Private Allan Arthur Bell, 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment

Private Allan Arthur Bell, 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment

In 1974 Arthur Bell wrote notes of his experience in the 17th Battalion, Manchester Regiment.  Arthur was also subsequently interviewed by Martin Middlebrook on BBC Radio 4 where he recounted further experiences in the First World War  It’s fitting to follow Arthur’s original introduction of his damaged helmet:-

“It had a leather frame inside, and was issued to all of us some weeks before the big advance on 1st July, 1916.  A few days after the initial advance I took my helmet to the Company QMS for renewal as it had a hole in it made by a bullet, which had caused it to roll up like the petal of a flower.  “Yer wanna be more careful” said newly promoted ex-Sergt. McM [McMenemy].  Anyhow, he gave me a new hat.

How came I to get a hole in the hat.”Steel Helmet

Private 8394 Harold Bretnall

In common with Arthur Bell, Harold Bretnall was a Bomber who trained with III Platoon of A Company.  Records overlap in other respects and this post on Harold’s service provides further insight into the experiences of my grandfather.  Harold was wounded on a number of occasions and ended his military service with the East Lancashire Regiment.

Harold Bretnall was born in Bradford, Manchester on 21 September 1894 (6 months after Arthur Bell).  His parents were Francis and Agnes Bretnall, who christened their sixth son at Christ Church, Bradford on 10 October 1894.  Harold was the youngest of eleven children. The family lived at 361 Mill Street and Francis was employed as an iron moulder.  Francis died in 1907, aged 59 and Agnes remained living at Mill Street, with Harold, his brother, Harry and sister, Annie, in 1911.  Harold was then aged 15 and employed as an office boy at a shipping agents.

The 2nd City Battalion of the Manchester Regiment was formed on 2 September 1914 and Harold attested on the next day, aged 19 years and 11 months.  5’ 5½“ in height, Harold weighed 135 lbs and had a fresh complexion and brown hair.

Harold trained at Heaton Park with III Platoon and completed preparations at Belton Park and Lark Hill and disembarked with the majority of the Battalion on 8 November 1915.

Travelling through France 17th Battalion experienced their first tour of front line duty in early December 1915.  Harold was posted the Trench Mortar School on 15 December and returned to the Battalion on 30 December.  Harold also trained as a Grenadier and will have been part of the III Platoon Bombing Section with Arthur Bell.

17th Battalion served in the Maricourt trenches during the first six months of 1916. Advancing from this line on 1July 1916 as part of 90th Brigade, the Battalion was instrumental in the liberation of the fortress village of Montauban in the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Harold’s Service Record notes that he was posted Missing on 1-2 July at Montauban.  Presumably this relates to his absence from a roll call at Happy Valley, after the Battalion had withdrawn at 3am on 3rd July. 

There were inevitably stragglers and wounded men who will have missed the roll call.  It is also a distinct possibility that Harold was one of the few survivors of the Bombing Section detachment held up in an isolated shell hole near Triangle Point.  Arthur Bell recounted that this group did not make it back to the British line until dawn on 3rd July and arrived at the tented camp later in the day.  The group had probably missed the initial roll call and may have been posted missing as a result.

Whatever explanation may apply, Harold hadn’t been missing.  17th Battalion took part in the attack on Trones Wood on 9July 1916 and withdrew from the Front; receiving numerous reinforcements and undertaking training and fatigues. 

On 16 July 1916 Harold received an accidental bullet wound to the left arm and he was admitted to 98th Field Ambulance.  It is not evident when Harold returned to duty, although he wasn’t evidentally treated in a Casualty Clearing Station or Hospital.  Harold may have returned to the Battalion after a few days, possibly in time for the costly assault on Guillemont on 30 July.

Heavy casualties in their opening three engagement required a sustained period for reestablishment of the Battalion as a fighting force.  Following the loss of numerous NCOs, many men were promoted and Harold was appointed unpaid Lance Corporal on 8 August 1916. 17th Battalion was based in Bethune and continued training for future duty and fatigues.  A detachment was undertaking Rifle Grenade training on 18 August, when a premature discharge killed three men and wounded the officer, Lieutenant Holt, and four Other Ranks. 

