Charlie Darch was born in 1893, the seventh in a family of eight children, the son of William Jesse, a farmer born in Winkleigh, who in 1878 had married Mary Jane Cornall, born in Chawleigh, and who was service at the age of 12. It was a crowded household. The first child, John, was born ca. 1879 in Chawleigh, but then it seems that William and Mary Jane moved to Dawlish where Emily (c.1882), William Robert (c.1884), Lillian (also c.1884) and Hilda Annie (1889) were all born. By 1890 it seems that the family had returned to Winkleigh (confirmed by the 1891 census) where Florence was born c.1890 followed by Charlie in 1893 and Frank in c.1900.
The 1911 census shows us that Charlie was living with Frank and their parents at Marshalls in Winkleigh. At the time of Charlie’s attestation and enlistment in 1915, however, his parents were living at Smithen Cottage, Winkleigh, while he himself had moved to Plymouth to join the police. Both John and William Robert had moved to Aberdare to work as coal-miners. Lillian was married to Robert Keenor in 1912, and the couple were living at Narracott. Florence married Charles Webber in 1915 and by 1919 was living at 16 Thornton Hill in Exeter.
Living at 29 Tavistock Place, Plymouth, and working as a policeman, Charlie was faced with the prospect that as the war progressed it would eventually become necessary for conscription to be introduced, and that despite the fact that police work might well be regarded as a ‘reserved occupation’, he might very soon find himself drafted. It is astonishing to realise that the huge casualties of 1914, together with the battles of 1915, the catastrophe of Gallipoli and the dreadful losses in Mesopotamia were all fought by British and Empire volunteers. But by late 1915 the old pre-war army had gone, the Territorials were all in action and the first Divisions of the New Army had already been devastated. Conscription was a very unwelcome and political nightmare for the Asquith government, since compulsory service had always been largely regarded as a ‘continental’ and not a ‘British’ way of organising the military, and there was huge opposition in the country to its introduction. A compromise had to be found and the answer was the ‘Derby Scheme’.
The Derby Scheme, first announced to the country on 15th October 1915, comprised a personal canvass of every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-one on the basis of the National Register. Each man was asked either to join at once or attest, and committees were set up in every locality. In Winkleigh, Col. Alexander was in the forefront. Single men and married men formed two groups: each were sub-divided into a further twenty-three groups according to age, to be called up in strict order, starting with the single men aged 19, and the married men to be called only after the single men had all been enlisted. Tribunals were set up for those seeking exemption from attestation or postponement on grounds of special hardship or essential war-work. Those who attested could still, in theory, choose their branch of the army in which to serve although pressure was brought on as many as possible to serve in the infantry. The scheme was no more than a partial success, as many argued that since three million men had already come forward, 75% over and above the numbers Kitchener had called for, there was no need for further recruitment. Fewer than half those available had attested, the tribunals had been too liberal in granting exemptions, and more men were indeed needed when the Derby scheme was finally closed on 15th December. As a result, the conscription bill affecting single men was introduced into the House of Commons on 5th January 1916, becoming law on 27th. In March 1916 the youngest group of married men who had attested were of necessity also called up. A second military service bill, introduced on 3rd May 1916, became law on 25th May, and extended the liability for military service to all men between eighteen and forty-one.
It is possible of course, but we cannot know for certain, that Charlie either did not attest at first, or perhaps he appealed and was turned down. The strong appeal of the Derby Scheme was that men who had previously volunteered or who now attested could choose the branch of the services in which to serve, in contrast to conscripted men who had no choice at all. Charlie hesitated and then decided: just four days before the scheme closed he attested. His choice was for the Royal Garrison Artillery, involved among other theatres of war in coastal defence, with one of five recruitment depots in Plymouth. Much safer than the infantry or even the Field Artillery, the RGA offered a possible home defence service or at worst a much safer war. It was a clever choice.
