A War Hero in the Family
I grew up knowing that my Great, Great Uncle, Tommy Watson, who died in 1918, had been a war hero. He enlisted in the Royal Navy just a few weeks after the outbreak of the First World War when he was 19 years old. He came from a humble background, the oldest son of a Wherryman in County Durham and had eight brothers and sisters.
During the course of the War this quiet, unassuming young man, rose through the ranks from Ordinary Seaman to Chief Petty Officer, was mentioned in despatches, was wounded twice and awarded the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal. On his last leave home, he confided to his sister, my Great Grandmother, that he felt certain he would not see her again. Sadly this was to be the case and he died from his wounds in March 1918 when he was only 22 years old.
Like the majority of World War I Servicemen, Tommy’s Service Records were destroyed by fire when the War Office was bombed in 1940. Below, genealogist, Andy Robson, has recreated his service history using other sources:
CPO Thomas Watson DCM, MM, RND
Thomas Watson enlisted in the Royal Navy on 26 October,1914, just a few weeks after the outbreak of the First World War. Such was the rush of volunteers that the Service found itself vastly oversubscribed, so the decision was made to form the Royal Naval Division (RND); effectively an infantry operated by the Navy but capable of fighting alongside the Army. Thomas was one of the recruits streamed towards the RND, becoming Ordinary Seaman, ZT657.
At his enlistment, his birth date was correctly recorded as 21 October,1895 and his civilian occupation as Miner. His next of kin were his parents, Joseph & Margaret Watson of Forge House, Waterside, Swalwell, County Durham.
Following basic training, Thomas was posted to the 4th (Collingwood) Battalion on 4 February,1915, being assigned to the 2nd Platoon, A Company. The Battalion was the fundamental unit of the British Army, being self-contained and caable of acting independently. It had a standard strength of around 1,000 men, though as the War progressed this was usually much less in practice due to losses. The Battalion was divided into a number of Companies, each Company comprised a number of Platoons, and each Platoon was made up of a number of Sections.
Royal Naval Division
1st RN Brigade 2nd RN Brigade 3rd RN Brigade (RM) 1st (Drake) Battalion 5th (Nelson) Battalion 9th (Portsmouth) Battalion RMLI*
2nd (Hawke) Battalion 6th (Howe) Battalion 10th (Plymouth) Battalion RMLI* 3rd (Benbow) Battalion 7th (Hood) Battalion 11th (Chatham) Battalion RMLI* 4th (Collingwood) Battalion 8th (Anson) Battalion 12th (Deal) Battalion RMLI* * RMLI = Royal Marine Light Infantry
Over 10-23 May,1915, Collingwood was one of 3 RND Battalions carried on board HM Transport IVERNIA from Plymouth to the Island of Mudros to act in support of the landings at Gallipoli; which had taken place on 25 April. These were aimed at delivering a knock-out blow to Germany's ally, Turkey, and so ending the War in the Middle East at a stroke. Collingwood formed the 2nd Naval Brigade with the Anson, Hood and Howe Battalions and this landed at Cape Helles on 29 May. After a short period of consolidation, the 2nd Brigade took part in a major attack on 4 June against Turkish defensive positions; with the Collingwood Battalion acting as reserve in support of the other 3 Battalions. A Company of the Collingwood Battalion attacked at 12:15pm in support of Anson but suffered heavy losses in covering the 400-yards to the Turkish trenches. As a result, it was unable to maintain its attack against the Turkish support trenches and was forced to retire. The Battalion as a whole suffered heavy losses, including all but 2 of its Officers killed or wounded, in achieving very little.
Among the casualties was Thomas who suffered a bullet wound to his left hip. When Wound Stripes were introduced in 1916 - worn on the left cuff - he received a retrospective award for this injury. His wound was serious enough for him to be evacuated. He arrived at a Hospital on Malta on 9 June, and back in England on 8 August.
