Bernard Noel Asprey

Bernard Noel Asprey was born on Christmas Day, 25th December 1888. He was the eldest child of Albert Alfred Asprey and Annie nee Smith. It is possible that Annie was already just pregnant with Bernard when they married in the spring of 1888. Bernard’s family were Catholic. In 1891 his father Alfred was working as a photographer, and the family were living at 55 Wellington Street, Bilston. How sad it is, then, that I have found no photographs of the family.

Alfred and Annie had eleven children of whom two died young, Walter as a baby, and Frances age 2. Bernard had four younger brothers, Albert Joseph, Douglas Wilfred, Frederick and Geoffrey, and four younger sisters, Marie, Dorothy, Hilda and Madeleine.

Some time between 1899 and the end of 1900, the family moved to the Bell Inn, on Watling Street, near Horsebrook Lane, where Bernard’s father Alfred was a self employed licenced victualler. The family had a general domestic servant, 24 year old Mary Plant, in 1901. They remained there until at least 1908.

Some time between 1908 and 1911 the family moved into the Admiral Rodney Inn, in Dean Street, Brewood. Bernard was not at home on the night of the census. The eldest of Bernard’s younger brothers, Wilfred, was now a draper’s assistant, Marie had left school and was probably helping her parents on the business, and all the other chidren were still at school. Their servant in 1911 was 17 year old Lily Richards. Albert and his family remained at the Admiral Rodney Inn until at least 1916. Albert was probably still practicing as a photographer at that time.

Bernard was educated at Brewood Grammar School.

Bernard enlisted in the Coldstream Guards on the 11th of January 1909, when he was 21 years old. He was promoted to Lance Corporal on the 8th of September 1909, to Corporal on 8th July 1912, and to Acting Schoolmaster-Sergeant on 17th May 1912.

Bernard transferred as 1st A.M. (Air Mechanic) to the Royal Flying Corps on 13th December 1912. In May 1914 he was stationed at Netheravon, on Salisbury Plain. He was summoned for driving a motorcycle dangerously at 8.25am on Saturday 30th May, in the lower High Street, driving in the direction of Tewkesbury, when there was a lot of traffic about. A witness estimated his speed at 25 mph – this was considered so fast that people got off the footpath to watch until he was out of sight. Bernard was fined 10 shillings and ordered to pay costs.

Bernard was promoted to Corporal on the 1st July 1914.

When war broke out Bernard was sent to the front with the Expeditionary Force, Regimental Number 747. He arrived on the 14th August 1914, and was placed in charge of two aeroplanes.

On 16th September 1914 (according to Ruvigny) or 4th October 1914 (according to the Award Roll), he was given a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion, Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) for service in the field. This Battalion had landed in St Nazaire, France, on 10th September 1914, as part of the 18th Brigade in the 6th Division, to inforce the Expeditionary Force.

The Battalion spent the winter of 1914 to 1915 in the trenches around Armentieres. Colonel Huffan, 1st West Yorkshires, joined the Battalion on the 24th November 1914. His private diary describes the conditions they met there. (National Archives’ reference WO 95/1618/2).

“The 1st Battalion was in the trenches round Armentieres during the Winter of 1914-15, and experienced all those appalling hardships and discomforts for which this period is principally remembered. The stench from dead cattle was overbearing, and it was extremely difficult to bury the carcases, as they were in view of the enemy by day, and sniped at by night by means of fixed rifles. The mud was usually above the knees, and no R.E. material was available. Every night “scrounging” parties would raid the neighbouring farms in order to secure as much straw or flax as could be carried, and with this they were able to obtain a small degree of comfort and sleep; but it soon became too sodden to even lie upon. It was impossible to dig more than two or three feet without flooding one’s trench and the fight against water was harder and more trying than the proximity of the enemy, who appeared to be experiencing similar difficulties. Parapets were so thin that many lives were lost from bullets penetrating them, and two valuable young officers were lost in one day in November (1914) in front of Chapelle Armentieres. The enemy snipers were very disconcerting, and many of the stories which have appeared in the Monthly Magazines about these uncanny gentlemen originated in these days [….]

“The long period of trenches in the Houplines Sector was one of continual effort to improve the condition of the trenches, though the Sappers were not in a position to give any material. From January to May 1915 the Battalion was in every trench from Chapelle Armentieres to Le Touquet; and although there was no fighting, the wastage from sniping and sickness was great.

“It was during this period, however, that the morale of the Battalion was very high, as it was felt that we were gradually able to play the Hun at some of his own games. Our snipers became particularly efficient, and many amusing stories will be remembered of Lieut. Atkinson’s efforts to disguise himself as a cabbage or a gooseberry tree.

“It was also at this period that the Battalion, like all others in France, received officers from what appeared to be a general list; and at one time, out of 15 officers with the battalion, eleven were from Units other than the West Yorkshires [….]

“The Battalion never rested whilst in the Houplines Sector, as their billets were only 1000 yards from the trenches. The Hun usually left them alone in billets, but occasional shelling was the cause of many casualties [….] “

The Battalion moved west to Houplines on 26th January 1915, where they relieved the East Yorkshires in the trenches. Throughout February they alternated with the East Yorkshires in the trenches, and when they were relieved, they retreated to billets in Houplines. Bernard and his Battalion relieved the East Yorkshires again on the 20th February. There were no casualties that day. One man was wounded on the 21st, one killed and three wounded on the 22nd, one killed and two wounded on the 23rd.

On the 24th February 1915, the West Yorkshires were due to return to billets, but it came too late for Bernard. At 10 o’clock in the morning, Bernard was in charge of the machine gun section, and trying to locate the position of a German machine gun, when he was shot through the head. He died instantaneously. He was 26 years old. The War Diary simply reads: “Casualties, 2 Lt Asprey killed and 2 wounded.” (National Archives’ reference WO 95/1618/2)

(The Soldiers Effects record says that he was killed on the 21st February; the Award Roll and the Medal Card say he was killed on the 23rd; CWGC grave reports say he was killed on the 24th The War Diary clearly confirms the date of death as the 24th).

Bernard was originally buried in Houplines Communal Cemetery (Plot 1, Row E, Grave 6), with a cross to mark his grave. He was then reburied in Houplines Communal Cemetery Extension (Plot 2, Row E, Grave 37), in Nord, France. His parents did not request a special inscription for his headstone.

Bernard was awarded the 1914 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. He is remembered on the St Mary and St Chad’s War Memorial and the St Mary’s RC War Memorial.

Bernard had never married and he had not written a will. His father later lived at Belle Vue, Orams Lane, Brewood, and died in March 1935.

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