Pte. Henry Herbert Ashdown (1894-1917)

Henry Herbert Ashdown was born in Stansted, near Wrotham, towards the end of 1894, and was the eldest son of Henry James Ashdown, a farm labourer, and his wife Frances Ellen Janes.

By 1901, Herbert (as he was commonly known) was living with his family at Old Soar Farm Cottages in Plaxtol, and it seems probable he attended the local village school. Between 1901 and 1910 the Ashdown family moved from Plaxtol to Wrotham, and onwards to Platt by the start of 1911, where they took up residence at 7 Whatcote Cottages. Over a 20-year period, Henry and Frances had produced an astonishing 17 children, though tragically eight of those died in infancy. Like the majority of other local boys, Herbert found work labouring on a farm, and by the time war broke out in 1914, had been employed as a dairyman. In his non-working life he gained a reputation as a talented singer, and won several singing competitions.

Like many others keen to ‘do their bit’, Herbert was among the very first from Platt to enlist, and visited the recruiting office in Tonbridge on 2 September 1914, where he signed up for three-years military service. In a medical inspection carried out the same day he was recorded as being 5’ 5” tall with a 32” chest, sallow complexion, grey eyes and black hair. This was good enough for the Army and he was passed fit for duty and immediately posted to the 6th (Service) Battalion, The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment.) The battalion had been raised in Maidstone during mid-August, and formed part of the 37th Brigade of the 12th (Eastern) Division in Kitchener’s First New Army. At the time Herbert enlisted the battalion were camped in Purfleet, and he would have spent the remainder of the autumn training there before moving to Sandling Junction in early December, and then onwards to billets at Hythe at the end of the year.

After a further four months training in Aldershot the battalion entrained for Folkestone on 1 June 1915 and sailed for Boulogne on the SS Princess Victoria. Also on board were two other local men from the parish named Richard Andrews and Peter Piper, with the former also in Herbert’s company. On arrival in France, and following a two weeks training at Méteren, the battalion made their way to the front line and took over a position at Ploegsteert (Plugstreet) Wood from the 6th Buffs. During the summer of 1915 Ploegsteert had not been an especially active quarter, but was not without its hazards: for example, in July there were 50 battalion casualties recorded in the War Diary (7 killed, 43 wounded.) Enemy snipers were active on most days, and the diary also mentions a number of deadly shelling incidents. In this period Herbert would have been rotating between the front line and positions in the rear on a six days on, six days off, basis.

In mid-September the battalion headed south from Ploegsteert to an area southeast of Béthune, from where the First Army attacked Loos on the 25th. In the battle, which lasted several weeks, Herbert would see his first significant action of the war.

On 6 October, as part of ‘A’ company, Herbert was based in Gun Trench near Cité St. Elie and immediately to the right of the Germans, who had lodged themselves in the centre of the line between ‘A’ & ‘C’ Coys. The battalion was ordered to attack on the 8th and remove the Germans from the trench. In the main thrust of the assault, bombing parties worked their way inwards from the flanks whilst Herbert’s platoon, under Captain Margett, made their advance over open ground and were tasked with attacking the Germans from the front. In what would have been an undoubtedly harrowing experience for the 20-year-old, Herbert would have witnessed his comrades being mown down around him by enemy machine-gun fire almost immediately after going over the top. Against the odds he escaped the bullets, and was among the few survivors able to join up with the bombing parties who, up until that point, had been making satisfactory progress towards the Germans. However, unknown to the West Kents, the enemy position, far from being isolated in the centre, was actually connected to another trench leading up to their main front line. Due to the overwhelming numbers of German troops being sent forward down this artery to keep the British in check, the attack was doomed, and by the day’s end, over 100 casualties were sustained by the battalion, primarily in Herbert’s company.

Herbert had made it through his first battle, however he was not yet out of danger, and following several days in the reserve, returned to the front line in the early hours of 14 October when his company took over an old German trench from The Buffs. At some point during the day Herbert received a gunshot wound to his right leg and was stretchered away to No. 37 Field Ambulance, and then No. 33 Casualty Clearing Station, before being transferred to a Base Depot hospital in Etaples. His injuries don’t appear to have been particularly serious and he rejoined his unit in the field just over one month later on 24 November.

In March 1916 Herbert would have been involved in the Battle of the Craters near Vermelles, before moving south to the Somme at the end of June, where the battalion fought in the ill-fated offensive at Ovillers on 3 July.

