It was not uncommon during the First World War for men from the same area to serve together, for what better example do we have of this than the tragic story of the “Pals” battalions, made up of men from the same area or workplace who were slaughtered on the battlefields of the Somme?
However, Llanishen is interesting in that we have several cases of men who served in the same area, sometimes in the same battle, despite coming from different units and backgrounds. We’ll explore some of these later on, but for now we’ll begin with two young men who lost their lives 96 years ago.
In March 1918 the future of the Great War hung in the balance. The British and French armies were exhausted from four years of enervating trench warfare. In the East, Germany had conducted a peace with the new Bolshevik government in Russia, freeing millions of troops from the Eastern Front. However, the Americans, having declared war in 1917, were now beginning to arrive in France in large numbers. It was possible that the Allies could win the war once the Americans armies had concentrated in strength, and so the Germans needed to break through on the Western Front as soon as possible. General Erich Ludendorff, one the central players in the German High Command, planned a large-scale offensive with the armies freed from Russia, designed to strike all along the Western Front at several key points and break through, swinging under the flank of the British Armies and gradually entrapping them on the Northern Coast of France.
A map of Operation Michael, the initial German offensive in the Somme sector.
This great plan, thereafter known as the Kaiserschlacht (Emperor’s Battle) or the Ludendorff Offensive, was unleashed on 21st March 1918 along the old Somme battlefields, scarred after two years of heavy fighting and littered with bodies. The Germans tried a new and very successful tactic of sudden, overwhelming bombardments of the British trenches, quickly followed up by the new Stosstruppe (Storm Troops). These men were lightly equipped and carried bunches of grenades. They would leap up after the bombardment had stopped and hurl them into the British trenches, then rush over and finish off the survivors. These tactics worked to great effect and the British were swiftly pushed back from their line to the west of Cambrai. They began to rally around the crossroads town of Bapaume and hold their ground in the fresh unspoiled fields. It was here that two men from Llanishen were involved in the fighting.
The first was Private Frederick Breakspear. His family lived in Rose Cottage in Llanishen on what is now Caerphilly Road. We haven’t been able to find his service record, but by the time of the Spring Offensive he was serving in the 12th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, part of the British 41st Division. This Division was attacked to the north of Bapaume and gradually pushed back towards the town. It was during this fighting, on 23rd March, that Frederick was killed, though exactly how remains to be found. His body was never recovered – a testament to the speed and confusion of the battle – and he is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. The Western Mail carried this casualty notice a few days later, a rather tragic one as his mother was to learn of his death shortly afterwards. He was aged 21.
The notice in the Western Mail by Private Breakspear’s mother.
In the following days the British were forced to abandon Bapaume and withdraw towards Amiens. Private Walter Whynn was among the men pulling back. He was serving in 9th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment, part of the 19th Division. This Division had been and still was fighting in the same sector as Frederick Breakspear and the 41st Division. As the 19th Division prepared to launch a counter-attack on 27th March to try and stabilise the line, Private Whynn was killed by enemy fire. He is buried in Delsaux Farm Cemetery, a cemetery begun by the Germans, meaning that the enemy may well have laid him to rest. He was just 18 years old when he was killed – he had only been 17 when he had enlisted a few months earlier,
Private Whynn’s service record, with the rather blunt “DEAD” stamp on the top.
Both these men died in the final phase of the war. Despite their early gains, the German counter-attack gradually ran out of steam, its multiple objective confusing the advance as British resistance stiffened. It finally drew to a close on 5th April, and in August the British unleashed a counter-attack of their own which ended with the Armistice of November 11th 1918. These two small parts of a vast maelstrom now rest peacefully in France, still far from home.