Battalion 8th Battalion
Regiment West Yorkshire Regiment
Killed in Action: 20th July 1918
Buried Marfaux British Cemetery, France
Sidney Herbert Bray was born at 19 Savile Crescent in Halifax on the 26th November 1882, the 5th child of Ralph England Bray and his wife Edith Mary Bray. In 1911, Sidney was living with his parents at Hedlands, Knaresborough. He gave his occupation as a bank clerk. Sidney married Edith Mary Stansfield on the 16th June 1914 at St.Jude's Church in Halifax. At that time Sidney was a bank clerk. Later, after his father's death, Sidney's mother moved to "Warley" in Collingham. In 1916, Sidney and Edith's daughter, Katherine, was born and was baptised in Collingham Church.
In 1917 Sidney was on the staff of Messrs Beckett's bank in Leeds when he joined the Artist's Rifles In January 1917, and he was granted a commission in the West Yorkshire Regiment in November 1917. Sidney first went to France on 11th January 1918 and he served in the 8th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment.
After several years of stalemate on the western front, in March 1918 things were about to change. The previous year (1917) the Russian revolution had been followed by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the defection of Russia from the war. Germany had thus been able to switch troops from the Eastern front to the west such that the balance of troops had changed from three Allied soldiers to every two German (in March 1917) to four Germans to every three Allies by 1918. Furthermore British strength had fallen by 25% since the Battles of Passchendale in 1917 as they were content to wait for the arrival of fresh American troops. The German offensives from March 1918 to July 1918 were thus very successful in pushing back the Allies to such an extent that Paris was threatened by the German heavy artillery. However by 15th July the German commander Ludendorff was making his last great attack, around Rheims; an attack that was checked by astute defensive positioning by Pétain. So by July the German thrust had reached its limit and the Allied push was about to start. The first counter thrust was on 18th July when two French Armies, Mangin’s on the left which included the 34th and 15th British Divisions and a number of American troops, and Degoutte’s on the right including the British 51st and 62nd Brigades (in which the 8th Bn W.Yorks were serving), burst through the vulnerable German flank. The Germans, who had only recently crossed the Marne, now realised the significance of the defeat and immediately recrossed the river, suffering heavy losses as they did. Château-Thierry was abandoned on the 20th July, and a mixed force (the French 5th Army with the 9th British Corps) under Berthelot on the eastern side of the salient now attacked vigorously. In these battles the French Army took the leading role supplemented by a small number of British Divisions. What part did the 8th Bn. West Yorkshire Regiment, including 2nd Lieut. Bray, play in this action?
The 8th Bn West Yorkshire regiment was part of 185 Bde, 62nd Division and now formed part of XXII Corps. It was drawn from British Reserves by General Foch to help in the common cause in the Battles of the Marne (1918). On 16th July, the 8th Bn West Yorkshire Regiment was out of the line and was transferring from Arcis-sur-Ancre to Teurs via Mailly. Further movement of the battalion on the 18th (a 2.5 hour route march) was followed by a bathing parade in the canal. At 4.30am on 19th July the battalion was told that it had to be prepared to move at 6am and at that time they moved from Teurs to a concentration area near St.Imoges. The morning of the march was exceedingly hot and the march was made more difficult by the numerous lorries and the volume of traffic on the road. The battalion war diary (PRO WO95/3083) records "The battalion,…., marched well, considering that they had very little time for breakfast. Only 9 men fell out and all but three joined the battalion within an hour after it arrived at St.Imoges".
At 7.30pm that same night, the Battalion Commander and Adjutant were summoned to Brigade Headquarters where orders were issued for an attack the following morning. This conference did not finish until 9.30pm and it was possible only to issue very brief orders to Company Commanders at this time. These difficulties were made worse because dusk was falling and it was impossible to use lights to explain the position from maps. By 9.50pm all the Battalion had left the concentration area and started a long and hard march to the final assembly area. The march lasted from 9.30pm to 3.20am. Five casualties were recorded during this march near Ecueil Farm. Following the march, Battalion headquarters was established at the Battalion HQ of the 2/86 Regiment of Infantry with every assistance being given by the French Battalion Commander.