Having attested on 11th December 1915 the document ‘Statement of Services’ gives us a record of what happened next. Unmarried, at the age of 23 years and 7 months, Charlie might have expected a fairly short wait before enlistment but in fact it was a full six months before he was called up. Officially in the ‘army reserve’ he was mobilized on 15th June 1916 and posted for basic training to No.3 Depot, RGA, at Plymouth. This lasted 4 weeks, consisting mainly of drill, kit inspections, musketry, route marching and physical fitness – the usual introduction to army life. On 21st July Charlie was posted to ‘H’ Battery at the same depot, to begin his artillery training, another 4 week’s course. Then, on 23rd August, he left Plymouth to join ‘B Siege Depot’ of the RGA at the Bexhill-on-Sea Gunnery Training School for the next stage. Already an experienced police officer, Charlie gained rapid promotion and on 20th November 1916 was appointed ‘acting Bombadier (paid)’, the equivalent rank in the infantry to full Corporal. The course lasted some twelve weeks (probably with Christmas or New Year leave) and on 13th January 1917 he was posted to 328 (S) Reserve Battery (Service Battery), Prees Heath camp, Whitchurch, where firing with live ammunition out to sea could be included in the training. Wider political events were now taking place that would shape Charlie’s future, and just 4 weeks later, on 14th February, he was posted to 322 (S) Reserve Battery at North Camp, Aldershot. It was the first stage of a journey that would lead him to war-service in Italy. His niece, Mary Darch, passed on a story told her by her uncle, Charlie’s brother-in-law who was married to Charley's sister Florence, of how his mother would always pause on the railway bridge crossing the line at Exeter station to remember the day she last saw off Charlie going away to Italy in 1917 at the end of his embarkation leave. Charlie was one of few British soldiers to serve in Italy, and one of the very few to have died there.
In spite of being part of the pre-war Triple Alliance of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy, Italy had longed to regain ‘Italia Irredenta’, the Italian speaking provinces ruled by Austria. The war gave Italy a chance to fulfil this dream. On 26th April 1915 Italy signed the secret Treaty of London bringing Italy into the war on the promise that after the war she would acquire the whole Trentino as far as the Brenner Pass, Trieste and also parts of the Dalmatian coast. The war thus involved two areas of Northern Italy, the foothills of the mountains along the eastern edge of the Lombardy plain (often referred to as the ‘Venetian Plain’) an area known as the Trentino, and the area east of the Isonzo and Piave rivers, the aim here being the capture and occupation of Trieste. The Italians and Austrians fought twelve major battles along the Isonzo, as ferocious and costly as anything seen on the Western front.
The town of Gorizia, well defended on the western side by three mountains, of which the highest is Mt. Saboyino (609 m.) lies on the edge of the Carso, an infertile limestone plateau stretching south from Gorizia to the coast, 100-200 metres above the river Isonzo. The Carso was a huge defensive barrier with innumerable bunkers and gun positions dug into the limestone rock. North of Gorizia is an equally foreboding plateau, the Bainsizza, less well defended, but leading nowhere. It was not until the 6th Battle of the Isonzo, in August 1916 that the Italians captured Gorizia and pushed the front line to the edge of the Carso, but little progress was made in the following three battles. Italy was desperately short of heavy artillery, and General Cadorna appealed to the British and French for support, to prepare for the 10th battle.
On 7th December 1916, Asquith resigned and Lloyd George became Prime Minister and head of a new coalition government. With stalemate on the Western Front, and in spite of the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, Lloyd George was convinced that the war might be won if Germany could be attacked on other fronts. Immediately on achieving office he insisted on answering Cadorna's plea and sending heavy guns to support the next attack on the Carso. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Robertson, together with the other Western Front Generals, were against the plan. On 12th December Robertson wrote to Haig : ‘He is after sending some of your big guns to Italy during the winter. I've no doubt we can keep him straight.’ Shortly afterwards, an allied conference was held in Rome in January 1917 and Lloyd George now presented a plan without first briefing Robertson, to send aid to Russia, increase the British contingent in Salonika and give heavy artillery support to Italy. Italy, he hoped, would with British help, seize Trieste, defeat Austria and open a way to drive up into Germany. Cadorna, however, asked for 300 heavy guns and 8 divisions of Infantry, an impossible request. All we could offer was two Brigades of siege artillery and a similar number from the French - and even those the French required back for an offensive planned for April 1917, long before Cadorna could launch his next battle.
