7 April 1892 – 20 November 1918
His Involvement in the First Ever Tank Battle
This article was written by David John Tattersfield. The article relates to Neville, whose descent was Joseph | Moses | John | Moses Lister, and who also appears in Chart 1. David is second cousin twice removed to his subject. David researched the World War I history of Neville in the course of writing his book ‘A Village Goes To War’.
My interest in the First World War started in 1990 when I read a book entitled First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook. I was so impressed with the book that the following year my brother and I went to France to visit the battlefields of the Great War. Upon returning home I took a close look at the war memorial in our Parish Church, St. Saviour’s in Ravensthorpe. Despite being a (relatively) regular attendee, I was surprised to discover the name of Neville Tattersfield on the memorial. This discovery prompted me to research the names of all the men on the memorial. After many years’ research, I produced a book A Village Goes to War, which details the lives of all of the men named on the memorial. Although space restrictions stopped me telling all of it, Neville’s story is just one of those in the book. I am pleased that this can now be told in full via the Tattersfield Family Web Site.
Figure 1: Neville’s Medals: the Victory Medal and the British War Medal
Neville’s story is one of the more detailed ones to emerge from my research into the War Memorial. There are two reasons for this: first of all, because he was an officer there are detailed records surviving at The National Archives in London. He was in fact the only officer named on the memorial. This in itself is remarkable, statistically, for on a memorial containing 114 names there should have been more than one officer. Secondly, I was able to make contact with Neville’s nephew, Maurice Tattersfield, who provided reminiscences of his uncle. Sadly Maurice died in March 1998.
Neville Tattersfield was born on 7 April 1892 to Moses and Louisa Tattersfield. Neville was the youngest of seven sons (although three died in infancy) and lived with the family at ‘West Royd’, Brunswick Street, Dewsbury. After attending Heckmondwike Grammar School, he joined his eldest brother, John, working in the dyeing laboratory at Jas Smith and Sons in Ravensthorpe. Tragedy was to strike the family twice in quick succession; on 12 December 1914 Louisa died, and less than a year later in August 1915, Harold, Neville’s brother also died.
The Great War began in August 1914, and there was an initial flood of volunteers after all it was widely believed that the war would be over by Christmas. By spring 1915 the flow of recruits was dwindling; it had become clear that voluntary recruitment was not going to provide the numbers of men required. The government passed the National Registration Act on 15 July 1915 as an attempt at stimulating recruitment. The attempt was largely unsuccessful; however, it did result in Neville volunteering, although this may have been a reaction to the death of his older brother.
Early in the war it was decided to add motor machine gun batteries to the British Expeditionary Force. Many of this unit’s recruits were volunteers, or specially enlisted by being known to be actively interested in motorcycles (such as motorcycle club members).
On 18 August 1915, at the age of 23, Neville joined the army as a gunner in the Motor Machine Gun Service; as he owned a motorcycle it is likely he was attracted to the idea of joining a part of the army where there was a use for his hobby. This is speculation on my behalf. Maurice Tattersfield, Neville’s nephew, suggested in a letter, that working as a Laboratory assistant, Neville “hoped to get a nice cushy job with the medical corps”. Perhaps this is true, but being a volunteer it is likely that had he wanted to join the Royal Army Medical Corps he may have had his wishes met.
The forms completed on his enlistment record his height as 5′ 4½”, with a maximum chest expansion of 35″. He weighed just less than ten stones.
Figure 2: Neville (on left) with unknown passenger in the side-car
On 1 January 1916 he was posted to the 27th Battery of the M.M.G.S., but on 1 April was transferred to the Armoured Car Section. This Armoured Car Section seems not to have lasted a long time as within five weeks, on 4 May, he was posted to the Heavy Section, Machine Gun Corps; this was the name under which what was to become the Tank Corps first operated. Neville therefore found himself at the cutting edge of the new military technology of the day: Tanks!
On 6 June Neville attended a Tank course and on 21 July went on a course to Whale Island at Portsmouth in order to learn how to use the six-pounder guns that armed some of the tanks. Neville was sent to France with the first draft of officers and men on 16 August 1916, arriving at Le Havre on 17 August; the first of the tanks arrived on 21 August.
