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The Fallen of Kirkby

Joseph Fleming

  • Son of James Collinson Fleming and Mary Bibby Fleming of Bolton Ground, Kirkby (later of 90 Harrogate St, Barrow).
  • Private, 706901, 54th Battalion Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment).
  • Killed in action 9th April 1917 (first day of the attack on Vimy Ridge) near Givenchy-en-Gohelle, aged 33.
  • Buried in Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery, Neuville-St. Vaast, Pas de Calais, France, Plot 1, Row A, Grave 1.
  • Named on his parents’ headstone in St Cuthbert’s churchyard.
Grave Stone of Jospeh Fleming, courtesy of Andy Moss
Grave Stone of Jospeh Fleming, courtesy of Andy Moss
Grave Stone of James Fleming
Grave Stone of James Fleming

The Fleming family headstone in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard (above right) reads:

In loving memory of James C. Fleming,
who died 28th November 1918, aged 64 years.
Mary Bibby, wife of the above who died
9th July 1938, aged 81 years.
Also Joseph, eldest son of the above,
Killed in Action at Vimy Ridge 9th April 1917, aged 32 years.
“Peace perfect Peace”

A memorial service for Joseph Fleming and five others was held in St Cuthbert’s Church on 10th June 1917.

According to the Canadian burial register, by the time Joseph was killed his parents had moved to 90 Harrogate Street in Barrow. James Fleming died in November 1918, aged 64, and his wife stayed in Barrow until her death in 1938, aged 81; both are buried in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard, just opposite the porch.

The house in Harrogate Street, Barrow
The house in Harrogate Street, Barrow

Joseph Fleming, like his father James before him, was an apprentice river in Kirkby Quarry in 1901. His mother was born in Witherslack and married James around 1883. Joseph had two sisters and a brother, Ada, Dinah and William, and by 1911 he was no longer with the family at Bolton Ground; according to his parent’s notice in the Barrow Guardian, he went to work for the City of Manchester Police.

Shortly before the outbreak of war, like a number of young and not-so-young Kirkby men of his day, Joseph emigrated to Canada, but unlike some he had not previously been a Territorial soldier in England. Certainly he had left the quarry before the start of the war, which is why he is not named on the quarry war memorial.

We know quite a lot about Joseph’s enlistment in Victoria, British Columbia, on 1st February 1916 (see below), and from the regimental history. The 54th Battalion (Kootenay), Canadian Expeditionary Force was formed at the end of 1914 in Southern British Columbia, and was mobilised at Nelson, where Fleming was living. He had already been passed fit by the Medical Officer on 4th January, and on 1st February he took the oath of allegiance to King George Vth in front of a witness, signing on for at least a year.

Attestation Form of Private Joseph Fleming

Attestation Form of Private Joseph Fleming
Attestation Form of Private Joseph Fleming

Presumably after a period of training, the 54th Battalion embarked for Britain on 25 November 1915, and moved to France on 14 August 1916. Before the Battle of Vimy Ridge, in which Joseph Fleming was killed, they had already taken part in battles on the Somme, the Ancre and at Arras.

The 9 April 1917 dawned with flurries of snow as A, B and C Companies formed up in the front line trench. Their objective was the German held ridge that allowed them to dominate the ground over which the Battle of Arras was soon to be fought. Their advance, following a barrage that crept forward in front of them, was almost completely successful in taking its objectives. However it was at a cost of 4 officers and 20 other ranks killed; 5 officers and 100 other ranks wounded, and 100 other ranks missing. A large number of the wounded died of their wounds in the coming days. Since only officers are named in the war diary, we cannot know at what point on the 9th Private Joseph Fleming lost his life.

The War Diary of the 54th Battalion, Canadian Infantry

The War Diary of the 54th Battalion, Canadian Infantry

Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery

Givenchy Road is a tiny, completely round cemetery containing the bodies of 111 soldiers, of whom all but 6 fell on the 9th April 1917, the first day of the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge. The cemetery is inside the Vimy Memorial Park, approximately 8km (5 miles) north of Arras on the N17 towards Lens. Outside the circular walls are pine trees, and the ground is pock-marked with shell holes.

Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery
Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery
Commonwealth War Graves Commission Burial Register (Canadian)

The burial register (below) shows that Fleming was first buried in Canadian Cemetery No 2, before his body was exhumed and reburied in Givenchy Road. (Givenchy Road was previously known as Canadian Cemetery No 1 and is only 250 metres from where Fleming was first buried.)

Commonwealth War Graves Commission Burial Register (Canadian)

For some reason Mrs Fleming’s address is given as 8 Scholes Lane, Prestwich, Manchester, as well as 90 Harrogate Street, Barrow-in-Furness.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission Burial Register (Canadian)
Commonwealth War Graves Commission Burial Register (Canadian)
Commonwealth War Graves Commission Burial Register (Canadian)

The Battle for Vimy Ridge

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a military offensive by the Canadian Corps against the German Sixth Army along the Western Front in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, from 9th to 12th April 1917. It was part of the opening phase in the wider-scaled Battle of Arras, which served as a diversionary attack for the Nivelle Offensive by the French Army. The immediate objective of the Canadian Corps was to take control of the German-held high ground that dominated the Plains of Douai, to permit the southern flank of the Arras offensive to advance without being fired upon in enfilade.

Vimy Ridge had fallen under German control in October, 1914, during the First Battle of Artois. Situated 8 km northeast of Arras, the ridge is approximately 7 km in length and culminates at an elevation of 145 m, providing a natural unobstructed view for tens of kilometres. The German Sixth Army had heavily fortified the ridge with tunnels, three rows of trenches behind barbed wire, artillery and numerous machine gun nests to more effectively protect the Lens coal mines, which were essential to their war efforts. During the Second Battle of Artois, the French 1st Moroccan Division managed to take possession of the ridge, after an astonishing 4km advance, but was unable to maintain it due to a lack of reinforcements, and consequently suffered heavy losses. The French suffered approximately 150,000 casualties in their attempts to gain control of Vimy Ridge and surrounding territory. Following the Third Battle of Artois the Vimy sector became calmer with both sides taking a ‘live and let live’ approach.

The British XVII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, relieved the French Tenth Army from the sector in February 1916 permitting the French to expand their operations at Verdun. It was quickly discovered that German tunnelling companies had taken advantage of the relative calm on the surface to push aggressive tunnelling and deep mining activity against French positions, taking full control of the underground in the Vimy sector. Royal Engineer Tunnelling Companies were immediately deployed along the front to combat the German mining nuisance. This underground clash developed into a fierce struggle, with both sides blowing mines to destroy enemy infantry positions, and camouflet charges to destroy the opposition’s mining activity.

In response to increased British mining aggression, German artillery and trench mortar fire intensified in early May 1916. On 21 May 1916, after shelling both forward trenches and divisional artillery positions from no less than 80 out-of-sight batteries on the reverse slope of the ridge, the German infantry attacked the British lines along a 2000-yard front in an effort to repulse them from positions along the ridge. During the battle, Lieutenant Richard Basil Brandram Jones won his Victoria Cross for having led his platoon’s defence of the important Broadmarsh Crater, and having personally shot 15 of the enemy before being shot in the head attempting to throw a Mills bomb.

The German advance, having captured their objective of the British mine craters, halted and entrenched their position. Small counter attacks by units of 140th and 141st Brigades took place on 22 May, but did not manage to change the situation. The newly-formed Canadian Corps relieved the British IV Corps stationed along the western slopes of Vimy Ridge, in October 1916.

On 25 March 1917, the largest artillery barrage in history up to that point started. Over a million shells were fired onto the German trenches for 24 hours a day, for an entire week. The German artillery pieces were hidden behind the ridge, but by using aerial observers and microphones on the ground to triangulate the sound and flashes from the guns’ firing (techniques known as “sound ranging” and “flash spotting”), the Canadians were able to locate about 83% of the German guns. The German troops called this period the “Week of Suffering”.

Additionally, the heavy artillery was strongly reinforced, with nine British heavy artillery groups supplementing the 1st and 2nd Canadian Heavy Artillery Groups, for a total of 245 heavy guns and howitzers. The supporting field artillery was also reinforced to include “seven divisional artilleries … eight independent field artillery brigades, 480 eighteen-pounders and 138 4.5-inch howitzers”. Available if required were “132 more heavies and 102 field” and “a few heavy guns held under the command of the First Army”. This fire power gave a density of one heavy gun for every 20 yards (18 m) of frontage and one field gun for every 10 yards (9.1 m): in contrast, the proportions at the Somme had been one heavy gun to 57 yards (52 m), and one field gun to every 20 yards.

