William Christopher Tanner

William was born at Woodcott, Hampshire, which lies approximately 8 miles south west of Newbury, in about 1882.  Woodcott at this time was an agricultural parish containing two farms and about a dozen scattered cottages.  The Tanners were a family of farm workers and Woodcott had been their home for at least five generations.

Regrettably, it has not so far been possible to trace the registration of William’s birth or his parentage.  However, the early years of his life were clearly quite unsettled, as by the age of 9 he had already left Woodcott and was boarding at the home of Alexander Goodyear, a farm worker who lived at Kimmer Farm, Faccombe, together with one George Earle Tanner, aged 6. We know that George was the son of Earle Tanner who had died in 1888 and that his mother Louisa had left the area to work as a cook at Chieveley, so we can speculate that perhaps William was George’s brother and that he had also been left fatherless by Earle’s death.  This has however not proved possible to establish with any certainty.

The 1911 census shows William, age 29, living in the Bothy (i.e. single men’s accommodation) at Wormstall House, sharing its five rooms with George Howells, a 21 year old gardener, and William Butler, a 26 year old groom (the writer’s grandfather).  His occupation is given as farm labourer.

The owner of the Wormstall Estate in 1911, and therefore William’s employer at that time, was Commander Eric Charrington RN, a member of the famous brewing family of that name.  He had only acquired the property in February 1910, and so it is very possible that William Tanner also worked on the estate when it was owned by Hugh Powell Powel, J.P. (d.1907) and Herbert Wilford Brett (d.1909), a tea merchant.

Why did the Tanners come to this area?  It is surely no coincidence that Kimmer Farm was worked for many years by members of the Froome and Willis families, who between them at various times also farmed at Sole, Oakhanger, Tullock, Elton and Wickham.  They also had a family connection to the Lea family who farmed at Orpenham before the Hamblins.  However, whatever the exact circumstances, we know that by the age of 19 William was living at Peasemore, working as an under carter, and that he therefore moved to Wormstall sometime between 1901 and 1911.  In the meantime, Louisa Tanner had remarried to Edwin Deacon, a Chieveley bricklayer’s labourer, with whom she had further children, and George was also working there as a farm carter, so William clearly had some family in the area whilst at Wormstall. 

William enlisted for service with the Royal Berkshire Regiment at the very beginning of the Great War, becoming a Private in the 5th Battalion.  Interestingly, his regimental number, 10862, is not far removed from that of Gilbert Brown of Wickham (10721), who also enlisted in the Royal Berkshire Regiment at the outbreak of war; perhaps they were friends who joined up together.

Although Wormstall House was in Kintbury parish, the estate employed many men from the Wickham and Hoe Benham area, and due to the nearness of Wormstall to Wickham, the names of those men who lived on the Charringtons’ estate were added to the Welford parish magazine Roll of Honour ‘by request’, as men ‘connected with the parish’ but who were not eligible to be included on the main list as their names had probably already appeared on the Kintbury or Boxford list.  William’s name first appears in this list in October 1914, and also appears on the Kintbury Roll of Honour published by the Newbury Weekly News from October 1914 onwards.

The story of the early days of the 5th Royal Berks has already been described in the article on Gilbert Brown and so will not be repeated here.  Suffice to say that like Gilbert, after initial training William left for France with the original draft of the Battalion on 30th May 1915, arriving at Boulogne, from where they proceeded into trenches at Ploegsteert Wood, south of Ypres, for instruction in trench warfare techniques.      

The Battalion’s first major engagement with the enemy was at the Battle of Loos in September/October 1915, in which action Gilbert Brown was killed.  During November, William and the rest of the Battalion were in and out of the trenches in the same district, which were often knee deep in mud.  This was followed by moves to various parts of the line in the Béthune area.  December brought further casualties to the Battalion; on the 22nd, eight men were gassed due to a leakage from British gas cylinders, and others were lost from heavy German bombardment.

As 1915 came to a close, William and his comrades found themselves in an especially miserable section of the line, where the ground was so waterlogged that trenches in the usual sense were impossible to maintain, and the line consisted of a series of outposts to and from which movements could only be made at night.  In mid-January 1916 the Battalion were withdrawn from the line and subsequently spent a considerable period in training and rest areas to the rear of Béthune.

On 16th June they began moving back to the front line with the rest of 12th Division, in preparation for the Somme offensive, and on 1st July, as the battle opened, the 5th Royal Berks were on the march towards Albert and the front. Extra bandoliers, bombs and entrenching tools were issued to all ranks.

By the evening of the 2nd, the Battalion were positioned in front line trenches facing the ruins of the village of Ovillers, with orders to take part in the Divisional attack on the village at dawn the next day.

Ovillers had been a first-day objective for the British troops, but the initial attack by 8th Division (which incidentally included the 2nd Battalion Royal Berks) had been unsuccessful and the Division had suffered appalling casualties.  Like other villages incorporated into the German forward positions, Ovillers had been turned into almost a miniature fort, with houses fortified with reinforcing concrete and machine gun posts in cellars forming a deadly criss-cross of fire, turning it into one of the strongest positions on the front.  There was no single ‘line’ here, but rather a series of (typically) three lines of well-constructed trenches, carefully positioned to extract maximum defensive effect from the lie of the land, with plentiful dugouts (many up to 30 - 40 feet deep) and two belts of barbed wire up to 30 yards wide.  This then was the formidable objective which faced Private William Tanner and the rest of the 5th Battalion on 3rd July 1916. 

The attack was to commence at 3:15am, preceded by one hour’s artillery bombardment.  The 5th Royal Berks and the 7th Suffolks, the two attacking Battalions in 35th Brigade, started to crawl forward at 3:03am, in order to cut down the assaulting distance.  As men assembled in the crowded trenches behind them, German artillery fire caused casualties amongst those waiting to move up.  Despite this, the advance began well; the British bombardment of the German wire had been very effective and few men were lost as the Battalion moved forward in the darkness towards the German front line trench, which did not appear to be particularly heavily manned.  They moved on across the second trench line towards the third, named ‘Shrapnel Terrace’, the line nearest the village itself and the most heavily defended.  By this point however, the deadly German machine gun fire and bombing had begun to take its toll and the Battalion was suffering heavy casualties amongst its officers and senior NCOs.

Hand-to-hand fighting ensued, with the British troops trying to dislodge the defenders from their multitude of deep dugouts with grenades, and the Germans countering this with bombing parties of their own.  The advantage was clearly with the defenders who had a ready stockpile of grenades to hand, and although some British troops reached the village and gained a small footing, the Royal Berks began to find themselves running out of ammunition and increasingly cut off.  The survivors began to retire to the German front line, further casualties being incurred in the process, with only shell holes offering any degree of safety along the way.

A desperate attempt was made to rally the men and go forward again but in the face of a determined German advance the decision was made to withdraw to a sunken road leading back towards Albert.  The Berkshires tried to dig in here but were forced to withdraw again, and by 9am it was becoming clear that the assault had also been a failure in other sectors.  In fact, Ovillers would not finally be taken until 16th July.

The Division as a whole incurred casualties of almost 2,400 officers and men in the 3rd July attack on Ovillers, with the 5th Royal Berks’ casualties reported as follows: Officers, 4 killed or died of wounds, 3 wounded 7 missing; Other ranks, 2 killed - later revised to 89 – 212 wounded, 104 missing.  One of the dead was William Tanner.

Although some of the 5th Royal Berks men who fell on that day are buried in Ovillers Military Cemetery, many more - including William Tanner - have no known grave and are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.