Genealogy, History, Military History, WW1

A Lancashire Fusilier

Serjeant 240768 James C Lucas

I thought I’d share with you the story of one of my relatives (x3 Cousin) whom I discovered a few years ago. Anyone who has researched their family tree will know ‘back in the day’ how large families were. Not uncommon to find the average family with 9 children or more! So with this in mind the branches of your tree can be quite long once you begin to research your own family.

So it was back in 2016 when I decided to take a look at one of these branches of my own family tree on my maternal Great Grandmother’s side of the family. They were all based around the Rochdale area of Lancashire, those industrial towns with an abundance of cotton mills that dotted the local landscapes.

James Carter Lucas was born in 1892 in Castleton, Rochdale to his namesake father James Carter & his mother Eliza Ann Lucas. They already had a son Frank who had been born in 1889 and a year later a daughter Beatrice was born. James’s father was a plumber & his mother worked in a cotton mill.

By 1901 the family had moved to Middleton living at 4 Booth Street, a terrace house which no longer exists but for those who know Middleton its location now sits under the car park of the Arndale Centre built in the 1970s. The family attended the nearby church of Holy Trinity, Parkfield where James was an active member of the Sunday school. He must have been quite sporty as he was a member of both the football & cricket Sunday school league

Old Grammar School, Middleton. (Authors own photo)

James attended the Old Grammar School in Middleton, built in 1586 by patent from Queen Elizabeth I & originally named after her. After his time in this quite remarkable school however he seems to have followed the path of so many in the area as he went to work in a mill in nearby Moston as a cotton mule piecer, someone who would lean over the spinning machine to repair broken threads & a role most often carried out by children due to their small hands.

In his spare time he was in the Church Lads Brigade where he held the rank of Staff Sergeant which probably held him in good stead once he had joined the Army being firstly a Corporal & then being promoted to Serjeant.

Middleton had always been a patriotic town & had its own Drill Hall on Manchester New Road, demolished in 1987 & now the site of a BP petrol station, where the approx 250 Terrirorials of the 6th bn Lancashire Fusiliers held their training sessions. At this stage the role of territorials was Home Defence whilst the regular army battalions went overseas. But it was quickly realised by the War Office under Lord Kitchener that some territorials would be needed to fight overseas quickly.

On the outbreak of war the Terrirorials met at the Drill Hall on 4th August 1914 & the men marched to Rochdale to join up with the 500 Rochdale & 250 Todmorden territorials. The majority who signed up for overseas service became part of the First Line units (1/6th) bn Lancashire Fusiliers and were sent for training on August 20th at Turton where after completing training they became part of 42nd (East Lancashire) Division and were shipped to Egypt before in 1915 heading to Gallipoli.

Meanwhile those who hadn’t volunteered for foreign service were quickly formed into Second Line units for Home Service. Like so many the Service Record of James doesn’t survive so the following accounts are details obtained from the 66th Division HQ War Diary (WO 95/3120/1-5) and the later war diary of 6th bn from March 1918 (WO 95/3140/3)

James Lucas as a Corporal (Photo courtesy of Ian Dawson, Great War Forum member)

Formed in September of 1914 at Mossborough, 2/6th bn Lancashire Fusiliers ( as known from 1915) began their training & on 8th February 1915 they became attached to 197th Brigade, 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division. In May 1915 they moved to Crowborough Camp in East Sussex before moving to Tunbridge Wells, Kent on 21st October 1915.

Whilst in training the war diary records an interesting moment on 5th December when the men were issued with their Lee Enfield rifles & ammunition having previously having had to use Japanese rifles & ammunition.

March 1916 saw the brigade move to Colchester where it would remain until February 1917. On 25th February H.M King George V inspected the whole of 66th Division before their embarkation to France. At Southampton on the 2nd March 1917 the division began its journey to France landing the day after at Le Havre. After being detrained at THIENNES they were marched to ST VENANT. On the 6th orders were received to move the 197th Brigade to VIEILLE CHAPELLE but further orders were received to move to near Béthune to relieve 5th Division.

The 66th Division occupied the sections known as Cambrin, Canal & Givenchy. On their first night in the trenches 197th brigade had to repulse an enemy raid which they did successfully but what an introduction to the trenches they had! The rest of the following weeks was the usual routines of trench warfare, patrols, raids & reconnaissance.

At the end of June 1917 197th Brigade were moved to the coast and in July 1917 were near NIEUPORT BAINS where they would remain until October 1917.

