Roland Creswell Morgan was born in Crescent Cottage, Wellington, Shropshire, on 28th July 1891 to Edmund Thomas Morgan and Edith Morgan [née Green], the eldest of four siblings comprising two boys and two girls.
After his education at Wellington College, between the years 1905-07, he left to become an apprentice to his father in his drapery business. At some point in time between the census date of April 1911 and the outbreak of the war Roland was living and working in London for he had joined the 1/2nd (City of London) Battalion (Royal Fusiliers), The London Regiment1, part of the Territorial Force.
In Westminster on the day of mobilisation, 4th August 1914, the Battalion was ordered to carry out guard duties on the Amesbury – Southampton dock railway where they remained until 4th September when they left Southampton bound for Malta.
Their arrival on the island on 14th September thus enabled the regular battalion on garrison duties to leave for France where it was urgently needed as part of the British Expeditionary Force [BEF]. Roland’s time there was rather short lived as he and his Battalion soon found themselves required in France leaving on 2nd January 1915, arriving in Marseilles 4 days later. Following a tiring train journey, followed by a brief period of rest, they arrived on the front line east of ARMENTIERES where they remained until June.
The Battalion’s next period of front line duty saw them moved to the Ypres salient where they served at HOOGE, SANCTUARY WOOD and ZILLEBEKE. On 14th October 1915 the Battalion became part of 24th Division and served on the MESSINES RIDGE, remaining there until 9th February 1916 when they came under the command of the newly formed 56th (1st London) Division on the Somme.
30th June 1916, the eve of the commencement of the ‘Battle of the Somme’, saw the Battalion in HEBUTERNE which was a farming village situated about 15 miles south-west of Arras. For the majority of the war this village was right on the front line of the Western Front, with the allies entrenched on the eastern side. Opposing them, and occupying the village of GOMMECOURT some 800 yards beyond, was the might of the Imperial German Army, with whom they were about to engage the following day. This would be a baptism of fire like no other for Roland and his fellow Londoners.
Final orders were then given late that night and the various London Battalions moved into position in the assembly trenches, being the old French trenches east of the Fonquevillers road in readiness for Zero hour, set for 7.30am, 1st July 1916. One sergeant and twenty-eight men from the Battalion were detailed as ‘Battle Police’ whose job was to control human traffic in the communication trenches and ‘deal’ with stragglers/defaulters. A prisoner-of-war [PoW] guard of one sergeant and fifteen men was also assigned to duty in the trenches during the attack.
At 5.00am on 1st July the men were issued with hot pea soup and the Battle Police and PoW guard moved into their respective positions. By 5.30am with the Germans suspecting something was afoot they rained down heavy shell fire onto the assembly trenches but fortunately the Battalion sustained no casualties. At 6.25am ‘all hell broke loose’ as the massed ranks of British artillery opened fire on the German lines, maintained at the maximum rate for 65 minutes, consuming vast quantities of shells with a number of the artillery pieces overheating and cracking in the process.
At 7.16am the British discharged smoke grenades in readiness for the assault whilst all the while incoming fire from the enemy was continuing unchecked. By 7.25am the smoke was so dense along the whole of the front line the British were able to move forward under its cover.
At 7.30am, what was termed the ‘Battle of the Somme’ entered the history books, as the 56th [London] Division launched, what was classified as a diversionary attack, on GOMMECOURT as part of the Somme offensive.
Artillery lifted from enemy’s front line system, and assault commenced. Lines advanced steadily in excellent formation, and enemy opened barrage fire on all our trenches. Nevertheless our troops reached enemy’s trenches with comparatively small losses. Machine Guns in GOMMECOURT PARK opened fire. The enemy manned his parapet in places, but his rifle fire was ineffective.2
By 11.30am they had managed to capture 80 PoW’s and an hour later the enemy were launching severe counter-attacks gradually forcing the British soldiers out of their third line as stocks of bombs were practically exhausted.
