8 February 2009

Lt Col Carter, DSO + Bar, MC + Bar. Second Commanding Officer

When Lt Col Papillon was defeated by shell shock on October 1st 1916, his position was taken by Harry Carter of the South Staffordshire Regiment. Carter had already been in temporary command of the 17th Middlesex and he led The Hammers for six months. He was seen as an exceptionally brave man and set about getting the 13th Essex back up 'fighting fitness' from the moment he arrived up to his departure in April 1917.

Harry Carter was the son of William John Carter, a gas tube maker, from Wolverhampton and his wife, Annie Dingley. His mother was illiterate.

Harry enlisted as a private soldier in the 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment in 1899, seemingly after failing to get on with his stepmother, and saw active service in South Africa. By August 1914 he had reached the dizzy heights of battalion signals sergeant. But the severe casualties that the BEF suffered in the epic fighting of 1914 opened unprecedented opportunities for a man like Carter.

On 4 January 1915 he was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the field. In 1913 seven officers in the British Army were commissioned from the ranks. In the first month of the war alone five hundred warrant officers and NCOs were commissioned. During the Great War as a whole the figure was 6,713, 41 per cent of the total number of permanent commissions. The contribution made to the British war effort by officers promoted from the ranks has been little recognised. The war remains trapped in the familiar public school officer idiom.

After spells in temporary command of the 13th Essex and 17th Middlesex, Carter was made CO of the 7th South Staffords, 33rd Brigade, 11th (Northern) Division on 7 July 1917, commanding it for the rest of the war. He was 38. 11th Division has no published divisional history and is not well known. It served first on Gallipoli before being transferred to the Western Front in 1916. On 12 May 1917 Major-General H.R. Davies assumed command. Under his leadership 11th Division became one of the best in the BEF. The division performed particularly well at Third Ypres and spearheaded the First Army’s advance in the autumn of 1918. Davies came to have a high regard for Carter.

Carter’s dramatic rise and outstanding war record also attracted notice in his home town. He was given a civic reception on 21 March 1918, presented with a silver sword, had his portrait painted and a street named after him. (The street’s previous name was Bismarck Street!) He may, perhaps, have treasured more the watch given him ‘as a token of admiration from his friends in Blakenhall, Wolverhampton, upon his gaining high military distinction during the present world war’.

His DSO was awarded for gallantry at Guillemont on 6th Aug 1916. Here are his citations in London Gazette -

LG 23rd Dec 1915

Second Lieutenant William Henry Carter, 2nd Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment

“For consistent good work throughout the campaign, notably on 24th November, 1915.
The enemy exploded a mine under Gibson’s crater, south of the Le Bassée road, killing and wounding most of the garrison. Lieutenant Carter at once went up and commenced reorganising the defence of the crater. He was slightly wounded, but remained at his post, and it was mainly due to his courage and example that two hostile bomb attacks on the crater were repulsed. He also organised a bomb attack on the enemy, thus keeping them quiet for four hours, while the position was being consolidated.”

LG 9th September 1916

Awarded a Bar to his Military Cross
Lt William Henry Carter, S Staff R

“ For conspicuous and consistent gallantry.
Hardly a week passes without his name being brought to notice for some act of devotion and gallantry. Lately he carried out most gallant rescue work under fire after a night raid. He arrived in France in August, 1914, as signalling serjeant of the battalion, and has been with it in every action. Nothing affects his courage and nerve.
(The Military Cross was awarded in Gazette dated 23rd December, 1915)

LG 20th Oct 1916

Carter, William Henry Lieut (Temporary Major) M.C. South Staffordshire Regiment
“For conspicuous gallantry during operations. He commanded the battalion after his CO was wounded and displayed great skill and personal courage. He went about everywhere encouraging his men and making personal reconnaissances during three days of heavy fighting. He set a fine example to his command.

LG 10th Dec 1919

Carter, William Henry, DSO, MC, Capt and Brevet Major (Temporary Lieut Col), Royal Warwickshire Regiment attached to 7th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment
“For skilful leading of his battalion during the operations 8th and 9th Nov. 1918, in the advance from Autreppe to Geognies Chaussee. On 8th November 1918, he by his drive and initiative kept his battalion going forward through heavy enemy opposition and by a personal reconnaissance reported his exact dispositions at the end of the day. He has at all times set a very fine example to those under him. (DSO gazetted 20th October 1916)

Carter ended the war as a Temporary Lieutenant-Colonel, even reaching Temporary Brigadier-General in the Army of Occupation. His substantive rank, awarded on 11 December 1916, was Captain Royal Warwickshire Regiment. And it was in this rank that he returned to peacetime soldiering. He did not find the post-war army congenial, however, and in 1922 he left with a gratuity of £1,500. He invested this in a poultry farm near Kidderminster, but it was not a success. He later set up a taxi business, but this also failed. By the time a reporter from the Birmingham Post caught up with him in January 1934, he was living at Rose and Crown Cottages, Penn, near Wolverhampton, with his wife and five children. He had worked for five years at A.J.S. motor-cycles as a mechanic before moving to James Gibbons Ltd. as a steel erector.

Carter regarded his situation with equanimity. ‘Oh, I’m as happy as a king, and so long as I can get work it doesn’t matter, though I should welcome the opportunity to better my position,’ he told the Post’s reporter. ‘Some of the old chaps who used to know me in the army - chaps the same as myself, you know - come and see me, because even when I was an officer I hadn’t any bounce.’ It is typical of Carter’s life that as soon as war came again Gibbons put him in charge of their ARP precautions.

His Second World War service was interrupted by an old wound from the Great War that eventually necessitated the amputation of his foot. He recuperated from the operation as the guest of the Earl of Dartmouth, with whom he got on well. ‘My father was always the same, whether with commoners or kings,’ his daughter Betty recalled. In her sitting room, there is a photograph of him sitting astride his charger as CO of the 7th South Staffords. He looks every inch the Colonel and the officer and gentleman he was.

Carter died on 19 December 1951, aged 72, after a long illness and is buried in St Batholomew’s Churchyard, Penn.

[This account originally formed part of ‘Two British Officers of the Great War’, in The Response. An Occasional Magazine of the Northumberland and Durham Branches of the Western Front Association, 11 (2000), pp. 1-8.] and was taken from here