1917 was the year of renewed and ultimately unsuccessful attempts of the allies to achieve the break-though on the Western Front that would ultimately bring the war to an end. On the Western Front, on Easter Monday, April 9th, British and Canadian forces launched simultaneous offensives at Arras and Vimy Ridge, using a new method of protecting the infantry in an attack, the so-called ‘creeping barrage’, but the German third line could not be penetrated, snow blizzards weakened the troops and after a dent of four miles was made in the German lines the battle was closed down on April 15th. The following day the French offensive on the Aisne began under General Nivelle. The result was a disaster, the troops advancing no more than 600 yards, and suffering about 100,000 casualties. In Palestine, the British launched a second attempt to capture Gaza, but again there was nothing but failure. On the Salonika front on April 24th, the British attacked the Bulgarian positions above Lake Doiran, but with no success. The day before, and against the advice of his generals, Haig renewed the Arras offensive at Monchy-le-Preux. By 7th May the British were reduced to the last reserves and the battle was finally closed down. Meanwhile, the Russian front was crumbling and their armies disintegrating. It was against this background of failure and disappointment that General Cadorna was urged to open the 10th Battle of the Isonzo, to give some relief to the Allies, desperate to draw down some at least of the Austrian forces on the Russian front.
At the end of March 1917 Robertson and General Weygand visited the Italian Front and saw for themselves how the Carso front lacked depth, the lack of co-operation between the artillery and the infantry and the almost total absence of battlefield communications. They had grave misgivings, but Italy needed support to encourage her to contain as large an Austrian army as possible, and so as a compromise it was decided that two Brigades of Siege Artillery, 40 guns, would be sent in early April to the Carso. This was the area reached by Charlie’s battery on 7th April 1917, to join the Italian third army on the east bank of the Isonzo, south of Gradisca.
Thus it was largely for political reasons that the 94th and 95th Brigades of the Royal Garrison Artillery took part in both the 10th and 11th Battles of the Isonzo, in the area of the Carso. Both Brigades were ‘New Army’ units, consisting of 5 Siege batteries, officered and commanded by regulars. Each Battery consisted of four 6” howitzers, each gun weighing 3.25 tons, capable of firing high explosive shells weighing 112.5 lbs with a maximum range of 5,200 yards. As we have seen, Charlie had so far not left England - the Brigades were both stationed in Aldershot for training - when on 5th April the order arrived for mobilisation to proceed to Italy. Embarkation leave was quickly granted, and after a week of frantic activity the Battery, complete with its heavy guns, entrained for Southampton, and embarked for Le Havre on the cross-channel ship the S.S.Courtfield. It took more than a day to load the guns and Le Havre was reached only on 16th. Seven days of drill, route marching and gas drills in the bull ring followed before entraining on 21st for the long journey across France. After 4 days in the cattle trucks (20 men per truck, sleeping on a handful of straw), with the officers of course in carriages, the exhausted troops arrived at the rail head at Cervignano. From there the Battery proceeded to Palmanova and finally arrived at Fogliano, with Brigade H.Q. stationed at Casa Bianca under the code name of ‘B1 Group’. The XC1V Group were based just south of the junction of the Isonzo and Vipacco rivers, while the XCV Group were further south, on the east bank of the Isonzo river, south of Gradisca. Three Batteries were in emplacements at Doberdo, two, including 322 Battery at Debeli. All were close to each other. On 30th April 1917 the 322 battery opened fire for the first time on the Austrian lines, and remained in constant action until 5th October.
