The following excerpt is the first of two taken from a chapter in our recent book, Wolverhampton’s Great War, 1914-1921. “Sankeys at War – The Firm and the Family, 1914-18”, is written by Chris Twiggs, former winner of the Local History Symposium and has contributed several chapters. The book can be purchased using this link:

Wolverhampton’s Great War

The Dawn of the Somme

The Sankey family tree covering the period of the Great War.

When the almost daily exchange of letters between Harold Sankey and his family was occasionally interrupted it caused great concern back in Wolverhampton. Relatives often worried if bad news from the front coincided with a sudden dearth of letters from a loved one. This happened in late February 1916 when both George and Jessie noted in their letters to Harold that they had not heard from him for a few days and quite naturally feared he might have been wounded or worse. Mrs Sankey was particularly anxious as she referred in one of her letters to a newspaper report of a “machine gun incident at Fonquevillers.” George tried to discover what had happened as the family were well aware that this was the area in which Harold was based. Just as their concerns were mounting they received good news from their boy on the Somme which put their minds at rest.

Harold Bantock Sankey MC, courtesy of James Sankey.

A Time of Relative Peace

The opening months of 1916 saw a continuation of the brigade’s relatively peaceful experience of life at the front and the war diary painted its familiar picture of poor weather and desultory artillery exchanges with the Germans. There were a few instances when one or more of the batteries supported trench raids by the infantry or responded to similar raids by the enemy on British positions. Inevitably there was a steady stream of casualties and on 11 February Gunner Frank Bernard Brookes of Callow End, Worcester was killed. Harold wrote to express his sympathies to the twenty-one-year-old gunner’s parents, George and Emma – a task that must have been one of the most difficult for any officer to carry out. Their reply, thanking Harold, is included in the cache of letters which he brought home with him in 1918. The brigade remained in the same location on the Somme during the first months of the year and the brigade history refers to the excellent food enjoyed at this time:

“Breakfast of oatmeal porridge with fresh cream, brown trout caught in the adjoining stream, besides bacon and fresh eggs; a plentiful supply of all sorts of vegetables was always at hand and many little luxuries that were unobtainable in England.”

This is a clear reminder that life at the front was not always one of horrific carnage.

“[B Battery is in a] somewhat exposed position, but the dugouts were excellent. The officers’ mess in particular was especially well built (by the French) and fitted up with every modern improvement. It is perhaps worth recording that a certain subaltern of this Battery (who must have been an acquisition to any mess) had a supply of coal and also a supply of soda water sent out from England every week. The same gentleman was also responsible for an elaborate water pump and a portable piano.”

A description of the B Battery mess at La Haie Chateau

That gentleman was obviously Harold Sankey and these comments show how much he was appreciated by his fellow officers.

Pining for Home

The opening months of 1916 saw a continuation of the brigade’s relatively peaceful experience of life at the front and the war diary painted its familiar picture of poor weather and desultory artillery exchanges with the Germans. There were a few instances when one or more of the batteries supported trench raids by the infantry or responded to similar raids by the enemy on British positions. Inevitably there was a steady stream of casualties and on 11 February Gunner Frank Bernard Brookes of Callow End, Worcester was killed. Harold wrote to express his sympathies to the twenty-one-year-old gunner’s parents, George and Emma – a task that must have been one of the most difficult for any officer to carry out. Their reply, thanking Harold, is included in the cache of letters which he brought home with him in 1918. The brigade remained in the same location on the Somme during the first months of the year and the brigade history refers to the excellent food enjoyed at this time:

French long gun battery (155 L or 120 L) overrun by German forces.

The end of March 1916 saw a significant development in terms of the brigade’s structure when its three batteries of four 18 pounder guns were replaced by four batteries of four 18 pounders. The new battery was designated as D Battery and its addition meant an influx of new men joining the brigade. Harold’s letters home from this period give an insight into a variety of matters, such as his disappointment at not getting leave. On one occasion this was cancelled as he was just about to depart for Wolverhampton, due to a “German offensive down south.” This was a reference to the German attack at Verdun which had serious repercussions for the Allied offensive on the Somme planned for that summer.

Harold also responded to his mother’s concerns that his role as a FOO might put him at serious risk of being captured by the Germans. Evidence showing Harold was becoming quite busy can be seen in comments he made about the possibility of sending more postcards rather than letters.

In one letter to his father, dated 16 March, he mentioned the fact that they were well fed and described in detail a dinner they recently enjoyed in the officer’s mess. He also described darker times:

“I expect you saw the paragraph in The Times, 8th March re: helmets at Ypres. A helmet down this way was hit by a bullet and badly dented but didn’t hurt the man.”

Harold, writing to George in 1916

The man involved was clearly lucky for although the steel helmets made by Sankeys gave some protection against flying debris they would not stop a well-aimed bullet at normal range.

Preparing for Battle

According to the brigade war diary Harold was granted a week’s leave from 28 March to 4 April 1916. His return to France coincided with the start of several weeks’ preparation for the brigade’s first major engagement – namely its involvement in the forthcoming Somme offensive. On 8 May the brigade began the process by vacating their well-established positions and moving their headquarters to Couin. Just over a week later another restructuring of the unit took place when the recently arrived 18 pounder guns of the new D Battery were exchanged for a battery of 4.5” howitzers from 243 Brigade RFA. The brigade was now re-designated as the 241st (South Midland) Brigade RFA and the individual batteries were also re-designated as A/241, B/241 (Harold’s battery), C/241 and D/241. Harold also acquired a new officer in charge of his battery: Major Meacher, who replaced Major Taylor who returned to Britain due to ill-health.

June 1916 was a hectic period for all concerned along the Somme sector as preparations for the great Allied offensive were stepped up. It was nigh on impossible to hide from the Germans the fact that a major attack was coming soon – it was a case of when, not if. In the first week of June all four batteries prepared their firing positions ready for the huge artillery bombardment which was to precede and support the infantry advance. B Battery was given a position north-west of the village of Beaumont Hamel at a location known as ‘The White City’. As part of their preparations batteries had to bring forward some 5,000 shells as an initial supply for use in the bombardment. Whether Harold wrote many letters during this period is unknown and even if he did it is difficult to believe he would have had the time, or the energy, to write as extensively as before.

On the evening of 23 June A, B and C batteries were ordered to move into their new positions and the bombardment of German positions along the Somme front began the following day. The original intention was for a five day bombardment that would destroy the enemy defences of barbed wire and trenches, demoralise the German soldiers and ensure minimum resistance when the infantry finally went ‘over the top’ at zero hour. However, the German artillery retaliated and all British batteries suffered casualties and a steady flow of wounded men were sent to hospital facilities away from the front. On 29 June – Z Day – the original date for the infantry assault; the attack was delayed due to poor weather and a further two days of Allied bombardment took place. This was the first time Harold’s brigade had been involved in a major operation in the Great War and the experience must have been shattering.

The image to the left shows the men of Sankeys who would go off to fight in the Great War (courtesy of James Sankey).

The Battle of the Somme commenced on Saturday 1 July 1916…

The Battle of the Somme, both real and fake, was captured in Geoffrey Malin’s film.

In part two, we will see how the film links to Harold Sankey’s reality…

Learn more about the book here: