Second Lieutenant Isaac T V Norman
121st Field Coy., Royal Engineers
who died of wounds on 28 March 1918, aged 27
Remembered with Honour
Barrow Hill Memorial
Staveley Parish Memorial
Netherthorpe (Old) School Memorial
Namps-Au-Val British Cemetery (Plot I. A. 17)
ISAAC THOMAS VICTOR NORMAN (known as Victor) was born in late 1890 at South Street, New Whittington, the son of Midland Railway signalman Philip Glover Norman and his wife, Mary Jane (nee Taylor), and the brother of 2 year old Lily.
Victor’s father, Philip, originally hailed from Gloucestershire where he had been employed as a Rural Messenger. Mary Jane Taylor had moved to 125, Barrow Hill (Devonshire Terrace) from Worcestershire with her parents when she was just one year old. Her father was then employed as a coal miner at one of the many collieries belonging to the Staveley Coal and Iron Company. The couple were married at Staveley Parish Church on 26th December 1887 when Philip was 30 and Mary Jane was 22. Their first child, daughter Lily, sadly died, aged 7, in 1896.
BAPTISM Victor and his parents moved to live at 4, Midland Terrace, Barrow Hill; cottages which had been built for employees of the Midland Railway and for whom Philip was still working as a signalman in 1901. The family grew with the birth of 2 younger boys; Frank Douglas in 1902 and Eric Cecil in 1908.
Educated at the Staveley Works Schools at Barrow Hill, and afterwards at Staveley Netherthorpe Grammar School, Victor was working as a draughtsman in the offices of the Staveley Coal and Iron Company when war was declared.
Victor enlisted as Private 7087 with the 3rd/1st Reserve Battallion, Honourable Artillery Company, on 23 February 1916 and “afterwards trained for a commission to which he was appointed in October 1916.“ His commission as a Second Lieutenant was with the Corps of Royal Engineers (121st Field Company) in the 36th Ulster Division, and he embarked for France to join them soon after his appointment.
During 1917, Victor’s Division took up positions in the Messines-Wulverghem-Ploegsteert area, where they were to stay until the summer of 1917. They were in action at The Battle of Messines (7-14 June) with the Second Army, capturing Wytschaete, in which, with a roar clearly heard in London, nineteen monstrous British mines containing a total of 600 tons of high explosives were detonated under the defenders on the ridge.
After its success at Messines the 36th Division was withdrawn for rest and to prepare for its next battle. In early July the Ulster Division moved near to St. Omer again and back into the command of Fifth Army.
The Battle of Third Ypres (Passchendaele) started on 22nd July. The 36th Division had been kept back from the original assault so that it could be used at a later date. But in the area north-east of Ypres and near the village of St. Julien, the division there was so badly battered and its soldiers so tired that it was decided to withdraw them and replace them much earlier than expected with the Ulster Division. This was accomplished in the rain and mud of the night of 2nd August and completed by the early hours of the next morning. There they existed for another fourteen days where all were soaked by the continual rain and suffered from a lack of food, of heating, and of drinkable water. Lying in trenches which were little more than watery scratches scooped out of the morass and feebly protected by sandbags filled with mud, the soldiers endured perpetual shelling and small arms fire. Every day groups of men were blown to bits, until the ditches were bloody and the living lay by the corpses of their comrades. Every day scores of wounded crawled back through the bogs, if they had the strength to crawl. It was out of these conditions that they were ordered to make an attack on 16th August in what has become known as the Battle of Langemarck.
In the wake of a creeping barrage they attacked in atrocious conditions at 4.45am on Thursday 16 August on a frontage of roughly 12,000 yards. The pattern of fighting was disappointingly familiar: limited success in the north; costly failure in the centre and south; widespread heavy casualties. Notably in the centre and south the British bombardment failed to destroy the German batteries and field defences; devastating enemy shelling and relentless machine-gun fire from numerous surviving concrete pillboxes and fortified farms exacted a terrible toll on the attackers. The tragic failures of the 16th and 36th Divisions on the open slopes of the Zonnebeke spur, and the destruction of 56th Division within the confusion of blighted woods on the Gheluvelt Plateau, epitomised the desperate ordeals endured by the assaulting troops. Mid-morning saw all progress in the centre and south halted; subsequent well organised German counter-attacks forced British withdrawals.
