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Private lied about his age and died after a gas attack on Hill 60; The extraordinary and nightmarish experience of an otherwise ordinary Cardiff soldier who signed up to fight in the First World War under a different name has been chronicled more than a century after his death. Tom Houghton reports...

PRIVATE Henry Bunce was just one of the countless South Walians who died from wounds suffered during World War I. But behind the story of another tragic battlefield death in the bitter conflict lies a poignant tale of a man in his 40s who signed up under a different name - and who perished in what is thought to be the first gas attack by the German army.

In May 1915, Pte Bunce was with the 1st Dorset Regiment in northern France.

He was 45, at a time when the conscription age limit was 39, and was serving under the name "Burns".

His death came after he had reenlisted in the armed forces at the outbreak of war, and had been at the front since October 1914.

The husband of Keturah Bunce and employed by the Dowlais Iron Ore Company in Cardiff, the private had lived at 99, Portmanmoor Road in Splott.

Research was carried out by family friend Lawrence Brown, who went to visit his grave at Bailleul, a large town in France a few kilometres from the Belgian border.

According to Mr Brown, it was common for younger men to disguise their age but not so with older men, like Pte Bunce, who was over the normal conscription age limit.

The town of Ypres was to become associated with some of the bloodiest and most futile battles of the First World War.

The British Army held a position that protruded five miles at its furthest point into the German lines.

Pte Bunce's Battalion, the 1st Dorsets, was part of the 15th brigade positioned at what would become the infamous Hill 60. In this battle, which began on April 22, 1915, the Germans used gas for the first time in order to try and break the stalemate of trench warfare.

The French troops holding that part of the line were overwhelmed and fled from the clouds of chlorine gas, leaving a huge gap in the defences and leaving Ypres wide open, with Canadian troops rushing to plug the gap. They subsequently suffered terrible losses as the Germans renewed the use of gas.

During this phase of battle, the 1st Dorsets were holding the line south of the "salient" - a term for a battlefield feature that projects into the opponent's territory.

Hill 60 was the area where Pte Bunce was stationed around the time of his death at the start of May.

The hill was no more than a low hillock created by the spoil excavated when a cutting was put in for the Ypres-Comines railway at the end of the 19th century.

On May 1, the hill was held by Pte Bunce's Battalion.

At 7.17pm that day, it was pounded by artillery fire and, before sentries could raise the alarm, the Germans released gas from nozzles protruding from their lines on the other side of the railway cutting.

The only protection the men had from gas were masks of gauze and flannel.

The gas was directed so that the Dorsets holding the hill would be cut off from reinforcements.

German artillery pounded the rear trenches and the company holding the hill was effectively cut off.

The men stood on the parapet of the frontline trench to escape the heavy gas accumulating at the bottom of the trench and held the line, directing rifle fire into the advancing Germans.

Help eventually reached the men at the top of the hill, and the situation was restored, but the Dorsets had suffered heavy losses.

An account written by another officer in the battalion later appeared in the local press.

It describes an account of the May 1 attack, when Pte Bunce was either gassed or wounded by shell fire.

Casualties from this action were taken to a clearing station and then onto the field ambulance and hospital at Ballieul.

Some 207 men were evacuated, 46 died almost immediately and 12 more died after long suffering.

It is likely Pte Bunce was one of the latter.

It read: "At about 7pm I came out of my dugout and saw a hose sticking out over the German parapet, which was just starting to spout a thick yellow cloud with a tinge of green in it.

"The cloud came out with a hiss that you could hear quite plainly.

"The gas did not come directly towards us but went slantwise, then, with our trenches being so close, the gas went into part of the German trenches as well as ours.

"They bolted as soon as they got a whiff of the filthy stuff.

"A few of our men staggered away down the hill, some got into a wood behind it and died there.

"As the ground was so low and the gas followed them, others only got as far as the mine head and communication trenches.

"My men were splendid. They all came with me into the gas and scores of men were rescued.

"The men in most cases were lying insensible in the bottom of the trenches, and quite a number were at the mine head which was the worst possible place to be.

"I was simply mad with rage, seeing strong men drop to the ground and die in this fashion. They were in agonies.

"I saw two men staggering over a field in our rear last night. When I went to look for them in the morning they were both dead.

"Altogether, I suppose, 200 men are dead or will die of the stuff."

The research also revealed Pte Bunce was either killed in that May 1 attack, or on May 5, when the Germans renewed their attempts to take Hill 60.

But it is likely Pte Bunce would have had to make a difficult journey immediately after being wounded following the May 5 attack, during which he may well have died.

The Dorset officer's account continued: "We passed many groups of men dead or dying, some wounded and all badly gassed. Most of them were writhing and in awful agony.

"The colour of their faces and the noises they made turned our blood cold. We could do nothing for them.

"We had to push on and leave them there gasping for breath and dying under that pitiless sun. Our first business was to clear the fire trenches of the corpses.

"My men worked until they nearly dropped. Water was scarce. We tried the puddles at the edge of the railway line.

"The water was filthy and brown, but it was refreshing. We moved forward, the trench was badly battered and was stained yellow from lyddite.

"The trench was full of German dead piled over each other. A lucky shell of ours had done its work and killed about 20 Germans.

"We crawled over them, they were very wobbly and the going was bad.

"On turning a traverse in the trench I came face to face with a dirty unshaved German staring at me with a rifle in his hand. I hid behind some corpses and took pot shots at him.

"On one of the German dead I found a water bottle full of ice cold coffee it was at this point I made a big blunder.

"I threw grenades, many of the men were hit. An officer of the Dorsets had his head blown off next to me just as he was handing me a box of grenades."

It is likely Pte Bunce died at some point along this nightmarish journey through the trenches, and Hill 60 is today still scarred with shell holes, massive shell craters and the remains of bunkers.

Pte Bunce's medals went up for sale at a shop in Chelsea earlier this year, and were swiftly bought by his family, nearly 102 years since his untimely death.


Private Henry Bunce

Troops in the First World War which claimed countless Welsh lives
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Apr 12, 2017
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