Training was undertaken in France for several weeks: two companies of the Heavy Section, Machine Gun Corps were being trained for the very first tank action, which was to take place on 15 September 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Unfortunately the War Diary of Neville’s unit, ‘C’ Company, is less detailed than the other tank unit that was involved (‘D’ Company), and it is therefore not possible to say with any certainty which tank Neville was with on 15 September. A letter from Neville published in the Dewsbury Reporter on 7 October describes how he had only “one wash in a week and not even a shave…“; he goes on, “…our ‘bus’ has been stuck; unfortunately our steering was wrong before we went into action but we went in and returned safely.”
Figure 3: Number 2300, Gunner Neville Tattersfield, Motor Machine Gun Service
Of all the tanks in ‘C’ Company that Neville could have been in, it is the tank of Second Lieutenant Ambrose that is the most likely candidate. This tank broke down on the start line with tail problems and engine trouble; however, it seems that repairs were carried out and the tank resumed its journey only to break down again. It is of course possible that Neville was in another tank of ‘C’ Company, but we cannot now be totally sure of Neville’s exact involvement.
Figure 4: A watercolour painting by Jean Berne-Bellecour (1874-1939) courtesy of the David Cohen Fine Art Collection: Sir John Dashwood s tank C13 lying in Angle Wood Valley. The painting represents one of the tanks that went into action on 15 September 1916. Although not the tank in which Neville went into action, it illustrates the conditions under which he fought. Whatever his exact involvement, it is without doubt that Neville has a place in history due to being involved with the first ever usage of tanks in action.
Figure 5: A poem, written by Neville. Was the ‘broken down individual’ Neville, as he saw himself in forty years’ time?
Please click here to see a full transcript of the poem.
Tanks were used again the following day, on 16 September and again at the end of the month. Some other operations were carried out in October but it is their use on 15 September that will be remembered.
Mr Stephen Pope has kindly pointed out that the First Tank Crew Group commemorates the lives of those who were members of the original five tank companies who served in the Somme, Ancre and Gaza actions. They visit graves on the Western Front of those who died during their service and also those who died in the United Kingdom. Such visits are often made in concert with the local Royal Tank Regiment Association. NEVILLE was remembered by the local RTR Association on Sat 15th Sept 2016, as is recorded by Figures 6 and 7 below.
Figure 6: Gravestone of Neville Tattersfield with Regimental Flag
Figure 7: Neville Tattersfield’s participation in the first-ever tank battle commemorated
Figure 8: Cards such as these were often embroidered by injured soldiers whilst they were in hospital. There is no evidence that Neville was in hospital in 1916, so it is likely that this was purchased as a gift for his nephew, Maurice.
After taking part in the operations on the Somme, Neville was granted leave in England in April 1917. Returning to his unit on Good Friday (6 April), he was immediately returned to England as his application for a commission had been accepted. Within days of returning home, he was to lose his father who died on 19 April.
Neville was ordered to join the Machine Gun Corps, Officer Cadet Battalion, at Grantham on 4 May; this was the Cadet School Preliminary. From 2 July until October he attended the Pirbright Cadet School, being appointed a temporary commission for the duration of the war on 4 November 1917. In December 1917 he was sent on a further course at Wareham. It was not until 13 March 1918 that he returned to France, arriving in Boulogne. He was posted to the 2nd Battalion, Tank Corps, and joined his unit on 21 March 1918, which turned out to be one of the most important days in the First World War.
It had been nearly a year since Neville was last in France. During that time, the course of the war had changed. Due to being posted home in early April 1917, Neville had fortunately just missed out in the Battle of Arras. Later that year saw the Third Battle of Ypres (commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele) and the Battle of Cambrai. It is more than likely Neville’s good fortune at missing these battles may in part be put down to political interference: Lloyd George, concerned at the losses amongst the British Army, by the end of 1917 wanted to try to stop what he saw as the needless slaughter on the Western Front. Not having the political will to dismiss the Commander in Chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, instead he deliberately kept the BEF short of troops. This, amongst other factors led to the Germans launching a highly successful offensive on 21 March 1918.
