Fred Mouncey

Fred Mouncey

41950 Private Fred Mouncey,
10th (Service) Battalion, The Northumberland Fusiliers

Brassard issued to Group System Recruits (© IWM INS 8066)

Fred Mouncey was born at Kiddal Lane in Potterton in 1879. He was the youngest of six children, and fourth son of a farm labourer, William Mouncey, and his wife, Mary. Like his father before him, Fred, too went to work as a farm labourer, and the census returns of the course of the two men’s lives show that between them they worked on almost all of the farms in and around Barwick.
Fred Mouncey enjoyed playing cricket in his spare time, and was member of the village cricket club, along with several the other men from Barwick who served during the Great War.
He enlisted into the army in Harrogate in December 1915 under the Group Scheme, the brainchild of Lord Derby, the Director-General of Recruiting, which was designed to regulate and stabilise the flow of recruits into the Army. Concerns had been raised in Parliament about authorities turning a blind eye to underage enlistments, which were prevalent under the voluntary system, and one of the aims of the Group Scheme was to properly register all men of military age, thus excluding those who were not yet of age to serve.
The Group Scheme was not wholly successful, as too few recruits presented themselves for enlistment, and as a result, in January 1916, universal conscription was introduced in Great Britain to address the problem. Conscription was not extended to Ireland for political reasons, and recruitment there continued to be on a voluntary basis for the duration of the war.
After enlisting under the Group Scheme, men could either choose to be mobilised immediately, or they could choose to defer their call up. Those choosing to defer their mobilisation were put into Class A, and those who opted for immediate service were put in Class B. Group A men were issued with an armband of grey cloth with a red Imperial Crown sown on it, which the man could wear as sign to others that he had committed to serve.
The Casemates on Bollingstraat, Ypres, 1915 (© IWM Q 28949)

The men who chose to defer their service, and went into Group A, were further organised into groups, according to the year of their birth. Fred Mouncey’s year of birth, 1879, placed him in Group 19, and those men were mobilised on 18th March 1916, although evidence from other men with army numbers either side of his suggests that he may not have actually joined the army until early April 1916. Initially he was put in the West Yorkshire Regiment at the regimental depot at York Infantry Barracks in Fulford. By the end of April 1916, he had been posted to the 13th (Reserve) Battalion, which was based at Rugeley. On 1st September 1916, in the wake of the regimental system of training recruits being unable to cope with the numbers of men it was expected to process under conscription, a complete reorganisation of training units was undertaken, and the Training Reserve was created. Fred Mouncey was posted to the 6th Training Reserve Battalion and completed his training with this unit.

Following his training he was sent to France on 6th October 1916. On arrival in France at this stage of the war, soldiers were initially sent to one of the Infantry Base Depots to continue with their training, and to await being placed onto a draft to reinforce infantry battalions in need of men. In Fred Mouncey’s case, he was immediately drafted into the 10th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

This period coincided with the transfer of the battalion away from the Somme sector, north to the Ypres Salient, where it took billets in the Infantry Barracks in Ypres itself, and set up it’s Battalion HQ in the casemates of the city ramparts towards the end of October. The battalion records in its diary that it received a draft of 176 men arrived at the transport lines on 20th October, where they were held until the battalion was relived from the line the following day, and then the men were allocated to their companies. On 22nd October, the temporary Commanding Officer of the battalion, Captain HWB Foster, inspected the new men. The battalion was then relieved and moved back to Poperinge, where it went through a period of training.

Messines area, December 1916 (National Library of Scotland)

Winters during the Great War in the Ypres Salient were generally quiet in terms of large-scale offensive actions, as the weather and the ground the men occupied prevented the opposing armies from being highly active. Instead, both armies settled into a routine of occupying trenches, and providing working parties to keep the men in the trenches supplied, to work on damaged trench systems and repairing roads in preparation for the coming spring when dried conditions could make offensive actions possible again. That is not to say that the men in the trenches were idle. Patrolling was still carried out to gain intelligence on the enemy a unit was facing across no man’s land, and to keep their immediate front clear of enemy patrols. Minor firefights regularly took place, and trench raids, hated by most soldiers, were regularly carried out. All this small scale, but dangerous work that the soldiers had to do contributed regularly to the casualty figures.

