The Lowestoft VC winner who sacrificed his today for our tomorrow on the battlefields of the Somme
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018
He left Lowestoft brimming with enthusiasm for the adventure of a lifetime and ended his days in the corner of a foreign field, his bravery in the theatre of war saving the lives of at least two others as he made the ultimate sacrifice. Recorded in France as an Australian, Claude Castleton's story is incredible.
They came from the New World for the conquest of the Old, the men of the Australian Army who travelled across the world to fight in World War One for their mother country – but one of those who made the ultimate sacrifice was closer to home in northern France than he'd ever been in Australia.
Australia and New Zealand were fledgling countries when war broke out in 1914: the former had become an independent nation in 1901, the latter in 1907 and both had a large percentage of the population who considered themselves to be part of the British Empire.
A fifth of those who flocked to pledge their services at sign-up stations had been born in Britain, amongst them Claude Castleton, a Lowestoft lad with wanderlust who set off on the adventure of a lifetime to a brave new world where he hoped to find a fortune in the Australian gold rush of the early 20th century in order to fund his travels to New Zealand, India and Africa.
His plan was to see the world before returning to Lowestoft, but his travels were cut short by the outbreak of war: thinking of those he loved at home, and desperate to do his bit to protect them and the country he was working his way back to, Claude volunteered his services for King and country.
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He never saw his home town again. The builder's son from Lowestoft, the clever grammar school boy with a thirst for knowledge and desire to see the world he taught others about in school lessons, saw his own journey come to an abrupt and bloody end in the corner of a foreign field in northern France on July 29 1916.
In Gallipoli he had earned his Anzac Spirit despite falling ill with dysentery and malaria, and in France he put his fighting spirit to good use: he died as he ploughed back and forth into the hellish shell holes and depressions of no-man's land just outside the quiet village of Pozières to bring the wounded back to safety.
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As part of an ill-fated attack on the so-called OG Lines (Old German) by the Australian 2nd Division on July 28, soldiers had been ordered to attack between the main road and Munster Alley but poor preparation lead to the enemy detecting the troops as they moved into open ground prior to zero hour.
Soldiers who gathered close to the old railway line were picked off by enemy gunfire and a barrage of high explosives and gas meaning an advance was out of the question and those men who had moved forward from the trench had to remain in the open for hours before withdrawal could be attempted.
But as the German flares turned night to day and poison gas drifted across the battlefield in treacherous clouds, Castleton could not ignore the cries of his comrades. Under a veritable hail of machine gun fire, the Lowestoft lad crawled from the relative safety of his trench and into the maelstrom of battle.
Stumbling blind into no-man's land, he disappeared into the fug of smoke and gas in an act of bravery that at the time looked tantamount to suicide.
The seconds ticked by interminably slowly until, suddenly, Claude burst back into the trench, an injured man on his back – pausing only to gently place him in safety, Sergeant Castleton went back into a battlefield where bodies were stacked like firewood to look for survivors. He returned with another, turned on his heel and disappeared.
It was not to be a case of third time lucky for Claude, who – as he carried another wounded man to safety – was himself hit in the back and killed outright. Posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his 'conspicuous gallantry and bravery', Claude was buried where he fell and later took his last ever journey when his body was re-interred in plot IV.L.43 of the Pozieres British Cemetery, less than half a mile from where he died.
This was not the new life that Claude Castleton had left sleepy Lowestoft for. It was not the adventure he had planned.
Claude was born on April 12 1893 in Kirkley, South Lowestoft, the son of bricklayer Thomas Charles and Edith Lucy Castleton who had married in 1887 at Christ Church in Lowestoft and lived at 62 Whapload Road before moving to 5 Morton Road in Kirkey in 1891. When Claude and twin brother Frank were eight, the family moved to Rose Cottage on Wilson Road.
He was educated at Morton Road Council School before winning a scholarship to Kirkley Grammar School (now Ormiston Denes Academy) where he studied from 1905 to 1911 and then returned to his primary school where he started work as a teacher. But it wasn't enough for Claude, whose curiosity for adventure and travel led him, alongside many other British men, to emigrate to Australia in 1912.
