Joseph Walter Butler

Joseph was born at The Woods, Welford on 25th July 1895, the son of Thomas and Eliza Jane, née Read.  Thomas was a gamekeeper on the Welford Park Estate for 28 years, having previously held the position at Kintbury Holt.  The family came to Welford in about 1888, living at various addresses until settling at number 49, Easton.

Joseph’s occupation is not known, and regrettably we have no other details of his life before the war.  Although he is recorded on the 1911 census as living at home, age 15, no occupation is listed for him.

He enlisted for service at Newbury, becoming a Private in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, number 19929; his name first appears on the Welford Parish Roll of Honour in February 1916, although it is not known when he joined his Battalion at the Front. 

Two of Joseph’s brothers, Ben and Charles, also saw active service during the war.  Ben served with the 8th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment and in December 1917 was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry under heavy shell fire at Passchendaele, although he was later taken prisoner during the German offensive of March 1918.

In June 1917 the 2nd Battalion were transferred north from the Cambrai area to the Ypres salient.  They spent most of that month in billets in the back area around Hazebrouck, taking on and training new drafts, before arriving in Ypres itself on 5th July.  On the 31st,  following further training, the Battalion took part in the main attack by 8th Division towards Hooge Château and Jaffa Trench, north of Westhoek, in which, although they were “not seriously engaged” (Battalion War Diary), their losses were far from light. 

Atrocious weather conditions – this was reputedly the wettest August in Belgium for 75 years – prevented an immediate continuation of the attack, and the Battalion were moved back to refit, train and take on further replacements at Steenvoorde.

On 12th August, orders were received that the attack would be resumed in the same sector, and between the 13th and 15th the Battalion moved up from the training area to assemble at Westhoek Ridge.  They were to lead on a front of three Companies, with the fourth ‘mopping up’, their objective being the Iron Cross Redoubt.  This constituted an advance of about 1,500 yards.

After some initial difficulties finding their way in the darkness, and heavy enemy shelling, the Battalion formed up on tapes at 4am, and the attack commenced at 4:45am. An easy advance was made across the marshy bed of the Hannebeke, about 50 prisoners being taken in the process, and the greater part of Iron Cross Redoubt and the defences north of it were captured along with further prisoners.  However, heavy enfilade fire from machine guns in Nonne Boschen and Polygon Wood on the right flank and right rear was seriously weakening the advance, the Berkshires finding themselves in an untenable position far in advance of the Divisions on either side of them, and eventually their line was reduced to a series of small posts along the crest north of Polygon Wood.

At 10:30am the Germans launched a strong counter-attack, resulting in the British line being driven back across the Hannebeke.  The advance was stopped, but by this time the Royal Berks’ losses were so heavy that only four officers and about 100 other ranks remained in the field.  A further counter-attack at 3pm was slowed by British heavy artillery but by 5:30pm the enemy were a mere 600 yards from the Berkshires, who were now down to about 60 men and short of ammunition.  Despite this, they helped cover a retirement by the Division on their right, until being relieved by the 2nd Northants and going into reserve on Bellewaarde Ridge after dusk.

It was at some point during the events of 16th August that Joseph Butler was killed in action.

This was a day of terrible losses for the 2nd Royal Berks, not least because a considerable number of their wounded had to be left behind in the field, either to die untended or to be taken prisoner.  Officer casualties were 14 including two killed in action, and other ranks 367, including 24 killed or died of wounds and 120 missing.

Joseph Butler, along with many of his comrades who fell that day, is named on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing at Zonnebeke, which commemorates all those United Kingdom and New Zealand servicemen who died in the Ypres salient after 16 August 1917, and have no known grave.