Cpl Stephen John Sears MM (1881 – 1918)
Stephen John Sears was born at Thomas Cottage in East Farleigh during 1881. He was the ninth of 12 children born to Alfred Henry Sears, a farm servant, and Mary Jane Seager.
By 1901 the family had moved to Wrotham, where Alfred had become the innkeeper of the Spring Tavern. Stephen, then aged 21, was employed by his father as a brewer’s labourer, however several years later he was working as a jobbing gardener.
On 17 July 1907 Stephen married Grace Ralph in Malling, with the couple subsequently moving to Windmill Hill in Wrotham Heath. Five children were born of the marriage: David Thomas, Stephen John, Walter Leonard and twins Allen Victor and Roderick Delcie.
Stephen had already served 5 years in the Royal West Kent Regiment as a member of the 1st Volunteer Battalion when war broke out in 1914, and so on 8 December he visited the recruiting office in Bromley and enlisted in the Army. During the following week Stephen received orders to join the Depot Battalion in Maidstone before being sent to Chatham on 5 January 1915, where he was assigned to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment.)
He was posted to France two months later on 7 March and on arrival, he was sent to No.5 Infantry Base Depot in Rouen. Infantry Base Depots were large holding camps that were able to house several thousand soldiers in wooden huts. Most men passed through these before joining their units in the field, and could spend a week or more there training.
Private Sears is likely to have been one of a draft of 65 men who joined the 1st Battalion, The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) near Ypres at Vlamertynghe on 1 April. The following day he entered the trenches and by the 16th had occupied part of the line opposite the infamous Hill 60, which was situated southeast of Zillebeke. The ‘Hill’ rose about 40 feet above the general level of the surrounding terrain, so in reality was more of a small artificial mound of earth. Despite its physical shortcomings it was still valuable to the enemy as an observation post that afforded substantial views over the British sector around Zillebeke and Ypres, consequently taking it from the Germans was of strategic importance.
At dusk the following day, the battalion took part in an attack on the Hill, which was so sudden that little enemy resistance was met, and the Germans were routed without incurring too many battalion casualties. Although the assault was a success, the danger had not yet passed, and almost immediately after taking the position, over 50 batteries of German artillery concentrated their fire on the British position, killing and wounding substantial numbers of men from all companies.
Stephen’s unit left the area the following day and returned to Vlamertynghe, however on 5 May the Germans retook the Hill and The Queen’s Own were hurriedly called back to take part in an attack to regain the position. The assault began at 10 p.m. and the battalion was tasked with securing the trenches to the north of the Hill. It was an extremely dark night; the ground over which Stephen’s unit was to advance was strewn with old wire and peppered with derelict trenches and shell holes. In contrast to the previous attack, the Germans were fully expecting the British to advance, and as soon as the battle began, they rained down high explosives and shrapnel over all approaches to their front line. During the night it was accepted that the attack would not succeed, and the men were withdrawn back to the British trenches.
Following this failed offensive, and after a short spell billeting in Ypres, Stephen’s unit were sent to St. Eloi, where they spent the next two months alternating between the trenches and huts in Dickebusch. The sector was quite lively and regular enemy trench mortars and sniping were a feature of daily life. Gas, which had first been used by the Germans on a large scale earlier in the year against the Russians, and more recently the British at Ypres, also became a hazard, with the only protection available being a strip of damp flannel that was tied over the mouth and nose.
At the end of July The Queen’s Own (who were part of the 13th Brigade in the 5th Division) left Ypres and moved to Carnoy, which is on the Somme, just east of Albert. In 1915 this was a relatively peaceful area where both sides were quite content to keep each other in check, and had not engaged in any large-scale aggression. This of course was in stark contrast to the situation less than a year later when the carnage suffered by the British Army in the same place surpassed anything it had experienced before in its entire history.
Whilst on the Somme a typical tour of duty for Stephen would have involved a week in the front line followed by the same amount of time in the reserve. Towards the end of September his battalion were held in readiness to make an attack near Albert that would be triggered by the outcome of a major battle that was occurring at Loos. However, progress had not been sufficient to warrant such an assault, and the men stood down.
As autumn segued into winter, conditions worsened. Exposure to the elements became as much of a going concern as avoiding enemy fire. Heavy rain flooded the trenches, which in turn collapsed and turned the ground into a sticky adhesive mud that forced the men to move in and out of the line over dangerous open terrain.
Stephen spent Christmas in the trenches, and eventually left the Somme on 24 February 1916, when the battalion marched to Arras through a raging blizzard that became known as the ‘Moscow March.’ They were to spend almost four months in the sector, which had seen ferocious fighting during 1915, but by the time Stephen’s unit arrived, was a relatively quiet part of the Front.
By early spring plans for a major summer offensive on the Somme were progressing, with a huge build-up of troops, artillery and other equipment, taking place in the sector. The infamous ‘Battle of the Somme’ began on 1 July 1916. On that day, Stephen waited in readiness to carry out a subsidiary attack south of Arras, however plans changed when the battle’s objectives had not been achieved, and the battalion was immediately called back to the Somme, where they eventually occupied the front line in the south corner of High Wood during the evening of 20 July.
Two days later Stephen and his comrades left their trenches at 9:52 p.m. and advanced behind a creeping barrage that lifted eight minutes later. At this point the men rushed towards the German front line and were immediately checked by a hailstorm of lead from enemy machine-guns. Nearly all the officers were hit at the same time, including those commanding ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Coys. The battalion fought valiantly and made repeated attempts to get forward with the support companies and troops from the two reserve battalions also drawn into the fray. The attack ended in tragic failure and at the end of the day only 250 survivors answered the roll call. As July drew to a close and having been at the Somme for just 11 days, battalion fighting strength had been reduced from 1,100 to 350 men.
