I’d happily parked Great Grandad George Burlingham in the ‘done’ file, after deciding that I knew enough, could imagine enough, and had written enough, to do his service justice.
Without re-capping everything I’ve written about George, we know he enlisted in September 1914, before (we assumed!) he’d found his way via home service with the 2/4th Battalion Norfolk Regiment, to the 7th Battalion in France sometime in late 1917 prior to the Cambrai offensive.
My friend Steve Smith sparked me off again by posting about his research trip to the battlefields for his upcoming book project on the war of the Norfolk Regiment. Turning to my papers on George, I suddenly realised a clue or two was staring me in the face.
In March 1918 George was recommended for a temporary commission to be ‘promoted from the field’ and left for England on May 27th. In the reports putting him forward for acceptance into the 5th Officer Cadet Battalion at Cambridge, dated 5th July 1918, his records show he’d accrued 19 months overseas service – so counting backwards from May 1918 when he left the front – putting his arrival with the 7th Battalion at around November 1916, probably 12 months earlier than I’d thought.
If true, this puts him at the front in the aftermath of the Somme offensive of the summer/autumn of 1916- probably drafted to replenish fallen numbers (12th Eastern Division had taken 11000 casualties in 43 days fighting in The Somme sector by mid October), and an introduction to winter in the trenches. George would have joined while they were withdrawn from the front before preparing for the brutal Arras offensive in April 1917; then the defence of Monchy-le-Preux from May to October ’17 including 18 weeks in the trenches, followed soon after by the Cambrai offensive which saw the battalion come close to destruction. The next major involvement was the Spring Offensive of March 1918 which I’ve covered elsewhere.
What I don’t know is whether the 19 months at the front was continuous or broken up, but we know that in the early summer of 1916 he was winning athletic medals in England with the 2//4th Battalion (see earlier blog), so I suspect once he went, he stayed. I’m not aware of him being wounded and sent home at any point. It’s not clear to me if George returned to France before joining 5 OCB at Trinity College in July. I know that by 12th December he was with 23 OCB at Catterick, and his course complete by 30th December. His Kings Commission was issued on March 3rd 1919. We believe he remained in territorial service at Thetford after de-mobilisation until September 1921.
Going back to Cambrai, and the speculation about how George may have won his first Military Medal, another faint entry on a faded document made me realise another fact about his war.
I’ve written about the desperate situation the 7th Norfolks found themselves in the German counter attack near Gonnelieu on November 30th 1917. The faded entry above records George as part of C Company.
The only significance of this is, that during the initial attack on November 20th, C Company was the only part of the 7th Norfolks that attacked the Hindenburg Line with 35 Brigade. So if George was with them, he saw both success and defeat in a short period of time.
So all in all, Steve Smith and his whirlwind fact finding mission of the battlefields of France and Belgium last weekend has caused me to look afresh at George’s war. I have more work to do….