Harold was accidentally wounded in the right arm on 18 August 1916 and admitted to 96th Field Ambulance.  Subsequently moved to a Casualty Clearing Station on 26 August, Harold was diagnosed with cystitis.  He was then transferred to 32nd Stationery Hospital at Wimereux on 29 August.  The sustained hardship of front line duty and twice being wounded had taken its toll. Harold was diagnosed with Nephritis (Trench Fever) and evacuated to England on 6 September. Harold had been promoted to the rank of Corporal, with the antecedent date for pay purposes as 2 July 1916 – the day when he had been posted missing and prior to his appointment as Lance Corporal.

On 18 January 1917 Harold was posted to 3rd Battalion and transferred to 69th Training Reserve Battalion ‘TR/3/25736’.  Posted back to 3rd Battalion of 8 March, Harold returned to France on 13 June 1917.  Harold was initially posted 30th Infantry Brigade at Etaples, before returning to duty with 17th Battalion on 29 June.  Recognising his relative experience as a veteran of the Somme, Harold was appointed acting Sergeant on 10 July 1917.  Harold was wounded on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres, on 31 July 1917.

Harold was evacuated and rejoined the Depot at Prescot on 25 September 1917, prior to his transfer to 3rd Battalion at Cleethorpes on 17 October. Harold absented himself from duty for one day in November 1917.  The Court Martial found him guilty and sentence Harold to being reduced to the rank of Private.

Disembarking in France for a third time, Harold was posted to 2nd Battalion and arrived at Boulogne on 3 January 1918.  He served at 30th Infantry Brigade Depot at Etaples before joining 2nd Battalion in the field on 17 January.  Wounded in the right thumb on 30 March 1918, Harold was treated in the Field Ambulance and 2nd General Hospital at Rouen.

Harold joined 71st Infantry Brigade Depot, Etaple on 17 April 1918, evidently posted to 9th Battalion. On 22 April 1918 he was taken ill and treated for influenza at 24th General Hospital.

Following recovery Harold was transferred to 2nd Battalion East Lancashire Regiment (East Lancs) on 18 June 1918 and allotted the number ‘31792’.  Suffering the effects of Gas Shells he was admitted to 33rd Casualty Clearing Station on 20 August.  Evacuated to 54 General Hospital in Boulogne on 22 August, Harold was then treated at 12th Canadian General Hospital on 19 September.  Returning to England, Harold was posted to the East Lancs Depot on 5 October.  Granted ten days Leave from 21November, Harold was deducted ten days pay for returning late for his duty on 11 December.

Harold was demobilised from the 2nd Battalion East Lancs at Manchester on 22 March 1919.   He was classified A1 Medical Grade and returned to his mother’s home at 361 Mill Street, Bradford.

Harold married Lena Harrop at St Clement’s Church, Longsight on 29 November 1924.  Harold was then employed as a labourer and the couple lived at 190 Morton Street, Longsight.  By 1939 Harold was the Licensee of the Oxnoble Inn 71 Liverpool Road, Manchester.  He remained at the Inn in March 1943, when an obituary thanks Harry and Lena foe a floral tribute. Harold died in Manchester in the first quarter 1958, aged 63. Lena passed away in 1962, aged 66.  No children have been identified for the couple.

“New” commemorations at Thiepval

On this day 30/07/1916 90/Brigade assaulted Guillemont. Most of 2/Royal Scots Fusils & 18/Manchesters were killed, wounded or missing & 16/ 17/Manchesters also suffered heavy losses.  Recent work has identified 64 men attached to the Brigade who lost their lives. Many were not previously identified as such. Attached from 13 different Regiment, it’s good to see their final military service accurately acknowledged. Nine commemorations are being added to Thiepval from the Menin Gate and one from Loos. #notforgotten

Harry Fisher is one example of a man attached from 9/Royal Sussex to 17/Manchesters- See CWGC revised Roll

Pte Harry Fisher’s entry in the De Ruvigny Roll. No attachment was identified even though he was serving with 17th Manchesters when he died. Harry’s commemoration has now been moved from the Menin Gate to Thiepval Memorial

Non-Commemorations at Stretford Cemetery

Visiting Stretford Cemetery to see the burials of two Manchester Regiment men who are awaiting adjudication for War Grave status. This is the 101st Anniversary of Joseph Dykes death.

Private 3608 Oliver Gelder Hinchlife was a veteran of the Mounted Infantry Company of 4th Volunteer Battalion when he enlisted in 3rd Manchesters in November 1914.  He served in France with 2nd Battalion and was discharged on 29 June 1916.

