Researched and written by Jane Morgan for Ash Museum
The early morning of November 13 1916, one hundred years ago today, was frosty, wet and foggy. The previous few weeks had seen heavy rain and the battlefields, trenches and plains of the Valley of the River Somme were thick with mud. As dawn broke, thousands of Allied troops were secretly preparing to attack the German front lines in a battle which would be known as the battle of Ancre; the last battle of the Somme.
Two young men from our village, Ash, were waiting to do their bit as part of this major offensive. On the northern end of the long trench line, Raymond Parsons from Grange Road was with his battalion, the 5th Seaforth Highlanders, as they prepared to fight for the village of Beaumont-Hamel. Three miles away, Arthur Bareham from Heather Cottages in Ash Vale was waiting to go over the top with the 17th Middlesex Battalion.
The signal to move was an explosion in an underground tunnel which had been mined under no-man’s land almost as far the German trenches. The men of the Middlesex Battalion began their attack on a cheerful note with many playing mouth organs as they went over the top. They soon realised, however, that the fog was so thick they could not see their objective and, as they stumbled through mud into barbed wire many were mown down by the enemy’s guns. Hundreds were killed and injured and the survivors eventually retreated into their own trenches again. Further north, the kilted Scottish soldiers also battled through thick mud but they took the enemy by surprise and were successful in capturing the village. Despite this victory, many of them were also killed and injured that morning.
Both Raymond Parsons and Arthur Bareham died on that muddy battlefield and are buried near where they fell in Northern France. Their families lived on in Ash and Ash Vale and will be remembered by many.
Raymond Alfred Parsons
Raymond Parsons was born on 1 March 1893 in Deptford and baptised at St Peter’s Brockley on 28 March, the son of Alfred Russell Parsons and his wife Emma Margaret (nee Caffyn). Alfred and Emma were married on 19 October 1891 at St Mary, Bletchingly. Raymond was the eldest of four boys, all born in Brockley. After Raymond, Harold was born in 1897, Sidney in 1905 and Cecil in 1907. In 1911 the family were living at Sprules Road in Brockley and all four boys were at home. Alfred was employed as a secretary and accountant for a journalist. In 1914 a journalist named Samuel Avis was living at Ashmead in Grange Road, Ash, and by 1915, this was the residence of Raymond Parsons and his family.
Raymond served with 1/5 Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders. This was a territorial battalion which was mobilised in August 1914 in the very far north of Scotland, then moved to Bedford along with many other Scottish regiments until it went to France in May 1915. Raymond’s army number suggests that he was an early recruit and the reason for joining a Scottish battalion is unknown, but it did recruit in London as well as Scotland. However most of the soldiers were from the Highlands and they all proudly went into battle wearing traditional dress of kilts of the Sutherland tartan, glengarries and sporrans made from white horsehair. They wore a khaki canvas cover over the kilt and later swapped their glengarries for tin helmets. The kilt was a practical fighting garment in many ways although lice were inclined to live in the pleats and the hem was known to freeze and chafe the back of the knees.
In France the battalion took part in the Battles of Ypres, in which gas was used for the first time, the Battle of Festubert and the Second Action of Givenchy. By 1916 they were well established and had a reputation as a hard fighting force.
They spent the summer of 1916 training and working to repair damaged trenches and at the beginning of October moved to Beaumont-Hamel, where preparations were put in hand for the planned attack on the Germans designed to catch them off-guard following the earlier Somme battles. The Seaforth Highlanders, now part of the 51st Highland Division, were stationed at the northern end of the trench line. The village of Beaumont-Hamel was well defended with trenches and tunnels but the weather was appalling with constant rain making the work of preparing for attack very difficult. However, advance parties had, under cover of artillery fire, cut holes in the wire protecting the German lines. They had established a routine of shelling in the early mornings, so that the enemy were used to the bombardment and would not realise that anything more was planned.
Early in the morning of November 13 the soldiers were ready. The troops had been warned that machine guns were to be used for the first time to fire a protective barrage over their heads and at the signal the men went over the top. They were faced with thick mud – in some places waist deep – and fog which hampered their view.
