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MEMORIES AND INFORMATION - SHROPSHIRE

Lt.-Col. F. H. LIDDELL, M.C.
(1st SHROPSHIRE BATTALION
, HOME GUARD)
and

THE GREAT WAR


Most men who had survived the Great War kept their experiences to themselves in later years, unwilling to discuss them even with close family and preferring to keep them deeply buried. Few left any written record.

Frank Liddell may well have been such a man. He was a survivor of that conflict and left the Army after the Armistice with the rank of Major, later donning uniform again to command the 1st Shropshire Battalion of the Home Guard. In the Great War he had enlisted as a private from his Solihull home and had served with the 15th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, one of the "Birmingham Pals" units. Even though he left no written description of his life in those years, fragments of his Great War experience survive in a scrapbook he kept in later life. One in particular leads us to a glimpse of what such men went through and how they conducted themselves in unimaginable circumstances.  This clue dates from 1933, 15 years after the end of hostilities.  It is a letter from a man named Colin Harding.



The correspondence refers to a book by Colin Harding which had recently been published, "Far Bugles", an autobiographical work which describes the author's experiences  - and especially of his time as Commanding Officer of Frank Liddell's unit, the 15th Battalion of the R.W.R.  Happily, the copy of this book which Frank had obviously requested  survives within his family to this day. A transcription of relevant pages follows: they describe a time when Frank had been commissioned and was serving as adjutant. They give a description of his bravery and loyalty (his name is highlighted) and are quoted at length in order to give an indication of the conditions and circumstances which he endured in 1916 as just one part of his war service.

Colin Harding describes how the enormous losses incurred by the British Army in 1915 led to everything possible being done to hasten up the new army which Lord Kitchener had promised.

It was in one of these battalions in the new army that I was given a command, shortly after I had said good-bye to my old Regiment, The Second King Edward's Horse.

I would like to say a few words as regards the organisation and personnel of my new battalion. In the first place nearly every officer and man hailed from the wonderful city of Birmingham, and they formed one of the many battalions which that loyal city had raised for the war. Starting their training in a well-known park near to Birmingham, the 15th Warwicks had under capable instruction made rapid strides towards efficiency by the time they arrived at Codford in the late summer of 1915, and on my arrival at Codford it was with great pleasure I found the mess full of keen, smart and well-educated officers.........

The 15th Battalion found itself on the Somme in July 1916 not long after the fateful first day of the attack which led to 60,000 casualties......

Although when my Battalion arrived to participate in the Battle of the Somme, the fighting was not so severe as it was on the first day of the attack, the scene as I shall briefly describe it was a veritable shambles.

We first took up a position close to High Wood, where we were bombarded eventide and early morn, and by way of a change deluged with "tear shells" in mid-day. So intense was the enemy's bombardment that the trenches which we were supposed to hold were smashed to smithereens and the losses of our Brigade were enormous.

Owing to the incessant artillery lire, it was almost impossible to collect or evacuate our wounded. The dying groans of a gallant lad shot through the abdomen, waiting to be removed by the intrepid and overworked stretcher-bearers is still vivid in my memory.  The cry of a horse who, with blood pouring from a fractured thigh, with harness dangling and foaming mouth, rushing mad with pain hither and thither is ever by me to be remembered. He, too, poor thing, had also done his duty and the gun which he helped to drag vomited death and destruction at close range on the enemy's lines. Such were some of the scenes which we endured during the Somme Battle of July, 1916. Yes, they are ancient history, but I quote then without hesitation lest others forget. I use the word "others" for we who endured them can never forget.

No battalion can stand this carnage more than 48 hours, hence at early dawn with bloodshot eyes and haggard mien we who are left retire to recoup a few miles from the scene of destruction.

But even away from the front line we are not immune from danger as I will show by the sad death of my groom, and a narrow escape for myself.

