yeovil at War

Herbert Percival Ostler

Killed in action at the Battle of Messines

 

Herbert Percival Ostler, known as Bert, was born in Yeovil in 1899. He was the youngest of the six children of tailor and coat maker Frank Ostler (1867-1920) and Anne Louisa née Marsh (1871-1949), known as Annie; Reginald (b1890), Elsie (b1892), Rupert Stanley (b1894), Ivy Gertrude (b1895), Daisy Victoria (b1897) and Bert.

In the 1901 census Frank and Annie were listed living in Orchard Street, on the corner with Beer Street. Frank gave his occupation as a tailor and coat maker. In the 1911 census the family were listed at 44 Beer Street. Frank gave his occupation as a tailor (maker) while 12-year old Bert was at school. When he left school Bert worked as a clerk at the Western Gazette in the publishing department.

Bert enlisted at Yeovil in April 1917, joining the 15th (Service) Battalion (2nd Portsmouth), Hampshire Regiment. His Service Number was 28751. The battalion had been fighting in France since May 1916, but Bert was not to join his battalion in France until March 1917 - after he had completed his basic training.

We can be almost sure that Henry took part in the Battle of Messines with the 15th Battalion.

The Battle of Messines (7–14 June 1917) was an offensive conducted by the British Second Army, under the command of General Sir Herbert Plumer, on the Western Front near the village of Messines in West Flanders, Belgium. The offensive at Messines forced the Germans to move reserves to Flanders from the Arras and Aisne fronts, which relieved pressure on the French. The tactical objective of the attack at Messines was to capture the German defences on the ridge, which ran from Ploegsteert (Plugstreet) Wood in the south, through Messines and Wytschaete to Mount Sorrel, to deprive the German 4th Army of the high ground south of Ypres. The ridge commanded the British defences and back areas further north, from which the British intended to conduct the "Northern Operation", to advance to Passchendaele Ridge, then capture the Belgian coast up to the Dutch frontier.

The battle began with the detonation of a series of mines beneath German lines, which created 19 large craters and devastated the German front line defences. This was followed by a creeping barrage 700 yards (640 m) deep, covering the British troops as they secured the ridge, with support from tanks, cavalry patrols and aircraft. The effectiveness of the British mines, barrages and bombardments was improved by advances in artillery survey, flash-spotting and centralised control of artillery from the Second Army headquarters. The Battle of Messines was a prelude to the much larger Third Battle of Ypres campaign.

On 27 September 1917 the 15th (Service) Battalion (2nd Portsmouth) were amalgamated with the 1/1st Hampshire Yeomanry who, by this time, were dismounted.

The battalion was then engaged in another battle - the Battle of Pilkem Ridge. This battle was the opening attack of the Third Battle of Ypres, which later became known as Passchendaele. The battle began at 3:50am on 31 July 1917, when 2,000 Allied guns opened fire on German lines and 14 British and two French divisions attacked along 15 miles of the Front. On the afternoon of 31 July, rain began to fall on the battlefield. Over the following days the shell-damaged ground became a quagmire, severely hampering the advancing troops, and making the movement of artillery, casualties and supplies very difficult. After three days, the Allied advance was half of what had been planned. The British Army had suffered some 27,000 casualties wounded, killed and missing. Most of the dead have no known grave.

The 15th Battalion next took part in the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge (20 to 25 September 1917). This battle marked a change in British tactics during the Third Battle of Ypres. The first part of the battle had been commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough (Fifth Army). That choice had forced a delay of six weeks while the Fifth Army moved into place, replacing General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army. Gough had performed no better than earlier commanders on the Western Front. The Germans had perfected defence in depth. Their front lines were lightly defended. Behind the front line scattered German strong points disrupted any Allied advance. Once the British or French attackers were disorganised, the Germans would launch a counterattack with specially trained divisions kept out of range of Allied artillery. A series of Allied attacks on the Western Front had penetrated the German front line but failed to get past the second.

In the aftermath of the earlier failures at Ypres, Plumer suggested an alternative plan – his “bite and hold” strategy. This was designed to use the German plan against them. The British would pick a small part of the front line, hit it with a heavy bombardment and then attack in strength. The advancing troops would stop once they had penetrated 1,500 yards into the German lines. At this point they would have overrun the German front line and perhaps some of the strong points behind the lines. The attacking troops would then stop and dig in. When the German counterattack was launched, instead of finding a mass of exhausted and disorganised men at the limit of the Allied advance, they would find a well organised defensive line. Plumer was given permission to try his new plan, and three weeks to prepare. His men received detailed training. The battle began with a creeping barrage 1,000 yards deep, which protected the attacking infantry. The British attacked with four divisions – from north to south the 2nd Australian, 1st Australian, 23rd and 41st Divisions. The attack was a great success. The majority of Plumer’s objectives were captured on the first day of the attack, only the 41st Division needed to follow up on the following day. German counterattacks were repulsed the first and second days of the attack.