By early evening exhausted remnants of units were back or near their start lines. The end of the day saw no breakthrough; an advance of around 1,500 yards was made in the north; virtually no progress elsewhere. British casualties were estimated at 15,000.
After Langemarck the Division was withdrawn to rest and to receive reinforcements. It did not, however, ever have the same character again for most of its original men had been lost in the everyday hazards of war, and in the Battles of the Somme, Messines, and Passchendaele.
Towards the end of 1917, the 36th Division was in action again during the Cambrai Operations (20 Nov – 3 Dec).
The attack began early in the morning of 20 November 1917 and initial advances were remarkable. However, by 22 November, a halt was called for rest and re-organisation, allowing the Germans to reinforce. From 23 to 28 November, the fighting was concentrated almost entirely around Bourlon Wood and by 29 November, it was clear that the Germans were ready for a major counter attack. During the fierce fighting of the next five days, much of the ground gained in the initial days of the attack was lost.
Victor was on leave, for at least part of the time that the Division was in action at Cambrai, during which he married Kate Emma Watkinson at Staveley Parish Church on 3rd December 1917.
Operation Michael was the first phase of Germany’s 1918 Spring Offensive along the Western Front, a last-ditch attempt for Germany to win the war before American forces entered Europe in large numbers:
The Battle of St Quentin: On 21 March 1918 the 36th Division was holding a sector of the British front line and Forward Zone south west of St Quentin on the Somme.
The destruction of bridges and pontoons allotted to the Engineers of the 36th Division was carried through without hitch.
Shortly after noon the pontoon and foot-bridge at Fontaine were destroyed by the 121st Field Company, which in the small hours of the 22nd of March blew up the whole group of bridges between Grand Séraucourt and Le Hamel.
The Battle of Rosières (26 – 27 March). At 8am on the morning of March the 26th, the 36th Division received orders to take up a line from the neighbourhood of l’Echelle St. Aurin, on the Avre, where it was to obtain touch with the French, to the main Amiens-Roye Road, north of Andechy, linking up with the 30th Division.
All through the morning small parties of the enemy attempted to work their way forward, but were held up by the fire of Lewis guns. At 1 p.m., as the enemy appeared to be progressing slightly on the left, General Nugent ordered the 107th Brigade, to which the 121st Field Company was attached, to hold the old French line following the road from Erches to Bouchoir. It was in position by 4 p.m., later pushing forward a line to gain touch with the left of the 108th Brigade.
A patrol sent out at 1-45 a.m. on the morning of the 27th by the 121st Field Company, saw long columns of the enemy; infantry, transport, a troop of cavalry, and a battery of artillery, moving into Erches. Captain Miller’s company of 15th Rifles, west of the village, was pounded with artillery and mortar fire, the trenches being obliterated and heavy casualties suffered.
Victor was wounded and taken to one of the three casualty clearing stations at Namps-Au-Val where he died on 28th March 1918 of wounds sustained in action. He was 27 years old and is buried at the Namps-Au-Val British Cemetery, Somme, France, which has 402 graves of identified casualties who died there in just three weeks.After Victor’s death, probate was granted to his widow, Kate, on 12th March 1919. Her address was given as Mount Pleasant, Hilltop, Bolsover and Victor left effects valued at £258 2s.
He was posthumously awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
In a letter of condolence to Victor’s widow, Captain H Gooch wrote that “The country has lost a very efficient officer, and it may be some consolation for you to know that he had been strongly recommended for the Military Cross, and would undoubtedly have had the same awarded to him had he lived. Unfortunately, however, the honour is not awarded posthumously.”
He went on to say “I cannot say how truly sorry I am and I wish to offer the heartfelt sympathy of myself and the other members of the company. I have been with the Company since its formation, and have known your husband since he joined it. I feel I have lost a good friend.”
© Ann Lucas
The Middlebrook Guide to the Somme Battlefields