Somme hero: 17410 Private Horace George Angier
Horace George Angier was born on 23 October 1894 at 12 Vansittart Street, Deptford, south-east London. He was the third son of Frederick William and Keziah Jane Angier. His elder brothers were twins, William Barnard and Frederick William; however, in January 1894 Frederick sadly died of bronchial pneumonia when he was just 11 months old. Young Horace, who was probably conceived as a direct consequence of his older brother dying, was affectionately known as ‘Holly’ by his parents and family (and as such he will be known as Holly throughout this rendition of his life).
His parents were to have three more children after Holly: a brother, Edwin, who was to fight in the Second World War with the Royal Engineers, and two sisters, Norah and Eleanor. Holly’s upbringing was comfortable but not privileged. His parents obviously took considerable care to educate their boys about the perils facing working-class children growing up in the East End at that time. He was schooled at Wellfield Infant School in Wellfield Road and then Sunnyhill Road School. At the age of 6 he was enrolled in the Band of Hope. This was not a Sunday school (although he did attend one of those too, along with his brother), but a temperance organisation for working-class children, teaching them (among other things) about the evils of drink. They would meet once a week to listen to lectures on the Christian faith and other subjects and participate in various activities, including summer trips to the coast via train.
Holly wasn’t a scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but he was a smart kid and a hard worker and held down several jobs in the immediate run-up to the outbreak of war, one of which was a job as a kitchen porter in a local hospital; the hours were long and the pay wasn’t great, but it was a job. The Angier family had a strong military heritage: his father had served in the 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders during the Boer War; his Uncle William had served in the Durham Light Infantry in Egypt and his cousin William (whose story is also in this book, see chapter 5) was already serving in the 13th Hussars and was currently stationed in India. With this kind of family heritage it is a little surprising that Holly didn’t enlist immediately after leaving school. However, when it all kicked off in the summer of 1914 it seemed that every available spare inch of London was plastered with the face of Lord Kitchener telling every young male that ‘Your Country Needs You’. Holly was swept up on the wave of patriotism and suddenly found himself right at the front of the queue to sign up.
He enlisted in Lambeth at the age of 20 with the 2nd Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment. He was given the rank of private and the regimental number 17410. The rest of 1914, and indeed the majority of 1915, was spent on the south coast in training. While he was undergoing this training his comrades in the 2nd Battalion Royal Berkshires were getting well and truly stuck in on the Western Front, where they 45 17410 Private Horace George Angier were involved in some significant fighting and, if we are being honest, taking a mauling. At Neuve Chapelle, between 10 and 14 March 1915 they lost fifteen officers and 315 other ranks were killed, missing and wounded. A few months later, on 25 September 1915, during the first phase of the Battle of Loos, they suffered 403 casualties. They were pulled out of the line straight after this latest beating to rest up and refit. It was in this period of recuperation that Holly joined his regiment in the field where they were in billets at Bac St Maur. On arrival he was placed in A Company.
The final weeks of 1915 were spent in reserve, engaged in intensive training and manoeuvres. In early 1916 there were rumours spreading all over the regiment that they were soon to be moved on and shipped out to the Middle East, either Egypt or Salonika. For Holly and his mates this was good news as at least they would be warm and dry – winter in France was very miserable indeed. Sadly, the rumours did not come to fruition and the battalion marched back to the Lys sector to take over the front-line trenches at Fleurbaix. Such is the work of fate – if the battalion had moved to the Middle East, it is very possible that Holly and a large number of his comrades would have survived the war. Unfortunately for them and their families, fate was not smiling on them.
Unbeknown to Holly, at about this time he was only a few miles away from his brother William, who was currently serving in the 13th Hussars and had also heard rumours that they would be shipped out to the Middle East. This time the rumours were true and William and the rest of the 13th Hussars left France on 28 June, bound for Basra to take on the Turks.
