|Royal Field Artillery Gunners|
The 40ith Division, of which the 185th Brigade Royal Field Artillery was a part, encamped near Lillers in France but very soon they moved up to the Front to take up position near Loos. The Division was a mixed one, comprising of both regular units and "Bantam" units which were special battalions of men who were under the regulation height of 5' 6". Despite the mixture the 40th was known as a Bantam Division. The Division saw action at The Battle of Ancre which was one of the opening phases of the Battles of the Somme. Just three months after arriving in France the 185th Brigade was disbanded and the men reassigned
to other brigades. Gunner Bert Bayliss found himself attached to the 178th Brigade Royal Field Artillery which was also part of the 40th Division. The 178th used Howitzers rather that the 18 pounder field guns of the 185th.
|Royal Field Artillery Howitzers in action on the Western Front|
Eight days after his reassignment, Bert was admitted to the Field Hospital with bronchial problems. Although he was only hospitalised for seven days it was a foretaste of things to come. Five days later Bert was back in hospital for a further three days with dental problems. After his discharge back to his unit on 21st September Bert's health seemed to improve. During the next nine months the division saw action during the capture of Fifteen Ravine, at Beaucamp, Villers Plouich and the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line.
We can only imagine the horrors that Bert saw on the Somme battlefields. Gunners were issued with rifles although as, mercifully, they would probably be spared a part in the hand to hand fighting, they were not issued with bayonets. Bert used to tell his children that he was the lead rider on the gun carriage. This may or may not have been the truth. A Battery at full strength listed 85 Gunners (ten acting as Batmen to the officers) and 70 drivers. I am uncertain at this time of the division of duties between Drivers and Gunners - either way, Bert was a skilled horseman. We are often reminded, as is right and proper, of the countless human deaths but often forget the incredible slaughter of both horses and mules - who were not expected to survive. One can only imagine the effect this had on men who worked with the animals.
On 22nd June 1917 Bert collapsed and was again treated for "Bronchial" related trouble. This time it became obvious that the problem was more serious. Bert had his "Blighty" which was army slang for any wound of condition that resulted in a return to England. On 25th June Bert was on the hospital train headed for the port of Boulogne where he was again hospitalised to await transportation across the channel. On 6th July 1917 Bert left France aboard a ship called "St.Denis" - from its name probably a French ship. Landing in England he was taken to Cheltenham in Gloucester (ironically, close to his father's birthplace) and on 16th June 1917 he was admitted to a Sanatorium, no longer diagnosed with bronchitis but with Pulmonary Tuberculosis. It is known that his wife Esther made the journey to Cheltenham at least once during the thirty four days he was there. He was discharged on 8th August 1917 as "permanently unfit for further military service" and on 29th August he left the army.
|A typical military hospital ward during World War One|
The most obvious thing about the above is that there is no mention of "poison gas". Bert's daughter Ethel (my mother) always told me that her father's illness was the result of mustard gas. I firmly believe that this is what she was told - certainly by her mother and probably by Bert himself - but there is absolutely no evidence that this was the case and it would most certainly have shown on his army medical records. I do not imagine that there was any deception intended - we have to realise that these were adults talking to children about things that young minds probably couldn't comprehend. Of course we must also consider that by the time we/I heard these stories from people many, many years had passed since the events. But, slowly and surely, the true stories of these people are emerging. I just hope I am doing my forebears (and yours, probably) justice.
We will return to Bert's story soon.