Some 20 years ago, after their mother died, brothers Roger and Doug Goodman from England, gained possession of 72 letters written in 1916 from the trenches of WW1 by their uncle Alec Reader to his mother – their grandmother. He was killed, aged 17, during the Battle for High Wood on The Somme. He had no known grave and his parents tried in vain during the 1920s to find where he was buried, a search his family continued…
High Wood, Somme
High Wood, an area of about 75 acres, has returned to its natural state and it’s estimated that the remains of several thousand British and German troops are still there as the area was never cleared of munitions. In total around 8000 deaths occurred in the square kilometre of private wood during the Somme Battle that lasted from July to November 1916. It was the scene of the last cavalry charge and the first tank attack.
In September 1916 Highwood was a vision of tree stumps and mud at High Wood – a deathly landscape. The authors of the 47th (London) Division history wrote they had never seen anything quite like it. It was here on the morning of 15 September that a boy soldier from Wandsworth fell in the battle to take the Wood. Bertram Alec Reader – known as Alec – was the eldest of 5 children. He lived in South London and in the summer of 1915 Alec made a trip to Somerset House to join the 15th Battalion London Regiment, Prince of Wales’ Own, Civil Service Rifles (CSR). Alec wasn’t quite eighteen years old when he enlisted and so theoretically was under the official age at which you were allowed to join the Regular Army. So at just 17, Alec became a “boy soldier” and in March 1916, he sailed for France.
Letters from The Western Front
All of Alec’s letters survive and his story was meticulously pieced together by his nephew Roger Goodman who, along with his brother Doug, traced Alec’s life on the Somme in 1991. Roger sadly died in the early 2000s but Doug Goodman has continued to remember Alec and has been indefatigable in tracing his last movements on that fateful September morning. In 2013 author Neil Hanson who had written about Alec in his book ‘The Unknown Soldier’ was sent diary extracts by the family of Vern Wilkinson of the 15th Battalion Civil Service Rifles who described what happened to Alec at High Wood.
‘We were happy when we knew definitely what time the ‘kick off’ was, uncertainty made one nervous and irritable. We attempted a little breakfast in the early hours but the jam tasted of paraffin so we gave it up. A substantial rum ration however soon satisfied us, there was actually some rum to spare as some of the lads would not participate as they wished to have all their senses about them when the great time came. Others were quite merry and personally I had consumed plenty to make me feel like killing Jerry. We examined our rifles, bombs etc., time after time making sure all was in order. At last ‘zero’ came (6.20 am) and the guns that had quietened towards the dawn broke out with a terrible clatter as they put down one of the terrible barrages that made advancing much easier for the infantry. We clambered over the top of the parapet and were immediately met with a murderous machine gun fire, some of my pals falling at once. The din was terrific, the bark of our 18 pounders was heard above everything else and the shells themselves seemed to just skim over our heads almost scorching us. The rattle of dozens of Jerry machine guns made it seem impossible for us to live a second under the hail of bullets that showered by us, yet we pushed on.’
Vern Wilkinson goes on to describe Alec’s last moments: ‘Young Reader fell at the side of me with a groan and blood rushed from a wound in the head. I just turned to glance at him and could see that death was instantaneous and so passed that cheerful spirited lad to whom everything was ‘very cosy.’’
Alec’s story has an added poignancy as he was waiting to return to England. Those who had joined up underage could be reclaimed by their parents and had the choice of being repatriated. However, Alec’s father’s request was delayed in England due to administrative delays and before Alec could return home, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette began. Alec was buried near the German Switch Trench to the north-west corner of High Wood. Due to continued fighting the place of burial was eventually lost and Alec is now one of the missing of the Somme. As such his name appears on the Thiepval monument.
On the morning of 15 September 2016 – 100 years to the day he died, Alec’s family made a pilgrimage to the Somme. At High Wood they laid a wreath on the 47th (London) Division Memorial. The family placed crosses on a tree near the German Switch Trench in High Wood and held a private ceremony at the Thiepval monument where three generations of the Goodman family laid a wreath on behalf of Alec’s family. This ‘cheerful spirited lad, to whom everything was very cosy’ will never be forgotten and his short life will continue to be remembered for generations to come.
The Somme is about 90 minutes drive from Calais and DFDS Seaways has crossings from Dover. (www.dfds.com )
The Historial de la Grande Guerre (www.historial.org ) Albert Museum (www.musee-somme-1916.eu ) Beaumont Hamel memorial park (www.vac-acc.gc.ca )
Commonwealth War Graves Commission (www.cwgc.com)