Service number: 290071 | Rank: Lance Corporal | Regiment: Norfolk Regiment.
Died, October 9, 1917, in Flanders.
Buried at HOOGE CRATER CEMETERY, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium.
Born and enlisted in Brandon.
(CWGC: https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/457663/challis,-/)

WHAT I KNOW ABOUT BERTIE …

Bertie was born in September 1888, just a couple of years after his older brother, Ernest. According to the 1911 Census he was working as a labourer in one of Brandon’s saw mills and had married Kate Snare, who was eight years older than him, and the couple had a young child, Bertie, aged two months.

The picture of when Bertie joined up is confusing. A local newspaper from the time suggested Bertie had “been mobilised on August 5th 1914”, which implied he was a Reservist at the outbreak of war. However his Medal Roll Index Card, which would indicate if he had received a medal for being in the Army during 1914-1915, shows no indication that he was in the war early on. The newspaper did also state that he went to France in July 1917, which may indicate he enlisted later in the war.

What is certain is that Bertie was in the 1st Battalion, Norfolk Regiment, and would have been serving alongside Bertie Docking in the doomed attack on Polderhoek Chateau. The weather was thoroughly miserable and not conducive for an attack. The men’s movements along the line had to be undertaken by walking on ‘duckboards’ otherwise there was a real danger they would fall into one of the water-filled craters and drown. The Germans had fortified the ruined chateau with machine gun posts and pillboxes and the British had attacked it just a few days previously. In that attack the British had scored a partial success before the enemy counter attacked and gained some ground themselves. On the morning of the 9th October the rain was still coming down very heavy, and at 5.20am the supporting artillery barrage lifted and the men from the Norfolk Regiment went “over the top”. Two companies from the Norfolks moved forward in the dark but instead of flanking to the left of the chateau they ended up exposed in front of it. They suffered many casualties and the commanding officer reacted by throwing a third company in to reinforce them. The men were not able to make any progress and suffered heavy losses to the German machine guns and by 9pm most of the survivors had returned back to their lines. However there were still wounded men who had been left out in the mud and over the next two days a few stragglers continued to find their way back. The commanding officer wrote that these men “looked simply ghastly”.

In this confusion Bertie was one of those who never made it back to his lines. A few weeks after the battle his wife, who at the time was living at 49 Thetford Road, received an official telegram informing her that her husband was missing. In January 1918 the Thetford and Watton Times published the fact that she was still asking for any information about him. A month later the newspaper printed yet another plea from his family.

“BRANDON NCO MISSING
Official news was received that Lance Corporal Bertie Challis, Norfolk Regiment, was reported missing 9th October last year, and since that date nothing more has been heard of him by his wife, Mrs Challis, 49 Thetford Road, Brandon. His parents, Mr and Mrs Challis, 83 London Road, Brandon, or his wife, will be glad to receive any information any comrade, nurse, or other person can furnish.”

Bertie’s wife did receive a letter from a soldier wounded in hospital, who claimed to be Bertie’s comrade, and he claimed to have seen or heard Bertie after the battle. The Red Cross also wrote to her but she was still none the wiser until eventually she received a letter from the Record Office a year after the war, in December 1919. The letter stated that because there was no news to give her about her husband then he would be officially listed as having been killed. Only now could Bertie’s wife claim the widow’s pension she was entitled to.

Bertie’s story could end at this point, but he does have a gravestone in Belgium. Therefore we must assume that at some point after the war his body was discovered and identified, and then given a proper burial in the war cemetery. Perhaps he was one of those unfortunates who disappeared into a water-filled crater? At this moment in time the circumstances surrounding the discovery of Bertie’s body is not known.

From ‘Jax’, one of Bertie Challiss’ relatives –

“I know that Bertie died of wounds on the 9th October 1917 and that he is buried in Hooge Crater Cemetery. I believe that he signed up quite early in the war and managed to survive longer than most. Bertie appears to have been in the 1st Battalion. The actions on the 8-9th October 1917 on Polderhoek were a disaster for the Battalion; they gained no ground but sustained substantial casualties when two Companies strayed from the defined route in the darkness and rain. Bertie was one of 38 killed, 144 were wounded and 112 missing.”

