Private Bernard John Arscott, Somerset Light Infantry.

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Bernard John Arscott

The Arscott family owned and ran Wareham & Arscott Grocers in Salisbury Street. The building, no 23, is now split between Bath Travel and (the now closed) Mostyns Curtains. This was one of Blandford’s major businesses. At a time when the right to vote was limited to men, and furthermore only to those men who owned a certain amount of property, contemporary electoral rolls showed the relative wealth of voters. Walter Arscott (Bernard’s father) was listed as owning a business with one of the top three rateable values in town – comparable with the Crown Hotel for example.

Wareham & Arscott Stores, a double-fronted shop

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Walter Arscott had 8 children – 6 Boys and 2 Girls with Bernard being the 5th born:

The census for 1901 shows all 8 children living at home with Walter and their mother, Elizabeth. They have a live-in Housemaid, Mary Bennett aged 17. Walter is 44 and is listed as an Employer and a Grocer. Leonard, now 19, is listed as a ‘Grocer’s Assistant’. Walter was born in Clyst Honiton (nowadays part of Exeter) but all his children were born in Blandford. The next snapshot we have of the Arscott’s is ten years later with the 1911 census.

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By this time, Walter has died (1907) – his grave is in Blandford Cemetery. Elizabeth is the head of the Household, Leonard, now 29, is listed as a Grocer’s Manager, Mabel 28 as a Grocer’s Clerk, Ronald as a ‘Draper’s Assistant’ (presumably at Cherry’s Draper’s directly across Salisbury Street. Harold is filled out on the form but then crossed out also as a Draper’s Assistant – this is because he no longer lives in Blandford but is working in Bournemouth at the same trade but living as a lodger in Old Christchurch Road. It might be assumed that as the census enumerator wrote down Ronald when completing the page for the Arscotts this was a relatively new arrangement which didn’t immediately spring to Elizabeth or Leonard’s mind. Whether or not this mistake made whoever (Elizabeth or Leonard) realise not to include Bernard we can never know, but he is listed as a Grocer’s assistant in a similar business run by the Voizey family in Weymouth for the 1911 census.

So Bernard grew up in the middle of a large, relatively well-off family of shop-keepers, and seemed destined to follow in the Grocery business. Until 1914 there is no doubt that he would never have considered joining the Army. It was not something ‘respectable’ young men did.

Bernard and his brothers ‘Join-Up’

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Bernard died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and it is much harder to piece together his story than his former teacher at Milton Abbas Grammar School, Geoffrey Austin, who also died that day as other ranks’ records were severely damaged in a fire during WW2, whereas officer records are in the majority, intact.

Bernard’s medal card shows that he went to France on the 8th September 1915, but closer inspection of the medal cards show that both Cyril and Reginald ALSO went on the same day in the same battalion. Bernard originally joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, enlisting in Fulham, London. As the three brothers were given sequential regimental numbers, in all probability they enlisted together. Why they went to, or were in, London together is unknown. We do know that their older brother Ronald (5 years older than Bernard), who was already a soldier in the part-time Territorial Army left for India in November 1914 to spend the rest of the war there.

The unit Bernard and his brothers served in, the 8th (Service) Battalion the Somerset Light Infantry (8SLI) was formed on the 20th October 1914. Whilst the SLI Regimental Headquarters was at Jellalabad Barracks in Taunton, the battalion was actually formed in Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire as part of the 21st Division. This Division was raised in response to Army Order 388 of the 13th September 1914 authorising the 3rd 100,000 recruits into Kitchener’s New Army. It was thus known by the informal abbreviated classification as a ‘K3’ battalion, the (Service) part of the name marked it out formally as a War raised battalion of volunteers.

Training a Kitchener Battalion

The Divisional symbol of the 21st was of three sevens formed as spokes to a wheel (3×7=21) Made up of 62nd, 63rd and 64th Brigades, The units of the Division initially concentrated in the Tring area, spending some time in a tented camp at Halton Park before winter necessitated a move into local billets in Tring, Aylesbury, Leighton Buzzard, High Wycombe and Maidenhead. The artillery was at High Wycombe and Berkhamsted, Royal Engineers at Chesham, and Army Service Corps at Dunstable.

