade. The three-battalion brigade was s-till expected to hold the same frontage of line, if not more, thus necessitating longer periods in the front trenches for each battalion. This was one of the factors that led to the initial rapid advances by the enemy during the Spring Offensives. The Divisional reserves had also been pared to the bone and it was not until the middle of the year that the reinforcements required. for the Allied. Offensives would arrive in France. Throughout the Spring Offensives, by the enemy our troops would. be outnumbered not only in infantry but in artillery by 3 or 4 to one.
On the 21st March the opening day of the first offensive Jackís Division, the 8th were in the rear behind the St Quentin sector that was at the centre of the German attack line. By the time 8th Division became involved on the 23rd. March the enemy had reached Peronne. They had begun making the crossings of the River Somme and the Somme Canal that here ran to the south. The Somme had been crossed opposite 8th Divisions line, between St Christ and Bethencourt, in the early hours of the 24th. However 8th Division counterattacked and drove the enemy back across the canal. Continuous attacks went on throughout the day but the line held even though the Divisions either side of the 8th had fallen back.
On the 25th 8th Division found themselves with their flanks in the air and the enemy infiltrating their rear. This forced them to retire to the line Estrees - Chalnes to bring them abreast of the remainder of the Allied troops. By this time the BEF and the French had become quite intermingled and by necessity they were fighting together against the common enemy as they retired from line to defensive line.
The 26th saw further retirement to a line that stretched from Proyart, just south of the River Somme, to Rosieres then the Andechy. In the northern side of the Somme the British had fallen back from Bray, which was in line with Proyart, and had made a stand on a line from Sailley-le-Sec to Albert in the north. (Sailley-le-Sec is where Percy Chandler is buried). This fallback on the north of the river left the southern Army exposed to German infiltration across the river. The enemy were quick to take advantage of this and the 27th March brought massive attacks in the BEF's rear whilst they struggled to fight off attacks from the east. The army on the south of the Somme was in real danger of being encircled.
8th Division were located near Rosieres and had successfully beaten off an attack about 10 a.m. Proyart rapidly came under pressure from the enemy, on two sides, and the troops there had to fall back or be trapped. This put additional pressure on the line going south to Rosieres. Here the 2nd Devons came in-to their own, Combined with the 22nd. (Pioneer) Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry and a mixture of engineers of the 151 st Brigade they made a gallant and successful counterattack to retake Proyart thus stemming the southward move by the enemy. This they did whilst -their Division was still under frontal attack from the east. Once again the 8th Division line held.
During the next few days our troops south of the river gradually fell back under continuous attack, until they came into line with those on the northern bank. Here the German First Spring Offensive ground to a halt. Isolated attacks continued but no more great advances took place in this immediate area. The Germans turned their attention north to Ypres for the Battle of the Lys that lasted from 9th to 30th April. This was in an entirely British sector and the BEF had, once again, to stand-alone.
On 11th April 1918 the Commander in Chief of the BEF, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, issued. his now famous "Special Order of the Day" calling on his troops to fight to the last ..... and this they did.
Throughout April, whilst the Battle of the Lye raged in the north, the troops in the Somme area were licking their wounds and attempting to reorganise themselves for what they feared would be another offensive in their sector. During this period they still had to fight off the enemy as he made spurious attacks all along the newly formed. front line.
On the 24th April four German Divisions made an attack on the British line stretching some six miles to the south of the river. At 6.30 am after a three hour long bombardment the enemy advanced under cover of fog, with tanks. The tanks broke through and made a gap for their infantry to follow through. After heavy fighting we lost Villers Brettoneux but the enemy were held just to the west of the village by the 8th Division, Jackís Division. Then occurred the first ever tank-to-tank battle as some of our tanks came into action south of the village and drove the enemy back. North of the village the enemy had been repulsed completely and to the south they were being held.
At 10 p.m. that night troops of the 18th Division and of the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions launched. a rapidly organised counterattack and by daybreak they had fought against the odds to completely surround the village. During the morning of the 25th troops from Jack Chapmanís 8th Division fought through the village, street by street, to take full possession by the afternoon. The front line was secured once again.
The 8th Division, amongst many others, had been under continuous pressure now for over a month (the short time Jack had been with the 2nd Devons). It was time for them to take a long needed rest. Sir Douglas Haig, in his despatches, made these comments:
"The 8th Division had been involved south of the Somme in some of the heaviest fighting of the year, and had behaved with distinguished gallantry. All these divisions had but lately been filled up with young drafts, and, despite their high spirit and gallant record, were in no condition to take part in major operations until they had. had. several weeks rest".
"These divisions" included the 19th, 21st, 25th and 50th as well as the 8th who were all combined. to form IX Corps. This Corps went south to the Rheims area, which was a reputed quiet sector in the French line. They were located north of the River Aisne near Bois des Buttes.
Between March 21st and April 30th the 8th Division had suffered nearly 9,000 casualties which was its complete fighting strength at best. By this reckoning the Division had also lost many of its replacement troops. In fact the 2nd West Yorks and the 2nd Middlesex, the other two battalions in Jacks brigade, had been practically wiped out twice over. It was in this shape that the Division looked forward to a restful spell to give it time to recover and absorb its reinforcements.
The move took place during the first week in May. By the 12th Jack's brigade, the 23rd, took over the left of 8th Divisions front on a line a mile wide and about two miles deep from the front to the reserve lines. The troops were spread. thinly over the frontage but this was accepted. in a quiet sector and with precious few reserves available anyway, even in the battle zones. The Devons held their brigade front line until the 20th May for what was, in the light of recent events a pleasant contrast. Little activity occurred until the 18th when the enemy tried to rush a forward post but they were beaten back. On the 20th, before being relieved, the Devons raided a German trench in retaliation but found it deserted brigade reserve near Roucy, south of the River Aisne.
