The destination for history

Captain David Henderson: Labour Party leader’s son on the Somme


The Prime Minister’s son Raymond Asquith famously died on the Somme on the 15 September 1916. However, many do not know that on the same day the first Labour Cabinet member, Arthur Henderson MP, also lost his boy on the battlefields of France.

Battle plans

Since the success of the 14 July, Rawlinson’s army had advanced only 1,000 yards on a 5-mile front. This had been achieved in all manner of smaller scale attacks conducted in a comparatively disorganised manner when his previous success was taken into account. To achieve these gains his men had suffered more than 80,000 casualties and his standing with Haig had fallen significantly as a result. All now rested on the resumption of the offensive proper on 15 September.

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette had been a long time coming. Rawlinson had been aware since mid-August that Haig wanted a large-scale offensive on the original third German system. By the latter’s reckoning, in mid-September the Germans would be thoroughly worn out by British and French endeavours, so it was hoped that this was the time to make a decisive breakthrough and try to win the Battle of the Somme. By the end of August, leaders at home had begun to question the mounting casualties on the Somme. Did the ends justify the means? But Britain had fully committed herself to this enterprise and there was no question of simply abandoning it and starting somewhere else. Rawlinson was immediately put to work planning this new offensive.

Haig rejected his first attempt; it wasn’t bold enough for his liking. Rawlinson’s standing was low enough after the previous weeks’ endeavours that he wasn’t in a position to argue, or at least he did not. A new plan was submitted on 31 August and Haig was much keener; Rawlinson had outlined a ‘weightier thrust’ all along the Fourth Army line. Morval, Lesboeufs, Gueudecourt and Flers were to be seized as soon as possible. These were the closest points of the original third line, which were by now the Germans’ front system. It was now an overly ambitious plan. Just like 1 July, the Fourth Army would be trying to break through three lines of defence at once in order to send the enemy running for home. Once again, when the troops had got into the enemy system, the cavalry were marked to be ready and waiting to deploy into the gap at an opportune moment. Haig had three more armies to the north on alert ready to add to German woes, and at one point there was even a plan for feigning a landing on the Belgian coast to stretch the enemy’s resources to the utmost. He was going to have another shot at conquering the Germans on the Western Front in 1916.

Leaders in politics and war

According the attack the reverence it warranted, fresh troops would be brought in for this grand new offensive. Among them was the 47 London Division, which comprised battalions from all over the capital: Blackheath, Woolwich and Clapham, as well as those with special affiliations: The Post Office Rifles, the London Irish and the Civil Service Rifles. Serving in one of them was the 27-year-old son of Arthur Henderson, leader of the Labour Party, a future winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and, in the midst of the First World War, the first Labour Cabinet member. Prior to the war, his son David had acted as an assistant to John Hodge, an MP in charge of the British Steel Smelters’ Trade Union. He was also very active in the Brotherhood movement, the youngest member of the National Council and Assistant Honorary Secretary of the London Federation. In short, following in the footsteps of his father, David was a shining future hope for the Labour Party: ‘one of those strong attractive personalities that impress themselves on people and events.

David Henderson joined the Public Schools Battalion in September 1914 and was later transferred to the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps and given a commission in February 1915. He was promoted to captain in June, but both of his younger brothers had seen active service with the Honourable Artillery Company and understandably David, whose service had all been home based, applied for a transfer to do so too. He was later attached to the Middlesex Regiment, but was transferred to the 19th London Regiment, created on Camden High Street at the beginning of the war. On his arrival on the Western Front, he was ‘full of brave, cheery, enthusiastic optimism’, David was given his own company after only twenty-four hours in the trenches.

His battalion started marching south towards the Somme on 1 August and a month later they began training for an assault near High Wood using a flagged course. The 15 September was to begin with four stages of attack, moving trench to trench and methodically taking objectives: green, brown, blue and red lines on the map, the last of which Rawlinson ambitiously reckoned on getting to by noon. Then, of course, when a gap had been forced in the German line, the cavalry would be waiting to gallop into action.

