Alnwick District in the Great War
Thomas Chrisp 1892 – 1917
By Jane Glass
8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry
In the previous issue Thomas finished his teacher-training course at Bede College, Durham in the summer of 1914. When war broke out on 4th August Thomas and other members of the 8th (Volunteer) Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry volunteered immediately for service abroad.
(Courtesy of Trevor Grugan)
The Battalion remained in County Durham for the next few months, undertaking training. As a Sergeant, Thomas would have been involved in overseeing this and no doubt skills gained during his time at Bede would have been useful here. The Battalion spent time under canvas at Ravensworth Park and Lanchester; dug trenches, practised signalling and undertook rifle training at Cleadon Meadows and Scott’s House, Boldon and by December 1914 were billeted in Sunderland Road School, Gateshead.
Eventually in April 1915 orders were received to move abroad. On Monday 19th April the Battalion left Gateshead early morning to Newcastle Central Station:
Company C and D left at 10 am; A and B left at 11.15 am. Thomas was with A Company and he wrote an account of his journey “from Gateshead to Ypres”, which was published in The Bede magazine.
On arrival at Folkestone the Battalion embarked onto the “Onward”, a cross channel mail boat, which left at 11.30 pm, accompanied by a torpedo destroyer and arrived in Bolougne at 1.00 am. A total of 26 Officers and 921 Other Ranks had crossed the channel on this clear, fine night. The men then marched to a rest camp, about two miles away. Tired and hungry, the men soon fell asleep but were awakened the next morning about 8.00. After breakfast and writing cards to let their families know they had arrived safely, the men marched off a further 3 miles to the railway station.
Here the men were loaded into horse trucks (40 in each truck) and set off early afternoon for Cassel near the Belgian border. They travelled via Calais and St Omer, covering about 50 miles. The train travelled quite slowly at times and some men got out the back to walk up to the front of the train and back. Children were also running alongside the train asking the soldiers for biscuits. The train arrived at Cassel at 7 pm and the men again marched off to billets at St Marie Capelle, about 3 miles away. These took a bit of finding as various barns, scattered across the country, were used and darkness had fallen. However, Thomas and some of his comrades found a hayloft where they spent a comfortable night.
The Battalion remained in this village the next two days, where inspections took place, stores were issued and arms tested with ammunition. Thomas and his comrades relaxed during this time, wandering down to the village, writing letters home, buying local produce, milk, eggs and bread, to eat with their rations.
On the morning of Friday 23rd April the men had a five-mile run to keep in training. On their return orders were given to proceed to Ypres and after lunch the men marched off to Steenvoorde, where the whole brigade assembled. The 8th Battalion travelled from there to Vlamertinge, about 3 miles west of Ypres in buses. Thomas and his comrades sang songs as they travelled along, which quite surprised any Belgians they passed. Thomas noted evidence of war in the countryside and as they came nearer their destination they could hear the thundering of the guns. They moved into billets where Thomas spent the night in a barn and slept soundly, in spite of the noise from the front.
On Saturday morning came the news that they had to stand to arms, as they may be needed any time. They waited all day; making their own meals as best they could and were later allowed into town for a while. Here they saw many soldiers and also ambulances coming in carrying the wounded from the front. At seven that evening they were ordered to march towards the trenches. Along the road to Ypres they passed many local refugees fleeing from the town. It started to rain but Thomas and his comrades sang a few songs to cheer themselves up. When they arrived at Ypres, Thomas was shocked at the devastation there, “this once beautiful town in ruins”, “cathedral was razed to the ground”.
They moved towards the trenches, which they reached about 3.00 am on Sunday morning. Thomas with “A” Company, plus “D” Company, moved forward and relieved some Canadians. The Germans were holding trenches about 150-200 yards further on. Thomas and his comrades were exposed there on three sides to the superior number of German troops and their overwhelming firepower. Thomas and his comrades had very little food and saw little prospect of getting any as at about 6.00 am the Germans began shelling their communication lines. By 9 o’clock that Sunday morning the noise was terrific with shells roaring overhead and bursting behind them. Early that afternoon a German observation plane flew overhead and Thomas saw the occupants drop something; the shells then began to drop more accurately. Their trenches suffered heavily from high explosive shells, mixed with shrapnel. During the afternoon the Germans attacked several times, but were driven off by rapid rifle fire, but not without heavy losses, especially in “A” Company. By late afternoon the ammunition was low, the men tired and a decision was made to retire. The way back lay across open fields which led to more casualties. Total losses across the Battalion for 24th to 26th April 1916 were 9 officers killed, 9 wounded and 2 missing; other ranks had 81 killed, 153 wounded and 340 missing. Of the 101 men from Bede College, 17 had died, 10 were wounded and 31 taken prisoner.