The Battalion strength was now increasing to near normal. No fewer than 28 officers had joined since Villers Brettoneux and the rank and file was somewhat below 800. Replacements had come from all sources and were not necessarily infantrymen or even well trained. A large number of the officers were transferred from the Army Service Corps and the infantrymen themselves included untrained conscripts below the normal age of 19 for a battle zone. They were all to acquaint themselves well in the weeks to come.
The 26th May found the 2nd Devons back in the forward lines north of the Aisne. With the West Yorks holding the front line, the Middlesex were holding the second line and Devons were in reserve. Rumours were rife about an impending attack by the enemy and all the signs pointed to this. Most notable indications were the increased movements in the German rear lines and an increase in enemy scouting and harassment patrols.
The 2nd Devons were located in underground shelters and tunnels of the Bois des Buttes a small hill to the rear of the brigade's lines. The Third German Offensive, (the Third Battle of the Aisne), began on the 27th May. At 1 am the whole area was saturated with high explosive and gas shells. The Devons were in the best position in the brigade but, even so, many were gassed despite being under ground. and wearing gas masks. The West Yorks and the Middlesex suffered terribly. The enemy infantry had moved. off at 3.45 am quickly mopping up the survivors amongst the West Yorks and rapidly overrunning the Middlesex.
At a time between 4 and 5 am the Devons had orders to take up positions in their trenches around the Bois des Buttes. Directly they emerged from the underground shelters they came under fire from the front and the rear. The enemy had advanced. that far. The infiltrators at the rear were quickly dealt with and the Devons began to put up an effective defence along the northern edge of the hill.
They alone were now holding the left flank of 8th Divisions front. The 50th Division on their left began falling back leaving the Devons flank unprotected and allowing the Bois des Buttes to be completely surrounded even though the Devons still held their front. An eyewitness described the Devons as, "merely an island in the midst of an innumerable and determined foe, fighting with perfect discipline, and, by the steadiness of their fire, mowing down the enemy in large numbers".
Jackís battalion was completely cut off from their retreat line across the Aisne Canal. They continued. to hold out and in so doing allowed the 25th Division time to come forward to reinforce the remnants of the 8th and 50th Divisions. By a supreme effort they formed. a defensive line on the canal to allow an orderly retirement of neighbouring divisions. This respite was dearly bought by the 2nd Devons, who lost 23 officers and 528 men, practically the whole of the battalion positioned north of the Aisne.
For their gallantry and endeavour the Battalion was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, the first British unit to be so honoured. and one of only twelve during the Great War. The medal is displayed on the Regimental Camp Flag now held in the National Army Museum, Chelsea.
Some 80 of the Devons under Lt Clarke were able to escape from Bois des Buttes but they hadnít finished. fighting. The next few days saw a repeat of their adventures during the retreat from the Somme in the March Offensive. A continuous fighting retreat, with groups of soldiers from all units combining to fight a more powerful enemy. To their everlasting credit they fought a far superior force to a standstill. Over the eight days following the opening attack on Bois des Buttes the Germans drove the Allies back from the Aisne to the Marne, finally coming to a halt on 4th June when their efforts petered
The map shows the main features of the Devons, and IX Corps, retirement until the 30th May. Small groups of Devons who had been behind the lines soon joined Lt Clarkeís party to keep the nucleus of the Battalion going. They even managed a counterattack on 28th May at Branscourt, regaining vital ground. Their Brigadier, General Grogan, who was to win the Victoria Cross for his bravery and leadership on the 29th May, said of this particular action on the 28th May,
"The undaunted courage of these gallant men, their unbroken front and high morale was throughout an example and an inspiration to the less stout hearted and despondent. Their conduct was worthy of the highest praise."
On the bereavement cards sent by Jacks family after his death he is shown as killed in action on 29th May 1918. However the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and his Regimental records show his death as 31st May 1918. The following gives the events encompassing those two dates.
On the 29th the Devons took part in the action for which General Grogan won his VC. The General had gathered the remnants of his brigade on the reverse of a slope near Treslon, hidden to the pursuing enemy. As the Germans came over the crest of the slope they received such a hot reception from the Generalís men that they were held up for some hours. They only retired when after being pounded by trench mortars, a determined infantry attack dislodged them at about 6 p.m. They retired only a short distance before reaching another ridge and once again they turned on the enemy.
On 31st May Jackís battalion were at Bligny Hill. "This was as far as the enemy got", so remarked a survivor of the Devons. The line was held here under continuous pressure for several more days before relief came to the hard-pressed remnants of IX Corps, who had only come down from the Somme a month earlier for a well earned rest.
There was action on both the dates of death accredited to Jack and due to the situation it would be very difficult to give a sure date. What is sure is that he was involved in a most glorious action and, like the many young men with him, did not fail his country and Regiment in their time of need.
At the end of the retirement the 2nd Devons had two officers, Lts Clarke and King, and 90 men. 2nd Lt Clarke had fought through the whole affair from Bois des Buttes to Bligriy. As the citation for the award of the Croix de Guerre had said of the 2nd Devons.
"the Officers and men responded with one accord and offered their lives in ungrudging sacrifice to the sacred cause of the Allies".
A further retirement came on the 14th June when 8th Division began the job of reconstructing itself from its survivors and vast numbers of reinforcements. They were soon to be needed for the Allied advances and more hard fighting. The 2nd Devons eventually ended up near Mons on Armistice Day 11th November 1918 where, for the BEF, the war had begun.
Like many more in the campaigns of the Great War Jack has no known grave. He is commemorated by name on the Soissons Memorial that is located on the River Aisne where Jack saw his last days. On this memorial there are 3,987 names of missing British soldiers, lost during the offensives in the Aisne area during 1918.
18 May 2004