John Belton 1889-1918

Researched by my cousin Andrew Wadeson.

C Company, 4th (Denbighshire) Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Died of Wounds 22nd March 1918. Western Front.

I have been studying my family tree for several months, but for the last few weeks I’ve focused on one ancestor in particular, and of the journey he made to France 104 years ago. I didn’t Know John Belton, he was killed 34 years before I was born, but in the course of learning about his life and untimely death, I’ve unexpectedly developed an emotional connection with the man. John’s story isn’t unique, of course, but by sharing some of his story, I will not only be honouring him, but also the millions of people of many religions and nationalities who lived and died in the muddy, bloody abattoir that was the Western Front.

John was born in 1889 in the small Denbighshire village of Bwlchgwyn. Apart from a few details gleaned from the censuses of the period, little is known of his early life. The North Wales Times of the 29th August 1908 reported that John Belton and another man were found guilty at the Police Court of “Trespassing for Conies” (rabbit poaching) at Rendmas Farm on the Bodidris Estate. The magistrate found for the plaintiff, fined John five shillings and “warned not to hunt rabbits with impunity in the future”. John Belton would repay his debt to society a thousandfold in ten years time. Most of the information which we do have comes from John’s military service record and regimental war diaries.

John Belton’s military service begins when he enlisted in the C Company 4Th (Denbighshire) battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers on the 8th April 1913 in Coedpoeth. His medical report describes him as being 24 years and 8 months old, 5’ 5” tall and having a chest measurement of 36” – fit for active service.

A year and half later and one hundred and sixty miles from John Belton’s home on Plas Gwyn mountain, a future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, described the scene in London in the hours that led to the declaration of war.

It was eleven o’clock at night – twelve by German time – when the ultimatum expired. The windows of the Admiralty were thrown wide open in the warm night air. Under the roof from which Nelson had received his orders were gathered a small group of admirals and captains and a cluster of clerks, pencils in hand, waiting. Along the Mall from the direction of the Palace the sound of an immense concourse singing ‘God save the King’ floated in. On this deep wave there broke the chimes of Big Ben; and, as the first stroke of the hour boomed out, a rustle of movement swept across the room. The war telegram, which meant, “Commence hostilities against Germany”, was flashed to the ships and establishments under the White Ensign all over the world. I walked across the Horse Guards Parade to the Cabinet room and reported to the Prime Minister and the Ministers who were assembled there that the deed was done.”

On Wednesday 5th August 1914, the day after war was declared, the regiment marched from Hightown barracks to Wrexham Central Station were they boarded a troop train which would take them to Conwy and to the same camp which had just been vacated by the Durham Light Infantry. The banner photograph is an actual image of this event. A local newspaper reported a few days later –

“Thrilling Scenes in Wrexham

Never will we forget Wednesday night’s scenes in Wrexham. At nine o’clock, a contingent of Army Reservists left Wrexham for Portland and the greatest enthusiasm prevailed. All the way from the Barracks to the Great Western Railway Station, the streets were thickly lined with people. Relatives of the men broke into the lines and there were hurried embraces”. (Wrexham Advertiser, August 8th 1914)

The battalion would remain in Conwy for two weeks or so before moving to Northampton at the end of August and remain in the city until early the following month. It is known that the troops were issued with new rifles and boots at 10.10am on the 5th November. The next day, half the battalion comprising A Coy (Wrexham), B Coy (Gresford), C Coy Ruabon) and D Coy (Denbigh) left Northampton and after several hours on a crowded troop train, arrived in Southampton at 5pm. E company, the Coedpoeth boys, together with F Coy (Gwersyllt), G Coy (Rhosllanerchrugog) and H Coy (Llangollen) arrived 3 hours later on a second train. The battalion marched from the train station to the docks and boarded the Admiralty Transport “Architect” bound for France. The voyage across was calm and the troopship finally arrived at Le Havre at 11 am on the morning of 6th November. Together with other troopships, the Architect lay outside the harbour until 5pm. If I know anything about Denbighshire boys, it’s this – by no stretch of the imagination can these hardy sons of the soil (above and below ground) be described as sailors. They must have felt awful after such a long journey. The battalion finally disembarked at 8 pm, but their journey wasn’t quite over. The lads were marched off in dense fog to Bleville Rest Camp 49.51751, 0.09792 situated on the high ground above Le Havre, arriving at 2am on the 7th November. Fortunately for the boys, their tents were already pitched and waiting for them. I have no idea what the Welsh is for “Bloody Army”, but I suspect this and even stronger phrases were muttered when it was announced that there would be a kit inspection at 10am, followed by a battalion inspection by the camp commandant at 2pm. I mean, for goodness sake, didn’t their officers know there was a war on? The battalion had a meal at 3 pm and then made a return march to the train station in Le Havre. They experienced a long wait but eventually boarded train at 8.30pm and left the city. The train was soon travelling northward towards Saint Omer. Had any of the lads been gazing out of the left window three miles outside of Le Havre, they would have noticed the town of Harfleur 49.51116, 0.19801 , the city besieged 500 years earlier by an army led by Henry V, an English king of Welsh birth. The train stopped briefly at Abbeville at 11.30am before continuing to its destination. Thirty miles outside of Abbeville, they passed by Azincourt and met again the ghosts of King Henry and his famous but fictional Welsh captain, Fluellen. The battalion arrived at Saint Omer at 7.30pm, disentrained and marched to the old cavalry barracks in the city where they would spend the night. The battalion left the cavalry barracks the following morning and marched to the infantry barracks a short distance away. They took up quarters at 11 am and iron rations were served out. At 2pm, the battalion went on a short route march in “very wet weather” and returned to barracks at 5pm.