At 1.30pm there was total communication breakdown with volunteer runners being required to take messages back and forward and urgent requests for reinforcements were made. By mid-afternoon the casualty toll was climbing higher and higher with ‘C’ Company having lost all of its officers. By dusk, the survivors who had waited it out in the daylight hours, began to make their way back to the British lines and after nightfall teams were sent out to retrieve any wounded: the dead were so many they were left where they fell. By 9.45 pm with ammunition stocks on both sides having been seriously depleted the artillery fire had all but ceased.
10.00pm, the adjutant later recorded in the diary;
Soon afterwards the enemy were seen in FERRET showing a white flag. With the General’s permission M.O.’s of our Battn and L.R.B. [London Rifle Brigade] and about 50 men went down GOMMECOURT ROAD with stretchers and got in about 45 wounded, the enemy also leaving their trenches for the same purpose. This truce lasted about an hour and was honourably kept by the enemy, who gave us ten minutes warning to get back to our trenches at its expiration and sent over shells behind us to help us do so quickly! Some of the wounded lying near the German wire stated that the Germans had come to them in the night and given them coffee.
On 3rd July the Battalion was withdrawn from the line and billeted for the night in Fonquevillers and Coaster and the next day they received congratulations from their superiors on their good work and gallantry. The attack on Gommecourt turned out to be a catastrophic disaster, with overwhelming numbers of London soldiers killed, wounded or missing: Roland however had survived to tell the tale. The only crumb of comfort was that the attack had succeeded in holding the Germans so they could not re-inforce the line further south. For the Battalion itself the loss on the first day of some 12 officers and 241 other ranks was light when compared with an overall 2,500 Londoners in a British total which exceeded over 19,000 across the front!
By the end of the war in 1918 the village of Gommecourt had almost been obliterated as a result of the violence it and its residents had been subjected to in 4 years of fighting. In the 1920’s it was completely rebuilt from the ground up as a lasting tribute to those who had fought and died here.
On 9th September 1916 the Battalion had moved into trenches in and around FLAFEMONT FARM from ANGLE WOOD, a distance of about 1000 yards in artillery formation with only 1 casualty, so as to play their part in the ‘Battle of Ginchy’ with zero hour set for 4.45pm. ‘A’ Company of 1/2nd (City of London) Battalion, had to be substituted at the last minute to act as support to the 1/5th (City of London) Battalion (London Rifle Brigade), [LRB], the original support Company being pinned down as any movement by them would have resulted in heavy casualties. As it was ‘A’ Company itself sustained heavy losses once it had gained a foothold in the NE corner of LEUZE WOOD.
The Company was then ordered to bomb up the TRENCHE de COMBLES and during this process the last remaining officers were killed or injured leaving ‘A’ Company in the command of the Company Sergeant-Major [CSM]. The overall attack on the TRENCHE de COMBLES failed due to the number of casualties sustained and the battle weariness of the survivors. At 6.00pm on 10th September ‘B’ Company was ordered to move from its location and soon found itself in the same position as its sister Company, it too suffering the loss of all its officers and sustaining heavy casualties. Later that evening sharp eyed observers in the British lines saw preparations for a German counter-attack but this was successfully repulsed by the British artillery with heavy loss of enemy life. Once it was dark the Battalion was withdrawn from the line and returned to their bivouacs, where on 11th September the Companies were re-formed as far as was possible under the circumstances.
On 18th September 1916 the Battalion took over its position in the line from the 1/9th (County of London) Battalion (Queen Victoria's Rifles), [QVR] in the LEUZE incline and spent the next few evenings digging a new advance trench under the cover of darkness. This turned out to be a slow process as the overall health of the men had suffered due to exhaustion and long spells in the trenches, coupled with enemy shelling by day and night by high explosive [HE] and/or gas.
It was during one such attack on Sunday 24th September 1916 that Private Roland Creswell Morgan, 1/2nd (City of London) Battalion (Royal Fusiliers), The London Regiment, met his death at the age of 25. He now lies buried in the Combles Communal Cemetery Extension, Somme in France.
The London Regiment was disbanded shortly before WW2 in 1938. It was raised again in 1993 and today forms part of the Army Reserve within the Household Division alongside its regular counterparts of the Household Cavalry and the regiments of Foot Guards.