The Norfolk Regiment (Service) Battalions on the Western Front
At the start of hostilities Norfolk had two regular battalions of the Norfolk Regiment serving in other parts of the world. Both went to war in 1914, the 1st Battalion going to France and the 2nd Battalion served in Mesopotamia. There was also the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, who were based at Britannia Barracks in Norwich.
Before long the Regular Army needed to be expanded and, as part of a national decision made by Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, a further three regular Norfolk battalions were raised. The 7th (Service) Battalion became part of the 35th Brigade in the 12th (Eastern) Division under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John W.V. Carroll. Next came the 8th (Service) Battalion, who joined the 53rd Brigade in the 18th (Eastern) Division initially under the command of Colonel Frederick C. Briggs, and finally the 9th (Service) Battalion, who joined the 71st Brigade in the 24th Division under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Stracey. All three were New Army battalions made up of volunteers who came from Norfolk but men from as far afield as London and the North were also sent to serve in them.
The three service battalions landed in France in 1915, the 7th Battalion landed on 30th May 1915, the 8th Battalion on 27th July 1915 and the 9th Battalion landed, 100 years ago today, on 30th August 1915. One man who would land in France at this time would be Edgar Gray, who arrived with the 7/Norfolks on 30 May 1915. Edgar would one of the very few who would serve with the 7th Battalion all through the war.
The 7/Norfolks initially served to the south of Ypres around Ploegsteert and the other two battalions found themselves on the Somme. The 8th Battalion would initially serve in trenches north of Aveluy and the 9th Battalion would serve at Montcarvel until they, along with the rest of their brigade were ordered to move to Lonely Tree Hill situated to the south of the La Bassee Canal. We will look at that story in September.
Trench warfare was not one continuous push between two armies. Life in the trenches generally meant intense periods of boredom and toil mixed with short periods of action. Battalions would often only spend four days in a row
in the front line before being relieved by another battalion from their brigade. This would provide the battalion with a chance to rest up and to recuperate.
A typical day in the front line would start at around dawn with both sides standing to, as this was when the enemy was most likely to launch an attack. The men would man the fire steps and often fired off thousands of rounds of
ammunition, which became known as the ‘Morning Hate’. This could also be mixed with artillery fire.
Once this was over, life would generally settle and then revolve around getting the men fed, with many using this time to try and relax or catch up on sleep. However, this quiet time could be rudely shattered by stray shells
and snipers. Moreover, there were always chores to be done and many would find themselves on work details, ensuring that the trenches were well kept.
As dusk fell, another stand to would be ordered and it was after this that hot food could be brought up. The rum ration was also issued at this point. Once night fell, men could move more freely and parties were often put into
no-man’s-land to repair the wire or to gather intelligence about the German lines. Occasionally, trench raids were sanctioned and parties would infi ltrate the German lines. Although the two sides often tried to maintain a ‘live and
let live’ policy, these raids were still fraught with danger and could lead to retaliation from the enemy.
The war diaries for the 3 service battalions reflect this type of life but the 7th Battalion suffered their first casualties in trenches in July. Here they were again serving in Ploegsteert Wood, known as Plugstreet Wood to the British, when on 9th July 1915 the war diary notes,
‘Two mines exploded by R. Canadians. Craters successfully occupied.’
On this day, although it is not recorded, the battalion lost Private 12826 Harry William Laxen Sharpin. Harry was 24 when he died and the son of James and Elizabeth Mary Sharpin of The Orchard at Brinton near Melton Constable. He is also listed as being a ‘Native of Sheringham.’ In total, for their first stint in the trenches, they would lose 5 men killed and 23 men wounded.
It was not long until the 8th Battalion lost their first man, Private 17060 Herbert Arthur Pretty was the son of Arthur James and Naomi Pretty of The Street in Pulham Market. He was wounded on 21st August 1915 and died of his wounds on 31st August 1915. He was 20 years old and is now laid to rest in grave I. A. 2. in Mericourt-l’Abbe Communal Cemetery Extension.
But the first major baptism of fire for these New Army Battalions would be laid at the 9th Norfolk’s doorstep in September 1915.