George Benjamin Hawkins, 1892-1916

In France, History
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This special post marks the centenary of the First World War Armistice in November 2018. Pvt. George Benjamin Hawkins, my great grandfather, was killed on 29 September 1916 aged 24. He was buried where he fell during a Border Regiment attack on Stuff Redoubt (a German-held trench), near Thiepval, in the Somme valley, Picardy (now Hauts-de-France). In 1924, he was reburied in Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery as part of a process in which remains from smaller collections of isolated graves were relocated to ‘concentration cemeteries’.

Thiepval and Mouquet Farm

Thiepval lays on a spur of higher ground above the River Ancre in the upper Somme valley, 20 miles northeast of Amiens. In the summer and autumn of 1916 there were long and bloody skirmishes over control of the village’s original features — the wood, the settlement itself and Mouquet Farm, all of which were obliterated.

The Western Front, 1915-16, indicating the ground captured in the Somme from July-November 1916 (top left).

The village was surrounded by a dense network of deeply constructed German trenches, the major ones being Stuff, Zollern and Schwaben redoubts, which would need to be overpowered if the 25-mile-long front in the Somme was to be breached. Both Thiepval and Mouquet Farm were themselves quasi-fortresses. In this third phase of the First Battle of the Somme, British objectives were typically ambitious and unrealistic. Capture of Thiepval, one of the goals for 1 July 1916, was finally achieved in September (after Mouquet Farm fell in August). However, while Thiepval proper had been overrun, fighting continued over control of the whole of the elevated ground known as the Ancre Heights, including sections of Stuff and Schwaben Redoubts.

Map of the Somme in 1916 at 1:40,000 scale, with the Ancre valley far left (Thiepval centre left). The blue lines show the advance of the front line, with German positions in red (my own photograph of Ordnance Survey reproduction map [Crown Copyright]).
Sketch map of Thiepval and Mouquet Farm, showing trench systems and the contour lines marking the ridge (The Battle of the Somme, John Buchan 1916/University of Edinburgh Library, reproduced here).
A more detailed map of German fortifications around Thiepval in 1916 (The Times, staff writers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).
British Troops in a trench, Thiepval Wood, August 1916 (IWM Q871 [public domain]).

On 29 September 1916, George’s regiment joined an attack on Stuff Redoubt, pushing up toward the ridge between Thiepval and Mouquet Farm. The weather on that day was rainy, with a temperature of around 12-16 degrees Celsius (according to research cited in this article).

Shell bursting above Canadian soldiers in a reserve trench at Thiepval, 1916. (© W.I. Castle/Library and Archives Canada /PA-000733).

Thiepval had also finally been overrun on the afternoon of the 26th but, by the end of the battle on 30 September, the Germans still held small sections of the Redoubts and Regina Trench. Between 27th and 30th, the fighting for Schwaben Redoubt had been particularly brutal, with running hand-to-hand combat going backwards and forwards through the tunnels and dugouts.

George was one of almost 13,000 casualties from those five days. His 11th Division had suffered the most with 4,500. We can’t say how he died for sure, but he was buried below the redoubts on the lower part of the Ridge having fallen during his brigade’s attacks on Stuff Redoubt. It was finally captured on 9 October.

Military historian, online forum
Sketch plan of fighting around Thiepval (centre), above the Ancre River, on 1 July 1916, the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. Toward the top right hand side, where green lines mark German attacks from Stuff Redoubt, is the position where George is believed to have fallen in September of that year.
Thiepval village, before and after the battle (© Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Veterans’ Affairs/IWM).
The destroyed Mouquet Farm, with trench lines and graves marked with wooden crosses (Fred Leist/© Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Veterans’ Affairs).
A temporary memorial erected in May 1917 to the Australians killed at Mouquet Farm in July and August 1916 (© Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Veterans’ Affairs).
The modern Mouquet Farm from the memorial site, December 2018.
The present Australian Memorial at Mouquet Farm, a permanent replacement for the wooden original pictured above, December 2018.

George’s short life

George Benjamin was the eldest son of George Snr and Catherine, one of six living children. He was a ‘wire weaver’ like his father, an unfamiliar trade in 2019 but perhaps something along the lines of the definition in this account: “those who sold iron and steel wire by retail and cut and worked it into mouse-traps, bird cages, lattice-work for windows, buckles, chains, clasps for garments, fish hooks, pack-needles, knitting needles, rings for curtains etc.” In the early 20th century, the scale and sophistication of this work was expanding to meet demand from industry, including products for the war itself — attacks on Thiepval were supported by the first operational tanks, for example.

The Hawkins family 1911 census return for 27 Silver Street, Norwich.
A British Mark I tank at Thiepval, 25 September 1916 (IWM, Q2486 [Public domain]).

George signed up with the Norfolk Regiment on 20 January 1915, just under three months after my grandfather, George Walter Frederick, was born to his wife Agatha. Baby George was one month short of his second birthday when his father was killed.

George’s service papers. His service number changed when he transferred, along with other Norfolk recruits, to the Border Regiment for his posting to the Somme.

George and Agatha had bought a two-bedroom terrace in Norwich, which he’d left to her in his will of November 1915.

George’s will.

After training with the Norfolk regiment, George was transferred to the 6th Border Regiment, part of General H. Gough’s reserve army. They arrived in the Somme in June 1916, one month before the beginning of the one of the bloodiest battles in human history, but took no significant part in the fighting until early September. By the end of that month, George had been killed. The battalion was relieved on the following day. However, had he survived the assault on Stuff Redoubt, there would have been another two years of brutal trench warfare to negotiate before he could have returned home, unless he had been ‘lucky’ enough to be seriously injured.

