Friday, 2 June 2017

On this day in 1917, Driver William Conibear was killed in France

Driver 18966
D Battery, 106th Battalion
Royal Field Artillery
Died age 20
4th June 1917

Personal Details:
William Richard Conibear was born in Barry, South Wales, in early 1897, the son of William Richard and Lydia Conibear. William Snr was originally from Ilfracombe and by the time of the 1891 census (5th April 1891), he was living in Cadoxton , near Barry, in lodgings at 1, Greenwood Street. His occupation is given as a shoeing smith and, as such, he would have been attracted to the burgeoning coal-related industry of Barry (docks, engine works). Travelling across the Bristol Channel at that time was relatively easy as there were many ferries crossing from the North Devon coast to South Wales’ ports.
William and Lydia (nee Wilce, born in St Neot) married at Merthyr Dyfan church, on the outskirts of Barry, on February 2nd 1896.  On 14th January 1900 Lydia died and, in the following year, Lydia’s older sister, Ellen Wilce, was living as a housekeeper for William Snr and William Jnr at 139, Woodlands Road, Barry. Later that year, William and Ellen married. By 1907, a son Sydney Arthur was born in Callington that year, the family had moved to Cornwall. At the time of the 1911 census, they were living in Bray Shop where William Snr was a blacksmith and William Jnr, aged 14, was ‘working on a farm’.
At some stage the family were living at Tregoiffe Cottage,  north east of Bray Shop, as this was the address given for William Jnr’s parents as his next-of-kin. William Snr died at Trelabe, which is quite near Tregoiffe Cottage, on November 4th 1947 aged 78 and his second wife, Ellen, died at Glenhaven, Callington, on October 29th 1948. Both are buried in the Methodist Chapel graveyard at Kelly Bray.

 Military Service:
William Conibear in his uniform
Inscription on the back of the above photograph
William Jnr enlisted at Launceston, the exact date for which is unknown. He joined the Royal Horse Artillery/Royal Field Artillery (indistinguishable for all practical purposes) and was a Driver, a role for which his farming background presumably had prepared him. A Driver in the Royal Artillery was someone trained to drive a horse drawn vehicle, including gun teams and ammunition wagons. When the guns were in action, the drivers remained at the wagon lines, and assisted in the supply of ammunition. They were also available to replace casualties, so had to have a grounding  in gun drill and duties of the various gun numbers. William Jnr served in D Battery, a unit which had responsibility for the operation of 4.5” Howitzer.
The 106th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, served with the 24th Division. The Division was established in September 1914 as part of Kitchener's Third New Army and began to assemble in the area of Shoreham. The Division suffered from a lack of equipment and a lack of trained officers and NCOs to command the volunteers. In late June 1915 they moved to Aldershot for final training and they proceeded to France at the end of August, a date which coincides with William’s entry date on his Medal Roll of 30th August 1915 for entry into the French Theatre of War. The Division concentrated in the area between Etaples and St Pol on 4th September and a few days later moved across France into the reserve for the British assault at Loos, going into action on the 26th September and suffering heavy losses. In 1916 they suffered in the German gas attack at Wulverghem (April 30th) and then moved to The Somme seeing action in The Battle of Delville Wood (14th July – 3rd September) and The Battle of Guillemont (3rd–6th September).  In 1917 they were in action at The Battle of Vimy Ridge in the Spring (9th – 12th April) and The Battle of Messines in June. It was in this latter engagement that William was killed on 4th June 1917.

The Battle of Messines was fought on June 7th 1917 and was an attempt by the Allies to capture land to the southeast of Ypres to gain control of the higher land in the Ypres Salient. The attack on the Messines Ridge started with the tried and tested artillery assault. In the week leading up to June 7th over 2,200 artillery guns pounded German lines and it is thought that as many as 3 million shells may have been fired. However, they did not fire indiscriminately. Allied reconnaissance had provided artillery gunners with up-to-date maps of where German artillery positions were and by the time of the infantry attack some 90% of German artillery guns in and around Messines had been destroyed. The War Diary of the 106th Brigade and the personal diary of the officer commanding the 106th Brigade at the time, Lieutenant Colonel The Hon Ralph Gerard Alexander Hamilton, both describe the intimate involvement of the 106th Brigade in the activities preceding and during the engagement. Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton’s entry for the day is quoted verbatim as it gives a dramatic account of what the prevailing conditions were like.
From the Brigade War Diary for 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. 2.30pm. Railway Dugouts shelled with gas shell. D (Battery)/106 shelled 9 causalities. Total Brigade casualties for first week 34.

Lieutenant Colonel Gerard Alexander Hamilton
From the 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.
Where buried: 

Panoramic view of Railway Dugouts Cemetery
William Conibear's headstone in the Railway Dugouts Cemetery
William Jnr is buried very close to where he was killed in the Railway Dugouts Cemetery in Grave IV.G.1. This cemetery is 2 Kms west of Zillebeke village, where the railway runs on an embankment overlooking a small farmstead, which was known to the troops as Transport Farm. The site of the cemetery was screened by slightly rising ground to the east, and burials began there in April 1915. They continued until the Armistice, especially in 1916 and 1917, when Advanced Dressing Stations were placed in the dugouts and the farm. They were made in small groups, without any definite arrangement and in the summer of 1917 a considerable number were obliterated by shell fire before they could be marked. The names "Railway Dugouts" and "Transport Farm" were both used for the cemetery.

The plaque received by William's family after his death. These were commonly known as a 'Death Penny'.
A somewhat fuzzy image of a regimental badge in the possession of a member of William's family.
Reverse of the above.

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