Sergeant Arthur Harry Horner
8th (Service) Battalion
Devonshire Regiment

Died 06.06.16  aged 33

      Arthur Horner was born in 1883 in Exeter, the second son of William Horner (born in Gloucester in 1851) who was working as a Grocer’s Manager in the City, and his wife Laura who had been born in 1855 in Eyke in Suffolk.  There were five children in the family, all born in Exeter, living next to the White Lion Hotel as shown in the 1881 census.  First was William Spencer, born in 1891, then Arthur, followed by Eleanor May, born 1886, Julian Frederick Ernest, 1888, and Julia Daisy born in 1890.  The 1891 census shows the family at 5 Polsloe Villas, South Avenue, Heavytree, Exeter, wealthy enough to be employing a domestic servant.  Sometime between then and 1901 the family had moved to Fore Street, Williton, Somerset, because William had now set himself up as a grocer in his own shop, with Arthur as his assistant.  By 1911 William and Laura had moved again, this time to Winkleigh.  William is shown as ‘retired Grocer’ while Laura had set up a drapery business in Fore Street (the village Square) in a shop that according to village memory is today the village vet and pet shop.  Arthur’s brother Frederick was recorded in the census as Grocer’s Assistant, living in the same house, but of Arthur himself there seems to be no record at all of his whereabouts.  His omission could be the result of a transcription error but in any case it is unlikely that Arthur had lost the connection with the Winkleigh area, since in 1914 he enlisted at once at Exeter in the new Kitchener 8th Service Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment.

      Very shortly after Arthur’s death, Frederick is recorded as having been married in Winkleigh in the summer of 1916 to Louisa Turner, then aged 26.  In the 1891 census Louisa, then one year old, is recorded as staying with her grandparents Richard and Ann Western in Chumleigh, perhaps because her mother had died in childbirth and her father, now a widower, had only just moved into the King’s Arms in Winkleigh with his sister.  The family tree of the Horner family, attached to this page, shows this link.  Frederick had volunteered in 1914 to enlist but is mentioned in the Chumleigh Deanery Magazine as being one of four volunteers who were initially rejected ‘on medical grounds’.  By 1916, however, conscription had been introduced and things were very different.  Frederick served in the Royal Field Artillery, presumably married before going overseas in common with many others.

      In later life Laura may well have taken over her mother-in-law’s drapery business in Winkleigh; ‘Mrs. Horner’s Drapery shop’ is certainly remembered in the village.  She finally moved in the last part of her life to Bideford where she died in 1967 aged 77.  Arthur’s eldest brother William, who had been born in 1881, lived even longer.  He died in 1941 aged 90 in Honiton.

      Sadly, no records of Arthur’s service career have survived, but the fact that by 1916 he had already been promoted to Sergeant with a very responsible job of training the battalion ‘bombers’, is an indication that he must have been very highly regarded.  There is also the possibility that because the 1911 census has no record of an Arthur Horner of the right age or background anywhere in the country, this fact might indicate that he was already serving in the army, stationed abroad.  Here, indeed lies a possible clue to the mystery of Arthur Horner’s whereabouts.  Remembering that his father had retired some time between the 1891 and 1901 census, it is just possible that Arthur had enlisted in the regular army soon after the 1891 census, served a seven year period with the 1st or 2nd Battalion, been discharged to the reserve and then recalled in August 1914 to join the new 8th Service battalion (New Army).  Alternatively, if he was still serving with the 1st Battalion, who at the start of the war were stationed in Jersey, he could have been one of the NCOs posted to the new battalion as part of the very valuable nucleus of NCOs required to begin the training of the new recruits.

