Alfred Joseph BURTON was born in about 1887 in Bilton, Rugby. He was the son of Charles Burton, born in about 1849 in Bilton, and Elizabeth, née Samuels, Burton, who was born in about 1850 in Church Lawford.
For the 1891 census, the family were living in a cottage in Bilton and there were seven children in the house: Alfred was three, the second youngest child and the youngest son. Father, Charles Burton was a tailor. In 1901 the family was still living in Old Bilton in South View Cottage. At some later date Alfred had attended Lawrence Sheriff School.
In 1911, Alfred was a ‘visitor’ at 30 Lombard Street, West Bromwich. He was possibly visiting a friend, Charles Askew, who was a ‘stationer’s assistant’ of the same age and also from Bilton, and who was a ‘boarder’ in the house. Alfred was then 23 and working as an ‘Engineer’s Clerk … Electrical Engineers’, presumably he was working at BTH as he appeared on their War Memorial.
Although a Service Record exists for Alfred, it was probably among the ‘burnt records’ and the pages are somewhat damaged and not easily interpreted. They also provide some contradictions!
The attestation papers suggest that Alfred might have joined up initially as No: 7414, R.A.M.C., but it may well be that an earlier document was reused!
He was attested at Rugby on 19 November 1915, when he was working as an ‘Order Clerk’, and was aged 28 years and 5 months. He was 5 foot 4 inches tall, a Wesleyan, and his father was given as his next of kin.
When he was attested it was initially into a ‘home’ [i.e. UK based] posting on 19 November 1915 for one day and from 20 November 1915 to 20 September 1916, he was in the ‘Army Reserve’, apparently as Private, No: 534011 in the 15th Battalion, the London Regiment. This continued as a ‘home’ posting. The 3rd/15th Battalion was formed in early 1915 and moved to Richmond Park. Then in January 1916 the Battalion went to Winchester and on 8 April 1916 it was renamed the 15th Reserve Battalion and moved to Wimbledon in December 1917.
Men from the 15th would later be used to reinforce the Regiment’s other Battalions. On 21 September 1916 he was ‘mobilised’, and examined at Warwick, and posted the following day and then he spent a 178 further days at ‘home’ in UK until 17 March 1917.
Alfred was posted to France with the British Expeditionary Force from 18 March 1917 when he embarked at Southampton and arrived in Havre the next day. Then on 11 April 1917 he seems to have been posted to the 1st/12th London Regiment which at that date was part of the 168th Brigade in the 56th (London) Division. Then on 31 January 1918 the 1st/12th Battalion transferred to the 175th Brigade in 58th (2/1st London) Division, absorbed the disbanded 2nd/12th Battalion of the London Regiment and was renamed the 12th Battalion.
As part of this on-going reorganisation, Alfred’s record suggests that at about this date, on 29 or 30 January 1918, he was transferred as Private, No: 718039, into the 1st/23rd Battalion of the London Regiment.
The 1st/23rd had become part of 6th London Brigade, 2nd London Division. On 16 March 1915 the Battalion had landed at Le Havre, and on 11 May 1915, it became part of the 142nd Brigade in 47th (2nd London) Division. In the reorganisation, on 1 February 1918, the 1st/23rd transferred to the 140th Brigade, although they were still in the 47th Division.
Now in the 1st/23rd Battalion, Alfred would have continued to be involved in the routine of trench warfare, and for a while the front continued comparatively quiet. However, an attack by the Germans was anticipated and on 21 March 1918, they launched a major offensive, Operation Michael, against the British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army.
The German artillery targeted command and communications; then, the destruction of artillery; and then the front-line infantry. The artillery bombardment began at 4.40am on 21 March 1918, and hit targets over an area of 150 square miles, the biggest barrage of the entire war. Over 1,100,000 shells were fired in five hours.
The 1st/23rd Battalion had been out of the front line as Operation Michael started, however, they would soon become involved and in early April 1918 the were ‘in trenches’ and on 5 April 1918, they were shelled and soon under fierce attack as the Battalion War Diary noted:
1 APRIL – Battn. in trenches.
4 APRIL – pm – Battn. relieved 22nd Battn. C & D front line, A & B support.
5 APRIL – 5 a.m – Enemy started to shell our front line until 8.30 a.m. when he advanced in small groups against C Coy. (2/Lt W. G. Irwin) but were repulsed by L.G. fire. At 9.20 a.m. A Coy. went forward to reinforce C Coy. At 9.25 a.m. S.O.S. went up along entire Battn. front. At 10.30 a.m. C Coy’s right flank was forced back – left flank was in the WOOD. D Coy, on left of front line attacked by overwhelming numbers and surrounded. Survivors state that the Coy. met the enemy with rifles and Lewis guns but were unable to prevent him getting in their rear. Lieut. H.S. EWEN, M.C., 2/Lt G.H. GRISP and 2/Lt W.J. KEMP Missing; 2/Lt C.J. STRICKLAND killed in action.
