The exceptional Great War Battle of the Somme Flers-Courcelette capture of the Sunken Road 15th September 1916 ‘Posthumous’ Distinguished Conduct Medal group awarded to Private R.H. Burgess, 18th Battalion – West Ontario, who in the advance to capture the Sunken Road and the Sugar Factory owing to casualties to the crews of some of the machine guns, although wounded, provided bomber escort, until wounded seriously for a second time, from which he then succumbed.

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The exceptional Great War Battle of the Somme Flers-Courcelette capture of the Sunken Road 15th September 1916 ‘Posthumous’ Distinguished Conduct Medal group awarded to Private R.H. Burgess, 18th Battalion – West Ontario, Canadian Expeditionary Force, who in the advance to capture the Sunken Road and the Sugar Factory owing to casualties to the crews of some of the machine guns, although wounded, provided bomber escorts to the gunners to assist them in their advance, until wounded seriously for a second time, from which he then succumbed.

Group of 4: Distinguished Conduct Medal, GVR bust; (53659 PTE R.H. BURGESS. 18/CAN:INF:); 1914-1915 Star; (53659 PTE R.H. BURGESS. 18/CAN:INF:); British War Medal and Victory Medal; (53659 PTE. R.H. BURGESS. 18-CAN.INF.)

Condition; Good Very Fine.

Robert H. Burgess was born on 1st February 1885 in Fulham, London, England, and having emigrated to Canada, worked as a carpenter, but with the outbreak of the Great War, then enlisted into the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force at St Thomas, Ontario, on 22nd October 1914, presumably intending to become a member of the First Canadian Contingent, however this was not to be and he ended up joining as a Private (No.53659) the 18th Battalion – Western Ontario, Canadian Expeditionary Force, becoming one of the ‘original’ members of the battalion, when it was form on 7th November 1914.

The 18th Battalion embarked for Great Britain on 18th April 1915. It disembarked in France on 15th September 1915, where it fought as part of the 4th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division.

Having taken part in the fighting at Mount Sorrel in May 1916, the Battalion then found itself embroiled in the Battle of the Somme, and it was in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette during the Somme operations that Burgess not only distinguished himself, but also lost his life, whilst in action on 15th September 1916. Originally he was reported as missing in action on the above date, and at the time he was not officially listed as killed in action until 15th March 1917.

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette was a significant engagement by the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. From the CWGC a search of war killed in action on that date finds a total of 1003 Canadian soldiers perished on that date from all causes. Though one cannot extrapolate this as an accurate figure when the data is sorted by battalion the 18th Battalion suffered 93 war dead or almost 10% of the total of all Canadian soldiers who died that day. If one takes the extrapolation further assuming a wound/killed ratio of 2:1 then potentially there were an additional 200 soldiers of the battalion above the number killed that had to be cared for, transported, and rehabilitated. This figure does not take into account the men who died of wounds days, weeks, months, and possibly years after the battle.

‘The 18th Battalion War Diary records: ‘At 2 am on the 15th September 1916 the Battalion took up position in the front line trenches with the right flank on the Bapume-Albert Road extending to left about 300 yards. The front being covered by three companies with one company in reserve. The Battalion less two platoons (which had been sent to relieve two platoons of the 19th Battalion) was in position as per Operation Order at 4.30 am. The above platoons which were holding from line from R35.d.2.3 to 35 d.4.2 ½ were badly cut up by a bombing attack by the enemy about 4.30 am and only one Sergeant and 16 men went forward with the 20th Canadian Battalion and afterwards joined their battalion at Courcelette Sugar Factory. The balance left made their way over and joined their own company which was the fifth wave.’

‘At 6.20 am as laid down in Operation Order the barrage was laid 50 yards in from of enemy front line. At 6.21 am it lifted to enemy front line at 6.24 am it lifted to 100 yards beyond and the Battalion then advanced covered also by heavy machine gun fire. No difficulty was experienced in taking first line trench as our artillery had demoralised what occupants that remained there. The artillery barrage was carried out as per Operation Order. On out advancing some of the enemy offered to surrender and these men were sent back to the 19th Canadian Battalion whose orders were to “mop up”. On the right of our line near Bapaume Road about 30 of the enemy left trench and retired. These men were all accounted for by our rifle fire and bombs.’

‘On continuing the advance the next point where serious opposition was met was a trench from approximately R35.b 71 to R35 b 90. Here several detached posts of the enemy were encountered and shot and bayoneted by our first wave. On proceeding to the trench, the Battalion suffered heavily by reason of machine gun fire which came from our left flank. These guns were shortly accounted for by the 27th Canadian Battalion who were advancing on our left flank. At the time all the officers of “B” Company and several other officers were casualties. Company Sergeant Major Deane took command of “B” Company from this trench to Sugar Factory. Our chief opposition were snipers and machine gun fire.’

‘On arriving in the vicinity of the Sugar Factory Refinery our troops converged on that point expecting very strong opposition. Our artillery fire had been very accurate and we did not receive as much opposition as was anticipated. About 125 of the enemy surrendered. On entering the Sugar Factory we took 6 officers and 15 men as prisoners out of deep dug-outs underneath the factory. These prisoners at first refused to surrender but on our using ‘P’ bombs on them they were glad to do so. From this point we dug in and consolidated trench, also putting advanced posts with Lewis guns about 150 yards in advance in Sunken Road.’