      Further investigations, or perhaps more information that might be supplied by family descendants of brothers and sisters might give us valuable knowledge of the situation, but we can certainly say that Arthur Horner was among the very first Winkleigh men to join the call for ‘the first hundred-thousand’ - Kitchener’s New Army, enlisting in ‘Buller’s Battalion’, the newly formed 8th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment that was assembling in Exeter.  Arthur’s name was proudly displayed in the church and the Chumleigh Deanery Magazine duly listed his name on the October roll-call of Winkleigh men who had come forward.  Kitchener had authorised the formation of the 8th as early as August 7th, only 3 days into the war, to be staffed with a nucleus of Officers and NCOs detached from the 1st Battalion.  Arthur Horner was there with the hundreds of men who were descending on the Exeter barracks, clamouring to be enlisted at once.  The announcement on 7th August that the new battalion was to be raised a huge rush and the resources of the Headquarters were stretched to the utmost, with new recruits, reservists being called up, as well as men clamouring to join the Territorials all arriving at the same time.  Senior Officers to command the 8th Battalion were quickly assembled from a variety of resources, Lieut-Colonel Grant from the West African Regiment, and a retired officer of the Devons as second-in command - a man who had refused the command of another battalion in order to return to his old regiment.

      Background information on Kitchener’s policy in raising the New Army is attached to this account.  The early history of the 8th Devons is typical of the story of the first 80 battalions of the ‘first hundred-thousand’ that were being raised throughout the country, experiencing all the difficulties incumbent on the seemingly impossible task of improvising a New Army without any of the resources to achieve it, driven on by the indomitable will and presence (everywhere seen in the famous poster) of Lord Kitchener, Minister of War.  Arthur, at the age of 31, could have been one of the older recruits, though as we have seen he might have been one of the many older soldiers who had served their time with the reserve, or were still on the reserve list, and who now rejoined, thus providing the battalion with many NCOs of experience.  In common with all the New Army battalions, the barracks were overcrowded and uncomfortable, many men their being billeted in the town.  Essential equipment, uniforms and rifles were non-existent, and preliminary training was therefore limited but the novelty of the situation, the enthusiasm, cheerfulness and good-humour of all concerned must have seemed as if ‘the big picnic’ had truly begun.  Things became a little bit more organised and serious when in mid-September the Battalion moved to live under canvas at Rushmoor Camp, Aldershot.  Young officer material recruits from the gentry and public schools had been sent off hastily to an Officer Training Corps camp at Churn to learn the first basic elements of their work, before attempting to take charge of men, some of whom had served in the army for most of their lives, while the majority were raw recruits.

      The History of the Devonshire Regiment (C.T.Atkinson) mentions the origins of these young officers: 6 from Oxford, 3 from Cambridge, 3 from the Artist’s Rifles (virtually an officers training battalion), the rest straight out of the Public Schools, where they had had the experience of their army cadet corps.  Their early training over, the senior officers and experienced NCOs continued the work of equipping the battalion with competent subalterns.  There were still no uniforms or rifles to be had. Atkinson comments that the men’s ‘appearance on parade, in particular the appearance of their headgear, must have been startling indeed to the professional soldier’s eye’.  Obsolete rifles of the old pattern with short bayonets were the first to arrive for drill purposes, but by mid-October enough Service rifles were issued to equip half the battalion, and those lucky enough to get one were marked off for service if the Germans attempted a landing on the East coast.

      By early November, wet, cold and mud were making life at Rushmoor Camp impossible and the 8th moved into Barossa Barracks in Aldershot.  Battalion exercises could now complement the endless drill, physical training and route marches.  Bits and pieces of uniforms began to arrive and meanwhile the men, totally unaware of what lay ahead were grumbling that they were not already in France! Musketry training could now begin, followed by a move into billets in various villages around Farnham.  Again, hopes of moving overseas faded; the 8th Battalion was nominally attached to the 14th (Light) Division, but only as ‘Army Troops’ unattached to a Brigade.  However, it was a happy time for the battalion, welcomed and entertained by the local population and with ample training grounds and trench-digging practice provided in the countryside around.  A German invasion scare in December was met with huge enthusiasm, and the half-battalion set off in pouring rain to meet the foe, only to be turned back and wet to the skin to return to headquarters to be met with the good-natured jeers of their comrades!

