On the horrendous battlefields of France, during WW1
In September of 1915, at the age of thirty-nine, Mr. Dibb was on leave from BBTC on half-pay (1100/2 Indian rupees), with the intension of joining the service during WW1, which had started on August 1st, 1914. This might be partly due to the influence of Patriotic League held in northern Siam earlier that month.[i] However, it must have been very hard for him to decide whether to stay in peaceful northern Siam with his family or to volunteer to go to war. During the time this difficult decision must have been on many English men's mind, as pointed out in a poem wrote by a well-known war poet, Rupert Brooke: "It will be Hell to be in it and Hell to be out of it"[ii]
He left Phrae for Colombo, leaving his wife and family who sadly saw him off without knowing that they would never see him back again. From Colombo he embarked on a ship, SS Maloja, coming from Sydney, Australia, to England. In a document regarding his arrival at Plymouth, on Oct 19th, 1915, he crossed out England as his ‘intended future permanent residence’ but selected ‘foreign country’ instead, which could be interpreted as his intention of coming back to his family if he had survived the war. After arriving in London, he applied to join the service in the Royal British Army on December 18th, 1915.[iii]
After being trained in England for a few months, he became Second Lieutenant on May 11th, 1916.[iv] During his services with the Royal Field Artillery Regiment of the British army, he fought many battles, starting from the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. About six months into his services, W.R. Dibb was awarded the Military Cross (MC) on February 13th, 1917, in recognition of his conspicuous gallantry in action. It was reported that he displayed great courage and determination in maintaining a telephone line under very heavy fire in a battlefield near Beaumont-Hamel, northern France.[v]
This incidence happened during the Battle of Ancre from November 13th – 24th, 1916, which he probably fought under the 37th Division, V Corps of the Fifth Army. At the end of the Battle, the Army finally drove the Germans back a few kilometers and managed to capture Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt in the process. During the two weeks of that fierce battles, advancing from trench to trench, the British Army had suffered over 23,000 casualties while inflicting many more on the German side (about 45,000 casualties as well as taking over 7,000 prisoners).[vi]
[i] D.F. Macfie, edited by R W Wood and E R B Hudson, Chiengmai Record 1884-1919. (Payap university Archives, 1987).
[iii] Form M.T. /393, 22.12.15, Public Record Office, Ref. XX339/61400)
[iv] Supplement to the London Gazette, May 10th 1916, p. 4654
[v] Supplement to the London Gazette, February 13th, 1917, p 1540 and The Times, June 13th, 1918, p 8).
Captain W.R. Dibb MC and a scenery at Beaumont Hamel, looking down from Hawthorn ridge, seeing Beaumont Hamel British cemetery and sunken lane on the left.
Front lines at various times during WW1. The area inside the red boundaries was probably where W.R. Dibb fought many battles, with 37th Trench Mortar Battery, since the middle of 1916 to 1918
Second Lieutenant William Reginald Dibb was later promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on November 11th, 1917. He was also an Acting Captain from 1st to 9th August 1917 and on February 4th, 1918.[i] The conditions on the battlefield during WW1 must have been more horrendous than one could imagine. Apart from daily dangers from enemy’s weapons, e.g. sniper fire, artillery bombardments, poison gas, etc., diseases also took a heavy toll. Rats in their millions infested trenches, spreading infection and contaminating food. However, rats were by no means the only source of infection and nuisance, lice were another serious and contagious problem, breeding in the seams of filthy clothes and causing men to itch incessantly. Fungal infections of the feet were another medical condition peculiar to trench life, which was caused by the cold, wet and unsanitary trench conditions.
The appalling smell given off by numerous conflicting sources was another nuisance. These included lingering odour of poison gas, rotting sandbags, stagnant mud, latrines, cigarette smoke and cooking food. Worse of all was the smell of rotting dead bodies in shallow graves which were lain around in the thousands. The horrible conditions exacerbated during heavy rainfalls, trenches could quickly accumulate muddy water and the walls of the trenches rapidly eroded and were prone to collapse, which needed quick repairs during dreadful winter weather.
