yeovil at War

Albert Edward 'Bert'  helyar

Killed in action on the Somme battlefield


Albert Edward Helyar was born in the spring of 1886 in Yeovil, the son of glove cutter James Helyar (1854-1932) and Caroline née Hicks (1858-1912). From a later list of Yeovil volunteers listing him as B Helyar it is almost certain that he was known as Bert. In the 1891 census James and Caroline were living at 8 Park Street with their children; Henry born 1880, James born 1882, Frederick born 1885, Albert born 1886, Emily born 1889 and Beatrice born 1891. By the time of the 1901 census James and Caroline were living at 29 South Street with their family, by this time enlarged with the addition of Bertie born 1894, Maud born 1897 and Percy born 1900. 15-year-old Albert worked in a grocery. By the time of the 1911 census the family had moved yet again and were now living at 4 Vicarage Street. Albert gave his occupation as general labourer. Albert's mother died in 1912 and his father then moved his family to 25 Great Western Terrace.

It is not known when Bert enlisted, but it is likely to have been at the outbreak of war judging by his Service No 9815 and the fact that he is on a list of Yeovil recruits dated 1 December 1914.  He enlisted in the 1st Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry and his address at that time was given as Great Western Terrace. The list of Yeovil recruits mentioned above also noted that he had been wounded by 1 December.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 the 1st Battalion was in Colchester, with 11th Brigade, 4th Division. The Battalion landed at Le Havre, France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on 22 August 1914, but whether or not Bert went with them at this time is unknown but he is most likely to have been in France by the opening of 1915.

In 1915 the 1st Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry fought in the Second Battle of Ypres.

The Second Battle of Ypres, 22 April-25 May 1915, was a rare German offensive on the Western Front during 1915. It was launched with two aims in mind. The first was to distract attention from the movement of German troops to the eastern front in preparation for the campaign that would lead to the victory of Gorlice-Tarnow. The second was to assess the impact of poisoned gas on the western front. Gas had already been used on the eastern front, at Bolimov (3 January 1915), but the tear gas used there had frozen in the extreme cold. At Ypres the Germans used the first lethal gas of the war, chlorine. The gas was to be released from 6,000 cylinders and would rely on the wind to blow it over the allied trenches. This method of delivery controlled the timing of the attack – the prevailing winds on the western front came from the west, so the Germans had to wait for a suitable wind from the east to launch their attack. The line around Ypres was held by French, Canadian and British troops. The attack on 22 April hit the French lines worst and, not surprisingly, the line broke under the impact of this deadly new weapon. The gas created a gap 8,000 yards long in the Allied lines north of Ypres. The success of their gas had surprised the Germans who didn’t have the reserves to quickly exploit the unexpected breakthrough, allowing enough time to plug the gap with newly arrived Canadian troops. During the battle the British, French and Canadians suffered 60,000 casualties, the Germans only 35,000.

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. Tunneling 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. Among those killed on this day was Albert 'Bert' Helyar. He was aged 30.

Albert Helyar is commemorated on Pier and Face 2A of the Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France, and his name is recorded on the War Memorial in the Borough.




The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of Albert Helyar.