Name: Thomas Harry Pottage
Service No: 761213
Date of Death: 19/03/1918
Regiment/Service: Royal Field Artillery “C” Bty. 317th Bde.
Grave Reference: P. VI. D. 2B. Cemetery: St Sever Cemetery Extension, Rouen
Paul Allen writes:
By the beginning of another year of an extremely bitter and costly war the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium had quite simply run out of soldiers. Despite the introduction of conscription during 1916 fewer able bodied men had come forward and, by 1918, the army had begun to see the arrival of undernourished, poorly-built 18- and 19-year-olds who would never have been accepted for army service during the preceding years.
At the beginning of the year Haig (British Commander in Chief) asked the British War Cabinet for 334,000 reinforcements to see him through the immediate future. However, by March 1918, he had been sent just over 174,000 troops, most of whom were conscripts. To offset the deficiency in able-bodied troops Haig ordered the disbandment of 115 battalions of infantry and the amalgamation of a further 38 to form 19 full strength units. In addition, 7 more infantry battalions were formed into pioneer battalions to offset another deficit, an acute shortage of labour.
The German Army in France and Belgium on the other hand had been augmented by 33 divisions of first class troops, mostly grizzled veterans of the ferocious fighting on the Eastern Front who had been released to the Western Front following the collapse of the Russian and Rumanian war effort during December 1917. Despite outnumbering the British and French forces on the Western Front by 192 divisions to 156, the Germans were well aware of the arrival in France of the first elements of the massive American army which, by the beginning of December 1917, numbered some 130,000 troops on French soil.
Also knowing full well that the introduction of the convoy system was enabling the British to weather the German U-Boat campaign, the German military leaders resolved to seek a decisive victory in the west sometime during 1918 before the Americans could make their presence felt. Accordingly, Ludendorff (German joint Commander in Chief) had begun to make plans for a last ditch campaign, which eventually became known as the ‘Kaiserschlacht’, or ‘Imperial Battle’.
The ‘Kaiserschlacht’ operations were formulated during a meeting between Ludendorff and the Chiefs of Staff of the Army Groups belonging to the Crown Prince Rupprecht and the German Crown Prince. One idea put forward was for an attack to be made in Flanders, but the need to wait for the all-essential dry weather, perhaps in April, meant an unacceptable delay for this sector. Another offensive was considered for Verdun; Ludendorff, however, considered an attack at Verdun to be unacceptable as he thought it unlikely that the British would come to the aid of the French and he might therefore be faced with a second battle in Flanders.
Stressing that his available forces were only sufficient for one offensive only, Ludendorff suggested an offensive to be mounted further to the south, in the St Quentin area of northern France. Nothing concrete was arranged during this meeting and, over the next few weeks, the Generals mulled over their options. A further meeting between the German Generals took place at the end of December but, once again, nothing definite had been arranged. Nevertheless, during this meeting, the operations at Verdun were abandoned and preparations put in motion for possible offensives near the towns of Armentières (code-named ‘George’), Ypres (‘George 2), Arras (‘Mars’) and, on either side of St Quentin, (‘Michael’).
On 21 January 1918 Ludendorff finally made up his mind to undertake the ‘Michael’ operation as his main spring offensive. Over the next few weeks the detailed plans of ‘Michael’ were drawn up, with 21 March being set as the start date. Ludendorff’s plan of battle called for the Seventeenth Army, on the right wing of the operation and commanded by General Otto Von Below, along with the Second Army, under General Von Der Marwitz (both from Prince Rupprecht’s Army Group), to attack south of Arras, pinching off the salient which the British had occupied at Flesquières, near Cambrai, since November. These two armies were then to advance towards Bapaume, and Peronne, thence across the old Somme battlefield, to a line between Albert and Arras, before swinging north westwards in a gigantic left hook that would envelope Arras in the process.
On the left wing of the attack, General Oskar Von Hutier’s Eighteenth Army from Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Army Group, was given the task of advancing beyond the River Somme and the Crozat Canal to protect the flank of the offensive, defeating any French reserves which might be brought from the south and driving a wedge between the French and British forces. Once a significant success had been achieved south of Arras, the second phase of the operation, ‘Mars’, would be launched. In addition, planning for the ‘George’ operation had also been allowed to go ahead as an alternative operation should the Michael plan fail.