Although the details of his actual involvement are not known, it seems that Neville may have been involved in the counter-attack by the 2nd Battalion of the Tank Corps against this German offensive. This small counter attack took place at Beugny, a village four miles east of Bapaume on 22 March. This counter-attack came at a crucial stage in the attempt to stem the German tide; it was made without infantry support and with minimal assistance from the artillery. Although many casualties were incurred in the 2nd Battalion, Neville came through this unscathed. The counter-attack was successful as it stopped the German advance here for twenty-four hours.
The German offensive was stopped, and by the summer of 1918 the Allies, led by the British, were ready to attack the Germans. The opening day of the next phase of the war was scheduled to be 8 August. It would become known as the Battle of Amiens. This was the start of the campaign known as ‘The Hundred Days’ which would end with the Armistice on 11 November.
On the evening of 4 August the three companies (each comprising twelve tanks) of Neville’s 2nd Battalion set off from Querrieu on the Amiens to Albert road in order to get to the assembly position at Fouilloy. The roads were packed with heavy artillery, ammunition lorries, battalions of infantry and numerous other units needed to support a major offensive; as a result the tanks were able to make only slow progress. At a point approximately mid-way between Querrieu and Fouilloy is the village of Daours. This proved to be a severe bottleneck and the tanks had great difficulty in negotiating the two bridges and two right-angled corners. Despite these difficulties, the tanks were successfully hidden before daybreak on the 5 August, and remained out of sight from German aerial observation until the evening of the 7 August. At midnight on 7/8 August they completed the penultimate leg of their journeys and switched off their engines near Villers-Bretonneux.
One hour before ‘Zero’ the tanks of ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies moved the last ¾ mile to a point in front of the waiting infantry.
‘B’ Company was to lead the 5th Australian Brigade and ‘C’ Company was to lead the 7th Australian Brigade; both of these infantry brigades being part of the 2nd Australian Division. The objectives of the Australians were the villages of Warfusse and the ground to the south of the village, and the village of Bayonvillers. ‘A’ Company, meanwhile, moved into position. They were to lead the 5th Australian Division on to the second phase objective of Harbonnieres. It was planned that the tanks would rally at Harbonnieres. In the event only five of the 48 tanks reached the village.
Figure 9: Tank 9004, in which Neville went into battle in August 1918. Photograph from Australian War Memorial, by an unknown Australian Official Photographer. It was kindly passed on to us by Adrian Warden, whose grandfather, John Joseph Cahill, was commander of another tank in the same operation. (A commercial model maker markets a 1:35 scale model of this tank, carrying the number 9004 https://anticsonline.uk/N673_General-Military-1-35-Scale/1618538_Hermaphrodite-Heavy-Battle-Tank.html)
The successful attack of the 8 August was not as a result solely of the Tank Corps’ part in the action, nor of any other single factor. Each part of the army (and R.A.F.) contributed to the most successful day of the war so far for the British: it was the successful integration of all arms that ensured the victory. Nearly 400 guns were captured from the German artillery in this advance together with 18,500 prisoners. In addition the Germans lost 9,000 men killed or wounded. The Allied losses (killed and wounded) were also in the region of 9,000 men. The German high command described 8 August as “The Black Day of the German Army.”
We do not know if Second Lieutenant Neville Tattersfield took part in the first day of the battle, but we are certain of his involvement on the second day.
Notwithstanding the arrival of German reinforcements and the exhaustion of the Allied troops the attack was resumed on 9 August. Despite having advanced beyond the range of the artillery and without telephone links to headquarters in the rear, there was still an average advance of three miles. This was with only about half the number of tanks that had been available on the first day.
On 9 August, the 2nd Battalion Tank Corps – which was down to about seventeen tanks – mustered south of Bayonvillers. At 1pm the battalion moved off in support of the attack by the 2nd Australian Division. Despite the German infantry surrendering in large numbers, there was a great deal of hostile shell-fire which hit three tanks as they approached the railway station at Rosières. Further artillery fire was directed from German batteries on high ground at Lihons which knocked out a further five tanks.
The tanks were unable to advance in the face of this hostile shelling; the infantry, too, were held up. Eventually Australian artillery was brought up and managed to silence one of the German batteries, allowing the objectives to be reached. The remaining tanks withdrew. It was during the course of this day’s fighting that Neville was injured.