Back on the Western Front, the first few months of 1916 were miserable for Holly as he spent most of them manning the trenches at Fleurbaix, standing knee-deep in thick mud. Day after day the miserable winter dragged on, the guns kept firing and people died. Every day there were casualties from snipers, shell bursts, sickness and wounds that had gone septic – the commanding officers called it ‘natural wastage’, but for the man in the trenches these were their friends and colleagues being ‘wasted’ at an alarming rate. During these months, Holly at least found time to write home:
My Dear Mother I am writing these few lines straight to you, hoping you are getting on alright & in the best of health as I am myself. We are having just as much wind as you, it is very strong indeed. Dear ma, will you send me out some ‘Bachelor Buttons’ I must really have some. I am always sewing buttons on & I have got tired of it so I’ve made up my mind not to sew any more on until I got some of those other sort. Don’t forget will you. Well, ma I got your papers alright, and I had a letter from Mary and one from Harry. I should like to be home and hear your new records. Finis. (The post has just come in) It brings me a nice parcel of fruit & sweets and writing paper from Mary. Jolly good of her isn’t it. Also a letter from Baggors in Hospital at Manchester, I don’t know if you can remember him or not. He has been wounded twice out here. And a returned letter of mine. I sent it to a chap who used to work with me at the Hospital, he is in the East Surreys. I expect he has been wounded or something, because it has got on the letter Hospital & it can’t find him. Well, ma, I hope you are all well, & Dad too, sorry he spoilt his Xmas dinner. Has Dad got over his indigestion now, I hope so. Let me know if you get the silk card safe. I sent it to you last week, I happened to strike lucky and got one. I think my debt is finished up now. Don’t forget the ‘Bachelor Buttons’. I am now wearing my braces until they come. I will close now, give the children a kiss for me, & my best love to all from your Loving Son Holly.
This letter was sent on 7 January 1916 while he was in billets near Serous. The ‘bachelor buttons’ are buttons that have a metal loop on the back which is pushed through the material and secured by a metal clip or stud. These were favourites of soldiers in the trenches to save them the hassle of continually sewing buttons on to their uniform.
By the spring of 1916, preparations all along the front line were well underway for the ‘big push’. Holly and his battalion were repositioned to the south, and during May they took up their new position in the line near La Boisselle. Thankfully for everyone, the general conditions in this sector were much better than what they had been enduring. The trenches were dry and, being dug from chalk, they had much improved drainage which meant they could be kept in good condition. With spring coming and the temperatures rising the general mood of the soldiers improved drastically as they put in some extra training to get themselves ready for the big offensive, which was pencilled in for late summer.
During his service with the 2nd Battalion Royal Berkshires Holly became one of the battalion runners. The job of a runner was to deliver messages back and forth between the individual companies at the front line and their relevant command posts. It was one of the most dangerous jobs of the war as it often meant leaving the relative safety of the trench system to become exposed to enemy fire over prolonged periods of time.
There is no personal account from Holly as to what he went through as a runner with the 2nd Berkshires. However, this account, taken from an interview with 1713 Private F. Lewis of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, gives us some idea as to the challenges of a battalion runner in the run-up to the Battle of the Somme:
… the night before the Battle of the Somme … It was absolute chaos. I’ve never known anything like it. I was there with the Colonel, sitting right by him ready to take messages to the different officers. The Front line was absolutely packed – shoulder to shoulder – thousands of troops. All in the communications trenches, the forming up trenches – they was all packed. And I’d got to work my way through all them to take these messages. And the shells and guns was going and Very lights going up – you never seen anything like it. All night long – you couldn’t hear yourself speak. I never witnessed anything in all my life like it. There must have been thousands of guns going. The atmosphere was electric. It was like as though there was a prairie fire or something – pushing and shoving. Fresh troops coming up and going. Well, I had to struggle through the whole lot.