Oliver Hinchliffe died from TB attributed to service on 12 October 1916.  We anticipate a new CWGC headstone will be erected on his burial plot.

Private 24566 Joseph Dykes had previously served 16 years in the Queens Lancers when he enlisted as a Bandsman in 1st Manchesters Depot at Ashton on 10 May 1915.  Solely serving at home, Bandsman Dykes was discharged on 20 January 1917.

Joseph Dykes died from Fibroid Pneumonia commencing in and aggravated by service.  His daughter, May Dykes married Maurice Barry in 1932.  Maurice died after serving in the Second World War and has a CWGC headstone in front of his father in laws plot.

For further details of the Forgotten Battalion of the Manchester Regiment see:-

Private 8071 Thomas Brooks and his Pals

An Auctioneer in Plymouth sold some medals in December 2020.  The catalogue transposed the regimental number of T Brooks from 9071 to 9701.  I identified the correct number and service of Private Thomas Brooks with 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment.  This is the record of Private Brooks and his Pals.

Manchester Pals

Thomas Brooks enlisted in the 2nd City (Pals) Battalion of the Manchester Regiment on 2 September.  He had previously been employed by Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) and it is anticipated Thomas worked in the Drapery Department at the Head Office at Balloon Street, Manchester.

In late August 1914, the Mayor of Manchester had invited clerks and warehousemen to enlist in a City Battalion of the Manchester Regiment.  1st City Battalion was formed on 31 August – 1 September and Thomas Brooks attested in 2nd City Battalion when it was formed on 2 September.

Manchester Evening News 02.09.1914

Within days, the first Brigade, comprising more than four thousand men, had been formed, including the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th City (or Pals) Battalions.  The War Office took over control in the spring of 1915 and the City Battalions were redesignated as the 16th – 24th Service Battalions.

Courtesy Co-op Archive

The City Battalions were known as Pals because the Mayor had committed that the volunteer soldiers would enlist, train and fight together.  Hundreds of CWS men joined the Pals Battalions, encouraged by the business, which supported families and promised to make up Military pay to the same level as pre-war employment and reinstate staff in their jobs when they returned.   The CWS commitments were universal to all men serving in the Military – not just Pals or men from Manchester.  The business spent more than £538,000 supplementing employees’ wages during hostilities.

CWS support was more extensive than the wider commitment to other Pals Battalion recruits. Other men would have full pay for the first four weeks; re-engagement guaranteed; and half pay to wives during a soldier’s absence.

Groups of friends will have enlisted together from the different Sections or Departments at Balloon Street and other branches of the company.  Thomas Brooks and two colleagues from CWS are anticipated to have enlisted together when they were posted to XI Platoon of C Company and received their regimental numbers  8069 Reginald Frank Brereton, 8071 Thomas Brooks and 8099 William Daniel Cann. Both Reginald Brereton and William Cann are confirmed as enlisting on 2 September 1914.  Research indicates them men were employed in the Millinery, Drapery and Grocery Departments respectively.

Thirteen names of men on the XII Platoon Roll of 17th Battalion correspond with names on the CWS Roll, confirming that numerous CWS men served together in C Company. 

 17th Battalion undertook initial training in Heaton Park, Manchester.  Food, clothing, tents and other resources were provided by voluntary contribution from the City’s businesses, Council and charity groups.  This was effectively a private Army, held under the auspices of the Mayor and Town Hall 

Men from XII Platoon. Probably including CWS staff. Courtesy Clive Dunn

The City Battalions were taken over by the War Office, when the Brigade had moved to Belton Park, near Grantham in April 1915.  They arrived at Larkhill Camp on Salisbury Plain for the final phase of home based training in September 1915 and subsequently embarked for France in November 1915.

Western Front

17th Battalion was part of 90th Brigade in 30th Division.  The Battalion disembarked on 7/8 November 1915. Reginald Brereton had been promoted to the rank of Corporal on 12 July 1915 and  Thomas Brooks and William Cann remained privates.  Corporal Brererton was trained as a Battalion Signaller.

The Manchester battalions travelled through France and arrived at the infamous Somme trenches in January 1916.  90th Brigade served in the front line near the village of Maricourt, with billets at Suzanne.  They also spent time out of the line training and undertaking fatigues.

