The SOMME, and afterwards...
Byfield British Legion Member Jeremy Wheeler’s Father, Private Cyril John Wheeler of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, was Batman to Captain Lionel William Crouch and was with him when Captain Crouch* was killed by machine gun fire during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.
Captain Crouch with Pte. Wheeler alongside him lead his men of “B” company in a charge attacking “an important point in the enemy’s trenches” between Ovillers-la-Boisselle and Pozieres, north of the Somme, just south of Arras in northern France.
The German trench was situated about 325 yards distant from the British front assembly trench (known as Sickle Trench). Under cover of darkness, a tape had been laid by Royal Engineers about half way into “no man’s land” along which the Battalion were to form-up.
Zero hour was 0245 on 21st July. At 0215 Captain Crouch's men, and those from other batalion companies climbed over the top of Sickle Trench and quickly laid flat just behind the line of the tape. At this point enemy fire was not out of the ordinary but they seemed to be very nervous. This wasn’t altogether surprising as to date the Battle of the Somme had been in progress for three weeks with appalling loss of life.
At 0230 the Germans sent up innumerable flares indicating that they had detected our movements and were now on high alert, then red flares were launched followed by enemy machine-guns opening fire; even though our men were laying flat amongst the churned-up soil of “no man’s land” some were hit.
At 0245 a British artillery barrage began with shells dropping on the enemy trenches less than 200 yards away; assuming that bombardment would provide cover and as ordered, Captain Crouch leapt up and encouraged his men to advance. As our men rose and ran forward they were ruthlessly mown down by those constantly chattering machine guns; it seemed the tons of shells that had made such a hullaballoo exploding so close and apparently along the enemy’s trenches had had little effect. A few of our men reached their objectives but none of those targets were held and hardly any men returned.
Captain Crouch took a machine gun round and fell, and whilst trying to save his officer by dragging him into a nearby shell hole, Pte. Wheeler was also hit. Unfortunately during this rescue attempt Captain Crouch received another bullet wound, which this time proved fatal.
Pte. Wheeler survived but the attack had failed completely, with great loss of life and no ground gained.
Private Wheeler subsequently wrote to Captain Crouch’s family, as follows:
“ ON ACTIVE SERVICE WITH THE BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE July 28 1916
DEAR MR. AND MRS. CROUCH,
Sorry I have been unable to write before expressing my deepest sympathy to you through the death of your son, Captain Lionel, who was killed on Friday morning (July 21). I can assure you he died bravely. He was leading and cheering his men on when he was hit with a bullet. I was dragging him back to a shell-hole when I was hit in the muscle of the right arm.
I still tried to get him back, but could not do much with one arm, when he was shot again, this time through the stomach, and he died in about ten minutes.
I laid with him until his death, and then took his maps and personal property he had on him, which I will send on in the course of a few days.
He will be very much missed by all ranks. Once again offering you my deepest sympathy in your sad bereavement,
No.503 PTE. C. J. WHEELER. ”
The letter above is reproduced here with Mr. Jeremy Wheeler’s permission and is an extract from:
“DUTY AND SERVICE” (LETTERS FROM THE FRONT)
FROM CAPTAIN LIONEL WILLIAM CROUCH
Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry
From August 4, 1914, the date of mobilisation, to July 21, 1916, when he was killed in action leading his Company in an attack on the enemy trenches in the Battle of the Somme.
Passed by the Official Censor (Press Bureau)
PRINTED FOR PRIVATE CIRCULATION in 1917
and now available on the ‘Web through accessing the following link:
The image below is of repatriated survivors of "B" Company, in Cheltenham where they were recuperating. It is reproduced here by kind permission of Jeremy's daughter Sarah; her Grandfather Cyril is the soldier seated on the right.
BUT that’s not the end of this story…
After a spell in hospital Cyril Wheeler re-enlisted and was promoted Lance Corporal. He returned to the Front and was wounded again, at Ypres, on 22nd August 1917; he was then stranded in “no-man’s land”. He was eventually picked-up by the Germans and ended the war in Germany as a Prisoner Of War (POW); after periods in camps, eventually he was sent to work on a farm near Hannover.
When Violet Lillian Watson as she was then, heard that her boyfriend Cyril was posted as missing in action, she immediately volunteered for the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps and went out to France with them. She worked in the main Army Records Office in Rouen, where she eventually established that he was listed as a prisoner of war.
In the picture on the right you can see Lillian (as she was usually known) in her WAAC uniform.