Much of the first half of 1917 for 10th Bn Northumberland Fusiliers was taken up with rotations between trench holding routine and training for the planned spring offensive on the Messines Ridge. During 1916, plans had been made to clear the Germans from the Belgian coast, which would deny them the use of base from which they could operate submarines, forcing them to withdraw them back to German ports (the Netherlands being neutral), and further strengthen the sea blockade of Germany. Despite the attack planned for Messines being on the southern arc of the Ypres Salient, it was an important component of the overall objective, as success in this sector would considerably shorten the line the British were required to hold, and this would free up troops for operations elsewhere. It would also deny to the Germans valuable high ground from which they observe operations further north, where the main thrust of the British offensive would fall later in the year.

General Plumer decorated by the King (© IWM Q 9228)

The operations at Messines would be carried out by the British Second Army under the command of General Sir Herbert Plumer. Plumer was a man who placed great value in training his men and ensuring that they were as thoroughly prepared for any task as it was possible to be. He ensured that units were taken out of the line to view scale models of the ground over which they would attack, and he gave the soldiers he commanded as wide a view of the plan as he could to make them feel informed and supported. The men knew what the units to the leir left and right would be doing, and he made sure that each man knew the importance of his own actions. In the post war era, when it became fashionable for British generalship to be attacked and the generals themselves to have their reputations besmirched, critics, such as David Lloyd-George, found it difficult to denigrate Plumer, as it was widely accepted that his tactics, and his methods of training his troops worked well, and that made him popular with men he had commanded.

Plumer’s integrated use of tunnelling and mining at Messines, and of the Royal Flying Corps to support the infantry, and his belief in the importance of the logistical services made the operations at Messines a successful start to 1917, and hopes for the second major offensive, to be known as the Third Battle of Ypres, were high, and initially the campaign achieved early successes, but soon stalled. For many in modern times, the reasons for the failure of the Third Battle of Ypres, better known simply as Passchendaele, are the ground over which the men fought, and the weather. While these factors undeniably contributed to the offensive’s failure, others were important too. The German Army was a first-class enemy, determined to defend every gain it had made, or to withdraw to positions of almost impregnable strength. The British soldiers, and their equipment, were worn out after the fighting in the Messines offensive, and not enough time had been allowed after the end of it to rest the men, service the equipment, especially the artillery, and restock their supplies. Momentum from one offensive to the next was not enough to carry the British through to a successful conclusion to the year.

Fred Mouncey was killed in action on 20th September 1917, a little over six weeks into the Third Battle of Ypres. His battalion was involved in the fighting in the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, which was essentially an Artillery led battle, with the emphasis being on smashing the German pill boxes and machine gun positions, before the infantry swept forward to occupy the ground on they had stood. Overall, it was a success for the British, and by mid-morning, most of the objectives had been captured to a depth of 1500 yards. The anticipated German counterattack, which began at 3 pm that afternoon was comprehensively repulsed, and the temporary gains the Germans had managed to make were soon abandoned. The 10th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers had advanced to the attack from its overnight position at Bedford House, about 2 km south of Ypres, and moved eastwards to form up between Herenthage Chateau and the Menin Road. Facing north, the battalion moved off towards Glencorse Wood, passing to the East of Inverness Copse.

Fred Mouncey was killed during the battalion’s advance to its start line, in a communication trench called Jar Row, between Java Avenue and Jasper Drive. His body was not retrieved from the battlefield at the time, and it was left where he fell, until it was discovered by one of the graves exhumation units in August 1919, almost 2 years after his death. He was identified by his identity discs, and personal effects found on his body. He was moved for final burial to Hooge Crater Cemetery, roughly a kilometre away on the main road from Ypres to Menin, and he now lies buried in Plot XVIII, Row G, Grave 10. He was 38 years old.