The 10th battle was due to begin on 7th May, bad weather delayed the start for 5 days, during which the artillery, in greater numbers that seen before, were ordered to keep up a steady rate of bombardment on the Austrian lines. This initial bombardment, in support of the first phase of the battle in the area of Goriza, began on 12th May. The battle was in two phases, with the action on the Lower Isonzo by the Italian Third Army opening on May 23rd. Here, the effective display of artillery, the fiercest seen on the Carso Plateau, was very much to the credit of the British siege batteries, who were in action over a period of six hours. The Italian 3rd army, commanded by the Duke of Aosta, consisted of 16 Divisions, 530 heavy guns, 1670 field guns and 63 trench mortar batteries. Facing them on the southern Carso and defying any attempt of the Italians to push through and capture Trieste, the Austrians held the ground with only 6 Divisions and 1400 guns. They were, however in a series of strongly entrenched positions, and held the higher ground. In spite of immense Italian casualties no ground was gained in the first assaults. On 24th and 25th the infantry rolled over three Austrian lines to capture a band of territory three miles deep from the central Carso to the sea. The battle lasted 18 days until 29th May, and although many of the hill-tops gained were lost again, it was an Italian victory of sorts with over 23,000 Austrians taken prisoner. The 10th Battle was, however, horribly expensive. The Italians had 36,000 killed out of a total of 150,000 casualties. The Austrians lost only 7,300 killed. The inevitable counter-attack by the Austrians opened on 6th June : the enemy attack on the Selo Ridge was repulsed thanks to the British guns : 3031 rounds were fired in that one day alone.
On August 19th the Italians attacked again, in the 11th Battle of the Isonzo. This time no less than 51 divisions would attack along a 60 kilometre front, with massive supremacy in artillery. The main area was to be north of Gorizia, an area known as the Bainsizza Plateau. Six kilometres of ground were gained in a most spectacular advance, necessitating moving the heavy artillery across the river but in the rocky terrain the attack petered out and the Italians had to withdraw. The attack was also be made in the Southern Carso. Here the Third Army dented the Austrian lines in three places, the biggest advance being in the hamlet of Selo, long since completely destroyed of course. The battle opened with a huge barrage, the infantry going over at 5.33 on 19th, pushing the Austrians back four miles and out of range of the supporting Heavy Artillery. This necessitated a move across the Isonzo to the right bank. By the 6th September, in the lower Carso area, after repeated attacks and counter-attacks the Italians were back again in their old front-line and the battle was closed down. Between the Carso and Gorizia a push up the Vipacco valley gained some ground but the Italians were pushed back to their start line. The Austrian counter-attack on August 28th was repulsed, and the 11th battle was finally closed down on 20th September. On 18th December Cadorna put all the Isonzo forces on the defensive and Britain and France decided to recall the Siege Artillery, since the Italians seemed to have little further use for them.
The 11th battle of the Isonzo compares well with Passchendaele. In all, Italy had gained 6 miles of mountainous terrain, including five mountain peaks, the most important of which was Monte Santo east of Gorizia. Between the Bainsizza and the Carso, the major obstacle was now San Gabriele : 25,000 Italian infantry died on that peak alone without securing it. In all some 40,000 Italians were killed out of 166,000 casualties. The Austrians lost 140,000 men killed, missing or wounded together with 20,00 Austrian and German prisoners. It was a technical victory that felt very much like a defeat. In addition, the Italians were beginning to desert in large numbers, 10,000 alone in July and August, in return for which General Cadorna, in revenge, now began the notorious policy of ‘decimation’ - executing every 10th man in a unit. Austria, too, was weakening by mid-September 1917 in this somewhat senseless war of attrition, and appealed to Germany for help. In spite of Germany (in the words of Ludendorff) being ‘shackled to a corpse’, the Germans could not afford to see Austria defeated and drop out of the war: reinforcements were sent to her aid. The result was the massive Italian defeat at Caporetto (the 12th Battle of the Isonzo) with the Italian forces driven right back to a defensive line in the River Piave. It was only after the 12th Battle that 2 British and 4 French Divisions were rushed to the new front on the Piave to save the Italians from total defeat. This support was further increased in the summer of 1918 to bring the total to 5 British and 6 French Divisions, all ‘reserves’ sent out from home rather than front-line troops that could not be withdrawn from the Western Front.
As Robertson and Weygand had already reported, the Italian army was woefully inadequate, lacking either competent commanders or working communication systems between the artillery and infantry in both defence and attack. The British Artillery Groups, commanded by regular and experienced officers who had served in France, were horrified. They were supplied by the Italians with virtually no information on targets or the timing of infantry attacks - indeed even when a timed attack was planned, the hours were never adhered to. Because of this, and fearful of inflicting casualties on the Italian troops, the barrage was usually lifted far too soon, thus giving no support to the infantry in passing over the last four or five hundred yards of open and difficult ground before reaching the enemy trenches. On 20th September after the supreme commander, General Cadorna, closed down the struggle, the British batteries were withdrawn on 5th October, to move to Egypt.
