Five local men were killed in action on 20th September 1917. This was the first day of the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, which lasted until 25th September and marked a change in British infantry tactics.
Although previous attacks had penetrated the lightly-defended German front lines, exhausted troops then came under sustained counter-attack and failed to penetrate the second line. The new strategy was designed to attack a small part of the front line, first with heavy bombardment, and then by troops in strength under a creeping barrage 1000 yards deep, protecting the advancing infantry. Once through the lines and having reached their objectives, troops were then to stop and dig in. A second wave of infantry could then pass through to attack the next objective.
Local men who lost their lives in this action were:
- Private Richard Sydney Greaves, 6th Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment
- Private Thomas Henry Lloyd, 10th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment
- Sergeant Septimus Pryce, 6th Battalion, Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry
- Corporal Percy John Shirley, 10th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment
- Sergeant Harry Taylor, 10th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment
Richard Sydney Greaves (known as Sydney) was born in Birmingham in 1898 and was the fourth of the six children (five sons, one daughter) born to parents Herbert (an electrical switch maker) and Mary Jane (née Gabriel) who had married in February 1891.
In 1904, Herbert Greaves died and his son Sydney was admitted to Marston Green Cottage Homes, presumably as his mother was left unable to provide for the children without her husband’s income. Sydney’s mother, Mary Jane, remarried in 1909 and, by 1911, had her youngest children – Sydney (13), Winifred Emily Mary (10), and Francis Wilfred (10) – living with her and her second husband, general labourer George Hill.
Sydney was killed during the first day of the Battle of the Menin Road, on the Ypres Salient. At 5.40am the Battalion advanced to the attack under a heavy creeping barrage from Allied artillery. Within 37 minutes of Zero, the company had reached its objective and began to consolidate its position. The Battalion War Diary (on the Ancestry website, available free of charge from library computers) reports several casualties hit by snipers and machine gun fire.
Private Greaves has no known grave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial. He is also commemorated locally on the war memorial of Marston Green Cottage Homes.
Thomas Henry Lloyd was born in Olton in 1889 and was the sixth of the 12 known children (eight sons,four daughters) of parents James (a farm labourer) and Elizabeth Jane (née Roberts) who had married in 1878. Their eldest child, James, was born and died in 1878. They gave the name Jim to their third son, born in 1884, presumably to ensure that the name carried on for another generation. As well as being the name of the children’s father, James was the name of their maternal grandfather, too.
The family moved from Hall Green to Olton between 1881 and 1891, and then seem to have remained in the Kineton Green area until at least 1911. In 1893, James Lloyd came fourth in the category “ploughing an acre of land” in the annual Warwickshire Agricultural Show, held in Solihull for the first time. Eight years later, the show returned to Solihull for the second time and, in 1901, James Lloyd took first prize in the category of ploughing “in the best manner a quarter of an acre, not less than five inches deep with two horses abreast, without a driver.”
At 5.40am on Thursday 20th September 1917, former hay and straw carter, Thomas Henry Lloyd from Olton, was one of the 28 soldiers from the 10th Worcesters who attacked the German front line but were then reported missing. One officer and 20 men from the battalion were killed, with seven officers and 95 men wounded.
Thomas’s body was never identified, and he is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial. He is also commemorated on war memorials at St Margaret’s Church, Olton and at Olton United Reformed Church.
Septimus Harcell Pryce was born in Knowle on 17th December 1896, but his family moved to Shirley sometime before 1901. By 1911, Septimus had left the family home and was an errand boy, boarding with the Aldington family in New Road, Solihull. Despite his name, he was not the seventh child or seventh son. In fact, he was the eighth son and the 11th of the 12 children of parents John (a coachman) and French-born Marie Elizabeth (née Dieudonné) who had married in Oswestry in 1879. The family then set up home in Umberslade, before moving to Knowle.
Septimus’s brother, Stanley Theodore, was killed in 1916. Two other brothers – John Alfred (1884-1941) and Francois Xavier (1886-1978) – are also known to have served. John, a motor lorry driver by trade, joined the Army Service Corps just three months after war broke out and was discharged in May 1919. Septimus also volunteered for armed service, and first entered a Theatre of War on 29th July 1915.
The battalion war diary reports 19th September 1917 as a “quiet day with a little hostile shelling”. The companies then moved forward into assembly areas as soon as it was dark, all being in position by 2am, although “A” Company sustained ten casualties whilst moving up. The following day, at 5:41am, as dawn was just breaking, oil drums were discharged, lighting up the sky and showing the assembled troops to the enemy. As soon as the leading lines came over the ridge and in view of the Germans in Eagle Trench, the attacking men came under sustained and heavy machine gun fire from five concrete pillboxes in the trench. “B” Company of the 6th Ox & Bucks Light Infantry lost all of its officers and most of its NCOs in the attack. By 6.30am, all companies were holed up in shell holes west of Eagle Trench and were digging in. They remained there all day, subject to fire from German snipers. At 6.30pm a further barrage came down on Eagle Trench. Lieutenant Cook took a party of men and bombed along the trench, having German soldiers surrender to him and meeting with little opposition until the bombs gave out. At this point, Lieutenant Cook sent riflemen forward to collect German stick bombs, which he then used to hold the trench. Pushing forward to Louis Farm, the party then linked up with the 6th Battalion, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry.
It’s not known which company Septimus served with but the Battalion War Diary gives a detailed and riveting account of the action in which he lost his life. The battalion was relieved on the evening of 21st September, with the war diary noting the casualties of the operation as: three officers killed and nine wounded. Other ranks: 40 killed, 122 wounded, 38 missing, probably killed.
