Pte Henry Herbert Ashdown (1894-1917)

Henry Herbert Ashdown was born on 18 September 1894 at Parson’s Farm near the village of Stansted. He was the third of eight children of an agricultural labourer named Henry James Ashdown and his wife, Frances Ellen Stone. Henry’s mother was previously married to Abel Janes, and he also had two half-siblings by this marriage. 

Like many farm workers at that time, Henry (or ‘Herb’ as he was commonly known) moved around a lot, and by 1901, they lived at Old Soar Farm Cottages in Plaxtol, where he attended the village school before transferring to St. Mary Cray School in 1901. During the next decade, the Ashdown family moved from Plaxtol to Swanley, Kemsing, Wrotham and then Platt in January 1911, where they took up residence at 7 Whatcote Cottages. Herb’s three youngest siblings continued their schooling at Platt School; however, like most local boys of a similar age, he found work labouring on a farm, and at the time war broke out in 1914, he worked as a dairyman. He gained a reputation as a talented singer and won several local singing competitions. Shortly before the war, Herb found love and became engaged to a local lass, promising to marry her when he returned. However, tragically, fate had other plans.

Like many others keen to ‘do their bit’, Herb was among the first from Platt to enlist and visited the recruiting office in Tonbridge on 2 September 1914, where he signed up for three years of military service. In a medical inspection the same day, he was recorded as 5’ 5” tall with a 32” chest, sallow complexion, grey eyes and black hair. Having been passed fit for active duty, Herb joined ‘A’ Company of the 6th (Service) Battalion, The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment.) The battalion had been raised in Maidstone during mid-August and formed part of the 37th Brigade of the 12th (Eastern) Division in Kitchener’s First New Army. Herb joined his new unit at camp in Purfleet and, upon arrival, would have spent the remainder of the autumn training before moving to Sandling Junction in early December and then onwards to billets at Hythe at the end of the year.

On 1 June 1915, after four months of training in Aldershot, the battalion entrained for Folkestone and sailed for Boulogne on the SS Princess Victoria. Also on board were two other local men from the parish serving in the same battalion, Richard Andrews and Peter Piper, with the former in Herb’s company. Upon arrival in France, following a two-week stint training at Méteren, the battalion made their way to the front lines and took over a position at Ploegsteert (Plugstreet) Wood from the 6th Buffs (East Kent Regiment.) During the summer of 1915, Ploegsteert was a relatively quiet quarter, but not without danger. For example, in July, there were 50 battalion casualties recorded in the War Diary (7 killed, 43 wounded) with enemy snipers active on most days, and also mentions of several deadly shelling incidents. In this period, Herb would have been rotating between the front line and positions in the rear on a six-days on, six-days off basis.

In mid-September, the battalion left Ploegsteert for an area southeast of Béthune, where the First Army attacked Loos on the 25th. In the campaign, which lasted several weeks, Herb saw his first significant action of the war and on 6 October, his company found themselves based near Cité St. Elie in Gun Trench – immediately to the right of the Germans, who had lodged themselves in the centre of the line between ‘A’ & ‘C Coys. Two days later, the battalion received orders to attack the enemy position. In the main thrust of the assault, bombing parties worked their way inwards from the flanks while Herb’s platoon, under Captain Margett, made their advance over open ground and tasked with attacking from the front. In what would have been an undoubtedly harrowing experience for anyone, Herb likely witnessed his comrades being mown down around him by enemy machine-gun fire almost immediately after going over the top. Against the odds, he escaped the bullets and was among the few survivors able to join up with the bombing parties who, up until that point, had been making good progress towards the Germans. However, unknown to the West Kents, the enemy position, far from being isolated in the centre, was connected to another trench leading up to their main front line. Due to the overwhelming numbers of enemy troops being sent forward down this artery to keep the British in check, the attack failed, and by the day’s end, over 100 casualties were suffered by the battalion, with the majority of these in Herb’s company.

Miraculously, Herb made it through his first battle; however, he was not yet out of danger and, following several days in the reserve, returned to the front line in the early hours of 14 October. At some point during the day, he was shot in his right leg and stretchered away to No. 37 Field Ambulance, and then No. 33 Casualty Clearing Station, before being transferred to a Base Depot hospital in Etaples. His injuries don’t appear to have been especially severe, and he rejoined his unit in the field just over one month later on 24 November.

In March 1916, Herbert would have been involved in the Battle of the Craters near Vermelles and, at the end of June, moved south with his unit to the Somme, where the battalion fought in the ill-fated offensive at Ovillers on 3 July. In the battle, the 37th brigade attacked two small salients in the German front line running almost due north and south. Herb’s company, with ‘C company on their left, formed part of the first wave of the attack, which began at 3:15 am.