After a cold night the mud had hardened underfoot by dawn on Easter Monday. At dawn the assault divisions of the Canadian Corps attacked. The mines were fired, a blanket of shells from the barrage crept towards the German front line, and the first wave of the Canadian Corps walked closely behind it. As insurance, heavy machine-gun fire, calibrated to four hundred feet to their front, arced over their heads towards the German lines. The first wave of about 15,000 Canadian troops attacked positions defended by roughly 5,000 Germans, followed by the second wave of 12,000 Canadians to meet 3,000 German reserves. Over 1,100 cannon of various descriptions, from British heavy naval guns mounted on railway cars miles behind the battlefield, to portable field artillery pieces dragged into place by horses, mules, or soldiers just behind the Canadian lines, fired continuously. Nearly 100,000 men in total were to take and hold the ridge. The first wave advanced behind a creeping barrage, known specifically for the battle as the Vimy Glide. This tactic had been used earlier at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle and the Battle of the Somme, but required fine tuning in the absence of voice control.

After less than two hours, three of the four Canadian divisions had taken their objectives; the 4th Division, however, was held up by machine gun nests on the highest point of the ridge, known as Hill 145, or by its nickname, “The Pimple”. The 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders), who had been intended to function in a supply and construction role, were sent in as reinforcements and the hill was captured by the end of the day. It would be three days before the entire ridge had been cleared. The total cost would be 3,598 Canadians killed and 7,104 wounded. The German Sixth Army, under General Ludwig von Falkenhausen, suffered approximately 20,000 casualties. The Canadians also took 4,000 Germans as prisoners.

The attack and objective had only limited grand-strategic significance, as the simultaneous British and Australian attack to the south of the Ridge was unsuccessful. Vimy Ridge came to have a strong symbolic significance, and to the Canadian Corps was an enormous boost to their confidence and sense of identity.

On April 9th, 1917, the 54th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, attacked to the south of Givenchy-en-Gohelle.

29th Canadian Infantry Battalion advancing over No Man’s Land through the German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada).
29th Canadian Infantry Battalion advancing over No Man’s Land through the German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada).
29th Canadian Infantry Battalion advancing over No Man’s Land through the German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada).
29th Canadian Infantry Battalion advancing over No Man’s Land through the German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada).
The view from Vimy Ridge after its capture shows its strategic importance as high ground. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada).
The view from Vimy Ridge after its capture shows its strategic importance as high ground. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada).

Press Cuttings

(Courtesy of Penny McPherson and Diane Ayres)

PTE. J. FLEMING, KIRKBY
News has been received by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Fleming, of Bolton Ground, of the death of their son, Pte. Joseph Fleming, who came over with the Canadian Contingent and was killed in action on April 9th at Vimy Ridge. Before going to Canada the deceased was attached to the Manchester City Police Force, and was 32 years of age.
-: Barrow Guardian, Saturday, May 5, 1917, page 8.

ROLL OF HONOUR
FLEMING.- Killed in action, Pte. J. Fleming, of the Canadian Contingent, of Bolton Ground, Kirkby, aged 32 years.
-: Barrow Guardian, Saturday, May 5, 1917, page 8.

ROLL OF HONOUR
FLEMING.- In loving memory of Pte. Joseph Fleming, 54th Canadians, eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Fleming, of Bolton Grounds, Kirkby-in-Furness, who was killed in action on Vimy Ridge, April 9th, 1917.
“I have fought a good fight.”
– From his sorrowing Father and Mother, Sisters, Brother, and Brothers-in-law.
-: Barrow Guardian, Saturday, May 12, 1917; page 8.

KIRKBY
MEMORIAL SERVICE.- On Sunday a memorial service was held in St. Cuthbert’s Church, Kirkby, in memory of six Kirkby men who have died for their country, their names are: Mark Grigg, William Relph, Eric Rothery, Isaac Hudson, Thomas Ernest Heaton, and Joseph Fleming. The Vicar, the Rev. W. G. Sykes, preached an appropriate sermon, and special psalms and hymns were sung. At the conclusion of the service, the organist, Mr. J. B. Richardson, played the Dead March in “Saul.”
-: Barrow Guardian, Saturday, June 16, 1917; page 6.

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