‘This line which was our final objective was obtained at about 7.03 am. This position was held by the battalion until 6.10 pm on 16th September 1916, by which stage the approximate strength of the front line was then 200 all ranks and 4 machine guns.’

‘“D” Company in the fifth wave, who were to dig half way trench commenced work at 7.20 am and consolidated position. All officers were casualties, strength of company about 50 other ranks, one Lewis and one Colt Gun. From the Machine Gun Section, the Machine Gun Officer and balance of section were casualties. This line was under command of Company Sergeant Major Verdon, who became a casualty shortly afterwards. At 9 am the following message was received from 21st Canadian Infantry Brigade. “Artillery have instruction to lift barrage at 9.20 am, and you will establish posts on Sunken Road beyond your final objective as soon as possible” and this message was sent forward to Company Commanders and officer commanding front line who assured us that we occupied Sunken Road. We then got in telephone communications with Brigade who informed us that Lieutenant Davidson (who was a casualty) had been to Brigade and had shown Major Armstrong our position and he said that we were in Sunken Road. At 12 noon we received message from “D” Company that they had only about 37 other ranks left and that Sergeant Trappitt was in command. Several maps, papers and supplies were procured at Sugar Factory and were sent to Battalion Headquarters. All that reached there were at once sent to Brigade Headquarters.’

‘After the prisoners were taken from Sugar Factory, two bombers explored interior and found a wounded German. All that was possible was done for him and he was left there. All telephone lines were cut at Sugar Factory (communicating with German Headquarters) and one Receiver Set was used by our artillery officer on Bapaume Road, being connected up by him with his battery at 3 pm. We received the following Brigade message “Hold on to Sunken Road and Brigade on our right are taking Martinpuch at 3 pm and 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade are advancing through us as 6 pm and 3rd Canadian Division are advancing on our left and seize first opportunity of establishing front line in Sunken Road in conjunction with British and 5th Brigade advance.” This order was sent to front line and supports who received it at 5.10 pm. Our front line and supports were shelled continuously all day by guns of all calibres. At 6530 pm following was received from 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade “Your battalion will be withdrawn tonight an further orders will be issued and you may commence to evacuate your wounded as soon as 5th Brigade pass through your area. This message was sent to all concerned. At 5.45 pm the 5th Canadian Brigade were seen to be coming towards our front line in extended order. The Hun artillery immediately opened fire on our position at the Sugar Factory.’

This attack had gone in with tanks, the earliest known instance of tank and infantry co-coperation, but as the War Diarist noted ‘the battalion advanced well ahead of the tanks and the final objective was gained before tanks overtook them. One tank which advanced along Sugar Trench, advanced in front of our final objective, then turning south east to Bapaume Road after which it was not seen by our front line troops. Nothing was seen of the other tanks.’  

Burgess was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in the London Gazette on 16th November 1916, and the citation reads as follows:

‘For conspicuous gallantry and resource during operations. When, owing to casualties, the crews of some machine guns found themselves without escort, Private Burgess although wounded, organised escorts of bombers, and assumed command until he was wounded seriously a second time’.

It is difficult the deduct from he War Diary at what stage during the action Burgess specifically distinguished himself, nor the exact point of his death, but

it is presumed that having been already wounded during the taking of the enemy trenches, he must have then gone to the aid of the Machine Gun Section, which as the War Dairy states ‘the Machine Gun Officer and balance of section were casualties’, and then assisted the surviving gun crews in their advance to the final objective in the Sunken Road, till wounded seriously a second time. It must be presumed that he died from wounds, whilst his battalion was awaiting permission to evacuate its wounded, which was only allowed after the 5th Canadian Brigade had passed through at 6 pm, so presumably too late for Burgess, who body must have been then left behind, or else quickly buried in a makeshift grave.

Burgess was subsequently buried in Sunken Road Cemetery at Contalmaison.

It was only on his death that the final part of his story unravels through his will, in which he became apparent that he was a man of property with interests in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; Marville Road, Fulham, England; and Minister on Sea on the Isle of Sheppey on the south-east coast of England. The will elucidates in specific detail on how is estate is to be apportioned and, though probably lost forever to history, Alice May West is to be the primary benefit of the will. A review of his service record gives no indication as to the relationship Private Burgess has to Alice May West. Was she a girl friend, sister, or someone else in his life.

Private Burgess was a very organized man and had also specified that upon his death a G.W. Saxton, Esq. of 86 Curzon Street, Toronto, Ontario be also notified of his death. The manner and structure of the document indicates such and such details as instructing his estate contact the Mayor of Moose Jaw to affect the sale of his property in this city shows how much Canada has changed. Perhaps this would be a normal way to do this, assuming Private Burgess was known to the Mayor.

What is striking is the sentiment at the beginning of the will: “If it so happens that I am allowed to die for my country…” Private Burgess most certainly means England. The distinction between the Commonwealth country of Canada, still tied legally, politically, economically, judicially, and culturally to the United Kingdom almost makes this a certainty. It is curious to note Privates Burgess’ ties to Moose Jaw, yet he attested on 22nd October 1914 in St. Thomas, Ontario. Full copies of his will are available amongst the research, and a number of references to his will are found online, some of which has assisted in this text.