The Battle of Aubers Ridge – 9th May 1915

Geoff Grainger – Final Blog

The Battle of Aubers Ridge – 9th May 1915.

When I volunteered for this project I had little knowledge about Aubers Ridge or that I would eventually walk this once hallowed ground in northern France.  Despite previous studies of WW1, I had come across Aubers only fleetingly, as one of the Allies’ failed attempts to help break the deadlock on the Western Front in 1915. In the annals of the Great War it was considered a sideshow to a larger and partly successful French offensive fifteen miles to the south and had become largely forgotten.

For the British Army, Aubers was a ghastly failure, which threatened to undermine the authority of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French – indeed the subsequent Shell Scandal toppled the Liberal Government. The Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener only just survived, because political attention was perhaps conveniently diverted to another, larger failure, at Gallipoli.

For the Northamptonshire Regiment however, it was massively significant, as indeed it was for the County’ communities. In just a few hours on 9th May, the Steelbacks suffered a tenth of their casualties killed during the whole war. In Northampton very few streets were not visited by a telegram boy bearing the dreaded War Office notification. For hundreds of families news was not forthcoming as loved ones were posted ‘missing’, and the agony of uncertainty went on for many months. By delving into the local press coverage I was able to discover many tragic tales of suffering and broken families. I was brought face to face with the reality behind the hundreds of names of men of the Shire that appear on memorials to the Missing.

Most distressing were the appeals for news from relatives who could get no information from the War Office. As I read I already knew that these brave soldiers were never to be seen again or have a burial place. For the Missing there was no ‘corner of a foreign field’ – only their names on vast memorials.

And so to Saturday 9th May 2015

The Museum’s publicity machine  worked well because my talk at 1pm was sold out, despite the General Election and VE DAY commemorations. Helped perhaps by the Chronicle and Echo feature on Thursday 7th May and my BBC Radio Northampton interview early on Saturday morning, a second talk was scheduled for 3pm and that almost sold out as well.

Thank you to Northampton Museum for not forgetting the 9th May 1915, and for staging the event at Abington Park. Thank you also to all the good folk who took the trouble to attend or to share their stories of that dreadful event.

This was arguably the blackest day in the history of the County and deserved to be acknowledged as such. I feel privileged to have been able to play a small part in perpetuating its commemoration.

As a result of my research into the tragedy of Aubers Ridge I also made an intriguing, if sinister, discovery. I had been vaguely aware that a certain Adolph Hitler had been a regimental runner in Flanders in 1915. During the course of my investigations here and in France I discovered that his unit, the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, had been opposite the 2nd Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment – in fact only some 350 yards directly across No Man’s Land. Further research into German archive material and eye-witness statements showed that Hitler was present at the battle of Aubers Ridge. He was a runner in the sector in front of the 2nd Northants, carrying despatches to and from his regimental HQ and the front line. Fate must have played a big part in keeping him alive.

So to my final reflection after these months of research?

Might a Steelback’s bullet have changed the course of history?

What might have been the destiny of the modern world if Hitler had not survived that day in May 1915?

Geoff Grainger

25 May 2015