Tuesday, 27 March 2012

TONIGHT'S BLOG MOVES A FEW MILES AWAY FROM WISBECH. It concerns a Fenland Great War hero, Harry Betts, who lived between March and Wisbech. His tale is worth the telling, however. I have put together this account from a variety of sources - The Cambs Regiment official history, the researches of Roger Vanhinsbergh and Cliff Brown, and photographs by Dave Edwards and Chris Harley

Harry Betts was born in Warboys, Huntingdonshire, son of a rail worker with GER. He came to live at Twenty Foot Siding near March before the war and worked on the land. He had apparently attempted to enlist prior to the outbreak of the War but according to his late brother, George, was turned down due to a problem with his toes!! In 1914 he joined the 1st Cambridgeshire Regiment Territorial Force and as a member of "D" Company (March) embarked for France on Valentine's Day 1915.The photo below is of the crossing-keeper's house at Twenty-Foot Sidings.

Harry Betts won his first medal in the late summer of 1917. The British soldiers had a habit of naming trenches and strongpoints after familiar landmarks back home. Therefore, a particular German position near Gheluvelt, in the Ypres Salient was called 'Tower Hamlets' after the district in the East End of London. His bravery here earned him a Distinguished Conduct Medal (D.C.M.) 

On March 21st 1918, the Germans launched a massive offensive against British, French and Commonwealth forces in northern France. The Americans had finally joined the war, and the German high command feared that the influx of huge numbers of fresh American troops would tip the stalemate on the Western Front in the direction of the Allies. In the event, the Americans did not go into action until May 1918, and their commander, General Pershing, was adamant that his men would not be used as replacements for British and French casualties, but would only fight as an independent force under their own officers.

The German offensive shook the British and French, and threw them back from the positions astride the Somme which had been won at such high cost in 1916. Thus it was that the Cambridgeshire Regiment were fighting in the region of Cayeux-en-Santerre, well to the south of the River Somme, and a few miles south-east of Villers Brettoneux. They were part of the 39th Division, and were fighting alongside the Hertfordshire Regiment, and the Black Watch. Colonel M.C. Clayton takes up the tale (extract from The Cambridgeshires 1914 to 1919.)

"We were in the open lying flat, sweating profusely and vainly trying to shovel up soil in front of us. I quite expected we should be annihilated, when suddenly a miracle took place. C.S.M. Betts rose to his feet with a blood-curdling yell and ran straight towards the machine-guns, which ceased as if by magic. We all followed, but Betts arrived first and chased about thirty of the enemy towards a dugout. He laid out six with his bayonet before we arrived, and would have gone for the rest of them if Mr Driver had not arrived and ordered them to surrender. Betts had to comply with this order, and about twenty were made prisoners, Betts relieving the officers and N.C.Os of their field-glasses, which he festooned over his equipment."

The German offensive was eventually halted in the summer of 1918, and after August 8th, which became known as 'The Black Day Of The German Army', the Allied forces began to push the Germans back eastwards. It was slow, and resulted in the highest casualty rates of the whole war, but it was relentless. On August 8th, the Cambridgeshires were in the vicinity of Morlancourt. The trench map below is a German one. It shows the British trenches in detail (red), but only the German front line (blue), in case the map should be captured. 

Colonel Clayton writes, "And so it turned out that both companies soon found that further advance would bring them into direct enfilade fire from the nest of machine-guns firing from the southern end. Without hesitation Betts, who was C.S.M. of 'D' Company on the right, dashed off alone. Taking advantage of a hedge running across the front, he worked his way resolutely forward until 'D' Company had lost sight of him. When he reappeared he was in the rear of the enemy position which was causing all the trouble. There were about thirty of the enemy all engaged in firing at 'C' and 'D' Companies. Superior numbers had no terrors for Betts; practically single-handed he had recaptured a position in March 1918. With a blood-curdling yell he dashed in with his bayonet at the nearest machine-gun crew. This unexpected attack from the rear was the last straw; those who had survived Betts' frenzied onslaught  meekly surrendered and were handed over by him to some men of The Buffs who happened to arrive before the astonished enemy had regained their wits. The success of this whole operation was mainly due to the gallantry and initiative displayed by Betts. A typical Fenman, hailing from near Wisbech, he had served in the Battalion from the commencement of the war. At the age of 21 he was C.S.M. (Company Sergeant Major) and held the D.C.M. (Distinguished Conduct Medal) and Bar, and for his services in this action he was recommended for the V.C."

The Allies slowly battled their way eastwards across the ground which had been won at such a high cost in the summer of 1916. Harry Betts must have thought he was invincible. His heroism was now a byword in the regiment. He had two gallantry awards to his credit. In late August, the Allies were engaged in what became known as The Battle of Bapaume. Just before a vital offensive, Clayton wrote,

"The C.S.Ms of 'A', 'B' and 'C' Companies reported their arrival. All four C.S.Ms were to remain at H.Q. until the situation was clarified to be used if needed to pull together Companies depleted of officers. Betts of 'D' Company had not arrived. Where was he?"
Later, Clayton wrote," I found out why C.S.M. Betts had not reported to H.Q. with the other C.S.Ms. Just as the attack was starting, an enemy machine gun opened up only a short distance in front. Impulsive as ever, he could not resist the challenge, and sprang over the parapet, doubtless intending to work round and take the machine-gun from a flank. He had only gone a few yards when he fell, and with him Cambridgeshire lost one of its bravest sons and the Battalion a devoted and fearless warrant-officer."
Harry Betts is buried in Beacon Cemetery, Sailly Laurette. The official records state:
No 325753. Son of James & Alice Betts, Twenty Foot Sidings, March. Recommended for Victoria Cross for 9/8/18, but awarded MC. Also DCM (26-9-17, Tower Hamlets) and Bar (Acting-RSM, Hill 90, 28/3/18). CSM, Killed in action 22-8-18, age 22.

If anyone needs reminding of how war dehumanises and redefines, compare the two photos of Harry Betts on his enlistment in 1914. This is a young man, strong and enthusiastic, but shy and untried. In the second photograph, there is a  young man who has killed men and seen the death and destruction unleashed by war..

Harry Betts is remembered on several Fenland memorials. On the March Memorial..

 And the memorial at Guyhirn...

And at Coldham and the demolished chapel at Chainbridge..