Ground-breaking book allows readers to follow heroic Norfolk soldiers' footsteps
- Credit: Contributed
Bernard Leathes Prior looked on in awe as the storm of war burst with all its fearful fury around the most formidable defensive system on the Western Front.
Not long before, the Norfolk lawyer turned infantry commander had passed through a veritable forest of barbed wire to reach the enemy’s vaunted Hindenburg Line.
From a position dubbed ‘Unseen Trench’, he marvelled at the sight of one of the most momentous advances made by the British army during the First World War.
What he described as “a wonderful spectacle in the half light of the early morning” was the sight of a wave of slow-moving tanks ploughing across no-man’s-land like a line of mechanical “monsters”.
“Ponderous, grunting, groaning, wobbling, these engines of war crawled and lurched their way toward the enemy lines,” he wrote, “followed by groups of men in file.”
Fast forward a little over a century and from the ground once occupied by Prior and his men of the 9th Norfolks, Steve Smith, former policeman turned battlefield guide and military historian, is re-imagining the scene on that first November morning of the 1917 Cambrai offensive.
Armed with Prior’s hard-hitting narrative, a remarkable war chronicle he describes as “time capsule” shining a “brilliant light” on the conflict, and an array of contemporary trench maps, he is able to create in his mind’s-eye “a physical photograph” of the unfolding struggle in front of the northern French village of Ribécourt.
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“Bringing all the elements together,” he says, “enables me to gain an impression of how things must have appeared to Bernard Prior and the 9th Norfolks. Standing there, roughly on the spot they were, you get an idea of what they’d have been looking at: Ribécourt and the ridge line known as Kaiser’s Trench beyond and those tanks and infantrymen pouring through.”
It’s all part and parcel of what he calls “connecting with the men and the ground” to better understand the struggles endured and the victories secured at such great cost during the war to end all wars.
“You can read book after book after book about the Somme, for instance, and the fights for Pozieres and Longueval,” he says, “but they don’t mean anything unless you go there, walk the ground, stand where the soldiers stood and see the lie of the land.”
Making sense of it all, and in particular the role played by the men of the Norfolk Regiment, has become something of a grand obsession spanning the best part of two decades and has culminated in a compelling and genuinely ground-breaking book.
Born of his self-ordained, single-minded mission of remembrance, The Norfolk Regiment on the Western Front 1914-1918 is part practical guidebook and part worm’s-eye history as well as being an ambitious attempt to explode a myriad of hoary myths that have clouded the truth for far too long.
The seed of an idea for the book - his third dealing with aspects of the county’s involvement in the First World War - took root during his regular battlefield tours, leading school parties on explorations of the former killing fields and war cemeteries he calls “sacred ground”.
“As well as highlighting the graves of celebrated soldiers, I have always tried to focus on those men with connections to the Norfolk Regiment,” says Steve, who now lives in Worstead following 18 years’ service in the Royal Air Force and a further 17 years with Norfolk Constabulary. “It’s something that makes it more personal to me.
“So, for instance, in Essex Farm Cemetery, most attention falls on a Victoria Cross recipient who is buried there along with a lad who was just 16. But, for me, it wasn’t just about telling their stories. It was about interacting with the two Norfolks whose graves are there as well. And it was from that the idea grew to do something on an altogether grander scale.
“Nothing had been written in any detail about the Norfolk Regiment on the Western Front since the original history which came out shortly after the war and I’d always thought that was a bit dry and lacking in the kind of first-person accounts that could bring the story and their experiences alive.
“Then, as well as writing a modern history based wherever possible on the men’s own letters, diaries and memoirs, I thought why not also make it more relevant to people who might want to explore for the first time the sites where battles took place or their relative was buried. That way it could serve as a guide as well as a history.”
The result is a triumph of exhaustive research and sometimes exhausting treks over ground both familiar and unfamiliar that were completed just before the Covid pandemic put a temporary stop to his duties as a battlefield guide.
Armed with an assortment of wartime trench maps and the latest technology, including the ‘what3words’ phone app, he was able to pinpoint the location of every battlefield site featured in his book, enabling readers to follow in his and the Norfolk soldiers’ footsteps.
“I was really lucky,” he says. “Over the years I had covered an awful lot of ground where the regiment had fought and served, but there were places, particularly the 1914 and 1918 battlefields and even some from the 1917 period that I had hardly touched.
“And I just managed to do it all in time. In fact, my last ‘recce’, a five-day trip exploring predominantly 1918 sites and a few 1917 sites, took place in January last year, just weeks before the first lockdown was imposed.”
With all his tours cancelled for the year, he focused instead on continuing his own journey of discovery, in the company of a remarkable cast of characters whose stories, plucked from diaries, letters and memoirs buried in a mixture of public and private archives, live again through the pages of his book.
Men like Bernard Leathes Prior, the highly decorated solicitor turned soldier, John ‘Jack’ Paul, an under-age volunteer from Bridgham, and Robert Sheldrake, a regular soldier from the earliest days of the war and whose vivid jottings enabled Steve to follow in his footsteps through to his capture on the Aisne in September 1914.
“Reading Sheldrake’s account of that fight was incredible,” he says. “Everything is still there pretty much as he describes it. You can literally climb up the steep track and find your way into the same wood to reach the clearing where he and a party of the 1st Norfolks led by Major Charles Luard ran into the Germans and fought their last battle.”
Paul’s letters, which were passed to him by a relative, offered further insight into the experiences of frontline soldiers that did not necessarily conform with the popular image of the war as a saga of mud, misery and monumental sacrifice.
“He was with the 8th Battalion from the start and he was a prolific letter writer and in none of them did he moan or show signs of flagging morale. Even in the last couple of letters which he wrote shortly before his death in May 1918 he gave no hint of how miserable things were.”
At a time when his unit was engaged in a desperate fight for survival, he merely wrote of having some ‘rough adventures’ and a ‘busy time’. “He just got on with things and I think that was the way with most of them,” he says. “It was a privilege to tell something of his story and an honour to visit his grave.”
Spanning three years and more, Steve’s epic odyssey has taken in every major - and many a minor - action fought by the five Norfolk battalions that served on the Western Front, from the desperate rearguard stand made at Elouges that saved the British Expeditionary Force from potential disaster in the summer of 1914 through to the final decisive victory beyond the river Sambre just days before the Armistice in November 1918.
It is a saga of war shot through with tragedy and triumph viewed through the eyes of the men who were there. From the horrors of Hill 60, a hotly-contested rise near Ypres that Herbert Reeves remembered for its gas-polluted carnage, Steve chronicles the bloodbaths around Loos where two Norfolk battalions lost more than 870 men, killed, wounded or missing as well as the successes achieved at Montauban on the first day of the Somme and against near impossible odds at Poelcappelle at the fag-end of the Passchendaele campaign.
Walking that same ground a century to the day after the 8th Norfolks waded through swamps and a storm of fire to capture and hold the enemy position, offered baleful insight into the nature of that struggle in Flanders fields. The day was “bleak and windy” and the newly ploughed fields were heavy with clinging mud that left him to muse in weary wonderment how “anyone got through that maelstrom”.
Another journey took him to the scene of a disastrous attack on the Somme that has been cloaked in controversy ever since. The story of the 9th Norfolks’ costly reverse amid the uncut wire on the fire-swept slopes leading to a strongly-held enemy position known as the Quadrilateral is told through the graphic diary entry of Cawston soldier Dennis Douglas.
He wrote of the “chaos” that reigned even before the advance began on September 15, 1916. “All around me was the whizzing of bullets and the crash of shell fire,” he recorded. “The churned up earth felt more like a porridge mixture.”
Hit in the leg, Douglas feared the worst before being dragged to safety. Many of his pals were not so fortunate. By the end of the day, one of the blackest in the history of the regiment, the battalion had sustained around 450 casualties and the survivors were left to seek whatever shelter they could find what one officer called that “fearful crest”.
“Standing on that same ground, knowing that the remnants of the 9th Norfolks were squatting in shell-holes in a neighbouring field, was very, very humbling,” says Steve.
Theirs was a sacrifice in vain made seemingly worse by a large number of casualties caused, according to official records, by so-called ‘friendly fire’ from one the small number of tanks which were making their battlefield debut.
However, Steve believes the oft-repeated tragedy to be a fiction. Having thoroughly researched the incident, he insists “there is no evidence whatsoever to support the story”.
He regards it as just one of the many myths he is anxious to explode that shroud not just the performance of the Norfolks on the Western Front but the British army as a whole. “There’s a lot of misconception about the First World War,” he says. “Most people’s perceptions are shaped by TV shows like Blackadder Goes Forth or books such as Lions Led By Donkeys.
"And, yes, there’s no hiding the immensity of the losses and the appalling suffering that was inflicted on a generation, but we should also note that nine out of 10 men came home and their experiences should be remembered as much as the sacrifices just as we should recognise the fact that the so-called ‘Donkeys’, the generals, who, in many cases, were highly professional soldiers, not only adapted to a war like no other to the extent that they were able to win it in 1918.”
None of that, he emphasises, detracts from the scale of loss. Today, more than 4,200 men from the Norfolk Regiment lie in cemeteries or are commemorated on memorials in France and Flanders, and his magnificent book is eloquent testimony to the many human tragedies that scarred local communities for years after.
He recalls in particular some of the youngsters that paid the ultimate price: boys like Harry Hood, from Rocklands, who may have been as young as 15 when he was killed at Delville Wood, and Isaac Laud, who was 16, when his life was snuffed out a year earlier almost before it had begun.
“The images of those lads has always stayed with me,” says Steve, “along with the siblings who died, like the Ducker brothers, Edward and Thomas, who were both killed on the same day in the same action near to Gueudecourt in October 1916. Imagine that terrible news reaching their family.”
His book, just like the tours he leads, serves as a lasting memorial to their sacrifice, an attempt to ensure enduring remembrance and to pass on a deeper understanding of the nature of their struggles to future generations.
“In basic terms,” he says, “I hope that I can help make sure the men who served in those five battalions of the Norfolk Regiment - those who lived as well as those who died - are not forgotten.”
His thoughts drift back to Essex Farm Cemetery, not far from where John McCrae wrote his most famous poem, In Flanders Fields. “Whenever I go there with school groups I recite the poem and two lines, in particular, resonate with me:
‘The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die.’
“As I try to explain, it’s now about handing ‘the torch’ on to their generation. My book is now part of that ‘torch’ and I hope it will help keep the flame of remembrance burning.”
The Norfolk Regiment on the Western Front 1914-1918, by Steve Smith, is published by Fonthill Media, priced £35.