Swavesey and the Great War

Cyril Hepher and Walter Neal

The Half Term Holiday - Time to treat the family ! Legoland at Windsor perhaps ? How about a couple of days in Paris taking in Disneyland ?

No it’s off to the Battlefields of Europe (again) for three days walking along the old 1916 front line in the Arras/Albert area ! This rural part of Northern France may not have the glamour of the Cote d’Azur but you can eat a good five course meal with wine and get change for seven quid !

As usual my itinerary was a little ambitious but we made a good start reaching the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Terlinchun,Wimeroux within 30 minutes of leaving Calais. We were paying our respects at the graveside of Cyril George Hepher who had died at No. 8 Stationary Hospital in Boulogne on 30th November 1918.

Charles and Ann Hepher of Market Street,Swavesey had three children (all boys). Cyril was the second oldest and by the time he enlisted as a yeoman with the Suffolks his elder brother James,had already been killed along with another Swavesey man,Aaron Linford during an attack on the chemical works at Roeux on 28th April 1917. Prior to this both James and Aaron had survived the slaughter at La Boisselle on 1st July 1916 when the Cambridge Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment had lost two thirds of its strength within 30 minutes.

Cyril went to France on 29th August where he was drafted into the 7th East Yorks. This Regiment was a unit of 50th Brigade,17th Division which was involved in the significant advance which occurred in the final months of the war. The action on the 20th October 1918 in which Cyril was fatally injured was described by Conan Doyle in the following terms:-

“The 17th Division with the 7th Yorks and 6th Dorsets in the lead had been launched against Neuvilly with instructions to avoid a frontal attack,but to endeavour to get round north and south to pinch it out,while the gunners bombarded it and kept the machinegunners in their lairs. South of the village the attack advanced rapidly through the mist of a most inclement night. The first lines of machineguns were overrun and destroyed. The wave of men then fought there way through some wire,and got as far as the embankment which was thickly garnished with light machine guns”.

Two days later Cyril wrote to his mother in Swavesey from his hospital bed:-

“I got wounded on Friday morning. We made a big attack on that day,and I got hit in the thigh - not a very comfortable place. It was pouring with rain,so it was not very nice at all”

Cyril was somewhat more forthcoming in a letter he wrote to a friend in Swavesey on the same day:-

“I went over the top with a good heart. My poor old mate got put out as soon as we got on the top. There was a big barrage on,so we did not half give Gerry socks. He went back like anything. We had nothing to do,only advance. I stuck it for six hours before I got hit,and then I think we got too far forward and got into our own barrage,because I think it was one of our own shells that hit me,for it struck me in the back of the leg first. ”

Cyril’s parents must have been in a near state of anguish since it was only on the 30th august 1918 that they received word from the youngest of their three boys that he was safe in a POW camp having been captured at Fleubaix. Prior to this date they had only the knowledge that Alfred Charles (Fred) had been posted as missing :-

“I am working in a stone quarry,and am getting on alright. I have got some good old mates,including five 1914 English Old Contemptibles”

Cyril died some five weeks after being admitted to hospital,most probably of gangrene. A victim of friendly fire,his body lies overlooking the English channel some 3 miles from Boulogne at Wimeroux.

And so,our journey continued via Montreuil (where Haig’s wartime HQ had been located) down to Amiens where the war grave of Walter Neal can be found in the suburb of St Pierre. Walter died at the No. 1 New Zealand Stationary hospital on 12th September 1916 having been admitted with a fractured humorus and severe shellshock. He had served since 1914 and had most recently been involve in the fight for Falfemont farm,near Guillemont on the Somme. A non commissioned officer from the 1st Beds Regiment wrote to Walter’s parents in Swavesey :-

“Walter Neal was hit rather badly while digging out a platoon Sergeant who had been buried alive. I cannot say how much I miss him,as I was in charge of his machine gun,and he was the only man I had to leave in charge of the gun when I was called away to look after another gun in another part of the line. He was my right hand man - in trench and out. You could not find a better chap for doing his duty and doing whatever was asked of him. He was always willing to do his bit,and I must say his duty stood first with him. ”

So after an overnight stay at a B & B in Auchonvillers the next day was spent walking the little known battlefield area where the 1st Beds had fought the action in which Walter was injured. I had already established from Chris McCarthy’s book “Day by day on the Somme” that the Battalion had moved up from Trones Wood and had taken the ruins of Falfemont farm following a bombing attack along a trench leading from Wedge wood.

The village of Guillemont was flattened during the battle and the only structures which date back to 1916 are the old pillboxes and dugouts which the Germans put in place in order to protect their machinegunners from the British Artillery. The huge Guillemont road cemetery bares silent witness to the price paid by the allies in capturing this stronghold.

Trones wood is an eerie place and as I stood alone amongst the trees I could sense the drama that had occurred in this place. The main trench through the wood is still evident and within its contours one can find the entrance to dugouts some still covered with arcs of rusting metal. The trees have regrown but amongst the saplings it is easy to distinguish the shattered remnants of those which were blown apart during the summer of 1916. In an adjoining field a farmer ploughs and yet another deadly harvest is brought to the surface - metal and iron in a variety of deadly forms.

Wedge wood is long gone but by comparing an old trench map with a modern Michelin I found the site of Falfemont Farm and sure enough there is a pile of debris and clear evidence of a series of buildings.

A lovely sunny day,rolling idyllic countryside and to the untrained eye there would not be an obvious connection between this tranquil scene and the Somme battles during which 1,000,000 allied soldiers became casualties.

Our journey continued taking in a further three Swavesey war graves and further battlefield locations with a Swavesey connection. . . . . .

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