Silence has become hard for us to imagine. In times when every moment and every detail of an event is recorded (and often posted to social media within minutes), there can hardly be anything that remains unknown. A century ago, channels of communication were much more basic, and a willingness to communicate was not common.
After the Great War, there was a great silence. Men returning from years of horror had no desire to recount what they had witnessed. Among those who remained quiet was my great grandfather, Charles Pinder Bennett. Trying to piece together the story of what might have happened to him has not been easy.
He had enlisted at Chiswick in December 1915, aged 38 years and on 15th January 1916 was assigned to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. On 11th October 1916, he was posted to the 9th Battlion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. He was with the Sussex Regiment for just thirteen days, on 24th October 1916, he was posted to the 6th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry and joined the battalion at the front on 21st November 1916.
Eleven months later, on 21st October 1917, he was a casualty in Flanders. His records say he received gunshot wounds to the “face, abdomen and thigh”. He was taken to a military hospital at Le Treport and then to the hospital at Rouen. He was lucky, he survived and served out the war a member of the Labour Corps, being assessed as unfit to return to the trenches. It was not a bad fate compared with that of many of those who fought at Passchendaele.
Countless records from the Great War were destroyed by the bombing of London in the Blitz in 1940. Though badly charred, documents relating to Charlie Bennett survived, but they do not tell what happened; they give no clue as to how he had been hit three times by gunfire. Questioning a battlefield guide as to whether he thought Private Bennett had been hit by machine gun fire, he had said, “possibly, or by shots from three rifles”. It was hard to imagine how bullets from three different rifles might have hit him, unless he had ventured into No Man’s Land by himself.
A search of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website showed no deaths among the ranks of the 6th Battalion on 21st October. A day later, twelve members died, not one of whom has a known grave. Blown into so many pieces, they were unidentifiable, drowned in the mud, eviscerated completely, the battalion had been involved in hostile action that day, but what had happened the day before?
The 6th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry was part of the 14th Division, which was part of the British Second Army. The Wikipedia description of the Second Battle of Passchendaele says, “On 21 October, wire-cutting began on the Fifth and Second Army fronts”. Was that what happened to Charlie Bennett?
Under the cover of a bombardment by British artillery, had he been one of those sent out to cut the wire? Had German soldiers in a forward trench spotted him and opened fire on him? Did the bullets leave him lying there until comrades carried him back to safety? What had gone through his mind in that scene from hell?
Perhaps it will never be possible to discover a conclusive answer as to what happened to him. Perhaps it is unsurprising he never spoke of it.