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Harry Baker Allwood


Private 20082, 2nd Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment.

 

Harry was born in 1895, the son of Sarah Ann Allwood, a widow from Crookham. His middle name, Baker, was a pointer to his father, Henry William Baker.  Although Harry was born illegitimate his parents married soon after his birth.  His father (also known as Harry) was a game keeper, as was his father. At the time of the 1901 census he gave his occupation as ‘living on own means’, suggesting that he had retired – at the age of 39. This seems unlikely, but it may be an indication that Henry’s health was failing.  He died on 24 May 1903 aged only 42.  For Sarah Ann this was her second experience of widowhood, her first husband, Charles Allwood had also died young. Sarah herself did not live to an old age, she passed away on 21 December 1908, aged 49.

 

Eleven year old Harry was left an orphan and was taken in by Sarah’s parents, Charles and Emma Goodchild who lived in Brimpton.  Following his schooling he was employed as an under gardener at a local house before moving on to adult employment as a carter. This was the occupation he gave when he attested for military service on 9 December 1915, aged 20 years 10 months.  At this date attestation was taken under the ‘Derby scheme’, named after Lord Derby, Director General of Recruiting.  This scheme encouraged men aged between 18 and 40 to register for service at an unspecified later date. The younger and fitter you were, the faster your services were likely to be required. Harry did not have to wait long, on 8 February 1916 he was called up into the 3rd Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment.  The 3rd Battalion was a training/depot battalion that operated as resource for the fighting battalions, sending men out as required to keep the active units operational.   

 

Following a period of training (usually around 3 or 4 months) Harry was posted to the 2nd Battalion, a regular battalion that had been brought back from India when war broke out and had been fighting ever since. It is not known whether Harry had joined the battalion by 1 July, if he did he would have been with the battalion during their darkest hour. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme the 2nd Berks lost over half of their men and almost all their officers as part of the first wave over the top at Ovillers La Boiselle.  However, it is more likely that Harry went out to France as one of the many replacements sent out to re-establish the shattered battalion as a fighting unit.

 

By October the battalion was evidently considered ready to take part in another offensive, the final one of the Battle of the Somme, also known as the Battle of Le Transloy. The offensive started on 1 October 1916 and was an attempt to break through new German lines along a ridge of land south of Bapaume, just a few miles east of Ovillers La Boiselle.  The offensive started well but got bogged down in the mud as the autumn rain turned the terrain into a quagmire. On the afternoon of the 23 October the battalion was in support of battalions of the Rifle Brigade and the Lincolnshire Regiment in an attack on the German positions known as Zenith Trench. All three battalions suffered heavy casualties.

 

Major Hanbury-Sparrow of the 2nd Royal Berks gives his recollections:-

 

 

The shattered remains of Zenith and Eclipse trenches guarded Le Transloy. The day was foggy and the attack on these two trenches was, in consequence, postponed till 3 p.m. Punctually to the minute fell the most fearful barrage you had ever heard. The Guards' artillery was backing us. They were firing a barrage such as their infantry found adequate. There could be no excuse for failure. The noise was so unbroken as to produce the effect of a grand silence through which came the rapid fire of the eighteen-pounder quick-firers like the rat-tat-tat of a giant machine-gun. The battalion, and with it the company you commanded, was in support, jammed in a communication trench. Cascades of earth rose silent in the din and fog. The air quivered and pulsed, making you feel as you had at Bois Grenier, one with the battlefield.

 

No, you weren't afraid as long as the sound was unbroken. Let there be the least gap in the wall of sound and you'd have flowed to it, only to have got caught and jarred by the next explosion. But this unbroken continuity is your saving. You get out of the trench and run up and down alongside, seeing to things in the company, so that your sergeant-major implores you to come in.

 

The attack has started. You send an officer forward to report how it is progressing, for you can see nothing in the fog. He never comes back, for he is killed. Poor boy, it was his first battle!

 

Then comes the news. The attack has failed. Poor old Division.

 


In the early hours of the following day (when they were reinforced by men from the Royal Irish Rifles and the Durham Light Infantry) they tried once more to capture Zenith Trench, and failed again.

 

The Commonwealth War Graves commission shows a number (over thirty) men from the 2nd Berks as dying on 28 October, the day following the battalion’s withdrawal to a reserve postion. The battalion war diary for the day reads: The Battalion proceeded to "F" Camp, and remained in camp that night.  It seems likely that these men, Harry Allwood among them, died in action on 23/24 October and that their passing was recorded during this day of rest as the battalion HQ staff sorted out the inevitable paperwork, perhaps mistakenly putting the current date rather than the date of the action on the casualty reports.

 

Harry’s body was never identified among the fallen, he may still lie where he fell or in one of the thousands of graves of unidentified soldiers in the nearby war cemeteries.  His name is commemorated on the vast memorial at Thiepval on pier and face 11D.  He is also remembered on his parents gravestone in the churchyard of St Peter’s, Brimpton, on the Thatcham War Memorial and on the roll of honour in St Mary’s Church, Thatcham.

 

Inscription on gravestone

Harry Baker - inscription masked by lichen on his parent's gravestone at Brimpton

(click to enlarge)

The gravestone (right) has led to some confusion as it only shows his forenames, Harry Baker, on a stone for his parents, Henry and Sarah Baker. Obviously the omission of his surname may have avoided some family embarrassment for his elderly grandparents, who must have arranged for his name to be added to their daughter's stone. However, it has led some (including me) to a fruitless search for a deceased soldier with the surname Baker.

 

Thanks to Doris Butler for the information about the Brimpton gravestone, to John Chapman for Major Hanbury-Sparrow's words and to the members of the Great War Forum who attempted to track down Pte Harry Baker.

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 Died this day:
08 December 1914
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