Lance Cpl. G.E. Exton
FIRST NAMES: George Ernest
UNIT: 16th Kings Royal Rifle Corps
STATUS: Killed in Action
DATE OF DEATH: 12th October 1918
CEMETERY OR MEMORIAL: Montay-Neuvilly Road Cemetery, Montay,France
George's parents were William P. and Mary Exton of Romanby. His father was a well respected local figure, who served on the Parish Council. He was also the Chairman of the Memorials Committee which arranged for the erection of the Romanby Memorial after the War. George also had two brothers who served during the War; Alan, who served with the Royal Army Medical Corps on the hospital ship "Wandilla" and William, who served with the Dragoon Guards in India.
Before the War broke out George was working as a Draper, having served his apprenticeship with Mr. George Rogerson , after which he went on to work in various establishments in Newcastle, Wigan and Bishop Auckland.
George's official rank is given as Lance Corporal, though it is recorded as Corporal on the Romanby memorial. It is possible that in civilian eyes there was little distinction between the two ranks, both of which were regarded as being a "Corporal".
He was killed, aged 27, serving in "C" Company of the 16th KRRC, which attacked the German positions to the north of Le Cateau in the final weeks of the War.
The Battalion had been following the Germans as they retreated from the Hindenburg Line and by 10th October had reached the village of Troisvilles, near Le Cateau. Whilst at Troisvilles the 16th KRRC learned that they would have to attack a strongly held position on the far side of the River Selle, along the line of the Le Cateau - Solesmes Railway and to capture and hold the high ground about 1500 yards to the East of the Railway. This would entail an advance down one side of the valley to the river, across the river and back up the far side of the valley, which together with railway embankments and cuttings, also had a number of ravines running at right angles to the valley side. The Germans had also constructed a thick belt of barbed wire along the side of the railway line to add to the attackers problems.
During the night of 11th/12th October, the Royal Engineers constructed bridges across the river under cover of darkness and ran tapes from them to guide the men to the Le Cateau - Neuvilly Road which ran parallel to the Railway. The 16th KRRC moved off from Troisvilles at 1.00am on the 12th in a drizzling rain and under cover of darkness advanced as far as the Road without incident. The Battalion attacked at 5.00am. without a preliminary artillery barrage to maintain the element of surprise. The leading Companies were held up at first by heavy machine gun fire and the thick belt of barbed wire. On the left of the attack, C Company caught up with A Company and a Captain Thomas of C Company was able to find a place where the German machine guns were firing a little too high. He, together with some of his men, managed to cut a way through the wire at this point and both Companies were able to continue the advance.
By 9.00am the battalion had gained all its objectives, but unfortunately the attacks on either side had not been successful, which left the flanks of the Battalion "in the air" and terribly exposed to German counter attacks. The Germans put down a fierce artillery bombardment on the newly captured positions, and used the ravines to try to infiltrate large numbers of men around and behind the KRRC. These attacks were held off for a while but eventually the British were forced to retire to the railway embankment to prevent themselves from being cut off completely. Unfortunately, as they did so the relief of a Brigade to the left was misinterpreted as a general withdrawal and the troops withdrew too far and ended up along the line of the Le Cateau - Neuvilly Road. The Battalion continued to hold this line and was ordered to repeat the attack, together with the 1st Middlesex Regiment at 5.00pm. This was later postponed to 5.30pm, and eventually the attack was cancelled altogether, no doubt to the considerable relief of all those who had survived the days events so far. The casualties from this attack included four officers, including the Commanding Officer, Lieut. Col. Pardoe, who was wounded, and a total of 119 other ranks killed, wounded and missing.
The Battalion returned to this same location on the night of 22nd/23rd October and formed up, ready to repeat the attack across the bodies of their comrades who had died ten days before. This time the attack was successful, and so the 16th KRRC were able to return to give their comrades, including George Exton, a proper burial.
The following is an extract from a letter which was sent to George's family by his Company Officer, Capt. Thomas, the same officer who had found and cut a way through the barbed wire during the attack:
"... Your son was killed on the 12th Oct. on the River Selle and was buried nearby on the 24th Oct. when the Germans were driven back from the area. The place of his burial was between Neuvilly and Le Cateau just across the River Selle and near the railway which runs parallel to the river..... Asking you to accept my sincere sympathy on the loss of your very gallant son."
George had been home on leave only 6 weeks before he was killed. When news of his death reached his family in Romanby his Mother was seriously ill. The family decided to keep the news of her son's death from her, because of her illness. Tragically she died a month later, never knowing that her son had died before her.
You can follow this link to see present-day photos of the battlefield area.