Lest We Forget
Compiled and copyright © 2004 Andy Pay & Martin Edwards
(Information gathered by Andy Pay)
path of duty was the way to Glory”
William Woodham was born in St Neot’s in 1877, the son of Peter Woodham who lived in the Kimbolton - Stow Longa area at the time of the Great War. William married Sarah Anne Burton, eldest daughter of Thomas and Mary Anne, of Spaldwick on 17th October 1901. They had three children; Charles Hubert born 30th April 1908, Beatrice Maude born 16th February 1906 and Ellen May born 7th April 1904.
At the start of the War William was a farm labourer resident in Bolnhurst. He became one of Kitchener’s volunteers in February 1915 enlisting in the Bedfordshire Regiment as a private, number 19540. After his training at Ampthill, William joined the 8th (Service) Battalion of the Bedfords in France. After his enlistment William’s family lived in Church St, Spaldwick.
The 8th (Service) Battalion formed at Bedford in September 1914 and joined the BEF in France in August 1915. By November 1915 they had become a part of 16th Brigade in the 6th Division. William joined them in France in January 1916 when they were located near Poperinghe about 5 miles west of Ypres. The 8th Bedfords stay in France had been very uneventful with spells in and out of the line and much time spent as carrying parties.
As mentioned in Percy Chandler’s story the first six months of 1916 was spent by the BEF training and preparing for the Somme Offensives. However not all troops were immediately involved in this as the conflict still went on along the whole of the Western Front, not least around Ypres where Williams battalion were located.
Williams first three months in France saw little activity for his battalion with very light casualties, as usual due to artillery and sniper fire. They had long periods out of the trenches including a week at Calais under training. The battalion was well up to strength by April with 34 officers and 982 other ranks.
On 17th April they were in the front line trenches north of Ypres below Bcesinghe and the Yser Canal. On the night of the l9th/20th April after two hours of artillery bombardment the enemy attacked and despite putting up a gallant fight the 8th Bedfords fell back losing some trenches. These were retaken by them on the 21st. This was Williams and his battalions, first real baptism of fire. The casualties recorded in the battalion’s diary for that attack were “other ranks killed 32, missing believed killed 97, wounded 65. Officers killed 3, wounded 3, missing 1”. This was by far the largest number of casualties the 8th Bedfords had received to that day. The total being more than their complete losses since their arrival in France nine months earlier.
May and June saw little more front line activity for Williams battalion whilst they built back up to strength and went through intense training for the Somme battles. They did not take a part in the first fateful day, 1st July 1916, being still located around Ypres for the whole of that month.
The Somme Offensive was a joint offensive with the BEF north of the river and the French to the south. In preparation the BEF’s bayonet strength had increased from 450,000 to 600,000 by way of the New Armies in 1916 alone. The plan was to bombard the German front and support lines and their communication trenches for five full days, later stretched to seven due to bad weather preventing the infantry attack on the 29th June as originally intended.
The intention was that the enemy would be so disorganised and demoralised by the artillery fire that the Allies would be able to walk across no man’s land with rifles at the port carrying full packs and meeting no opposition. They expected to see no German resistance at all. This was not to be.
The first days battle saw British casualties of 20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded,. Despite these losses some progress was made and the BEF continued to make forward movement in fits and starts over the next four months. It was a series of ferocious battles for small areas of ground, strong points and bottlenecks which had been created by the Germans. Their will to fight to the last cost both sides dearly. The total German casualties (dead and wounded) came to 650,000 the total British to 420,000 and the total French to 200,000. Despite these dreadful casualties the campaign was as near a victory for the Allies as could be achieved in those days of static trench warfare. The New Armies were blooded and gained much from their experiences. The German Army was never to recover from its losses especially in experienced officers and NCO’s.
