James Bertram Death DCM

“Bert” Death was born in Whittlesey in February 1895. He enlisted in the Cambridgeshire Regiment in 1913 and was a labourer by trade. He was with the 1/1st Battalion when it crossed to France in February 1915.

In May 1915 Death, by now a Corporal, along with many of the men of Wisbech and Whittlesey, was in C Company and on the 5th they were tasked to secure a small copse of trees known as Fosse Wood. It was a dangerous task; the wood was overlooked by the enemy but considered by the British to be strategically important to other attacks taking place that day and needed to be occupied. The enemy spotted the Cambridgeshires crossing to the wood and brought accurate artillery and machine gun fire on to the men. Those wounded were carried on to the wood where the men secured the positions, with casualties mounting, and remained there under intense fire for the rest of the day and night until ordered to retire.

Death was Mentioned in Despatches for his gallantry in helping to organise the situation and rescue the wounded men on that day.

By September 1916 the Cambridgeshires were now on the Somme and part of their routine was to harass the enemy with trench raids. Death was part of a patrol out on the night of the 15th, but it didn’t go well. The men crawling on their hands and knees were able to make it to the German barbed wire defences, which they understood to have been cut by our artillery, but no further. The patrol is split at this point with five members, including Death and one officer, getting within ten metres of the enemy trenches but not being able to enter them and subsequently being spotted by a German sentry. The Germans open rapid fire on the group and start throwing bombs at them. The officer, Lieutenant Allpass and one man are wounded, Allpass gravely so; and taking cover in a shell hole both are bandaged up by the others but the party are unable to carry Allpass. Minutes later a flare goes up and the group see an enemy fighting patrol forty metres away but heading their way. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned the men scatter and make for their own lines individually, with Death and two others making it but Allpass and one other lost. For more information on this raid please click here.

It is thought that Death was in the reserve company for the attack on the Schwaben Redoubt but not long after that attack Death, by now a sergeant, is involved in the next objective: St Pierre Divion. Because casualties among the officers were high in the Schwaben attack Death is commanding a platoon and his objective is to capture and hold a bridge over the River Ancre. The bridge was known to be protected by enemy machine gun positions and the men attacked on November 13th. An eyewitness report stated that Death took his 36 men over the top in broad daylight at 7am, captured and held the bridge with the loss of all but 6 men. The battalion took and held its objectives that day. Death received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery that day. Death’s citation, which undoubtedly also covered the raid on September 15th and the capture of the bridge at St Pierre Divion appeared in the London Gazette of January 26, 1917:

For conspicuous gallantry in action. He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance, and later, led his platoon forward with great courage and determination.

In early 1917 Death suffers from gas poisoning and is sent back to the UK for treatment and at the same time receives his DCM from Brigadier General Bush in a group presentation. He is then posted to 3rd Battalion as a Company Sergeant Major but is discharged due to his gas poisoning in April 1918 receiving a Silver War Badge. He is described in his discharge papers as “honest, sober and intelligent”.

Little is known of Bert’s post-war life, it is thought he worked on the railways and was a member of the Cambridgeshire Regiment’s Old Comrades Association. He died; aged 60, in Doddington Hospital, Cambridgeshire; thought to be as a result of Leukaemia.

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Bert shortly after joining the Cambs.

Bert while recovering from gas poisoning.

This site went live on the 14th February 2015 to mark  100 years since the 1/1st Cambs went off to war.


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