Putting The Record Straight

A lockdown idea of my pal Paul Durham to hold ‘Zoom’ meetings with Steve Smith and myself, to discuss mutually interesting topics about military history, finally came to fruition last night when I presented a chronology of the war of my great grandfather George Burlingham. I’m just surprised it took us a year to get round to it!

Having blogged about George several times before, and after discussing the documents in detail last night, here’s what I now consider to be the definitive timeline of George’s journey through the Great War. After last night, it seemed a logical point to put the facts into some kind of order rather than build them again into a sub-plot of the wider narrative of the Norfolk Regiment; I’d already done that in the earlier blogs, if you want to know some of the actions he was involved in.

So, starting at the very beginning, we know he enlisted on 5th September 1914, aged exactly 17yrs 11 months and became Private 2543 in the 2/4th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. We assume he enlisted at Bury St Edmunds, because we have his autograph book placing him there. This would fit with the known recruitment pattern of the 2nd line TF battalions.

We then know he was at Lowestoft with the 2/4th on 18th February 1915, because helpfully, we have a dated photograph of him with his compatriots ‘The Happy Twenty.’

He was still in Lowestoft with ‘B’ Company in May 1915, because we have another photo of all of them.

In 1916, we know he was still attached to 208 Brigade. Because of their history of movements and the athletic medals he won, we know George was in England and hadn’t yet joined a first line battalion.

We can calculate that George was drafted as Private 29777 to the 7th Battalion Norfolk Regiment by November 1916. We know this because documents from late May 1918 give him ’19 months overseas service.’ We don’t know the exact date he arrived in France, but I suspect it was mostly likely after the actions at Guedecourt when the 7th Battalion were out of the line in the Arras sector.

We have no documentary evidence for his movements during the whole of 1917, but we can assume he was involved throughout the Arras offensive and beyond, via Monchy le Preux and on to the Battle of Cambrai in November.

On March 15-19th 1918, we know that George was with his battalion at Fleurbaix in northern France, because he was being interviewed by Major R Gethen, his Battalion Commander, and 35 Infantry Brigade Commander Brigadier General Berkeley Vincent, and put forward as suitable for a temporary commission.

We also see from the record that by this point George had progressed through the ranks to reach Lance Sergeant, probably having made Corporal at some point during 1917. On 21st March 1918, they were at Estaires when the Spring Offensive began, so matters of promotion were put to one side.

With the knowledge that George was part of ‘C’ Company on March 15th, the battalion war diary gives a detailed description of their positions during the fighting of 26th/27th March, placing George in specific locations near Aveluy and on or below Bouzincourt Ridge.

Next clues the paper trail gives us are that on 26/27th May 1918, we know George travelled from Boulogne to 38 Parliament Street, Westminster, to commence his officer training.

On July 5th 1918, he entered 5 Officer Cadet Battalion at Trinity College, Cambridge, and then on 12th December he was transferred to 23 OCB at Catterick.

By January 15th 1919 he had completed his officer training at Catterick, and his future posting options were recorded.

Things were moving quickly now that the war had ended, and the next day, January 16th 1919, he was almost home, at No 1 Dispersal Unit at Thetford.

Using the stamps on his Form Z11, we know that George drew his discharge allowances from East Harling post office on 25th January, 7th February and 19th February 1919; but we know he was ‘disembodied’ from the regular army on February 13th, using his form Z21, below, as reference. His Z11 was further stamped at East Harling on March 1st 1919.

His commission as temporary 2nd Lieutenant was gazetted as being in force from March 3rd 1919, and we have the original Commission on Vellum.

George relinquished his commission on 1st September 1921. I’ve yet to find a gazette entry to confirm it, but have the document below.

We also know, that on unknown dates George was awarded the Military Medal twice ‘For Bravery in the Field.’ We have the divisional recognition cards issued by 12th (Eastern) Division Commanding Officer, Arthur Binnie Scott, and that the awards were gazetted on 19th March and 12th June 1918. Our presumption is that the likely actions involved were the defence of Bleak Trench at Cambrai (Gonnelieu) on 30th November 1917 or shortly after, and the defence of Bouzincourt Ridge on March 26-27th 1918 – simply because chronologically, they seem an obvious fit, especially allowing for the reorganisation and chaos that followed Cambrai when the 7th were out of the line from December 4th of that year for a refit and not back in trenches until January 29th. There seems very little opportunity in that period of two months for George to have excelled himself, or to appear in the March London Gazette for an action during February – we’d expect it to take three months to reach the gazette.

The rest of George’s war, as discussed in my previous blogs about him, is conjecture and speculation, extrapolated from the battalion war diaries and official history of the Regiment and Division. The truth is, we don’t know exactly what he got up to, but by discussing the paper trail that luckily survived in his WO374 file at The National Archives, and the few original documents held by the family, myself, Paul and Steve were able to piece together some certainty about the story that George told nobody in the years before his death in 1975.

Dave Cole, March 2021

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