Albert Jones was born in 1886, the son of William Jones, a blacksmith who in 1911 was living with his wife Mary on the Exeter Road. An unmarried elder sister, Bessie, born about 1877, completed the household. Albert followed his father’s trade as a blacksmith, a vital occupation in a farming village dependent entirely on horses.
We are extremely fortunate that a number of Albert’s army documents have survived from among the majority of those destroyed in the London blitz, and they give a clear picture of his service both at home and in France. The actual date of his arrival in France is not recorded on his medal card, but it is information we can see on his documents, and we know that he served in the war zone for just over two years. Albert was conscripted (Document 1) under the Military Service Act of 27 January 1916 which brought conscription into play for the first time in the war. It was extended and new conditions implemented in legislation of 25 May 1916, which was known as the Military Service Act, 1916 (Session 2). Together they were known as the Military Service Acts, 1916, to include all men, both married and single, who had been at any time resident in Great Britain since 4 August 1914 and who had attained the age of 18 but was not yet 41. A medical certificate was provided to complete enrolment, (Document 2). Men who failed the medical and enrolment were told they would not be needed again; those who passed, as with Albert Jones, were told they would have another medical when called up. The horse-drawn Royal Field Artillery was the most numerous arm of the artillery, responsible for the medium calibre guns and howitzers, deployed close to the front line and reasonably mobile. It was organised into brigades, with usually 4, but occasionally a varying number of batteries, within each brigade. A battery at full strength numbered 198 personnel (something equivalent to an infantry company within a battalion) which included the battery commander (usually a major), a captain as second in command, with three lieutenants or second-lieutenants each in charge of a two-gun section. To assist in the care of the horses each battery would include a farrier–sergeant and four shoeing-smiths. A howitzer battery would thus include six 5” howitzers, with 16 guns to the artillery brigade, each gun drawn by four to six horses. We are therefore looking at something like a total of 100 horses per battery to be fed, watered and looked after as carefully as possible.
Documents 3 and 4 relate to Albert’s service records, the units in which he served and when, as well as the progress he made in his army life. He was called up for service on 24th October 1916, and enlisted in Barnstaple. Albert had requested to serve in the Army Service Corps where he could continue to work with horses, but unlike those who had volunteered, enlisted men could be posted to any unit, although the army obviously made the best use possible of any trade or profession. In Albert’s case he was directed to the Royal Field Artillery. He was first posted to No.4 Depot at Woolwich for basic training where he passed his Certificate of Trade Proficiency as a shoeing-smith at the School of Farriery (Documents 5, 6 and 7) on 27th November 1916. He was posted at once to the 13th Battery of 3A Reserve Brigade at Hilsea Barracks, Larkhill. From there on 16th February 1917 Albert was posted to France to join 129 Battery (Howitzer) 42 Brigade RFA, (a unit of Britain's pre-war regular army).
42nd Brigade was originally comprised of numbers 29, 41 and 45 Field-Gun Batteries RFA and the Brigade Ammunition Column. It was placed under command of 3rd Division and went to France with it in August 1914. 129 (Howitzer) Battery joined the brigade having been detached from the 30th (Howitzer) Brigade of the same division, on 14 May 1916. We are very fortunate that the war diary of the 42nd Brigade has survived to outline for us his war service. (WO95/1401/1) Albert was comparatively safe in his occupation of shoeing-smith with a fortunately high chance of surviving the war. The farriers were of course in the Battery H.Q. where horses requiring attention would have been treated. Any serious cases would be treated at Brigade H.Q., or sent further back to the Remounts depots or Vetinary hospitals. Farriers might occasionally be further forward with either of the two battery howitzer gun sections but these specialist trades were vital to the brigade and too valuable to risk near the gun lines. In addition, howitzer sections were located far back from the infantry front line, sometimes up to 15 or 20 miles away from the main action. There were really only two dangers apart from accidents or disease: aerial bombing, (but it would indeed be an unlucky chance to be hit with the primitive aiming techniques of the day), or a more likely circumstance, counter-battery firing from the enemy’s own long-range guns. So unusual was it to have a casualty in a howitzer battery that quite often an individual man’s name might be listed in the war-diary as a casualty, a circumstance nearly always reserved for officers in the infantry.
The 129th Howitzer Battery had only recently joined the 42nd Brigade, on 14th May 1916 in time for the opening of the Somme offensive on 1st July. On 18th January 1917 the Brigade moved into rest north-west of Amiens. Three days’ later the 129th Battery was increased in size from 4 to 6 howitzers bringing in many more horses to be cared for. On 29th January the rest period continued in billets at Fillievres, a two day’s march away where they stayed until 18th March, and it was here that Albert Jones joined the 129 Battery as a shoeing-smith on 16th February.
A major offensive at Arras was being planned but this was forestalled by the German line being shortened and moved back on 18th March to the immensely strong new German ‘Hindenburg Line’ – leaving the area which was abandoned destroyed and booby-trapped. The guns of the 129th Battery finally opened fire at 7.30 am on 9th April, the opening phase of the Battle of Arras. The initial advance was rapid and overwhelming, and already by 11th the 129th was moving forward over captured ground in the area of Tilloy, just south-east of Arras. By the 15th the 129th was near the Arras-Cambrai road, but here they were badly shelled with counter-battery fire for nearly a week from 13th – 19th April as German resistance hardened. On 19th a move was possible to Wancourt, south-west of Arras where the Battery established itself in a more permanent position. The new front line now stabilized and the Brigade remained in their positions until 24th June, when they went into rest at Berneville, south-west of Arras.