Situated well behind the front and firing their massive shells over the heads of the infantry, the Battery was in no danger from snipers, and virtually none from retaliatory fire. Almost as soon as they arrived, however, the Austrians became well aware that the Italian 2nd Heavy Artillery Group supporting XI corps, Third Army, had been massively reinforced and were keen to find out what was going on. The Brigade war diary records what happened next.
‘On the night of 3.5.17 two enemy aeroplanes dropped bombs on Fogliamo. Raid commenced at about 11.0pm 3.5.17 and lasted until 1.00 am 4.5.17. Huts were set on fire as a result of bomb explosions. Anti-aircraft guns were fired at the aeroplanes but without visible effect. British Casualties : 1 killed, 19 injured. Italian casualties : 16 killed, 30 injured. 5.5.17 : Bombardier Darch 322 Battery died of wounds received in the air raid.’
Further air raids produced no further casualties, but on 10th May the Brigade suffered its second death when Gunner George Johnson of 304 Battery was drowned at Fogliamo, presumably in the river. His body was recovered on 13th May. Both men were buried in the Gradisca communal cemetery.
The Royal Garrison Artillery guns in action a few days after Charlie Darch died.
On 28th September the orders came for the Brigade to move from Italy to Egypt, entraining at Cervignano, still part of the 95th Heavy Artillery Group. Arriving in Egypt on 20th October the Battery became part of the 61st Heavy Artillery Group, remaining in Egypt until 4th April 1918. They then moved to Salonika where they remained until the end of the war.
Charlie Darch had been extremely unlucky to have been killed, as the Brigade suffered only 4 deaths and 49 wounded during their entire Italian campaign.
May, 2 killed, 19 injured.
June and July, no casualties.
August, 1 killed, 14 wounded.
September, 1 killed, 16 wounded.
Following initial burial in the area of his death in the Gradisca communal cemetery, in 1973 Charlie’s body, one of the 30 First World War casualties buried there, was moved and re-buried in the second world war cemetery which lies near the village of Piangpiane, just outside Ravenna.
The official letter to next of kin, informing William and Mary Jane of Charlie’s death was not despatched until a month later on 7th June (an indication of the volume of work passing through the Royal Artillery Records Office) and the order to send his effects to the parents at Smithen Cottage, Winkleigh, followed on 15th June. An order to settle Charlie’s pay up to the date of death was made to the Regimental Paymaster from 322 Battery on 4th October, and was received on 1st December 1917.
In order to obtain the medals and other effects due to his next-of-kin after the war, on 29th April 1919 Mary Jane completed the appropriate form, witnessed by Dr. Clements (Names and addresses of Deceased’s Relatives). From this we learn that since 1911 the family had become somewhat scattered. William and Mary Jane were living at Lower Narracott, Winkleigh, having moved back there during the war. Both Charlie’s brother John had survived the war and returned to Aberdare, South Wales, to re-join his brother as a coal miner; their descendents living there still. The youngest brother, Frank, who had enlisted in the Devons but was spared war-service because of the Armistice, was working with his father at Narracott. Emily now aged 39 had married William Henry Passmore in 1905 was living at Hollocombe, Wembworthy. Lillian (now aged 33) had married Robert Keenor in 1912 and was also living at Lower Narracott. Hilda Annie, aged 30, who had married John Marles in 1911 was living at 20 Auckland Road, Devonport, and the youngest sister, Florence now aged 29 had married Charles Webber in 1915 and was living at 16 Thornton Hill, Exeter.
It is more than likely that Charlie’s parents made the request that was so earnestly desired after the war by so many, that his body should be returned to his family in Winkleigh, but no exceptions could be made to the rule. Instead the Director-General of Graves Registrations of the then Imperial War Graves Commission authorised photos to be taken of the cemetery at Gradisca and Charlie’s grave, and sent with an acknowledgement to the family. Preserved too is the memorial card sent by the loving parents to friends and relatives, containing the inscriptions and a poem: