Pte. Sydney Bridgland (1893 – 1918)
Sydney Bridgland was born during March 1893 in Fulham, the son of Edward Charles and Charlotte Bridgland (née Ingram), who had been married in 1892. His father (who died in 1900) was born in West Malling, whilst his mother was from Platt. Following Edward’s death, Sydney and his three younger siblings all went to live in Claygate Cross, Crouch with Ellen Ingram, their maternal grandmother. Sydney’s mother had gone to live with Edward’s brother Henry, a widowed civil engineer, as his housekeeper in Lambeth.
The registers for Platt School only survive from 1900 onwards, and being that the two youngest Bridgland children were educated there, it is probable that the two oldest (including Sydney), were also pupils. Like many lads from the area, Sydney worked on a farm after leaving school, although perhaps being of a more adventurous nature, he enlisted in the Army at Chatham on 27 April 1911, and joined The Buffs (East Kent Regiment.)
In his medical, Sydney then aged 18, was described as being 5′ 7″ in height, weighing 128lbs and having a fresh complexion, brown eyes and hair. He signed up for seven years with the Colours and five in the Reserve, and was subsequently sent to the regimental depot in Canterbury, where he underwent basic training.
Several months later Sydney was posted to the 1st Battalion, The Buffs, who were based in Dublin, and remained with them until 12 November 1913 when he was sent to India to join the 2nd Battalion. During his time overseas he was awarded his 3rd Class Army Education Certificate and had qualified for regimental transport duties.
At the outbreak of war, the 2nd Battalion were headquartered in Wellington, which is in the current Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Orders arrived in November 1914 for the battalion to proceed to the Western Front, and after being relieved by a Territorial unit, they departed on the 16th from Bombay on board the Cunard ship Ultonia. The vessel was old, slow and dirty and horribly overcrowded due to the additional presence of a battalion of East Yorkshires, who were also on their way to the Front.
After making a circuitous detour around the Atlantic in an effort to avoid submarines, the convoy of 34 ships arrived in Plymouth on 23 December. Sydney spent a wet, miserable Christmas encamped on downs near Winchester, where the battalion became part of the 85th Brigade, 28th Division. Whilst at camp he was probably afforded a few days leave to return home before proceeding overseas.
On 16 January 1915 the battalion marched to Southampton and embarked for Le Havre where on arrival, they entrained for Hazebrouck. The Buffs first went into the trenches near Ypres on 6 February, and discovered that they were in a ‘very bad condition’, with the men having to stand ‘knee-deep in water’ and forced to keep their heads down due to the parapet not offering much in the way of protection. The trenches had been dug in a straight line without any traverse, and were therefore susceptible to enfilade fire in a number of places. Despite being at the Front for only a few days, a significant number of men returned from their first time in the trenches with swollen feet and frostbite.
The following week, 250 men from the battalion made an attack on an objective situated on the south side of the canal bank. The first attempt was aborted but resumed the next day, with more success. However, only half of the line was secured, and the battalion held what gains they had made until a replacement force from the Suffolk Regiment could secure the entire stretch. Due to the mud, it was noted that the majority of The Buff’s rifles were out of action, and had the Germans counter-attacked, they would have been in ‘considerable trouble.’ It is unknown whether Sydney participated in the attack, however he would have almost certainly been in the support had he not been one of the 250.
Following the assault the battalion went into billets at Locre before marching to Westoutre for baths and fresh clothing. A history of The Buffs in the Great War written by Colonel S. H. Moody noted:
Men cast off their filthy underclothing, which was taken from them, and after a bath, clean underclothes, which had once belonged to other people, were provided and the old ones were never seen again by the original owners. At first this caused a certain amount of grumbling amongst careful men, who were liable to become possessed of somewhat more ragged articles than they handed in…
On 22 April the battalion was involved in the Second Battle of Ypres. The Buffs had recently arrived in St Jean (about one mile east of the city) from Zonnebeke, and had bivouacked in nearby fields. The village was about four miles back from the British front line, yet at the start of the attack, men from the battalion were able to see the greenish vapour (gas) swamping over the left of the Allied line, whilst stray bullets pinged around their heads.
The battalion was brought into action on the second day of the battle, and ordered to assist a Canadian Division at Wieltje, who had suffered heavily on their left flank. The trenches were screened by a hedge which allowed The Buffs to approach undetected, however beyond this was open country, and once deployed the Buffs came under considerable enemy machine-gun and rifle fire. In the advance the men fell in their dozens, with only two companies able to reach the relative safety of a farm about 400 yards away. Further casualties were sustained when the men were then ordered to turn to their right, and rush across fields to help secure three lines of trenches that were being lightly protected by the French, and in serious danger of being breached. Under heavy shelling and rifle fire Sydney’s unit were able to hold the position for several days and were eventually relieved by the 4th Rifle Brigade on the 27th.