After recovering from his injury, on 16 February,1916, Thomas left England with a reinforcement draft for the Middle East. The intial high hopes of a quick victory at Gallipoli had quickly evaporated and the invasion force had been evacuated the previous month. The RND had fought throughout the campaign and had suffered grievously from both enemy action and disease; especially dysentery. Such were its losses that it had been necessary to reduce its strength from the usual 3 Brigades to just 2; in the process both the Collingwood and Benbow Battalions being disbanded. On 28 February, therefore, Thomas was posted to the 7th (Hood) Battalion.
The RND arrived in France in May,1916, and was formally integrated into the Army structure there. Among the concessions that had to be made to make this possible was the introduction of Army rank insignia; actually, the men of the RND wore both Army and Naval insignia - their Naval rank on their left sleeves as normal and its Army equivalent on the right. In addition, a regular Army Brigade was added to bring the RND up to strength and it was re-designated the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division.
The 63rd was introduced to combat with the last set-piece action of the Somme Campaign; the Battle of the (River) Ancre. The Division’s task was to assault up that valley and capture the village of Beaucourt, an immensely strong position manned by crack German troops who had resisted all previous attacks. The assault began at 05.45 on 13 November, with the Hood and Hawke Battalions leading the advance. Despite strong resistance, the assault was pressed home over the next 2 days and the Division succeeded in taking all its assigned objectives; Beaucourt falling on the morning of the 14th. It was a stunning success, the 63rd advancing further and taking more prisoners - including 2 Major-Generals - than any Division in the Army had achieved since the early days of the War. The cost had been horrendous, however; 100 Officers and 1,600 Men killed and 160 Officers and 2,877 Men wounded. Afterwards the 63rd had to be withdrawn from the front-line to rest and rebuilt.
As a seasoned veteran, Thomas now rose through the ranks; rated Able Seaman on 15 November, 1916, and Leading Seamen (equivalent to Army Corporal) on 31 January,1917. As such he would have been in command of a Section of 12 men.
After its success on the Somme, the 63rd was given a key role in the forthcoming Battle of Arras to the north. The initial assault, launched on 9 April, 1917, had gone well and the 63rd was tasked with taking the strategically vital village of Gavrelle on the 23rd. This it duly did, first taking the village and the surrounding enemy positions, and then beating off enemy counter-attacks before occupying advanced positions to the north and east. Once more the cost had been high, however, and by the time the 63rd was relieved on 29 April it had lost more than 1,000 killed and 3,000 wounded; around a third of its nominal strength.
Again, the Division was withdrawn to rest and rebuild and on 30 May,1917, Thomas was promoted to Petty Officer (equivalent to an Army Sergeant). As such, he would have been the senior NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer - Sergeants and Corporals) in his Platoon and assistant to the Officer (a Lieutenant or 2nd Lieutenant) commanding it.
Although the 63rd was now out of the Battle, it remained active and in July Thomas was wounded for a second time. On 19 July he was transferred from 149th Field Ambulance (FA) to No.30 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) at Aubigny suffering from a grenade wound to his right thigh. At this time he was serving with C Company of the Hood Battalion and it was reported that he had served for 2-years, 9 months, of which 2- years, 2 months had been with the Field Field; i.e. an active service unit. It was recorded that he was given 500 units of Anti-Tetanus Serum at 30 CCS but was moved on that same day for treatment further back from the Front.
Thomas' wound cannot have been too serious for he rejoined the Hood Battalion on 19 August,1917 after just a month out of the line.
Soon after the 63rd moved north to the Ypres Salient to be available during October and November for the last stages of the 3rd Battle of Ypres; the infamous Battle of Passchendaele. The Division was committed to the Battle at the end of October, attacking across land reduced to a featureless desert of mud by repeated heavy shelling over the previous weeks. Once again, the 63rd performed magnificently, but once again only at great cost to itself; another 1,000 killed and 2,000 wounded.
