Christopher Little – The Haverton Hill ANZAC

Christopher Little – The Haverton Hill ANZAC

We are indebted to Chris Little for contributing the story of his great grandfather, Christopher Little, and his experiences up to and including his service with the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) in the Great War.

Christopher Little was born on 16 March 1871, almost certainly in the Clarence Tavern, in Clarence Street, Haverton Hill.

His father was Thomas Little from Greenhead, near Haltwhistle in the Tyne valley and was a blacksmith. He came to Teesside sometime between 1865 and 1871, following his married sister Jane Leng, presumably to better himself in the burgeoning iron and steel industry with his iron working skills. Port Clarence and Haverton Hill were places where the iron and steel industry started on Teesside.

Sometime between 1871 and 1875, Thomas, with his family, moved to Port Clarence, and in the 1881 census, Christopher is described as a 10 year old school boy, and his father is no longer described as a blacksmith, but a boiler smith.

Christopher was apprenticed for 7 years at Bell Brothers, presumably from age 14 to 21, and started work for them as a Boiler Riveter and lived at the New Cottages, Haverton Hill. Then, aged 22, on 6 June 1893, he married Lily Crosby, aged 19, daughter of Thomas Crosby, innkeeper of another local tavern, the Station Hotel, Port Clarence.

After their first child, Thomas, there were seven more surviving children and three other children who did not survive: George, [William†] Elizabeth known as Lizzie then Betty, [Jessie†] Christopher known as Kit, [Florence†] Robert known as Bob, Lilian, Olive, and Norman, the youngest, born in 1910.

Boer War Chris LittleDuring this period, Christopher volunteered for a one year Short Service enlistment with the Imperial Yeomanry to fight in the Boer War in Southern Africa, 1901 to 1902. He is seen here seated on the left in his uniform.

Was he a rash adventurer? Running away? A patriotic man of his times? Someone who needed the infantryman’s pay? Or, was he just ambitious to do well for his family? Presumably the infantry pay, some of which was automatically deducted and sent to his wife, was substantially better than that of a boiler riveter.

Christopher’s s Boer war service came to an end when he was given a medical discharge in 1902 with a good character reference, and presumably a lump sum of his outstanding pay while overseas.

There is a formal studio photo of Lily, with Thomas about 6, George about 5, Betty at about 18 months and a 3 month old baby, presumably Jessie. We can only assume Lily had this taken to send to her husband in South Africa to introduce the new arrival. Sadly, Jessie seems to have died under the age of 1, so it is not clear whether Christopher ever saw her.

He is recorded in the 1911 Census, as working as a Boiler Smith and Riveter, living at Station Road, Billingham in a house with 6 rooms. The youngest children were still at school. The eldest Thomas, aged 17, worked at a Beer Bottling Brewery and George was a Farmer’s Errand Boy.

In 1912 Christopher emigrated to Australia, following in the footsteps of a group of his in-laws, but leaving his family behind. He left Tilbury Docks, London on 11 April 1912, sailing on the SS Ballarat of the P&O Branch Service for Melbourne. At this time, large numbers of people, particularly skilled workers, were being encouraged to emigrate to the colonies, and several large liners were built to support this economic migration.

Once established in Australia, after a year as a qualified ‘journeyman Boiler Smith’, family tradition has it that he had earned enough money to send home the tickets for the rest of the family, his wife and presumably eight children, to follow.

Unfortunately, in 1913, back in England, his wife Lily died of carcinoma of the stomach. Some of the children went to live with his married sister, Sarah Shaw (née Little) in Middlesbrough, two went into Hartington Road Children’s Home in Stockton and one lived with Christopher’s mother, Elizabeth, in New Cottages in Port Clarence.

When war was declared in August 1914 all shipping tickets were declared null and void and civilians were forbidden to travel, so the family could not travel out to Australia and he could not return to England. His family had to remain in the UK for the war, although the older sons enlisted in the Army, with Thomas transferring from the infantry to the Royal Flying Corp in 1917.

In order to return to England, Christopher decided to join the Australian Imperial Force.  Australia still did not have conscription, even though it was several thousand troops short after the carnage of the Western Front.

On 22 February 1917, Christopher enlisted in B Company of the 13th Reinforcements/32nd Battalion of Infantry, of the AIF at Mitcham, in the 4th Military District, Adelaide, becoming Private 4814, in spite of his medical checks declaring tinnitus and ‘mental delusions’.  The tinnitus was an obvious consequence of his time as an industrial riveter.

