William Mitchell was born in the first quarter of 1895, the fifth child and the only son of Samuel, born in 1860, and Lucy born in 1866. Samuel Mitchell was a thatcher, the family well established in Winkleigh. Samuel’s father, John Mitchell born 1827 was an agricultural labourer, his mother Mary, born 1820, came from Coldridge, and he himself was married to Lucy Cockwill in 1884. The Cockwill family consisted of Lucy’s father, Shadrach Cockwill of Dolton and mother Tamzin Ware who had been born in Petrockstow, but whose father, Thomas Ware had originally come from Winkleigh. Lucy Cockwill was the third of five children, three girls and two boys, all born in Coldridge.
William and his four elder sisters, Milly, Annie, Mary and Maud were all born in Winkleigh. In 1891 the growing family was living in Queen Street (in the first house from the east), but by 1901 were at Chubbs, next to Lowertown, in a cottage owned by Squire Johnson. The 1911 census shows the daughters had all left home, with William aged 16 still living with his parents, William helping his father in the thatching business. The Commonwealth War Graves records for 1917 show the parents were still living in Lowertown during the war. The family were devout supporters of the Winkleigh Parish Church, and William’s death came as a terrible shock and severe blow to the support that was given in the village to the Vicar, the Rev. T. Ackland Edmonds, and his Curate the Rev. Ottley. The November issue of the Chumleigh Deanery Magazine carried the following sad news:
‘The Parish was profoundly moved when news came of the death in action of William Mitchell, and a very large congregation assembled in Church at the Memorial Service on Sunday, November 18th, thus testifying to the respect in which he and his family are held. The Church has lost one of her most enthusiastic members, but we feel sure the example set by William Mitchell will bear good fruit; and we hope that other young men will honour themselves by following in his steps.’
Later, in the January edition of the magazine, we read:
‘We have lost a subscriber to the Free-Will Offering through the lamented death of Private William Mitchell, whose devotion to the Church was second to none in the Parish. To take his place, Company Sergeant-Major Holland DCM, whose wife is already a subscriber, has come forward and will take Willie Mitchell’s number and continue his subscriptions.’
8865 C.S.M. Holland served in the 8th Devons, and is listed on the Winkleigh roll of Honour, but his DCM is not recorded there. He was wounded at Loos, and as a result was in hospital for several months.
William was not one of the first from Winkleigh to volunteer, since the Chumleigh Deanery Magazine does not list him in the first two months, and his medal record shows that he was not in France in 1915. Instead he might well have waited to register under the Derby scheme, but in any case the Rev. Edmonds’ report seems to indicate that William volunteered rather than was conscripted. The Derby Scheme, first announced to the country on 15th October 1915, comprised a personal canvass of every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-one on the basis of the National Register. Each man was asked either to join at once or attest, and committees were set up in every locality. In Winkleigh, Col. Alexander was in the forefront of the organisation. Single men and married men formed two groups: each were sub-divided into a further twenty-three groups according to age, to be called up in strict order, starting with the single men aged 19, and the married men to be called only after the single men had all been enlisted. Tribunals were set up for those seeking exemption from attestation or postponement on grounds of special hardship or essential war-work. Those who attested could still, in theory, choose their branch of the army in which to serve although pressure was brought on as many as possible to serve in the infantry. The scheme was no more than a partial success, as many argued that since three million men had already come forward, 75% over and above the numbers Kitchener had called for, there was no need for further recruitment. Fewer than half those available had attested, the Tribunals had been too liberal in granting exemptions, and more men were indeed needed when the Derby scheme was finally closed on 15th December 1915. As a result, the conscription bill affecting single men was introduced into the House of Commons on 5th January 1916, becoming law on 27th and in March 1916 the youngest group of married men who had attested were of necessity also called up. A second military service bill, introduced on 3th May 1916, became law on 25th May, and extended the liability for military service to all men between eighteen and forty-one. If William registered under the Derby Scheme towards the end of 1915 and was then enlisted early in 1916 he would have been 21 years old, choosing to join the Devonshire Regiment. The Devon military records show that he enlisted in Winkleigh, possibly registering as a result of one of several recruiting drives by the regiment in the village.
