Platt During Spring 1918
On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a series of attacks along the Western Front in an attempt to break through the Allied lines and end the war before the massed American forces, who were now arriving in France, could be fully deployed. The first few days of the ‘Kaiserschlacht’, which is also known as the Spring Offensive, was an overwhelming success to the extent that the Kaiser declared March 24th to be a national holiday, and many Germans assuming the war was finally coming to an end. It wasn’t, and with overstretched supply lines and a weakened army, both physically and in number, the advance gradually began to unravel and the substantial territorial gains made were reclaimed by the Allies. Many men from Platt were caught up in the action, including five locals (three of who were from Windmill Hill) losing their lives between March and the end of May.
Sydney Bridgland, a farm labourer from Crouch, had been at the front since January 1915 and recently returned from two weeks leave back to the UK. As part of a trench mortar battalion, he was working in a gun pit near St. Leger when the Germans overran his position around dawn on the opening day of the offensive. In the event of such an occurrence, and to prevent them from falling into enemy hands, Sydney was charged with destroying his weapons using a stokes bomb, and it appears he was blown-up in the process. Despite the absence of any further correspondence his family and friends continued to hold out hope that perhaps he had been taken prisoner, and tragically a year later after she last heard from him, his fiancée was still placing adverts in the Kent Messenger asking if anyone knew what had happened to Sydney, or his whereabouts.
William Rogers joined the battle three days after Sydney was killed and has the unhappy distinction of being the first of the three Windmill Hill men to lose his life. He had only been in France for several weeks when his unit, the 2nd Rifle Brigade, was quickly brought into action and sent to face the enemy east of Amiens along the River Somme. Almost immediately after moving into position the battalion came under heavy shellfire while crossing the high ground above the river near Pargny. They managed to establish themselves north of Pargny Bridge, however, after dark, the Germans rushed the bridgehead and broke through their line, eventually forcing the Rifles to withdraw. During the next week, and while fighting a fierce rearguard action, the battalion lost almost 450 men, including William, whose body was either not recovered for burial or later identified. His family would remember him as a ‘very loving and special man who would always be happy to accommodate people if they needed advice or help’.
Fighting further north, near the border with Belgium, was 19-year-old Bertie Reeves from ‘Upper Platt’ – another local who had recently arrived in France, and was serving with the 12th Yorkshire Regiment. The Yorkshires had been ordered to help plug any gaps in the British line, and like William Rogers, Bertie quickly found himself embroiled in a desperate rearguard action that would eventually cost him his life on 20 April, when he died in hospital of wounds received in battle.
The following month, on 23 May, a gardener from Windmill Hill named Stephen Sears was killed by a gas shell near Neuve Chapelle while serving with the 1st Royal West Kents. Shortly before he died, Stephen witnessed the devastating human cost of the Spring Offensive first hand while making his way to the front lines with his unit – passing thousands of civilian refugees fleeing the German onslaught in the opposite direction.
In late-May, Ernest Rose became the third Windmill Hill soldier to die. A veteran of the 1916 Somme campaign while with the Royal West Kents, Ernest returned to the region with the 21st Battalion Machine Gun Corps. During the German offensive, his unit valiantly held back the enemy advance near Chapel Hill, but faced with overwhelming opposition, was forced to fall back, and fought for another week with the ‘utmost gallantry and self-sacrifice’ before being withdrawn from the line. On 29 May, at the Third Battle of the Aisne, which was a stage of the Kaiserschlacht, 182 men from the battalion were killed, wounded or missing. Ernest was among those injured and died of wounds the following day at the Hospital Auban-Moët in Epernay.
On the Home Front, in April, the Platt War Hospital Supply Depot, which was based at the property now called Platt Common House, issued a half-yearly report. Its activities had grown considerably in the 2 ½ years it had been operating, and the team of expert workers were now able to produce fifty padded splints in the two afternoons they worked each week. Of the 1,519 splints made since the depot began, 725 had been padded in the previous six months. In addition to this, during the period 31 October 1917 – 31 March 1918, the group also produced 3,845 round swabs, 1,475 small dressings, 1,085 roller bandages, 200 many-tailed bandages, 30 comfort bags, 23 washing gloves and eight floor swabs. In November a needlework branch was started with many of the volunteers working from out of their homes and making a total of 45 military shirts and 60 vests during the six-month period.
Throughout the spring the Platt School log books make frequent mention of visits from Mrs Fairburn, the school nurse who had cause to exclude the six-year-old daughter of Alice Martin from Wrotham Heath on three occasions due to her ‘verminous condition’. At the start of April Mrs Martin, whose husband was fighting in France, was brought before the Malling Police Court to explain herself as Fairburn said the school was ‘a very clean one’ and that ‘the headmistress had taken a great deal of trouble to keep up the reputation’. Martin pleaded: ‘Mine is not the only child like it. I am engaged on Government work and have to walk eight miles each day, night and morning.’ The Chairman took a dim view of her explanation and imposed a fine of 10 shillings, pointing out that her first duty was to her child, whose condition was a danger to ‘itself’ and the other children in the school.
By mid-July, the Spring Offensive had petered out. American ‘Doughboys’ were pouring into the front, and the worst-case scenario for the German Generals became a reality. By the end of the summer news of a dramatic shift in Allied fortunes would have filtered back to those in the community, giving a real sense of hope and that finally, the war was coming to an end.
Scott Wishart, Platt Memorial Hall