Whilst in Rouen in 1918, Lillien, who enjoyed the theatre, joined a Concert Party and took part in shows entertaining the troops. In the image below, again provided by Jeremy's daughter Sarah, Jeremy's mother Lillian is the second lady from the left in the front row of this concert party group, taken in Rouen in 1918.
Lillien and Cyril were eventually reunited and married soon after in St Mary's Church, Aylesbury, on Maundy Thursday 1919, they were together for sixty two more years; Jeremy and his siblings were the result of that union.
*Jeremy’s eldest brother Major Lionel J. Wheeler, DFC, MBE RA , was named after Captain Lionel Crouch. Major Wheeler, who died in Italy in 1997, was a distinguished Air Observation Post pilot who flew Auster spotter aircraft during the Italian campaign in 1944, and later in Korea and Malaya.
There now follows an account by Cyril Wheeler of his time as a POW of the Germans in 1917-18.
" MY TREATMENT IN GERMANY
By Lance-Corporal Cyril John Wheeler – Bucks Battalion
On August 22nd 1917 we made one of the many attacks in front of Ypres, and, as usual up to that time, it ended in failure.
In this attack I was wounded, and was eventually taken a prisoner. Lying ‘doggo’ in my shell-hole, I expected the Division to make another attack and so give me an opportunity of getting back to my lines, but the G.O.C. thought better of it, and my visions of hospital in dear old Blighty gradually faded away.
Just before daybreak on the 24th I began to feel terribly thirsty, and as two Germans were passing by my shell-hole, I asked for a drink of water. ‘Oh! Englander!’ one of them exclaimed in surprise. He came to me and speaking in perfect English, said he was ‘sorry he had no water with him but was I a Teetotaller?’ - ‘No,’ said I. ‘Here, take a drink of this whisky’, and he handed me his flask. I did not drink too deeply, but he told me to have some more which I was only too pleased to do.
He then sat on the shell-hole asking me various questions and then I noticed he was an officer. He told the usual talk about how sorry he was that England came into this war; he thought England was a fine country, having lived in London for fourteen years, and that his father kept a business in Oxford Street.
Leaving me to go on his rounds before it got too light (I guessed he was visiting the posts), he told me to look for him on his return when he would have me carried in. I saw him as he came back and he sent two men with a stretcher to take me to the blockhouse. On my arrival there, he was waiting with a hot cup of coffee with a stiffish drop of whisky in it for me to drink. I thanked him and soon dropped off. But I could not sleep long, and whilst I lay there I saw two Germans killed by our shell-fire. Their bodies were hardly cold before they were dumped in a shell-hole close by and covered over with earth.
Not so much as a stick or bottle with their names inside to mark where two of their countrymen had been buried. I asked the officer if they usually buried their dead in a like manner, but he did not wish to say much on the subject, and excused himself by remarking that ‘We have not time for ceremony…’
They offered me food but I could not eat. Towards evening he told me he was being relieved at dusk and would have me ‘got away’ before they came, otherwise I might stay there and ‘no-one trouble about me’. You may guess I was very thankful to him.
I was carried something like 3 or 4 miles over ground which had been terribly churned up by our guns, and had got about halfway when our guns opened up again and my bearers dropped me and bolted for cover, returning when things had subdued somewhat, and finished the journey. I’m certain I turned the air black with ‘language’ when they dumped me.
The officer came to see me at the Dressing Station and again tried to get me to eat. But I couldn’t fancy anything – drink was what I continually wanted, but the M.O. wouldn’t allow much. Wishing me the best of luck – the officer then bade me ‘Au Revoir’.
I was taken to a hospital in Belgium, where I stayed for about four days. I well remember the German orderly saying to me the day before I left, ‘Morgen to Deutschland’. ‘Deutschland’, I thought, ‘why, that’s Holland!’ I fancied my chances in a neutral country, but soon discovered my mistake. Deutschland was Germany…
I was then sent by hospital train to Dortmund in Westphalia, supposed to be the finest hospital in Germany, and accommodating 2000 bed patients. This journey took 2 days. Once again my luck stuck to me as my ward doctor was a French civilian captured in Alsace Lorraine. He used to smile at my name. ‘Wheeler,’ he would say. ‘That’s what you English call a carriage or a ‘four-wheeler’, yes? No?’ I often used to smile at him. When he was uncertain of something he was asking you, he usually said ‘Is that ‘yes’ or ‘no’?’
Here I received good treatment, such as they had to give you, mostly water and rag and not too much of the latter. I left hospital for Dulmen Lager on the 15th November and was there three weeks doing odd jobs. Thanks to the Red cross, one was able to live fairly well as they supplied "Emergency Parckets" to newly captured prisoners, one packet lasting ten days. Though if they had a large batch of new prisoners come in and insufficient packets were available, two men shared one for ten days until they were able to get some more along.