Falling into itinerant work, Claude worked his way through a number of jobs, travelling from Melbourne, where his Australian adventure began, to work on sheep farms and even to prospect for gold, an industry which had peaked in the area in the 1850s but which was steadily declining as reserves were over-mined.
He travelled through Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and New Guinea with the intention of working his way back home through New Zealand, India and Africa, his mind set on seeing as much as the world as he could before settling down to a nine to five job back in Britain.
But then, on August 4 1914, Britain and Germany declared war and both Prime Minister Joseph Cook and Opposition Leader Andrew Fisher, who were in the midst of an Australian election campaign, pledged full support for Britain – and as a dominion of the British Empire, the country enthusiastically rallied to support the Motherland.
Claude immediately made his way to Port Moresby (now Papua New Guinea) where he joined a local force and was put in command of indigenous troops for communication and coastal defence before returning to Australia where he enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force, the main expeditionary force of the Australian Army during World War One.
Posted to D Company, 18 Battalion (18 Bn), Claude embarked on HMAT A40 on June 25 1915 and set sail for Egypt, landing on July 24. The battalion moved to Gallipoli in August, just days after the 5th Royal Norfolks suffered devastating losses of 162 men in the bloody battle.
Within 48 hours of landing at Gallipoli, 50 per cent of 18 Bn would be either dead or wounded, a few days later, 80 per cent of the 750 men who had started the battle had become casualties – Claude was one of the lucky 20 per cent, if lucky is an appropriate word for the hell he survived.
Nothing could have prepared the men for what happened as the whistle blew on August 22 and they were urged to charge towards the enemy on the infamous Hill 60. Fellow 18th Bn soldier Joe Maxwell said at the time: 'What a tragic morning it was! We had never seen a hand grenade, nor had our officers. Ridges sprang to life, they began to crackle. Turkish machine-gun pellets pelted us. Rockets of dust burst and flew. That ripping machine gun rattle that we came to know so well raced up and down a ridge that loomed in the grey light ahead. Men fell in gullies and pockets. There were groans and thuds to right and left. You just held your breath and stumbled and crawled on with men writhing and dying in the livid morning light.'
The inexperienced Australian brigade had only their bayonets to protect them against gun fire and shells – they had been told, when they pointed out they had no fire power of their own, to 'do the best that is possible without them'.
Castleton survived the assault but was evacuated from Gallipoli suffering from dysentery on 15 September – he had cruelly discovered that clean water was far more precious than gold.
Gallipoli had been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, with heavy casualties from not only the battles, but also the unsanitary conditions. Surviving soldiers spoke of terrible problems with intense heat, swarms of flies, body lice and a severe lack of medical and food supplies.
Black clouds of flies would gorge on the bodies left in no-man's land which were impossible to recover and would then pollute food and the intense heat of summer was harshly swapped for a bitter winter filled with icy rain which led to men suffering from frostbite and trench foot in their light uniforms.
In hospital, Claude gathered strength and was promoted to Corporal on December 7, rejoining his unit on Gallipoli the following day. In January 1916, following the withdrawal of the allied forces from Gallipoli, Castleton was again hospitalised, this time for malaria.
By the beginning of March, Claude had transferred to the 5 Australian Machine Gun Company where he was swiftly promoted again, this time to Sergeant, ahead of embarking to France.
On July 20, 5MGC were moved to Warloy-Baillon, west of Pozières in northern France, in preparation for an assault on Pozières Heights by the Australian 2nd Division.
The village was an important strategic position, not only because it was located on a communications route, but because its heights dominated the surrounding battlefields – the Anzacs were given the task of capturing the German positions on the ridge and by July 23, Pozières had been taken at great cost by the 1st Division.
North of the village was the German second line and a blockhouse called the Windmill, a cement keep with the appearance of a cottage which was heavily fortified and supported by concealed machine gunners. Late on the evening of July 27, Claude's brigade was moved forward in an ill-planned and disastrous assault on enemy trenches – it was during the hour before dawn, when the inky night fell into relative darkness and the shelling lessened, that Claude ventured out into no-man's land.
Captain Reginald Henry Gill MC saw his first action in the trenches in June and took part in the infamous Battle of Pozieres where Castleton fell.
