The Early Years
Frederick Octavious Greenacre was born on the 27th October 1896 and was the eighth child to John and Isabella.
His father John was originally a farmer in Norfolk however the conditions were so bad that around 1875 he and a group of friends walked to North Tyneside hoping to get work in the coal mines.
The family lived at 9 Pit Yard in Chirton in 1901 but had moved to 23 Silkeys Lane in Chirton with 5 of his 7 brothers and sisters by the time the 1911 census was taken.
As a child, Fred went to Chirton Public Elementary School before moving up to Tynemouth High School when he was a bit older. When he left school he broke away from the family tradition of working in the coal mine and became an apprentice draper at T Heslop’s, an early form of department store in North Shields.
On the 4th of August 1914 Britain backed up some of it’s allies by declaring war on Germany. Officially the 17 year old Fred was not old enough to join the forces so he continued with his apprenticeship.
At some point in late 1914 he and his older brother George formed the 1st Chirton Scout Troop, as a miner George would not have been allowed to join the army as it was classed as a reserved occupation.
The Scout Troop was officially registered with the Scout Association on the 17th of May 1915 and shows 29 year old George as the Scout Master and the now 18 year old Fred as the Assistant Scout Master.
Joining The Army
By Spring 1915 recruitment for the army was slowing down so in July that year the National Registration Act was passed meaning every man aged between 15 and 65 had to register and provide details of their employment. In October, following the results of the registration, the Group Scheme was launched meaning all men aged between 18 and 40 were told that they could continue to enlist voluntarily or attest with an obligation to come if called up later on. The War Office also told the public that voluntary enlistment would soon cease and that the last day of registration would be the 15th of December 1915.
On the 17th of November 1915, exactly one week after his fathers 69th birthday, Fred joined the army and was sent to become part of The Gordon Highlanders. It is unlikely that he joined under the group scheme as men of his age in the scheme started training in January 1916, it’s more likely that he volunteered, although the War Office’s announcement about the forthcoming conscription may have encouraged his decision to do so.
It’s not clear why he joined the Gordon Highlanders although it was quite common for recruiters to be told which units needed men and for them simply to fill them. Local pal’s battalions did exist up until the start of conscription in January 1916 however there was no guarantee of being sent to one.
Fred’s basic military training would have lasted for about 12 weeks however this meant he would still have been an 18 year old when his basic training was finished and at the time soldiers were stopped from entering a theatre of war until they were 19 years old.
Fred’s first service number was S/13564. The S indicates that he joined one of the Gordon Highlanders service battalions, meaning that he had signed on to serve in the army for the duration of the war only, he was sent initially to become a part of the 1st battalion.
In March 1917 every territorial soldier in the army had their service number changed to make them unique. Fred’s new number was 242336 which indicated he was now a member of the 5th battalion Gordon Highlanders.
Carolyn Morrisey, an expert on the Gordon Highlanders believes that Fred’s service number indicates he is likely to have been transferred into the 5th battalion following a battle at High Wood in July 1916 when they suffered heavy losses and a large number of men were transferred in as replacements.
Fred’s medal index card shows he was not awarded the 1914 – 1915 Star meaning he could not have been in France at any point between August 1914 and December 1915 so it may be that July 1916 is when Fred first went to France and into the trenches.
Once he had joined his battalion in France he would have been involved in a number of major battles including one at Beaumont-Hamel in 1916 and the Arras Offensive in April 1917 where his battalion helped capture Vimy Ridge. In May 1917 his battalion was reduced to just 200 men (the average battalion was 1000 strong) whilst defending their positions at Roeux. In August 1917 the division he was part of mounted a major attack on the Steenbeck River. The division was made up entirely of Scottish territorial battalions and the men in it became know to the Germans as “The ladies from Hell”.
Despite everything that was happening, Fred was still showing a keen interest in the Scout Group. Tynemouth District’s minutes book record Fred’s attendance along with his brother George at a leaders meeting on the 27th of February 1917 so he was still taking part in the meetings when he was home on leave.
However he couldn’t stay on leave for long and later that year, when he was back with his battalion his division was heavily involved in the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. Although this is known as a tank battle the 5th battalion, Gordon Highlanders were partially equipped with armoured cars and managed to secure a major canal crossing. The division was so successful the French in the area thought they had been liberated and church bells were rung in England, however when the battle finished 8 days later the Germans had regained almost all the ground they had lost meaning thousands of lives had been lost in vein.