I was then put on Commando at Nordeney, an island close to Heligoland. With me were 124 English, 4 French and 10 Portuguese. We were two days in the train travelling there and finished the journey on the boat which carried passengers to and fro from the mainland.
On our arrival at the barracks, dinner was served: Macaroni and potatoes, and everybody were thinking we had struck oil. But that was the one and only time we saw macaroni.
On the following day, we were taken to work which was to build a wall to stop the sea from washing away the island, which it was gradually doing. I am afraid, however, the wall will not stand many years, as in my estimation it was ‘jerry’ built, the mixture being six parts sand, one cement and one gravel. The cement was in barrels labelled ‘Portland Cement’, and probably came through Holland.
There were three to four hundred German convalescent soldiers working with us and I mentally compared the difference between our convalescent hospitals in Blighty, all nice and snug¹ with plenty of amusements, to this wretched way of treating soldiers who had been fighting for their country.
Whilst here, we suffered terribly from hunger for three months as no packets came along and our daily meals consisted of ‘coffee’ for breakfast, soup (about 1 pint) for dinner and one slice (or one tenth of a loaf) of bread and coffee for tea.
The soups were various, vis: - Black Pig Peas and Potatoes; Beans and Potatoes; Barley and Potatoes; Sauerkraut and Potatoes. Sauerkraut is a pickled cabbage which is stored in barrels for some time, and in most cases as soon as an Englishman eats it, he’s sick. This we generally had served to us twice a week, so on these days we contented ourselves with bread only – one slice.
Occasionally they gave us Mussels and Potatoes. Sometimes this was passable, at other times the mussels were so strong that they burst the barrels they came in.
One day, we all refused to work, and an officer was sent for. The sentries cleared us from the barracks and we had to line up in front of him. He enquired as to what all the trouble was about and the interpreter told him it was owing to insufficient food, and no packets coming along. He said he would ‘shoot any man who refused to work’ and gave us two minutes to consider this. He then called out ‘Every man who still refuses to work, one pace forward!’ Everyone in the line took one pace forward, and then the music started… I thought he had suddenly gone mad. How he raved and swore, paced up and down, and shouted! I’ve never heard his equal. We christened him ‘Fireworks Bill’ or ‘The man with the Iron Voice’.
On cooling down, he asked for volunteers to work the morning shift and promised they should have an extra soup at night instead of coffee. To a hungry man, food is uppermost in his thoughts, and the topic of the day was the ‘extra soup’ and what it would consist of. We found out later - 12lbs of bone-meal stirred into a copper of boiling water and shared between about 140 men. Some soup!3
After a bit, packets began to arrive. A German General came and inspected the barracks, and complaint was made by our interpreter that no packets had reached us up to that time. He thereupon telephoned to the Lager where the packets came from, and enquired why they had not been dispatched. He found they had been sent to another
island but he had them re-forwarded to us, and as you can guess, we were all smiles. We could then laugh at the sentries with their black bread and margarine, whilst we pulled out a good cut of white bread with about ½lb of bully! (Kids, that's "Bully Beef", corned beef in a tin).
One morning an order arrived that the English were to return to Soltau camp and when there, I was asked what I was by trade. I told them ‘a farm labourer’² (he wasn’t Ed.) and so got drafted to a farm in Hanover. Here one had not much to grumble at. For our own ends we ‘greased’ the sentry occasionally with a bit of soap or dripping and had the run of the whole village.
Everybody I met in this district thought a lot of an Englishman. ‘He is always fine and clean’, they would tell you. I wonder they didn’t take a pattern from us, as their ways and habits were so filthy. I don’t believe there were four persons in the whole village that had an atom of decency.
I knew everything that was going on, as the farmers would tell you what the papers said, and apart from that, the first place a German soldier who was home on leave would come to, was the prisoners’ barracks, and tell us how Germany was a beaten nation! I could just imagine a ‘Tommy’ on leave spending his evenings with the German prisoners, and telling them how England was about beaten.
Working on a farm, one gained a lot of privileges, one of the chief being that you didn’t have a sentry standing over you with loaded rifle whilst working. When you left the barracks in the morning, you strolled leisurely to the farm and the farmer was solely responsible for you. Often your work would be a couple of miles from the house, and you would go unattended, returning at dinner time. On these trips I used to bag a rabbit of two or even a hare, by placing snares here and there. Occasionally we pulled a chicken’s neck and cooked it in the barracks on Sunday when the sentry was in the canteen playing cards.