Thomas had survived but had been shot through his right arm and had a bullet wound to his left thigh also. He returned to England and spent time in several hospitals and eventually in a convalescence home in Derby. Once recovered Thomas did not immediately return to France. Instead, he was involved with the drilling of new recruits and promoted to Sergeant Major.
On 24th June 1916 Thomas, now aged 23, married 26 year old May Dickinson Hedley. As mentioned in the last issue, Thomas and May had started teaching at Guide Post Primary School the same day in September 1911. The wedding took place, by licence, at Hexham Abbey. Thomas’s mother was caretaker at the Abbey Buildings so it was a short walk from there to the Abbey that summer’s day.
A month later Thomas rejoined his regiment in Flanders, now fighting just south of Ypres. He was able to enjoy a concert given by the N.F.A. at the Y.M.C.A tent near Kemmel hill on the evening of 31st July before moving to the trenches the next night where the Battalion remained for 7 days.
On 8th August the men were relieved, then spent the next week travelling southwest towards the Somme. Most of the journey was by marching, but a train was used between Godewaersvelde and Feinvillers-Candas. By 17th August they had reached Baizieux woods, just outside Albert to the North of the river Somme. There were no shelters here so the men had to make bivouacs of leaves and branches of trees, covered with groundsheets. During their stay in the woods there were some heavy showers and they found these makeshift shelters of little use. They spent their time training: practising “going over”and attacking as a battalion, interspersed with short route marches. On 10th September the Battalion moved east through Albert to Bencourt Wood and on towards the front. On 14th they relieved the Northumberland Fusiliers near Mametz, and moved forward the following day. While in their trench the men got their first sight of a British tank; some 40 of these had made their debut that day against the Germans. On 18th September the Battalion moved into a new line. However it rained heavily all day and the newly dug trenches fell in on all sides. The whole area was soon a sea of mud, several feet deep in places. The German artillery had taken up a new position and kept up a heavy bombardment. In spite of no rest or rations, the Battalion held these trenches another two days until relieved and moved back from the line for a few days’ rest.
The Battalion moved forward again on 28th September, the line having advanced about a mile while they were in reserve. For the next few days the Battalion were involved with heavy fighting. On 29th September the Battalion went forward and in spite of heavy losses succeeded in holding onto their position. On 1st October, a fine and sunny Sunday morning, the whole brigade attacked, following a bombardment by the British on the German front lines. The Battalion went over at 3.30 pm in 4 waves and fought for two days, suffering many losses. Heavy rain on the nights of 1st and 2nd October turned the trenches to quagmire. The 4th Northumberland Fusiliers relieved the Battalion on 3rd October, but as the trenches were impassable the men took to the open under the cover of fog to move back. The Battalion moved back to Henencourt for one month’s rest. 139 new recruits had arrived, to bring the Battalion up to strength.
For the resourceful leading of his platoon during this engagement Thomas was awarded the Military Medal. A formal presentation took place on 22nd October after Church Parade when Brigadier-General Cameron awarded ribbons to several men, including Thomas. The award was published in the London Gazette of 9th December 1916.
On 1st November 1916 the Battalion moved forward to Becourt and next day to camp near Mametz Wood. On 4th November the Battalion moved up the line to take over trenches in front of Butte de Warlencourt. On 5th November the Battalion went over to attack at the stronghold in front of Bapaume. It had been raining for weeks and trench where they lay or stood was in places 3 foot deep in mud. The Battalion was almost wiped out but again Thomas Chrisp survived. The remainder of the Battalion moved back to Mametz Wood for 3 weeks, working on the defences in the support line, then on 1st December moved to Bencourt Huts and next day to Warloy-Baillon for rest and training.