After a brief period away from the action The Buffs faced the full-force of the German artillery again at the start of May with an abnormally ferocious barrage beginning at dawn on the 3rd. During the day, Sydney was wounded by shrapnel in the back of his hand, and sent to Boulogne to have his injuries seen to at No. 13 General Hospital. Battalion casualties in the thirteen days commencing 22 April were estimated to have number almost 700 men. Sydney’s time with the 2nd Buffs was at an end and he was immediately sent back to England to recover from his wounds.
In late June, Sydney was temporarily transferred to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, The Buffs, and spent two weeks at camp in Dover awaiting his next posting. On 6 July, two months after he had arrived back in England, Private Bridgland returned to France and was assigned to the 1st Battalion, The Buffs, his old unit (now part of the 6th Division in France) who he had enlisted with in 1911.
After a period of training at an Infantry Base Depot, and before he rejoined the battalion, Sydney was attached to the 38th Trench Mortar Battery on 24 August and sent to join his new unit, who were based along the canal near Ypres. At this point in the war the use of trench mortars was still a relatively new thing, and batteries were often made up of men from the infantry and gunners from the artillery corps. By the end of the year light mortar units were manned by the infantry, and medium/heavy units by the Royal Field Artillery. The Long, Long Trail website writes:
Trench mortars were used in a variety of defensive and offensive roles, from the suppression of an enemy machine-gun, sniper post or other local feature, to the coordinated firing of barrages.
By 25 September, at the start of the Battle of Loos, Sydney had spent a month on the Ypres Salient, and was based at an unattractively named place called Stink Houses, from where the battery took part in a general bombardment of the German lines. Towards the end of October the 38th TMB were forced to briefly evacuate their trenches due to deteriorating conditions, the battery War Diary recording that:
Heavy rain for three days almost incessant. Trenches have become impassable, all movement restricted to the open at night. Even the parapet has fallen in, in several places. All dug-outs fell in, entire time taken up with making dug-outs, digging out banks and stores making new bank store etc.
On 29 October Sydney was temporarily transferred to the 26th Trench Mortar Battery for 14 days, before returning to the 38th on 12 November. On 19 December he survived an enemy gas attack whilst in trenches near Railway Wood, and remained in the Ypres area until mid-March, when the battery moved to Zegerscappel in northern France. On arrival he received training in the use of a new weapon known as the Stokes Trench Mortar – a light mortar that became highly useful for its portability, and could fire a high-explosive shell weighing about 11 pounds with a maximum range of about 800 yards.
Sydney was assigned to X/6 Trench Mortar Battery on 1 April 1916, which had been formed from men of the re-designated 26th Battery, and in early August his unit arrived at Bertrancourt on the Somme.
At the start of September X/6 were based at Méaulte, south of Albert, and working on forward gun positions for the Royal Field Artillery. During the month, the 6th Division took part in two general attacks on the Somme (Flers-Courcelette & Morval) and one in October (Le Transloy), with Sydney probably being involved with some, or all of these actions. By the end of November the division had taken over the La Bassée sector on the Loos Salient with Sydney’s unit based in trenches running north from the east of Givenchy.
During 1917 Sydney probably saw action at the Battle of Hill 70 in April, and then Cambrai later on that year. Though scant in general information, the War Diary for this period does give comprehensive statistics of how many rounds each battery fired on any given day. For example during June 1917 X/6 fired a daily average of about 68 rounds, with 136 being sent over on 2 June alone.
Sydney was granted two week’s leave to the United Kingdom on 17 January 1918 whilst he was billeted in Bapaume, and is likely to have returned to his unit on 4 February. Throughout much of early March, his section worked on a gun pit near St. Leger, and remained in a constant state of high alert. In the event of a hostile attack each pit maintained a stokes bomb which was to be used to blow up the weapons, and prevent them falling into enemy hands.
At 4:30 a.m. on 21 March the Germans opened what would later be known as the ‘Spring Offensive’ with a heavy artillery bombardment on Allied lines. Faced with overwhelming enemy numbers, Sydney found his position being rapidly overrun by Germans, and it appears he probably blew himself up whilst trying to destroy his guns. Without an identifiable body, he was reported as missing in action shortly afterwards.
A few days before the offensive began, Sydney had written to his relatives, with the letter being delivered the day after he died. This was the last time they, or Sydney’s fiancée, a Miss Russell of Sundridge, heard from him. Almost a year later, on 8 February 1919, ‘Miss Russell’ placed an advert in the Kent Messenger, asking for any returning soldiers who had known Sydney to get in touch, particularly those released from prisoner of war camps. The months of uncertainty came to an end two weeks later when 9583 Pte. Sydney Bridgland was officially recorded as ‘presumed dead’ on 22 March 1918.
Sydney was awarded the 1915 Star, British War and Victory Medals. These were presented to his mother, Charlotte, who was by then living in Red Lion Square in Plaxtol. As his body was never recovered for burial he is commemorated on the Arras Memorial in northern France.