Halton Park was a country house in extensive parkland built by the Rothschild family and was typical of the large country estates which made over their grounds for Kitchener Divisions to train in.

21st Division began forming under Lt-General Sir Edward Hutton. He was 66 by the outbreak of war which would have made Divisional command difficult and in fact his health broke down after a riding accident before he was able to take the Division to France and he relinquished command in April 1915.

Major General Sir George Forestier-Walker took over command from Hutton to inject a sense of urgency and purpose to the Division’s training. Forestier-Walker had been until a few weeks previously Chief Staff officer to Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps in France. He was an experienced staff officer having ‘passed staff college’ with recent experience of the pace of modern warfare. He was not encouraged by what he found when he took over.

Whilst the men were keen and could be usefully trained in drill and fitness without much specialist knowledge on the part of instructors, uniforms and equipment were in short supply. To an Army which, pre-war, had identified itself so much with the virtues of individual marksmanship skills, it was quite a climb-down in standards to train soldiers without rifles.

No matter how problematic individual skills-training was, a more glaring deficiency was that in experienced officers. Whilst young men who possessed experience in the Officer Training Corps of a Public School or University (like Mr Ormesher) could quickly be turned into useful junior officers in rifle companies, the real problem was in the supply of more senior ranks, especially staff trained officers. These had shown an annoying tendency to get themselves killed fighting with regiments in France, rather than being available to continue the more important job of training and leading the quickly expanding New Army.

To fill the gaps, many retired officers were brought out of (commonly known at the time as ‘dug-out’ of,) retirement. Quite representative of these ‘dug-outs’ was the first commanding officer of 8SLI.

Henry Cuthbert Denny (late the Northamptonshire Regiment) was born in 1858. He was 56 at the outbreak of war having joined the Army nearly 40 years before. He was a typical officer of the late Victorian Army. Whilst Denny was part of the first generation not to have to buy their commissions, after the Cardwell Reforms of 1870, progression through the ranks was slow and depended on either the death or retirement of more senior officers within the regiment.

It took Denny 9 years to progress from Lieutenant to Captain, 10 years from Captain to Major and 6 from Major to Lieutenant Colonel. He commanded a Battalion right through the South African War and in addition to the campaign medals awarded, he was made Companion of the most Honourable Order of Bath (CB) by King Edward VII.

Indeed, of the four Brigadier-Generals in 21st Division, two were regulars and two retired officers. Although all the battalion commanders were ex-regular officers, (mostly retired Indian army officers), there were only 14 other regular officers in all of the 13 battalions of the division put together.

The ranks contained a few old soldiers but these were few and far between, as in the main those with previous experience had joined either the regular or reservist battalions and were already in France. The NCO’s attached as instructors were what was left when considering the best had already been sent to the K1 and K2 units already in training. It therefore almost goes without saying that as the Army as a whole embarked on a modern war the like of which it had never experienced, those instructors which could be got were almost universally without relevant or up to date experience.

This then was the reality of Kitchener’s army: A ‘battalion’ of 2 experienced officers, some old or unfit instructors, no kit or accommodation and 1,000 or so recruits to turn into an effective fighting force in a matter of months….. This is not specific to 21st division, in fact its sister division the 24th, who would fight at Loos in the same Corps (Gen.Haking’s XI Corps), suffered much the same build up experience.

Until the middle of June, the state of the Division’s training meant that Forestier-Walker was still only able to conduct a weekly route march for the division as a whole followed by a simple tactical deployment.

Whilst these served a direct training purpose they were very much hampered by the low level of individual skill-at-arms training and the absence of the divisional artillery, still at training on Salisbury Plain. This improved somewhat after the divisional artillery moved under command at Witley Camp, but gave very little time to produce effective results before mobilisation. It was also only at this time that the Division received its transport. From June onwards, the training tempo increased, first by brigade and then as a division as the reality of mobilisation loomed.

