Date of Death:29/01/1917
Regiment:King's Royal Rifle Corps
Cemetery:Agny Military Cemetery
An official British Military drawing from 1917 depicting the fighting at Delville Wood in 1916
Stephen Palmer was born in Brandon,Suffolk in 1878. His mother was Martha but unfortunately his father's name is not yet known. What is known is that Stephen's father had died by the time of the 1891 census. At that time they were still living in Brandon with Stephen's older siblings being Harry & Elizabeth. Martha went on to marry another Brandon native Charles Merrison in 1889. Two half siblings followed for Stephen - Robert & Edith. The family moved north and were in Pendleton in 1901, both Stephen (now 22) and his step father Charles were working as labourers at the time.
The next glimpse we get of Stephen in the historical record is when he appears as a witness (presumably the best man) at a wedding at St.Paul's in Royton in January 1908. The couple were Charles Chadwick and Emily Titman of 4 Sand Hole (incidentally later to become the address of Frank Sutcliffe) and the other witness was Sarah Alice Standring. Sarah was to become Stephen's wife, they married in 1912 and lived together at 20 Cambridge Street. Stephen & Sarah don't appear to have had any children together. Sarah's brother was William Standring.
The Oldham Chronicle was later to report that Stephen was "called to the colours shortly after the outbreak of war". That and his Y series KRRC service number suggest he was a member of the Army's Special Reserve. This was a form of part time soldiering, in some ways similar to the Territorial Force. Men would enlist into the Special Reserve for 6 years and had to accept the possibility of being called up in the event of a general mobilisation and otherwise undertake all the same conditions as men of the normal Army Reserve. Their usual period as a reservist started with 6 months full time training and they had 3-4 weeks training per year thereafter.
After being summoned by the Army, Stephen was sent to join the King's Royal Rifle Corps. His eventual battalion, the 9th, was formed that same month in Winchester. It moved to Aldershot, again in November to Petworth in Sussex before returning to Aldershot in February 1915. They moved to France in May 1915 but Stephen wasn't to join them until mid July.
Not long after Stephen joined the battalion it was pitched into battle on July 30th when it was part of a counterattack to reclaim ground lost earlier that day to the Germans. At 03:15 the enemy had attacked in force near Hooge, using flamethrowers for the first time. The units holding the line to the right of the 42nd Brigade (of which the 9th KRRC were part of) fell back. At 14:45, after 45 minutes artillery bombardment, the 9th KRRC attacked and while the British failed elsewhere managed to to regain part of the trenches lost that morning. Total casualties for the battalion were 346 of which 100 had been killed.
The 9th KRRC's next major engagement was in August 1916 at Delville Wood. Battle had been raging there since July 15th with both sides suffering heavy casualties. In addition to the many British casualties it was perhaps the defining moment of South African involvement in the war and their national memorial is sited there today. Stephen's battalion was pitched into the fight on August 24th and were one of the units tasked with clearing the remainder of the wood, much of which was now in British hands,and to also secure a system of German trenches some 300 yards from the north eastern edge of the wood. The battalion's specific objectives as part of this attack were the German trenches beyond the wood. At 17:45 C & D Companies advanced out of Devil's Trench (some 300 yards inside the wood) in two waves.
The Battle of Flers-Courcelette.The dawn sky is lit by the bombardment before the assault.15/09/1916.© IWM
A Company moved into the now vacated Devil's Trench to act as support. The distance the two attacking companies had to cover varied from 250 to 300 yards. Advance was slow as the ground was pitted with many shell holes and obstructed with the debris of blown up trees. Enemy artillery fire became intense on the wood and machine gun & rifle fire also opened up causing many casualties. All the officers in both companies were either killed or wounded. The NCO's rallied the men and they pressed on. The remains of the two companies found the enemy wire a considerable obstacle and while men died in front of it, A Company advanced from Devil's Trench as the battalion's third wave. Some men of this company did find their way into the German trench and managed to hold out there until being relieved the following day. Elsewhere the day had been succesful, Delville Wood had been cleared and large parts of the German trench system that the 9th KRRC had attacked had been seized by other battalions. Close by Harry Wood had been killed with the 5th KSLI, the battalion to the left of Stephen Palmer's.
Delville Wood pictured after the battle. © IWM
British infantry advance through gas on September 25th 1915
On September 25th, the first day of the Battle of Loos, the 9th KRRC were not one of the initial assault battalions but went to the support of the 9th Rifle Brigade who had obtained a footing in the German line. This was near to the scene of the battalion's fight on July 30th. The 9th KRRC had a hard fight coming under grenade attack from both sides. The losses were 5 officers and 33 other ranks killed, 3 officers and 188 other ranks wounded with a further 29 other ranks listed as missing
The last major engagement for the 9th KRRC that Stephen was involved with came on September 15th, the first day of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. The objective was to smash holes in the German defences by the use of massed artillery and infantry attacks. The 42nd Brigade advanced at 07:00, the 9th KRRC being one of it's two advance battalions with the 5th KSLI being on their left. At about 07:25 the battalion came under machine gun fire from their right flank causing many casualties. Amongst the dead were many from the battalion headquarters, including the Commanding Officer Lieut-Colonel
E.W Benson. The machine gun was eventually silenced when it was brought under the fire of two Lewis Guns and then charged by a grenade party from the Rifle Brigade. Between 08:30 and 09:00 the Battalion passed over the second objective which was being consolidated by men from the 41st Brigade and pressed onto the third objective. Here they were brought to a standstill with heavy losses. They then dug in being relieved at 04:00 the following day.The casualty list was 4 officers & 22 other ranks killed, 6 officers and 144 other ranks wounded with a further 66 men listed as missing.
Nearby the 7th KRRC had also been in action, they were one of the units that had taken the second objective which Stephen Palmer's battalion had passed through. They had suffered heavy losses and one of those killed was Stephen's brother in law William Standring.
Stephen received leave around about late November/early December 1916 and spent it back in Royton with his wife. He was to die not that long after his return being killed by a shell on January 29th 1917. A Sergeant in his platoon wrote to Sarah back in Royton explaining what had happened:
"He was one of a party of men under my charge proceeding along a trench when unfortunately a heavy missile dropped among the men, and he with two other were killed,death being instantaneous. Your husband was greatly respected by his comrades,his willing manner and cheerfulness making him most popular"
Another letter from his company commander stated:
"Your husband was always admired and honoured by his officers and men alike on account of the cheerful way he performed his duties at all times. His death is a big loss to his company and his comrades. I should like you to know that your husband died as a gallant soldier, and on behalf of the officers and men of the company I desire to convey to you our deepest sympathy in your great loss"
The two men who died with Stephen, and are buried alongside him at Agny Military Cemetery were:
ASHWORTH FRANK 19 R/8485 from Darwen
JIGGINS GEORGE 34 R/21078 from Barking