At the Somme

Formal orders and instructions were issued on 11 September. David Henderson’s division was allocated the attack on and around High Wood and the wood itself was among the first objectives. Once the first line had been taken, the 19th Londons were among those ordered to pass through the initial attackers and proceed down the other side of the hill towards the German rear positions.

The preliminary bombardment opened on the 12, the most severe since 1 July. The Londoners were filing into the line, through Albert, past fields full of waiting cavalry and massed groups of guns banging away at enemy targets far in the distance. On 13 September the junior officers of David’s battalion reconnoitred the front line they were to attack. High Wood was off to the side and allotted to another battalion. By now it was a wood in name only, with ‘ragged stumps sticking out of churned up earth, poisoned with the fumes of high explosives’. There was a total absence of landmarks. ‘Imagine Hampstead Heath full of cocoa powder, and the natural surface folds further complicated by countless shell holes each deep enough to hold a man, and everywhere meandering crevices where men live below the surface of the ground.’ The objectives for 47th Division were limited when compared with some of those going forward in terms of distance, but this did not diminish their importance. High Wood was a significant prize. Possession of their first objective would give the British Army observation all the way out towards Bapaume.

At 1:40am David Henderson and his company moved to their assembly positions. The trenches detailed for this were pitiable, troops having been unable to dig them properly because of enemy attention. Zero hour was at 6:20am and Rawlinson’s men poured forward. Ahead of David, the leading battalions advanced into no-man’s-land, but were held up by machine-gun fire and could go no further. The assault of High Wood had also been held up by enemy machine-gun fire, ‘in spite of the reckless bravery of officers and men, whilst a confused struggle continued and losses grew heavy’. The men of the London Division were being grievously punished for an error on the part of their corps commander, who thought that the opposing lines were too close together at High Wood and so had ordered no artillery bombardment before the men went forward to help silence German machine gunners and ease their path.

Zero hour for David Henderson was 7am. In mist, the 19th and 20th London battalions left their assembly trenches and bent their heads against heavy enfilade fire from the left. They came up behind the stalling men in front of them and the four battalions became congested inside High Wood, piled on top of each other. Here, the wood, the first objective, was still not secured, let alone the reverse of the slope beyond, allocated to David and his men. The trenches were so full of wounded and dying men, that the 19th London could not get forward. At this point the battalion’s commanding officer decided to leave his headquarters to try to restore order. He clambered out of the communication trench, calling upon men to follow, and was killed almost immediately by a machine-gun bullet.

While efforts were made to clear the surrounding trenches of the dead and wounded, a barrage was requested. Bombing attacks were organised to work up the flanks of the wood, but it was the brigade’s trench mortars that decided the fate of High Wood. They launched a quite incredible 750 mortar rounds into it in just fifteen minutes. The rapid rate of fire blew the enemy away in terms of morale, as well as physically. German occupants began to surrender. Hundreds of prisoners were collected, along with several machine guns and two howitzers. The enemy were pouring out of the western side of the wood and into British hands, some of them did not even need an escort as they willingly went away into captivity, desperate to get away from the place. They had had enough. After two months of bitter fighting, High Wood fell.

By 11am it was reported as being clear of the enemy. Collections of men from all units were pushed up to consolidate it. The scene was so chaotic that it was decided to pull everyone together and form just one battalion. Each trench was placed under the command of a separate officer. In fine weather, the rest of 15th September was spent counting their losses and reorganising their survivors while consolidation of the first objective continued. For now, the other three were forgotten. The losses to the 47th London Division were catastrophic, nearly 5,000. The 19th Londons had suffered casualties of more than 300 men, including David Henderson.

His death was overshadowed on the political scene. The war did not take into account party loyalty, and on the same day, serving with a battalion of the Grenadier Guards, the prime minister’s son, Raymond Asquith, had fallen. But in the week following his death, a memorial service was held for David at the Wesleyan Church in Clapham and a message of condolence read out on behalf of the king and queen. Captain David Henderson was laid to rest at London Cemetery and Extension, plot 1A.A.14.

Extracted from Somme: 141 Days, 141 Lives by Alexandra Churchill and Andrew Holmes


Sign up for our newsletter

show more books