Remembering Dixon Overfield

A few days ago I found a photograph, an escapee from the family shoe box. My paternal grandfather did not fight in the First World War. My mother’s father did go to war and I have a studio portrait of him in uniform, seated, with my Grandma LOCKETT standing by his side.

Not one of these twenty faces looks at all like William Lockett. The cap badges indicate that these boys who came to the cookhouse door were in the Royal Field Artillery. The print is on standard postcard stock but it does not bear a stamp, a message, or an address in Blighty. I have no idea when or where the picture was taken or how many of these ravaged fellows were dead men walking?

Dixon OVERFIELD was thirty-three years old when, at Filey (or maybe Beverley), he enlisted into the Royal Field Artillery. A few years earlier the Reverend STANWELL’s camera had caught him in a group outside a church or chapel.

Dixon was a Trustee of Muston Chapel, a local preacher, and a Sunday School superintendent. He is second from the left.

The exact date of Dixon’s transfer from the R.F.A. isn’t known but in June 1917 he is in Belgium with the 6th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, preparing to fight the Third Battle of Ypres. This terrible encounter is also known as the Battle of Passchendaele.

On the 9th October, the 6th Yorkshires approached Poelcappelle, a village about five kilometres from Passchendaele. Dixon’s great grandson, Simon Wheeler, in an unpublished memoir, writes –

At 5.20 am Dixon and his fellow soldiers would have left the trenches and moved forward towards their objective of Poelcappelle village, where little opposition was met until the fork in the roads opposite the brewery…

Once the battalion reached the area opposite the brewery they not only met stiff opposition and heavy machine gun fire from the area of Meunier and String houses (no more than rubble at this stage of the war) but also captured 150-200 prisoners and several of the concrete block houses north west of the brewery itself. But owing to the heavy machine gun fire these could not be held.

With the heavy opposition met from the Germans the Battalion had no choice but to dig in at 8am, whilst attempting to dig the Battalion suffered many casualties from machine gun fire and heavy rifle fire at close range from both flanks. Sadly, due to heavy German bombardment, the light trench mortars that were attached to the Battalion were knocked out by this time and the supporting tanks were unable to come into action and take the brewery as originally planned due to the appalling condition of the ground due to the weather conditions.

At 11.05 am “W” company of 8th Duke of Wellington Regiment was moved forward to the left of the village to support the Battalion. Also at this time bombs (grenades) were sent forward by the 34th Brigade (most probably in the hope of breaking the stalemate in the centre of the village). By 11.30am aeroplanes had spotted the Germans moving troops forward by bus for a counter attack which was believed to be planned for evening time between 4 and 5pm, thankfully this attack never materialised.

There is no further mention of heavy shelling during the rest of the day, so it is most probable that Dixon was killed by the early shelling during the initial attack.

From the perspective of the 9th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment there is this account –

“Zero” hour on 9th October was 5.20 a.m. when the British Artillery barrage came down promptly on the enemy’s front line and his emplacements. But the ground was sodden, inches deep in mud and in an altogether appalling condition, so that many “H.E.” shells did not burst. The heavy rain of the previous day and night had turned No Mans Land into a veritable quagmire, and the Battalion Diary records that “the ground was churned up so as to be one endless mass of shell-holes; mud and water was everywhere, and almost impassable.”

The barrage was moving at a rate of 100 yards in four minutes as the West Yorkshiremen advanced, floundering through mud and filth, skirting the shell-holes where possible, though mostly having to “take” whatever came in the way in order to keep formation. Seven minutes after the British barrage opened, the German barrage fell, but generally it was not heavy. The British guns, however, literally plastered the enemy’s trenches and emplacements with shell of all calibre, and the ordeal through which the Germans were passing must have been terrible; indeed, the records speak of it as” terrific”. Yet, through all that hell of bursting shell and storm of shrapnel the hostile “pill boxes” (or emplacements) stood practically unharmed and, as the British troops went forward, murderous machine-gun fire met their advance, for the machine-guns, safely ensconced in these “pill boxes” could not be silenced. Hostile cross-fire and traversing machine-gun fire swept the whole of the Divisional front, and the ranks of the attacking troops thinned very quickly. The enemy had made good use of the ruins of Poelcappelle, concealing in them his riflemen and machine-gunners, who were able to fire in enfilade.”

Battalion War Diary:-

“On our left flank the attack was held up at the Brewery and after heavy casualties the 6th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment found themselves with both flanks “in the air”. Very few officers were left in either the Yorkshire Regiment or our own battalion, and the lack of command began to have effect. On the left, the 6th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment was completely hung up and the remnants of the battalion fell back in the hope of reorganising. When our men saw this, news quickly spread that the 6th Yorkshires were retiring, and as the enemy had by this time parties almost in line with us on this front, some took up a position further back so as to preserve the general line and remain in touch with our flanks. Meanwhile, the attack progressed with less resistance on the right and further headway would doubtless have been possible but for the stoppage in the centre and on the left. The only course open in view of heavy casualties, the serious resistance, and the prospect of a counter-attack in a few hours was to consolidate as far as possible and prepare to hold the line approximately to our assembly line. Every effort was made with this object in view, and to guard against any serious attempt to dislodge us from the position the 6th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment was brought into position between Pheasant Farm and Retour Cross-roads”.

But for the moment the battalion was safe from counter-attack, for from statements made by prisoners taken it was evident that the enemies losses had been very heavy, for a new division had taken over his front line on the previous night and the stoutness of his resistance had resulted in a heavy role of casualties.

After the attack had come to a standstill and the assaulting battalions had consolidated their positions, numerous parties went out from both sides in order to collect the wounded and dead. For the time being both British and Germans refrained from firing on one another during this mournful task, and in one place the opposing troops were but 30 yards apart. As long as daylight lasted the work continued and when darkness fell the role was called. Heavy, indeed, had been the losses of the 9th West Yorkshires, 12 officers and 203 other ranks being killed, wounded and missing.

Great War Forum

The body of Private Dixon Overfield 41782 was not found. He is remembered at Tyne Cot Cemetery and on memorials in Filey and Muston. You can find him with his family on the FamilySearch Shared Tree. There are two memorial photographs of Dixon at Find a Grave.

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