The 8th Bedfords part in the Somme Battles began on August 2nd when they were entrained for a move from Ypres to the Doullens area at the rear of the Somme front line. They spent ten days undergoing frontal attack, trench and bayonet fight training before going into the trenches at Auchonvilliers opposite Beaumont Hamel on the 15th August. Although they spent five days in the trenches they only suffered slight casualties from artillery shelling. The main infantry battle was raging further south around Fricourt, Thiepval Ridge, High Wood and Delville Wood.
After this William’s battalion underwent more training before going into the trenches once again but this time at the southern most part of the British line at Maricourt. This was where Percy Chandlers 2nd Bedfords had been at the start of the Somrne Offensive. It was mid September and the 8th Bedfords were about to take part in a general attack on a 10 mile line from Thiepval in the north to Combles in the south.
Their individual objective was a heavily supported strong point called the Quadrilateral. The first attack took place on the 13th September but was unsuccessful. However, a new weapon was about to come into play - the tank. It was decided to attempt the general attack on the 15th September but this time using tanks in the advance. The tank had not been used in battle before and its impact was uncertain. It was known to be mechanically unreliable, not suited to the muddy pot holed ground before it and, in this battle, not available in sufficient numbers. It did however give some element of surprise on behalf of the BEF in the initial stages. The battle itself lasted for a week and once again modest forward movement was made.
For their part, on the 15th September, the 8th Bedfords renewed the attack on the Quadilateral but this time it was intended to be with tanks. In the event it was no more successful than the attack on the 13th. The supporting artillery barrage dropped short causing many casualties amongst the advancing troops. As for the tanks they did not arrive in this sector. The attack went ahead but ground to a halt amidst the mud and entanglements. William’s battalion was relived and went into the reserve trenches about a mile to the rear at Guillemont.
On the 18th September they were in reserve for the final, and this time successful assault on the Quadrilateral by their Division, the 6th. Overall the 8th Bedfords had more than 400 casualties, mainly incurred on the 15th September, for the attacks in this area. On the 19th September they retired to Morlancourt for a well earned rest and refit which lasted for most of the remainder of the month. They had a brief period in reserve on the 22nd for the attack on Lesbouefs.
Early October was spent at Meaulte receiving replacement troops, cleaning up and more training. This was a typical work regime for any infantry battalion on the Western Front. Between the 8th and 10th October they underwent attack training at Trones Wood. This was now at the rear of the line but 12th July 1916 it’ was where Percy Chandlers 2nd Bedfords had lost 244 men during an unsuccessful attack two weeks after his death. On the 12th October the 8th Bedfords were once again in the front line this time a little to the north at Guedecourt. This was in fact the furthest point east that the BEF was to reach in this sector. There were becoming bogged down again and the rainy weather was aiding the enemy.
They remained at Guedecourt until the 19th October and throughout were to suffer casualties, although relatively light, from sniper and artillery fire. The 18th October saw them in an attack, the only one of their weeks stay in the line. The complete entry from the battalion war diary reads as follows:
No mention is made of casualties for that day, but it is known that William Woodham was killed in that action. The total casualties for the 8th Bedfords for the month of October was 2 officers killed, 1 wounded, 46 other ranks killed, 65 other ranks wounded. The majority of these would have been on the 18th as no other action occurred that month involving the battalion.
The Somme Offensive had ground to a halt with the weather once more taking a grip. This was the last British Offensive of 1916 on the Western Front. The BEF needed time to regroup and recuperate for the coming trials in 1917, the Battles of Arras and Passchendaele.
William Woodham is amongst the tens of thousands of soldiers who have no known grave but who are commemorated by name on one of the many memorials raised after the wars end. Williams name is on Face 2c of the Thiepval Memorial which is located to the north of the Somme battle area. The memorial records some 73,000 names of those British and Empire soldiers who fell between 1st July 1916 and 20th March 1918 on the battlefields of Picardy and have no known grave. This is the largest such memorial and reflects the intense fighting, mainly during 1916, on the Somme battlefields.
16 May 2004