Press report on the fate of Rifleman E. J. Rayner.
A couple of weeks ago I was handed a thin sheaf of papers by a friend who knows of my interest in Great War stories. In the recent past I have researched and posted information on soldiers who have either been buried or are commemorated in a family plot within the Old Cemetery in Bishops Stortford (Hertfordshire). I love the idea of trying to reclaim a name from a weathered headstone or memorial in order to place some context around how they came to be commemorated.
The information passed on to me concerned two brothers, Edgar and Frank Rayner, sons of John and Elisabeth Rayner. The family resided in 1, Bartholomew Road, not two minutes from my front door. As I write this I am sitting in the Castle pub to be found at the bottom of Bartholomew Road, and 30 seconds from the Rayner family home during the Great War! It is an old pub and I cannot escape from the thought that it is a near certainty that at one time Frank and Edgar, being young lads in their early twenties, would have enjoyed a pint of ale within the walls of The Castle and as such we are occupying the same space albeit at a distance of a century.
The Rayner brothers as they appear on the Roll of Honour within Holy Trinity Church, Bishops Stortford.
I will deal with both brothers, but allow me to start with Edgar John Rayner. Edgar enlisted in 1914 with the 1/16th London Regiment, otherwise known as the Queen’s Westminster Rifles. At the outbreak of the war, the Regiment formed part of the 2nd London Division, but on the 10th February 1916 the battalion transferred to 169th (3rd London) Brigade within 56th (London) Division. It was as part of 169 Brigade that the Queen’s Westminsters and Edgar saw action in The Battle of The Somme.
By early September, the Battle of The Somme had been raging for over two months as the British Army fought desperately to drive the German front line back. In the first week of September, the 56th Division were located to the east of the Albert-Bapaume Road. Officially, the action in which Edgar lost his life is designated as a part of the Battle of Ginchy. The villages of Guillemont and Ginchy were critical to the Germans. The possession of these villages afforded the Germans observation of the British and French positions to the south. This area formed a salient occupied by the Allies into which the Germans poured artillery fire disrupting Anglo-French efforts to mount a coordinated assault later in the month.
Battalions of 169 Brigade, the 2nd London Rifles, the London Rifle Brigade (LRB) , the Queen Victoria Rifles (QVR) and Edgar’ own Queen’s Westminster’s Rifles (QWR) moved up into the line on 6th September 1916. The following night the QWRs took over the trenches occupied by the London Rifle Brigade in a position approximately 500 yards to the north east of Faviere Wood. At this point the Battalion took casualties (7 other ranks killed and 1 officer and 7 other ranks wounded). In the day preceding the planned attack on Leuze Wood more casualties were suffered with 3 other ranks killed and a further 10 wounded.
It was on the afternoon of the 9th September that the battalion were launched into the Brigade assault to the north and east of Leuze Wood (known to the soldiers as ‘Lousy Wood’). The QVR attacked to the north into Bouleaux Wood (perhaps unsurprisingly referred to at the time as ‘Bollocks Wood’!). The LRB launched themselves on the sunken road and the German trench on the south east side of Leuze Wood. Whilst the QVR had some success, the LRB assault faltered. With the Germans reported to remain in Leuze Wood, Edgar’s Battalion (QWR) were ordered to drive them out.
Edgar with ‘D’ Company entered the wood along its eastern edge (with ‘A’ Company reinforcing the QVR on the northern edge of the wood and ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies in reserve).
In the morning’s attack, ‘D’ Company’s leading platoon was to swing to its left to attack the sunken trench on the north side of the Leuze-Combles Road with support from HQ bombers.
During the night preceding the attack the casualty tally amongst ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies of the QWR were heavy as the men waited for the zero hour of 7 am. A message from Brigade HQ reached the front line at 6.50 am that that the usual artillery barrage was arranged. The heavy mist that had descended across the line, reducing visibility to 80 yards, was favourable and yet the anticipated barrage never materialised due to a breakdown of communication between Brigade HQ and the artillery positions.
On cue, at 7 am the infantry left their trenches and advanced towards their objective almost to the point of completion when machine guns opened up on them from the objective trench as well as from nests on the sunken road to their north. The trench was held in strength such that the Company Commanders Captain Green and Captain Grizelle ordered the withdrawal of the remnants of their respective QWR Companies, now not more than 25 strong in each Company.
A Brigadier appeared at 12.30 on the afternoon of the 10th and ordered one last effort to take the German held trench. For this attempt ‘A’ Company of the 2nd London Rifles were temporarily placed under QWR command along with two Stokes Mortar sections. Bombing commenced at 3pm in the afternoon. The 2nd London Rifles with artillery support made their objective with the assault to be followed on by QWR HQ Bombers, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies. The assault however failed in the face of unsubdued enemy rifle fire from the objective and the soldiers of 169 Brigade were forced to retire.
The fighting over the night of 9th and 10th September resulted in a heavy casualty toll on the 1/16th London Regiment; officers, 4 killed, 5 wounded; other ranks, 52 killed, 166 wounded and 80 missing. Edgar Rayner was one of those ‘other ranks’.
The action which cost 24 year old Edgar John Rayner of 1 Bartholomew Road, Bishops Stortford his life, was like was so often the case in the tragedy of the Western Front, beset with problems that ruled out success from the offing.
The men involved in the fighting undoubtedly fought with great courage but at great cost . The QWRs bagged three military medals for Gallant Conduct in the battle. However, in closing I would like to quote the Commanding Officer’s concluding words on the fighting as recorded in the Battalions official War Diary. They are telling and in many ways tally with our current perceptions on the conduct of the war.
‘From start to finish we had, as it turned out, no chance.
Ordered to attack from a wood we had never been in before on a black, dark night and on to a position we were unable to properly locate, and then owing to the breakdown in communication, launched in the morning to attack without the military barrage. And again after some 14 hours exceedingly heavy shelling being sent to it again to bomb up a trench, which as a trench, hardly existed, with hardly any trained bombers to lead the attack, it is no wonder that both the attacks failed, especially as we know, as we learnt later the strength of the sunken road trench from which the enemy were able to bring so heavy a cross machine gun fire on both our attacks’.
Edgar is commemorated in France on the Thiepval memorial to ‘The Missing of the Somme’ (Pier and Face 13.C). He is also remembered (along with his brother Frank) on the memorial in front of Holy Trinity Church on South Street, Bishops Stortford. His name also appears on the Roll of Honour held within the Church (See above).
The memorial in front of Holy Trinity Church, Bishops Stortford.