Throughout the winter of 1917-18 the Germans began a huge retraining programme in an effort to bring more units up to the standards set by the special assault battalions, or ‘Storm Troops’. Around a quarter of the old German infantry divisions were redesignated as ‘attack divisions’ and given the pick of new equipment, including the recently introduced light sub-machine guns. The remaining three-quarters of the German forces, mostly containing older men, were designated as ‘trench divisions’, which would chiefly be employed with holding the line during the forthcoming battle. The spearhead of the assault would be the so-called ‘Storm Troopers’. Their task would be to find the weak points in the opposing defences where they were to cause as much disruption and confusion as possible in the rear areas by deep penetration and envelopment tactics.
Probably the most important element of the initial assault would be the artillery. Carefully orchestrated fire plans had been designed around short, sharp ‘hurricane’ bombardments of immense weight and intensity, using predictive shooting. These so called ‘hurricane’ bombardments were to consist of high proportions of gas shells to neutralise, and silence, enemy gunners, whilst also paying particular attention to the disruption of the enemy’s lines of communications and assembly areas far behind the front areas.
Everyone, from Tommy Atkins to Douglas Haig, on the British side of the wire, knew that the Germans were up to something and at some point would attack the British lines during the new year, but the trouble was no one knew when or where. Throughout the first 2 or so months of 1918 there were no major operations and the Western Front had settled into an unusually quiet state. On 16 February Haig met with his army commanders at his HQ in the town of Doullens to discuss the uneasy state of affairs. The general feeling amongst the assembled officers was that they could hold their front. Haig thought that the attack might fall on a large front stretching from Lens to the River Oise. Another conference was held on 2 March where it was revealed that intelligence sources had indicted the attack would be aimed at General Sir Julian Byng’s Third and Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army fronts, which stretched southwards from Arras to the River Oise.
By the beginning of March 1918 the British defences on the Western Front were based on the German system of 1917 involving three zones of defence known as the ‘Forward’, ‘Battle’, and ‘Rear’. The ‘Forward Zone’ was the existing front line whilst the Battle Zone was usually 1 or 2 miles behind the Forward Zone, 2,000 – 3,000 yards in depth and containing two thirds of the artillery. This was the place where, should the Forward Zone be overrun, the enemy’s advance would be brought to a halt using, if necessary, all available reserves. The Rear Zone (sometimes known as the ‘Green Line’) was between 4 – 8 miles behind the Forward Zone and was the final line of resistance should all else fail.
It had become increasingly evident that something big was in the wind. British suspicions were further reinforced on 8 March when the Germans fired a series of test artillery barrages on positions held by the Royal Naval Division upon Flesquières Ridge, which caused many casualties. 4 days later the testing was continued with the Germans subjecting the division’s positions to a daylong bombardment with 200,000 ‘Yellow Cross’ (mustard) gas shells. 
The brunt of this attack was borne by the Hawke and Drake Battalions which, between them, lost over 970 officers and men between 12 – 21 March (the total number of casualties suffered, mostly due to gas, by the Royal Naval Division during this period was over 2,300 officers and men).
Also amongst those affected had been members of the RND’s various support units, in particular the gunners of the four attached brigades of artillery (315 – 318). Amongst 317 (2/3 Northumbrian) Brigade’s many casualties was 22-year-old 761213 Bombardier Thomas Harry Pottage of ‘C’ Battery.
Tom was born in Scarborough at 6 Wrea Lane during 1895 (baptised at St Mary’s Parish Church on 17 October], and was the eldest of seven children belonging to Clara and John Pottage, a well-known Scarborough cab driver who, by 1918, resided in the town at 59 Seaton Terrace, Hibernia Street. 
A former pupil of St Mary’s Parish, and Friarage Board Schools, at the outbreak of war Tom was working in the Gladstone Lane warehouse of local drapers, John Tonks & Sons, whose store was located in Scarborough at 104-105 Westborough. Also a part-time gunner in the Scarborough-based (St John’s Road Barracks) Territorial 2 (Northumbrian) Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery, Tom was mobilised for war along with the remainder of Britain’s armed forces during August 1914. However, being aged only 18 by this time Tom was considered too young for Foreign Service and was transferred during September 1914 to the newly-formed 2/3 (Northumbrian) Brigade of artillery, which was subsequently attached for coastal defence duties, to the 63rd (2nd Northumbrian) Division.
Pottage remained with this unit, serving in the north-east of England, until July 1916 when the division’s four artillery batteries were transferred to the newly-designated 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, which by this time had seen much bitter fighting in the Gallipoli campaign and on the Western Front. Tom had become a veteran of all of the RND’s operations since his ‘baptism of fire’ during the gruesome operations on the Ancre (Somme) during the winter of 1916.