      In March 1915 the 8th returned to Aldershot to be now fully equipped with rifles and other necessities, and to conduct Brigade and Divisional exercises (still attached as ‘army troops’) but confident they would not be left behind when the 14th Division embarked for France.  The time for the first New Army battalions to be sent was fast approaching.  Everyone was aware that after a long winter in waterlogged trenches the 2nd Battalion of the Devons experienced dreadful casualties on 10th-14th March at the British offensive at Neuve Chapelle: 10 officers and 274 other ranks killed, wounded or missing.  The 1st Battalion too, in the south-east of the Ypres sector were to suffer great losses in April defending Hill 60. The Territorials were not available they had already embarked for India.  The 14th Division left for France but the 8th Battalion (and the second Service battalion to be raised, the 9th), remained in England until the end of July.  Instead, transferred to Basingstoke they were tasked with striking canvas and clearing up the mess left by another Division going overseas, but finally and to everyone’s great enthusiasm orders were received on July 17th for embarkation leave and a return to Aldershot.  On 25th July the two Battalions entrained for the journey to Southampton for embarkation, the band of the 11th Hussars playing them down to the station.  The 8th and 9th Battalions were destined to join the 20th Brigade of the famous 7th Division, and they served together for the next three years taking the place of two Guards’ battalions posted to join the newly formed Guards’ division.  To replace two battalions of the Guards in the 20th Brigade, in such an elite Division, was an honour indeed, keenly felt by the Devons.  The 7th Division was at that time in the line in the Neuve Chapelle sector, now a quiet area of ‘live and let live’, with the normal trench routines enlivened only by wiring parties and occasional sniping, and with very few casualties.

      The battle of Loos lay ahead.  The 7th Division moved South In September, the 8th and 9th Battalions taking position on a front due East of Vermelles with its right resting on the Vermelles Hulluch road and the famous Quarries directly in front.  Vast preparations were in progress for the ‘Great Push’, of which the Germans were of course very well aware: at the behest of the French the battle was to take place in an area totally unsuitable for a frontal attack over flat and open ground, with inadequate shelling that could not cut the German wire.  In so-called ‘reserve’ just before the battle began on September 25th, the 8th and 9th Devons spent the time digging new forward trenches, saps, communication trenches and just before the battle bringing up into the forward line the heavy gas cylinders that were to be discharged in the hope that the 1st line German trenches would be overrun without great casualties.  Unfortunately, when the advance began at 6.30 am, (see map on the right) the wind blew the gas not into the Germans, but along the line of our own front incapacitating many whose only protection were the so-called smoke helmets whose talc windows quickly became blurred and useless.  In the 8th, by an oversight, ‘A’, ‘D’ and ‘C’ Companies moved forward together, crowding the gaps in the British wire and presenting great targets to the Germans, but their objective, Breslau Trench, was taken 12 minutes into the assault followed by the Breslau reserve trench.  Casualties were horrendous, and by now only three officers remained standing.  The Germans were abandoning their positions and both the Cite St. Elie and Hulluch were there for the taking, but no reinforcements arrived and without them the Devons could do no more.  The 9th Devons had pushed on towards Gun Trench where on the arrival of the 8th the Devons succeeded in capturing a battery of field-guns, but they too could go no further than the Hulluch crossroads, and later in the day were forced back to the chaos of Gun Trench.  A German counter attack on Gun Trench almost succeeded but was repulsed after fierce hand-to-hand fighting, but the 8th Battalion now amounted to little more than remnants, mixed up with the 9th and the remains of a battalion of Scottish troops from a brigade of the Second Division.  The position was precarious: at the end of the line the Quarries had been retaken by the Germans.  Overnight about 50 men of the 8th took a position on the south side of the Vermelles-Hulluch road where they remained on the 26th, while a similar group were in position north of the road.  To their left the line was held by the 9th battalion.  In the evening the 9th were withdrawn to their old start line trenches and those that were left, numbering just under 150, must have felt all had been in vain.  Here they remained in support until 29th, when they moved back to billets in Beuvry.