He made his Army will on 22 May 1917, leaving all to his mother Elizabeth, New Cottages, Port Clarence, “at her discretion for the benefit of all my children”.

Before embarking for England, between 11th and 17th June 1917, Christopher went Absent Without Leave (AWOL) and was fined 10 shillings and had 7 days’ pay deducted. This seems to have been relatively normal for new recruits. He then embarked on His Majesty’s Australian Transport (HMAT) Borda at Adelaide and on 25 August 1917 he arrived back in England at Plymouth and was sent to the Australian 8th Training Battalion at Hurdcott on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. On 11 November 1917 he was transferred to the Australian 15th Training Battalion nearby at Codford.  Sometime during this period of training, he managed to travel north to see his family and arranged homes for them. Betty for example, went into service as a maid. (The photograph at the head of this page must have been taken during this visit as Christopher is seen wearing the uniform of the AIF. His children in the photograph are L to R – Betty, George, Olive and Kit.)

On 27 December 1917 he sailed from Southampton for France as one of over 3000 reinforcements to the AIF 3rd Division and arrived in France on the 28th December. Two days later, he joined his unit in Rouelles and was officially TOS (Taken On Strength) and assigned to the 43rd Battalion on 5 January 1918.

The winter of 1917/18 was the worst winter of the war and during December it snowed and the ground was frozen hard. The 3rd Division were at that time involved in a number of raids across no-man’s-land, and then, from 29th January, building better defences at the Armentières, and then Ploegsteert, sections of the front. They then went back into Reserve from 8th March 1918.

During February 1918, Christopher wrote a letter in pencil on lined school book paper to his oldest daughter Betty in England, this letter is stamped as ‘Passed By The Censor’, his platoon commanding officer, Lieutenant Borthwick.  He also sent postcards and ‘Souvenirs de France’….

At this point in the war, the Western Front was at a stalemate, troops could expect to spend more time ‘out at rest’ and the chances of surviving the war were good.  However, more US troops were starting to arrive in France, and the Germans had also brought their armies back from the Eastern front after the Russian revolution had  brought about their withdrawal from the conflict.   The Germans realised they had to do something before the balance of men and matériel swung too much in favour of the Allies.

On 21 March 1918, Ludendorff launched his spring offensive, the  ‘Kaiserschlacht’ (Kaiser’s Battle) which opened with the biggest artillery barrage, including gas shells, of the war.   The German storm troopers overran the British Fifth Army and a wing of the Third and rapidly advanced 40 miles on either side of the Somme towards Amiens and Paris, getting within artillery range.  Allied reserve troops were brought up from the rear by forced marches or in any vehicles available, including London buses. As Amiens was a railhead connected to the Channel ports, great efforts were made to defend it.  It was a few days after this that Field Marshall Haig issued his famous instruction “Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement.”

On the 23rd March, Sir Herbert Plumer, in charge of the British Second Army at Ypres, released three Divisions of the AIF to General Sir Julian Byng of the British Third Army. Byng also started reinforcing a fall back line between the Ancre river and Arras. The British Third and Fifth Armies were defending north and south of the Somme valley respectively, between Arras and La Fère.

At around 9:10pm on the night of 25th, the Australian 3rd Division moved south. The Aussies boarded trains near St. Omer and Calais which were departing every three hours, some taking men to Doullens where they detrained and then marched towards Arras. The 43rd Battalion seems to have arrived in Doullens towards evening on the 26th, and marched with the rest of the brigade to Authieule, a couple of kilometres away, where they were billeted for the night.  Doullens was continually bombed by enemy aircraft.

At about 6:30pm on the 26th, the 3rd Division received orders to march from Authieule for a couple of hours to the Thievres-Marieux road to be picked up by London double decker buses arranged by the British 3rd Army. The 11th Brigade were first, boarding buses at 3:00am, and arriving at Franvillers at 5:00am. The Brigade then marched down into the Ancre valley through Heilly, following Major-General Sir John Monash’s orders to maintain the position and then advance eastwards from a North-South line between the Ancre and Somme valleys, just east of the north-south Mericourt -l’Abbe to Sailly-le-Sec road. The 43rd Battalion were to be north of the east-west Corbie-Bray road, and 42nd to the south. The roads crossed near “Hill 108”. The 43rd had to dig into the old French trenches left from the 1916 Battle of the Somme, as the countryside was very open, and they were occasionally receiving rifle fire. The Corbie-Bray road was occasionally heavily shelled.