The 5th Seaforth were successful in capturing both the front and second German trenches, taking 600 prisoners and seizing their weapons. The work of the Highland Division was considered to be one of the most effective attacks of the battle. However, during the day, the battalion lost 2 officers and 193 men; one of those was Raymond Parsons. He was just 23 years old and is buried at Mailly Wood Cemetery in France.
The family lived at Ashmead for many years, running a poultry farm and corn stores. Harold lived at the house after his parents’ death while Cecil lived next door at St Margaret’s.
Arthur James Bareham
Arthur James Bareham and his twin brother William George were born in Morar, Bengal, India on June 8 1878 and baptised there three weeks later. Their father George was a career soldier from Suffolk and their mother Louisa Lawrenson was from Belfast. George and Louisa were married in Calcutta on 14 January 1873. They had five children in India before George left the army in 1887 and they settled in Ash Vale. George continued to work for the army as a labourer.
Arthur joined the Middlesex Regiment as a territorial soldier in about 1901 and served with the 1/8th Battalion. The battalion was mobilised in August 1914 and went to France in March 1915.
By the spring of 1916, the battalion had become part of the 56th London Division, but Arthur was transferred to the 17th Middlesex Regiment. This was a Pals regiment formed in 1914 from professional footballers. When war broke out and all able-bodied men were encouraged to volunteer, there was much criticism of the then Football Association for continuing to organise matches for fit young men who could have been fighting for their country. The result was the formation of the 17th who were fighting in France by the end of 1915. Throughout the fighting they still managed to play football but no other battalion football team appeared to be able to beat them.
They played an important role at the 1st Battle of the Somme in July 1916 but lost hundreds of men. Following this the battalion was reinforced by several hundred men from other Middlesex regiments including Arthur Bareham.
The war diary of the 17th Middlesex records the build up to the battle of Ancre on November 13 1916. On November 6, members of the battalion played a football match against the 2nd South Staffordshire Regiment. The Middlesex won 5-0.
On the 7, the battalion relieved the 22nd Royal Fusiliers on the front line at Mailly Maillet. The weather was very wet and the trenches were described as in a bad condition. Three days later, notice was received that the 13th was to be “X day.”
From the diary for November 13: “During the night of the 12th/13th, which the battalion spent in the forming up places on the top, the enemy caused very little disturbance and the battalion had no casualties. At zero hour, namely 5.15am the British artillery began its preliminary bombardment of the German lines and at 5.50am the battalion went over in waves. Our battalion followed the 2nd South Staffordshire’s. On our right was the 13th Essex and the 1st Kings. On our left was the 3rd division. The morning was very misty and it was impossible to see more than 25 to 30 yards. Pendant Copse, our objective, was invisible. All ranks were very cheerful and success seemed inevitable. Two of the companies B & D went over playing mouth organs. “
However, the fog and bad weather made the attack almost impossible. The plan for this section of the battlefield had been that two battalions would take the forward German trenches then two more, including the 17th Middlesex, would leap frog them and take the rear lines. Each battalion would attack a certain part of the enemy defences, but in the fog they lost their way and crossed each other’s paths. They were also unprepared for the amount of uncut wire, the depth of the mud which was described as having the consistency of porridge, and for the intensity of the enemy’s fire. The men fought on bravely but were forced to retreat and the survivors grouped in one trench which they held for the rest of the day. The next day they were relieved and a count of the losses could be taken. The 17th Middlesex lost 10 officers and 93 other ranks. 133 other ranks were posted missing and 145 wounded. One of those killed was Arthur Bareham.He is buried at Mailly Wood cemetery near Albert in the Somme region of France. His father George died in 1920 and was still living at 12 Heather Cottages at that time, as was his mother Louisa when she died in 1929. Both are buried in Ash cemetery and Arthur is remembered on their gravestone.
His brother Thomas served in the Queen’s Regiment, survived the war and lived at 9 Heather Cottages and later in Aldershot, dying in 1964. He appears to have been unmarried. Arthur’s twin William married Charlotte Hide in 1930 and they also lived at 12 Heather Cottages. William died in 1948 and Charlotte in 1954 and they too are buried at Ash Cemetery. They appear to have had no children.
Arthur’s older sister Susan married Sidney Taylor, a serving soldier, in Farnborough in 1897.