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Compiled and copyright © 2004 Andy Pay & Martin Edwards

Private, 31909, 6th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment. Died of wounds Tuesday, 24th April 1917. Age 38. Born and resident Spaldwick, enlisted Bedford. Son of Mrs. J. W. Burton; husband of Ethel Burton, of Spaldwick, Huntingdon. Buried in Aubigny Communal Cemetery Extension, Pas de Calais, France. Grave II. D. 68.


(Information gathered by Andy Pay)

The Spring Offensive (Easter is its date)
calls me. And that’s the music I await.

(from “In the Church at St Ouen” by Siegfried Sassoon)

John William Burton was born in Spaldwick on 5th May 1878 the oldest son of William and Eknma. His brothers were George Mward born 6th December 1883 and Ernest Albert born 3rd October 1886. In 1907 he married Ethel Woodham, daughter of William Thomas who was a groom, also from Spaldwick. John William and Ethel had 3 children; Leonard Reginald born 27th June 1908, Phylis born 24th January 1910 and Bernard born 25th March 1913. It is believed that they lived at Rose Cottage in Spaldwick.

By May of 1916 conscription, originally introduced in January 1916, had been extended to include married men between the ages of 18 and 41. It would seem likely that John William joined under that scheme as he was enlisted in the Bedfords in October 1916 as a private, number 31909. He underwent three months training before going to the Western Front in January 1917 to join the 6th Battalion of the Bedfords.

This 6th Battalion had formed at Bedford in August 1914 as one of Kitchener’s first 100,000. They were a part of the 112th Brigade, 37th Division which landed at Havre, France on 31st July 1915. Although originally located at Locre near Ypres it wasn’t long before they headed south for the Somme. They didn’t take any part in the opening actions of the Somme Offensive but became involved on 18th July in the attack on Pozieres Ridge were they suffered casualties. In November they were in the attack on Frankfurt and Munich trenches probably firing amongst the last volleys of the Somme Offensive when 100 Bedfords assisted the 10th East Lancs. After this they returned north this time to Neuve Chapelle, for refitting. It was here that William Burton joined them on 3rd January 1917 with the first reinforcements of the year in the form of 50 other ranks.

William’s time with the 6th Bedfords was to be short for he died on 24th April 1917. During that time his battalion saw very little action until April. Those first three months at the front saw William in and out of the trenches around Loos where the battalion received light casualties. When not in the trenches they were under training for the first British Offensive of 1917, the Battle of Arras which began on 9th April, Easter Monday, in the driving snow. (Note Sassoon’s poem at the start of this story).

After the limited gains of 1916, on the Somme, a considerable bulge was left in the front line between the River Somme in the south and Arras in the north. From this situation the Battles of Arras (April 9th 1917 to May 14th 1917) were to evolve. In simple terms a double offensive was to be launched by the Allies. Firstly from the Somme, heading northward, and secondly from Arras, southward, both toward Cambrai. If successful the front line would be straightened out, German Armies would be trapped in the bulge and the way would be open to Valenciennes and Belgium, and the wars end.

The Germans had anticipated such an offensive and they began building massive alternate defences in the Arras area. The Hindenburg Line was constructed about a mile or so behind original front line with its start point opposite Arras at Railway Triangle, going south. The original front line was lightly held and the area between it and the Hindenburg Line destroyed. This was crucial as it made movement for troops and especially artillery, tanks and mechanised transport extremely difficult at a time, during the advance, when speed was essential.

The Allied plan was modified to include a massive attack to bypass the northern end of the Hindenburg Line as well as a frontal assault to head for Monchy-le-Preux. Once again the Germans anticipated this flanking action and built another defensive line about five miles to the rear of the Hindenburg Line called the Drocourt - Qdeant Switch, pivoted at Queant. The idea was that if the Hindenburg Line fell the Germans could retire to their new defensive line. These 2 buffers were intended to prevent the Allied attack gaining the momentum it would need for a decisive drive, and in this they were very successful.

The British had to break through the Switch before German reserves could be brought up. To aid this an artillery barrage lasting 5 days and employing 3,000 guns, one every 9 yards of the front, was organized. The enemy had plenty of notice of the main attack and was ready.

I reproduce a copy of the 6th Bedfords War Diary for the whole of the month of April 1917. It is typical of the diaries for any battalion during the war. It uses terse, straightforward statements with no frills or embellishment (see next pages).

William Burton saw extremely little action in his short time at the front. He died of pneumonia on the 24th April 1917 whilst in a rear dressing station recovering from severe wounds received during action at Arrqs. The 6th Bedfords only fought in one action before that date and that was on the 10th April. It is most likely that William received his wounds in this his first action. Such was the case for many soldiers. William did not survive his wounds. April of 1917 saw severely cold weather and it was not unusual for men weakened by their wounds to suffer secondary illnesses, like pneumonia, which prevented their recovery under already difficult circumstances.

The attack on the 10th April was a part of the second days fighting. The 37th Division, including the 6th Bedfords, were held in reserve at Arras on the 9th April. On the 10th they advanced through the forward lines which Vfl Corp had taken the previous day. This they did with success, taking La Folie Fènne (Farm) and La Bergere before entrenching. But it was at a high cost. The diary tells its own story; little knowing they had made the biggest advance, (over a mile), for that day along the whole line of attack.

As can be seen from the diary whilst William was fighting his own personal battle, against his wounds and pneumonia, his battalion continued to take a full part in the Battles of Arras. They were in action during the period 23rd/24th April and finally on 28th April, suffering many casualties.

Relief did not come immediately for the 6th Bedfords for the Offensive did not peter out until mid May 1917. In June they moved from this sector northward to Locre their first location on arrival in France in August 1915. Like many troops from the Mas battles by going north they had jumped from the pan into the fire. The Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) was to begin on July 31st. It was to cost the REF a quarter of a million casualties in three months of fighting, amongst them many of the 6th Bedfords.

William Burton was beyond all that suffering being laid to rest near to where he had died in the hospital. He is now buried in Aubigny Communal Cemetry Extension in Aubigny-en-Artois about ten miles north west of Amas. Aubigny was in the rear of the attack line during the Battles of Arras and was probably the location of a field hospital.

16 May 2004

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