Smith, of the Royal North Lancashires, worked on a farm where they grew a little wheat (very few grew wheat here) and often ‘pinched’ some flour for us to make a pudding. We always had something in the nature of raisins, dates or jam in the barracks to go with it. The one thing lacking was a bit of suet, but plenty of dripping made up for it.
Eggs, we never brought to the barracks as the sentry knew full well we never had those in the packets, and would have ‘rumbled’ if he had caught us cooking them, so we kept up our strength by sucking them every time we had the opportunity of looking in the nests!
We went blackberrying one day, and I struck a bargain with my farmer for some sugar in exchange for dripping, and made some blackberry and apple jam. I must say it was jolly good as the fellows were not content with it on bread or biscuits, but would keep sampling it with a spoon.
Very few people at home realise what splendid work the British Red Cross has done. Every British prisoner received six parcels of provisions and another six parcels of white bread per month. In summer, when bread was likely to go bad, biscuits were sent in lieu of bread. There was no distinction made between the millionaire and the street loafer, every man had the same number and no man was able to obtain more.
One parcel every three months was allowed to be sent from your parents, and this was called a ‘personal parcel’. Even to this the BRC attached a list of what the parcel could contain when granting permission to send same. No food was allowed to be sent in this parcel; it generally contained useful articles such as safety razor, shaving-soap, socks, toothbrush, housewife (kids – that’s a cloth or canvas roll containing needles, thread etc.), health-salts (laxative), 1/2lb of chocolates and various odds and ends useful in a prisoner’s toilet.
Housewife - rolled and opened.
Here I must once again thank the firm, for the many times they subscribed to my parcels. I can assure you all that had it not been for the hard work of the BRC, very few British prisoners would have returned to the land of their birth.
Taking all things round, I did not fare too badly. One thing is certain though. I shall never take a trip to ‘Deutschland’ for a holiday, as I’ve seen enough of that country to last me until my toes turn up. Their national sport is ‘Arbeit’, or work, and I’ve never seen anybody work like them before.
I’m referring to the villages as I do not know if they are the same in the towns, but really, to live as they do, why, I’d sooner be dead! I don’t mind a good day’s work, but I don’t mean to catch their complaint.
I’ve worked 15 hours a day (for 3d a day - kids, that’s equivalent to 2.5 pence) and then when I started in the morning, they had all been at work for about an hour, and they kept on after I had gone to barracks at night. I can quite understand our importing from Germany cheaper than we can make at home. They can live on what an Englishman throws away.
I thanked God from the bottom of my heart as I stepped over the border into Holland, a free man again after close on 17 months in captivity. "
¹ Cyril had first hand experience of the British way of treating convalescent soldiers, having been wounded himself on the Somme earlier in the war and sent home for three months prior to re-enlisting and returning to the Front. Ed.
² ‘He was a printer!’ (note in margin of original typescript in the hand of his wife L V Watson.)
3 The deprivations that were so obviously apparent in Germany in 1917/18 are more evidence that the naval blockade by the Royal Navy had a profound effect on the German nation. So the Battle of Jutland was more than a score draw.
After the War Cyril did become a farmer, at Manor Farm Water Stratford and later at Blackpit Farm and then at Woodlands Farm at Stowe near Buckingham where the family still have the land and woods between Stowe School and the Silverstone Racing Circuit. Jeremy says “Father was a very gregarious man, who worked hard and played hard, lived to the ripe old age of 93 and carried shrapnel remnants in his body all his life”.
The Wheeler family followed in Cyril’s footsteps with his daughter Josephine Wheeler (married name Edrich), who is still with us and lives at Stowe Ridings, also serving in the WRNS during WW2 at Bletchley Park. Later she was posted to Ceylon and servid in Lord Louis Mountbatten’s HQ in Colombo. Cyril's youngest son Jeremy did his National Service in the Army during 1956/7 and learned Russian in Scotland and was then trained at GCHQ, Cheltenham; he was subsequentlyr based at RAF Gatow in Berlin putting his new found skills to good use in the old “cold war”. But the family's military connections didn’t end there, two of Jeremy’s sisters-in-law, Nancy Pebody and Doreen Scrafton, sadly now both deceased, were also at Bletchley Park during WW2.
All the above is reprinted here by kind permission of Jeremy Wheeler of Byfield, 7th June 2016.
Further acknowledgement: For more on the battle see: http://www.lightbobs.com/1916-11st-bucks-somme-july-1916.html