During the days prior to the offensive, Holly and the rest of his battalion camped in Long Valley near Albert, before moving up to the front lines on 29 June. In the trenches the Royal Berkshires faced the village of Ovillers; it was here that the opposing trenches of the British and German lines were at their closest. When the whistles finally blew, the Berkshires would not have far to go to jump on the Germans. They were supported on their left by the 2nd Lincolnshire Regiment, and on their right by the 2nd Devonshire Regiment. The plan was for the 2nd Royal Berkshires and the 2nd Lincolnshires to head up the first wave of the advance. But Holly wouldn’t be going over the top at zero hour. He would stay in the trench and wait to be called forward to deliver a message to somewhere on the battlefield.
For eight days prior to zero (planned for 1 July) the British threw every kind of shell over to the German defences. The plan was to smash the wire, smash the defences, smash the supply lines and smash the will out of the German Army. However, a mixture of poor quality ammunition and world-class underground German defences resulted in failure. The wire was not cut, German morale had not been broken, defences were still intact and when the infantry went over at 7.30 a.m. on 1 July, the German machine-gunners and artillery were ready and waiting. The result is succinctly described by the war diary entry of the 2nd Royal Berkshire Regiment for that day:
Our own wire was not sufficiently cut and parties were immediately sent out by Companies to clear it. At 6.25am the intense bombardment began as scheduled. At about 7.15am the enemy opened rifle and machine gun fire on our line; this fire was probably drawn by the 2nd Devon Regt which at about this time attempted to line up in front of their parapet. At 7.20am Companies began filing down trenches and getting ready for the assault. At 7.30am the three assaulting companies advanced to attack the German line. They were met by intense rifle and machine gun fire which prevented any of the waves reaching the enemy lines, A little group on the left of the Battalion succeeded in getting in, but were eventually bombed out.
The commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Holdsworth, and his second-in-command, Major Sawyer, were both wounded at 7.45 a.m. This resulted in command going to the 20-yearold Second Lieutenant Mollett who, as acting adjutant, was the most senior remaining officer. With the company commanders somewhere out in no-man’s-land, either dead, wounded or pinned down by enemy fire, young Mollett had suddenly inherited the command of a battalion that was on the receiving end of an absolute beating. It was not looking good; he had only 100 or so men, he had no idea what was happening across his own front, and with what seemed like the entire British front line being enfiladed, he thought better of raising his head over the parapet to take it all in himself. He had received no reports from his neighbouring battalion. He and the remnants of his regiment had no choice but to stay put and wait for orders or reinforcements.
Back in the relative safety of the British front-line trenches opposite the village of Ovillers, a call went up for a runner. Holly got the nod and he was given a message, along with strict instructions to whom he must deliver it. He was to pass the message to the brigade’s machine-gunners who were located at the ‘Glory Hole’, which was on the other end of the divisional line, facing the village of La Boisselle. The Glory Hole was so christened due to its incredibly high casualty rate. It was a piece of no-man’s-land riddled with craters and shell holes, situated at a point in the line where the British and German front-line trenches were just 45m apart. Snipers ruled this part of the line, and both sides frequently exchanged mortars and bombs. The craters practically ran from trench to trench, with both sides pushing sentry posts out into their side of the craters in an effort to guard their territory. It was not a pleasant place to be and had an evil reputation among the British Infantry, as the following description of the area from an officer of the 1st Dorset Regiment testifies:
At Millencourt I learned something of the reputation of the La Boisselle trenches. They were among the most notorious in the British lines. For a considerable distance the opposing lines were divided only by the breadth of the mine craters: the British posts lay in the lips of the craters protected by thin layers of sandbags and within bombing distance of the German posts; the approaches to the posts were shallow and waterlogged trenches far below the level of the German lines, and therefore under continuous observation and accurate fire by snipers.
Minenwerfer bombs of the heaviest type exploded day and night on these approaches with an all-shattering roar. The communication trenches were in fact worse than the posts in the mine craters to most people; there were, however, some who always felt a certain dislike of sitting for long hours of idleness on top of mines which might at any moment explode. In the craters movement of any kind in the daytime was not encouraged. The four company commanders and the colonel went up to examine the trenches and reported on them unfavourably. The colonel stated that in his long experience they were the worst trenches which he had ever seen.