From The Norfolk Regiment, volume 2, 1914-1918 by F L Petre …

“1917……………and on October 1st moved up, partly by bus, to the front line, where it relieved the 23rd division that night.

It was now part of the 10th corp. The 1st Norfolk remained with the 15th brigade in divisional reserved just east of Dickebusch Lake. The weather was again wet, which rendered this low country most obnoxious. Movements had to be made largely by “duck boards” and shell holes and craters were often the watery graves of men who fell into their depths.

The front of the 5th division has its rights about 1,000 years short of Gheluvelt on the Menin road, its left at Polygon Wood. On October 5th, when the 15th brigade moved into front line, the Norfolk battalion found themselves facing the Polderhoek Chateau, with the 1st Cheshire on their left and the 16th Warwickshire on their right.

During the next two days they had several casualties from shell fire, and on the night of the 7th moved into support trenches in front of Inverness Copse. The German position at Polderhoek Chateau has been made into one of great strength, with numerous machine guns, and “pill boxes”. It had been attacked on October 4th by the other 2 brigades of the 5th division with partial success, but the final objective had not been reached, and some of the ground gained had subsequently been lost in the great counter-attacks launched by the enemy. The 13th brigade, which the 15th now relieved, had suffered heavily in the fighting, and both sides were recovering their breath after the struggle.

The Diary of the 1st Norfolk about this time contains a good many complaints of the miserable weather, and the hard labour imposed on the men by constant fatigues for improving defences, making huts in the back areas, and bringing up supplies of all sorts. On the evening of the 8th orders were received for a renewal of the attack on the Polderhoek position in the morning of the 9th.

By 4 am the battalion had moved from the support trenches to the point of assembly, under the command of Major Lambton, who reports on the action. “C” company on the right and “A” on the left were to lead the advance, with “B” in close support, and “D” in reserve ready to make counter-attacks. The early morning was very dark, with heavy rain, and there had been great difficulty in finding the way the assembly point.

As the barrage lifted at 5.20 am, the 1st Norfolk and the 16th Warwickshire, leading the advance of the 15th brigade, went forward, the latter on the right. In the darkness and rain “A” and “C” companies of the Norfolk battalion inclined too much to the right and found themselves right in front of the Chateau, instead of to the left of it. They were falling back when the officer commanding threw in “B” to reinforce them.

By this time the enemy had opened a terrific cross fire ofmachine guns on them and the British barrage had passed forwards, leaving them unprotected. The losses under these circumstances were very heavy, and no farther progress could be made all day. Farther to the left, two platoons had also lost direction and gone leftwards, which brought one of them, after an advance of about 400 yards, in front of the 1st Cheshire on their left, where they held on all day, isolated and out of touch with the rest on their right. To add to their difficulties the men had no hot food after they started for the assembly point in the very early morning.

At 9 pm the battalion was back reorganising in its original firing line, where they were relieved between 10 and 11 pm. The casualties during this unfortunate day were:

Officers killed:  Captain L W Clements, 2nd Lieutenants W D C Sharp, F Entwhistle and Coxens

Officers wounded:  Captain Dickinson, 2nd Lieutenants C B Smith, R P Scott and Livingston

Other ranks:  killed 38, wounded 144, missing 112

The failure of the attack is attributed, in Major Lambton’s report, to the exhausted condition of the men and the terrible weather. Next day, when they were back in their old position, only one officer was left to reorganize the remains of the three leading companies. Many wounded had been lying out for a long time, and stragglers continued to come in in a ghastly condition during the 10th and 11th, on which latter date the battalion was back in Berthen reorganising and training in very bad billets. On the 17th a draft arrived with 148 men – a smart, well trained lot, but mostly men from the north-east counties, and few of them Norfolk men. Another fair draft of 144 arrived next day…..”