The battalions of 21st Division were in the main (except two and 8SLI was one) comprised of Northerners from Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham. They were to quote Forestier-Walker “very raw as soldiers though mature in years and habits”. It must be said that despite their regimental name the 1,100 strong 8SLI really did not contain many Somerset men. Bernard, Harold and Cyril were from Dorset obviously, but of the four Rifle Companies in the Battalion, the men from ‘A’ Company mostly came from London, ‘B’ Coy were men who transferred from the 19th and 20th Hussars and ‘C’ and ‘D’ Coys were originally Northumberland Fusiliers, and amongst each company ‘just a sprinkling of men from Somerset’

8SLI were part of 63rd Brigade whose constituent units were:

8th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment       K3

8th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry     “

12th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment              “

10th Battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment           “

4th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment          Regular Reservists

63rd Machine Gun Company       K3

63rd Trench Mortar Battery        “

In May 1915 the infantry moved from their dispersed billets back to Halton Park but this time into more permanent huts at which had been constructed over the winter, the artillery went to Aston Clinton (One brigade staying at Berkhamsted) and the Royal Engineers to Wendover. Rifles were only received in late June 1915 and after firing their first introductory course the infantry moved from 9 August to Witley Camp near Godalming in Surrey where training stepped up a gear prior to their coming mobilisation. Lord Kitchener inspected the Division on the march on 12 August.

21st Division move to France

Advance parties of the 21st embarked for France began on 2 September and the main body began to cross the Channel five days later. Units moved to assemble near Tilques, completing concentration on 13 September during two weeks of late summer balmy weather. Contemporary letters refer to the expectation that training would continue in France for a few months yet.

‘We may train here for a month or two I hear’ Capt. DG Pole 12 Bn Northumberland Fusiliers (62nd Bde)

After all they had only swapped the wooden dummy rifles they had carried for nearly 10 months for the real thing 8 weeks or so before.

It came as a surprise, although not an unpleasant one, to find themselves on the march in support of the British attack at Loos. It was a long march, some 50 miles, but most of it was done during fine nights to allow rest during sunny days. The moon was low in the sky and growing larger with every night they marched. To march such a distance was one thing but in addition each man carried his full equipment – and the full set of 1908 webbing could weigh over 70 pounds or the same as carrying a 5 stone child.

The divisional commander was relieved to be assured by Sir John French’s Chief of Staff -who had been dispatched in person to spell it out to the commanders of the inexperienced 21st and 24th Divisions – that in ‘no conceivable circumstances’ would they be called upon to fight ‘unless and until the Germans were absolutely smashed and retiring in disorder.’

The reality however was tragically different. After marching a total of nearly 50 miles since the 20th with only one day of rest, 21st Div marched a final 6 miles to deploy into action at 7pm on the 26th September.

GHQ planning had left 21st Division too far behind to be a useful reinforcement on the first day of the assault on Loos, and indeed a disagreement between the commander in Chief, Sir John French and the Army Commander, Haig about the availability and use of the 21st and 24th Divs as reserves spilled over onto Kitchener’s desk and he had to mediate between the two men.

The 21st was sent into battle on the second day in an attempt to secure the gains made the day before on Hill 70 and suffered over 3,800 casualties for very little gain without ever having any time to gain experience of the realities of trench warfare.

8SLI casualties amounted to 15 officers (55%) and 271 other ranks (30%), of which 80 were killed. Col Denny was so affected by the massive losses that he returned to England and command passed to Lt Col L C Howard. The Battalion’s first Military Cross was won by Captain Hatt.

Col Denny’s replacement came from a completely different background. Lewis Charles Howard was born in Burnley Barracks, Lancashire, in March 1881. He was the son of a serving Quarter-Master Sergeant of the East Lancashire Regiment who was from Lytham. Having served for nearly eight years in the ranks – latterly as a Corporal in the Royal Field Artillery – Howard Jnr. was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Berkshire Regiment in late 1903; contemporary Army Lists credit him with service in the Transvaal, Orange River Colony and Cape Colony during the Boer War.In May 1905, however, in circumstances not dissimilar to actor David Niven 25 years later, he was removed from the Army for being absent without leave and made his way to the U.S.A., where apparently he ‘adopted the stage as a profession with considerable success.’ However, on learning of the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, like Niven a quarter of a century later, he immediately returned home to re-enlist.

