Text written by Pia Chamberlain.
The following was previously printed in the local Kingswood magazine, The Village Voice.
As we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of WWI, it seemed fitting to look more closely at the background of one of the sixty men whose names appear on our War Memorial. This is the story of 2nd Lieutenant Douglas Fitch, ‘C’ Battery, 162nd Brigade, the Royal Field Artillery. He is representative of a whole generation of young men, who stood on the threshold of their lives and were sucked into the horrors of war never to return home.
Douglas Fitch was born on 25th October 1896 at Hoddeston, in Hertfordshire. He was the only son of Charles Fitch, Clerk of the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers, and of Janet Fitch, who both lived at Beech Hurst, in Kingswood. He attended Oakfield Preparatory School in Rugby and then Sherborne School from May 1911 to July 1913, after which he travelled abroad, to France and Germany, to learn languages. His fluent knowledge of French would later on be of great use to his Brigade. In July 1915, he joined the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps, a unit responsible for training thousands of British officers before their deployment on the front line. He was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery on 12th August 1916. He served with the Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders from 20th August 1916 and his name was added to a wartime list for a permanent position in the Artillery. He was killed in action on 16th October 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres. He is buried at La Clytte Military Cemetery, south-west of Ypres. He is also commemorated at St. Andrew’s Church in Kingswood and at the Guild Church of St. Margaret Pattens, in the City of London.
His Colonel wrote to Fitch’s parent in early 1917: ‘Your boy possesses any amount of grit, he is a good boy, and a very plucky one… He will make a good and useful artillery officer.’
After Douglas’s death, his Colonel wrote: ‘He was a most gallant officer, beloved of his men and his death makes a loss which is felt by us all. Throughout all the hard and dangerous work of the last few weeks your son never spared himself, and he was an example to us all.’
His Battery Commander wrote: ‘Always thoughtful for others, whether they were brother officers or the men of his section; always cheerful, he had a wonderful effect on us all, and I think it was a good deal due to his influence that the battery had faced a very hard gruelling without murmuring.’
His Captain further wrote: ‘His unfailing cheerfulness and unconcern through the heaviest shell fire and greatest discomforts were wonderful. On one occasion… he set a magnificent example. This act was witnessed by a high authority, who sent over to congratulate the battery and the officers on their behaviour. There was no more popular officer in the brigade, and the men of his battery, and especially those of his own section, almost worshipped him.’
The Royal Regiment of Artillery at the time of the Great War consisted of three branches;
– The Royal Horse Artillery, armed with light, mobile, horse-drawn guns
– The Royal Field Artillery, which was the most numerous section of the artillery. The horse-drawn RFA was responsible for the medium calibre guns and howitzers deployed close to the front line and was reasonably mobile. It was organised into brigades.
– The Royal Garrison Artillery, armed with heavy, large calibre guns and howitzers which were positioned some way behind the front line and had immense destructive power.
Douglas Fitch belonged to the Royal Field Artillery, which was heavily involved in the Battles of Ypres and Passchendaele, fought in atrocious weather conditions in the autumn of 1917. The following account, taken from the History of the 33rd Divisional Artillery in the War 1914-1918 by J. Macartney-Filgate, gives a graphic description of the hellish conditions in which these artillerymen were operating. Douglas Fitch’s 162nd Brigade was part of that 33rd Division.
‘It may be complained that this chapter has dealt too fully with the infantry operation, and has not sufficiently recorded the daily life of the batteries and their experience during the attacks. The answer to this complaint is, briefly, that the batteries had no daily life but rather a daily death, while their experiences – day in, day out – were invariably the same. Morning, noon and night the men were splashing about in the mud, trying to keep their ammunition clean and their guns serviceable; daily they were shelled, sometimes with long deliberate bombardments, sometimes in hurricane shell-storms which descended on them for forty minutes or so two or three times a day. They were always wet, always cold; they continually saw guns and ammunition, which they had spent hours in cleaning and preparing, blown to bits in the passing of a second; they helped to bring up more guns, more ammunition, and saw, in the serving of these new guns, their mates blown to pieces, shattered, torn… They felt, as they saw the shells crashing down all around them, that they were forgotten by God and man. There is no daily history of these batteries to record save the success or failure of the operations in which they took part, and for the supporting of which they paid this heavy price.’
In an interview, an officer who had served in the RFA throughout WWI, described the conditions at Passchendaele as absolutely the worst he had experienced. ‘The ground was one mass of shell holes and water.’ Ammunition was carried by pack mules and he remembered seeing some of these mules falling from the duckboards on which they were walking and being sucked up by the mud without anybody being able to do anything to save them.
From 5th October 1917 there was a pause in the fighting, during which the batteries strived to get more ammunition from the dumps, to clear up their shell-wrecked positions and to sort out the gun line personnel into some sort of workable detachments, all this under heavy and constant enemy gun fire. This relative lull was short-lived, however, as a fresh attack was to be carried out on 9th October. There are no details about the exact circumstances in which Douglas Fitch was killed on 16th October, but one must assume that it happened during another such attack, when his battery was moved up to the front line.
I would just add as a postscript that on a recent visit to the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme, we visited Douglas Fitch’s grave in the small British military cemetery of La Clytte, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and left the little poppy cross you can see on the photograph on behalf of the Parish of Kingswood.