In a letter home to his brother Theo, he wrote: '…we have been having some terrific fighting since I last wrote to you, on the Somme, the Australians made their name at Poziers (sic) which we took, also the Heights of Poziers, where desperate fighting took place, it doesn't matter much telling you all this now as it is all over and is public property.
'In one charge, taking the Heights, we lost 19 officers (14 killed and five wounded) and 670 men in about one hour. Personally, I was knocked down three times by the blast of shells and once buried and yet came out untouched, talk about luck or providence, our battalion came out with 67 rifles only.
'I pray you may never encounter a modern bombardment, it is simply hell let loose. The sights one sees are too dreadful to talk about, no chance of burial for the dead, they slowly rot on the ground, mangled and remangled by shells…also up to the knees in mud and water for four and five days at a time, I pray to God it will soon be over and this madness of slaughter comes to an end.'
Claude's war had, indeed, come to an end. In the fighting around Pozières, the 1st Australian Division lost 7,700 men, the second Australian Division lost 8,100 and the 4th Australian Division suffered 7,100 casualties in just 12 days – as the Australian official historian Charles Bean said, the Pozières Ridge 'is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth…the men were simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine.'
The shattered village of Pozières resembled a lunar landscape, the survivors were so dazed that witnesses described them as looking as if they were walking in a dream – but the nightmare casualties of Pozières meant that most Australians knew someone who had died in France and the tiny village in the north of a far-away country became a poignant landmark in Australian history, as momentous as Gallipoli. There were 23,000 Anzac casualties during the six-week battle for Pozières compared to 28,000 – amongst them my Great Uncle Walter – suffered during the eight-months spent fighting in Gallipoli.
Pozières, along with the countless battles of the Somme, did prove to be a turning point in the First World War, forcing a German retreat that ensured that from the end of 1916 and until March 1918, Germany remained on the defensive along the Western Front: but the cost, the devastating loss of life – there is nowhere like the Somme region of France for offering today's visitors a horrifyingly clear vision of the price the Allies paid for freedom. There are 410 Commonwealth cemeteries, 22 French Military cemeteries and 14 German cemeteries in this one area of France alone: the scale of loss is too huge to comprehend.
During just five months, when the British, French and Allied Forces engaged the occupying German Army, the Allies and Central Powers lost almost 1.5 million men in order to seize just six miles of war-blown territory, a distance which today can be covered in a matter of minutes by car.
In Pozières village, a water tower bears the name of the lad from Lowestoft who gave his tomorrow for our today, but it only tells half the story – his name drops an 'e' from Claude, he is recorded as Australian not British, but his Victoria Cross is noted and carved on his headstone close by at the imposing roadside cemetery where he rests today.
His medal was presented to his father by the King at Buckingham Palace on November 29 1916 and he is named on one of 11 plaques honouring 175 men from overseas awarded the VC in the Great War. He also lends his name to an avenue and a housing estate in Carlton Colville and a close in Lowestoft and crescents, roads and streets in Australia.
Claude's grave, like all those tended on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is in a peaceful cemetery watched over by Edwin Lutyens' Stone of Remembrance and its ever-present partner, Reginald Blomfield's Cross of Sacrifice, the neat lawns and clipped flower beds an illustration of how the French still guard the fallen.
Photographer Denise Bradley and I have been privileged to visit dozens of military graveyards during our visits to France to research the stories of those who served in both the First and Second World Wars, but there is always something particularly special about finding a grave of a soldier from home, that familiar, poignant link which stretches back more than a century and intertwines the pair of us with a man who stood on the same soil as we do today and who died fighting for the freedom we now take for granted.
It is peculiar that a testament to something so tragic is so beautiful, that a memorial to those who died in fire and brimstone is so serene: but it is. Less than half a mile from the Lochnagar mine crater, created by the explosion at 07.28 at the launch of the British offensive against the German lines on July 1 1916, this is the heart of the Battle of the Somme and for the British, the very embodiment of the First World War.
The names of 14,709 casualties are listed here, enough men to fill a stadium if they were alive, enough names in one small space to remind anyone who passes of how this terrible conflict decimated a generation of men and wiped out countless futures, amongst them that of a young man from Lowestoft who travelled to the other side of the world only to find himself fighting on the blood-soaked soil of the Somme for freedom for those he loved at home. We will remember him.