Despite these apparently rushed preparations for an attack, the attack went ahead on 20th July with 62nd Division on the right and 51st Division on the left with the River Ardre being the border between the two. The final objective of the attack was to establish a new line from Aubilly to Sarcy. 62nd Division attacked with 187 Bde on the right and 185 Bde on the left. The role allotted to the 8th West Yorks. was to capture (along with the 2/5th West Yorkshire Regiment) the high ground marked by the road running north from Bligny to the cross roads about 1km north east of Bligny. Upon capture, it was planned that the 5th Devons would leapfrog through the line and take the first objective. The conditions for the attack were unlike anything the men had been accustomed to, owing to the woods and almost total absence of trenches. The lie of the land was distinctly in favour of the defenders. The valley of the river Ardre (the dividing line between the two British Divisions) was two to three thousand yards wide and was open arable land with standing corn two feet high which hid the German defences. The valley near the river was soft and marshy and was bounded on both sides by ridges which afforded perfect positions for German machine guns to sweep the valley. Sunken roads provided good defensive cover and the villages of Marfaux and Chaumuzy and the commanding summit of Montagne de Bligny gave the enemy three strong centres of resistance. It was in these rather unfavourable conditions that the 8th Bn West Yorkshire Regiment had to attack.
The Battalion attacked with two companies in the front line, A Coy., commanded by Capt G.G. Kinder MC) on the right, B Coy. (Capt J.E. Appleyard) on the left, C Coy. (Lt S. Bellhouse) in support, and D Coy. (Lt H.R. Burrows) in reserve. The Battalion was to move forward from the assembly position in artillery formation and to keep that formation as long as possible. The attack took place at 8am on the 20th July 1918 and the advance was covered by a heavy artillery barrage provided by the French and Italian field and heavy artillery. Unfortunately, this barrage did not fall in the proper place, partly as a result of uncertainty of the exact position of the jumping off positions of the British infantry.
The Battalion war diary records that at first the attack went well, but within an hour of zero hour the advance was completely held up by heavy machine gun fire and many casualties were recorded in front of Marfaux and Cuitron. These villages formed a long, broadside-on continuous street, and to reach them meant crossing 800 yards of open ground under terrible machine gun fire from the front and right. Some isolated parties of men held on to some ground they had gained but by 11am the brigade had come to a total standstill and the forward men had to evacuate their positions at night and the Division was reorganised less than half a mile from their morning starting positions. It was in these attacks that Sidney Bray lost his life.
The 8th Bn. West Yorks. was relieved by the 2/5th Duke of Wellingtons (West Riding) Rgt. and moved back to Ecueil Farm where they reorganised following the loss of men in the previous battle. 62nd Brigade continued to fight in this area over the next few days, making little headway on the 21st July, and only slight advances on 22nd. Many of Lieut. Bray’s colleagues did not survive him by many days since on the 23rd July the brigade finally captured the Bois du Petit Champ with a large number of casualties including nearly all the officers of one company of the 8th Bn West Yorkshires.
The war diary (PRO WO95/3083) sums up the attack "The attack was a failure, chiefly due to the fact that as the situation was so obscure, the barrage came down too far in front of the attacking troops and left untouched a strong line of machine guns."
The casualties recorded for 20th July were:
Officers killed – Capt. G.G. Kinder, MC; Capt J.E. Appleyard; Lt W.M. Wilkinson; 2nd Lt. E.H. Shuttleworth; 2nd Lt. W.H. Dawson; 2nd Lt. T.R. Williams and 2nd Lt. S.H. Bray.
Officers wounded – 2nd Lt. R.B. Wesley, 2nd Lt. W. Oliver and Lt. J.H. Banton.
43 other ranks were killed, 199 were wounded, 20 were missing, 3 were listed as wounded and missing and 26 wounded (gas) .
The Official History of the Great War gives the total casualties for the 62nd Brigade during the battles from 20th July to 31st July as 118 officers and 3,865 other ranks.
2nd Lieut. Bray gave his life in the battle which marked the beginning of the end for the Germans. After the defeat in this area, they were gradually pushed back and demoralised during 1918 leading to the armistice in November of that year.
Sidney Bray's body was originally buried in Cuitron cemetery, but was later exhumed and re-buried in the Commonwealth War Grave cemetery in Marfaux, France.
Biography last updated 28 November 2023 22:38:47.
1911 Census. The National Archives. Class RG14 Piece 25890
First World War Medal Index Cards. The National Archives (WO372).
First World War Medal Index Rolls. The National Archives (WO329).
First World War Officer's Service Records WO339/112205 The National Archives.
War Diary of 8th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment (WO95/3083) The National Archives.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery and Burial Reports
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