Private 7508 Agnew Ayres

1st Battalion – The Northamptonshire Regiment

 

Agnew was born in 1888 the third child of ten born to Joseph and Mary Ayres and by the early summer of 1914 was living with his wife, Maggie, and their three children, William, Irene, and Cecil at 26 Oswald Road and working as a shoe laster. Next door at number 27 lived his sister Edith, now married to a George Page, at number 7 were his parents and five brothers and at number 3 was his other sister, Maud, married to Benjamin Knibbs. The final brother, Horace was a policeman living in Kettering.

When war was declared Agnew and his brother William, who were both reservists, were recalled to the army and went to France with the B.E.F. on 13 August 1914.

During the retreat from Mons Agnew was shot in the head breaking his jaw and losing all his teeth. After initial treatment in a casualty clearing station in France he was evacuated to the Exeter Eye Hospital which had been taken over by the Army and then sent home to convalesce.

Agnew Ayres

West of England Eye Hospital

It whilst he was at home recovering that official notice came that his brother, William, had been killed in action on the 31 October 1914 during the First Battle of Ypres. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Menin Gate.

By this time two other brothers, Walter and Oscar had enlisted and had started their training with the Northamptonshire Regiment, Walter with the 1st Battalion and Oscar with the 5th Battalion. Both went to France at the end of May 1915 and six weeks later, on the 25th September, Walter was killed in action at the Battle of Loos. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Loos Memorial.

In November 1915 Victor enlisted and in May of 1916 Horace was conscripted into the Royal Artillery. Both of them went to France in September, Horace after only sixteen weeks of training. After arriving in France Victor joined the 8th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment and seven weeks later on the 13 November 1916 he was killed in action during a failed attack on a German trench. He is buried in Queens Cemetery Puisiuex.

Due to many soldiers service records being destroyed by bombs during the Blitz in 1940 it is unknown when Agnew rejoined the Army but he was back with the 1st Battalion when it was in action at Nieuport, Belgium in July 1917.

 

The Battle of the Dunes – 10 July 1917

After spending several weeks in reserve close to Messines the 1st Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment marched northwards towards the Belgium coast. On the evening of the 23 June 1917 after a three day march the men reached camp close to the front line at Nieuport.

Nieuport map

Trench map

This part of the front was different from any other on the Western Front as it was nothing but sand with dunes rising 60 feet. Due to the sand trenches were impossible to dig so sandbag breastworks were built up instead. It was also considered a quiet sector and regarded as a suitable place to try out new and inexperienced Officers.

On 4 July 1917 the Northamptonshires moved into the front line on the Eastern side of the Yser Canal with 20 Officers and 508 men taking up positions on the right of the 2nd Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps with 20 Officers and 501 men with the outer man of that Battalion being the left hand man of the whole Western Front. The front being held was one mile wide with the Yser Canal ½ a mile in the rear.

The next few days were quiet with little German activity until dawn on 10 July 1917. The day broke calm and sunny and at 5.30am the German artillery opened fire with Heavy guns, Field guns and Trench Mortars. In the clear morning light the breastworks showed up clearly and under the torrent of shells they soon collapsed. For the next twelve hours with hardly a break the shelling continued. By early afternoon the three bridges across the canal had been destroyed and the Northamptonshires and the KRRC were cut off.

At 7pm, led by 30 Flamethrowers the German Marine Division attacked. Groups of men put up a stiff resistance but many weapons had been jammed by the flying sand and they were soon overwhelmed and within two hours the battle was over.

Of the 1049 men of the two Battalions in action only 60, just 9 from the Northamptonshires managed to escape by swimming the Canal, of the rest 164 were killed and the remainder captured.

Of the men killed two were Rushden men, Frank Fairey aged 20 of 60 Harborough Road and Arthur Bates aged 25 of Hayway. Of the hundreds of men taken prisoner 16 were from Rushden;

Agnew Ayres

26 Oswald Road

Charles Bodman

72 Glassbrook Road

William Brown

110 Glassbrook Road

George Burditt

114 High Street South

Bert Chettle

49 Cromwell Road

John Ekins

71 Newton Road

Ernie Letts

74 Crabb Street

Charles Lewis

7 Pytchley Road

Chris Minney

46 North Street

Albert Richardson

1 Essex Road

Sidney Sharman

2 Queens Terrace

John Shipman

Sartoris Road

Edwin Smith

Robinson Road

George Tebbutt

107 Glassbrook Road

William Tew

28 Harborough Road

Charlie Underwood

41 Crabb Street

A prisoner of war report of a Northamptonshire Regiment man taken POW at the Dunes (only a small % still survive) shows the route into captivity of most of the Northamptonshire Regiment POWs following the Battle of the Dunes:

Name, Rank, No., and Regiment : Smith, F., Corporal, 31254. 1st Northampton Regiment.

Home address: Police Station, Kettering, Northants.

Place and date of capture: Nieuport, 10th July, 1917

Nature of wound, if any: Not wounded.

Age and occupation before the War: 20 ; electrical engineer.

 

Journey – July 10-12, 1917

On 10th July 1917, at Nieuport. The Germans surprised us, got round our flank and took battalion headquarters first, and then got eight of us who were in support.

First night we were taken to Middelkerke, and all the prisoners were collected here in one big building. We got here about 8 p.m. There were about 700, including those wounded who could not walk. We lay about on the floor with no food. The wounded were not attended to.

About 3 a.m. on the 11th we were made to march to Ostend, a distance of about 12 kilometers, without a halt, but were not ill-treated.

