21st Division 1914-18...a divisional history

Reginald Herbert Westoby

Reginald Herbert Westoby was born in Brigg on 26th January 1896, the second son of a local draper who owned a business in the Market Place. Tragedy struck early in his life, with the death of his mother in July 1902, his father in July 1903, his brother on April 5th 1905, and his grandfather eleven days later. Aged nine, he was an orphan and only child, living with his grandmother.

From 1907 to 1913 Reginald attended Brigg Grammar school, only yards from where he was living. In 1914 he was a member of the Brigg Victorias football team, winners of the Scunthorpe Junior Tournament on Saturday 25th April. In the Autumn he started his studies at Taunton college, and soon distinguished himself by breaking the long jump record. 

He enlisted in the 18th Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Company on 22nd July 1915. This regiment recruited nationwide, and at the time, the battalion was one of the newest in the army, having been established on 4th June at Gidea Park, Essex. It was a ‘service’ Battalion, meaning that the men had signed up to serve only for the duration of the war. Reginald was still recorded as living with his grandmother Sarah Elizabeth at the time, at ‘The Laurels’ on Wrawby Rd. Several of his football team-mates were already in uniform, and one was dead - Albert Draper, killed by a mine explosion on 20th May 1915.

Reginald was recruited by Company Sergeant Major Duthie. He was officially too young to join up and his attestation form seems to have added an extra two years to his age. That may explain why he didn’t join a local regiment, such as the Lincolnshire Regt, where he might have been known, or where his family might have been able to stop him. Joseph Neall, a school friend and fellow player in the Brigg Victorias football team, also joined the KRRC at this time, although he ended up in the 21st Battalion. It seems likely that the two boys made the decision to enlist together, but that Neall, being older, did not need to travel out of the area to do so.

Reginald’s first rank was Rifleman, the equivalent of ‘private’. Almost exactly six months later he was promoted to Lance-Corporal, and on 2nd May 1916, his training complete, he arrived in France and Flanders as part of the British Expeditionary Force. He was stationed near Steenwerck, Belgium, and began familiarisation with trench warfare in the areas of Ploegsteert and the Douve valley, south of Ypres.

On 15th July he received his second promotion, to Corporal, then in August 1916 the Battalion were sent to the Somme. This offensive had started on July 1st, and had dragged onwards ever since. The latest phase, which would give Reginald his first taste of a major action, was the battle of Flers-Courcelette, on 15th September.

Flers-Courcelette was the first ever battle in which tanks were used, and was counted as a success despite the heavy casualties suffered. One of those killed was Raymond Asquith, son of the Prime-Minister. Another was Reginald’s friend Joseph Neall. The battle lasted until 22nd September, although progress after the first three days had been very limited. It was on the last day of the battle that Reginald was promoted to Lance-Sergeant, suggesting that he had impressed his superiors, and that the previous holder of this rank had probably become a casualty.

At the beginning of October the Battalion were in action again on the Somme, at the Battle of Transloy Ridges. On 16th October Reginald is listed as posted home. I assume that this was to allow a spell on leave before Officer Training commenced, although the form notifying that training was to begin does not seem to have been completed until the 26th October.

On November 4th 1916 Reginald was at Pembroke College Cambridge, starting his career as an officer and still two months short of nineteen. This training was completed on 28th March 1917, at which point he would have been given some choice as to the unit to which he wanted to be posted. The Lincolnshire Regiment was an obvious choice, offering him a chance to serve with people he knew.

The 3rd Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment was a Reserve Battalion, based in England. It trained new recruits and took in men who had recovered from wounds, sending reinforcements to the various other front line battalions of the regiment.

At some point in 1917, possibly the 14th April, Reginald was posted to the 8th Battalion. This date matches the end of the First Battle of the Scarpe, in which the 8th Battalion had been fighting, so it is likely that he was sent to replace casualties. If so, he would have gone straight into the Second Battle of the Scarpe – 23rd and 24th April, and then The Battle of Arleux - 28th - 29th April. These actions are known collectively as the Battle of Arras.

Although less well known than the Somme, Arras was another very costly campaign, and Reginald had survived both. However, as a Second Lieutenant he was at the greatest risk of being killed (life expectancy was about nine months), and at Passchendaele his luck ran out. Sometimes known as the 3rd Ypres, the battle provided many of the most famous images of the war; stretcher bearers in mud above their knees, waterlogged landscapes passable only by duck board and villages no more than a loose collection of bricks and rubble.

On 4th October 1917 Reginald was leading his men in the area of of Broodseinde, east of Ypres, when he was killed. His body was not recovered, although you will see that the personal possessions which he has not carrying were returned to his next of kin. There are plenty of descriptions of Passchendaele on the ‘net. Siegfried Sassoon gives a clear image in ‘Memorial Tablet’

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby's scheme). I died in hell -

(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duckboards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name
a thoughtful stare;
For, though low down upon the list, I'm there;
"In proud and glorious memory" ...
that's my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he's never guessed.
I came home on leave: and then went west...
What greater glory could a man desire?

With no body, or witnesses, his grandmother must have suffered months of dwindling hope, and it was not until after the war that his death could be confirmed beyond doubt. His next of kin is listed as his uncle, W. Smith who lived on the opposite side of Wrawby Road to his grandmother.

There is an inscription on the family memorial in Brigg cemetery 'Reginald Herbert Westoby. Killed at Passchendaele Who fell for honour, liberty and right. As for the Brigg Victorias, champions of 1914... By the end of the war, seven of the players were dead.

(Thanks to Dave Waite for this excellent article)