90th Brigade formed the second phase in the successful assault on the fortress village on Montauban in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.  17th Battalion liberated the village with 16th Battalion and 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers. They then held their positions against two German counter-attacks until they were withdrawn on 3 July. 

21 year old Private 8099 William Cann was wounded at Montauban by a gunshot wound to the face and lower left jaw.  William was evacuated to England on 2 July 1916 and treated at Toxteth Hospital in Liverpool.  He later served as an Acting Corporal (45246) in the Royal Defence Corps.  William was discharged due to his wounds on 10 January 1919 and received a disability pension for 50% disability. He lived at 158 Tipping Street, Ardwick.

Manchester Evening News 18 July 1916 © British Library National Newspaper Archive

The two remaining XI Platoon CWS colleagues returned to the advance on 9 July 1916.  17th Battalion was charged with taking the German positions in Trones Wood.  The assault was successful, but the Battalion was forced to withdraw in the face of sustained bombardment from enemy artillery.  Reginald Brereton was wounded by shrapnel in the hand in Trones Wood. He had just celebrated his 25th Birthday.

17th Battalion also took part in the assault on Guillemont on 30 July 1916.  They advanced in support of 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers. While they advanced to the German front line, the Manchesters couldn’t make contact with the Scottish Battalion and they were forced to retired due a storm of artillery and machine gun fire.

The final action on the Somme took place on 12 October 1916 when the Battalion attacked German positions north of Flers.  No gains were made and 17th Manchesters suffered significant losses – including the Author’s Grandfather who had shrapnel wounds in his foot. 

Corporal Brereton had returned to duty and was wounded on a second occasion. Reginald Brereton was presumably evacuated and treated for his wounds in England.  He married Mabel Bees at Cheetham in early 1917.  Reginald was selected for training as an officer cadet and left France on 19 December 1916 prior to being discharged from the ranks on 25 January 1917.  He received his commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment on 21 April.  Reginald joined 18th Battalion in the field on 17 June 1917 and it is recorded that he served as Signals Officer.

2nd Lieutenant Brereton was gassed on 31 July 1917, during the opening day and 3rd Battle of Ypres. He was evacuated and declared fit for General Service on 29 April 1918. It is not clear whether Reginald returned to the Front. He retired on 23 January 1919, retaining the rank of Lieutenant.  Reginald and Mabel’s first daughter was born on 6 July 1919.  The family lived at 10 Carlton Street, Cheetham Hill and later moved to Didsbury.

2nd Lt Brereton (c) Roy Thompson Manchesters Forum

Reginald Brereton and Thomas Brooks paths may have crossed at Ypres.  Thomas appears to have remained with 17th Battalion which continued to serve on the Western Front.  17th Manchesters took part in assaults at Arras on 23 April 1917 and they were present with 18th Battalion at Ypres on 31 July 1917.

At some stage Private Brooks was transferred to 1/6th Battalion Manchester Regiment.  The absence of a service record makes the dates or reasons for this posting speculative. Anecdotally it has been found that some of the men were posted to 1/6th Manchesters after 17th Battalion had been disbanded in July 1918 and Thomas Brooks may have been part of this draft.  Men that remained posted to 17th Manchesters had been posted to 1st Battalion Border Regiment, indicating that Thomas Brooks was not serving with his original battalion on disbandment.  In such case he may have been previously wounded in the German Spring Offensive of March 1918 or during action at the Spoil Bank, Ypres in April 1918.

1/6th Manchesters was a Territorial Battalion that had served at Gallipoli in 1915, Egypt in 1916 and the Western Front since March 1917.  The Battalion had also faced heavy losses in the German Spring Offensive.  Drafts of men provided replacements and 1/6th Battalion were present when the Advance to Victory began after the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918. After the Armistice the Battalion was reduced to cadre strength and arrived home in Manchester in April 1919.

Private Brooks was demobilised and transferred to Army Reserve on 12 April 1919.  Thomas received a pension for 20% disability due to a gunshot wound to his right forearm. He was 25 years old.

Thomas Brooks Family Life

Thomas Brooks was born on 18 December 1893. His parents were Thomas and Thomasiana Brooks.  Thomas senior was an Engine Driver for the London & North Western Railway.  The family lived at 196 Worsley Road Winton in 1901 and remained at this address when Thomas junior left the army.  In 1911 Thomas junior had been employed as a salesman at CWS.  He had a sister, Gladys, and a younger brother, Alfred; who may have died in infancy.