We had gone back about four or five miles from the front for a short rest, and although we were in trenches, we were supposed to be out of the reach of the ordinary shelling. Such being the case, I sent for my horse, which was stabled a few miles again  further back and it was brought up to me by Doyle, my groom. My charger was a very brainy mare devoted to Doyle and Doyle to the horse. In this instance he rode up his own horse and led mine, and I had hardly mounted when the enemy started sending over a casual shell or two. As my men were resting outside their trenches, as soon as the shelling commenced I rode round ordering them to take cover. Whilst so doing, a shell pitched between the horse Doyle was riding and my own; Doyle and another man were killed, also Doyle's horse. The impact threw me out of my saddle and I was dazed; clinging to my horse's neck we rushed helter-skelter until we were suddenly brought to an abrupt stoppage by a trench. Friends came to my assistance. I was shaken but not wounded. My horse was hit but not seriously, but the poor dear was sadly frightened as was its rider. God moves in a mysterious way, and why Doyle and myself did not cross to the Unknown together I shall never quite understand.

A few days rest and then again we are holding the front-line trenches, this time between High and Delville Woods, and the time is about 4:30 a.m.; and a new day will soon dawn. Since 10 p.m. we have been taking over this line from a Devonshire Battalion. The O.C.of that distinguished unit has said goodbye to me. He has not slept for many hours, and with tired eyes and shaky steps he follows what remains of his Battalion to the "support lines".

Captain Liddell
, my indefatigable Adjutant, with notebook in hand, is jotting down some Brigade Orders which we have just received, and now informs the Brigadier over the phone that we have "taken over", and also informs him that in doing so casualties have been heavy.

The Commanding Officer of the Battalion which was to hold the line on our right flank arrives, distraught and depressed. He informs me that his Battalion had been decimated on its way to the trenches which he was to have taken over, and that the remnants are not to be found. His Adjutant who accompanies him breaks down and, sitting by the dugout entrance, weeps like a child. I have known him as a strong, gallant man, and such he still is, but the ordeal of continual shelling with its horrible result has been too much for him, as it had been for better and even more tried men.

I can offer no clue as to the whereabouts of their Battalion, or what remained of it, and with a sympathetic handshake we parted; my friends proceed down the shattered trench in quest of the remnants of their lost command, and I to strengthen my newly acquired position.

Our Brigade instructions disclose the fact that, in conjunction with other battalions, we have to attack tonight.

It is now about 10 a.m. Enemy shelling has, more or less, ceased. My Adjutant and I snatch a few hours' rest and I see my Company Commanders and give them their instructions. I find them in deep dugouts which were created by the enemy. They are 20 or 30 feet deep, and we have to descend many steps to arrive at the basement; here the dugouts spread right and left, something like an inverted letter " T."

It is now evening ; the hour of the attack is approaching. Again I am walking round my lines. I see Captain Gough, whose company has to lead the attack, with his officers having a "snack" of food in their dugout. I ask and am cheerfully informed that they are all ready for the attack, and I learn that their watches had been synchronised with Brigade Headquarters. I wish them good luck and return to my headquarters.

As the time for our advance approaches, the enemy bombardment increases, and our men, although closely following a devastating "barrage" of our own guns, fail to reach their objective. More troops are sent in support, still failure. Everything is vague and, except for messages transmitted by orderlies, there is no communication with the attacking troops. The enemy bombardment continues. Our guns, not knowing the state of affairs, are more subdued. Only a few survivors of this attack returned. Later, when proceeding to the scene of action, I met amongst the many wounded a stretcher bearing my dear friend, Gough, still smoking his inevitable cigarette, bespattered with mud, pale as death but cheerful. He had been shot through the thigh and had a compound fracture. As we shake hands, Gough gives me a few heart­rending details of the loss of life and the attack, needlessly apologises for its failure and passes on. We never met again. Captain Bill, another of my gallant Company, was also wounded in this attack,

Later, another Battalion attacked the position which previously we had so fruitlessly assailed, and as I watched it from afar, I saw in broad daylight the advancing troops leave their trenches. I saw the hellish shells bursting in their midst, and men in the throes of death throwing up their hands towards heaven. In the distance the scene resembled a scattered swarm of brown ants without a leader. I saw them falter, and those who could, retreat, and as I watched, I wondered whether all this carnage was worthwhile and I still wonder.

Depressed and fearfully reduced in strength, my Battalion now proceeds to vacate its trenches, handing over the responsibility of keeping the flag flying to other equally good and valiant troops. We proceed to Villers Campsart, where, figuratively speaking, we "lick our wounds" and try to find solace in the thought that we had played the game.

