In 2014 I blogged about my Grandmother’s cousin Corporal Noel B Hall who died during 1916 in WWI. We had visited his grave in June 2008 on our way back from the Waldkirch organ festival and I vowed at the time that for the 100th anniversary of his death we would visit him again. But first I needed to do more research about him and his military service.
Noel served at the Somme yet was killed and buried north of the Somme battlefields. There is a vast amount of information available online about WWI and trying to pin down the story of one individual soldier felt at times like seeking a needle in a haystack. However I did know some basic facts because of the newspaper article I have in the family archives lists his Company, Battalion and Brigade. This information had enabled me to find his grave information on the CWGC website 8 years ago. But why was a young man who had been born and grew up in Durham serving with the Canadian army? Why did he die north of the Somme at Calonne (between Bethune and Lens) when it appeared he had spent some weeks at the Somme first? Why was the undated postcard, showing one of only 2 photos I have of Noel (in civilian clothes), addressed to his grandmother and maiden aunts at an address in Sunderland when they lived in Shincliffe, Durham? These were all questions which I hoped to answer.
Information from the family archives left in my care by my grandmother and her sister Charlotte Beryl Pearce as well as searches of census and birth records enabled me to discover the following facts about Noel:
He was born on 24 December 1891 in Shincliffe, County Durham to Frederick Jackson Hall and Florence Jane Hall (nee Hudson). He was apparently their 3rd son, but one of his brothers had died in infancy. His elder surviving brother was called Frederick Jackson Hall. Noel was baptised Noel Bramwell Hall on 13 January 1892 in Shincliffe. I think his first name must have been chosen because he was a Christmas baby and his second name possibly because his mother may have been a fan of the Bronte sisters fiction. On the 1891 census his father’s occupation was listed as Solicitors Clerk and the family lived in Shincliffe Village.
His father did not appear on the 1901 census because at the time he was serving in the Boer War in South Africa. In the 1901 census nine year old Noel and his mother were living at Sherburn House Station NER, Sherburn, Durham – they were boarders and his mother had ‘living partly on own means’ next to her name. His elder brother (known as Eric) was listed in the 1901 census as living at 56 Old Elvet in Durham with their grandparents as James Hall ran the Old Elvet private school and 13 year old Eric was a pupil there. On the 1911 census his mother did not appear, I found out she died in 1910. I have yet to find out when his father died.
Noel was listed on the 1911 census as living with his Grandmother Ann Eliza Hall and aunts Marion and Rosa Beatrice (James Hall had died in 1908) at the Manor House in Shincliffe Village. His occupation at age 19 was Music shop assistant, presumably in Durham. The Hall family was well known for being very musical, they had organised a number of concerts in the city when James ran the school and I have a copy of a programme from one of these concerts in the 1890s showing that Noel’s father had sung solos.
On 18 April 1912 aged 20 Noel emigrated to Montreal, Canada on board a ship called Sicilian (the Allan Line). He lived in Toronto, the newspaper article even included his address as 49 Bellefair Avenue. His occupation on the ship record was listed as ‘farming’.
The second Canadian infantry Division was formed in 1914. The 19th Battalion of the 4th Brigade was raised at Exhibition Park in Toronto, Ontario on 6 November 1914. I have found Noel’s enlisting papers online (attestation paper) – the medical examination part is dated 7 November 1914 and the attestation part is dated 12 November 1914. So Noel probably attended the gathering at Exhibition Park. The paper includes his aunt Rosa Beatrice Hall as his next of kin. It also lists his occupation as ‘Tutor’. He was not married and had not served in the military before (this contradicts the newspaper article which said he had previously served with the Grenadier Guards – it is just possible that the reporter was told that his brother or uncle was serving with them but incorrectly claimed this for Noel instead – I have not yet investigated his brother and uncle’s war records). The attestation paper also gives details of his appearance – he was 5ft 6 1/2 inches tall, his chest girth when expanded was 33 1/2 inches with a range of expansion of 2 inches, his eyes grey and his complexion and hair fair. He had a large mole on the back of his right shoulder. His religious denomination was indicated as Church of England.
On 13 May 2015 the 4th Brigade sailed from Canada on The Tunisian and arrived at the West Sandling Camp, Shorncliffe in Kent (England) on the 23 May. The Toronto newspaper article describes this arrival through Noel’s eyes:
“We got into Devonport at nine o’clock Saturday morning, the 22nd, but had to wait in the harbour til two boatloads of troops from Ireland disembarked to go on to the Dardenelles. So we waited til Sunday morning. We got off at 10 o’clock and got on a Great Western train for Sandling, Kent, though we did not know then where we were going. We went through the suburbs of London and were given a great reception all along the line where holiday-makers were waiting for their excursion trains, and I noticed that there were few few young men among the crowds, in fact it was very noticeable. We saw the soldiers drill Sunday just as if it was a week-day, but they were volunteers from factories who were working all the week. We had to stop twice to let the Red Cross trains pass through to London and we could see the poor fellows lying on the stretchers all bandaged up, and it gave one the feeling that we were near to the front. We noticed all over the country Red Cross flags flying on churches and factories that had been made into hospitals. Where we are in camp we are just twelve hours run from the trenches, in fact some of the men who left for the front were back in forty-eight hours. That is going a quick service, don’t you think?”
The 4th Brigade of the 2nd Canadians trained at West Standling Camp until 14 September 1915 when it was transported to the front line in France to serve as a Reserve army. It seems that their first few months of service was behind the lines, possibly relieving others for short periods.
I concentrated my research on the last 2 months of Noel’s life as going through all the War Diaries for the 4th Brigade would have taken a lot more time. This helped me piece together enough information to know that he fought at the Somme and did trench digging there but somehow succeeded in surviving the Somme carnage only to die less than a month later further north. So our trip needed to include both the Somme and Lens areas and I worked out key places to visit in the two days.
We set off very early on Tuesday 25th October and got the 6am ferry to Dunkerque from Calais. Breakfast on the ferry meant that we didn’t need to stop along the way to eat as we drove through northern France via Lens, Arras and Bapaume – all occupied by the Germans during that period of 1916.
Our first stop was on the Albert-Bapaume road midway between Courcelette and Martinpuich to see the memorial to the famous advance by the 2nd Canadians on 15th/16th September 1916.
My research showed that the 3 Battalions of 4th Brigade involved (18th, 20th and 21st) had the ground prepared for them by the 19th Battalion (Noel and his fellow soldiers) as they did some major ‘jumping-off’ trench digging work according to the War Diary of the 4th Brigade:
“In preparation for the attack, a series of jumping-off trenches in advance of our Front Line, had to be dug. This work was carried out successfully by the 19th battalion, Major Gordon F Morrison, Commanding, in the absence of Lt-Colonel W R Turnbull, wounded in a previous engagement. The enemy shelling during the few days this work was going on, was very severe, and unfortunately many casualties resulted.
The great value of these forward Trenches, which were dug by the men of the 19th Battalion, was however, clearly shown by subsequent events and too much credit cannot be given to those carrying out of the work, which was done under an irritating and destructive fire during several days and nights.
Our Artillery kept up a steady and very effective fire day and night on the 12th, 13th and 14th September. This fire covered all enemy trenches which came within the zone of the attack, and the effect was clearly revealed in the shattered nerves of many of the prisoners who came in on the day of our advance.” (War diary, Sept 1916)
The 19th waited behind the lines to be pulled in to help with the battle if they were needed.
“The four waves were to form up in the jumping-0ff trenches, previously prepared, and to be in positions in ample time to give all ranks a good rest before the hour fixed for the assault. The fourth Company of each Battalion forming the fifth wave, formed up in trenches to rear.
In addition, Platoons from the 19th Battalion, followed closely upon the First wave of the three attacking Battalions as an intermediate wave, and the instructions given to this wave were, that it should “mop up” or deal with any enemy left, who might possibly fire into the backs of those troops who had passed on. The intermediate wave was also instructed to consolidate the First Line German Trench and take charge of all Prisoners.” (War diary, Sept 1916)
However during the night most of the 19th Battalion were relieved by other Battalions so it appears that Noel and his colleagues didn’t have to do much of the “mopping up” work, though a platoon of bombers from the 19th did stay to help.
The first use of tanks in war took place in this battle:
“At 6.30 am the “TANKS” supporting the advance of the 4th Brigade went forward in accordance with instructions and assisted in the taking of some enemy positions. … The “TANKS” used for the first time, proved their value. Prisoners stated that, in their opinion, it was not war but “Butchery”. One “TANK” is reported to have got astride an enemy trench and to have enfiladed it both ways. A machine gun officer captured in the SUGAR FACTORY, declared that he directed fire at them, but without any effect, and certainly the advance of this new offensive weapon had much to do with the success of the operation.” (War diary, Sept 1916)
The Canadians advanced further than was anticipated in appalling conditions and both the Sugar refinery on the Albert-Bapaume road and Courcelette were recaptured from the Germans, though many soldiers lost their lives as a result.
The Canadian Memorial at Courcelette to those long dead soldiers is beautiful. It is set in the heart of a wide open field adjoining the road and is designed to be a simple, solid and lasting tribute to all those men who fought in such difficult and nightmarish circumstances.
The central memorial is surrounded by rings of Canadian Maple trees, visiting when we did was perfect for observing the different colours of the leaves as they were falling from the trees – there was a great carpet of them all over the mossy grass. On a bright sunny day the effect would have been stunning, on the grey cloudy day the cobwebs in the grass were covered in moisture and the effect was peaceful and contemplative. Rosie sat in a corner seat and said she could have sat there all day just watching the leaves fall.
At each memorial and cemetery is a Visitors book in a specially designed stone cupboard with a metal door. I wrote a different message in each one we visited.
The next place in our trip was to the village of Courcelette, however that will be in Part 2.