yeovil at War

Eli Henwood

Killed on the first day of the Second Battle of Arras

 

Eli Henwood was born in the spring of 1896 in Yeovil, the son of leather cleaner Eli Henwood (1847-1922) and his wife Caroline (b 1861). In the 1901 Census 52-year-old Eli and 41-year-old Caroline were living at 12 Lyde Terrace, Lyde Lane (today's Lyde Road), with their 11 children; Albert born 1879, George born 1881, Ellen born 1883, Emily born 1885, Bertie born 1888, Percie born 1890, Sydney born 1892, Jessie born 1894, Eli born 1896, Arthur born 1899 and one-month-old Edward born in 1901. In the 1911 census the family were listed at 82 Lyde Road. 15-year-old Eli listed his occupation as a glover.

It is not known when Eli enlisted, although it is known that he enlisted at Yeovil and judging by his Service No 19926 it is likely that he joined the 1st Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry in 1916.

In 1916 the 1st Battalion moved south and were in action during the Battles of the Somme.

The Battle for the Somme has a unique place in British military history. Haig was in the middle of preparations for a British offensive but came under strong pressure to mount an attack due the French commitment to the Battle for Verdun, a city which held an important place in the nation's psyche and that the Germans had attacked in February 1916. Any Allied offensive would therefore have to be carried mainly by the British. Haig was therefore forced to undertake an offensive near to where the British and French lines met, near Bray-sur-Somme in Picardy, although he would have preferred to attack further north and to have had longer with which to prepare his new army. The battlefield was bisected by both the Albert – Bapaume Road and the River Somme, and was a series of gentle chalk ridge lines into which the Germans had dug a series of well-prepared fortifications. Haig's plan called for Rawlinson’s Fourth Army to achieve a breakthrough in the centre after which Gough’s Reserve Army (later renamed the Fifth Army) would exploit, roll up the German defences and capture Bapaume. Allenby's Third Army would undertake a diversionary attack on Gommecourt, which lay to the north. The massive preparatory bombardment, meant to destroy the German defences started on 24 June 1916 at 06.00. Over 1.7 million shells were fired but a high proportion, some 30 percent, failed to explode as the Ministry of Munitions had abandoned any semblance of quality control in order to be able to produce the quantities needed in time. Tunnelling companies dug hollowed out chambers underneath key German strongpoints and filled them with explosives. The shelling had started on 'U' Day and was meant to go on until 'Z' Day, which was 29 June 1916 but heavy rains caused the approach roads, trenches and crater ridden No-Man's land too muddy and so the assault was postponed until 1 July. Just after dawn on 1 July, the first British wave clambered out of their trenches and started to make their way towards the German frontline. As they did, seventeen enormous mines were detonated and the barrage moved forward. The infantry followed behind and although there were local gains on the first day, generally things looked bleak. The British suffered 57,470 casualties (19,240 killed and 2,152 missing) which was an unprecedented experience for the British Army. Seven 'New Army' divisions attacked, alongside three Territorial and four regular Army divisions. The French attack on the right of the British line was smaller than had been originally intended as troops had to be diverted to the fighting around Verdun but their attack went relatively successfully and the preponderance of heavy guns in the French sector also helped the British forces adjacent to them.

The British Army suffered, over the course of the entire 142-day campaign, some 415,000 casualties. The Somme campaign involved some twelve separate battles and finally came to an end on 18 November 1916.

In 1917 the 1st Battalion were at Arras, in action during the the First and Third Battles of the Scarpe, before heading north for the Third Battle of Ypres.

The Second Battle of Arras, fought between 9 April and 16 May 1917, was the British contribution to the Allied spring offensive of 1917. The original Allied plan for 1917, agreed at the Chantilly conference of November 1916, was for a second offensive on the Somme, but that plan was abandoned after a change of French leadership and it was decided that the British would attack around Arras and involve troops from three armies. In the north the Canadian corps of the First Army would attack Vimy Ridge. In the centre of the line the Third Army under General Allenby would attack from Arras. Finally, the British Fifth Army under General Gough would attack on the right of the line. The entire British attack was supported by 2,879 guns each of which had close to 1,000 shells. 

The Regimental History of the Somerset Light Infantry outlines the parts played by 1st Battalion during the battle - "Preparations for the offensive began early in the year. They were very extensive, resembling in detail the preparatory measures adopted in the Somme Battles of 1916, though as a results of the great experience gained in the latter, improvements and additions were made in the new scheme. The troops who were to take part in the initial attack on 9 April were carefully trained over model trench systems which closely resembled the powerful German defences along the front of attack.... For three weeks prior to Zero day the whole area to be attacked was subjected to very heavy artillery bombardment, the "Heavies" searching the enemies back areas and communications. Prisoners captured subsequently testified to the terrible losses inflicted by this bombardment and the enormous damage done by the British guns to the German defences.

On Zero day (9 April, 5-30am) the Senior Battalion (1st) of the Regiment was with the 4th Division. Of the three Battalions of Somerset Light Infantry which took part in the main operations only one - the 6th - was in the front line during the first stages of the battle, the 8th and 1st Battalions leap-frogging the forward Divisions after the latter had made the initial attack.

Of the 1st Somersets, A, C and H Companies were to attack the enemy, while B Company was to be employed as a carrying company. The battalion was to advance in for waves in artillery formation of platoons in diamond formation, C and H companies in the front to waves and a company forming the rear two waves: H company, on the right, to direct the line of advance. Such, briefly worthy orders issued to the 4th Division.... But perhaps the most interesting (Battalion Orders) are the detailed instructions as to dress and equipment of officers and men taking part in the assault. In the hard school of experience the British and French armies had learned much since 1914, and the difference between the dress and equipment of a British soldier in the first years of the war and in 1917, was the outcome of many bloody struggles with the Germans, who entered upon hostilities very much better prepared than were the Allies.

