Robert and James Otterson
 World War I: Battle of the Somme, France 

Evacuated from Gallipoli with other members of the Green Howards, Robert and James Otterson arrived in the port of Alexandria, Egypt, on 7 February 1916. From the docks they marched to Ramleh Station, one of the oldest rail lines in the world, and then traveled by electric rail car to Sidi Bishr for the final march to camp.

For four months the troops remained in Egypt, and the record shows only routine training - camel loading and riding with two companies from May 1-12, musketry on the range from May 20-31, and the inevitable typhoid inoculations. But at last they vacated the camp and arrived at the southern French port of Marseilles on July 1, 1916.

The next day was a Sunday, and the troops entrained for northern France. It took two days to reach Petit Houvin, a village in the arrondissement of Arras in north-eastern France, after stops for meals at Orange, Macon, Nuits St. Favier and Montereau. From Petit Houvin where the troops detrained, they marched to billets at Ecoivres. Over the next weeks, the soldiers moved from billet to billet with periods of practice for trench assaults (see detailed time line from war diaries, below, right).

The focus of the Battle of the Somme from late summer of 1916 was the area to the north of the river where it snakes east-west (see map, left). The countryside around Thiepval, where a great war memorial now stands, was the scene of bitter see-saw fighting, characterized by limited Allied advances on well-dug German trenches and strong German counter-attacks. Casualties on both sides were huge.

Thiepval Ridge, 26-28 September

British orders emphasized the necessity of driving the Germans off the entire line of Thiepval Ridge, a strategically important objective that would deprive the enemy of a vantage point from which they could view the Allied forces. It would also give the British a clear view over the valley on the road to Bapaume.

Timeline: Ottersons at the Somme and Ypres
                                                                                                                                                                                                           The following time line was extracted in 2006 from the war diaries of the Green Howards Museum, Yorkshire, England, by Margaret Otterson Seabourne, granddaughter of Robert Otterson. Entries of particular relevance are highlighted.
10 July Arrived Arras
21 Aug To billets at Isel-Hameau
1 Sep Bn practised Brigade assault on trenches
2 Sep Moved to billets at Etre-Wamin
3 Sep Moved by road to Frevent, train to Puchevilles, road to Raincheval, billeted
7 Sep Moved to billets at Senlis
8 Sep Bn moved off by companies at 7 minute intervals via Bouzincourt to Brigade Reserve dugouts near Crucifix Corner and near Athuille. 1 man killed & 1 wounded by shell fire near Black Horse dugouts.
10 Sep Relieved 9th W Yorks Regt in front line trenches near Athuille
11 Sep Enemy artillery active on whole sector - on L from Kelman St up to & incl 5th Ave; front line and common - HE and shrapnel. Thiepval Ave blown in places.
12 Sep Reconnoitering patrol went out at 10 pm under 2nd Lt Boot
13 Sep Patrol under 2nd Lt Boot went out at midnight.
16 Sep Relieved Rest billets at Hedanville.
17 Sep Church parade attended by GOC XI Dev - complimented troops on the successful operations on 14th & 15th.
19 Sep Moved to billets at Bouzincourt
21 Sep Moved to Mailly Maillet
22 Sep Relieved Sherwood Foresters in trenches N of Oveiller
24 Sep Our artillery fired 600 gas shells on Thiepval
Enemy artillery shelled our trenches in evening
25 Sep Heavy enemy shelling
26 Sep Relieved by Sherwood Foresters & 7th S Staffs. To Bouzincourt. 12.30 pm orders received to move to Crucifix Corner. A & D Coys occupied Ribble St . CB & HQ & Lewis Gunners in dugouts S of Crucifix Corner.
27 Sep Moved into support of 34th Brigade into Ration & Sulphur Trenches. C Coy moved off 12.10, other coys at 5 min intervals. Orders to attack at 3pm R 21 c 58 - 55 (Stuff Redoubt) to assembly trench. C & B Coys advanced on Zollern Trench. 3 pm attack postponed. C & B Coys  stopped in Zollern Trench. 4.6 pm C & B Coys assembled & took trench 91 - 45. W Yorks on R failed to gain objective. 9.15pm disposition - C Coy C34 - C45, part of C Coy & W  Yorks  C45 - C18
28 Sep 2nd Lt W A Boot missing. Orders for attack on Stuff Redoubt at 6pm. Attack postponed but message didn't get through. Troops attacked 7.42. gained 38 & 37 but couldn't hold - lack of ammunition and bombs.
29 Sep Attacked & regained N face of Stuff Redoubt but could not be held - no bombs or ammunition sent up.
30 Sep Orders to occupy whole of Hessian Trench from 21.d 99 - C.55. Successful. Captured ground was consolidated. Casualties 381 OR. Relieved by 10th Cheshire Regt.
Oct at Bouzincourt, Varennes, Gandes, Beaumetz
12 Oct A Captain, Lt & 8 OR to 10 days leave England
29 Nov Relieved S Staff Regt in Raine near Beaumont Hamel.
30 Nov Digging parties in front line all night
1 Dec 5 Casualties on working parties
5 Dec Front line N of Beaucourt A. Enemy shelled Centrery - shrapnel. 1 killed 2 wounded in Suvla Trench
7 Dec Relieved
12 Dec All available men worked on clearing Suvla Trench, Beaucourt Switch. Enemy shelled Suvla Trench.
Jan 27 1 officer & 3 NCOs per coy under bayonet fighting instruction. Platoon drill
30 Jan Bayonet fighting practice
1 - 8 Feb Company training - bayonet fighting
9 Feb Div Commander's presentation of medal ribbons near Beaumetz Cramond
14 - 15 Feb Bayonet practice
21 Feb To Fieffes in GHQ Reserv
23 Feb To Terramesnil
24 Feb Attatched to 11 corps as working party
25 Feb To Albert - working party
26 Feb To Bertrancourt - working party on pipelines unloading ammunition until 23 March
24 Mar To Vauchelles
26 - 29 Mar Bayonet fighting practice. Route march.
31 Mar Bayonet fighting practice
1 - 10 Apr Training
11 Apr To Mailly Maillet
29 Apr - 5 May In front line
- - - - - -
5 - 7 Jul Trench to trench attack practised.
6 Jul HM The King present
Aug Fighting at Steen beck
24 Aug To Ypres
26-27 Aug Heavy rain overnight and on 27th Conditions bad
3 - 7 Sep Training. CSM Little of AGS attached 5th & 6th for special instruction in bayonet fighting for NCOs Then NCOs trained men
24 Sep -2 Oct W of Poelcapelle (Yser Canal area) - Night working parties
7 Oct Bad weather postponed attack
8 - 10 Oct Poelcapelle line attacked
9-10 Nov Our raiders surrounded No 4 Brickstack, inflicted several casualties and took several prisoners.
13 - 15 Nov Rained heavily - trenches very bad
26 - 30 Nov In Mazingarbe front line.
30 Nov Loos