Fred was home on leave again in early 1918 and was straight back with the Troop. A photo dated 1918 shows Fred in uniform together with his brother George and all the patrol leaders.
The Spring Offensive
The final battle Fred was involved in was the German Spring Offensive. On the 31st of January 1918 the battalion was tasked with defending the Fresnoy le Petit Redoubt, a kind of fort like defensive position, just outside of St. Quentin. They began to settle in and get used to a routine but all was not quiet.
According to the Divisional war diary it became increasingly evident that the Germans were contemplating an attack in the St. Quentin area from the beginning of March 1918. German troop numbers were building up, new hospitals, ammunition dumps and even aerodromes were appearing but their artillery was unusually quiet. German prisoners captured during trench raids indicated an attack was likely to happen on the night of the 21st of March.
The battalion war diary describes how even though the British artillery was particularly active on that night the German troops remained unusually quiet.
At 4.30am on the 21st of March the British artillery began firing again and this time was met almost immediately by “a heavy hostile barrage which grew in intensity”. Visibility was extremely poor due to a heavy mist so no one could see anything unusual, including the battalion’s patrols.
The German shells, including mustard gas ones, continued to hit the Highlanders trenches until mid morning. The war diary describes the barrage as intensifying to drumfire and soldiers all being stood in respirators waiting for an attack. We now know over 1,100,000 shells were fired by the Germans in the St. Quentin area in just 5 hours.
At 10am the battalion headquarters started to get numerous reports of strong enemy forces penetrating the British line all around their area, although they still couldn’t see anything due to the heavy mist and smoke. The war diary describes machine gun fire being heard on both sides of their position and a runner arriving from the Brigade headquarters, which was behind the Highlanders, saying they had been surrounded.
The British held out all day and saw a lot of fierce fighting, but the German stormtroopers made use of the heavy mist and if they couldn’t overrun the positions using grenades, flamethrowers or bayonets, they simply sneaked round them, cutting the defenders off. The last message was received at the divisional HQ from a Lieutenant in the 4th Oxfords, who were also in the redoubts, at 4.10pm asking for permission to try and cut their way out.
By the end of the first day the British had lost nearly 20,000 men with a further 35,000 being wounded. The 5th battalion, Gordon Highlanders ceased to exist in all but name. They suffered huge casualties, every officer in the fighting part of the battalion had been killed, wounded or captured and out of the 560 men in the battalion at the start of the day, 446 were reported as missing with the majority of them becoming prisoners of war. No more than 30 of the Gordon’s managed to get back to British lines.
Prisoner Of War
At some point during the 21st of March, Frederick was one of the many who was taken prisoner by the Germans. The exact circumstances of his capture are unknown but almost 3 months later, on the 19th June 1918, his parents put an announcement in the Shields Daily News telling how they had received a postcard from him saying he was a prisoner of war in Germany and was well, however it’s now believed that this may not have been true.
The Geneva Convention did not exist yet but there were still rules about the type of treatment and work POW’s were allowed to do called the Hague rules. They were not supposed to do jobs directly connected with the war effort, such as digging trenches or carrying ammunition, nor were they supposed to work with 30 kilometres of the front line, however both sides widely employed prisoners and on many occasions, deliberately broke the rules.
In a book called “Prisoners of the Kaiser” by Richard Van Emden the situation around the time of Fred’s capture is explained:
The use of prisoners at the front became vital to the German war effort so that all available forces could be directed to, and maintained at, the front during the campaign. This over-riding aim ensured that the number of British prisoners employed at the front rose dramatically after the Spring offensive of 1918.
Not only were thousands of prisoners captured in the first weeks of the offensive kept in France but other prisoners, already living in camps in Germany, were transferred back to the Western Front. By the Armistice, it was estimated that as many as a sixth of all British prisoners were working in France or Belgium.
