1st May 2015 sees the 100th anniversary of a tragic episode in World War I involving men of the 1st Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment. On 1 May 1915 the Dorsets were holding part of the front line near the Belgian town of Ypres at Hill 60, a large spoil heap from the construction of the nearby railway cutting. It was a fine sunny day and the enemy was unusually quiet until around 7.15 p.m. when they opened a severe bombardment. And then, before the sentries could give the alarm, thick clouds of gas were shot out of cylinder nozzles from the German trenches. Company Sergeant-Major Ernest Shephard said in his diary entry for Saturday 1 May:
“The scene that followed was heartbreaking. Men were caught by the fumes and in dreadful agony, coughing and vomiting and rolling on the ground.”
Shortly after the attack, the situation was saved by 19 year old Second Lieutenant Robin Kestell-Cornish, who together with the only four men left of his platoon of 40, fired into the gas cloud and stopped the advancing Germans. He was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry but many believed that he should have been awarded a Victoria Cross for his extraordinary courage in this action. In his diary entry for the day after the gas attack, CSM Shephard wrote:
“The bitterest Sunday I have known or ever wish to know. Hill 60 is a terrible sight. Hundreds of bodies all over the place terribly mutilated, a large number of our own men, and larger number of Hun.”
As a result of the gas attack, the Battalion suffered over 300 casualties of which some 150 were killed. One of these was 21 year old Private Alexander William (Will) Sanders of Shipton Gorge. He was a keen bell ringer at the parish church and had joined in the ringing on the last Sunday he was in England before joining the British Expeditionary Force.
Ernie Thomas, who is a research volunteer at The Keep Military Museum in Dorchester and also webmaster of the Shipton Gorge web site said: “The moving story of the death of Will Sanders and his comrades reminds us of the great debt of gratitude we all owe to those who fought for our country in World War I. On Friday 1 May, members of the Dorset County Association of Church Bellringers will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Will Sanders by ringing a full peal at St Martin’s Church, Shipton Gorge where he was a member of the bellringing team. Ringing will start at 9.30 a.m. and continue for several hours and light refreshments will be available. On Saturday 2 May at 11.00 a.m. a Remembrance Service will be held at the church when the sacrifice made by Will Sanders and his comrades is remembered. I hope that many people who wish to honour the memory of these gallant Dorsetshire soldiers will come to these special events. “For those interested in finding out more about the part played in the Great War by soldiers from the regiments of Dorset and Devon, the Keep Military Museum is the ideal place to visit with its fascinating collection of artefacts, weapons, uniforms and medals covering over 200 years of history on display over four floors. Our research staff can help families who wish to learn about their ancestors who served in the two County regiments. Please visit the museum’s web site at www.keepmilitarymuseum.org or contact the Curator, Chris Copson, on 01305 264066 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).”