Septimus Pryce was one of those missing, presumed killed. He has no known grave and is commemorated at Tyne Cot, as well as on the Shirley War Memorial.
Percy John Shirley was born in Meriden in 1892 and was the second of the seven children (four sons, three daughters) born to parents John George Shirley (hostler, or groom, later a beer house keeper) and Louisa (née Skidmore). The couple had married at Hampton-in-Arden on 21st May 1891 when John was aged 27 and Louisa was aged 21. Although both were born in Hampton, Louisa was working as a servant in Bordesley, Birmingham at the time of the 1891 census, and she gives Bordesley as her address on the marriage register.
It looks as if the couple had a son, Charles Shirley Skidmore, who was born in 1887, when his mother, Louisa, would have been 17. Without parental approval, Louisa would not have been able to marry before she reached the age of 21, which would have been in the autumn of 1890. At the time of the 1891 census, rather than being with his grandparents or extended family, four-year-old Charles Skidmore was a “nurse child” living in Bickenhill with Mary Savage, a 56-year-old widow, and her children. When a child was born out of wedlock, it was a common occurrence for the infant to be given the father’s surname as a middle name, as seems to have happened in this case. Once his parents married, Charles just dropped his birth surname.
By 1901, he was recorded on the census with the full name of Charles Shirley and, aged 14 he was working as a stable boy, and living in Bickenhill Lane, Hampton-in-Arden with his parents and younger siblings. He married Mabel Alice Case in Coventry in 1910, and the couple then emigrated to Canada. It looks as if they were joined after the war by a younger brother, Frank Leslie Shirley (born 1904). The remaining brother, William Henry, had died as an infant in 1909.
Unpublished research by the late Alan Tucker indicates that Percy Shirley was working for the Roulette Cycle Company in Coventry before he volunteered to join the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. In 1911, he was recorded as living at his parents’ home in Stonebridge and was working as a cycle packer. He first saw overseas service on 19th July 1915.
After the 10th Battalion, Royal Warwicks’ involvement in the Battle of Messines in June 1917, they were still out of the line at Fermoy Farm camp on 18th September when they were briefed about their imminent involvement in the Battle of Third Ypres. The 19th Division, of which they were a part, was to be on the extreme right of the action across eight miles and involving 12 divisions. On the evening of 19th September, they moved in lorries to St Eloi and then marched on tracks to their preliminary assembly points at Ravine Wood. They had 19 officers and 661 other ranks and were to be in Brigade Reserve.
At zero+29 the Warwicks moved forward from just south of Ravine Wood into the support line near Klein Zillebeke as by that time the attacking battalions were due to reach the Green Line. Some men became casualties as the forward move took place through German shelling. They were not called upon to support the attacking battalions as they were successful despite heavy casualties from machine gun fire mainly from a line of dugouts just north of Top House and opposition at Wood Farm and in Belgian Wood; the latter was cleared by bayonet charge. Moat Farm and Funny Farm were ‘mopped up’. (Alan Tucker, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the Great War 1914-1918: a modern history [unpublished])
Corporal Shirley has no known grave and is commemorated at Tyne Cot as well as on the local war memorial at Hampton-in-Arden. On the second anniversary of his death, the following appeared in the Coventry Standard 20th September 1918
In loving remembrance of Corporal Percy John Shirley, killed in action September 20th, 1917.
He left us to fight for his country,
An in the battle he fell;
Yet we hope again to meet him,
When the day of life has fled,
There in Heaven with joy to greet him.
Where no farewell tear is shed.
Also killed in the same action as Percy John Shirley was Private Harry Taylor from Hockley Heath. He was born in Packwood in 1892 but the family moved to Kingswood, Lapworth between 1893-1901 and remained there until at least 1911.
Parents, Thomas (a stockman on a farm) and Sarah (née Gardner) had married at Lapworth on 19th August 1883, at which time Tom was a platelayer on the railway. They had ten children, all of whom survived infancy: Thomas William (born 1884), Mabel Charlotte (born 1886), Hannah (born 1887), Jessie (born 1889), Harry (1892-1917), Christiana (born 1895), Charles (born 1897), Dorothy (1899-1973), Frederick (born 1901) and Winifred (born 1905).
In March 1908, Thomas Taylor died, aged 49, leaving his widow with four children under the age of 12, which was the school leaving age (it was raised to 14 in 1918, though there were still exemptions until 1921 for some children to leave at 13 or 12 if suitable employment was found for them). By 1911, at least two of the older children had left home to work: 23-year-old Hannah was a cook-general servant to architect Edwin Francis Reynolds in Streetsbrook Road, Shirley; and 19-year-old Harry was a butcher’s assistant in Stirchley. Their brother, Charles, aged 13, was still living at home in Kingswood but was working as a stable boy.
Harry volunteered for the Army soon after the outbreak of war, and first saw overseas service on 18th July 1915. In 1916, whilst a Lance Corporal, he was awarded the Military Medal (gazetted 21st October 1916) for gallantry in the field. He was subsequently promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
He must have been allowed some leave in the autumn of 1916, as he married Gertrude Annie Coldicott in the Solihull district between October-December 1916. They are not known to have had any children before Harry was killed in action with “C” Company, 10th Battalion Royal Warwicks on 20th September.
Sergeant Harry Taylor is buried at Bedford House Cemetery, Belgium and is also commemorated on the Hockley Heath and Lapworth war memorials, as well as on the memorial plaque in St Thomas’s Church, Hockley Heath.
If you have any more information on any of these men, please let us know.
Heritage & Local Studies Librarian
tel.: 0121 704 6977
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