William Reginald Dibb, like many of his fellow countrymen, spent more than two years rotating in and out of the trenches, where the conditions were appalling and dangerous. Moreover, as a member of the trench mortar crew, he was more prone to coming under fire from enemy artillery whenever his unit’s position was detected.
[i] Supplement to the London Gazette, November 16th, 1917, p. 11817; December 22nd, 1917, p. 13434 and June 10th, 1918, p. 6877
Mr. Dibb in his uniform as an officer of a trench mortar battery
Ready in the trench before climbing up and off into the killing field in the no man's land (Photo by Ernest Brooks, File: Lancashire Fusiliers trench Beaumont Hamel 1916.jpg)
Oversized rats and lice tormented the troops inside the trench
Just few days after the beginning of the German Spring Offensives on March 21st,1918, in the area south of Arras, the IV Corps of the British Third Army was under attacked and forced back westward more than ten miles. On March 26th, the Corps fell back further to a new line of defense between Ablainzeville village in the north, to Puisieux in the south, where the 62nd and 42nd Divisions had been ordered to make a stand. The battle along this front line continued until April 5th.[i]
On that day the IV corps formations, including the 37th Division, were attacked by more than six enemy Divisions. Heavy fighting took place and the eastern half of the village of Bucquoy was lost. However, in the evening, the attacks were called off due to heavy German casualties. After April 5th, the situation was gradually stabilized into trench warfare, which continued until the beginning of the Aisne Offensive about two months later.[ii]
Although the situation had been stabilizing since April 5th, the activity of the artillery and trench mortars never ceased. With this cruel trench warfare, W.R. Dibb eventually got severely injured on May 27th, after a ferocious heavy artillery bombardment of 4.000 German guns across the front line, and lost his life on the same day while acting as Captain X 37th Trench Mortar Battery of the Royal Field Artillery. His death was officially reported by the officer in command of the 62nd Division Field Ambulance, on June 9th. The report mentioned his death as, ‘Wound received in actions’.
Above is a poem written by his eldest son, Gabriel Mawk Dibb, in 1918 in W.R. Dibb’s honour.(Courtesy of Regina Dibb) Below, after his death, a fellow officer and his brigadier wrote in the Times of June 13th 1918
Map of the area south of Arras, showing the name of villages mentioned in text. Bienvillers Military Cemetery, in black boarders, is where Captain W.R. Dibb was buried. The numbers in blue circles are war cemeteries, which are scattered throughout northern France, illustrating the horror of WW1
His body was later buried at Bienvillers Military Cemetery, about ten kilometers northwest of Bucquoy. It was with deep regret for his family that Captain W.R. Dibb died not long before the war ended on November 11th, 1918, as mentioned in a document of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission:
“In May 1918 Commonwealth forces faced an overwhelming German attack which pushed the Allied back to the Marne. Huge casualties were suffered before the allied counter-attack in early August which drove the Germans back and led to the eventual advance to victory”
Following W.R. Dibb's death, his brother, Cdr. Hugh M’Neile Dibb, wrote to the Secretary War Office enquiring about his brother’s death. An excerpt from the letter from the Military Secretary in response to his letter is shown as attached. Since there is no information about Commander Dibb’s further enquiry, the details of where exactly Captain W.R. Dibb lost his life remain a mystery to us. As for the arrangement of his Will, it was reported in ‘England and Wales National Probate Calendar 1919’ as follows:
“Dibb William Reginald of Muang Praa Siam captain R.F.A. M.C. died 27 May 1918 in France Administration (with will)London 22 March to Hugh McNeile Dibb commander R.N.R. and George Ingleton Phillips brevet lieutenant-colonel H.M. general staff. Effects £ 2171, 1 s.”
Above is an excerpt from the letter from the military secretary in response to the enquiry by W.R. Dibb’s brother. (M.S.3. CAS: 518.A, Public Record Office, Ref. XX339/61400). Below: The author visited Captain W.R. Dibb’s graveyard on September 26th, 2012 at Bienvillers Military Cemetery
Report of Captain W.R. Dibb's death, by an officer in charge (Courtesy of Joseph Dibbayawan)