A hundred years ago this week, on August 11, 1914, 17-year-old Edward James Caley of Douglas became one of the very first Manxmen to enlist after the outbreak of the First World War.
Joining the 6th Dragoons cavalry regiment and arriving in France in 1915, he served on the Western Front for two years and eight months before being killed on Easter Monday in 1918, during the last major German offensive of the war.
His name appears on the Pozieres memorial in France, alongside the names of 14,691 other Allied soldiers who were killed between March and August 1918 and have no known grave.
Like so many others, Caley – known as Teddy – cuts a mysterious figure. Most service records for British soldiers in the Great War were destroyed in 1940 when the Luftwaffe bombed the War Office in London.
But he fleetingly appears in newspaper cuttings, notebooks and war diaries, and for Caley’s nephew Roy Williams, who lives in Douglas, years of research would eventually lead him into the wood where his uncle died exactly 90 years before.
Roy began his search while compiling a family tree in the 1990s. ‘Apart from a photograph I had nothing at all,’ he explained. He acquired Teddy’s war medals from his sister in Northern Ireland and donated them to the Manx Museum, and saw his uncle’s name at Pozieres during an unscheduled trip to the memorial.
‘When I started with all of this I had no intention of going to France,’ said Roy. ‘Even when I was in Paris on holiday it wasn’t with the idea of going to Pozieres – I didn’t even know how far away it was. While I was there I learned that it was just an hour on the train and a taxi ride away, so it was rather a spur of the moment thing. We were only there for 10 or 15 minutes. The memorial is very beautiful and very peaceful.’
While most of Teddy’s time in France remains a mystery, by piecing together information supplied by the British Legion, from newspaper cuttings in the Manx Museum and from the regimental diary of the 6th Dragoons, Roy has been able to shed some light on his uncle’s final days.
Teddy’s story ended as three years of trench warfare and stalemate came to a violent end with the German Spring Offensive of 1918. The Germans raced to capture several French cities including Amiens, a vital rail centre and key supply line for the Allied war effort.
Their progress was halted in part by Canadian cavalry forces who met the Germans head-on in Moreuil Wood and nearby Rifle Wood, just eight miles from the city, on March 30, 1918. For two days the woods were captured, lost and recaptured by the Allies before the 6th Dragoons, including 21-year-old Teddy Caley, arrived on April 1 and were ordered to hold Rifle Wood from another German counterattack.
Many cavalry divisions had been redeployed as infantry during the years of grinding trench warfare, but the 6th Dragoons’ regimental diary for the day shows that Teddy and his comrades were still travelling on horseback, only dismounting to take up positions in rifle wood: ‘At 11.15am orders were received from the Cavalry Division to move in support of Canadian Brigade at once. The regiment galloped to Domar and dismounted to hold the line in Rifle Wood, where we relieved Canadian Cavalry brigade who had captured the wood this morning.
‘Regiment came under very heavy shellfire en route to wood and remained under heavy shellfire and machine gun fire all that day. Later reports were received that we had inflicted very heavy casualties on the enemy.
‘Regiment suffered casualties as were: 11 other ranks killed; 28 other ranks wounded, 6 animals.’
Edward James Caley was one of the 11 soldiers of the 6th Dragoons who died that day. The Isle of Man Times reported that he was killed by a bursting shell. In letters of condolence sent to his sister, Teddy was described by a comrade as ‘one of the bravest and best out here’.
Although the German forces would retake Moreuil and Rifle woods, they failed to reach Amiens. The advantage soon passed to the Allies, whose decisive campaign that finally ended the war, the Hundred Days Offensive, began in the city on August 8, 1918.
Based on his research, Roy made a second visit to France to coincide with the 90th anniversary of Teddy’s death. On April 1, 2008, he walked into Rifle Wood and placed his own memorial to his fallen uncle.
Roy said: ‘All the trees have grown back so it looks like a wood again now, but there are still lumps and bumps and craters all over the place. It must have taken a hell of a bashing. I had no idea where to go, so I just made my way over to a crater and a tree and I put a wooden cross in the ground, which had his name on and the date he was killed, along with a photograph.
‘It certainly was an experience to be there, 90 years to the day since it happened. I didn’t know uncle Teddy, I had nothing to base it on, so I just absorbed it.
‘It’s only now when you sit down and think about it, having travelled the same ground and been there, you can think back to what it must have been like for him. He was only 21 when he was killed.’
As well as getting the chance to pay his own tribute, Roy hopes a that a deeper understanding of his family’s history is something he can pass on to the next generation:
‘People like me still have a tangible hold on this history,’ he said. ‘I want to collect as much as I possibly can now, in the hope that my nephews or great nephews might want to know more about our family and what connection they had with the Great War. I only hope that someone will ask me about it someday.’