In June and July 1916 the British army and navy took part in their largest battles so far in the Great War. London brothers Alfred and Sydney Squires played their parts in the two battles respectively, but their experiences were dramatically different.
Alfred Webb Squires worked as clerk for Nestlé’s and Anlgo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company in Eastcheap in the City in 1914. Sydney Charles Squires had also been a clerk before joining the Royal Navy in November 1910. They were the only surviving sons (by 1911) of Alfred Squires, a dock clerk with the Port of London Authority, and his wife Ann, nee Webb. Alfred junior lived with his parents in Arthurdon Road, near Ladywell cemetery in South London.
By the summer of 1914, Sydney was a sick bay attendant at Haslar Royal Navy Hospital in Gosport. Within days of the outbreak of war, on 8 August 1914, Alfred joined the 9th Battalion of the London Regiment – Queen Victoria’s Rifles. He went out to France with them in November 1914.
In the summer of 1916, Alfred was a stretcher bearer with his battalion, which went into battle at Gommecourt on 1 July 1916 as part of the 56th (London) Division, described by Martin Middlebrook as probably the best Territorial division in France at that time. The attack on Gommecourt was a diversionary attack alongside the main offensive at Albert. The events were vividly described by journalist Philip Gibbs in his post-war book Now it Can be Told:
“The Londoners of the 56th Division had no luck at all. Theirs was the worst luck because, by a desperate courage in assault, they did break through the German lines at Gommecourt. Their left was held by the London Rifle Brigade. The Rangers and the Queen Victoria Rifles — the old “Vics” — formed their center. Their right was made up by the London Scottish, and behind came the Queen’s Westminsters and the Kensingtons, who were to advance through their comrades to a farther objective. Across a wide No Man’s Land they suffered from the bursting of heavy crumps [of shell fire], and many fell. But they escaped annihilation by machine-gun fire and stormed through the upheaved earth into Gommecourt Park, killing many Germans and sending back batches of prisoners. They had done what they had been asked to do, and started building up barricades of earth and sand-bags, and then found they were in a death-trap. There were no [British] troops on their right or left. They had thrust out into a salient, which presently the enemy saw. The German gunners, with deadly skilled, boxed it round with shell-fire, so that the Londoners were enclosed by explosive walls, and then very slowly and carefully drew a line of bursting shells up and down, up and down that captured ground, ravaging its earth anew and smashing the life that crouched there — London life.”
This map (apologies for the image quality) from Martin Middlebrook’s book The First Day on the Somme shows the salient the Londoners pushed on into as they advanced south of Gommecourt. The “Vics” are the second from the left of the four foremost battalions in the diagram.
London life certainly was smashed that day. The Queen’s Westminster Rifles suffered over 500 casualties, with all 28 officers and 475 of their rank and file killed, wounded or missing by the end of the day. Queen Victoria’s Rifles suffered heavily too, with nine officers and 212 other ranks listed as killed on that day by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database.
Among the other casualties in the “Vics” was Rifleman Squires, with gunshot wounds (meaning either bullets or other projectiles, such as shrapnel or shell fragments) to his right shoulder and his back, broken ribs and a punctured lung. He passed through 2/1st London Field Ambulance and 43 Casualty Clearing Station (at Warlencourt) before going on to No 2 Canadian General Hospital at Le Treport. He was sent back to the UK a few days later. In October, he was awarded the Military Medal. As we have seen before, this was a new medal established during the war and only awarded for bravery in the field. No further details of A.W. Squires’s award are available online, but it seems safe to assume that he earned it for his bravery on 1 July 1916.
By November Alfred Squires was fit enough to rejoin his unit, but only in the UK – he worked as a grenade instructor, but never went back out to the Front. In 1918 he got married, and was demobilised after the war in 1919.
Sydney’s battle experience in June 1916 was considerably less dramatic. Although he was now based on board a ship, the HMS King George V, that took part in the Battle of Jutland, its participation was minimal. The Wikipedia page summarises it briefly: “King George V was lightly engaged during the battle, firing nine 13.5-in rounds at the German battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger, which missed. King George V was undamaged in the battle.” Sick-bay attendant S.C. Squires was probably not as busy as his comrades on other ships that day when over 6,000 British sailors were killed and over 600 wounded. He served on a number of other ships and stations over the next six years before leaving the navy in 1922, after twelve years’ service.
Experiences of the Great War could vary enormously. Both Squires brothers played their part in the major battles of 1916 – indeed both worked to help the sick and wounded – but their experiences were wildly different. Thankfully both survived the war.
Map from Martin Middlebrook ‘The First Day of the Battle of the Somme’
Findmypast: SC Squires service record
Ancestry: AW Squires service record
The Long, Long Trail – as ever an indispensable source of information.
Battle of the Somme website’s transcription of Philip Gibbs ‘Now It Can Be Told’