William would have carried out his basic training in Exeter, probably as short as eight weeks long by that stage of the war, a totally superficial training by pre-war standards. He would then have been available for drafting overseas, and, posted to the 1st Battalion would probably have arrived in France sometime around April or May 1916. We cannot in any way be certain about these dates as all William’s military records were destroyed in the London blitz, but the search for more details continues, above all using local newspapers.
The average survival time for an infantryman on the Western Front at this stage of the war was about six months before being killed or wounded, so if our dates are approximately correct William was fortunate to survive three times as long as this. Of course, everything depended on the unit a man was in, how much time he spent in the line, in support or in so-called ‘rest’, but also on how prominent a part his battalion and division played in the great set piece campaigns of the war, Loos, the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele and so on. We therefore need to follow the outline fortunes of the 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment to understand as best we can the progress of William’s part in the war. Strenuous times lay ahead but William’s survival in 1916 and early 1917 could well be linked to the comparatively light casualties taken by the 1st Battalion during this time.
The 1st Battalion had spent the final months of 1915 in a very quiet part of the line at Maricourt on the Somme, a sector that would in fact become a killing ground in July 1916 but at the present time was absolutely quiet, where the standards of ‘live and let live’ prevailed, and where the few casualties there were occurred mainly as a result of bombing practice behind the line. Shortly before Christmas 1915 the Battalion was moved further back entirely with a complete respite from trench duty that lasted until March 1916, their time mainly occupied by the more pleasant task of road building and repair. At the end of February, in horrible conditions of cold, blizzards and icy roads the whole 5th Division was transferred to 6th Corps to take over part of the existing French line between Arras and Lens, thus setting free the French Tenth Army to reinforce Verdun which the Germans were attacking with tremendous force. The 5th Division were assigned the line between the Scarpe (near St.Laurent Blagny) on the right to just north of Roclincourt on the left. In the 95th Brigade the Devons and the East Surreys relieved each other every 3 days, the most that a man could stand in the broken, frozen and waterlogged trenches that were left to them by the French to be repaired and improved. For four months, March to June 1916 the line was held, and once again, fortunately, it was a very quiet sector resulting in no more than 15 men killed and 34 wounded. However, in the same period 10 officers and 564 men – more than half the battalion in fact, became sick as a result of the conditions, and though the majority of these eventually rejoined the battalion, drafts also arrived amounting to 258 men and 15 new officers. We can make a reasonable guess that it could have been during this time that William Mitchell arrived in the battalion.
Towards the end of June 1916 the 5th Division moved south-west of Arras, again a very quiet sector, and then back further into the G.H.Q. Reserve for a further week, to await its turn to take part in the battle of the Somme, which opened on the fatal day of July 1st. Three battalions of the Devons, the 2nd, 8th and 9th were heavily committed in the first two weeks and took tremendous casualties, but the 1st Battalion were spared the ordeal, and it was not until after the opening of the second phase on July 14th that the 95th Brigade went into the line. On July 19th the 1st Devons were in the reserve lines near Montauban, where 20 casualties occurred as a result of German shelling, searching for the British guns. On the night of July 22nd-23rd the 95th Brigade attacked the northern end of the Longueval Ridge, but with little result. After capturing several machine guns and a few prisoners, violent counter-attacks pushed it back to its starting point just west of Longueval, Pont Street trench. On July 23rd the 1st Devons relieved the remains of the East Surreys and the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, and spent their time collecting the wounded lying out in front, making makeshift repairs to the shattered trenches, trying to avoid the intermittent bombardment and avoiding as best they could the enemy snipers. On July 24th the battalion repulsed a heavy counter-attack, inflicting great losses on the enemy, and the following day they were relieved. During the three days 11 men had been killed and 96 wounded, surprisingly light casualties in view of the battalion’s achievement. On July 27th the battalion moved up again to support 15th Brigade in a renewed attack on Longueval, but did not go into action, merely sitting tight while being shelled. Relieved on 29th, the battalion went into rest at Pommiers Redoubt, then together with the whole Division moved back to Abbeville to recuperate and receive new drafts. The battalion had escaped lightly from the fray: the East Surreys and the D.C.L.I. had lost about 600 apiece, but by contrast the 1st Battalion’s losses totalled only 36 men killed and 213 wounded.
During the three weeks’ rest a draft of 80 men arrived but at the same time 43 men became sick, so it was in fact a depleted battalion that returned to the Somme on August 24th. At first, south of Guillement, they were involved in digging assembly trenches for the renewed attack on September 2nd. The Devons were involved in the attack on Falfemont Farm and Leuze Wood, and again were lucky, suffering only 36 men killed or missing, and 153 men wounded. The 95th Brigade as a whole were congratulated on having advanced over a larger front and to wider depth than any other Brigade so far in the whole war. On September 5th the battalion went into four days rest. Returning on 9th September, they remained in reserve until 24th and escaped with only two casualties, but since returning to the line no less that 60 officers and men were on the sick list and the actual fighting strength (less a ‘battle surplus’ left behind to provide reconstruction in case of disaster) numbered no more than 400 men. On September 25th the battalion went again into action, west of Morval. The 5th Division’s attack on Morval went remarkably well and again the casualties were relatively light. Only 20 men of the Devons were killed, though 109 were wounded, but these numbers represented 40% of the available strength, and as the heavy rain descended turning the final days of the Somme battle into a sea of mud, the Devons went into rest at Pont Remy.
From the beginning of October until the Spring offensive of April 1917 the 1st Devons enjoyed a period of relative quiet, at first on the now quiet front in the Givenchy sector, moving soon into the area of Neuve Chapelle. The whole area was marshy, the ground waterlogged, the line held not so much by trenches but by detached ‘posts’, islands in the water. It was a quiet area, no fighting, both sides fully occupied in the business of surviving the conditions. After the New Year the weather turned much colder and the water froze. The ‘enemy’ was now not the Germans but frost-bite but at least the sick rate could be held down. During the whole of this period of six months only 22 men were killed and 122 wounded, with a further 250 falling sick. Drafts poured in from the 5th Reserve and Training Battalion in Exeter, 250 men in October, 50 more in November, a further 227 in December, most with too little training to be posted immediately to companies and who had to be placed in a ‘Training Company’ for further instruction. Half of these joined the fighting companies in January when a further 100 more reinforcements arrived, and in February a further 50. In addition about 150 men rejoined from hospital. Finally, in mid-March the battalion now at full-strength moved south to be attached to the Canadian Corps for the first act in the projected British offensive of 1917, the battle of Arras.
We must now pause to examine the background to the campaign that resulted in William Mitchell’s death. The British had always seen that their major interest in the allied coalition lay in Flanders and the Channel coast, and Haig had been planning an offensive here since 1915. The Ypres salient had been held, but at tremendous cost, and now, in 1917, the opportunity must surely arise for the break-out, first onto the Messines Ridge which had so dominated the sector, and then further, right through to the Channel coast. But the war fought in coalition tied the British army to the French, and in 1917 General Nivelle, the new French Commander-in-Chief following the retirement of General Joffre in December 1916, had a plan to break out in Champagne, boasting incredibly that he could end the war in three weeks. If the attack had been made before February things might have been rather more successful but in that month the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, wrecking the French plans, shortening their own line and immensely fortifying their defensives. The French plan now was to attack on a forty mile front between Soissons and Reims, with a diversionary attack by the British in Artois and Picardy. The French plans were captured by the Germans, all surprise was lost, further delays occurred, but still Nivelle (much admired and supported by Lloyd George) persisted. The British plan was to attack first at Arras, then, once the French break-out had occurred, to launch Haig’s own cherished break-out from the Ypres Salient on to and beyond the Menin Ridge, North West to the Passchendaele Ridge and so through to the coast. Even the French generals doubted this grandiose project could possibly succeed.
After 24 hours delay the British attacked on 9th April when the Canadians stormed and took Vimy Ridge. The French attack opened on 16th April: it was a major catastrophe, the troops stopped on the Aisne-Marne Canal. There was some progress in Champagne but no breakthrough. Casualties were horrific, the French medical systems were completely overwhelmed, the divisions in chaos. In nine days the French lost nearly 100,000 men. Petain replaced Nivelle, the generals quarrelled among themselves and the French army mutinied. The alliance was in great peril, and had the Germans realised the actual state of affairs, the war would have been lost. It was now more than ever imperative for the British to launch a major campaign and to continue, whatever the cost, until the French army could become once again an effective fighting force. Haig’s plan to break-out from the Ypres Salient was given added support because the Germans had once again declared unrestricted submarine warfare, and the Navy were anxious to deny the Channel coast to possible new bases. The battle plan for what is known as ‘Third Ypres’ took shape.
The first objective was the three mile long Messines Ridge from Saint-Eloi, up to Witschate along to Messines and down to Ploegsteert, comprising the high ground at the south end of the Ypres salient, which for the past two years had been heavily mined in readiness for an offensive. Responsibility was given to Sir Herbert Plumer’s Second Army. A 17 day artillery barrage, with 500,000 shells fired on the last 7 days alone, prepared the way, and at 0310 hours on 6th June 1917 twenty-one mines containing one million pounds of explosive went off under the German defences which consisted of six divisions in three lines of bunkers, 75,000 men and 630 guns. Twelve miles away the Germans thought it was an earthquake: the explosions were clearly heard in London. Nine divisions and seventy-two tanks moved forward: the attack was a complete success, an advance of three miles on a five mile front. The Germans lost 25,000 dead, 100,000 missing, 7,300 prisoners. The British lost 25,000 casualties, including 3,500 killed or missing, by 1917 standards a ‘cheap’ victory. The high ground overlooking the salient was at last in British hands. Messines showed how far warfare had changed in a year since the Somme, with the excellent cooperation between engineers, infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft.
There now followed one of the great mistakes of the war, a six week delay before the victory at Messines could be followed up. Lloyd George was not convinced the advance should continue without French support and the Navy had lost interest since it was obvious that the German submarines would not be based on the Belgian coast. Churchill, now Minister for Munitions, advocated waiting for the Americans. Haig was only given authority to continue in July, and by then it was far too late. Ultimately General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army was given the task of attacking between Zillebeke (one mile south of the Menin Road) and Boesinghe (four miles north) on a five mile front, the left hand edge of which led up to the Passchendaele Ridge. The weather broke on 30th July, a precursor to the wettest summer in 75 years. On 31st July at 0350 hours nine infantry divisions moved off in mist and driving rain. Progress in the north was quite good, less so in the south. The attack faltered, the ground was terrible, the tanks immobile in the mud. There was a three week break, and then Plumer’s Second Army once again took up the fray, in the centre of the salient. The weather improved a little, the ground a little harder, and on September 20th two Australian and four British divisions attacked either side of the Menin road. A successful advance culminated in the capture of Polygon Wood on 4th October, but here the battle stuck. In the north, the attack towards the Passchendaele Ridge was resumed, continuing in a welter of mud and blood until Passchendaele itself was finally captured by the Canadians on 7th November, and Third Ypres closed down. In justification for what is often described as needless slaughter, the Germans were contained, the French given time to resume hostilities and perhaps the war itself was ‘saved’. The cost to British and allied lives was horrific: 250,000 casualties including 53,000 killed or missing. But eighty-eight German divisions, half their army on the western front, had been involved and their casualties far exceeded those of the allies. With the Americans now arriving, the Germans felt forced into one last major throw, the ‘Kaiser’s Offensive’ of 1918, a decision that cost Germany the war. ‘Third Ypres’ had not been in vain.
For the 1st Battalion of the Devons, the long period of time in a quiet sector came to an end on April 9th 1917 when the 5th Division were in support of the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge, although the 95th Brigade took no part in the battle. On April 12th the division then took over the left of the new front with the left flank on the Souchez River, only to find that when the battalion was pushed forward, the Germans were already retiring to a line on the Vimy – Lens railway embankment. In the advance 2 officers and 12 men were killed, 1 officer and 83 men wounded. Now the task ahead on April 23rd was to assault the extremely strong position of La Coulotte - across 2000 yards of flat ground, thick barbed wire, the embankment manned with machine-guns and excellent artillery positions in the rear. Virtually impregnable, a few sectors of German front line trench were reached but by 3.00pm the few survivors were digging in before trying to get back to the start line in the darkness. Fourteen officers and seventy men were killed or missing and more than 160 wounded. Although 100 men had arrived a few days before, the battalion was now sadly weak. However, on 4th May the 95th Brigade occupied the outskirts of the village of Fresnoy, taken by the French but now virtually cut off, and on moonlit nights very difficult to reach and supply. The Devons were in reserve as the battle raged, but on May 9th they attacked the village, only to find themselves cut off in the process and repulsing counter-attacks. By the time the survivors retired 16 hours later from the now-named ‘Devon Trench’, the battalion had all but been wiped out: a further 6 officers 80 men had been killed, 8 officers and 90 men wounded. On 10th May the shattered remnants crept back to rest at Roclincourt, for a month’s respite and to be once again rebuilt as a battalion.
On June 14th 1917 the battalion took over a quiet sector for the next four months, north-east of Arleux, rebuilding the lines of trenches, receiving drafts and organising training, recovering their strength for the next ordeal. Strenuous times again lay ahead. On September 25th the battalion moved north into the Ypres salient, to take part in the final days of the great offensive known as the Third Battle of Ypres, which as we have seen had been resumed either side of the Menin Road on September 20th. The Fifth Division had come into the line on the night of October 1st/2nd, with the Devons in reserve. On October 3rd they moved to an assembly position just east of Veldhock, a dreadful night walking on the slippery tracks, and constantly shelled resulting in many casualties, including both Colonel Blunt and the Adjutant. Following the opening barrage, the Division attacked at 0600 hrs, the 95th Brigade on the left with Cameron Covert its objective, the Devons on the right of the Brigade keeping touch with 13th Brigade attacking Polderhoek Chateau itself. Through the swamps, the mud and the shell holes the brigade pressed on north of the once small river, the Reutelbeck, now a flooded swamp. The area swarmed with Germans, who, as luck would have it were at that moment forming up for a three divisions attack, to be hurled at the 5th Division alone. At the southern end of Cameron Covert an impassable bog held up No. 4 Company, who finally made a line just west of the Covert, though by this time reduced to 20 men and one officer. The Reutelbeck had become an impenetrable morass between 100 and 200 yards wide and three platoons advanced south of it, taking many casualties from the machine guns mounted in concrete pill-boxes. Two companies pushed though taking up a line just in time to repulse a counter-attack from the Chateau. A few men reached the final objective north of the Chateau, but all was in vain and hardly anyone ever got back from the massacre. West of the Polderhoek Woods the remainder of the battalion dug in, and remained all day under constant shelling and counter-attacks, repulsing wave after wave and killing large numbers of enemy. About 6.00 pm a strong German advance up the Reutelbeck valley was destroyed by the divisional artillery. There could be no further advance. As a footnote to the fortunes of war, some 250 prisoners were taken by the 95th Brigade, though the majority were caught and wiped out by a German barrage while moving back on their way to the Divisional cage.
Attempts to take the Chateau continued. On October 9th the 15th Brigade tried and failed. On October 27th the 95th Brigade was in reserve for a renewed attack, going into the line on 28th and remaining in the front line and immediate reserve until November 2nd. The Chateau had actually been reached on 27th and held but counter-attacks had driven the British out, mainly because the rifles and Lewis Guns were blocked with mud and were impossible to clean.
During the period of all this slaughter William Mitchell had somehow managed to survive but during the period between 28th October and 2nd November, while holding the line in front of the Chateau, he was to meet his death. Details of the whole story can be gleaned from the 1st Battalion war diary:
25th October Westoutre:
Battalion (less transport) paraded at 12.10 pm, and marched to Bedford House. Route:- West Outre - La Clytte – Ridgewood – Bellewood Farm – Bedford House. Transport moved independently under Lieut. F.West (Transport Officer) to N.3.d.
To hospital 7 other ranks. From hospital 4 other ranks. From leave 50 other ranks. Reinforcements 46 other ranks joined.
26th October Bedford House:
Battalion remained in Divisional Reserve at Bedford House.
From hospital 3 other ranks.
27th October Bedford House – Sanctuary Wood – Wiltshire Farm:
Battalion (less dumped personnel and transport) moved forward to Sanctuary Wood. Dumped personnel kit under Capt. J.Wells. Marched to Wiltshire Farm, w, of Ridge Wood.
To hospital 5 other ranks.
28th October Trenches:
The Battalion remained at Tor Top (Brigade Reserve) until 4.40 pm when it moved forward to relieve the 1st Battn. Bedford Regiment in the Front Line positions due west of Polderhoek Chateau, with Battalion Headquarters at J.15.d.5.4.
Battalion was in position by 7.00 pm. Dispositions of Coys were: No1 Coy. Left Frant, No2 Coy. Right Front, No.3 Coy. Support, No.4 Left Coy.Right Support.
Wounded 5 other ranks. To England on leave 6 other ranks, reinforcements 70 other ranks joined from No.2 Infantry Base Depot.
29th October Trenches:
Battalion remained in same position, situation remained unchanged and quiet, with exception of intermittent shelling.
Killed 7 other ranks, wounded 2/Lt. J. Jameson and 2 other ranks, wounded remaining at duty 2/Lt. J.Richards.
To hospital 3 other ranks. From hospital 2 other ranks.
30th October Trenches:
From 2.00 am onwards the enemy shelled Battn. Headquarters heavily. The fire was in retaliation to our own barrage on the left where the Canadian Corps attacked the enemy’s positions.
Killed 11 other ranks, missing 1 other rank, wounded 2/Lt. S.A.Davis and 11 other ranks, wounded remaining at duty Capt. Power R.A,M.C. and 3 other ranks.
From hospital 1 other rank.
31st October Trenches, Tor Top:
Battalion remained in same position. Nothing of interest occurred. During the night Battalion was relieved by the 1st Battn. D.C.L.I., and on relief which was complete about 9.00 pm it withdrew to Brigade Reserve at Tor Top.
Killed 3 other ranks, wounded 8 other ranks, missing 2 other ranks. Wounded at duty 1 other rank.
To hospital 1 other rank.
We can be certain, therefore, that William Mitchell was killed by a shell while moving back from the forward line at Polderhoek Chateau between there and Tor Top. Three men killed by shell fire, two more missing and 9 more wounded was seen by the battalion as a ‘quiet day
’, and apart from moving back to the Brigade Reserve lines ‘nothing of interest occurred
There was one last battle ahead for the 95th Brigade, and had William managed to survive it, he might well have come safe home. After 3 days in reserve, the Devons returned to the line again on November 5th. A renewed attempt was made on November 6th by the 95th Brigade to take the Chateau, this time with the Devons in support, the mud now so bad that rifles and Lewis Guns were mostly out of action, unless covered with old socks. No.2 Company attacked a ruined building on ‘The Mound’, really a concrete post housing a concealed machine gun. The Mound was taken but otherwise the attack failed, though the ground gained was consolidated and the approach to the Chateau from the south was opened. Casualties amounted to a further 25 killed, 80 wounded. This was the end for the Devons, and on 7th November the battalion was relieved, withdrawn and placed in readiness for a transfer to Italy, and a very different kind of war.
Destroyed by a shell, there were no remains to bury. Instead, William’s name is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the missing, (on the Devonshire Regiment panels 38-40 in the North Rotunda, left of the entrance), located 9 kilometres north east of Ypres town centre, on the Tynecotstraat, (a road leading from the Zonnebeekseweg, the N332). The site marks the furthest point reached by Commonwealth forces in Belgium until nearly the end of the war. The Tyne Cot Memorial bears the names of almost 35,000 officers and men whose graves are not known, and who died between 1917 and the end of the war, for the most part in the Ypres salient. The memorial forms the north-eastern boundary of Tyne Cot Cemetery which was established around a captured German blockhouse or pill-box used as an advanced dressing station. The original battlefield cemetery of 343 graves was greatly enlarged after the Armistice when remains were brought in from the battlefields of Passchendaele and Langemarck, and from a few small burial grounds. It is now the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world in terms of burials. At the suggestion of King George V, who visited the cemetery in 1922, the Cross of Sacrifice was placed on the original large pill-box. There are three other pill-boxes in the cemetery. There are now 11,956 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in Tyne Cot Cemetery, and of these 8,369 are unidentified.