In the battle, the 37th brigade was tasked with capturing two small salients in the German front line, which ran almost due north and south. ‘A’ company had been assigned to the first wave of the attack, which began at 3:15 a.m. with ‘C’ company advancing on their left. At zero hour the British artillery barrage lifted and Herbert’s company, who had already left their trenches ten minutes previously and crawled across No Man’s Land, leapt up and advanced on the German front line. Despite being met with heavy enfilade machine-gun fire, the West Kents maintained a steady pace, and soon found themselves in enemy trenches, where they successfully fought their way along the German line to establish a fairly secure position from which they could provide covering fire for the second wave of the attack, which had begun pushing forward towards the second objective. Unfortunately for the battalion, the second wave of the attack failed. Casualties were severe as withering machine gun fire swept across the attacking troops, who by this point were too few to have any impact on the heavily defended trench, and the battalion was engaged in a desperate fight to hold onto any gains made. The situation deteriorated further when both flanks on Herbert’s position fell apart, cutting off the West Kents and allowing the Germans to pick them off one at a time.

Men from the battalion performed many acts of heroism that day. The German trench was held by the remnants of the West Kents for several hours before they were forced to make a full withdrawal later in the day. Of 617 officers and men who had gone into action, 375 became casualties, including Richard Andrews and Peter Piper, who were both killed.

Battered and bruised, and despite being under-strength, the battalion moved back up into the front trenches between Ovillers and Pozières on the 26th, and saw further fighting along this front during the rest of the summer, although not on the same scale as the attack in early July. Progress had been slower than hoped in this opening phase of the Somme campaign, and plans, that included Herbert’s battalion, were being made to redress the situation.

On 1 October The Queen’s Own took over the reserve line West of Gueudecourt, eventually moving up into the firing line on the northern edge of the town during the evening of the 6th and prepared for battle the following day. Prior to zero hour, which was set for 1:45 p.m., the battalion was heavily shelled whilst assembling in the forward trenches and suffered a number of casualties. Those who eventually climbed out over the parapets that afternoon did not fair much better, and were met with a hailstorm of machine-gun and rifle fire, which caused heavy losses from the outset. Herbert survived, and as the Somme offensive came to an end the following month, he would likely have been aware that he was part a dwindling minority from the original battalion who had arrived in France during 1915. Whilst at the Somme, Herbert had been engaged as an officer’s batman, although it is not known how long this arrangement continued.

In mid-January 1917 Herbert’s battalion were based in the new divisional front in the suburbs of Arras that extended southwards from the Scarpe on the left, to the Arras-St. Quentin Road. The line ran right through the ruins of Blangy and in this sector No Man’s Land was described as ‘a chaotic tangle of bricks, bits of broken roofs and wire.’ Winters on the Western Front had gained a reputation for being harsh, with survival against the elements being an almost greater challenge than the dangers of enemy action. 1916/17 was no exception, and on arrival in Arras it must have been some relief to the men of the battalion that their accommodation in one of the numerous caves and cellars around the city was not only close to the front line (meaning they could move forward swiftly without incurring any casualties), but also sheltered from the arctic conditions that continued to blast into April.

By the time to spring offensives commenced in early April, the battalion, who had spent three months in the sector, would have been familiar with the local terrain over which they were about to attack, and consequently on the first day of the Battle of Arras (9 April), the West Kents achieved their objectives with relatively few casualties; however, during the assault, a number of obstacles still had to be overcome, and the non-arrival of tanks elicited a much harder fight than expected.

Two days later Herbert’s company were posted to the line east of Monchy, which was known to be an ‘awkward position’ and exposed to steady shellfire and intermittent sniping. Conditions in the village itself were by all accounts horrendous, with one officer recounting that the streets, following a recent enemy machine-gun attack on an entire cavalry brigade, were literally ‘flowing with the blood of horses and men.’

After a week’s rest in Arras the battalion returned to Monchy on the 25th and took up a position in the reserve, where they prepared for another large battle on 3 May. In what would turn out to be his last fight, Herbert’s unit commenced their assault about 10:30 p.m., and in a replay of previous advances, instantly faced a hailstorm of lead from German machine-guns. Herbert had been charged with carrying despatches, and at some point during the early hours of the following morning, was killed in action.

Following his death, a Captain wrote to his mother:

Dear Madam,

 In reply to your letter of 27th ult., I deeply regret to inform you that your son, No. 768 Pte. H. Ashdown, of this battalion, was killed in action of 4 May 1917. Your loss is ours also, and the memory of your boy will remain with us always. He was extremely popular with his comrades. There is no man in this battalion who could be more faithful in his duties, or more gallant in action, than your son. Allow me to tender my deepest sympathies to you in the loss of a son whom we knew so well and esteemed so much.

An obituary published in the Kent Messenger on 23 June 1917 also reported that Herbert had been engaged to a young lady (unnamed) who he had planned to marry once he had secured leave.

Herbert is buried in the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in Arras (grave reference V.D.7) and was awarded the 1915 Star, British War and Victory medals.

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