The Battle seems to have been a defining period in Thomas' career. On 24 October,1917, he was awarded the Military Medal (MM) for bravery in action. Unusually, the citation for this has survived: 24/10/17 RO3131 (London Gazette 14/1/18 p.844):
"For immediate award. At ST. JULIEN on the morning of Oct.17th 1917, Petty Officer T. Watson showed most conspicuous gallantry & devotion to duty. The enemy put down a barrage of exceptional intensity on the stretch of main road between ST. JULIEN & the TRIANGLE, upon which his Company was working. Orders were given to clear the men off the roads. Without any thought of personal safety this Petty Officer moved about in the barrage, spacing men out in the best available cover, helping the wounded & bringing in their rifles. Not until everyone was under cover did he seek shelter for himself. During the whole of this shelling which lasted for over two hours this Petty Officer set a fine example of utter contempt of danger, & the fact that we did not have many more casualties was largely due to his work in getting the men under cover."
Three days later, on 27 October, he was promoted to Acting Chief Petty Officer (Army equivalent Warrant Officer II) and became the senior NCO in his Company; acting as assistant to the Officer (a Major or Captain) in command.
On 7 November, he was Mentioned in Despatches; mentioned by name in an official Army communique of the period.
Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) of General Officer Commander-in-Chief of 7/11/17 (London Gazette 11/12/17 p.12908):
"On Active Service with this Battalion for the last 2 ½ years, twice wounded, this Petty Officer has done consistently excellent work in command of a section & a platoon & has displayed qualities of fearless leadership in attack.
Finally, on 28 November, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM): 28/11/17 RO3291 (London Gazette 28/3/18 p.3879):
"For conspicuous gallantry & devotion to duty in moving the men forward under a heavy barrage, collecting many who were stuck in the mud & unable to move. When in the shell holes & during the relief under heavy fire, he was invaluable in steadying a number of men who were very shaken."
The original recommendation for this award, as prepared by the Battalon HQ, also survives:
"During the recent operations around VARLET FARM on the 26th to 28th October 1917, he did most useful work. When the Company moved from the 1st Assembly Position to INCH HOUSES under a heavy barrage, Petty Officer Watson showed great courage & leadership in moving the men up. He entirely disregarded his own safety & collected many men who were stuck in the mud & unable to move. He thus saved us many casualties & showed a splendid example to the men. When in the shell holes & during our relief under heavy shellfire, he was invaluable in relieving the posts & steadied a number of men who were very shaken up. Petty Officer Watson was the only senior NCO in the Company & from the commencement of the operations was acting Company Sergeant Major. He was lately awarded the MM for good work on the roads under intense shellfire. In his Company Commander's opinion, had it not been for the work & fine example of Petty Officer Watson, the Company would not have done nearly as well as it did."
Having been pulled out of the line again to rebuild, it was the 63rd's misfortune to be sent to Welsh Ridge in the La Vacquerie Sector, a salient in the Hindenburg Line captured in the earlier Battle of Cambrai. This was quiet at the time, but on 30 December,1917 was subject to a large-scale enemy counter-attack aimed at regaining the lost ground. Specially trained German Stormtroopers wearing snow suits for camouflage were able to infiltrate the British lines and heavy hand-to-hand fighting took place during which the Hood and Drake Battalions were able to hold firm while the Army units around them were gradually driven back. A counter-attack by other Battalions of the 63rd was able to regain the lost ground and after 2 days of bitter fighting the line was restored.
The action cost the Division a further 1,400 casualties. Shortly after the decision was made to reduce the strength of the Army Brigades in France and Belgium from 4 to 3 Battalions and as result the Howe and Nelson Battalions were disbanded.
On 17 January,1918, Thomas was confirmed in the rank of Chief Petty Officer.
The Division returned to the now quiet Somme sector, but in March, 1918, was caught up in the massive Ludendorff Offensive; aimed at breaking the Allies before large numbers of US troops began arriving at the Front. This was launched on 21 March with the Germans using the same Stroomtrooper tactics that had almost been successful at Welsh Ridge. The result was several major breakthroughs, with the entire British position along the Somme Front threatening to collapse. The 63rd was one of the few units to hold firm and its dogged resistance helped to delay the Germans long enough for reinforcements to stave off disaster.
At some point in the initial fighting, Thomas was very badly wounded; suffering gunshot wounds to his chest and abdomen. He was evacuated to the 3rd Canadian Stationary Hospital at Doullens but died there on 28 March, 1918, aged just 22.
He was buried in the Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No.1 (FR 62).
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