As well as gin and running, I’m interested in history. In particular the First World War and as the centenary of the armistice is upon us I thought this is as good a place as any to tell the story of Pte. Walter Finch.
One of the almost forgotten countless thousands who never came home from the trenches.
The story starts (for me) in June 2016 when wandering down the various aisles on eBay I came across WW1 memorabilia. In particular there was a “death penny” that was going (comparatively) cheaply. I was the winning bidder and a few days later the plaque arrived. Interestingly it included a bonus, but more of that later.
The search starts
From the plaque and the letter I had the first details for Walter. Having his service number (4179, later 201388) was a great start. The first port of call was the Kings Own Royal Lancaster Regiment museum who were very helpful in getting back to my enquiry.
From them I learned that Walter attested for military service on the 25th of October 1915. He didn’t get across to France to join the regiment until after the start of 1915 though, he wasn’t eligible for the 1914/15 star. They also had his home address, 79 Victoria Road, Horwich,
The museum also had a date of death for Walter, 23rd of December 1916. Reading the regimental diary showed that on that date men from the battalion were involved on a trench raid.
Was that where Walter met his end?
The always useful Commonwealth War Graves Commission website was next. Here I found that Walter has no known grave, but is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres. (panel 12, if you’re interested).
[Panel 12] Ptr. 201888. Walter Finch, 1/4th Bn, The King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regt.), (T.F.) s. of Thomas Finch., of 24, Penn Street, Norwich., Bolton. by his wife Hannah. b. 1892: enlisted Bolton:Served with the expeditionary force in France and Flanders. Reported missing believed dead after a raid on the German trenches in the St. Julien sub-sector, 23rd December 1916, Age 24.
The primary objective of the raid is given as the Cameroon Trench, and googling that brought up a link to a book on the 1st/4th that gave a grid reference for that location. The preparations for the raid were meticulous. A replica of the trench system was marked out behind the lines, near Vlamertinghe. Here Walter and his comrades practiced for the best part of a month for the raid.
Over the top
On the 21st of December the last practice took place and the raiding party, 200 men, moved into position on the 23rd. What followed was “a brisk and well carried out minor action”… The regimental records show that only 6 men died that night, and 4 died of wounds later. For all that the raid wasn’t exactly a success. When the men of the KORL executed their carefully rehearsed plan they found the German trenches empty. The Germans had fallen back and hit the raiding party on the way in and out with machine guns and artillery.
To be picked for this mission means that Walter must have been one of the best in the battalion, and prior to the raid the selected troops were inspected by none other than Field Marshal Haig.
A Mother’s worry
Although Walter died that night, his death was not confirmed until the 5th of January 1918 !!! And that’s where the letter that came with the death penny hits home. It was written to a friend of his mother’s in July 1917 telling her there was no news of his whereabouts.
That must have been awful, he’s been dead for over 6 months, and it would be another 6 before that became official.
As the Regimental Museum put it..
A large number of men were simply lost in actions and it was not known, for some months, if the soldier had been wounded and taken somewhere else, taken prisoner by the Germans, and of course possibly wounded to a level that he did not know who he was. Therefore time would be taken to establish this.
With the grid reference for Walter’s objective that night I visited the place where he died. I head to Ypres a couple of times a year but this time it felt different, more personal. Seeing Walter’s name on the Menin Gate tied things in with the eBay purchase, and brought home that this was a real person.
Not just a name on a tourist attraction.
The last part of the trip was to head to the coordinates, which are next to the Aeroplane Cemetery near Ypres. It’s a nice field now, a peaceful world away from what Walter knew. When I visited I spotted a marquee on the other side, and wandered across to see what was going on. It turned out to be archaeologists from the University of Brugge excavating the German trenches that would have been Walter’s secondary objective. They were about 100m past the Cameroon Trench grid reference.
I made it there, Walter Finch never did,
So many questions.. Was his body recovered later, buried and “known unto god”??
Is he still out there, a long way from his Family in Horwich?
How did his Death Penny end up on eBay??
Are there any photos of Walter??
Hopefully I’ll be able to find an answer to at least the last one.
RIP Walter Finch.