Charles Howard lasted just 3 months before being killed the day before Christmas Eve 1915 after winning the DSO a week before. He was replaced by John Willoughby Scott who led 8SLI whilst they spent most of early 1916 in routine trench occupation near Armentieres whilst they prepared and practiced for what would become the Battle of the Somme.

Preparation for the Somme Offensive

The battalion had spent a long time rehearsing the assault they were to make on the 1st July, going over and over again a full scale layout of the ground which had been taped out several miles behind the front line. They were to take part as part of the northern arm of an encircling movement intended to bypass the heavily fortified ruins of the village of Fricourt.

It was realised that across the whole Somme front that the state of training and experience of the ‘New Army’ would not allow anything other than a simple plan relying on extensive preparation could be considered. This was after all the first time that the full weight of the new force trained with such limited resources would be used en masse. Indeed 21st Division’s plan stuck very much to the idea of ‘bite and hold’ (having objectives that were limited but considered achievable as opposed to planning for a breakthrough).

Taking several months, a shallow tunnel had been dug towards the German lines and then extended left and right, to allow a trench to be opened out at the last moment thereby reducing the distance the assault had to go, this was known as ‘Russian Sapping’ and was particularly suited to the firm chalky soil of the Somme. Some three days before the assault Gas was released onto the German positions.

The Attack

The assault was timed to go in at 7.30am, although this is several hours after first light in July. At 6:25, the continuous barrage which had been underway for a week previously reached a new intensity, at 7.15 Poison Gas was again released over the German positions and at 7.22 a hurricane bombardment from every Trench Mortar battery in the division rained down. At 7.25am the front waves of ‘B’ & ‘C’ Companies 8SLI crawled out from their new trench into no-man’s land. At 7.26 a smoke screen was sent up to screen the attack from view and to confuse the German support line. At 7.28 three mines of 25,000 pounds (11,000 kg), 15,000 pounds (6,800 kg) and 9,000 pounds (4,100 kg) were blown under the Tambour defensive feature in front of Fricourt, to create crater lips to protect the 21st Division infantry from machine-guns. The preparation was thorough, but it had gone nowhere near destroying the German position. The defenders remained intact and ready to fight.

As the entry in the Battalion War Diary puts it:

Directly the Artillery Barrage lifted our men advanced in quick time. They were met by very heavy machine gun fire and although officers and men were being hit and falling everywhere the advance went steadily on….The leading platoons lost quite 50% going across no mans’ land. On arrival near the enemy’s front line they were momentarily held up by a machine gun but as the successive supporting lines came up they soon got in.

Interviewed in 1986, an 8SLI survivor of that day, Maurice Symes said:

It was just as if we were at… that almost was like a training exercise, which was really, I suppose, absolutely mad when you come to think of it.

We were just in extended order with everything on your back, your rifle and bayonet, your entrenching tool and everything else. We were just walking, straight towards the German lines in extended order.

Well, we were sitting ducks all the way. Our earlier training (was) you see for open warfare, run so far then lie down and then run a bit further. But this was just walking, straight into the death trap, hundreds of us.

Just hopeless….

It must only be assumed that Bernard Arscott was part of the 50% who didn’t make it across no-man’s land. By the end of the day nearly 60% of the men and 95% of the officers were casualties, and whilst the first line of German trenches and several communication trenches further forward as well were in British hands, the attack, in common with most made that day, did not achieve any real level of success. Indeed the 63rd Brigade as a whole was so much reduced in strength that it was removed from front-line duties and assigned to another Division in reserve. It did not go back into action until mid-November that year.

So, in Gordon Dump cemetery, lie Bernard and 40 others of 8SLI who died that day. In small, similar Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries within 2 miles lie 116 more. Across the whole front just over 19,000 men were killed amongst over 60,000 casualties. From a small market town in Dorset, alongside Bernard there were 5 more deaths from Blandford just on that one day.

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