Edward Walter Barrett

Edward Walter Barrett was born at Welford in 1894, the son of William, a farm carter, and his wife Mary.

The Barrett family originally hailed from Aldbourne, coming to Welford in the early 1880s, and eventually settling at The Row in Browns Lane.  Reference to the family can be found in the Welford Parish Magazine in early 1914, in connection with the Welford Bell Ringers.

The 1911 census shows Walter, as it appears he was known, living at home at age 16, with his occupation given as ‘under carter’.

After the outbreak of war he enlisted at Reading for service with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, and was allocated Regimental number 16338.  At that time he was living at Kintbury.

Private Barrett arrived in France on 4th May 1915.  The Battalion War Diary of the 2nd Royal Berks records that a draft of 110 other ranks joined them on 11th May, and it therefore seems likely that he was among them.  At this time the Battalion were in billets at Bac St Maur, south-west of Armentières, going through a period of reorganisation after fighting a costly action at Fromelles.

From 25th May to 25th June the Battalion occupied trenches at Neuve Chapelle, alternating with the 2nd Lincolns, six days at a time.  The two Battalions were then moved north to near the French-Belgian border, and spent a long period working in conjunction to defend the trenches at Bois Grenier.

Preparations were now in hand for a major offensive further south at Loos.  8th Division (which included the 2nd Royal Berks) were not to take part in this, but would mount a simultaneous diversionary attack in their own sector, to stop the Germans moving reserves south to the main offensive.  Bois Grenier was the area chosen for the attack.

The assault was to be made by three Companies of the 2nd Royal Berks (A, B and C) in the centre, one Company of the 2nd Lincolns on the left, and one Company of the 2nd Rifle Brigade on the right, with supporting fire from the neighbouring Battalions on either side of the sector.  The remaining Companies of all three Battalions would follow-up and exploit any gains.

The 2nd Royal Berks left its billets in Fleurbaix in marching order at 7pm on 24th September and proceeded to the trenches, without packs or greatcoats, taking their positions for the attack to be made the next day.  There had been a heavy bombardment of the German lines for three days, and much of the wire was cut.

The German trenches at Bois Grenier followed a straight line, but for a length of about 1,200 yards the British front line formed a pronounced re-entrant semicircle which effectively made no-man’s land over 500 yards wide.  However, there were old fire trenches within the semicircle in which it was possible for troops to assemble and thus cut down the distance they would have to cross, and it was here that the 2nd Royal Berks formed up.  Facing the British troops was a well-defended line containing three strong points: Bridoux Fort on the left, The Lozenge in the centre, and Corner Fort on the right.

At 4:25am on the 25th September the British artillery bombardment opened, gradually working backwards from the German first line towards the second line, third line, and Communication trenches.  The first wave of attackers was sent in at about the same time, creeping forward under the bombardment.  Once they were 100 yards out, the second wave followed them.

The first trench was reached at 4:30am, just as the barrage ceased.  B and C Companies took the sectors of first line trench allotted to them, although they were unable to reach the second line.  By 8am the Royal Berks and the Lincolns had got in touch and the first line trench was held from the west end of the Lozenge to the east end of Bridoux fort.  A Company, however, were unable to get into the trench with more than a few men, and their casualties were heavy.  No progress could be made here as the day went on, the defenders being too well supplied with grenades, and the gap between A Company and the Rifle Brigade was never closed.

At midday the Lincolns sustained a heavy counter-attack and started to fall back into the section of trench held by the Royal Berks, and some men had to be led back to their own lines in order to ease the congestion.  A further counter-attack on the Royal Berks sector came at 2pm, and this time a withdrawal was ordered, further casualties being sustained in its accomplishment.  Moreover, throughout the morning, there had been constant shelling in both directions causing casualties in D Company, in reserve in the jumping-off trench.

The action at Bois Grenier had certainly diverted German reinforcements away from the main attack, but it proved to be a very costly operation for the 2nd Royal Berks; in fact they lost more men than many Regiments taking part in the main battle.  Seven officers and 124 other ranks were killed or subsequently died of wounds, 60 other ranks were missing, and five officers and 201 other ranks had been wounded.

Walter Barrett was among those posted as ‘missing’, and remained so well into 1916, when it was eventually confirmed that he had been killed in action. 

He has no known grave, and his name can be found on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing at Hyde Park Corner, about 5km north of Armentières, one of 134 men of the 2nd Royal Berks named there who fell in the action at Bois Grenier.