The 129th Battery were now in for a relatively quiet time. On 2nd July the brigade took over from an Australian brigade east of Hoplincourt, moving in August to Morchies, another quiet area. However, on 14th/15th August they were on the move again, back to the Ypres area, in preparation for what was to be known as the Battle of Passchendaele. The guns were dug-in near Wieltse, East of Poperinghe, in support of the renewed attack on the German line that had now been driven back to stretch roughly from Langemarck – Gheluveldt. The attack opened at 5.40 on 20th September, with an infantry advance through the mud up the Passchendaele Ridge and a simultaneous attack along the Menin Road. Very little progress was made, with the infantry completely bogged down in the mud and unable to destroy the blockhouses which had replaced the German forward trenches. Meanwhile, Brigade Headquarters was situated in dug-outs in the ramparts of Ypres. 129 Battery was in constant action, firing gas shells as well as high-explosive, the Germans responding with constant bombarding of the Battery on 13th, 14th and 15th as the infantry finally struggled up the Passchendaele Ridge in appalling weather, the mud being recorded as ‘very deep’ even in the Brigade’s back areas. There is no record of any casualties, and on 16th September the Brigade moved into rest near Steenvorde. By 22nd October the Brigade was in rest with billets in Gommecourt near Baupaume. They were soon on the move to a new battle area, preparing for the assault on Cambrai that began on 20th November, a battle now renowned for the first use of tanks in massive formations breaking through the German lines, but sadly unable to exploit the victory with any further advance, and ending with the German counter-attacks reclaiming almost all that had been gained. The Battery was situated at Mort Homme, 1 mile west of Ecoust, in continuous action. On 15th the Brigade moved into rest for Christmas at Ervillers, and this was followed by a quiet time back to Ecoust for the first two months of 1918.
The great and final German offensive of the war between the Sensee and the Oise rivers opened on 21st March 1918 with the British defences broken West of St.Quentin. The Germans used the greatest quantity of guns even seen on the Western Front, and the newly trained storm troopers raised by transferring huge numbers from the Eastern Front following the treaty of Brest-Litovsk which had been signed with Russia on 3rd March, knocking her out of the war. No less than 102 German Divisions were involved against the British lines defended by only 14 Divisions. The war-diary of the 42nd Brigade reveals the panic caused in the collapse of the British defences, the astonishingly rapid German advance and the necessity of withdrawing the heavy guns further and further back. On 21st March the Brigade had been deployed around Henniel, and was employed all day shelling the areas that had been overrun, including saturation with gas shells. The Brigade withdrew back almost immediately on 23rd, and thence every day or so, until on 30th they were back in Bethune, where they stayed, the line being held just East of Amiens as the Germans outran their own supply lines. The violent assaults continued but by May 1st a quieter period of stalemate followed, leaving only big-gun artillery duels to control the line, while the allies gathered their forces for the final offensives of the war which opened on 18th July. On 8th August the Second and decisive battle of Amiens began the great German retreat. On September 1st the 42nd Brigade was once again East of Ecoust and moved back into rest for a week. A steady series of movements followed, September 12th to East of Havringcourt so that by the end of the month they were crossing the old Cambrai battlefields. By October 21st the Brigade was East of the River Selle, moving forward steadily almost every day, until by November 9th they were in rest at Obies. Here the war ended on 11th and after 10 days the slow move forward into Germany began, the Brigade forming part of the army of occupation. Travelling some 16 miles per day they crossed the German border on 14th December, and finally came into permanent billets in Winden, near Coblenz. Here they stayed during January and February. The last entry in the war diary is dated February 28th 1919 and states that the waiting time before demobilisation was filled with ‘training, recreational training and education’. With the war over the war-diary was discontinued in the Brigade after that date.
A shoeing smith would usually be needed in any unit right up to the time of the final demobilisation programme. Interestingly, Albert’s Protection Certificate, Document 9 (issued on demobilisation to all men, proving their discharge) mentioned Ireland as the Brigade Headquarters. This means that at some time after March 1st 1919 the 42nd Brigade had been posted from Germany to Ireland. The 42nd Brigade was part of the pre-war Regular Army, and obviously remained so, although it seems likely that the attached 129th Battery (Howitzer) was withdrawn or disbanded, which of course would open the way for Albert Jones’ demobilisation. He was posted to 3A Reserve Brigade at Larkhill on 27th May, and on 12th August posted to the demobilisation camp at Fovant where he had to wait his turn. Demobilisation finally took place on 2nd November 1919. Albert was given 28 days’ paid leave and £2 advance of pay, together with a rail warrant to return to Winkleigh.
Document 8 records that he remained medically A1 throughout the war, and we can therefore conclude that Albert was able to return to work in the family smithy. He was awarded the Victory and British medals: he had served his country well and Winkleigh could justly be proud of him.
16 July 2011