Three extraordinary scraps of paper have floated down through the years to tell the full facts of a family story, dimly remembered. One of them is dated the last day of the Great War, sent from the front by an officer perhaps already sensing that there was a life ahead of him still. It’s 93 years to the day since he wrote it.
Three Tresman brothers went to serve in the Great War, leaving six underage brothers and two sisters at home. One died – Lewis and Annie Tresman (Triesman)’s eldest son Henry Jacob or Jack.
The story I heard as a very young boy more than 50 years ago might have been apocryphal – that he’d jumped or fallen into a trench, ditch or shell-hole and been blown up by a grenade on his own belt. No-one ever raised it with his widow Rae, who remarried but remained in the broad Tresman family and whom I remember fondly as a kindly Great Aunt.
It’s now possible, extraordinarily, to look back almost a century and find out what happened.
Jack was not involved until 1917, when he was almost certainly conscripted as a consequence of the Military Service Act of 1916, which withdrew exemptions for married men. Jack had married Rachel (Rae) and in 1915 they had their only child, Solomon David (David). Jack joined up (the word ‘enrolment’ is cancelled in favour of the word ‘joined’ on the official forms) on 13th March 1917. His medical report was good but mentioned his ‘defective teeth’. His profession was Tailor. His religion was ‘Jew’.
Like many recruits, he was shoved into the 8th Infantry Labour Corps, and embarked Folkestone for Boulogne on 28th March. He seems to have spent 6 months in his first posting, though the records are confusing. In September 1917 he was moved to Etaples, to a reinforcements camp, where he was initially transferred into the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and assigned a new service number. He then ‘joined battalion’.
Six months or so later, in February 1918, he was moved again, to 7th Corps Reinforcement Camp and attached to an entrenching battalion. He joined his brigade for duty at HQ 8th Division, but a few weeks later was on the move again, first to the Northamptonshire Regiment, where he was given yet another new number, and then to the West Yorkshire Regiment, posted to its 2nd Battalion, The Prince of Wales’s Own. Again he was assigned a new number.
One can picture the ‘poor bloody infantryman’ being moved from pillar to post. On 19th April he ‘joined battalion’ again, part of 8th Infantry Section No 3.The strength must have been depleted, and Private Tresman must have been competent, because two weeks later he accepted an unpaid promotion to Lance Corporal.
The West Yorkshires were part of the division aligned on the River Aisne, on the very northern edge of France. The British Army had suffered 300,000 casualties in confronting the German forces under Ludendorff, and L/Cpl Tresman was one of 140,000 reinforcements being hurried into the line, not only from England but from other theatres of war. The fighting in northern France between March and May 1918 was fierce and bloody, and we don’t know how much of it Private Tresman had been involved in prior to his transfer to the West Yorks, but as an infantryman he was unlikely to have been anywhere but in the front.
On the evening before the Third Battle of the Aisne, 26th May 1918, he was in the line near Berry Au Bac, north of the Aisne. At dawn that morning, he returned from a Listening Post in front of the front line trenches – just about the most dangerous place on earth at the time – with two men, Lance Corporal Burton and Private Hammond. Men on this post each took two bombs ‘of French pattern’ which they carried in their pockets, presumably as an emergency defence against a sally from the German trenches.
As Lance Corporal Tresman got back, his bombs in his pocket, he jumped into his own company’s trench, knocking one of the bombs against the trench wall. He was badly wounded in the leg and died within a few minutes.
129,000 Allied soldiers died in the battle that started the following morning, the first in which the Americans fought – the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division.
Jack Tresman’s was an ‘accidental death’ and normally an enquiry would be held. On 9th September the War Office wrote to the Deputy Adjutant General, Third Echelon, BEF, to enquire as to the outcome of such a Court of Enquiry. The reply came back that no court was held, but copied correspondence was enclosed, explaining that the witness statements and the necessary papers were forwarded to the CO at Forward HQ for completion. The papers arrived only a few hours before the Germans, mounting their major attack on the Aisne.
The OC Company Captain, Capt Bastow, was killed in the attack, and the Adjutant, Acting Captain Saunders and the two witnesses, perhaps Burton and Hammond, went missing. The CO was wounded, continued the report, and was later killed in action.
The Major General Deputy Adjutant General returned this information to the War Office, regarding 72560 Lance Corporal H.J. Tresman, 2nd Bttn. West Yorks Regiment. His correspondence is dated 11th November 1918, the last day of the war.
My Great Aunt Rae was awarded a widow’s pension of 20/5; a pound and five shillings. Her son David, later David Tresman Caminer OBE, volunteered for his father’s last regiment, the West Yorks, in World War II, and lost his leg in action in North Africa. He was 3 when his father Jack was killed. David died in 2008, recognised for his services to computing, for having developed Leo, the UK’s pioneering business computing system for J. Lyons Ltd.
Jack’s two brothers, Joe and Simon, survived. My grandfather Joe served with the Royal Engineers Pioneer Corps, the unit that operated gas attacks. He was commissioned 2 Lt in the field. In WW2 he served in the Pay Corps.
Armistice Day 2008 was the day I identified a hitherto unidentified unrecognised photograph that came down from my father’s Scottish side, as Duncan Frederick Conner, who had enlisted in the RAMC in 1911, and was killed evacuating wounded in the aftermath of the Hooge Crater mine attack at Ypres in 1916, aged 24. He was my father’s uncle, though he didn’t seem to know him, since Winnie Conner, his mother, had died when he was 7.
Soon I hope to visit the two war cemeteries in Northern France where our two Great Uncles Jack and Duncan are buried.
Armistice Day 2011
Strip joint-owner Jack Ruby, the Dallas Mob, the CIA and the assassination of JFK.
Starring Danny Aiello and Sherilyn Fenn.
Directed by John MacKenzie.
Screenplay by Stephen Davis from his play Love Field.
See Ruby at the IMDB
Tommy Lee Jones stars as CIA officer Steve Daley trying to unravel the riddle of high-level KGB defector Yuri Nosenko (Oleg Rudnik).
The real-life espionage case that started a secret war inside the CIA.
Screenplay by Stephen Davis.
View the details for the film at the IMDB