Record of payments made to Agatha following George’s death.
George’s posthumous entitlement to British War and Victory Medals. If ever there was an instance of ‘victory’ in name only it was WWI.

Burial and remembrance

The first time I visited George’s grave was during a French exchange to Rouen, twinned with Norwich. The school had organised an excursion to its Notre Dame cathedral namesake in Amiens. My French teacher, Anne Maw, and her husband, the school librarian at the time, kindly arranged for us to take a taxi to Villers-Bretonneux while my peers toured the church.

Armed with a note of the plot number — XIIIA. D. 10 — marked onto a cemetery plan, and a small wooden cross, there was only sufficient time to locate his final resting place and take some snaps before returning to rejoin the main group.

Plan of Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery
Paying my respects for the first time in 1988.
Headstone record for plot 13A, row D at Villers-Bretonneux.

Back then, in the days before the internet was a thing, I was not aware that his remains had originally been interred elsewhere. Around the time of the armistice centenary in November 2018, I knew that I’d soon be driving through France in a van en route to collect belongings from Italy. I worked out that it would represent a detour of only around 30 miles to revisit Villers-Bretonneux. I also noted from the cemetery website that the first plots were not completed until 1920, and began to learn about the concentration process that gathered in thousands of battlefield burials to aid administration and long-term maintenance. And, pragmatically, once these killing fields were returned to agriculture, the presence of so many human remains would obviously be problematic.

Examination of reburial records revealed that George’s body was moved to the cemetery in 1923, a distance of 15 miles as the crow flies, from fields east of Thiepval, trench map reference 57d.R.26.b.6.1. These maps were an incredible effort by the Ordnance Survey to record German trenches, battery positions, targets and defences. By mid-1916, five Field Survey Companies operated lithographic presses near the front lines and over 33 million maps of the Western Front alone were printed between 1914-18.

Reburial forms for George’s remains, exhumed from a field at Thiepval and transferred to Villers-Bretonneux. It is remarkably fortunate that he was one of so few known casualties, identified from a ‘piece of boot’ bearing his original Norfolk Regiment number and cross-referenced to his new identity as Private 21221 of the Border Regiment (second form above). The trench map references show that several other casualties had been buried nearby.

On a cold, damp December morning in 2018, we approached Thiepval from the southeast. In the comfort of a heated van cab it was difficult to imagine George’s advance under heavy fire across No Man’s Land over 102 years previously. However, the grim weather and mud-covered roads seemed more appropriate to the occasion than a warm, sunny blue skies kind of day.

Approaching Thiepval from Pozières, December 2018.

Contributors to an online WW1 forum suggested that George’s original resting place was between Thiepval and the farm, up the ridge from the modern road. The bushes that were said to have marked his grave went under the plough long ago, but superimposing the trench mapping on contemporary features allows an approximation of the spot where he fell.

We parked by the roadside and set off up a track toward the ridge, apologising to the flocks of birds (golden plover?) we sent panicking into aerial circuits, wasting precious winter energy.

Thiepval, December 2018. Trench maps locate George’s original burial place in this field, just in front of the camera.

At this point I shed some tears. George was no longer just a name on a headstone — through the documents we have, including two letters written from the front, he had become a personality with a life. He was anxious, homesick, probably terrified, and just wanted to return to Norwich to be with his family. I can identify to some extent with being in a hostile environment far from home and even, on a few occasions, wondering if I’ll make it out alive. But I can’t begin to imagine the Hell those men went through.

Dear Wife, just a few lines hoping you and my little boy is in the best of health as it leaves me at present. Dear I got your parcel and was very pleased with it – it came in very nice…I think Norwich is very lucky and trust me to find my way home when I get the chance…I shall have some things to tell you when I do come home which will make you laugh, so cheer up old dear, keep a good heart and don’t worry.

Dear, you ask me in one of your letters if I should like a paper sent me every week. Well old dear, I should like the Norwich Mercury sent me so I can read about Norwich when I come out of the trenches for a rest.

Excepts from George’s letter to Agatha, 11 September 1916.
Walking toward Thiepval Ridge near the place where George fell.
Looking back to Thiepval Wood and its monument.

The Thiepval memorial commemorates over 72,000 British and South African soldiers killed in the Somme, most in 1916, who have no known grave. We paid our respects here before moving on to Villers-Bretonneux.

Sir Edward Lutyens’ Thiepval Memorial to the missing of the Somme.

Villers-Bretonneux cemetery had recently gained a visitor centre. I admit to being appalled when I discovered this, although its subterranean design is discreet and unobtrusive. However, I still find the café and gift shop element somewhat distasteful in the historical context.

George’s final resting place.
George’s grave is that second nearest to the camera, the stone bearing damage from WWII fighting.
His (second from left) is one of a shocking minority of named plots, most listed as “known unto God”.

Dedicated by King George VI in July 1938, less than two years later the cemetery was itself a battlefield. This made a tragic nonsense of the description of WWI as “the war to end all wars” and underlines the stupidity and futility of all such conflicts. I’m sure this point wasn’t lost on those fighting around the graves of their colleagues, who had fallen only 20 years before.

Lutyens’ (who, coincidentally, also designed the Norwich War Memorial) memorial tower, rebuilt after sustaining severe damage from shells and bullets during WWII, some of which can still be seen.



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