26820, 1ST Battalion Somerset Light Infantry
Killed in Action 12 April 1917
Buried at Athies Communal Cemetery Extension
Grave E. 24
The Hector family came originally not from Buckland St Mary but from the Curry Mallet/North Curry area, though William’s grandfather Robert, a farm labourer, was born in West Hatch. William’s parents, William senior and Emma (nee Priddle) were living at Meare Green, between North Curry and Stoke St Gregory, when they were first married in 1890. William junior, born on the 21st June 1893, and the next two in the family, were all born at Curry Mallet. William and his older sister Emma began school at Buckland on 20 February 1899, having previously been at Donyatt School. William senior was a Blacksmith, and, probably also in 1899, the family had moved up onto the Blackdowns, and were living at Agar Cottage, Newtown, Buckland St Mary, which became their long-term home. Young William left school on 24 June 1907, his 14th birthday.
By 1911, William, aged 17, had left home and was working as a Farm Carter for Saul and Rosey Hurford at Chaffhay Farm, Yarcombe. By the time he enlisted he was working for Edmund Aplin at Fyfett Farm, Otterford. The Taunton Courier, in reporting his death, tells us ‘He was well known in the parish, and had been a bell ringer for some time.’
William’s Service Records no longer exist, so much of what follows is based on a reading of his Battalion’s War Diaries. However, there still exists a 1st Battalion Casualty List, which gives at the least details of postings, injuries or deaths. William enlisted at Taunton in 1916, and was posted to the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry. He embarked from England on 16th December 1916, arriving on the 18th, and reached the Battalion on New Year’s Day 1917, just in time to become part of the force being prepared for the Arras Campaign that Spring.
The 1st Battalion was with the 11th Brigade of the 4th Division, part of the 17th Corps. When William arrived they were at Camp 12 in the Somme area, south of Albert, training hard. On the 15th the move up towards the front line began, a long and trying march with heavy snowfall. Alternate stints of front line and reserve duty followed in appalling conditions of mud and filth. On 28 February the 4th Division were ordered to move to the Third Army area; by 21 March the Battalion reached Dieval, north-west of Arras, where training for the Arras offensive, due to start on 9 April, continued in earnest. The final move forward to the trenches came on Jellalabad Day, 7 April: a good omen for the Battalion it was felt. They attended a concert that night at Hermaville, and the CO, Lieut-Col V.H.B.Majendie, made his customary Jellalabad Day speech. Next day they moved to Maroeuil, awaiting orders to move forward to the assembly positions.
The Arras campaign was viewed as another ‘Big Push’, like the Somme offensive of 1916. It’s acknowledged that lessons had been learnt from that offensive, but whether it seemed any different to the men on the ground is a moot point. The Germans had retreated behind the newly consolidated Hindenburg Line that Spring, and the front line British battalions had been trained over trench systems modelled on that. The initial part of the Arras Campaign was the first Battle of the Scarpe, from 9th-14th April. The 17th Corps objective was to take the 3rd German trench system from the Scarpe, east of Athies. This captured, they were to attack part of Vimy Ridge, the German trenches west of Fampoux, and Fampoux itself.
The 1st Battalion was part of the second wave of the attack. Their War Diary notes at 5am ‘Tremendous bombardment now on.’ Heavy rainfall – breakfast in the assembly area – the Battalion formed up in the railway cutting, and then marched to their final assembly positions. Over the top at 3.10pm, through machine gun and rifle fire and then through the German wire (regrettably not cut up by the Artillery), shooting down resisting Germans and sending prisoners to the rear. Their new line was consolidated, and they were heavily shelled. That night it snowed heavily and was bitterly cold.
On the 10th they concentrated in the Hyderabad Redoubt. Patrols were to advance at 6.30pm to secure the line, with Artillery support, but to desist if opposition were strong. In the event there was no artillery support, and the leading platoons were all but obliterated. The attack was halted.
On the 11th the 4th Division had new attacking orders: to advance and secure the Plouvain -Greenland Hill line. The 1st Battalion was on the extreme left, their task to secure a section of road from Inn to cross-roads and form a defensive flank. Their jumping off position was the Hyderabad Redoubt – there was no other – but it was inadequate, and the situation was compounded by two battalions from the 10th Infantry Brigade losing their way and pouring into the Redoubt. Consequently the leading platoons did not get away till Zero + 5 minutes, by which time they were heading into a murderous machine gun and rifle fire. They tried advancing along a communication trench, but this was blown in by shell fire and swept by machine guns; nonetheless they held out there for the rest of the day. The War Diary tells us that ’During the night a line of posts was established East and North of the Redoubt…Touch was established on right and left….The men dug splendidly and by daylight a fairly strong line of posts was established.’
‘The attack of the 4th Division, as a whole, practically gained no ground and must be written down as a failure…..On 12th April the 9th Division failed in a similar attack and throughout the day the Redoubt was subjected to heavy artillery fire, inflicting on the Somersets a number of casualties.’ (The Somerset Light Infantry 1914-1919, Everard Wyrall).
Taunton Courier, May 16 1917
One of those casualties was William Hector, though there’s conflicting evidence on what precisely happened. John White, a researcher working in 2002 for Don and Mervyn Hector, William’s nephews, believes he was the victim of a sniper’s bullet, but the two excerpts from the Taunton Courier printed here
Taunton Courier, July 25 1917
suggest he was killed by shellfire; a concussion shell was designed to explode on impact, scattering shrapnel. At this point in time, given the vagaries of people’s memories, and the difficulty of accurate press reporting, one cannot be sure of the truth. Suffice to say that by the end of 11 April, William, aged 23, was dead.
On the 14th, the War Diary records that: ‘The weather which had been vile for all the above operations improved a little. The Redoubt was again shelled fairly heavily. The Battn was relieved by the 1st Hampshire Regt and went back in Brigade Reserve… arriving soon after midnight, everyone wet through.’ 7 Officers and 23 other ranks were killed, while 5 and 104 respectively were wounded. The Diary continues: ‘All ranks behaved splendidly through a very trying operation; everyone suffered very much from the bad weather and loss of sleep, hot food, etc…. at one period some of the Officers collapsed through sheer exhaustion, only 3 being fit to carry on…Battn captures include about 300 prisoners, 5 machine guns, 1 cooker and innumerable other stores.’
In the Army Register of Soldiers’ Effects William’s back pay of £2-14-2 and War Gratuity of £3-0-0 is shown as paid to his father William on Sept 10 1917 and Aug 27 1919 respectively.
As well as being on the Buckland St Mary Memorial, William is also on the one in Combe St Nicholas, both the Memorial inside the Church, and, more remarkably, among the photos (2nd row, 3rd from left) of those who died which hangs just inside the Church door: the families, at the end of the War, must have been asked for photographs to be framed and kept as a lasting memorial.