Tuesday, 30 April 2013

World War One Soldier's Story - Reginald Leslie Duncan from Barnsley

Reginald Leslie Duncan is a bit of a mouthful - let's call him Reg ... I hope that's OK.  He's the OH's first cousin 3x removed, one of our most closely related WW1 soldiers, so I think we are allowed to be friendly.  He's also a lot younger than me, or at least he was when he died, which is one of those really strange thoughts that you get sometimes in family history that makes your insides shiver a bit and you have to insist you have something in your eye - it couldn't possibly be a tear for someone who's been dead for ninety-seven years.

This is Reg.  Like I said ... young isn't he?
Reginald Leslie Duncan from the Barnsley Independent 5 Aug 1916
The title of this post says he was from Barnsley, I'm not telling fibs, but funnily enough Reg was actually born in Malton, North Yorkshire.  His father Herbert Duncan had married, in Barnsley, a girl called Maria Cocker, a Lancashire lass.  They'd been quite young, Herbert was 23 years old and Maria only 19.  Herbert was a tailor and Maria gives her occupation as a seamstress before her marriage, I suppose they may have met at work.  They were married for eight years and then in 1888 she died.  There were no children to the marriage and I expect Herbert just wanted a change of scenery to take his mind off his loss. 

When I found him on the 1891 census he was living in Old Malton with his new wife, Elizabeth, daughter of John Rollinson, the landlord of the Hare and Hounds pub in Newbegin, Malton.  They had married at the end of 1890. 

Cyril (or George) Duncan their first son was born early in 1892, followed by Doris in 1893 and then Reg in 1895.  Something must have changed because Herbert and Elizabeth's next child, their third son, Horace, was born in Barnsley in 1897.  Their fifth and final child, Clara was born in 1899 also in Barnsley.  The address given at the baptisms of both these children and the family's address in the 1901 census was 77 Sheffield Road.  In Barnsley Streets Volume 1 Herbert's business is listed at this address from 1896 to 1909.  The family then moves to 25 Pontefract Road where we find them in 1911.
1911 census return for 25 Pontefract Road, Barnsley (from Ancestry)
Cyril has followed his father into the Tailoring business, along with the eldest daughter, Doris.  Reg, who is 16 years old, is working in the Glass Trade and young Horace is working as an Iron Moulder in a Foundry.  The 1911 census returns give the additional information, not collected on any previous census, that the length of the marriage between Herbert and Elizabeth was nineteen years and that of their five children all were still living. 

Within a few years all three boys had enlisted to fight in the 'Great War'.
Recruiting posters (from the Imperial War Museum)
When war broke out in August 1914 most people thought that it would be 'over by Christmas' and when Lord Kitchener appealed for volunteers thousands of Barnsley men rushed to join up. 

Reg's service number was 13/252 so he was one of the earlier men to enlist into the 13th Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, soon to be known as the 1st Barnsley Pals, in the autumn of 1914.  I have been unable to find his service records or those of his brother Horace, service number 13/1434, so they must have been amongst those lost during the fires of the blitz in World War Two, however the story of the Barnsley Pals has been well documented by Jon Cooksey in his book of the same name.  Horace might have joined up a little later, judging by his number, but then he wasn't 18 until the beginning of 1915 - unless he stretched the truth when he faced the recruiting officer of course.  T!here are many stories of young men sent for a walk around the block coming back with a year added on their age

The men who had grown up together and worked together now trained together, firstly camping in the Civic Hall in Barnsley town centre, then moving up to a newly built camp at Silkstone and then on to Penkridge in Staffordshire.  By late 1915 they were on Salisbury Plain waiting to be sent overseas, surprisingly not straight to France but to Egypt for the first few months of 1916.  To a couple of young men, Reg now 21 years old and Horace, just about to turn 19, it must have been a great adventure. 

We know that the Barnsley Pals arrived in France in March 1916 and they would no doubt have been kept busy training in mock trenches and getting ready for the 'big push'.  Everyone, including the Germans, knew it was coming.  The plan was for the British to make make a concerted attack on the their part of the line in attempt to relieve the pressure on the French further south.  They had been fighting hard all spring at Verdun.  Follow my links to read more about this on the Long, Long Trail website.

The Pals would have had a few stints in the trenches before the final attack.  In the weeks beforehand the wire and emplacements on the German side of No-Man’s land were supposed to have been blown to pieces by the bombardment of the British artillery, so being in the front line was probably very noisy and of course very dangerous.  Reg was obviously doing a very good job as he had already been promoted to Sergeant.  I suppose having his younger brother in the same battalion meant he could keep an eye on him and their parents were probably reassured that Reg would look after Horace.

When the day came, the 1st July 1916, the men were ordered to advance at a walk, to keep their lines.  This may have been confidence that the German defences were destroyed, but it was almost certainly because the generals were concerned that many of the Pals battalions were going into action for the first time that day. 