Alas! the Battalion is not the same as when scarce a year ago I entrained them at Wylye Station. All my old Company Commanders had been casualties. Captain Bill and Captain Edwards, both excellent and most loyal officers, had been wounded and many of my Platoon officers not less gallant, had either been killed or wounded. But what of the men? That thought crosses my mind as I inspect the Battalion for Church Parade at Villers, for the majority of the faces I see are not those who loyally and voluntarily came forward early in 1915 to do their duty.

And what about myself through all these trying times? Candidly, the pace is beginning to tell. I still feel the effects of my lion accident many years ago. Often at night my fitful rest is disturbed by pangs, which at times I find more trying to bear than a "circus" bombardment by the enemy, and speaking of incidents which have happened more recently, the shell that bowled Doyle over and nearly outed me, has mentally left its mark. I am not getting jumpy, but at times horribly tired and sad when I think of the losses we have suffered and the little we have gained as compensation.

I am blessed with the best of Adjutants in the person of a diminutive but brainy Birmingham business man, who is as thorough in all his war Battalion duties as he was punctilious in his business career. Captain Liddell was with the Battalion at the early stages of the war, and since then consistently and diligently without fear or without favour, in sunshine and in rain, in the trenches and out, carried out his duties with a pertinacity and cheerfulness that might well be emulated, but cannot be surpassed, by any Adjutant in the British Army...............

On a Sunday at the end of August, after a period of rest, the Battalion receives instructions to move and join up with the French who are holding the line somewhere northwest of Maurepas.

To get there we had to pass Maricourt, but, alas, it could not now be recognised as the Maricourt where, more than a year ago, I rested with the King Edward's Horse. I remember that journey, alas, too well. We had to pass through a sort of tunnel where the place was simply littered with the dead. To pass through we had at times to crawl over them. At other times my foot splashed through a quagmire of putrefied remains. It was dark. To strike a match would have been fatal. I remember that Captain Davenport who was so ably leading his Company, struggling through this uncovered cemetery, was with many of his men knocked out by a shell.

I remember the resulting chaos which followed for I was just behind with my faithful Liddell. Another officer takes Davenport's place and I tell them to carry on. For the moment I do not know what happens to Davenport and the other wounded. Forward, forward is the word of command, and under the fire of a hellish bombardment, we struggle on in and out of shell holes, but now, thank goodness, in the open, to our objective where I meet an enraged British Battalion Commander from whom I have orders to take over and who has been expecting us for hours. I enquire for the trenches and the position of our flanks, but he does not know and seems to care less. Finally he disappears and leaves me to find out where my responsibility begins and ends.....

There were no dugouts. The Battalion was not even sheltering in trenches, which no longer existed, but in shell holes.

Early morning arrives and with it enemy shells. Liddell and myself (mostly Liddell) straighten things out.  We find the best shelter we can in shell holes.

That morning, Monday, August 28th, Private Sydney Silver, Harding's batman, wrote in his diary:

"We are shelled to hell. Some of the wounded look ghastly. Had some warm shaves here today. Poor old Stokey knocked out tonight among many others. Fed up a bit. Hottest shop we have had together. Things are warming up".

And, on the following day:

"Been shelled all night, and today with heavy thunderstorm with shelling worse than ever. French officer who came along says this is worse than Verdun. Fritz dropped fifteen 5.9s in succession in front of our hole. He had no luck. Concussion, rotten rain and shelling makes our hole fall in".

Liddell, Silver and myself were together in this hole and well do I remember it and the horrid details of that night and day which Silver so concisely described.

On Wednesday, August 30th Private Silver records:

"Got out of that hole about 4 p.m. Everyone has got out, thank God!.... C.O. badly shaken up. Won't eat..... C.O. no better..... Went down to Transport lines with C.O.... C.O. no better.... Friday, September 1... C.O. saw A.D.M.S. who sent him down to Corbie in Red Cross car... they won't let me go any further with C.O., who goes on tonight to the Base".

Colin Harding was diagnosed with appendicitis and evacuated to England for an operation....