After demobilisation Thomas Brooks married Ethel Fulton at Winton United Methodist Church on 5 July 1920.  He was then employed as a drapery salesman, indicating that CWS may have upheld their commitment to re-employ returning soldiers.  Thomas and Ethel had two sons, Geoffrey F, born 21 July 1922 and Dennis Thomas, born 1926. In 1939 the family lived at 9 Birch Road, Swinton and Thomas was employed as a drapery travelling salesman.

Thomas Brooks was awarded the Special Constabulary Long Service Medal during the reign of King George VI, 1936-52. The medal may be awarded to Special Constables who were recommended by the Chief Officer of Police of the department in which they serve so long as they have served for at least nine years, and willingly and competently discharged their duty as a Special Constable. Years of service during service during World War II from 3 September 1939 to 31 December 1945 were counted as triple.

The date of Thomas Brooks’ death has not been identified.  Ethel passed away on 16 March 1970, aged 74.  She lived at 8 Ruskin Avenue, Thornton Cleveleys, Lancs. It appears her son, Geoffrey, had died in 1941, aged 19. Dennis married twice and had three children.  He died in Surrey in July 2016.

The Cost

Sixteen men have been identified as serving in C Company of 17th Manchesters from Co-operative Wholesale Society.  Thomas Brooks and his comrades in XI Platoon all survived hostilities.  Six CWS men who trained in XII did not return.

Sources and Further Reading

17th Battalion Manchester Regiment – John Hartley

Manchester Pals – Michael Stedman

Manchester Regiment Forum

Manchester Co-op’s Battle of the Somme


Forgotten Battalion of the Manchester Regiment

Working with the Manchester Regiment Forum and In From The Cold Project we’ve been researching men who died in the period of the Great War, without War Grave status. Ninety cases are now under consideration. Here’s the journal of the project.

It’s been a real priviledge to work in the team and updates will be made when ‘new’ commemorations are published and headstones installed.

Women Patrols overseeing the morals of the Manchester Pals

The rejection of these Women Patrols was reported in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 18 December 1914.  The editor angrily described the proposals as nonsensical and unpleasant, supporting the decision of the Manchester Watch Committee

Women Patrols 1 Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 18 December 1914

Women Patrols 1 Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 18 December 1914

If “…these inquisitive and … prying women had been granted authorisation… it would be and an insult to the men of the Manchester battalions…with unpleasant results to the women who…appoint themselves as judges of character of men and women…and apparently intended to accost –and by so doing insult-which they chose to be about with immoral intentions.”

The proposed women patrols were described.

“We say nothing about the qualifications which these objectionable prudes plume themselves…thought reading abilities, and so on…”.

“Who are they to constitute themselves the judges of characters-by instinct we suppose?  The young men who…do not require nurses or guardians and can protect themselves.”

“The probably have sweethearts , some may have wives.  The old Women Patrols 2 Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 18 December 1914maids who want to be placement should not let their envy lead them to extremes.  Tommy would not love “them” much if they insulted his sweetheart, and insult it would have been had these duennas addressed a couple without an introduction”

The Prude Prowlers clearly hit back – to no avail.

More than a century later, the prospect of women overseeing the men at Heaton Park seems obnoxious.  These men were not angels, but they had come from white collar jobs, answering the call to duty, so there seems no justifacation for civilians to interfere with their moral, lifestyle, or relationship with sweethearts.  19 months later, the men were fighting in the Battle of the Somme.  If individual morals needed policing, it was not the men who went over the top.  Well done Mr Editor.


Festive Guest Feature

Great War Reflections

Welcome to a special Xmas edition of my Guest Feature where I’m gladly joined by Battlefield Guide, Author & Santa lookalike, Steve Smith, who’s here to dispel the myths & tell the real truths about the Christmas Truce of 1914. Anyone for a game of Footie?

Steve Smith

About me…

I’ve been a battlefield guide since 2004, having left the RAF in 2003, where I served for 18 years as an RAF Police NCO at various bases in the UK and abroad and completed tours in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and in Macedonia on a NATO Peace Keeping mission. At present I assist students in attaining diplomas at various levels of education.

I’ve had an interest in military history since the age of 13 when I was introduced to my Great Grandfather Private G/5203 Frank Smith who served in the 7th and 8th Buffs in the Great War, was…

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