 

Bruges – 12-16 July, 1917

We arrived at Bruges at about midnight and were put into a big German barracks on the top storey, where we lay on the floor on some stuff which looked like seaweed, but was not.

P.O.W.s marching to Bruges

At 6.30 the next morning, the 12th, we were given some soup. After that some of us got a bath, and clothes fumigated; and the others got it at another place in the town later on the same day.

We were then collected into the Town Hall, and all steel helmets taken from us and ordinary Belgian civilian caps substituted. Up to now the officers had had the same food as us. They did not march with us but arrived at the same places.

At Bruges, they were sent away by train somewhere and we did not see them again.

On this day the whole of the party, with the exception of about 25 men, of whom I was one, were sent by train to Dendermonde. I and the 25 were kept for information purposes, and kept at the Town Hall until 16 July. We were well treated and had good beds to lie on and were properly fed, having the same food as the Germans, who were still marines.

 

At last, on about 16 July, we were sent by train to Dendermonde. The journey tasted seven or eight hours – no complaints.

 

Dendermonde, July 16 – Sept. 5, 1917

There were about 700 or 800 prisoners, all captured at Nieuport, at Dendermonde. It is situated between Ghent and Antwerp. I do not know the name of the Commandant, they kept changing, also the guards, who were mostly convalescents, and as soon as they were fit were sent to the front. About four different lots of guards came and went while we were there; they were old men.

We were in barracks, consisting of two storeys and a domed roof. There were 100 of us in each room and we were very crowded. We lay on the floor on shavings, touching each other. The ventilation was bad and there were no heating arrangements. Washing facilities were alright, but no soap nor towels were given to us for the first month. We were locked up in our rooms day and night, and only allowed out for exercise in a yard for about two hours each day.

The sanitary arrangements consisted of large urine tubs placed inside the rooms and we had to empty them when full, except at night, when the sentries would not allow this to be done, so the conditions of the room can be imagined.

There was no employment, but the Germans tried to force us to drill, but we would not.

The food was as follows: – Morning, a slice of black bread, ¾ inch thick, coffee substitute; next some hot water with a few carrots and mangel wurzels, and that was all for about six weeks. Each day we applied to the Commandant for more food, and he said he could not do it, and that it was our Navy’s fault.

The guards were getting their ordinary rations. There were not enough bowls to go round, and the consequence was that it took about four hours to issue out the soup; this happened every day. About every third day we got a tiny piece of sausage with our bread.

After about six weeks, owing to our constant complaints, the Commandant said he would give us more soup, but all that happened was that he divided the ration into two and gave us half in the middle of the day and the other half at night. The consequence was that we soon got into a terribly weak condition.

The doctor insisted on our taking some exercise round the yard, but after going for about a quarter of an hour we got so exhausted we could go no further.

There was a kind of canteen run by the cook who charged the most exorbitant prices—tobacco, 10d. a packet; 4 rusks, 2.50 m.; apples, 4½d. a lb. After a bit we were allowed to run a kind of shop of our own, i.e., two of our fellows supplied the capital and Germans bought the articles from the town, and they were thus able to sell to us at half the price of the original canteen.

 

The Germans supplied us with two shirts of compressed paper which only stood washing three times, one towel, and bandages for our feet.

We could smoke outside when we had anything to smoke.

There was no epidemic.

There was a small room for dressings for the sick in which there was a doctor every day for an hour, and he was assisted by our R.A.M.C. orderlies. I never was treated.

We had no religious services.

The first letter allowed was after we had arrived about a week, and we were not allowed to put any address on it. It consisted simply of a card saying “I am quite well- a prisoner of war in Germany — will “give address later.” It was a month later before the next card was allowed, and on it were the same words, except the address was written Limburg-am-Lahn. We, of course, got no parcels.

The discipline was strict, but there was no actual cruelty. For punishments we got confined to cells, or if we did not stand up when a German officer went by we got 24 hours’ cells and no food.

The Dutch Ambassador did not visit us.

We were sent three times into Ghent by train for a bath and to have our clothes fumigated. Once the Belgians were allowed to send us in some stewed pears, but this was the only extra food we got the whole time we were there.

 

Journey – Sept. 5, 1917

About 5th September 1917 we were sent by train to Dulmen.

Dulmen III, Sept 6-18, 1917

 

At Dulmen we were put into Compound No, III and kept there 15 days, during which time we were inoculated eight times and vaccinated once for various diseases.

 

Journey – Sept. 18-20, 1917

I and 700 British were sent to Lechfeld Lager.

Lechfeld is in Bavaria, and it consists of a large camp divided into compounds, some of stone and some of wood; the stone ones were built for the French prisoners at the time of the Franco-German War. We were first in the wooden ones and later in the stone ones, but went back to the wooden ones. They are of the usual type but bigger than British ones.

END OF REPORT

Dulmen Camp

A good percentage of the Northamptons would have ended up at Lechfeld Lager (Camp), but not necessarily all. The 700 men transferred to Lechfeld were not necessarily the same 700 who came in from the Dunes. There were certainly Dunes POWs held at Bayreuth camp.

Whilst a prisoner Agnew learnt that yet another brother had died with Horace passing away on the 16th June 1918 of wounds received the day before. He is buried in Aubigny Communal Cemetery.

Agnew and Oscar returned home in early 1919. The two other brothers, Bernard and Arthur were too young to serve.

Medal Roll for Agnew Ayres

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