At this point I’m going to jump to the events leading up to John’s death in March 1918. But before I do, it’s worth mentioning some of the events he would have witnessed and participated in.

On the 9th May 1915, John and the Denbighshire boys saw action for the first time at the battle of Aubers Ridge (known as Fromelles in France) 50.58949, 2.83679, a Franco-British offensive near Armentières which cost the allies 11000 casualties with very little gain. Later that year, as a pioneer battalion, the Fusiliers saw action at the Battle of Loos 50.45128, 2.79819 and were involved in the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt 50.498414, 2.774919 .

In 1916 John and his mates would have seen action at Vimy Ridge 50.379 2.774 and on the Somme during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette when the battalion was instrumental in the capture of High Wood. The men of the 4th battalion took part in the Battle of Eaucourt L’Abbaye 50.083333, 2.790833 and the attacks on Butte de Warlencourt 50°4’32″N 2°47’43″E .

In 1917, The Royal Welsh Fusiliers saw action at the Battles Messines 50°45’51.84″ N 2°53’53.16″ E 3rd Ypres and the actions at Cambrai 50.1735° N, 3.2366° E

The weeks leading up to John’s death begin on or around 21st March 1918, This was the first day of the Operation Michael, the first phase of the German Spring Offensive, or the Kaiserschlacht as the Germans referred to their plan to push the Allies back to the coast.

Finding the final resting place of a soldier in any of hundreds of military cemeteries that dot Europe and elsewhere is a fairly straightforward process, but locating the place where they met their violent end is less so. When commencing an investigation of this kind, I was advised to distinguish between two key phrases which are sometimes taken to mean the same thing and are often used interchangeably; “Killed in Action” and “Died of Wounds”. Both terms can refer to the location of a soldier’s death, but the former indicates the place where he received his fatal wound and died immediately or within a matter of hours, or where his body was exhumed from a temporary grave and moved to a permanent cemetery. The latter implies that the wounded soldier was taken to a casualty clearing station, passed along the casualty evacuation chain and died, possibly days later and some distance from where he received his wounds.

The knowledge that John had died of wounds, led me to the discovery that he was in the care of the 5th London Field Ambulance at the time of his death. A field ambulance is not a vehicle as the name suggests, but a temporary hospital (Think M.A.S.H. Hot Lips Houlihan, Trapper John, Radar and Hawkeye) a unit of the Royal Army Medical Corps. The Field Ambulance was responsible for establishing and operating a number of points along what was known as the casualty evacuation chain These points were Casualty Clearing Stations, Bearer Relay Posts which were up to 600 yards behind the Regimental Aid Posts in the front line, Advanced Dressing Stations (ADS) and Main Dressing Stations (MDS). The RAMC also provided a Walking Wounded Collecting Station.

The task is further aggravated when a soldier whose death was recorded, as in John’s case, on the 22nd could actually have been killed on the 21st because of the cut off point, often at mid-day, where casualty paperwork was finalised for the previous 24hrs. Everything that had happened in that 24hrs would be recorded as occurring on the day of submission. If the body was at the hospital he must have been brought in wounded to the CCS and passed along the chain. If he’d died earlier in the system then his body wouldn’t have ended up in hospital. I then came across a document entitled “Concentration of Graves (Exhumation and Reburial)”, which contained the following information. John’s name, regiment, rank and number, the map reference where he was found and, rather ominously, the means of identification – in John’s case it was a label on his tunic. The map reference (Q20.C.5.9.) was meaningless to me, so I decided to drill down a little deeper and see if I could somehow convert the map reference to a latitude/longitude point, a task which proved easier than I expected. After speaking to someone at the National Library of Scotland, I learned that these coordinates were a reference associated with the trench maps used by the British army on the Western Front. It was then a matter of converting them to longitude and latitude which gave the answer as 50.0681938 3.0649663. This point is accurate to about 50 square yards and today marks the large garden or smallholding of a residence in Rue d’ Elboise, Metz en Couture, Pas de Calais, France. I believe it was here that a badly wounded John Belton was found and passed along the casualty evacuation chain to the 5th London Field Ambulance, the location of which I have yet to identify. For anyone interested, just copy and paste these and the other coordinates into Google Earth to view the location. John is buried with 740 others at Hermies Hill British Cemetery, Pas de Calais 50.11112 3.03185 about five miles from where he died.

I have been in communication with the mayor of Metz en Couture who informs me that his municipality will be holding a “Great Vigil” from the 9th to the 11th November and he has promised to mention John Belton in his speeches – I think our boy would like that. The mayor has invited me to visit his village next year and you know what? I think I will.