Corporal Henry James ‘Harry’ Matthews

Henry James ‘Harry’ Matthews was born in 1889 with his birth registered in the 3rd Qtr of 1889 in Amesbury, Birth Register Volume 5a Page 163 refers.  He was baptised in Tilshead on 21st July 1889 and the baptismal record shows his mother was ‘Fanny’, no father was shown.

His mother Fanny Matthews was born in 1868 in Tilshead.  Her parents (and Harry’s Grandparents) were Phillip Matthews (born 1841 in Imber and died 1901 in Tilshead) and Elizabeth Matthews (Nee Foyle or Fogle).  They married on 1st February 1868 in Tilshead.

On the 1891 Census Fanny is recorded as being a Servant at 22 Kildare Gardens Paddington.

Meanwhile on the 1891 Census in Tilshead her son Harry is recorded as living with his Grandparents Phillip and Elizabeth, Great Grandmother Harriet Long (born 1813 in Tilshead)  and Uncles both born in Tilshead, William Mathews, then aged 16 and born 1875 and James , then aged 10 and born in 1881. 

The 1901 Census throws up another conundrum.  Harry, then 11, is recorded as still living in Tilshead with Grandparents Phillip and Elizabeth, Uncle James, now 21, and a George William Hillings, aged 8 (born 1893 in London) who is also recorded as being a Grandchild of Phillip and Elizabeth.  George has a Baptismal record showing he was born on 15 March 1893 and christened on 13 September 1893 at St John the Evangelist, Smith Square, Westminster son of a George Bridges Hillings (1870-98) and Florence Susan Hillings. 

Is this Florence Fanny?  Is George Harry’s cousin or even brother of some description?

Service Record

Sadly, no service record exists for Harry, but an analysis of his Service Number: 7751 suggests he joined 1st Battalion, The Duke of Edinburgh’s (Wiltshire Regiment) sometime between January 1907 and March 1908 (7728 joined on 10th January 1907 and 8108 joined on 8th March 1908).

He probably joined the Battalion in India, where it was said that the Queen’s and the Wiltshire’s were the best two battalions in India at that time. The 1st Battalion remained in India until 1909 when it moved to South Africa for five years, based in Pietermaritzburg, Natal.

Harry is recorded on the 1st Battalion’s 1911 Census return in Pietermaritzburg.

The Battalion returned to England in 1913 and on the outbreak of war on 4th August 1914 they were based at Tidworth under command of 7th Brigade in 3rd Division.

Upon mobilisation and the declaration of war, the 1st Battalion, Wilts deployed to France as part of the II Corp’s 3rd Division’s 7th Brigade, landing in Roen on 14 August 1914, and were soon involved in action at the Battle of Mons.  The Battalions of the 7th Brigade were:

  • 3rd Bn, the Worcestershire Regt       
  • 2nd Bn, the South Lancashire Regt  
  • 1st Bn, the Wiltshire Regt      
  • 2nd Bn, the Royal Irish Rifles

3rd Division Mons to Ypres 23 Aug – 22 Nov 1914

The Battle of Mons 23 August 1914 was the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the First World War. It was a subsidiary action of the Battle of the Frontiers, in which the Allies clashed with Germany on the French borders. At Mons, the British Army attempted to hold the line of the Mons–Condé Canal against the advancing German 1st Army. Although the British fought well and inflicted disproportionate casualties on the numerically superior Germans, they were eventually forced to retreat due both to the greater strength of the Germans and the sudden retreat of the French Fifth Army, which exposed the British right flank.

The Battle of Le Cateau 26 August 1914 – On the morning of 26 August, the Germans arrived and attacked II Corps (General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien). Unlike the Battle of Mons, where the majority of casualties inflicted by the British were from rifle fire, Le Cateau was a Gunners battle, demonstrating the devastating results which modern quick-firing artillery using shrapnel shells could have on infantry advancing in the open.  The British deployed their artillery about 50–200 metres (55–219 yd) behind the infantry, while the German artillery used indirect fire from concealed positions.  With the guns so close to the infantry, the British had unintentionally increased the effectiveness of the German artillery-fire, because shells aimed at the British infantry could just as easily hit the British guns. 

The British 5th Division was on the right flank, on the southern side of the Le Cateau–Cambrai road between Inchy and Le Cateau. The 3rd Division (including 7th Brigade and 1 Wiltshire’s) was in the centre, between Caudry and Inchy and the 4th Division was on the left flank, on the north bank of the Warnelle. The road was sunken in places, providing inadequate long-range firing positions and in many places the Germans could close up to the British positions unobserved. On the right flank, west of Le Cateau, the Germans marched along the road from the north to Le Cateau. The British were on a forward slope and suffered many casualties during the withdrawal.

At 03:30, Smith-Dorrien decided to “strike the enemy hard and after he had done so, continue the retreat” but the purpose of the operation was unclear to his subordinates.

Holding their ground despite many casualties, around noon, the British right and then the left flank began to collapse. The arrival of the Corps de cavalerie Sordet (French Cavalry Corps, General André Sordet) provided a shield for the British left flank and enabled the British to slip away, despite German attempts to infiltrate and outflank them.  That night, the Allies withdrew to Saint-Quentin.

The Battle of the Marne 6–12 September 1914 – The battle resulted in an Allied victory against the German armies in the west. The battle was the culmination of the Retreat from Mons and pursuit of the Franco–British armies which followed the Battle of the Frontiers in August and reached the eastern outskirts of Paris.

Field Marshal Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), began to plan for a full British retreat to port cities on the English Channel for an immediate evacuation. The military governor of Paris, Joseph Simon Gallieni, wanted the Franco–British units to counter-attack the Germans along the Marne River and halt the German advance. Allied reserves would restore the ranks and attack the German flanks. On 5 September, the counter-offensive by six French armies and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) began.