At zero hour, the British artillery barrage lifted, and the company, who had already left their trenches ten minutes previously and crawled across No Man’s Land, leapt up and began their advance on the German lines. Almost immediately, they were met by heavy enfilade machine-gun fire, but maintained a steady pace and soon found themselves in enemy trenches, where they successfully fought their way along to establish a reasonably secure position from which they could provide covering fire for the second wave of the attack, which had begun pushing forward towards the second objective. Unfortunately for the battalion, the second wave failed, and casualties mounted up as withering machine gun fire swept across the attacking troops. By then, the West Kents were too few to impact the heavily defended trench, and the battalion became engaged in a desperate fight to hold onto any gains made. The situation deteriorated further when both flanks on Herb’s position fell apart, cutting off the survivors and allowing the Germans to pick them off one at a time. Men from the battalion performed many acts of heroism that day, and the West Kents held the captured trench for several hours before being forced to make a full withdrawal later in the day. Of 617 officers and men who had gone into action, 375 became casualties, including Richard Andrews and Peter Piper, who were both killed.

Battered and bruised, and despite being under-strength, the battalion moved back up into the front lines between Ovillers and Pozières on the 26th, and saw further fighting along this front during the rest of the summer – albeit not on the same scale as the attack in early July. Progress was slower than hoped in this opening phase of the Somme campaign, and plans (which included Herb’s unit) were made to redress the situation.

On 1 October, the West Kents took over the reserve lines West of Gueudecourt, eventually moving up into the firing line on the northern edge of the town during the evening of the 6th, where they prepared to go into battle the following day. Before zero hour at 1:45 pm, the battalion was heavily shelled while assembling in the forward trenches and suffered several casualties. Those who eventually climbed out over the parapets that afternoon did not fare much better and met with a hailstorm of machine gun and rifle fire. Losses were heavy, but Herb survived, and as the Somme offensive drew to a temporary halt at the end of the following month, he would have been acutely aware that he was part of a diminishing minority from the original battalion who had arrived in France over a year earlier. At the end of 1916, Herbert was assigned batman to an officer, although it is unclear how long this arrangement continued.

In mid-January 1917, the 6th RWK was based on the new divisional front in the suburbs of Arras, which extended southwards from the Scarpe on the left to the Arras-St. Quentin Road. The line ran right through the ruins of Blangy with No Man’s Land chronicled as ’a chaotic tangle of bricks, bits of broken roofs and wire. Winters on the Western Front had gained a reputation for being harsh, with survival against the elements being an almost more significant challenge than the dangers of enemy action. Conditions through the winter of 1916-17 were the toughest of the war, so it must have been some relief to the men that their accommodation was in one of the numerous caves and cellars around the city. These were not only close to the front line (meaning they could move forward swiftly without incurring any casualties) but also sheltered from the arctic conditions that continued to blast well into April.

In November 1916, Field Marshal Haig issued instructions for several offensives set for the following spring. The first of these was at Arras, which by then was familiar terrain to the West Kents. Consequently, on 9 April, the first day of the battle, they achieved their objectives with relatively few casualties. However, during the assault, several obstacles still had to be overcome, and the non-arrival of tanks elicited a much harder fight than expected.

Two days later, Herb’s company was based in the line east of Monchy, known as an ‘awkward position and exposed to steady shellfire and occasional sniping. Conditions in the village itself were by all accounts horrendous, with one officer recounting that due to an enemy machine-gun attack on an entire cavalry brigade, the streets were literally ‘flowing with the blood of horses and men.’ After a week’s rest in Arras, the battalion returned to Monchy on the 25th and took up a position in reserve, where they prepared for another significant battle on 3 May. In what would turn out to be his last fight, Herb’s unit commenced their assault at about 10:30 pm and, in a replay of previous attacks, came under instantaneous fire from German machine guns. Herb, tasked with carrying despatches, was killed in action at some point during the early hours of the following morning.

Following his death, a Captain wrote to his mother:

Dear Madam,

 In reply to your letter of 27th ult., I deeply regret to inform you that your son, No. 768 Pte. H. Ashdown, of this battalion, was killed in action of 4 May 1917. Your loss is ours also, and the memory of your boy will remain with us always. He was extremely popular with his comrades. There is no man in this battalion who could be more faithful in his duties, or more gallant in action, than your son. Allow me to tender my deepest sympathies to you in the loss of a son whom we knew so well and esteemed so much.

Herb’s body lay where he fell until 1921, when he was exhumed and reburied in the Faubourg D’Amiens Cemetery in Arras.