Information from the British National Archives web site:

British War Medal

The British War Medal 1914-1920, authorised in 1919, was awarded to eligible service personnel and civilians alike. Qualification for the award varied slightly according to service. The basic requirement for army personnel and civilians was that they either entered a theatre of war, or rendered approved service overseas between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. Service in Russia in 1919 and 1920 also qualified for the award.

Victory Medal

The Victory Medal 1914-1919 was also authorised in 1919 and was awarded to all eligible personnel who served on the establishment of a unit in an operational theatre.

1914/15 Star

Authorised in 1918, the 1914/15 Star was awarded to those individuals who saw service in France and Flanders from 23 November 1914 to 31 December 1915, and to those individuals who saw service in any other operational theatre from 5 August 1914 to 31 December 1915.

Above: Delville Wood, August 1916

Below: James Otterson’s sacrifice is commemorated in stone at the Thiepval War Memorial, on a column listing those with unknown graves who fell at Delville Wood.

Above: Thiepval War Memorial, the Somme, France

Above: Shifting front line at the Somme in the second half of 1916. Millions of men lost their lives in what amounted to an exchange of a few thousand yards of territory.

Below:  Details of the war medals awarded to Robert Otterson, shown top of page.

  1. Bullet Robert and James Otterson, the Balkans 1915-1916

  2. Bullet Robert Otterson and Lizzie Abernethy

  3. Bullet Return to “The People” index

A Canadian historian has described it this way:

“The 6000-yard front from Courcelette to Thiepval was divided evenly between the Canadian Corps on the right and Lieut.-General C.W. Jacob’s 2nd Corps on the left. The British divisions were

assigned objectives that had become notorious as German strongholds since the offensive opened at the beginning of July. General Jacob’s right had to take Mouquet Farm, and in subsequent stages Zollern Redoubt, and on the crest 500 yards to the rear, Stuff Redoubt, another bulwark of the old German Second Position. His task on the left was to assault Thiepval and then storm the strong Schwaben Redoubt, which overlooked the Ancre from the western tip of the ridge.”

The names of these farms, villages and strongly defended redoubts have come down to us in the detailed history of the Battle of the Somme. Much  has been written elsewhere about the battles, and it’s beyond the scope of this web site to describe the campaign of the Somme in detail. For the Otterson brothers, the fateful period came at the end of the Battle of Thiepval Ridge. References in the war diaries to attacking, briefly holding, then losing and regaining trenches leave no doubt that both Robert and James Otterson were heavily engaged in the fierce fighting at the end of September 1916 (see time line).

It is impossible to say for certain how James Otterson lost his life. The official record dates his death as September 30, when the British troops were consolidating their hold on captured ground and clearing out Hessian Trench. However, James’s name, etched into the stone of the Thiepval Memorial (above, right), is in the column dedicated to those who died at Delville Wood. While only about 5 km (3 miles) away, it seems unlikely that James died there (see map below).

A family story, unconfirmed, relates that Robert and Jim were out on patrol in No Man's Land when the enemy opened fire and the British soldiers ran for their own lines. When the patrol reached safety, Robert looked for Jim but couldn’t find him, so went back to search for him, finding his brother dead.

If the story is true, it does not explain why James Otterson is recorded at the Thiepval Memorial as a soldier for whom there is no known grave. It may have been impossible to retrieve his body, but it is unlikely we will ever know for sure. The story of a patrol coming under fire is plausible, however. Many patrols were probing enemy territory and were certainly crossing No Man’s Land. Perhaps the nearest identifying feature where they came under attack was Delville Wood, in which case they were some distance from their base.

We have no record of how the loss of Jim affected Robert - only that Robert continued through the war. It was far from over. There is much mention in the 1917 war diaries of bayonet and trench assault training in 1917, and also of action at Ypres in Belgium which history records as some of the worst horrors of the Great War.  Both of these - the bayonet training and the mud at Ypres after heavy rain - are consistent with Robert’s later conversations with grandchildren long after he safely returned home.

(Nicholson, G. W. L. 1962. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Queens Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa, Canada).