Whilst at Stoodley Hospital in Torquay, I heard that Ray Gough had to undergo a further operation, I telegraphed wishing him a speedy recovery. My wish never materialised, for the return of post brought me a heartbroken letter from his mother, who was with him to the last, informing me of his death. " Death's but a path which must be trod, if men would ever pass to God." Ray Gough had passed that way and God's right Hand would welcome this gallant boy to the realms above........

Private Sidney Silver who was with me through "thick and thin" in France, and whose small diary, written on the spot, has helped me to record this short account of doings in France, eventually got promotion, was Mentioned in Despatches and also received the D.C.M. He saw the war through but its effects left him in broken health and he died a year or two ago, leaving a devoted wife and small family to mourn his loss.

Captain Liddell
whose capabilities I have referred to, got promotion and he eventually became Brigade D.A.A.G. to the 17th Division, an appointment which he filled with the exactitude and ability which was so prominent when helping me over nasty stiles. With the rank of Major, Liddell retired at the termination of hostilities taking with him a well merited M.C. and its Bar, more than one Mention in Despatches and the good wishes of all his brother officers.......

n.b.    D.A.A.G. stands for Deputy Assistant Adjutant General

Photographs of Frank Liddell's Battalion and archived under his name are stored in the Imperial War Museum.  They were taken in 1916 in France by a Captain Turner.

Within Frank's papers there survives this image of him, standing on the right at the rear, in a group of unknown officers. It probably dates from a later period of the war, perhaps after the appointment within 17th Division mentioned by Colin Harding above.




In addition to "Far Bugles", quoted from above, there is considerable information available about the 15th Battalion and the two other "Birmingham Pals" battalions, the 14th and 16th, in Terry Carter's book "The Birmingham Pals" (Pen & Sword Military, 2011).

It appears that Frank relinquished his role of Battalion Adjutant in April 1917 when he was transferred to the General List (reported in the Birmingham Daily Post on Friday 8th June 1917). And notice of his award of the Military Cross appeared in the London Gazette on 1st January 1918.
**************************


Frank Liddell preserved a few further fragments of his life in the Great War which were kept in a scrapbook. They all relate to times of leisure and give an impression of creativity and humour at a time when the period of death and destruction was finally drawing to a close.

The front and rear of a leaflet, perhaps the programme of an entertainment or a Mess dinner, bearing the signature of Frank Liddell (with a nickname, "Peter", an in-joke which is now lost to us) and those of fellow officers. Perhaps the latter were members of his staff.




Amongst the signatures is one which appears to be "Walter M*****", perhaps "Walter Meredith". Is he the poet whose work Frank Liddell felt well worth preserving for decades after the end of the war, and until the very end of his life?  Here are the three examples, composed in Martigny in October 1918, written out as fair copies and, presumably, presented to Frank. The Peter reference is again present.



The following appears to be a (one assumes) light-hearted reaction by someone who has been passed over for promotion or has been replaced. It seems to be addressed to Frank ("Peter").





Something has changed overnight - "a compromise".



n.b. "Clyster" is an enema; the exact significance of "a Wilson" is unknown but will be an oblique reference to the American President. And is it Frank "who's more than half a Hun?"

He married before the Armistice. This is the notice from the Daily Post of 18th February 1918.

Frank Liddell survived the Great War as so many of his brother officers and men did not. He spent the rest of his life in Shrewsbury where he owned the Della Porta department store in High Street. In that town he was a leading member of the community for decades - before, during and after the Second World War - and for four years commanded the 1st Shropshire Battalion
of the Home Guard.

Frank Liddell and the Home Guard
The Tattoo - August 19th 1944



In Memory of
Lt.-Col. Frank H. Liddell
and
all his comrades in the
1st Shropshire Battalion

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
Staffshomeguard is most grateful to Mandy Peat, Col. Liddell's grand-daughter, for generously passing on images and information about her grandfather and permitting their publication in this website; and to Terry Carter for information from the London Gazette and contemporary newspapers.

FURTHER INFORMATION
Further information about the Home Guard in Shropshire is contained elsewhere in various parts of this website. To view the Shropshire summary page, please use the Mems-Shrops link below.

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x119B June 2015