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Wakefield, Caleb Henry

Caleb Henry Wakefield
Victory Medal
Victory Medal
British War Medal
British War Medal
Private Caleb Henry Wakefield (220379)
Killed in Action on Monday 25th March 1918
German Spring Offensive, aged 23
Son of Henry & Emily Sarah Wakefield
Father's occupation: Agricultural Labourer
Born Q1 1895 at Wargrave
3 sisters, 1 brother, position in family: 3
Local address: Montrose Villas, Hurst
Regiment:Royal Berkshire
Battalion:1st Bn.
Previous unit:240377 Ox & Bucks LI
Went overseas:After 1 Jan 1916
Died:Monday 25th March 1918
Cause:Killed in Action
Action:German Spring Offensive
Battalion at:Courcelette
Commemorated:Memorial at Arras Memorial

Caleb Wakefield was born in Wargrave on 26th February 1895 to Henry and Emily Wakefield, and was the third of five children. His father was an agricultural labourer and by 1901 Caleb was living with his three brothers and one sister at Crazies Hill.

Caleb was resident in Twyford during the First World War and enlisted into the army at Henley. He served initially in the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and his service number suggests that Caleb was a Territorial soldier. It is not known when Caleb went to France though it must have been after 1st January 1916. By March 1918 he had transferred to 1st Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment.

At the start of 1918 1st Battalion was serving in the trenches at La Vacquerie, south-west of Cambrai, where they followed the typical rotation of frontline duty, support and reserve. February was enlivened by some aggressive patrolling in No Man's Land with the aim of taking a German prisoner. There were strong rumours of a forthcoming enemy offensive and intelligence was needed on the strength and disposition of German forces.

In March the Battalion suffered many casualties from poison gas attacks as the War Diary shows:

Thursday 7th March 1918France, Front line LA VACQUERIE RIGHT
At 1235 a.m. the enemy "projected" gas on our front. The projection was by means of “rum jar” Trench Mortars. High Explosive was used and the detonations were terrific, damaging the trenches badly and veiling the fact that gas was present. The gas was of the Phosgene type. 2/Lieut J A GRIMES MC died from the effects of the gas after gallantly endeavouring to rescue his orderly who had been buried in the trench. 2/Lieuts C.H.BEER and FOSTER and 29 Other Ranks were also casualties (wounded "gas"). The effects of the projection were chiefly felt by RIGHT, CENTRE and SUPPORT companies.
Monday 11th March 1918France, Front line LA VACQUERIE RIGHT
Frosty morning and a very fine day. Very little activity during daylight except with aircraft of both sides. The Divisional Commander visited the line in the morning. At about 7.15 p.m. the enemy commenced an intensive bombardment with "MUSTARD GAS" over a large front - this continued unabated for about 3½ hours intermixed with High Explosives. The Rations convoy reached the line in spite of the gas and got away again with comparatively slight casualties. The gas hung about in dangerous strength the whole night.
Tuesday 12th March 1918France, Front line LA VACQUERIE RIGHT
The effects of the gas bombardment began to be manifest during this and subsequent days. Casualties were heaviest in B and D Companies (in SUPPORT) - the troops in the front line posts suffering comparatively slightly. Our total casualties from the gas were eventually found to be 11 officers wounded (Capts M C DEMPSEY and R N PORRITT our Medical Officer Major C NUGENT, Lieut J W JOHNSON (attd 29TMB) and 2/Lieuts W LEACH, E E KIRBY, A J HARRIS, J TITLEY, A S DENHAM, T M GOWER & W S WINSTANLEY) and 257 Other Ranks wounded. The bulk of these casualties were not serious and few would have been evacuated to England had it not been necessary to clear the hospitals for the reception of wounded in subsequent fighting. In the evening we were relieved in the line by 1/King's Royal Rifle Corps and moved into Divisional Reserve at METZ. Relief complete at 10.05 p.m. Casualties NIL. Arrived in billets at about 12 midnight. A few gas shells fell during the move but stringent precautions were observed.

With 300 casualties from the gas, the Battalion was in a dangerously weakened state and needed to be strengthened before the anticipated German offensive. Two days later they received reinforcements in the shape of 160 soldiers from the Buckinghamshire Territorials. The new men were posted to B and D Companies which had been practically wiped out by the gas attacks and it is likely that Caleb joined the Battalion at this time. If so, Caleb had only been with 1st Battalion for a week when the massive German Spring Offensive commenced on 21st March 1918.

On this day the Battalion was in reserve at Manancourt and the War Diary describes how their initial uncertainty turned into frantic defensive activity as the scale of the German advance became clear:

Thursday 21st March 1918France, Corps reserve MANANCOURT
At 5 a.m. we received warning to "Stand by". The enemy attack developed at dawn and very heavy gunfire was heard on all sides of the salient. The whole day passed in suspense - orders to move up being expected at any moment. In the evening the Commanding Officer inspected Companies. We were told we were certain to move during the night and every man stood to arms but no definite orders were received.
Friday 22nd March 1918France, Corps reserve MANANCOURT
The Battalion was still under short notice, but no definite news of the progress of the enemy attack could be obtained though many uncomfortable rumours were rife. Emphasis was given to these by the order to move the 1st line Transport back to LE MESNIL-EN-ARROUAISE. MANANCOURT was intermittently shelled by the enemy HV guns throughout the day but little damage and no casualties were caused. At about 10.45 p.m. warning was received to stand by and be prepared to defend the village. Strong patrols were sent out towards EQUANCOURT and ETRICOURT on both sides of the CANAL DU NORD and every man was kept on the alert but, although there was considerable movement back along the roads of artillery transport and miscellaneous troops and rumours of disaster and general "wind up" were prevalent, no further developments took place during the night and no official news reached us.
Saturday 23nd March 1918France, Corps reserve MANANCOURT
The morning dawned a fine day. The intensity of enemy shelling increased every hour, and the general uneasiness grew though everyone was in the dark as to the actual position. Soon it was rumoured that FINS had been occupied by the enemy. This was difficult to believe though it proved to be true. We received absolutely no official enlightenment as to the situation. The disintegration of the Division had commenced the 5th and 6th Brigades having moved NORTHWARDS to support the 17th Division near HERMIES while our Brigade was left at disposal of 5th Army. This day saw the commencement of further confusion and disorganization. For subsequent movements of the Battalion - Reference maps 57c & 57d 1/40000. At 9.30 a.m. A & B Companies were moved to EQUANCOURT to strengthen the line held by 23rd Royal Fusiliers and were soon in touch with the enemy fighting a stubborn rearguard action all day and withdrawing by stages through VALLULART WOOD - YTRES - BUS - ROCQUIGNY whence the survivors rejoined 1st line Transport near LE TRANSLOY at night. At midday Battalion H.Q. and C and D Companies were moved to hold a line from BEETROOT FACTORY (Y.2 Central) EASTWARD to the Railway - they had scarcely got into position when the enemy came in sight and a rearguard action commenced and we withdrew by stages via the cemetery at ETRICOURT (where Capt. P L MOUSLEY was wounded) LECHELLE WOOD (where the Commanding Officer Lt Col G.P. HUNT CMG DSO was killed while gallantly rallying all troops within reach) LE MESNIL-EN-ARROUAISE-ROCQUIGNY where the residue attached themselves to troops of the 47th Division commanded by Lt Col DAWES and spent the night. Soon after noon details moved to join 1st line Transport at LE MESNIL - being sped on their way by a sudden increase in the intensity of the hostile bombardment of MANANCOURT which the enemy occupied only a few minutes later. In less than an Hour Transport and Details were forced to leave LE MESNIL by the enemy shelling and moved back by order of Brigade through SAILLY SAILLISEL to a point just SOUTH of LE TRANSLOY where the night was spent. Capt M P PUGH MC here assumed command.
Sunday 24th March 1918France, In constant Engagement
In the early morning Battalion H.Q .and C & D Coys at ROCQUIGNY were involved in fierce fighting and with troops on their flanks were forced back during the day WESTWARD through GUEUDECOURT to LE SARS where they rejoined A & B Companies in the evening. At 3 a.m. A & B Companies 1st Line Transport and Details moved back by order of Brigade through LE TRANSLOY - LES BOEUFS - GINCHY - LONGUEVAL - FLERS. Here the Transport was halted, and during this and subsequent days, moved back through LE SARS - MIRAUMONT - AUCHONVILLERS - MAILLY-MAILLET - BERTRANCOURT - TO LEALVILLERS from FLERS after replenishing with Small Arms Ammunition, water and rations. A & B Companies and details moved up to GUEUDECOURT and, with the 23rd Royal Fusiliers, held a line East of the Village until about 4 p.m. They were then relieved and moved back to a line on the sunken road between EAUCOURT L'ABBAYE & LIGNY THILLOY. Here C & D Companies rejoined and the Battalion was practically intact again, holding 600 yards of the line with 23rd Royal Fusiliers on the RIGHT and 10th Devon & Cornwall Light Infantry on LEFT facing EAST. The night was spent in this line, and the men rested as far as possible though the cold was intense. At GUEUDECOURT Brig Genl B BARNETT-BARKER and Staff Captn (Capt E.S. BELL) were killed by one shell.
Monday 25th March 1918France, In constant Engagement
At dawn our line was fiercely attacked by the enemy. The troops on our LEFT were forced back and in spite of efforts to reorganize and control the fire the whole line, after resisting some 2 hours was compelled to withdraw. This was accomplished without much confusion, notwithstanding the lack of cohesion and command, and a spirited resistance was offered whenever the situation allowed - particularly at LE SARS and the high ground WEST of that village. Here units became more and more scattered, and our own Companies lost touch with Battalion H.Q. and were not re-united until evening. The withdrawal continued slowly as far as the high ground between PYS and COURCELETTE, which we found to be held by units of the 5th Infantry Brigade. Companies passed through this line right back to the ANCRE valley at BEAUCOURT. Battalion H.Q. and some 20 Other Ranks attached themselves to 1st King's Royal Rifles and moved back to MIRAUMONT. Here orders were received to return to the PYS line and reinforce the troops there, but before reaching it, were ordered to move back through GRANCOURT to the high ridges West of the ANCRE near BEAUCOURT. This point was reached at dusk. The Brigade was here re-organized, issued with Small Arms Ammunition and food and held the line for the night which was again intensely cold. During the day reinforcements (200 Other Ranks) from 6th SOMERSETS were posted to the Battalion. These men were absorbed into a composite Battalion under command of Major Smith, 1st King's Royal Rifles and were put into the line near AUCHONVILLERS where they were in action this day.

The new defensive position was twenty miles behind the old front line and there would be a further retreat before the German advance petered out next day. These three days of constant fighting brought the Battalion casualties for March up to 25 men killed, 455 wounded and 62 missing. Caleb's fate was unclear and three months later he was still being reported as missing in the Berkshire Chronicle. It is now documented that Caleb Wakefield was killed in action on 25th March 1918; he was twenty-three years old. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, twenty miles from where he fell.


Caleb Wakefield on the Arras Memorial
Arras Memorial

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in morning
We will remember them.
Lawrence Binyon