Pottage, and hundreds of other gas casualties, was evacuated to the large group of allied hospitals which were situated to the south of the city of Rouen, where he was admitted into No 2 British Red Cross Hospital. Little is known regarding the extent of Tom’s ‘wounding’; nonetheless, the degree of suffering he may have endured can be gauged from an account written by a nurse serving in France.
‘Gas cases are terrible. They cannot breathe lying down or sitting up. They just struggle for breath, but nothing can be done. Their lungs are gone – literally burnt out. Some have their eyes and faces entirely eaten away by gas and their bodies covered with first degree burns. We must try to relieve them by pouring oil on them. They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of a propped up sheets. Gas burns must be agonising because the other cases do not complain even with the worst wounds but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out. One boy today, screaming to die, the entire top layer of his skin burnt from face to body …’ 
It is said that only 2 per cent of gas victims died, usually as a result of secondary complications such as pneumonia, and thus was the case with Thomas Pottage, who passed away during Tuesday, 19 March 1918. The news of her beloved son’s death reached Clara Pottage by Saturday, 23 March; the tidings being featured in a casualty list that appeared in the ‘Scarborough Mercury’ of Friday, 28 March:
‘Died from gas poisoning’
‘News was received on Saturday that Gunner Thomas Pottage R.F.A., 59, Seaton Terrace, has died on the 19th inst. from the effects of gas. He was single and prior to joining up worked for Messrs. Tonks and Sons. His father Sergt. John Pottage, A.V.C. is serving in France’. 
Shortly after Pottage’s demise, his remains, and those of many more dead gas casualties, were transported to the Hospital’s burial ground known as St Sever Cemetery Extension, located some 3 kilometres to the south of Rouen. Tom’s final resting place is located in Section P 4, D, Grave 25.
A year after Tom’s death an epitaph to a fallen son had appeared in the ‘Scarborough Mercury’ of Friday, 21 March 1919;
‘In loving memory of our dear lad, Corporal Thomas Pottage, R.F.A., who was killed in France March 19th 1918.
A devoted son, a faithful brother, One of God’s best towards his mother, He bravely answered duty’s call, He did his best for one and all…From his loving mother, Dad, sisters, and brothers’…
Apart from the Oliver’s Mount Memorial, Thomas Pottage is one of a handful of World War One casualties to be commemorated in Scarborough’s Woodlands Cemetery, on a grave marker in Section B, Row 10, Grave 34, which also bears the names of his Scarborough-born (1866) father John Pottage. The eldest son of Tom and Esther Pottage, John had passed ‘peacefully away following a long illness’ at his homage at 31 Oak Road, at the age of 75, on Monday, 13 October 1941. Also included on the stone is the name of Tom’s Scarborough-born mother, Clara Pottage, who died at 31 Oak Road, on Tuesday, 17 January 1950 at the age of 77.
 Looking like an oily-brown sherry and smelling of onions or garlic (some said radishes), the so-called ‘Yellow Cross’, or more commonly known ‘Mustard Gas’, was introduced by the Germans onto the Western Front during July 1917. It was considered a ‘humane’ form of gas in that its aim was to harass rather than kill. Nevertheless, the gas was the most potent gas to be used during the war. It could lay dormant in the bottom of a trench for many days and 2 hours after exposure to just one part of the gas in 10 million parts of air caused fearful injuries to its victim.
 John Pottage and Clara Fox were married in Scarborough’s St Mary’s Parish Church on 16 January 1895. At the time of the 1901 Census the family were still living at 6 Wrea Lane and consisted of John, aged 34 years, cab driver, Clara, 29 years, Tom (recorded as ‘Harry’) (5), Emma (‘Minnie’?) (aged 4). All were Scarborough born. The family was later augmented by Clara (1902), John (popularly known as ‘Jack’, born 1905, died 1969), George (born 1909, died 1983), and Frederick Albert (born 1910, died 1992), and Frances (1914). Jack Pottage served in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War, when he was torpedoed twice whilst on convoy duty.
 ‘I saw them die’, Nurse S Millard. Harrap, 1933.
 Despite being aged over 50 at the outbreak of war, Tom’s father, John Pottage, enlisted into the army soon after the outbreak of war and served with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (Regimental Number SE 11204) in France on attachment to 280 Brigade, the Royal Fieled Artillery. Unlike his son, John survived to return to Scarborough following his demobilisation in 1919.