All the time there were civilians fleeing the fighting, heavy artillery on the move and army stragglers blocking the roads. There were also active patrols of British 1st Cavalry Division, keeping track of the enemy and occasionally counter-attacking. The Germans were known to be in Albert, Morlancourt and Sailly-Laurette.

On the 27th, the village of Albert fell to the Germans, and the situation in the Ancre valley, south of the Somme, was confused. In the afternoon, as more battalions marched south from Franvillers, the 43rd moved southwards, and in the afternoon took over part of the 42nd’s positions, south of the Corbie-Bray road. Divisions of the Fifth Army had been driven back behind the Amiens Defence Line, and the Third Army held its ground. At 4:10pm the Germans were reported as having broken through, south of the Somme at Lamotte-Warfusee and were heading for Corbie. The Cavalry were immediately diverted south, leaving the Australians in the front line.

There was a follow-up German attack on the flank of Third Army at Arras on the 28th March. At 5:15am, a German artillery bombardment began, and at 6:00am they attacked northwards and westwards from Dernacourt and from Morlancourt towards Treux wood. The several attacks were repulsed by mid afternoon, assisted by artillery fire.

At noon, Major-General Sir John Monash ordered the 3rd Division to advance eastwards into the unoccupied ground towards Morlancourt. Also, their artillery bombarded Sailly-Laurette in the morning to assist the Cavalry and other parts of the British army to retake Lamotte-Warfusee. The advance was in two stages, at 4:00pm and 7:00pm. The 40th Battallion, north of the Corbie-Bray road came under heavy artillery fire and machine gun fire as they advanced. By 5:30pm, they had advanced only 400 yards and had lost 150 men. It had started to drizzle. At 6:00pm, spare ammunition was brought up by galloping limbers across the open countryside.

At the same time, the 11th Brigade advanced by patrols: the 42nd pushed towards Sailly-Laurette and the 43rd sent two patrols on the more open ground south of the Corbie-Bray road. One platoon, under Lieutenant Borthwick, and almost certainly including Christopher Little, came under intense machine gun fire from a copse of trees near the main road as it advanced at 5:45pm. Eventually, the platoon worked forward again and established a series of forward posts at 7:00pm. The other platoon, under Lieutenant Oliver, advanced slightly earlier, a little further south across the valley leading to Sailly-Laurette.

Later, after 8:00pm, the 44th moved forward through the 42nd positions and down the valley towards Sailly-Laurette, meeting machine gun fire from the village. They dug trenches during the night. Part of the 41st dug into the positions established by the 43rd, and the remainder, with the 40th, attempted to encircle the copse of trees at midnight, but eventually withdrew after heavy fire. However, the artillery moved across the Ancre during the night and during the daytime of the 29th, bombarded the copse, causing the Germans to withdraw, and it was occupied during the following night.

The 3rd Division had pushed forward 600 to 1200 yards towards Morlancourt, now with a line corresponding to the Sailly-Laurette to Treux Wood road, and suffered 300 casualties as a result.

Christopher Little was probably caught in the machine gun fire while advancing across an open field south of the Corbie-Bray road near Ancre. He is buried in the Australian Heilly Station Cemetery, 3 km from Corbie and about 19km north-east from Amiens.  He was 47 years old, having enlisted at the age of 46!

Notification of his death was sent to London and Melbourne on 9 April 1918 and a week later his will was sent for action and notification to the “pensioner” beneficiaries. However, his mother Elizabeth, still living at New Cottages, Port Clarence, was not allowed to claim a pension by Australia House in London, as she was “not a dependent”.

On 6 June 1918, the dependent children Lillian (aged 10) and Norman Little (aged 7) received pensions of 25/- and 20/- respectively for the duration of their schooling, with a John Lamb acting as Trustee. A week later, Robert Little (aged 12) also received a pension of 25/-. Lillian and Robert’s pensions were to be reviewed when they reached 13 years, and Norman’s when he reached 10 years of age.

Grave Marker Chris LittleIn August 1918, Christopher’s mother, Elizabeth Little, was sent a Memorial Plaque and Memorial Scroll. Medals were issued: the British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal, and a Pamphlet “Where the Australians Rest”. In September 1919 the Army sent 3 photographs of the grave and a Burial Report for Christopher’s son, Thomas (the grandfather of Chris Little who gave us this story).

As a footnote: Chris still has the Memorial Plaque in its original card envelope, a medal and one of the photographs. The grave at the time was marked with a wooden cross  (a rather grand affair compared to most and possibly an indication of how well he was regarded by those serving alongside him) on rather rough muddy ground, but by 1953 it had been landscaped and a stone erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.