Orders were received that the division would be moving to the Ypres area to take over from 3rd Australian Division & New Zealand Division and they began to move on 4th October ready to play their part in an offensive plan which became known as The Battle of Poelcapple. On 8th October 197th brigade together with 198th moved forward behind FREZENBERG RIDGE. They would be part of II Anzac Corps. On their left would be 49th (West Riding) Division & on their right 2nd Australian Division. The right boundary of the 66th would be YPRES- ROULERS railway line. Their first objective (Red Line) would be AUGUSTUS WOOD ,HEINE HOUSE & WATERFIELDS with their final objective (Blue Line) being VIENNA COT & HAALEN COPSE. The 197th sector was straight through where Tyne Cot Cemetery now stands with it’s objective being just South of the village of PASSCHEDAELE. The heavens opened & heavy rain were to make conditions deplorable for the upcoming battle.

Map of attack from 66th Division War Diary WO 95/3120 1-5 Ancestry. Com

At 6pm the 197th commenced their approach march using the tracks JACK & JILL. The plan showed them reaching the start positions in 5 hours. But slow progress was made due to the darkness & the men of the brigade had to wade waist deep through mud. James as an NCO would have been urging on his men to keep going. I can’t imagine the conditions and the struggle this must have been with the heavy rain still falling. By 3am on 9th Oct it was evident that all battalions of 197th wouldn’t be in position in time for the attack set at 5.20am. Staff officers were sent out to urge the men forward & collect as many as they could muster. The attack therefore began at 5.20am with 198th brigade & some battalions of 197th who’d started the horrendous journey almost 12 hours ago together with support from 2 battalions of 199th Brigade taking the place of the missing 197th battalions. They must have been exhausted and how they then found the strength to begin attacking straight away is beyond comprehension.

The stragglers eventually caught up tired wet & exhausted they began following their fellow comrades who had gone on before,but they were way behind the creeping barrage, yet they advanced & took many German prisoners immediately. At 6.40am their first objective the Red line was taken without much of a struggle & by 10am they had taken the Blue line. Patrols were sent out to PASSCHEDAELE village and reported back that it was empty. On their right flank however German machine guns & artillery opened fire & by 12 noon the brigade flanks turned to find neighbouring units but on seeing this those in the centre thought it was a general withdrawal and followed with the brigade now ending back at the Red line.

The Germans counter attacked late in the afternoon but this was repulsed. 66th Division then moved back to link up with 49th Division on their left and to take cover from the machine guns firing from the BELLVUE SPUR. Another attack was commenced at 7pm a few gains were made on both sides but after several German counter attacks during the night the British were back on their original start lines.

It had been a costly battle hampered by the weather, this then causing a lack of artillery & air support. Wounded were drowned in shell holes which quickly filled with rain or picked off by snipers as they lay in the mud. The 66th Division reported 3119 casualties (Source Perry, R. A. (2014). To Play a Giant’s Part: The Role of the British Army at Passchendaele)

On 10th October 66th Division had to repulse a further German counter attack but that night they were relieved by 3rd Australian Division

When I visit Tyne Cot Cemetery now it gives it all the more meaning than it ever did before knowing that I am literally standing in the place where James led his men on over 100 years ago but he in unthinkable conditions rather than the peaceful surroundings of now.

Tyne Cot Cemetery (Authors own photo)

Over the winter James would remain with the 2/6th bn in the PASSCHEDAELE area until February 1918. A reorganization took place across the British Army and the 1/6th bn Lancashire Fusiliers transferred from the 42nd Division into the 66th Division & became amalgamated with the 2/6th bn from therein known as 6th bn Lancashire Fusiliers.

In March 1918 66th Division moved to the SAINT QUENTIN area as part of XIX Corps in Fifth Army. On their right was 24th Division & on their left 16th (Irish) Division. The British knew a large scale attack by the Germans was about to begin but as to when exactly wasn’t known. At this stage in the war a defensive scheme was adopted by the Army which saw forward zones of small outposts used to delay & disrupt any attack by the use of machine guns and the main part of a Division stayed in the battle zone ready to go forward to assist in the forward positions or as part of a rear zone. However due to a lack of manpower many of these rear defensive positions hadn’t had the necessary work done to them by Fifth Army.

The 6th bn now found themselves at TEMPLEUX LE GUERARD on 2nd March taking over from 9th Bn Royal Sussex Regiment at the Quarries. 2/7th bn Lancashire Fusiliers occupied the forward positions with 6th bn in support. A company held 3 posts whilst B & C held the quarries & tunnels with D company in reserve back at ROISEL with 2/8th bn Lancs Fus.

