Reginald Charles Chapple

On the eve of the twentieth century, Shipston-on-Stour was a small but prosperous market town in South Warwickshire. As part of the Great Western Railway system, trains ran daily to Stratford-upon-Avon eight miles away. Wool had once been the thriving trade and Sheep Street was the oldest road in the town. In 1888, Rydal House next to the old Harrow Inn, was the home and centre of business of the Master Draper, Charles Chapple.

His youngest son REGINALD CHARLES CHAPPLE was born there on February 17 1888, and the records of the census of 1891 show a successful household, with Charles, his wife Bessie, their three children, his wife’s mother, a niece, three draper’s assistants and a general domestic servant. The original shop sign is held by the Shipston-on-Stour Local History Society at the Museum.

Sheep Street, Shipston-on-Stour, 1914

Sheep Street, Shipston-on-Stour, 1914

There is no record of Reginald in the log books of the Infant School in Station Road, so because of the size and success of his father’s business it may mean that he was privately educated at Miss Ryder’s in Church Street. In September 1901 he was admitted to King Edward VI School where he remained until July 1904 when he was 16.

On leaving school he was of independent means, and for three years served as a Trooper with the Warwickshire Yeomanry, resigning on April 13 1913 when he moved home to Barnstable in Devon. Although he attested on December 11 1915, he was not called up until February 29 1916 by which time he had moved to Bournemouth. Initially serving as a Private in the 3/6 (Reserve) Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment upon his mobilisation, he joined the 4th (Reserve) Battalion and was promoted on June 2 to Lance Corporal and two months later to Corporal. Applying for a Territorial commission in the infantry, following appropriate training at an Officer Cadet Unit, Reginald became a Second Lieutenant in 1/5 Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and his commission was gazetted on July 11 1917. He was posted to Belgium on June 26 with the 1/5 Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry where it had been divisional troops for 61 Division since April 1916 and was now in the line to the north of St. Quentin. Over the next months it was involved in actions in the damp autumn earth of Polygon Wood and Passchendaele.

The first months of 1918 were tense days. The army was expecting a major effort from the Germans who were known to be about to launch an offensive in the hope of achieving a major victory before the newly-arrived Americans were fully committed to battle. On March 21 a hugely effective bombardment, known as Operation Michael, fell on the British lines, disrupting communications and destroying stores and supplies. E.C. Matthews described it as ‘a most startling bombardment. There was a terrific din all round, and the earth shook violently with gunfire and bursting shells.’

The plan was to break through the British lines and then sweep north to the sea. When the German troops stormed the British front lines, they gave way in many places and the attackers were able to cross the River Somme and advance up to thirty miles. By March 26 the British lines had shattered, and units at the southern end of the front were everywhere in retreat or fighting desperate rearguard actions. Against the general trend, 61 Division was able to hold most of its positions for the first day before being withdrawn.

At this time, Reginald Chapple was in charge of organising the transport near St. Quentin, and it fell to him to get the rations up to the companies fighting at the front. The heavy bombardment had made it impossible to move wagons, and so instead he used pack ponies. Volunteering, he left at about 4:00pm and attempted to find B Company at Marteville, but thickening fog made it impossible. On his way back, and to keep off the tracks, he moved over open country when a 5.9 shell exploded near him and a huge splinter struck his helmet. Somewhat dazed, he was described as carrying on ‘in a plucky manner.’ Returning by 8:30 in the evening, he would not see the Medical Officer, and ‘some ten days later when the doctor advised a few days’ rest in hospital, Chapple again refused to leave the Battalion.’

On March 26 the 1/5 Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was involved in heavy fighting at Rosieres, and Reginald was wounded again and once more refused to leave.

The Battalion moved forward to occupy billets at Le Quesnel, but on the evening of March 27 marched to a point on the main Amiens Road and then on to Marcelcave which it reached at 5:30am on March 28. Because of the bombardment on the village, the Battalion moved to trenches on high ground about one mile further south. Chapple took up the rations and had ‘a lively time’. He only escaped being a probable casualty by hanging on to a field cooker that was being drawn by a horse galloping out of the village. This position became the front line and was held throughout March 29 in spite of heavy shelling. The following morning, the German attack forced the Battalion to withdraw to a line running about three hundred yards in front of Hangard Wood.

However, the Germans had overreached themselves. The infantry, who carried little but its weapons in order to move rapidly, were far ahead of its supplies and the advance had come to a halt on April 6.

Map showing the area of the First Battle of the Somme, 1918

Map showing the area of the First Battle of the Somme, 1918

Nevertheless, the second phase of the German offensive on the Lys Canal was launched on April 9 in front of Lille and in the general direction of Calais. Within three days it had penetrated up to fifteen miles. From April 9 to April 11 61 Division was involved in the Battle of Estaires, and from April 12 in the Battle of Hazebrouck (Hinges Ridge) – a name known to every British soldier as thousands passed through the station en route for Ypres or the Somme. Both were defensive actions from the British point of view. It was reported that many of the soldiers were ‘youngsters without any experience of real warfare, and this sudden plunge from barrack-square to the firing line, and moreover into a really stiff fight against a well-trained enemy, was indeed a terrible calamity.’

On April 11, Haig had issued his famous ‘Backs to the Wall’ order – ‘with our back to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each of us must fight on to the end.’

The Germans launched a further attack on April 12 and the Battalion came under heavy machine gun fire from its flanks. It pulled back across the Canal but once again came under very heavy fire on its right flank. A line was taken up west of Le Sart and held until midnight when, under orders, the remaining soldiers rejoined the 61 Division.

The casualties to the 1/5 Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry had been severe – sixteen officers and 467 other ranks were killed, wounded or missing.

On April 12, Reginald Chapple was posted as missing and his body was never recovered. He is commemorated at a number of sites: on the Ploegsteert Memorial at Comines-Waneton (eight miles south of Ypres), on the Shipston-on-Stour War Memorial, on the gravestone of his mother and father, and in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.

Ploegsteert Memorial, Berks Cemetery Extension, south of Ypres

Ploegsteert Memorial, Berks Cemetery Extension, south of Ypres