On 12 November 1917 the battalion moved to Italy, arriving at Mantua, to strengthen the Italian resistance. In March 1918 they returned to France and once again engaged in various actions on the Western Front.

They were immediately in action in the Battle of St Quentin (21-23 March 1918) and the First Battle of Bapaume (24-25 March 1918), both were phases of the First Battles of the Somme 1918.

The Battle of St Quentin began the German's Spring Offensive on 21 March 1918. It was launched from the Hindenburg Line, in the vicinity of Saint-Quentin, France. Its goal was to break through the Allied lines and advance in a north-westerly direction to seize the Channel ports, which supplied the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and to drive the BEF into the sea. Two days later General Ludendorff, the Chief of the German General Staff, changed his plan and pushed for an offensive due west, along the whole of the British front north of the River Somme. This was designed to separate the French and British Armies and crush the British forces by pushing them into the sea. The offensive ended at Villers-Bretonneux, to the east of the Allied communications centre at Amiens, where the Allies managed to halt the German advance; the German Armies had suffered many casualties and were unable to maintain supplies to the advancing troops. Much of the ground fought over was the wilderness left by the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The action was therefore officially named by the British Battles Nomenclature Committee as The First Battles of the Somme, 1918.

The following day the battalion was involved in the First Battle of Bapaume. In the late evening of 24 March, after enduring unceasing shelling, Bapaume was evacuated and then occupied by German forces on the following day. After three days the infantry was exhausted and the advance bogged down, as it became increasingly difficult to move artillery and supplies over the Somme battlefield of 1916 and the wasteland of the 1917 German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. On 25th the troops were ordered to withdraw and reorganise.

For much of the rest of 1918 the 15th Battalion were engaged in no major battles, but settled into the grueling daily life of trench warfare. On 4 September (some sources say 6 September) 1918, Bert Ostler was killed in action. He was just 19 years old.

The Western Gazette, in its edition of 27 September 1918, recorded "Information has been received that Private HP Ostler, - Hants Regiment, and formerly a clerk employed in the publishing department of the Western Gazette has made the supreme sacrifice on the battlefields of France. The following is an extract for a letter received from a comrade by his parents:- “It is with deepest sorrow that I have to inform you of your lad’s sad death, which occurred on the morning of September 6th. I found him lying on the battlefield where he had just died in action, fighting bravely for home and country. I trust you will not grieve too much, for he knew no suffering.” Private Bert Ostler joined up in April 1917, and had been in France six months. He was just 19 years of age, and when at home was a member of Yeovil Boys’ Brigade. His many friends have heard the news with deep regret. The parents and family (3 Harfield Terrace, South Street) desire to thank the numerous friends who have kindly expressed to them their sincere sympathy in their bereavement. Mr and Mrs Ostler have two other older sons serving in the Army - one in Palestine in the Royal Engineers, and another in India with the Somerset Light Infantry."

Bert was interred in Voormezeele Enclosure No. 3, West Vlaanderen, Belgium - Grave XVI.J.6., and his name is inscribed on the War Memorial in the Borough.

 

gallery

 

Captured German trenches on the Messines Ridge. June 1917.

 

A destroyed German observation post at Messines, June 1917. Note the British officer with an enemy map board.

 

Scenes of death and destruction - Pilkem Ridge, July 1917.

 

British wounded being tended during the Battle of Pilkem Ridge.

 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of Bert Ostler.

 

Bert Ostler's CWGC headstone in Voormezeele Enclosure No 3, West Vlaanderen, Belgium.

 

Voormezeele Enclosure No 3, West Vlaanderen, Belgium.

The Voormizeele Enclosures (at one time there were a total of four, but now reduced to three) were originally regimental groups of graves, begun very early in the First World War and gradually increased until the village and the cemeteries were captured by the Germans after very heavy fighting on 29 April 1918. Voormezeele Enclosure No.3, the largest of these burial grounds, was begun by the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in February 1915. Their graves are in Plot III, the other Plots from I to IX are the work of other units, or pairs of units, and include a few graves of October 1918. Plots X and XII are of a more general character. Plots XIII to XVI (where Bert is interred) were made after the Armistice when graves were brought in from isolated sites and smaller cemeteries to replace the French graves (of April and September 1918) that were removed to a French cemetery. These concentrated graves cover the months from January 1915 to October 1918, and they include those of many men of the 15th Hampshires and other units who recaptured this ground early in September 1918. There are now 1,611 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in Voormezeele Enclosure No.3. 609 of the burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to 15 casualties known or believed to be buried among them. The cemetery was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.