A Conscript’s Tragedy

A Conscript’s Tragedy

On 5 June 1918, 11 DLI had been out at night doing their usual trench work and running the gauntlet of random sniping and occasional shrapnel. Many of them were young conscripts, only 18 or 19 years old, hastily trained and out of their depth. Private Samuel Dodd collapsed onto his bunk at 8.30 and, after a fitful morning’s sleep, started cleaning his rifle around noon. Hardly had he started when the hut was called to ‘Stand To’. Hastily putting his rifle back together again, he shot home the magazine. The gun fired and the bullet hit his comrade, Private Henry Cunliffe through his hand and full in the stomach. Henry died the following day.

Inevitably there had to be a court martial. Pte Dodds was awarded 56 days field punishment No 2, a humiliation but in some ways a generous punishment that took into account his youth and inexperience.

This was a double tragedy, hurting both men and their families. Dodd would have carried the memory of this accident with him for the rest of his life (he survived the war). He would have had good reason not to talk about his war experience in the future. For George Henry and Jennie Lee Cunliffe, they had lost their only child at the age of 19. There is no mention of this incident in the official battalion war diary and we would not know about it at all, but for the availability of digitised service records through the collaboration of the National Archives and Ancestry. There is no mention in the records that have survived as to whether the parents were informed of the circumstances of his death, perhaps only that he ‘died of wounds’ received in action.

Cunliffe

Pte Henry Cunliffe: Until The Day Breaks

They took some small consolation for their loss from the permission to have a personal inscription on Henry’s gravestone at Aubigny Communal Cemetery Extension. It reads ‘UNTIL THE DAY BREAKS’.

May to September 1918

Virtually the whole of the summer of 1918, 11 DLI served purely in its primary Pioneer role as specialised labour for the 20th Light Division. The battalion left Frevillers on 2 May 1918 and proceeded via Canada Camp at Chateau de la Haie to the unusually named Ratata Camp at Carency. The battalion HQ remained there for the next five months supporting the 20th Light Division in the Lens-Avion sector.

Essentially the daily routine was filled either with trench work (most of the time) or providing support for gas attacks. For example on 23 May, three Companies were employed pushing gas cylinders to the front line and bringing back the empties along rail tracks. Four days later, the Germans retaliated with a gas attack on 11 DLI at night – bearing in mind that they would be out working on trenches at the time. Two of the casualties among nine officers affected who had survived the ravages of the retreat during March: Lt A Philip and Captain Percy Vickerman Kemp. Kemp died in hospital at Etaples on 31 May 1918. There were 122 casualties among the other ranks, several of whom also died. This pointless tit for tat continued for the rest of the summer – 19 men being badly gassed on 3 July.

There was some to and fro among the officers. During July 2nd Lt HJE Whitfield left to join the Royal Air Force, Captain WFE Badcock transferred to 6 DLI, and Lt GR Burnett and Captain JG Taylor took their places. In August it was all change at the top when Lt Colonel Boulton was replaced by Lt Col TH Carlisle as commanding officer. Carlisle remained for the rest of the deployment. Incongruous though it may seem, on 31 July the battalion held a Transport Horse Show. Otherwise it was the tedious round of trench work, gas attacks and sporadic shelling, with a slow attrition on the health and strength of the men. Some forty or so of the miners were attached to 185th Tunnelling Company at the end of August in charge of 2nd Lt WH Charnley.