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 letter, 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.
Regimental diaries gave the primary objective of the raid 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 practised for the best part of a month for the raid.
The CWGC record gave me some information that would be very useful in tracking Walter down. I signed up for an Ancestry trial and set about seeing what I could find. This didn’t include a birth certificate, unfortunately, but I did find an 8 year old Walter on the 1901 census when he lived at 99 Browlow Road, Horwich with his parents and 8 siblings. 10 years later the family had moved to 12 Montcliffe, Horwich and Walter was working at the family Quarry as an apprentice blacksmith.
That’s the last Civilian record I found of Walter. I don’t think he ever married, and on his posthumous military records his next of kin is given as his mother.
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 once they were in the smashed trenches.
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 Field Marshal Haig.
The British View
The bombardment had devastated the German trenches, but there was no one to capture, and no dead Germans to secure identification from. Their objectives unattainable, they began to fall back to British lines. Although the German trenches had been evacuated, the reaction from German defences was immediate. German in depth defence allowed effective fire on No Man’s Land from MG positions to the rear and sides, and German artillery responded, such that the raiders had to cross this maelstrom in both directions. The first groups came back at about 6. 45 a.m. and were treated to hot baths, clean uniforms, a good breakfast, and the rest of the day off, while the rest of the battalion worked in fatigue parties under the town-major. According to the War Diary, when the roll was called, two men were declared killed, another three missing (other records actually show six men noted killed in action), and thirty men wounded, five of whom later died from their wounds. Among the wounded were subalterns Henry Hart and Frederick Smith. It had been a costly morning, many of the best in the battalion now incapacitated.
The German View
On 23 December the enemy fire suddenly strengthened at about 6 a.m. to a furious drumfire. The 10th Company under its tried and true, war tested Oberleutnant der Reserve Westmann evaded and when the enemy in approximately company strength rushed forward to the attack and pressed into the vacated zone, there the 10th went bodily at him with hand grenades and bayonets. A bloody close combat developed, it went man against man.Right at the front fought Unteroffizier der Landwehr Timm, an old, very cautious in any combat situation, a prudent and very brave man and with him the young dashing Unteroffizier Scheel, Gefreiter Stöver as well as the Musketiers Lindemann, Völkers and Hauptmann. Finally the English were overwhelmed. They flooded back and left one severely wounded and three dead men lying. They dragged the other wounded with them. In our position the English left behind a number of rifles, explosive devices, with which he would comfortably blow up our dugouts. Such as when the Englishmen had left our position, would barrage fire be requested through red flares, that immediately started and that cut into the enemy flooding back.
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 an aside, Checking the KORL records Pte A. Anderson could have been Private 1424 Alban Anderson of the 1st/5th KORL. More digging on that one. Alban was killed on the 10th of August 1916 and is looked after by the CWGC at La Neuville Communal Cemetery, Corbie.
What would he have known about Walter I wonder. Pity the “enclosed” report is probably long gone.
The reason for the confusion as to Walter’s fate, well 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. Checking out the trench map, the Belgians were excavating the “Iberia Trench”, about 100m past the Cameroon Trench grid reference.
I made it there and back again, but Walter Finch never did. All that is left of him is a name on the Menin gate and on a small memorial plaque originally at Horwich Independent Methodist Church, but now in the care of Horwich Heritage.
And a death penny.
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.