      The Devons had been wiped out.  The 8th Devons lost 620 men and 19 officers killed, wounded or missing at the battle of Loos, a tragic end for all those who had so eagerly rushed to join ‘Buller’s Battalion’ in August 1914, and who had so ardently longed to get to France during their months of training.  Indeed, the innocence of Kitchener’s New Army had been betrayed at Loos.  After the 1915 battles of 2nd Ypres, Neuve Chapelle, Aubers, Festubert and Loos, the old regular army had virtually gone, the Territorials were now fully engaged, and the first battalions of the New Army had been mauled.  Conscription and with it the harder and more cynical mood of 1916 were inevitable.  The story 8th and 9th Battalions of the Devons are a typical example of the terrible wastage of 1915, ‘the year of hope’.

      In the 8th on the 30th September, 6 officers and 263 men answered the roll-call, and we hope that the survivors took some pride in their battalion that had done all that could be asked of it.  Very few battalions could boast that they had captured German guns, but the 8th were there with the 9th to secure these trophies. Atkinson quotes the account of one survivor of Loos:

‘The men were simply splendid, as steady as veterans: they neither flinched nor grumbled the whole time, though they were cold, hungry and tired to death, as well as wet to the skin’.

      Two of the guns that were taken in Gun Trench were presented to the County of Devon, and on November 12th were formally handed over for safe keeping to the mayor of Exeter, to be displayed at first in the cathedral precinct.  At the official parade, 6 officers and 40 men of the two battalions formed a guard of honour, together with a detachment of the 3rd Battalion, the Territorial Provisional Battalion, the Yeomanry and the Territorial battery.  A newspaper report of the ceremony will be attached on the right of this account.

      If Arthur Horner had been in action with the battalion at Loos, he was indeed one of the lucky ones.  The battalion now needed to be completely rebuilt virtually from scratch, and for this task new experienced NCOs were urgently needed as well as senior officers and a whole batch of newly commissioned subalterns who themselves needed further training.  If Arthur had not already been promoted to Sergeant, this was surely the moment when his age and experience became more vital than ever, and it seems he was to become one of the senior NCOs who were to train the ‘bombers’ - those men in each platoon responsible for hurling their bombs in an initial attack, ‘mopping up’ after an attack by using their hand-grenades to clear German dug-outs and saps often in vicious hand-to hand fighting, and taking a particularly important part in trench raiding.

      The under equipped British regular army of 1914 did not possess any bombs or grenades; the Germans, of course, were thoroughly prepared from the start with an estimated 70,000 hand grenades available for use together with some 106,000 rifle grenades.  Primitive improvisations were all that were available in 1915 such as old jam tins full of stones, nails and cordite, with a home made fuse pierced through a hole in the lid.  The official version called ‘cricket balls’ was introduced; these had to be struck before throwing with a brassard on the wrist resembling the side of a match-box, totally useless of course in the rain.  After the disaster of Loos, where bombs would have been invaluable, serious thought was given to designing an effective grenade, with the result that the Mark 1 grenade appeared in the spring of 1916.  This was a canister with a long cane handle and a fuse ignited by pulling a pin at the top before throwing.  Dangerous to handle it was highly unpopular and was soon superseded by a second attempt, the percussion fused Mills bomb, termed ‘the No.5’, made ready for the Battle of the Somme, with production soon running at about 250,000 per week.  The British bombing team usually consisted of a section of nine men: an NCO (Corporal), two throwers, two carriers, two bayonet-men to defend the team and two ‘spare’ men for use when casualties were incurred.  The Mills bomb was a fragmentation percussion bomb, weighing 1.25 lbs that worked by pulling out a pin and holding down a release bar that flew up when the bomb was released, setting off a four second fuse, and troops were trained to throw them over the shoulder as if they were bowling a cricket ball.  The earlier bombs with timed fuses were of course safer than percussion grenades because of the danger of accidentally dropping one live with the pin extracted in the trench, or incurring accidents on the bombing range when troops were being trained to use them.  There are numerous recorded accidents of NCO’s in charge of bombing training, as well as individual men, being killed or wounded, some heroically sacrificing their lives in order to protect their squad.  The Mills hand grenade remained in use well beyond the Second World War, and versions exist today.