The Battalion celebrated Christmas Day with Daily Mail Plum Puddings, which were issued during the morning and said to be exceedingly good. On 27 December they marched to Albert and billeted there for 2 nights. Some of the Battalion visited a Picture Hall there. After a quiet New Year, the Battalion moved forward to the front line again on 4th January, where the weather was bad.
Thomas seems to have spent the next three months alternating between periods at the front line and respite back at camps, and sometimes marching to other areas of the line. Even back in camp there was danger from German shells, including “whizz-bangs” and occasionally gas shells. Training continued while away from the line and as Company Sergeant Major, Thomas would have spent time drilling his men. There were lighter moments though, as during March, while based at Mericourt for training, sports and football competitions were held. The Battalion football team did well in the divisional competition. Although the names are not recorded, Thomas’ previous success in football at school and college must have made him a strong contender for the team!
There is no evidence of Thomas returning to England during this period but men were granted leave occasionally. His wife, May, gave birth on 17th March 1917 and it would be nice to think he was able to visit his wife and see his baby son, John Thomas Hedley Chrisp.
From 30th March the Battalion travelled north, marching through snowstorms and bitter winds and reaching Arras on 11th April. The Germans had withdrawn to the Hindenburg Line, a heavily fortified line of defence they had been constructing over the previous winter. As part of the Second Battle of Arras, the Battalion went over the top near Heninel, on 14th April about 6.15 am. The Battalion was complimented for its good work during this engagement. They were relieved the following day but attacked again on 23rd April. The Battalion then moved back from the front line, taking part in yet more marching and training.
By June the Battalion were in trenches near the village of Cherisy. Thomas had his photograph taken with other Warrant Officers and Sergeants at Souastre. At 8 o’clock in the morning of Saturday 23rd June Thomas was entering his dug out when he was hit by a fishtail bomb (wizz-bang) and killed outright. He was 24 years old.
An obituary appeared in “The Bede” in August 1917, written by a comrade of Thomas.
Killed in Action
Thomas Chrisp, ‘12-14 Coy Sgt Major DLI.
T Chrisp served with the old Battalion throughout. He escaped when so many fell in the unfortunate attempted attack on November 5 1916 and was given the Military Medal. “The whole Company mourns his loss. He was always a true friend to the men, and one to whom they always went in any trouble. If anyone was in want, of anything, they always said “go and ask the Major” meaning the Sergeant Major (Chrisp) and very rarely were they refused. A fish tail bomb killed him outright just as he was entering his dug out. Only the night before poor Chrisp had stood at my elbow after a Hun patrol had been driven off from a sap and we had discussed Bede”.
Thomas was buried nearby at Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery, a small cemetery of 86 casualties. Most of the men buried there are from other regiments who were killed in April 1917 but next to Thomas lies another 24 year old from his battalion, T Reed, who was killed two days after Thomas.
Thomas had made a will on 1st July 1916, just after his marriage, leaving everything to his wife, May. She was granted probate in April 1918. He had left just under £55. May returned to teaching in 1920 and remarried in 1945. Their infant son John grew up, married, had four children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Thomas is commemorated on War Memorials in Wooler, Alnwick Duke’s School, Choppington, Hexham, Bede College, and Durham and his name added to his parents’ gravestone in Alnwick Cemetery.
In spite of his father’s premature death in 1910, Thomas Chrisp had been able to remain at The Duke’s School, leaving in 1911 to work as a pupil teacher for a year, where he met his future wife. He then continued to Bede College, Durham, for a two-year teacher training programme, fulfilling his father’s wish that he become a schoolmaster. Thomas then went off to war, surviving the 2nd Battle of Ypres, where many of his comrades fell. Although wounded, he recovered and returned to the front taking part in further battles and engagements, he was promoted and decorated and then lost his life by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thomas is no longer just a name in a family tree or a casualty on a war memorial; his life and achievements have now been documented and he has taken on his own personality. In his memory I have shared his story with you.
Duke’s School Magazines
The Bede (Bede College magazine)
Northumberland County Council Education Committee Minutes
War Diary of the 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry
Veitch, Major E H, 8th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry 1793-1926, J H Veitch & Sons, 1926
The London Gazette, 8th December 1916, Supplement 9th December 1916
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website www.cwgc.org
Hexham Abbey Marriage Registers
North East War Memorials Project website www.newmp.org.uk
Family information via Trevor Grugan, great-nephew of Thomas Chrisp