The first paragraph in the "Instructions re dress, equipment, etc" issued before the opening of the battle of Arras, 1917, orders that "all officers taking part in the attack and all officers with the carrying party will be dressed exactly the same as the men. Sticks will not be carried." With the Germans it had been the practice when attacked to pick out the officers and shoot them down first of all, officers being distinguished by their dress which differed somewhat from that of the British Private or NCO. As far back as 1914 officers' swords had been discarded and sticks were mostly carried in their place.

The second paragraph of these Instructions deals with the "Fighting Dress": the haversack was not to be worn, in place of it the pack was to be carried, containing cap comforter, cardigan, fork, iron ration, unconsumed portions of the day's rations, mess tin and waterproof sheet. Steel helmets had replaced the old field-service In the early months of 1916. Webbing equipment was worn, but the carrying capacity of the bandolier had been largely increased. Rifle sections were to go into the battle area carrying 170 rounds of small arms ammunition per man. Bombing sections and rifle grenade sections were to carry 100 rounds per man. Lewis-guns sections, signallers, runners and the men of B company (detailed, it will be remembered, as a carrying company) 50 rounds each. In addition to the SAA, every man, with the exception of the "mopping up" sections, was to carry two No 5 grenades; the "mopping up" sections were to carry two "P" bombs instead. The two No 5 grenades were to be carried in a SAA bandolier slow over the left shoulder and fastened tightly under the right armpit; they were to be used only in cases of emergency and when the objectives had been captured were to be collected and Company dumps formed. Each man was to carry two aeroplane flares in the breast pockets of his jacket; he was also to carry three sand-bags in his pack, placed on top of the other articles, so as to be ready to hand. Water-bottles were to be filled and used most sparingly as no water may be available for a considerable time. Box respirators were to be carried in the "alert" position, but PH helmets were to be left behind. It will thus be seen that the British soldier in 1917 had a heavy load to carry as he advanced across no man's land to the attack, often over soft and slippery ground, inches (and sometimes feet) deep in viscous, stinking mud, and through water-logged shell holes.

From the first entry in the Diary of the 1st Somersets on 9 April, it is very evident that it was written at the time: "5am tremendous bombardment now on. Zero hour 5:30am". At 6:05am the battalion (in Brigade) marched off to its assembly positions and there awaited orders to attack. Heavy rain was falling and although the weather cleared later the early hours of the morning were dismal in the extreme. At the assembly area breakfast was issued, which somewhat broke up the tedium of a long wait until information regarding the attacks of other divisions were received.... At 10 o'clock the 1st Somersets left the assembly area and moved in column of route to the blue line. A few stray shells fell as the battalion advanced, but no casualties were suffered and it was not found necessary to deploy. The Battalion formed up in the railway cutting and behind the embankment, in touch on the right with the 2nd Essex Regiment and on the left with the 1st Hampshires. The Battalion objective in the attack was a portion of the fourth German system of trenches.... Marching on compass bearing the Somersets reached the assembly positions well in advance of the timetable and there awaited final orders to attack. These came to hand shortly before 3pm.

At Zero plus 9:40, ie 3:10pm, the Battalion advanced to the assault in artillery formation. It was not possible to follow close behind the barrage than 100 yards as shells were falling short owing to the extreme range from which the guns were firing. The hostile barrage through which the Battalion had to pass was fairly heavy and some casualties were suffered, but the men went forward splendidly and extended below the crest of the hill exactly as had been practised. Machine-gun and rifle fire met the Battalion on approaching the wire in front of the fourth German system and it was seen that the thick entanglements had not been cut by the artillery. For a moment (and only a moment) there was hesitation, then several German tracks through the wire were found and along these the men rushed towards the enemy's trenches. Others, anxious not to be behindhand,, climbed to the wire, whilst their comrades halted and shot down any Germans who showed themselves above the parapets of the trenches. The cool manner in which some of the Somerset men thus covered the advance of their comrades through the wire was too much for the nerve-shattered Germans, the majority of whom put up their hands and surrendered. A few showed fight, but they were shot down immediately. Those who surrendered were so anxious to get away from their trenches that they were merely pushed out through gaps in the wire and ran westwards through the ranks of the Battalion advancing in rear of the Somersets (Rifle Brigade), their hands still in the air."

Sadly, Eli Henwood was killed in this assault. He was aged 21.

The Western Gazette reported on 11 May 1917  "The news has been received by relatives that Private Eli Henwood of the SLI has been wounded whilst serving in France. The nature of the wound is not stated."

Eli Henwood is commemorated on Bay 4, Arras Memorial, Pas de Calais, France, and his name is recorded on the War Memorial in the Borough.

 

gallery

 

Part of the Somme battlefield. 1916.

 

Taken during the Second Battle of Arras, fought between 9 April and 16 May 1917. Eli Henwood was killed in action on the first day of the battle.


The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of Eli Henwood.

 

The Arras Memorial, Pas de Calais, France.

The Arras Memorial commemorates almost 35,000 servicemen from the United Kingdom, South Africa and New Zealand who died in the Arras sector between the spring of 1916 and 7 August 1918, the eve of the Advance to Victory, and have no known grave. The memorial was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, with sculpture by Sir William Reid Dick. The memorial was unveiled by Lord Trenchard, Marshal of the Royal Air Force on the 31 July 1932.