To avoid the total destruction of the battalion, reinforcements were swiftly drafted in during August, however they were inexperienced and had received little training. Following High Wood the battalion was involved in actions at Guillemont and Falfemont Farm, and eventually withdrawn from the Somme at the end of September when they were sent to the Festubert area. In less than two and a half months the battalion had lost another 31 officers and over 900 other ranks. Miraculously Stephen was not among the casualties.
Between October 1916 and the end of March 1917 the battalion remained in the centre of a divisional front that extended four miles from Givenchy on the right, Festubert in the centre and Ferme du Bois on the left. Stephen would have undoubtedly been employed in the unending task of maintaining the line, which was later described as resembling a ‘swampy wilderness of ditches and old trenches’.
Towards the end of March the battalion moved to Auchel, where they began a period of training in preparation for an attack on Vimy Ridge planned for 9 April. In the battle the 5th Division were transferred to the Canadian Corps, and the 13th Brigade were to make their attack on the left of the Canadians, with The Queen’s Own advancing on the right and King’s Own Scottish Borderers on the left. ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies were to assault Thélus trench whilst ‘A’ and ‘B’ were to pass through and capture Goulot Wood.
On the day of the attack a snowstorm blew across the battlefield as the men climbed over the parapets, and advanced across No Man’s Land, passing a number of tanks that had become stuck in the mud, and were being shelled by the Germans. Under stiff enemy machine-gun and artillery fire the West Kents pressed on and reached their objectives without incurring too many losses. They were able to successfully hold their position until being relieved by the Canadians during the following day.
By the middle of June The Queen’s Own had begun three months trench duty east of Arras in the Arleux and Oppy Sector. Stephen had been promoted to lance corporal (unpaid) in May, and was granted ten days leave to the UK on 30 June, when he almost certainly returned to Wrotham Heath. He had been overseas for over two years, and had never met his twin sons, who were born very shortly after he left for France in 1915.
Almost immediately after returning to the Front on 29 September, Stephen was admitted to No.50 Casualty Clearing Station for an unknown reason, but rejoined his unit at the start of October when he was awarded the rank of paid lance corporal. The battalion had marched back to the Ypres salient and taken up a position near the Menin Road where they had made a successful attack on the 4th.
At 5:40 a.m. on 26 October, the West Kents were in action again when they attacked towards the village of Gheluvelt. The weather had deteriorated quite considerably and the ground over which they were to advance was extremely boggy. During the battle Stephen distinguished himself and won the Military Medal for his actions. His citation read:
By his fine example and masterly control of fire on the Menin Road, on 26th October 1917, accounted for large numbers of the enemy. He also volunteered to carry a message through a heavy enemy barrage to Battalion H.Q
Despite the battalion’s best efforts, the assault failed to achieve its goals, and The Queen’s Own prepared for a second attack, however with the weather worsening, the idea was abandoned. The trenches (which were in reality a series on unconnected shell holes) were full of water and an increasing number of men began to require medical attention to their feet and legs having spent prolonged periods standing in the water.
Stephen’s war was to take an unexpected turn during mid-December when he was sent with the battalion to Italy. The Italian Army was losing to the Austrians and Germans at Caporetto and so a number French and British Divisions were hastily sent south to provide support and prevent the collapse of the line.
The train journey, which was later recorded in a regimental history as being ‘extremely enjoyable’, took six days, and eventually arrived at its destination in Fontivilla on 17 December. In contrast to their accommodation in France and Flanders, the battalion were billeted in the grounds of the Count’s Palace at Bolzenelle.
Over the next month Stephen would have trained in the mountains during the day as well as helping out the local inhabitants with a variety of other tasks in his spare time. He eventually left for the Italian Front line on 22 January 1918, and arrived at the village of Arcade seven days later. The trenches in this area ran alongside the River Piave, and opposed the enemy who were about three-quarters of a mile away and noted as being ‘extraordinarily inactive.’ Over the next two months it was the observation of enemy aircraft that became a main feature of Stephen’s time in the trenches, and by the middle of March preparations were being made to return the battalion to France.
Stephen left Italy on 1 April and made his way ‘back to the war’ (via the French Riviera), detraining in Frévent five days later. During his time in Italy he had been promoted to acting corporal and arrived back in France just as the Germans had broken through Allied lines near Neuve Chapelle. This was the second of the great enemy offensives of the year (the first occurring on 21 March) and the battalion was hastily sent west of Merville to Thiennes. Large numbers of refugees escaping the advancing German Army hampered progress along the roads, and on arrival the battalion were put in the brigade reserve, and based on the eastern edge of the Forest of Nieppe. The Germans constantly shelled the British front, support and reserve trenches, and by night, bomber aircraft dropped heavy explosives along the Allied lines.
During May the battalion carried out several tours along the extreme north of the sector held by the 5th Division, giving them some relief from the continuous shelling. At 9 p.m. on 23 May the battalion moved off to relieve a battalion of Royal Warwickshires in the trenches, and on the way the Germans sent over a bombardment of gas shells that killed one man and wounded 11 others. Tragically Stephen, who had spent over three years fighting, was the man who lost his life.
He was buried in the Tannay Military Cemetery in Thiennes. In addition to the Military Medal Stephen was also awarded the 1915 Star, British War and Victory Medals.