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  • Claire Jordan

Arthur Gentle

This is the handsomely-moustachioed, beautifully-named Arthur Gentle.

His Dad James was a farm labourer at Ashwell, Hertfordshire, Mum was Emily and Arthur was the middle child of ten; the other Gentles were William, Albert, Walter, little Freddie who died in infancy, Sarah Ann, Tom, Harriet, Frank and smallest sister May.

At the age of 20, Arthur decided he wanted something different and enlisted into the Bedfordshire Regiment in 1908.

He would travel the world over the next six years, serving on Gibraltar, in Bermuda and finally in South Africa, where his Battalion was stationed when War was declared in August 1914.

They were hastily shipped home and landed in France to join the fight in the first week of October; the War was hardly eight weeks old and the British Expeditionary Force still in the throes of a gallant fighting retreat.

By the time Arthur came to the Somme for the Big Push in the high summer of 1916, he had already been wounded, in March 1915, then gassed, and he’d been evacuated back to England to be fixed up at Leicester’s General Northern Hospital and the convalescent hospital at nearby Newton Harcourt.

Then, once again, he returned wearily to the fight. At 29, he was quite a bit older and more experienced than so many now gathering in the fields of Picardie, eager for their first chance to fight.

Arthur’s 2nd Battalion of the Bedfordshires with whom he had lived and fought for so long now, moved forward before dawn on 1st July 1916 from their assembly trenches at Maricourt to attack the enemy strong-point at Montauban.

They were to be the second wave, following 100 yards behind the attacking Battalions of the King’s Liverpool.

Initially, they actually succeeded.

Between them, they somehow took and consolidated Faviere and Silesia Trenches. Over the next three days, they held their position against the steel storm of counter-attacks, and managed to dig a new trench (which they named Bedford Trench) from Germans Wood to La Briqueterie Road.

They were at last relieved on 4th July and had a little respite further back towards Bois de Tailles, just south of Albert.

The breather was all too short.

Ordered once more into the breach, they moved up to Billon Wood on 8th and went into the trenches near Machine Gun Wood on 9th July.

The following day, they assembled in the sunken road opposite La Briqueterie and went again into action, in the attack on Trones Wood.

Trones was a terrible place. Heavily fortified by the well-hidden enemy and bristling with machine guns and snipers.

British Tommies had never been taught how to fight in a wood. It had never occurred to anyone that it might be necessary.

Still today, it is a terrible place; it feels like the air has an odd quality, flecked still with spikes of the memory of terror.

The re-grown trees seem to watch you, silently. Birds do not sing; they too just look on. You feel you are walking on the dead, much more than you do in the neat cemeteries.

I was there one hot afternoon in August 2016 (when I took the photo below) and remember seeing strewn across the ground just into the tree line, very fat, slowly slithering, bright crimson slugs. They seemed to be everywhere.

I am sure they are creatures which naturally occurs, going about their usual slug business, but I have never seen anything like them before or since, and in that place, in that moment, they added something almost Poe-like to the horror.

Back with Arthur at Trones on 11th July 1916, after high losses in the initial attack, the remnants of his Battalion managed to dig in on the eastern edge of the Wood, the courage of which must truly have been something to behold, but their situation was untenable.

They were hunkered into shallow scrapes of earth among splintering shards of trees, while the implacable enemy, still very much embedded in the dark depths of the wood, rained down grenades into their positions and sniped anything that moved.

At last, a particularly strong bombing assault forced Arthur’s withdrawal back to La Briqueterie.

The enemy attack was renewed, and the last scraps of the Battalion clinging to the edge of the wood (right where those slugs would be a century later) in the early hours of 12th July were forced back too.

The casualties sustained by 2nd Bedfords in the last 24 hours were 244.

Our Arthur Gentle, though, was still standing.

His battered Battalion was now sent back again to Bois des Tailles the following day, and then went into billets at Vaux-sur-Somme, about 20 miles behind the front line.

But it was here at Vaux, on 15th July, that fate would deal Arthur Gentle the cruellest blow of all.

As they dressed their minor wounds and lent each other cigarettes, the Battalion war diary notes: “2 Other Ranks accidentally wounded by a bomb explosion in the Transport Lines whilst detonating bombs.”

Arthur was one of these two men; he and his mate Joe Payne were both taken back, grievously wounded, a couple of miles to the closest Casualty Clearing Station at Corbie, but died there the next day, 16th July 1916.

They are buried in the same plot of the CWGC’s Communal Cemetery Extension there, same row, 31 graves apart, so I guess Arthur died first that day, and Joe followed on a few hours later.

Dear Arthur Gentle, 106 years after your brave death, please know that you are Not Forgotten, and what you did for us will always matter.

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