By 9 September, the success of the Franco–British counteroffensive left the German 1st and 2nd Armies at risk of encirclement, and they were ordered to retreat to the Aisne River. The retreating armies were pursued by the French and British, although the pace of the Allied advance was slow: 12 mi (19 km) in one day. The German armies ceased their retreat after 40 mi (65 km) on a line north of the Aisne River, where they dug in on the heights and fought the First Battle of the Aisne.

The German retreat between 9 September and 13 September marked the end of the attempt to defeat France by crushing the French armies with an invasion from the north through Belgium and in the south over the common border. Both sides commenced reciprocal operations to envelop the northern flank of their opponent, in what became known as the Race to the Sea which culminated in the First Battle of Ypres.

The Battle of the Aisne 13–28 September 1914 –

When the Germans turned to face the pursuing Allies on 13 September, they held one of the most formidable positions on the Western Front between Compiègne and Berry-au-Bac.

In dense fog on the night of 13 September, most of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) crossed the Aisne on pontoons or partially demolished bridges, landing at Bourg-et-Comin on the right and at Venizel on the left. At Chivres-Val east of Venizel, there was an escarpment the Germans had selected as their strongest position.

It soon became clear that neither side could budge the other and since neither chose to retreat, the impasse hardened into stalemate, that would lock the antagonists into a relatively narrow strip for the next four years. On 14 September, Sir John French ordered the entire BEF to entrench, but few entrenching tools were available. Soldiers scouted nearby farms and villages for pickaxes, spades and other implements. Without training for stationary warfare, the troops merely dug shallow pits in the soil. These were at first intended only to afford cover against enemy observation and artillery fire. Soon the trenches were deepened to about seven feet. Other protective measures included camouflage and holes cut into trench walls then braced with timber.

Race to the Sea 17 September – 19 October 1914 – For a three-week period following the unexpected development of trench warfare, both sides gave up frontal assaults and began trying to envelop each other’s northern flank. The period is called “Race to the Sea”. As the Germans aimed for the Allied left flank, the Allies sought the German right wing. The “race” ended on the North Sea coast of Belgium around 19 October, when the last open area from Diksmuide to the North Sea was occupied by Belgian troops who had retreated after the Siege of Antwerp (28 September – 10 October). The outflanking attempts had resulted in a number of encounter battles but neither side was able to gain a decisive victory.

The western front thus became a continuous trench system of more than 400 miles (640 km). From the Belgian channel town of Nieuwpoort, the trench lines ran southward for many miles, turning southeast at Noyon, continuing past Reims, Verdun, Saint-Mihiel and Nancy; then cutting south again to the northern Swiss border twenty miles (32 km) east of Belfort.

After the opposing forces had reached the North Sea, both tried to conduct offensives leading to the mutually costly and indecisive Battle of the Yser from 16 October to 2 November and the First Battle of Ypres from 19 October to 22 November.

During the Race to the Sea 3rd Division took part in a major action at La Bassee.

The Battle of La Bassee 10 October – 2 November 1914 was fought by German and Franco-British forces in northern France in October 1914, during reciprocal attempts by the contending armies to envelop the northern flank of their opponent, which has been called the Race to the Sea. The German 6th Army took Lille before a British force could secure the town and the 4th Army attacked the exposed British flank further north at Ypres. The British were driven back and the German army occupied La Bassée and Neuve Chapelle. Around 15 October, the British recaptured Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée but failed to recover La Bassée.

German reinforcements arrived and regained the initiative, until the arrival of the Lahore Division, part of the Indian Corps. The British repulsed German attacks until early November, after which both sides concentrated their resources on the First Battle of Ypres. The battle at La Bassée was reduced to local operations. In late January and early February 1915, German and British troops conducted raids and local attacks in the Affairs of Cuinchy, which took place at Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée and just south of La Bassée Canal, leaving the front line little changed.

The First Battle of Ypres 19 October – 22 November 1914 – was part of the First Battle of Flanders, in which German, French, Belgian armies and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fought from Arras in France to Nieuport on the Belgian coast, from 10 October to mid-November. The battles at Ypres began at the end of the Race to the Sea, reciprocal attempts by the German and Franco-British armies to advance past the northern flank of their opponents.

The fighting has been divided into five stages:

  • An encounter battle from 19 to 21 October,
  • The Battle of Langemarck from 21 to 24 October,
  • The battles at La Bassée (described above) and Armentières to 2 November, coincident with more Allied attacks at Ypres and the Battle of Gheluvelt (29–31 October),
  • The last big German offensive, which culminated at the Battle of Nonne Bosschen on 11 November,
  • Local operations which faded out in late November during which Harry was killed in action.

On the 17th November 1914, when Harry fell, the 7th Brigade and 1st Battalion Wiltshire’s were just to the east of Ypres in the vicinity of Hooge. The Battalion and Brigade War Diaries shown below describe the situation on the day.

The Battalion War Diary

7th Brigade War Diary extract

At between August and the end of the First Battle of Ypres the battalion had lost 26 officers and over 1,000 other ranks.

Harry has no known grave and is commemorated at YPRES (MENIN GATE) MEMORIAL Panel 53.

Harry was entitled to wear the 1914/15 Star, The British War Medal and Victory Medals.  His medals were sold for £170 nearly 100 years after his death on the 25th March 2014 Lot 45 by auctioneer  Dix Noonan Webb.

Medal Index Card

1914/15 Star Medal Index Roll

British War and Victory Medal Index Roll

George Clegg

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