In the afternoon I and a companion went forward to inspect the mine craters, which my company was to take over in the course of the night. We passed down our front-line trench towards the ruins of the cemetery through which our line ran. East of the cemetery was the heaped white chalk of several mine craters. Above them lay the shattered tree stumps and litter of brick which had once been the village of La Boisselle.
We progressed slowly down the remains of a trench and came to the craters, and the saps which ran between them. Here there was no trench, only sand-bags, one layer thick, and about two feet above the top of the all-prevailing mud. The correct posture to adopt in such circumstances is difficult to determine; we at any rate were not correct in our judgement, as we attracted the unwelcome attentions of a sniper, whose well-aimed shots experienced no difficulty in passing through the sand-bags.
We crawled away and came in time to a trench behind the cemetery, known as Gowrie Street. Liquid slime washed over and above our knees; tree trunks riven into strange shapes lay over and alongside the trench. The wintry day threw greyness over all. The shattered crosses of the cemetery lay at every angle about the torn graves, while one cross, still erect by some miracle, overlooked the craters and the ruins of La Boisselle. The trenches were alive with men, but no sign of life appeared over the surface of the ground. Even the grass was withered by the fumes of high explosive. Death indeed, was emperor here.
The trip to the Glory Hole would not be an easy one. It was over 1km away and on the way Holly would have had to navigate through the lines of the 2nd Devonshires and the 2nd Middlesex, as well as those of the Tyneside Scottish, weaving through crowded trenches, stepping over the dead and wounded bodies, and passing the stretcher-bearers and other medical staff who were treating the wounded in situ. He would have had to keep his head down too; the Germans were retaliating in a big way and the threat of snipers and artillery would have been a constant shadow throughout his journey.
It would be the artillery that would have the last laugh in this instance. An exploding German shell greeted Holly as he arrived at the Glory Hole and took his life, along with those of the machine-gun crew he was visiting. Holly was just 21 years of age.
It is not known if the message was ever delivered. Such was the confusion of the fighting at this time, that the telegram that arrived at his parents’ house a few weeks later indicated that he was missing. After follow-up enquiries from his parents a subsequent letter from the War Office, dated 26 August 1916, informed them that ‘enquiries have been made and that it is now reported from the base that he was wounded and has been missing since 1st July 1916’. They were not given confirmation of his death until they received a letter from the British Red Cross and Order of St John on 20 March 1917. This letter came with evidence of his death in the form of a statement from Private Walter J. Shipp of A Company, Royal Berkshire Regiment: ‘I know that at La Boisselle on the Somme front, when attacking, Pte Angier went over the top of the trench and was shot by a shell.’
However, there were several inaccuracies (not known by his parents at the time) that suggest Private Shipp either got his dead soldiers mixed up or was in some other way confused. The Royal Berkshires attacked against the village of Ovillers, not La Boisselle, and Holly didn’t go over the top with the rest of the battalion as he was a runner and needed to wait behind for further instructions.
A second letter, dated 6 June 1917, included another eyewitness account, from Private Hubert Hemmings, of what happened that day. It seems to tie in better with known facts and perhaps helps to clear up some of the confusion surrounding his death:
On July 1st 1916, at Albert, in the Glory Hole, Pte Angier was killed by a shell which came over and killed all the machine gun team. Pte Angier had only been there a few minutes, having been a Runner with a message to the team. I was doing sentry duty and saw it all happen and afterwards heard enquiries made for the Runner. It was in the middle of a summer morning. The 2nd Royal Berks had a terrible time from the Germans and whenthey were relieved that night, only 36 left from the trenches.
The July 1916 war diary for the 2nd Royal Berkshire Regiment lists the total number of casualties of all ranks as 434 killed, missing and wounded.
Horace George Angier is buried at Ovillers Military Cemetery.
Taken from my upcoming book ‘Heroes of WW1’ (The History Press) which is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK.