Grandad ‘B’: Enigma and Hero

Private 29777 George William Burlingham

Sometimes family history makes you realise how little you actually know about the people you’re related to, and yet such scant knowledge forms an important part of who you are. Entire histories can be built on myth or misunderstanding. Finding the truth or uncovering a lie is part of life, and a pitfall of genealogy.

Grandad B is one such relative. My great grandfather, someone I knew, remember clearly and talk about so often with Dad; yet he’s a subject that leaves us both scratching our heads. He died in January 1975, a few days before my 11th birthday, and I have strong recollections of a broad shouldered, jovial man with ruddy cheeks and dark rimmed glasses. He was my grandmothers father, and I wish I could sit down with him now and ask him about the things I’ve learned about him. As you get older, family history crops up, and nearly 20 years ago I began to unravel his story. In some ways we now know more about his service, yet in others, we’re more frustrated than ever.

This is another blog about a farm boy and a journey through the Great War. That is not unique for his generation: there are facts and there are huge chunks of missing detail; but there’s enough to know that Grandad B did something remarkable, maybe unimaginable. It’s a story worth telling.

George William Burlingham was born at East Harling on October 5th 1896. His birth certificate names his mother as Mary Elizabeth Burlingham Hunt, a domestic servant; but that’s all we know of her. His father is not named, but later in his army papers, his fathers occupation is recorded as ‘farmer.’ Family history from my Grandmother says that he was raised by his grandfather, ‘John’ Burlingham. The rest is guesswork. Despite the wealth of information available these days, I’ve yet to stumble upon the facts to identify John or Mary, or anything about their origins. I’m not actually convinced his grandfather was named John!

George and John Burlingham c1914

It’s probable that George was brought up in Fen Lane at Harling, which is coincidentally very close to the other half of my ancestry, the Crook family, who featured in my previous blog. Burlingham is one of the oldest names in Norfolk, and has strong connections in the Harling and Snetterton area. My research shows many families of that name living in that area, and it’s likely both sides of my ancestry knew each other. Maybe Harling Fen has some form of magic for breeding soldiers!

I know very little about George and his early life, and unravelling the genealogy is an ongoing task, so his story jumps forward to September 5th 1914 and George enlisting for a part in the war, one month before his 18th birthday. By then he was living at Gallants Lane at East Harling. We have George’s autograph book which lists his service number as 2543, B Company, 2/4th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment, at Bury St Edmunds.

Autograph Book belonging to George

Dad has a lovely framed photograph hanging in his hall showing a beaming George and 2/4th Battalion, smartly turned out, at Lowestoft in May 1915, presumably on passing out from initial training. There he is looking proud as punch amongst his new comrades. The 2/4th were a Territorial formation, under 208 Brigade and home based for the duration of the war.

From here on in we only have scraps of information on which to build his story, until the latter part of the war. What is known is that George found himself in the 7th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment, with service number 29777. They were part of 35 Brigade, 12th (Eastern) Division but this blog is not to explain in detail the actions of the 2/4th or 7th Norfolks throughout the war. Suffice to say the 7th were up and down the front from Loos in the north, to the Somme sector in the south. I have no documentation about when George went to the front, but the 7th disembarked to Boulogne on 31st May. There’s a family rumour that George worked with the horses in the army but nothing I’ve found substantiates that.

I’ve been advised the 2/4th were involved in coastal defence work in 1915 at Lowestoft, Bawdsey and Wrentham, and also in Yorkshire near Doncaster, and also training at Colchester and Aldershot before being disbanded in mid 1918. Men would have come and gone from the 2/4th and been fed forward to the service battalions throughout the war. It’s probable George stayed with them until 1917 before going over. The truth is we don’t know for sure .

208th Infantry Brigade, Oct. 1917

For the sake of a brief fighting history and the 7th Norfolks, September 1915 was the Battle of Loos, at places like Hohenzollern Redoubt and Hulluch Quarries. I have no idea of his involvement at Loos or anywhere else, but the few papers we have makes this look unlikely. One record lists his special qualification as ‘marksman.’

Moving forward to the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, when the Norfolks were in reserve for the initial and famously unsuccessful attack, the 7th went up to the front on 3rd July, during the small hours of the morning in darkness, in the knowledge their sector near Ovillers had been a near massacre. Knowing what happened in Mash Valley and thereabouts, perhaps the clues tell us why so many never told us of their experiences at the Somme. Their original plan had been for a glorious charge as far as Martinpuich to press home the expected success of the first day. Instead, the division was forced to regroup and revise their plans. The Norfolks advanced at night, across ground where the divisions before them still lay butchered, and thoughts of a similar fate were everywhere. I can’t imagine what it would have been like, fighting among the dead of the previous day. Their efforts ended in near massacre as those who went before them.

The Somme offensive rumbled on to the autumn of 1916, but I can’t confirm if George was there or not. I have pictures of athletic medals he won at some point in 1916 during trials for events organised by 208th Brigade and Northern Command, of which 2/4th were part, so it seems probable George did not join the 7th Battalion until later.

208 Brigade Athletic Medals

I have no record of what George got up to during 1917 while the 7th were engaged in the Arras Offensive; but I jump forward to March 1918, because it is then that the record shows George is awarded his first Military Medal ‘For bravery in the field.’

Divisional Acknowledgement from Major-General Arthur B Scott
London Gazette, March 19th 1918

Without wanting to give a full narrative of his war, I wanted to identify likely actions where he might have carried out a deed worthy of a medal, and my understanding of entries in the London Gazette is that they would most likely appear around three months after the event. 19th March was the date of his first entry, which gave me an arbitrary timeframe to work from and November 1917 became an obvious starting point. Based on what we know, it seems to point to George joining the 7th Battalion in the second half of 1917.

November was initially a quiet period for the Norfolks; quiet that is until the Cambrai Operations of November 20th when they found themselves in the line in trenches in front of the Hindenburg Line at Banteux and Gonnelieu. Battalion HQ was at a place named Cheshire Quarry .

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Cheshire Quarry – Cambrai Operations November 20th 1917
Screenshot (52)_LI
Cheshire Quarry Today

History calls this the Battle of Cambrai, notable for The Tank Corps deploying 476 tanks in the attack, but after initial success it would end in disaster for the Norfolks.

The 7th on this occasion made up the Brigade reserve for the assault on the German lines, and the attack pushed well forward, digging in at Lateau Wood on the right flank of the British advance.. Only C Coy were used in the actual attack but for the Norfolks the resulting casualties were 8 killed, 24 wounded and 6 missing. On 30th November, the Germans counter-attacked in massive numbers. The diary entry for that month (which is a re-written summary after the original was destroyed in the fight) paints a picture of a division being hammered. In short, the 7th were overrun and in part surrounded, and they were forced back north (towards Bleak Trench on the above map) from the position they had gained ten days earlier. Part of their strength was compelled to surrender and the casualty summary for the action was 27 killed, wounded 89, and 204 missing (13 wounded and missing). Most of those 204 missing would have been prisoners of war. The Norfolks were left with only one officer standing, and their Commanding Officer, Lt Colonel Henry Gielgud MC was among the fallen.

War Diary November 30th 1917

The Norfolks were withdrawn, bloodied and beaten, and their diary is sketchy at best. The 7th were out of the line and licking their wounds.

January 1918 arrived and they were at Merville and Sailly regrouping and training, before re-entering the line at Fleurbaix on the 29th, where they remained until going into reserve on February 6th. Numbers were replenished from the by now disbanded 8th Norfolks before they were back on the front on Valentines Day. An incident occurred at 5am on February 20th when a German soldier entered their trench armed with a stick grenade which wounded two Norfolks. He continued to fight unarmed with two men before being shot dead. February merged into March with the battalion in the same sector. There is mention of enemy shelling and minor trench raids, but by mid March, Corporal George Burlingham was listed in the London Gazette for something he’d done earlier.

Medal Card – George Burlingham

So there it is in the London Gazette dated 19th March 1918, and on the medal card. As I said earlier, research tells me that for the award to be gazzetted in March, the action would have taken place around three months earlier. But zilch, zero, nothing is recorded. This isn’t unexpected however. Non commissioned ranks did not receive a citation as awarded with the Military Cross for the officer ranks. War diaries sometimes mention deeds worthy of recognition, but as is the case here, some original entries were destroyed in battle and rewritten. The other factor is down to Hitler and the London blitz when huge swathes of military records were destroyed by incendiary bombs dropped on the capital. Either way, whether George was brave in the attack and counter-attacks near the Hindenburg Line in November, or did something far less obvious in the intervening period, the detail isn’t recorded.

What we do know is that by now George was promoted to Lance Serjeant and being put forward for a temporary commission as 2nd Lieutenant. Major Gethen put the application in train on March 15th 1918. But before following George further, we jump forward again to June 12th 1918, because there it is in the London Gazette again and George is awarded the bar to his Military Medal. So he’d obviously done something else worthy of a medal, and again we’d expect the ‘deed’ to be around three months earlier.

Picking up from where we left off in March, George was being awarded his first MM and recommended for promotion, and the significant event of that period was the German Spring Offensive or ‘Operation Michael.’ The German army made a massive and rapid attempt to drive a wedge through the British front, and the 7th Norfolks were thrown into the line to shore up rapidly retreating units as the Germans poured forwards from east of the town of Albert. Having been in reserve at Estaires, orders were received on 22nd March to move south rapidly to bolster the defence against the German attack. The Battle of Bapaume was raging as the 7th arrived in the area of Albert on March 24th, and the plan had been to join and reinforce the 35th Division, but such was the force of the German incursion, they were met with a full scale retreat. The British however, were digging in their heels and on March 26th the 7th positioned themselves on a front along the River Ancre between Albert and Aveluy. It was from here a bitter rearguard action was fought as they were pushed back out along the Bouzincourt Road. The British had done enough though, and this is where the German advance ground to a halt a few days later and the ‘Kaiserslacht’ effectively began to peter out.

By March 28th, George and his colleagues were moved into reserve at Henencourt, and through April were there or at Millencourt, before re-entering the line at Mailly-Maillet. The months of May and June for them were relatively quiet. The diary describes the humdrum of life behind the lines or up and down the front, located at places like Arqueves or Forceville. June saw the announcement of his second MM and his promotion was under way.

Major-General Arthur B Scott writes again!
London Gazette, June 12th 1918

On 26th May, Lance Serjeant 29777 George William Burlingham MM (Bar) was on his way back to England having been selected for promotion to 2nd Lieutenant. From this point as the Norfolks played out their part in the push to end the war and the eventual Armistice, George’s remaining war service was spent in the 5th Officer Cadet Battalion, joining on July 5th at Cambridge and moving to the 23rd Officer Cadet Battalion at Catterick on 12th December. By 13th February 1919 he was demobbed.

To have a great grandfather who was clearly a hero and not to have discussed it as a child is frustrating now, but given all of the above I’m not actually sure he would have talked about his experiences even if I’d asked. Dad doesn’t know either, so maybe that answers the question for me. We scratch our heads together when we talk about it. George lived out his life quietly, although he served as a Special Constable in Norfolk for a time. I remember him living at Bury Street in Stowmarket (the old house has since been demolished to make way for a link road) and he’d married Maud Pitchers in 1920. She was the daughter of William Pitchers, landlord of the White Horse pub at South Lopham, and my grandmother Alma was born there in 1921.

The Kings Commision of George Burlingham on Velum
George relinquished his Commision on September 21st 1922

George ended his days with my grandmother back at East Harling.

His medals are still with the family, and we have his Norfolk Regiment cap badge. Importantly, his record of bravery in the field is there for eternity, but despite this, George the hero remains an enigma to me. The war diary for the 7th Norfolks records their war in lesser or greater detail, and despite appearing at times to have been written by a spider, gives up no secrets about him. If as an ordinary soldier he did something of merit at Cambrai or Aveluy, or somewhere else, the written account and the verbal history is gone. It’s the same for his early life, where facts are often thin on the ground, and those who knew him best are no longer there to fill in the gaps.

Regimental and Special Constabulary Cap Badges

So there we have the story of Grandad B. A seemingly unremarkable tale, but with not one, but two acts of bravery in the field, of which we know nothing. Like I said at the beginning, I know and remember George well, and yet know very little about the story behind the man. As for me, I’m glad I knew him, yet sad I knew so little about him while he was here. Me and Dad will keep scratching our heads while imagining his deeds and while being very proud.

I wonder what he’d say to a ten year old me if I’d asked all those questions I have now?

George and Maud Burlingham

2 thoughts on “Grandad ‘B’: Enigma and Hero

  1. I have a digital image of a group of men of the 2/4 Norfolks in Lowestoft. It is labelled The Happy Twenty. The men signed the back and Pte G Burlingham’s signature looks a lot like your grandfather’s and I think I can pick him out. The picture is quite well known and you may have already seen it or own it, but if you would like a copy let me know.

    I also have what may be a digital match of B Coy’s group portrait. Please would you be willing to compare it with the one your dad has and let me know if they are the same.?

    Liked by 1 person

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