Dr Heather Jones, a specialist in First World War Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science with a particular interest in the history of prisoner of war treatment, believes Fred would not have been taken to Germany. In an email she said
“His date of capture in the spring offensive and the fact that he was an NCO makes it unlikely he was evacuated to a camp in Germany as almost all of the British other rank troops captured in the 1918 spring offensive or later were kept by the German army as labourers to work behind the lines. The kinds of tasks the prisoners had to do were loading / unloading shells, making or repairing roads etc. it was very heavy labour with very long hours (14 hour days were recalled by some sources). Many prisoner labourers were put to work near Ham where they were organised in prisoner of war labour companies.”
She also has an explanation of the postcard his family received, she said
“the German army organised it’s postal system for prisoners working for the army in France and Belgium via home front camps meaning some prisoners working behind the lines were assigned postal addresses at camps in Germany. This was an extremely inefficient system – as you can imagine – however the reason for it (so the German army claimed) was that labour company prisoners near the front in France or Belgium were moved around a great deal according to where their work was needed and so they didn’t have any permanent postal address. For this reason, a camp in Germany was a more stable location from which (in theory) their post was meant to be forwarded to them in France / Belgium.”
However there were problems with this as Dr Jones explains
“In reality, by 1918 the German army was on the verge of collapse and few of the prisoners working for it in France and Belgium ever got any post or parcel aid. They survived on appallingly meagre rations – many suffered severe malnutrition which together with the heavy harsh manual labour, overwork, exposed living conditions (they were in ruined buildings often) and frequent beatings meant there was a high death rate. We don’t have exact figures but I have read many source accounts of these prisoner labourers working for the German army in summer 1918 dying of dysentery – malnutrition was a factor in this.”
Fred was reported to have died on the 2nd of July 1918 at War Hospital, Foreste Stendal, Germany.
The Commonwealth War Grave Commission say when he died he was buried in Germany. The exact place was unknown to them, however they did have a map reference. That map reference has now been traced and found to relate to a small village in France called Foreste just outside of Germaine, about 9 miles from St. Quentin.
Dr Jones thinks his death would have been as a result of the work he was made to do and the poor conditions he would have been living in. Her email says “I suspect that your Scout Leader had the most awful time in summer 1918 and may well have succumbed to overwork near Ham. If the date of death was July 1918 then I think it highly unlikely he ever set foot in Germany, although some prisoners at the very end of the war in October 1918 were evacuated by the German army from labouring at the front to Stendhal camp which was a holding point for them pending liberation. But LCpl Greenacre died well before October when this happened, and the fact he was buried initially at Ham makes it very likely he died while working as a prisoner of war for the German army behind the lines.
He may have died from the effects of old battle wounds but the fact that he dies so long after his date of capture suggests to me that this was not very likely. Wounded prisoners were always evacuated by the German army to German home front camps as only fit men were of use as labour.”
The International Red Cross have now opened their archives which contain the original German POW records. They show that Fred died at 5.30am on the 2nd of July 1918 from pleurisy and tuberculosis in war hospital 21D. It is very likely this was caused from a combination of malnutrition, exhaustion and general mistreatment. Fred’s family did not find out about his death for a further six months.
At the end of the war some POW camps were repatriated by the Allied forces however many were simply abandoned by the Germans with the prisoners left to fend for themselves. Some prisoners simply sat and waited for help while others started to walk back towards the Allies. Because of this many POW’s didn’t get home until mid 1919 so Fred’s family would not have been the only ones waiting to hear what had happened to their relative.
When the war did finally end graves registration units were set up to identify smaller grave sites and the people in them. A form was completed explaining where the person was buried and how they had been identified, if it was possible to do so. The smaller grave sites, normally those near temporary hospitals where Fred may have ended up, were then cleared and the remains were moved into larger, more permanent war cemeteries which would eventually be run by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission.
Fred’s remains were identified and moved into the British Military cemetery at Savy, not far from his original place of burial or his place of capture. I believe because of him being registered at Stendal POW camp in Germany and because of all the general confusion at the end of the war, a hospital in Foreste near Germaine has ended up being passed to his family as War Hospital, Foreste Stendal, Germany.
On the 25th of January 1919 an announcement was placed in the Shields Daily News by his family saying that he had died on the 2nd of July 1918.
A District Leaders meeting was held on the 31st of January 1919 and the minutes record the announcement of Fred’s death, presumably by George who was at the meeting, as follows:
It was reported that ASM Greenacre had died while a prisoner of war and a note of sympathy was passed, all standing.