On 6th March the Germans shelled TEMPLEUX QUARRIES with about 300 shells causing slight wounds to 4 men. On 8th A,B & C companies took over the forward positions from 2/7th. A raid was made on the German lines on the 10th whereby 2 German prisoners were captured. Tensions were high at this point and on 14th the battalion received a wire of an impending attack & they manned their battle positions from 1245am until 6am. No attack took place. Again on 16th at 7am they received the warning order prepare to attack, again a false alarm.

They were relieved on 17th by the 2/7th and moved back to the reserve in ROISEL on working party duties.

On 20th March at 10pm the battalion received ‘Stand To!’ orders with being prepared to move to battle positions at 10 minutes notice. At 4am on 21st March they received the order to move to the Brown Line of the battle area arriving there at 6am. The battalion was heavily shelled by High Explosive & Gas as they made their way to these positions.

This was the start of the German Spring offensive or Kaiserschlact (Kaiser’s Battle) and this part codenamed Operation Michael was the first stage.

The 6th bn took up positions around an area called George Copse just outside of TEMPLEUX LE GUERARD with the forward positions in the quarries held by 2/7th Lanc Fus & 1/5th Border Regiment. Shrouded in thick fog it was very difficult to see anything.

GEORGE COPSE Trench Map (Source Maps NLS Scotland)
Site of GEORGE COPSE Today ( Authors photo)

The Germans attacked in front of TEMPLEUX LE GUERARD at approx 10am and quickly surrounded and bypassed the men in the Quarry who would later be mopped up by other units with only a few managing to escape. It was now the job of the 6th bn ,together with a Artillery battery, to defend the village and after receiving reports at 11am that the Germans had been spotted in TEMPLEUX LE GUERARD A,B & D companies under Major Wike counter attacked and cleared the village but were pushed back by overwhelming forces to the SUNKEN LANE area on the edge of the village and their Artillery battery was destroyed.

By nightfall they were hanging on but the Germans attacked at dawn the next day overwhelming their positions and forcing those who could get way back in the direction of ROISEL.

At some point on 21st March Serjeant James Lucas was wounded & probably taken to the A.D.S of the 2/3 East Lancashire Field Ambulance in TEMPLEUX LE GUERARD which had been set up in an house in the village. As the Germans advanced the reserve A.D.S was opened further back at the crossroads of the HESBECOURT-TEMPLEUX-ROISEL Road by 3.30pm, this then later having to be closed and moved back further to ROISEL. At 3am on 22nd March the first evacuations of casualties to the Casualty Clearing Stations began and James was evacuated to the 32/34 CCS at MARCHELPOT. I will never know how badly injured he was or if he was alive when he arrived there or not. He was recorded as dying of his wounds on 22nd March. He was just 25 years old. His body was buried on the opposite side of the road to the CCS in MARCHELPOT BRITISH cemetery at MITRE POINT.

MARCHELPOT CCS, Red flag shows site of Cemetery ( Image courtesy of Paul Reed)

Records show that on that day alone 66th Division saw 711 men killed, 1000 wounded & upto 2000 taken prisoner.

On Saturday April 6th 1918 an obituary appeared in The Rochdale Observer newspaper announcing James’s death as well as a further one in The Middleton Guardian.

The Rochdale Observer April 6th 1918 (The British Library)

Frank Lucas, the brother of James , also served in the Great War in the Machine Gun Corps being wounded he received the Silver War Badge. In 1924 his third son was born & he named him James Carter Lucas. I like to think he named him after the brother whom he had lost.

Sadly James’s story doesn’t end there. In July 1920 the cemetery was identified as one of those that would be concentrated into another larger cemetery this being ROYE NEW BRITISH some 18km away. The cemetery had suffered damage in the spring offensive and indeed the IWGC (now CWGC) on their memorial inscription actually states that it was destroyed by the enemy. James’s grave along with approx 114 others was now lost but in ROYE NEW BRITISH cemetery those who were known to have been buried were all given their own individual headstone in Plots 1 & 2 as well as the identified & unknowns moved here from MARCHELPOT.

In April 2017, as the first of my family ever to do so, I retraced James’s last day through TEMPLEUX LE GUERARD, then down to MARCHELPOT laying a cross at the site of the former cemetery, now sadly used as a dumping ground by the locals and then onto ROYE NEW BRITISH cemetery where I laid a cross, said a few personal words, shed a few tears & finally placed a framed photo of James at his headstone. I never knew him but I wanted him to know that he had not been forgotten and that his family would continue to remember his story and his sacrifice. I made a promise to return and I did so just after the Centenary of his death in 2018 .

To the memory of 240768 Serjeant James C Lucas 2/6th Lancashire Fusiliers ( Author’s Photo)

James is also remembered on the War memorial in the Garden of Remembrance in his hometown of Middleton

Garden of Remembrance, Middleton ( Author’s Photos)

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