He was wounded while defending an area known as ‘hell on earth’ in the Great War. Alfred Bishop – who was connected to my family – was recovering from his ordeal when he fell desperately ill at home. He died less than two months after surviving the Battle of Hill 60 in Belgium in 1915. His story is told here.
Alfred Bishop was said to be one of the ‘lucky ones’ – surviving the horrors of Hill 60, a ‘killing ground’ three miles from Ypres in Belgium.
A corporal in the 1st Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, he was wounded in a 21-day battle there in April and May 1915.
Dozens of his fellow soldiers were killed or died from wounds sustained in action in the battalion’s heroic defence of the hill.
Alfred, 24, sailed to England in a hospital ship and was admitted to St Mary’s Hospital in Southend-on-Sea.
Reported to have been ‘slightly wounded in the right shoulder’, he later returned to his home to recuperate.
In a cruel twist of fate, he then fell ill on an Army recruitment drive, contracting measles and then pneumonia and bronchitis.
Albert was admitted to Devonport Military Hospital and died there on June 25, 1915 – just weeks after fighting for his life at Hill 60.
The Western Times, reporting his death, said he had been ‘at the Front all through last winter and no doubt the ordeal there weakened his constitution’.
Albert had been very fortunate to escape with his life after his ordeal at Hill 60, an imposing 150ft high, man-made incline.
The Germans first captured it in December 1914. The British, with the help of series of mine explosions, seized control of the hill on April 17, 1915.
When the 1st Devons reached the battleground four days later, the ‘scene was almost indescribable’, according to the book, The Devonshire Regiment 1914-1918.
‘The mine explosions had wrecked the German defences and left craters,’ said the book’s compiler, Captain C T Atkinson.
‘The efforts of the British to render these defensible and to dig new trenches had been interrupted by counter attacks.
‘Their work was almost obliterated by a tremendous and almost incessant bombardment.’
Amid this chaos, moving wounded soldiers to safety was a ‘terrible labour’ and burial of the dead was ‘almost impossible’.
Atkinson said: ‘From the outset, the Devons came under heavy fire’ in ‘digging deep’ at the hill. Despite their losses, they ‘clung on tenaciously’.
They ‘strove hard with bombs and rifles to keep down the enemy’s fire, and toiled devotedly at the defences’.
On the evening of May 1, 1915 – after the battalion were relieved by the 2nd Cameron Highlanders – the Germans launched a huge bombardment on the hill.
As rumours spread that British soldiers had been gassed, the 1st Devons raced back to the front line.
‘They arrived to find the trenches full of men choking and gasping for breath,’ said Atkinson,
‘Some were foaming at the mouth, in every degree of agony ad distress, incapable of offering any resistance to the advancing enemy’.
About 400 yards of the front line were left open, only manned by an officer and a few men who had escaped the worst effects of the gas.
The 1st Devons arrived in the nick of time, said Atkinson, firing at enemy soldiers and halting the German advance.
‘A shift of wind, which carried the gas cloud back towards the German lines also helped to break up the attack.’
The 1st Devons were praised for saving the day, with many senior Army officers describing their prompt action as ‘magnificent’.
The battalion took over the defence of the hill and nearby trenches until May 4, 1915. The Germans seized control of the area the following day after a gas attack.
Albert was one of more than 250 officers and men of the 1st Devons killed or wounded in the Battle of Hill 60.
Alfred, who went to the Western Front on August 22, 1914, was a professional soldier in the 1st Devons before the war. In 1911, he was based with the battalion in barracks at North Tidworth, Wiltshire. He was buried at Weston Mill Cemetery, Plymouth.
He was connected to my family through marriage. He married Rhoda Chorley (1891-1961) on September 28, 1913 in Milverton, Somerset. Rhoda was a sister of Edith Mabel Chorley (1887-1976) who married John Francis Bryant Roberts (1883-1929) on April 16, 1906. John was one of 30 grandsons of John Roberts (1829-1919) – my great-great grandfather – who served in the Great War.
Born on August 18, 1890 at Ash Thomas, Halberton, Alfred was the son of carpenter William John Bishop (1860-1936) and Sarah Jane Mansell (1862- 1953). In 1901, he lived with his family in Stoodleigh, at 3, Church Stile Cottages. Widowed less than two years after marrying Alfred, Rhoda married Tom Lockyer in 1924. Rhoda, born on February 2, 1891 in Washfield, was the daughter of William Charles Chorley (1857-1935) and Fanny Elizabeth Gunter (1860-1936). She died in 1961 in Tiverton, aged 70.
Alfred’s brothers, Albert John and Thomas Henry Bishop served in the Royal Marine Light Infantry in the Great War. Albert (1892-1969) was just 15 when he joined the RMLI on October 8, 1907. On enlisting in Exeter, he gave his age as 18. Thomas Henry (1888-1982), known as Tom, enlisted in the RMLI just over a month after his brother had signed up. He served in the battleship HMS Bellepheron in the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval confrontation in the Great War, in May 1916.
Among the 1st Devons who were killed or died of wounds at or near Hill 60 in April 1915 were:
- Pte Benjamin Hicks, born in 1888 in Uplowman, near Tiverton, who was killed in action on April 21. Aged 27 and married, he is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial.
- Pte James Courtney, born in 1887 in Crediton, who was killed in action on April 29. Aged 28 and married, he is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial.
- Lance-cpl James Pugsley, of West Farm, Lapford, who was killed in action on April 21, aged 28.
- Lance-sgt Leonard Samuel Purse, born in 1893 in Crediton, who was killed in action on April 22, aged 21. A baker who worked in Copplestone, he was one of two brothers fighting in the battle.
Corporal Alfred Bishop’s war grave at Weston Mill Cemetery, Plymouth. Picture by Julia&Keld.