Friday, 29 November 2013

In Memoriam: William Conibear

I've mentioned previously that I'm in the process of writing a book about those mentioned on our local WW1 memorial. One such whose biography I've just completed is William Richard Conibear. He was serving as a Driver (of horses rather than anything mechanised) in D Battery of the 106th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery when he was killed during the 'softening' up activities prior to the Battle of Messines near Ypres on June 4th 1917. Each man I'm researching is unique in their own way and with William Conibear there are a few things that stand out:
1.  He was Welsh by birth and spent the early years of his short life in Barry, South Wales.
2.  He is one of the few men for whom I've managed to obtain a photograph.
3.  He is one of the few men for whom I've been able to trace a living relative.
Not a close relative but a relative nonetheless and one who has shared with me William's militaria that has come into her care, such as the 'death penny' received by his family as a formal recognition of his death. 
4.  He is one of the few men whose exact time and place of death I can trace through documentation.

The documentation relevant here are the War Diary of the 106th Brigade and the personal diary of the officer commanding the 106th Brigade at the time, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph G.A. Hamilton, Master of Belhaven. I've quoted them both below as they are worth reading. The Brigade War Diary entries are brief but do mention that D Battery was hit by a gas shell on June 4th, with nine casualties, one of whom would have been William Conibear. The personal diary of Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton's is far more expansive and paints a vivid picture of life at the front at that particular time and what men such as William had to endure. William was buried very close to where he died, in the Railway Dugouts War Cemetery.

From the 106th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery War Diary for June 1917:
Friday June 1st: Batteries wire cutting on Mt Sorrel zone. (meaning firing barrages to destroy enemy barb wire defences).
Saturday June 2nd: Ditto. Batteries also fire in support of small raid on Spoil Bank Sector.
Sunday June 3rd: Practice barrage at 3.15pm. Batteries wire cutting.
Monday June 4th: Brigade Commanders Conference at Busseboom. 2.30 pm. Railway Dugouts shelled with gas shell. D (Battery)/106 shelled 9 casualties. Total Brigade casualties for first week 34. 

From Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton’s Personal Diary:
Zillebeke 4th June, 1917: What a 4th of June! I wonder if they are having the procession of boats at Eton today; certainly we can compete with them for fireworks; there has been nothing like it before. Our guns and the Germans' roar night and day and never stop for a moment. To-day General Sheppard had a conference of group commanders at his Headquarters in the vicinity of Poperinghe. He sent a car to meet us near the Asylum on the road to Vlamertinghe. Colonel de Satche and I walked over to meet it and had a rough time, as the Hun was shelling the whole area heavily, We had to make detours to avoid burning dumps of ammunition, which were exploding gaily in all directions. We were nearly caught going through Kruistraat, a big shell hitting a house not far off and blowing out the whole of the side of the house facing us. It was tropically hot and we had to keep off the roads because of the shelling. The fields are thick with long tufts of grass and full of shell holes, so by the time we had done 8 miles I was about exhausted. It was a relief indeed to reach the car. For the first mile or so the car had to pick its way among the holes in the road, but after that we bowled along the road merrily, and reached Divisional Headquarters, which are a collection of well-made huts. The general and everyone asked after my wound, and we adjourned to their mess for our conference. General Sheppard read out a letter from the army commander saying that he realised what a bad time the gunners were having and much appreciated the good work that was being done. We discussed every detail of our plans and the general made several excellent suggestions. I saw our brigade major and staff captain and made all sorts of arrangements, and asked for all the maps I wanted. They are a delightful staff to work with -always anxious to help in every possible way. This is not the  case with all staff officers by a long way. After the conference we drove to our wagon-lines, where I had tea and saw the horses. They are looking much better than I had expected after the tremendous work they have had. C Battery horses were caught last night in a gas shell barrage and had a bad time. Their horses were still gasping for breath and looking very sick, but none have died and they will probably be all right in a day or two. After tea I had my trumpeter and an orderly with a horse-holder and started back for the line. I took the new sand track and was able to canter for the first two miles without drawing rein. I could have ridden farther, but when I got into the area that is shelled at night there were so many dead horses lying on the road that my mare began to object. I don't blame her, as she could not hold a handkerchief to her nose like I did. I accordingly got off and sent the horses back. The orderly and I walked the last two miles to Bedford House. I passed a 6 in. howitzer battery in my old position near Voormezeele and inquired whose it was; to my surprise I found Birch in command-now a major. He was my captain in A/106 when I went home in November last. He gave me a drink and we exchanged news. He is very lucky, as, being a "silent battery," he has not been spotted by the Hun yet, and has had a peaceful time since he arrived here. On arrival at my own brigade I found that A and D had been heavily shelled whilst I was away. D had bad luck, a 5.9 shell crashing into one of their gun-pits and killing two and wounding seven men. I do not think it was meant for them at all, but was a bad shot for A Battery. The Hun has "bracketed" them with a 25-yrd bracket, so I have warned Dallas to look out for trouble. The general has given me two more officers, both of whom I have posted to A Battery, as they are very short. To-night the Hun has put a large number of gas shells round our dug-outs. I did not put on my gasmask quickly enough, with the result that I got a nasty whiff of it that made me cough and splutter. It catches one by the throat and the eyes are affected, so that tears pour down one's face. Our new gas-helmets are a great improvement on the old flannel bags. I was so tired that I half went to sleep with it on. The Hun has shelled my Headquarters intermittently all day, but has not caught many people fortunately.

Hamilton himself was killed in March 1918

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