      Following Loos, the 8th Battalion found itself transferred to the Somme area, early in December, after a period of immediate recuperation around Givinchy.  The 20th Brigade was now commanded by a ‘fire-eater’, General Deverell. Fortunately, Givincy was an area of ‘live and let live’ - it had to be because on both sides the trenches were flooded, and many ‘posts’ were merely sodden islands surrounded by water.  It was a miserable place, trench foot a constant threat involving daily treatment by rubbing the feet with whale oil to keep out the wet.  New drafts arrived - over 400 men in the first fortnight of October, and by the time the battalion reached the Somme it already numbered 25 officers and 695 men.  More men arrived in December and January so that by February it was well up to strength.  Training of these recruits was constant, the senior NCOs carrying a huge burden in instructing the men both in trench warfare and the specialist roles of machine gunners, signallers, bombers and so on.  The 7th Division lines on the Somme ran from Bray-sur-Somme on the left, its centre at Morlancourt and the right at Meaulte.  In front of the 20th Brigade lay Mametz on the right, Fricourt on the left, names that will resonate forever in the history of the Battle of the Somme.  Behind it rose the higher ground of Delville Wood, Longueval, the Bazentins and High Wood, destined to be the sacred ground of the 7th Division.  Arthur Horner was never to see these places; he died three weeks before the battles began.

      Meanwhile the Somme was one of the quietest places of the front: no fighting but a time of incessant hard labour repairing waterlogged trenches and building roads and light railways for the coming offensive.  The 8th Battalion trenches were in a deplorable state with insufficient wire, parapets barely bullet-proof, and communication trenches merely shallow waterlogged ditches.  Of course as soon as new earthworks were built the Germans attempted to knock them down again, while at the same time ascendency had to be gained over German snipers and the control of no-man’s land.  The Germans made full use of their rifle-grenades, which together with Mills bombs had also begun to arrive for the British army, demonstrating the importance of these weapons to take a potential toll of front-line casualties, and of the importance of deep dug-outs and well revetted and sandbagged trenches to avoid them.  Luckily from October 1st 1915 to June 30th 1916 the battalion lost only three officers, two killed and one wounded, and no casualties at all of men while in the line.

      It was this that made the wounding of Sgt. Horner such a woeful loss to the Battalion.  The Battalion began to be exercised in the use of the new Mills bomb towards the end of the year, and the war-diaries of both the 20th Infantry Brigade and the 8th Battalion show this progress.  Training overall for the coming battle was very limited because of the necessity of using all the four battalions to dig cable lines for the heavy artillery and the brigade links to XV Corps, and this in between taking turns in the line and all the usual fatigues imposed on the troops during the normal ‘rest’ and reserve periods.  By June 1st1916 the 8th were in Divisional rest, and this allowed training to become intensified. Extracts from Brigade War-Diary give us the outline:

June 1st : Proposed to carry out an assault and pursuit practice in open warfare but the scheme was partially disorganized by the German shelling of our training area.  The practice was carried out by Companies.
June 2rd : Night outposts
June 3rd: Night operations
And then, after Arthur Horner’s injury and death
June 9th: 8th Devon Regiment practised the throwing of ‘P’ bombs (shorthand for percussion bombs) at New Corner of Morlancourt and some shells burst near the place the practice was being carried out.

      War Diaries were obligatory for all units on active service but they vary considerable in the amount of detail they include and thus their usefulness in research.  At this stage, that of the 8th Devons is very sparse - this could be because of shortage of time and general exhaustion, or simply because the C.O was not much bothered with the record, or the Adjutant was pre-occupied (a likely reason here) at an exceptionally busy time.  However we learn that having been in trenches at Givinchy, the 8th had a short period of rest from October 24th 1915, where the C.O. inspected the new formation of the ‘bombers’ and then made a short speech with reference to their battalion name, discipline in the detachment and so on.  It seems likely that bombing activities in the battalion can be said to have dated from then.  To begin with, the bombers would be trained to throw and take safety precautions using dud bombs, but things took a step forward when on November 16th we read: Formed a new Regimental grenade class under Lt. Goldsmith. 2nd Lt. Goldsmith had already been Mentioned in Dispatches, so that now promoted he was given this important role.  As far as we know he survived the war.  On November 20th the Diary records: ‘Bombers were exercised in the throwing of live bombs’.  Training was interrupted when on 22nd, in billets at Le Hammel, trench work at Festubert went on day and night for 5 days building a new breastwork, ‘officers and men working in water’.

      The Divisional rest from 7th to 25th December included Christmas festivities, with the men eating Christmas dinner at 2.30pm, the WOs Sergeants at 7.00 pm and the Officers later.  The Mayor of Exeter visited the battalion on 20th and no doubt welcomed the recent big drafts of recruits and returners who we know were building the battalion for the next slaughter - but all of course who now required intensive training.  By 1st January 160 new arrivals had been recorded and they were inspected by the keen eyes of Brigadier Deverell before being complimented by him on their performance on a 15 mile march in full equipment.  Further drafts, gas drills, rehearsing the attack and night operations were relieved by cross-country races (the 8th taking 3rd prize and a 50/- reward, no doubt spent on extra beer).  On February 1st a new Grenade Company was formed under 2nd/Lt. W.J.Bowden (who also seems to have survived).

      In the final days before the Battle of the Somme opened on 1st July 1916 events were recorded in the 8th’s War-Diary only very briefly.  In billets again at Morlancourt there were the usual practices of “Infantry in the Attack”, gas drills, outpost practices and route marching.  The day on which Sgt. Horner was wounded on bombing practice is not recorded, but we can estimate that this happened some time between May 25th and 28th, when the Diary records: ‘Companies carried out training under Company Commanders’.  Other training was on a Battalion basis, so these dates would have presented opportunities for bombing practice on the same bombing range they had used before at New Corner, Morlancourt.  Less than two weeks later, he was to die of his wounds, a ‘G.S.W.’ (gun-shot wound) in the abdomen, obviously incurred during practice with the live Mills bombs.

      Battle orders of the 20th Infantry Brigade for July 1st indicate that for their part of the line the 8th Devons Aid Post was at Wellington Redoubt and the Advanced Dressing Station at The Citadel.  The Divisional Collecting Post was near Orchard Camp on the Bray-Albert Road These was already in the process of being set-up in readiness, but it is much more likely that Arthur Horner was taken by a direct route to the nearby Casualty Clearing Station at Corbie along the road that follows the Somme river due West.  Corbie is a village 15 kilometres south-west of Albert and approximately 23 kilometres due east of Amiens.  La Neuville Communal Cemetery is north of the village.  In April 1916, No.21 Casualty Clearing Station came to La Neuville and remained there throughout the 1916 Battles of the Somme, until March 1917.  La Neuville British Cemetery was opened early in July 1916, but at first burials were also made in the communal cemetery.  Most of these date from this period, but a few graves were added there during the fighting on the Somme in 1918.  In all, the communal cemetery contains 186 Commonwealth burials, all identified casualties, and form one long row on the eastern side of the cemetery.

      The War Diary of No.21 .C.S. is very helpful.  Corbie was selected as a main evacuation point to the base hospitals on the coast because not only was it a rail-head for hospital trains but also a loading quay on the Somme for hospital barges (for those whose condition needed as little disturbance as possible).  The Diary records numbers of those received and evacuated but also, before the battle began, the actual names of those who died and were buried there.  Thus, we read:

June 6th: 10462 Sgt.Horner A.H. 8/Devons Regt. Died at 5.25 pm from G.S.W. abdomen (accidental).

      Arthur Horner can be remembered in Winkleigh as one of the first to join the colours, served well in his battalion and though his death was accidental was perhaps for that the more tragic.  Within a few days the Battalion he had served so well was again decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when the 20th Brigade attacked Mametz.  On that day alone 3 officers and 47 men of the 8th were killed or missing, with 7 officers and 151 men wounded.

      Atkinson wrote of that first day:

‘Loos had practically annihilated both the 8th and 9th Devons but those that refilled the depleted battalion had shown themselves possessed by the same dash, the same spirit, the same devotion and resolution.’

      Sgt. Arthur Horner had certainly played his part in the training of this very fine Battalion, and Winkleigh is proud of him.

30 June 2011


Click on an image for a larger picture

St Elie map

Medal Record

La Neuville Communal Cemetery

A H Horner’s Gravestone

Horner Family Tree