Platt During Summer 1917
Just as the previous winter was notable for being the coldest of the Great War, summer 1917 would turn out to be the wettest. In Platt, June was largely dry and fine with temperatures occasionally peaking in the low-30s, however, thunderstorms became increasingly frequent, and at the end of July the parish was about to experience prolonged periods of precipitation that would last days on end.
Fortunately, the bad weather began two days after the month-long fruiting holiday ended on 29th July, and local children returned to Platt School the following day. Attendance over the next week fell sharply due to the wet conditions, and continued to be an issue throughout August. Despite this, the school received a favourable report from the Diocesan Inspector, who wrote that ‘The work is going on steadily and thoroughly successfully. It is a bright school of bright happy and responsive children. The tone is excellent, and the whole atmosphere of the teaching reverent.’ The school closed again for the hop-picking holiday on 24th August, and re-opened a month later.
Over the summer, and as a result of the weather, many of the local footpaths became overgrown, with those leading to Potter’s Hole and from Platt Farm to Upper Platt being particularly inaccessible because of long grass and nettles. To compound matters for locals attempting to go about their daily business, work to repair the roads damaged in 1916 was temporarily brought to standstill, and much of what had been achieved during May and June was undone by the torrential rain.
If the soggy conditions were causing problems for parishioners back home, they paled in comparison to the challenges experienced by the Platt men serving in France and Flanders, who had found themselves not only battling the enemy, but also facing the real possibility of drowning in shell holes or being buried alive under collapsing trenches, which became a daily occurrence. Symbolically, on 31st July, the great summer offensive at Ypres (commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele) opened just as the grey skies enveloped Western Europe and the inclement weather began.
Between June and August five more local men were lost to the war; Mrs Bance, who had only just received a telegram from the war office reporting the death of her son Thomas at Gaza, now received further intimation that her oldest (and last surviving) son James had been killed during a trench mortar attack near Cambrai on 9 June. A month later, Alfred Evans, who was born in Wrotham Heath and serving with the Coldstream Guards, failed to return from a night raid over the Yser Canal on 8/9 July. His body was later recovered and buried in the Artillery Wood Cemetery near Boesinghe.
19-year-old George Lacey from Crouch died of injuries received during a mortar attack near Arras at Oppy Wood. He had enlisted earlier in the year at Maidstone and had barely been in France two months when he was fatally wounded.
Alfred Bathurst had been conscripted in 1916 and was killed on the first day of Passchendaele when his battalion – the 8th Lincolnshire Regiment, attacked towards Rifle Farm. Casualties were severe, with a brigade narrative written after the battle recording that the Lincolns “fought it out where they were until they were all either killed or wounded.” Alfred’s body was never recovered and he is commemorated on the Menin Gate. He left behind a wife and three young children.
Also attacking on 31st July was George Bance, who was serving with the 10th Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment, and had been at the Front since May 1916. George’s unit faced the 10th Bavarian Division – a formidable foe who had recently returned from fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front. During the advance the West Kents found themselves closing in on a line of concrete pillboxes placed along the brow of a hill about 100 yards beyond their second objective. The Germans waited until the British were in the open before they unleashed a hailstorm of lead on the advancing troops. George was among those exposed to the fury of the enemy machine guns, and was shot in his right shoulder, but managed to get himself off the battlefield and to the nearest Field Ambulance. Incredibly it wasn’t long before he was back in the line, but returned to hospital during February 1918 when he received multiple gunshot wounds whilst at the Front in Italy. George survived the war, and died in 1956.
The final Platt casualty to lose his life during the summer months was Reginald Bowen from Whatcote Cottages. He had arrived in France in June and was posted to the 11th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps. On 16th August, during his first week in the trenches, ‘Reg’ was killed by an artillery shell whilst based along the line north of Ypres. Like many deaths from shelling, the grizzly reality meant there was no body left to bury, and he was subsequently commemorated on the Menin Gate. The few personal possessions that were returned to his parents included a cigarette case, three photographs, a metal mirror and a French book. He was just 17 when he died.
Scott Wishart, June 2017