A brief report in the Dewsbury Reporter stated that Neville had been wounded when a shell burst near him when he was attempting to unditch his tank whilst under heavy machine gun and shell-fire. Maurice – Neville’s nephew – stated that Neville “could have been killed but for a spirit flask, which my mother gave him, stopped one of the bullets”. His sergeant and two gunners were, according to the report, wounded at the same time. His medical records indicate that he incurred gun-shot wounds in a buttock and upper left arm.
Neville was taken first of all to the 15th Australian Field Ambulance, from where he was sent the following day (10 August) to the 20th General Hospital, where he was operated on for the removal of shrapnel. Eleven days later, on 21 August, Neville was evacuated to England to recuperate.
Figure 10: Neville is on the right of the group. This was probably taken in the late summer of 1918 whilst Neville was recovering from his injuries sustained on 9 August.
Following his injuries at the Battle of Amiens in August 1918 and his subsequent convalescence, Neville stopped with his brother, John, and his sister-in-law, with their 8 year old son, Maurice, at 64 North Road, Ravensthorpe in order to complete his recovery. It was probably about this time that John borrowed Neville’s ‘Wolf’ motorbike and crashed it coming down the steep Shillbank Lane in Mirfield; Neville, it seems was none too pleased.
Although engaged to a local girl called Elsie Fawcett, Neville, upon recovering from his injuries, decided to visit a cousin (another girlfriend according to Maurice!) in Scotland. Neville, at this time had a heavy cold, and his sister-in-law tried to dissuade him from making the journey. Against this advice Neville went up to Scotland. Upon returning home his cold was much worse but he was now due to return to the Tank Corps depot in Dorset. He insisted on making the journey, and reported to Swanage on 3 November. Within a week he had contracted influenza.
In 1918 a much greater threat to the worldwide population than the Great War occurred, when the Spanish ‘flu epidemic broke out. This was to sweep round the world from 1918 to 1919 killing many times more people than had been killed in the conflict; estimates range from 21 to 40 million people worldwide succumbing to the illness. Many of these deaths were of soldiers who had survived the war and, weakened by their injuries, were more vulnerable to the effects of the disease. Neville was admitted to a military hospital in Wareham on Monday 11 November, ironically the day the Armistice was signed. His brothers John and Clifford went down to Wareham to visit him on Saturday 16 November, after which they returned home.
A telegram was received in Ravensthorpe on Monday 18 November to say Neville’s condition had deteriorated and so they set about the long journey back to Wareham.
Neville died aged 26, on Wednesday 20 November, with his brothers present. He was buried two days later in the churchyard at Wareham Parish Church. Wareham Cemetery contains 49 First World War burials, including , just behind Neville’s grave, a number of Australian soldiers.
Figure 11: Neville’s obituary, taken from the Dewsbury Reporter
On Tuesday 20th November 2018, the 100th anniversary of Neville’s death, his grave was visited by three members of the Bournemouth,
Poole and District Branch of the RTR Association. Shown on Figure 12 below are Messrs Dave Roberts, Dave Orman (organiser) and Chris
Neville is “Not Forgotten”.
Figures 12 & 13: At the graveside, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Neville’s death, 20th November 2018
For many years, the original headstone, erected by the family, stood on Neville’s grave. Unfortunately, by the 1990’s the inscription was all but unreadable. Whilst military graves in France and Flanders are cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, there is less certainty about the care of these graves in the UK. Concerned that the gravestone would one day be lost forever, David John Tattersfield, the author, contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who agreed to replace Neville’s headstone with a standard pattern one. This has ensured that in accordance with the Commission’s mandate, Neville’s grave will be cared for “in perpetuity”.
Figure 14: Neville’s grave (original headstone-before deterioration) , and recent standard-pattern replacement
Links to spreadsheets of other WWI fatalities
For further information, please follow the two links shown below:
Header Image: Image of the actual tank in which 2nd Lt. Neville Tattersfield went into the second day of the Battle of Amiens (9th August 1918), as described in the text. According to the 2nd Battalion War History (Bovington Tank Museum), 9004 survived the first two days at Amiens and was back in action on August 23. By that date, Neville was already hospitalized back in England. Australian War Memorial.