Some men had been detailed to crawl out of the trenches ahead of the attack to lie in wait in no-man's land for the signal, but most of the Barnsley men were not in this group, just half of the 14th Y&L, the 2nd Barnsley Pals were in the very front line.  The remainder of the 2nd Barnsley and the whole of the 13th Y&L, the 1st Barnsley Pals were in the second line about 100 yards behind the front markers.  Reg and Horace and their comrades were following the Accrington Pals, the 11th East Lancs who set off as the signal was heard.

The men were heavily laden with equipment as it was expected they would be taking over the German trenches and working to make them good so the fight could be continued from there.  Unfortunately the wire had not been destroyed and the German trenches were deep and well reinforced.  As soon as the bombardment stopped, just before the signal for the advance, the Germans came out of their bunkers, set up their machine guns and waited.

Here's an extract from the War Diary of the 13th Y&L, the 1st Barnsley Pals:

7am -  The advance was carried out in perfect order under a terrific hostile artillery  bombardment and Machine Gun fire … all ranks advanced as steadily as if on a drill  parade. Major Guest, Lt. Heptonstall and three men of B Coy reached the German front line. Major Guest and the three men were killed and Lt. Heptonstall was wounded in the side but fell into a shell crater where he remained till nightfall when he managed to crawl back to our lines.
9am -  Orders were received for C Company and D Company  to advance as a support … they were stopped by verbal orders from the Brigadier who had now received information that all our preceding waves had been decimated.
(This extract from Andrew Jackson's Barnsley Pals website)

None of the 1st Barnsley men got through the wire to reach the German trenches. 

Meanwhile back in Barnsley reports were published in the local newspapers, the Barnsley Chronicle and the Barnsley Independent, praising the brave soldiers and congratulating them on the success of the 'big push'.  It took a few more days for the real stories to come trickling back to Yorkshire.

On the 5th August 1916 the Barnsley Independent published a large piece on Reginald Leslie Duncan entitled "Barnsley Sergeant Falls, Killed by Chance Shot".  Apparently Horace and Elizabeth had only just received definite news that Reg had been killed, despite the fact that 'rumour had been current for the past week or two that he fell in the great attack".  Messages from a close friend and from Horace had 'helped prepare the parents for the sad official news".  The article also reproduced a portion of a letter from Reg's captain explaining that they had been moving around a great deal since 5th July and he hadn't been able to get hold of the addresses of the next of kin.  Captain Gwney writes,

"I am sorry to have to confirm the rumour that your son, Sergt. Reginald Duncan, was killed on July 1st.  He was killed by a shell, and died instantaneously without any pain or knowledge at all.  Your son was killed by quite a chance shot and his death is a very deep grief to us all.  He was a fearless and splendid N.C.O. in whom I had absolute confidence, and his death has made a gap in our ranks that we never shall fill".

L: part of the article printed in the Barnsley Independent on 5 Aug 1916
R: the dedication from 'his loving sweetheart' in the Barnsley Chronicle on 19 Aug 1916
The article also mentions that Reg used to work at Redfearn's Glassworks and that Horace had transferred to the 13th Y&L from the Territorials to join his brother.  The eldest brother Cyril was with the Royal Army Medical Corps in France.

The following week a memorial from his parents was printed in the Barnsley Chronicle and the week after that it was followed by a poem from 'his loving sweetheart and her family'.  That same week the Chronicle prints a shortened version of the article used by the Independent, mainly the letter from his captain.  Finally on 26th August a smaller picture of Reg appears on the front page of the Chronicle as part of an array of photos of killed and missing men. 

There had been losses in Barnsley before the 1st July 1916, but nothing on the scale of the casualties from that day and those which followed.  The Barnsley Pals book lists over 200 killed or who subsequently died of wounds sustained on the first day, 74 of them are listed on the Thiepval Memorial as they have no known resting place.  Reg was a little luckier ... if that is the right word.
The grave of R L Duncan at Colincamps (thanks to RE for this picture)
Reg was buried in the Euston Road Cemetery at Colincamps, which was about three miles behind the lines on 1st July 1916.  Look at the way the stones in the background of the picture above are almost touching each other or are overlapping.  This is an indication that the cemetery was used immediately after a big battle, when a large grave would have been prepared in advance for the casualties who were laid out side by side.  Around 500 men were initially buried here.  Later burials in the same cemetery are more spaced out and after the war more than 750 other burials were collected into the cemetery from outlying areas. 

Reg's brothers made it home and both marry after the war.  His sister Doris marries during the war and her husband also survives.  Elizabeth dies in 1925 and Herbert in 1933, both are buried in Barnsley Cemetery, they remained at 25 Pontefract Road until their deaths.  There were schemes set up after the war for relatives to visit the battlefield cemeteries, hopefully some members of Reg's family were able to go and put flowers on his grave.  The photo above was taken by a more distant relative, Reg's second cousin 2x removed (and the OH's fourth cousin once removed), who kindly sent me a copy. 

Despite not having Reg's service records it is still possible to find out a lot about what his experiences would have been from regimental records and battalion war diaries - and of course we are very lucky in Barnsley that so much work has been done on the Barnsley Pals battalions already. 

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