yeovil at War
Died of wounds just days before the Armistice
William Rodber was born in Odcombe around 1885, the son of sawyer William Rodber and his wife Mary Ann, a glover. Sadly William Rodber Snr died, aged 37, the year after his son's birth and Mary Rodber was left to bring up her family alone. In the 1891 census Mary and all her four daughters; Kate, Bessie, Ellen and Sarah were listed as glovers and living at Higher Odcombe. 6-year old William was listed as a scholar. By 1901 Mary and William had moved to Yeovil and were living at 83 Huish. Mary gave her occupations a Monthly Nurse, while her son William gave his as a China Dealer's Porter and was later working at the Tallow Chandler and Wholesale Grocery company of J Thompsett & Co at the Candle Factory in West Hendford, on the corner of Salthouse Lane.
In the summer of 1908 William married Nellie Rowsell of South Petherton at Yeovil. William and Nellie set up home at 26 Huish and in 1909 had a daughter Madge. In the 1911 census William gave his occupation as a 'Porter in Shop' while Nellie gave hers as a Glove Machinist. Later that year they had another daughter, Evelyn. Later still William and Nellie moved around the corner to live in Wellington Street.
In March 1917, at Yeovil, William enlisted in 'C' Company of the 1st Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry (Service No 203771) and was sent to France in June 1917 and fought almost continuously for the next year in the following battles.
The Battle of Polygon Wood, 25-27 September 1917, was part of the wider Third Battle of Ypres. It came during the second phase of the battle, in which General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army was given the lead. Plumer replaced the ambitious general assaults that had begun the battle with a series of small attacks with limited objectives – his “bite and hold” plan. These attacks involved a long artillery bombardment followed by an attack on a narrow front (2,000 yards wide at Polygon Wood). The attacks were led by lines of skirmishers, followed by small infantry groups. German strong points were to be outflanked rather than assaulted. Each advance would stop after it had moved forward 1,000-1,500 yards. Preparations were then made to fight off any German counterattack. The attack on Polygon Wood was the second of Plumer’s “bite and hold” attacks, after Menin Road. It was carried out chiefly by the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions but the 1st Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry also played a part. The target was a line just beyond Polygon Wood (a wood in name only by 1917, having lost all of its trees in earlier fighting). The site of Polygon Wood was captured on 26 September, the target line on 27 September. The attack then stopped, and Plumer prepared for the next attack. The two Australian divisions lost 5,471 men during the Battle of Polygon Wood. The three “bite and hold” attacks brought the front line to the foot of the Passchendaele Ridge, which would be come the target of the First and Second Battles of Passchendaele, and give its name to the entire battle.
The Battle of Broodseinde, 4 October 1917, was the last of three successful “bite and hold” battles launched by General Herbert Plumer during the middle phase of the Third Battle of Ypres. Both sides were planning an attack on 4 October. When the British bombardment began, it caught a number of German units out in the open preparing for their own attack. The British attack contained divisions from Britain, New Zealand and Australia. As at Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood, the British attack achieved its main objectives and then halted to dig in. Although these attacks are normally described as small scale battles, the casualty figures demonstrate the real scale of the fighting. The Germans suffered 10,000 casualties and lost 5,000 prisoners. On the Allied side the Australians suffered 6,432 casualties, the New Zealanders 892 and the British 300.
In 1918 the 1st Battalion saw action on the Somme, then returned to Flanders fighting in the Defence of Hinges Ridge during the Battle of Hazebrouck and in the Battle of Bethune, the Advance in Flanders, the Battles of the Hindenburg Line and the Final Advance in Picardy.
William fought in the Battle of the Selle (17-26 October 1918), one of the final battles of the war. After a six-day halt for preparations and artillery bombardments Fourth Army troops attacked at 5.20am on Thursday 17 October; infantry and tanks, preceded by a creeping barrage, moved forward on a ten mile wide front south of Le Cateau. The centre and left of the Fourth Army forced crossings of the river despite unexpectedly strong German resistance and much uncut barbed wire. Fighting was particularly fierce along the line of the Le Cateau – Wassigny railway. The right of the attack, across the upland watershed of the Selle, made most progress and by nightfall enemy defences had been broken and Le Cateau captured. Severe fighting continued on 18 and 19 October, by which time Fourth Army advanced over five miles, harrying the Germans back towards the Sambre-Oise Canal.
The British Third and First Armies, immediately to the north of Fourth Army, maintained the offensive pressure the following day. In a surprise joint night attack in the early morning of 20 October Third Army formations secured the high ground east of the Selle. Following a two day pause, to bring up heavy artillery, the attack was renewed on 23 October with a major combined assault by Fourth, Third and First Armies; the fighting, which continued into the next day, resulted in further advances. At this stage, the German Army was retreating at a forced but controlled pace. On 24 October, the German Army counterattacked at the Canal de la Derivation, but were repulsed and pushed back by the Belgian Army.
William Rodber was shot in the head during the battle and died in hospital from his wounds on 26 October 1918. He was aged 32.
On 8 November 1918 the Western Gazette reported "Private Wm. Rodber, Somerset LI, whose home is at Wellington Street, Huish, died at a South African General Hospital, France, on the 26th ult., from gunshot wounds in the head. The late Private Rodber joined the Army in March 1917 and was drafted to France the following June. He was home on leave about two months ago. Previous to joining the Army the deceased was employed by Messrs. J Thompsett & Co, West Hendford, and was held in high esteem by a wide circle of friends in Yeovil and district. He leaves a widow and two children." After his death Nellie and the children moved back to her home town of South Petherton.
The battlefield of Polygon Wood, 25-27 September 1917.
The battlefield of Broodseinde, 4 October 1917.
British troops rest during the Battle of the Selle, October 1918.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of William Rodber.
WAAC [Women's Army Auxiliary Corps] gardeners tending the graves of the war dead at Abbeville. The wooden crosses would later be replaced by white headstones.
Abbeville Communal Cemetery Extension, Somme, France
For much of the First World War, Abbeville was headquarters of the Commonwealth lines of communication and No.3 British Red Cross, No.5 and No.2 Stationary Hospitals were stationed there variously from October 1914 to January 1920. The communal cemetery was used for burials from November 1914 to September 1916, the earliest being made among the French military graves. The extension was begun in September 1916. Abbeville Communal Cemetery contains 774 Commonwealth burials of First World War and the Extension contains 1,754 First World War burials. The Commonwealth sections of both cemetery and extension were designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield.