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  • Claire Jordan


Imagine if you would the proudest you have ever been of anyone in your existence.

When Elvina Rackham, the 17 year old daughter of a Great Yarmouth sailor, discovered she was expecting in the autumn of 1890, she had no husband, no prospects and she must surely have wondered what would become of her and the baby.

But when he arrived in the summer of the following year, she named him Bertie and every fear or worry she’d had dissolved into dust; she adored her tiny son from the very first and would never hear a word against him. He deserved a clean slate.

Elvina did her very best, but Bertie’s childhood was not especially easy for either of them, I fear. Aged 10, with Elvina now married to an understanding gas-works foreman with other children, Bertie was living with his maternal Granny Martha and a host of aunts, uncles and cousins.

But little fatherless Bertie would soon make a life for himself and travel the world.

By the age of 20, he had enlisted into the Army and was, in 1911, stationed in Aden with the Lincolnshire Regiment.

When War was declared in August 1914, his 2nd Battalion was billeted in Bermuda, moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia and sailing hastily for England from there.

They were back by 3rd October and landed in France on 5th November 1914, around the time he was likely promoted to Lance Corporal, a fact about which Elvina was beside herself with pride.

But the following spring would bring disaster to 2nd Lincolns.

In the cold dawn of 10th March 1915, they were in pole position ready and waiting to go, hearts pounding, as the Battle of Neuve Chappelle opened up around them.

The British attack was designed to rupture the enemy lines, forcing gaps through which we would rush to take the vital high ground at Aubers Ridge and possibly even on to Lille.

The British attack did break through the German defences, forming a salient around the small village of Neuve Chappelle, but “their success could not be consolidated” and those are six little words under which lurk a world of horror.

The Adjutant charged with keeping Bertie’s Battalion war diary for 10th March describes the scene with a fierce sang-froid:

“Opposite Neuve Chappelle

At 7.30am, artillery bombardment started (about 300 guns).

At 8.50am, guns lifted their sights and Infantry attacked.

The Colonel was with the assaulting Companies.

The Battalion all rose simultaneously and rushed the first trench.

After entering, the trenches were in our hands in an incredibly short time – losing only about 20 men.

The blocking parties then proceeded down the trenches, clearing all before them with the grenades – Captain Peake did good work, he was soon afterwards shot in the head.

The Battalion still rushed on – the supports (A & B Companies) following up close in rear – some of A Company supporting the firing line as soon as it got to the 2nd German trench.

Lt Col GB McAndrews was killed between the first and second German trenches – his right leg was blown to pieces by one of our own shells. He died asking after his Regiment, without any compline of the pain he was suffering.

The assaulting Companies then pressed on, being temporarily checked by a water obstacle. A plank was eventually discovered and the line took up a position in front of this obstacle. They were there checked by the fire of our own guns and it was found necessary to retire 50yards on account of this.

It was at about this period that we were subjected to a severe fire from our left rear, which caused the greatest part of our casualties. Lt Wylie was shot (mortally) at about this time.

The line then retired again and took up position behind the water obstacle where they entrenched themselves.”

When in the midst of all this did Bertie disappear? Elvina never knew.

His Battalion lost 313 men that day and her son was one of them; he was just short of his 24th birthday.

Bertie Rackham’s body was never recovered and so his name is etched forever onto the beautiful #CWGC Memorial at Le Touret.

Did she ever make it out to France to visit? I don’t know.

But we will visit him on her behalf.

And We Will Remember Him always.

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