Frederick Butcher

A professional soldier from the age of 18, FREDERICK BUTCHER had already enjoyed a successful career in South Africa before the outbreak of war in 1914. A day scholar between September 1890 and Easter 1895 at King Edward VI School – where his brother Henry had been a boarder between 1888 and 1894 – Frederick lived with his parents at 9 Warwick Road, enlisting in 5th (Warwickshire) Company, 2nd Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry on April 6 1900. Serving in South Africa during the Boer War he was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal with four bars, and the King’s South Africa Medal that recognised his involvement in the later difficult phase of the war.

His engagement terminated on June 18 1901, and between 1902 and 1913 he enlisted, resigned and re-enlisted three times, including six years with the Natal Mounted Police – a force that had gained an illustrious reputation for its participation in the Zulu Wars. It was reported in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald that he served in General Botha’s campaign in German West Africa. Although offered a permanent position on the staff at Johannesburg, with the outbreak of war in Europe he returned to London and enlisted on August 25 1914, and was appointed to the rank of Staff Sergeant Major in the Imperial Light Horse. Volunteering for service in the Royal Horse Artillery, the interviewing officer declared himself ‘satisfied as to education’, and Frederick was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in 90 Brigade of the Royal Horse Artillery on November 11 1915, moving to the Western Front in March 1916. The 90 Brigade was transferred to 92 Brigade Royal Horse Artillery in 20 (Light) Division in time to participate in the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June. Also known as the Battle of Hill 62, it was a conflict between three divisions of the British Second Army and three divisions of the German Fourth Army in the Ypres Salient. As an effort to draw British forces from the observed build-up in the Somme area, the Germans attacked an arc of high ground along a ridge between Hooge and Zwartelee that gave occupying forces excellent observation over the salient, the town of Ypres and the approaching routes.

Well behind their own lines, the Germans constructed trenches resembling the Canadian positions in order to rehearse the assault. Allied air reconnaissance near Mount Sorrel noted the practice trenches and that the Germans were building new sap trenches, all of which indicated that an assault was intended. Following an enormous artillery bombardment on the morning of June 2, and by the detonation of a series of four mines near the Canadian trenches, the Germans launched an attack of six battalions, with five in support and an additional six in reserve. Mount Sorrel was captured and Hill 61 secured.

A brave Canadian counter-attack late in the day was unsuccessful with very heavy losses, but British artillery hampered the German efforts to consolidate their positions. During the next nine days, there was heavy and unremitting artillery bombardment in preparation for the assault on June 12 behind a generated smoke screen. Taken by surprise, the Germans fell back to their original lines.

Butcher was granted home leave late in June. Although he had married and lived in Cambridge, he had retained an affection for Stratford and the association of his old School to Shakespeare, and would often turn to the three pocket volumes of the plays that he always carried.

Hill 61, near Ypres, 1916

Hill 61, near Ypres, 1916

On his return to the Western Front, the Brigade was immediately heavily involved in the fierce actions in Delville Wood, Guillemont, Flers-Courcelette, Morval and Le Transloy that characterised the German offensive during 1916. The detailed part played by the Brigade is difficult to disentangle, as it was always positioned well behind the front line and in a position where it could support attacks by preliminary bombardment or by creeping barrage. It was also called upon to assist during the German counter-attacks that almost invariably followed.

The artillery was always at risk since its counterparts behind the enemy front sought it out for destruction or counter-barrages. Almost sixty per cent of casualties were calculated to have been the result of German artillery fire, and at this stage of the war it was very rare for heavy guns to be overrun, but artillery units were almost constantly in demand. To avoid the pin-pointing of their positions, guns could not be left static for long periods, and added to the physical task of moving them was the hazard of enemy fire.

The German retreat to the Hindenburg Line during the first half of 1917 brought some respite for the infantry of 20 Division, and Frederick Butcher was able to attend a four-week course at 4 Artillery School at Saumur in May, followed by what was to be his final period of leave in England. In July, the Division moved from the Somme to Belgian Flanders in time for the Battle of Langemark in August. Langemark had been attacked by untried German student divisions in October 1914 and they had suffered very heavy casualties. Their cemetery outside the town, enclosed with oak trees, is dark and sombre and retains a coolness even on the warmest summer day. Following a gas attack in April1915 the Germans occupied Langemark until August 1917 when the 20 Light Division recaptured the ruined town.

On August 24, Butcher was given the rank of Acting Captain, placing him second in command of a battery, and in quick succession was fully involved in the Battle of Menin Road beginning on September 20 – where 1,295 guns were concentrated, approximately one for every five yards of the attack front – and the Battle of Polygon Wood on September 25 that was part of the ‘Bite and Hold’ plan.

The London Gazette on November 24 reported that Butcher was promoted to Major and to be in command of 92 Brigade as it returned to France just in time for the Battle of Cambrai. Called by B.H. Liddell Hart ‘one of the landmarks in the history of warfare, the dawn of a new epoch,’ the battle saw the first successful use of tanks, showed that the Hindenberg Line could be penetrated, and showed the Germans the values of new infantry tactics.

In a letter sent home at this time Frederick wrote: ‘For seven days and nights we have had no shave or wash, no boots off, no sleep, and lucky if we got a meal. Fighting all day and retiring at night it seemed like seven years.’

March 1918 brought some of the most serious reverses of the war, when the German army, reinforced by troops released from the Eastern Front by the ending of the war with Russia and supported by a devastating artillery bombardment, broke through the British front line and in places made inroads of thirty miles. Paris was threatened. Units fell back, 20 Division was withdrawn, and the trench warfare of the previous three years gave way to rapid movement with the Germans at first seeming irresistible and many of them believing that the war was won.

May 22 had been a quiet day spent mainly in looking for a good position to establish an observation point on the forward slope of Riamont Hill, but nothing suitable had been found. In the evening, Major Butcher and his observation officer were at the observation point in the Bois de Hirondelles (there is a well-known local poem ‘The Swallows’) when a stray shell fell near them and a splinter struck Frederick in the heart. Initially buried in the little cemetery at Souchez near Arras, his body was later moved to the Sucrerie Cemetery at Ablain-St. Nazaire.

Sucrerie Cemetery, north of  Arras

Sucrerie Cemetery, north of Arras

His Commanding Officer wrote that ‘He is a great loss to the Brigade as well as a personal loss to me. He was an exceptionally good officer and most popular with his battery. During the few months that we have soldiered together he has always shown the same cheerful spirit in all circumstances, and lately we have been through much. I shall miss him greatly and find him hard to replace.’ His Captain wrote that Frederick was extremely popular ‘and speaking for myself I found it a pleasure to work with him. I have been with him in this Brigade since the beginning of 1916 and it is a very hard blow to lose a man and a friend.’

A week before his death he sent home a field telegram from the officer in command of the Australians, congratulating him ‘on the number of Germans he had killed and tendering the thanks of all ranks for the splendid barrage he had put up.’

Commemorated on the Memorial Screen and Reredos in Holy Trinity Church, the Stratford-upon-Avon War Memorial, the Stratford-upon-Avon Cemetery War Memorial, he is also remembered on the KES Boat Club Memorial in the Garden of Remembrance, and in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.