Son of Luton dentist gave his life for the freedom of his country

Sergeant 26865  Bernard Vincent Webb
Sergeant 26865 Bernard Vincent Webb

The great nephew of a Lutonborn soldier has paid tribute to him on the 100th anniversary of his death in the First World War.

Roger Atterton, of Eckington, Derbyshire, contacted the Luton News, asking us to tell the story of Sergeant 26865 Bernard Vincent Webb of Westbourne Road, Luton, son of local dentist George Henry Webb.

Roger wrote: “My great uncle, volunteered for army service at the outbreak of WW1 at the age of 17 although he told the recruiter he was 19.

“A moulder by occupation having been born in the parish of Christchurch, Luton in 1898, he attested into the Army at the Bedford Recruiting Office on 6th September 1914, when completing his application he gave his year of birth as 1886. It is assumed he chose Bedford rather than his hometown Luton because his false statement about his age would be less likely to be discovered.

“He was sworn into the Bedfordshire Regiment but on the following day was transferred to the 12th Royal Lancers and posted to Dublin, Ireland for training. In June 1915 he was voluntarily transferred yet again, this time to the 3rd Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers and appointed to the temporary rank of Corporal. It is not known if he had any family connections in Ireland.

“As he was 19 years of age in the eyes of the army he was eligible for service overseas and on 1st August 1915 he was posted to Gallipoli as part of the much needed reinforcements. The main landings had taken place in April 1915 but numbers had become seriously depleted and were in urgent need of strengthening.

“Upon landing at Suvla along with 10,000 British troops he would have faced the terrifying sight of the Ottoman Army, commanded by Colonel Mustapha Kemal, who later became known as Kemal Ataturk founder of modern Turkey. Eventually the Suvla battlefields became as bloody as those at Anzac Cove, Cape Helless and the rest of the Gallipoli Campaign.

“Within 21 days Bernard had been wounded suffering from a gunshot wound to a hand and was evacuated to the nearby island of Mudros, now known by its Greek name of Lemnos. Two months later he was evacuated to England on the Hospital Ship Aquitana. Between 29th December 1915 and 6th January 1916 the Gallipoli peninsular was evacuated leaving behind 50,000 British and Commonwealth young men who had died in the 9 month campaign.

“After hospitalisation at the 2nd Western General Hospital, Manchester he enjoyed a period of leave in February 1916. The following month, 7th March 1916, he was transferred to the newly formed Machine Gun Corps, often referred to as the “Suicide Club” because of the high number of casualties it suffered. He attended a course at the Machine Gun Corps School in Grantham to train as a machine gunner using the lethal Vickers Machine Guns, these were capable of firing a terrifying 500 rounds per minute. The guns were fed belts of 250 rounds of 303 mm bullets and the resulting arc of withering fire caused devastating consequences to advancing enemy infantry.

“On 9th May 1917 he was posted abroad again, this time to France, where he joined 92 Machine Gun Company and raised to the rank of acting Sergeant. During his time with 92 Machine Gun Company and subsequently 31st Division he fought at the Battle of St Quentin, the Battle of Bapaume, the 1st Battle of Arras, the Battle of Estaires, the Battle of Hazebrouck and the Defence of Nieppe Forest.

“The 31st Battalion was heavily committed during the German Spring Offensive which started on 21st March 1918. It had so many casualties that by the end of May 1918, it was withdrawn from the front line, sadly, prior to that event Bernard Webb, by now a substantive Sergeant was killed in action on 22nd May 1918.

“The War Diary for the 31st Battalion notes that on 22nd May ‘of the 3 runners and 4 sergeants sent to Divisional HQ to reconnoitre, 1 runner and 3 sergeants were killed by an exploding shell, and 1 runner and 1 sergeant wounded. Bernard Webb was one of the 3 sergeants killed’.

“Bernard is buried in the now tranquil environs of Caestre Military Cemetery which is in the Ypres sector of the Western Front, close to where he was killed in action. The inscription his mother, Elizabeth Webb (nee Smart), requested for his headstone reads: ‘‘His memory is as dear today as in the hour he passed away’.

“He has now been at peace for 100 years buried next to his comrade in arms, fellow Machine Gunner, Private 60938 E Cook aged 23 from Accrington. He was also serving with 31st Battalion but was killed the previous day, on 21st May.

“Like so many of his comrades who were killed or wounded in this terrible conflict Bernard had continuously demonstrated what a remarkably brave young man he was. By the age of 20 he had experienced many terrible things in his short lifetime.

“He had witnessed the horrors of war in both the Gallipoli campaign and on the Western Front in France where as a young NCO he had led a 6 man Machine Gun Section in the face of extreme adversity.

“In 1919 his mother confirmed that Bernard was survived by two brothers: George Henry Webb (jnr) aged 24 who had served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Mesopotamia, and Cyril Edward Webb aged 17 recorded as an invalid.

“His sister Florence Webb aged 18 qualified as a State Registered Nurse went to work in Malaysia where she met her husband Arthur Chandler. His third brother, Stuart John Webb, had died in Etaple Military Hospital from wounds received in 1917 at the Battle of Poelcapelle, whilst serving with the Manchester Regiment.”