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  • Claire Jordan

Gut Shot

I wish I had the right words to give this glorious man the tribute he deserves, but I fear whatever I write will fall short.

Please meet Denis Davies.

He was born to a family of successful Welsh farmers in Kerry, Monmouthshire with two older brothers and a little sister Edith.

His brothers followed Dad into the farming world but Denis wanted something different for his life; he was smart at school and became a Pupil-Teacher by age 14, learning on the job, eventually becoming a class teacher across the English border, in the West Midlands market town of Dudley.

He was a steady, kind, conscientious man, good at his job, employed by the county council at the local school; he enjoyed nurturing the children in his care, encouraging each of them to grow and progress, to take every opportunity that came their way or that he could engineer for them.

Denis was so devoted to his job, he never quite found the time to marry.

When War came in 1914, he was one of the first to enlist, travelling the six miles to Wolverhampton to become part of the 6th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment.

He landed with them in France in the first days of March 1915 and, apart from a brief stint in Egypt at the beginning of 1916, he was on the Western Front all the way through.

As an educated, older man, used to the trials and responsibilities of school-teaching, it is hard to imagine that he was not recommended for promotion, even for a commission, but he went into the Battle of the Somme as a Private and I would suggest it was at his own request. He was the sort of man who would feel a natural responsibility towards the younger men around him and they no doubt benefited from his calm approach.

He wanted to stay close to his boys.

And it would cost him an unimaginable amount.

As 30th June turned into 1st July 1916, Denis’s Battalion was committed to the diversionary attack at Gommecourt, to the north of the Somme battlefront; they were to lead the attack on Gommecourt Wood.

At 7.30am when the whistles blew, they rose up out of the trenches and began to move across No Man’s Land towards the wood, under cover of a smoke screen which was so thick initially that men became disorientated and lost their bearings.

You can imagine Denis trying to gather the younger men around him, to keep them heading in the right direction, urging them on.

The smoke began to dissipate; they could now see better where they were going, but so too could the enemy.

The men of the 6th South Staffs were about halfway across No Man’s Land when the German machine gunners in the wood opened up and an artillery barrage fell onto them from above.

A quarter of them fell in a matter of minutes. The machine gun fire was so implacable that the rear companies of the leading battalions and those in reserve were hopelessly pinned down; they could not help their comrades up ahead.

Those who made it to the German wire could find no way through and were mown down by the machine gun placed at a German strongpoint known as The Z, just north of Gommecourt Wood. The barbed wire entanglements viciously bit into your flesh and held you firm; the more you struggled, the deeper it bit, while the enemy took aim.

In spite of every heroic attempt to keep going, it was simply impossible.

The attack faltered and failed; the objectives were not taken, and the enemy held their positions.

The remnants of 6th South Staffs crawled somehow back to our lines through their dead and dying friends and the Battalion was withdrawn the following day.

The diversionary attack never stood a chance of gaining its objectives, but in the sense that it had pulled German troops and artillery away from the main attacks on 1st July, it had been militarily a success.

But Denis Davies could not be found and was posted Missing.

What had happened to him would not become clear for some months.

Information eventually trickled through from the German authorities to the Red Cross that he had been found, in their words, “gut shot” on 3rd July and died that same day.

The Germans buried him at Ervillers, about ten miles east of where he fell, and had presumably found him alive, laying helpless still among his fallen boys in front of the German wire, taken him back to a dressing station, where he at last succumbed to his wounds.

It means he lay, mortally wounded, hoping for help that would not come, for over two days in the July summer heat, on that field of horror.

He cannot have been the only man grievously wounded but alive still as dusk fell on 1st July, but he must surely have been one of the very last still alive over two days later, as the boys he could not protect called for their mothers and agonisingly died around him.

The psychological and physical tortures of this gentle man’s last 48 hours we surely cannot imagine.

But we can tell his story now; we can honour what he gave and what he suffered, and we can make sure he is Never Forgotten.

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