At 11.30 a.m. enemy had penetrated between our front Companies. Owing to heavy M.G. fire from left rear, A & C Coys. were forced back to communication trench running from WOOD to Battn. H.Q. and established communication with 24th Bn. London Regt. on left along the edge of the WOOD. (11.40 a.m.)
12.30 p.m. – Major R.H.TOLERTON, M.C. (temporarily commanding Battn.) went to MARTINSART to arrange counter-attack with 22nd Bn. About 12.40 p.m. A & C Coys, suffered heavy casualties from enfilade M.G. fire from direction of W.10. central.
4.15 p.m. – Two Coys. 22nd Battn. attacked AVELUY WOOD to re-establish original line. The Battn. covered the attack with rifle and L.G. fire. Owing to heavy M.G. fire from edge of WOOD and absence of artillery support, the counter-attack failed. Major TOLERTON wounded in head. Capt. COOK, 22nd Bn., assumed command of troops of 22nd and 23rd Battns., who fell back on line of C.T. and bank,
11 p.m. – Battn. strength – 5 Officers, 160 O.R.
6 APRIL – Battn. heavily shelled all day. About 6.30 p.m. small parties of the enemy left the WOOD opposite our Right Coy. and ran in S. direction. They were caught in our L.G. fire.
7 APRIL – 2.45 a.m. – Relief of Battn. by 17th Royal Scots completed. Battn. returned to billets at WARLOY.
At some stage on 5 April 1918, Alfred Joseph Burton was ‘killed in action’. He may have been buried in a temporary, but marked grave. It is more likely that he was buried later in a temporary German cemetery, or possibly his body was with others but still out on the battlefield.
The Grave Registration report supports this suggestion as his was one of the bodies subject to ‘exhumation’ although there is no ‘Concentration’ report. Both of his regimental numbers and his two battalions are noted in the Burial Report. He was reburied in the Martinsart British Cemetery, Somme, France, in grave reference: I. D. 42.
Although Martinsart British Cemetery was begun at the end of June 1916, it was not used again as a front-line cemetery until September 1918, well after Alfred’s death, when bodies were brought in from the battlefields for burial. After the Armistice, the cemetery was enlarged when more graves were brought in from the area north, east and south of the village. This would tend to confirm the note about ‘exhumation’. So Alfred was probably buried originally near to where he was killed.
Martinsart is a small village 4 kilometres north of Albert, which was close to the Allied front line … from March to August 1918. The cemetery is unusual in that the graves are marked by stones made from red Corsehill or Locharbriggs sandstone, rather than the more usual Portland stone.
Later, when the permanent gravestone replaced the temporary cross, it included his family’s message, ‘He Gave His All For Us’.
His mother was sent his effects – ‘letters, photos, wallet, YMCA card & certificate, and 2 badges’ – on 24 September 1918. An identity disc was also returned to her later on 23 June 1919.
Alfred Joseph BURTON is also remembered on the Rugby Memorial Gates; the Memorial in the churchyard of St Marks Church, Bilton, ‘In The Great War these died for England 1914-1919’; on the list of BTH Employees who Served in the War 1914 – 1918; on the BTH War Memorial; and on the WWI Lawrence Sheriff School Plaque, which reads,
‘In Commemoration of our Brother Laurentians who Fell in The Great War, 1914-1918, Orando Laborando.’
His Medal Card showed that he was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
RUGBY REMEMBERS HIM
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This article on Alfred Joseph BURTON was researched and written for a Rugby Family History Group [RFHG] project, by John P H Frearson and is © John P H Frearson and the RFHG, January 2018.
 This is from a list of names on the BTH War Memorial when it was unveiled. It is taken from the list published in the Rugby Advertiser, 4 November 1921 and given at https://www.rugbyfhg.co.uk/bth-war-memorial.
 Information from https://www.rugbyfhg.co.uk/lawrence-sheriff-school-plaques.