Private Maurice LAIT

York and Lancaster Regiment
12th (Service) (Sheffield) Battalion - "The Sheffield Pals"
Service Number:
Date of Death:
1 July 1916 - Killed in Action
(First Day Battle of the Somme)
Cemetery / Memorial:
Memorial Reference:
Pier and Face 14 A and 14 B.

Personal History:

According to his Service Papers, Maurice was born on the 23rd September 1888, the son of Alfred (Commercial Traveller) and Emily Ann (née Morris) Lait of 12 Portland Road, in Knighton, Leicestershire. He had an older sister, Ann, and a younger sister, Ivy. (1891 Census RG 12/2498)

By 1901 (Census RG 13/3269) the family had moved to Buxton and were living at 1 Scarborough Villas, Fairfield. At the time of the 1911 Census (RG 14/16251) Maurice was visiting the Brett family at 30 The Burgage, Market Drayton, Shropshire, and his stated employment was "Assistant Tailors Cutter". His parents were in Buxton at 'Oakfield', Sylvan Cliff, Buxton. (Census RG 14/21240)
When Maurice enlisted in September 1914 he stood 5 ft. 6 ins. [1.68 m.] tall, weighed 10 st. 0 lbs. [63.5 kgs.], had a 'fair' complexion, grey eyes and brown hair. His stated trade was "Tailor Cutter" and living at 64 Harcourt Road, Sheffield. Maurice's father, Alfred, by now a widower, was named as his next of kin, at the same address as in 1911, indicating that Maurice was not married.

Military History:
Maurice enlisted in the 12th (Service) (Sheffield) Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment in Sheffield on the 15th September 1914. He stated his age as 25 years 357 days. This was one of the "The Pals" Battalions of World War I which were specially constituted units of the British Army comprising men who had enlisted together in local recruiting drives, with the promise that they would be able to serve alongside their friends, neighbours and work colleagues ("pals"), rather than being arbitrarily allocated to regular Army regiments.

The Battalion was formed in Sheffield on the 5th September 1914 by the Mayor and Town, with recruits came from all walks of life, from stockbrokers to shop assistants. The Duke of Norfolk and Sir George Franklin had gone to the War Office to propose the formation of a Sheffield Battalion recruited from both university and commercial men. The proposal was readily accepted and on 10th September enlistment began at the Corn Exchange for the Sheffield City Battalion, the 12th (Service) Battalion York & Lancaster Regiment. By the 5th December 1914, there were 1,131 officers and men in the Battalion.

In May 1915 the Battalion moved to Penkridge Camp (Cannock Chase) and attached to 94th Brigade in 31st Division, alongside the 1st and 2nd Barnsley Pals, also from the Yorks and Lancs and the Accrington Pals from the East Lancashire Regiment. They went to Ripon in July 1915 and on to Salisbury Plain in October. On the 28th September, Lt. Col. J. A. Crosthwaite, formerly of the Durham Light Infantry, assumed command, and on the 20th December 1915, the Battalion embarked on HMT Nestor at Devonport for Alexandria.

Maurice's Service Papers show that he followed this same schedule of training until the 19th December 1915, before being posted with the "Mediterranean Expeditionary Force" the next day.

Maurice's Division (the 31st) was assigned to defend the Suez Canal against the threat of an attack by the Turkish Army. However, this threat soon evaporated and the 31st was re-assigned to take part in the planned summer offensive on the Somme. On the 10th March 1916, Maurice, with the remainder of the Sheffield Battalion embarked on HMT Briton at Port Said for the 5 day voyage to the French port of Marseilles. Less than three weeks later (28th) the Battalion took over a stretch of the front line opposite the fortified hilltop village of Serre.

On Saturday the 24th June, the British artillery opened a bombardment that over a 5-day period was intended to destroy the German defences completely. The Battalion sent out raiding and wire-examining parties every night but found the German wire to be virtually uncut. On the 28th June the attack was postponed for two days because of the poor weather. The new time for the start of the offensive was 7.30 a.m. on Saturday 1st July.

As sun rose on the 1st at 4.05 a.m., German artillery began to shell the British front line. At 7.20 a.m. the first wave of the Battalion moved 100 yards into No Man's Land and lay flat on the ground as the brigade mortar battery and divisional artillery placed a final bombardment over the German front line. A few minutes later - with the British front line coming under an intense counter-barrage - the second wave took up position 30 yards behind the first.

At 7.30 a.m. the bombardment lifted from the German front line. All four waves rose and advanced steadily towards the German lines into a devastating hail of machine gun bullets and shellfire. An ineffective smoke screen exposed the battalion to machine gun fire from the left as well as from ahead. The third and fourth waves, caught on the opposite side of the valley, were reduced to half strength before even reaching No Man's Land.

On the left of the battalion front, long stretches of barbed wire had been left uncut. Men brought to a halt in front of the impenetrable entanglements were reduced to firing vainly through the wire to the German lines beyond. Only on the right of the attack were a few men somehow able to force their way into the German trenches. Some found they were alone and managed to return to the British lines. Most were never heard of again.

"Within minutes it was as if the Battalion had been wiped off the face of the earth." "The battle for Serre was lost."

The War Diary for the 2nd July 1916 recorded the Battle's outcomes as:

"12 Noon: Casualty Return:
Killed in Action: Captain W. A. Colley, Captain W. S. Clark, 2nd Lieut. C. H. Wardill, 2nd Lieutenant E. M. Carr.
Wounded: Major A. R. Hoette, Captain R. E. J. Moore, Lieut. C. H. Woodhouse, Lieut. G. H. J. Ingold, Lieut. F. C. Earl, Lieut. F. W. S. Storry, Lieut. H. W. Pearson.
Missing, Believed wounded: Lieut. C. Elam, 2nd Lieut. P. K. Perkin, 2nd Lieut. A. J. Beal, 2nd Lieut. F. Dinsdale.
Killed, Wounded & Missing: Other Ranks: 468."

At the same time the following day, added: "21 Missing rejoined unwounded, 67 wounded, 6 killed. Casualty since 1 O.R., Total: 373 Missing."

In a Special Order of the Day, Brigadier-General Hubert Conway Rees, D.S.O., prior to handing over the Command of the 94th Infantry Brigade, to Brigadier General T. Carter-Campbell, D.S.O., said:

"In giving up the Command of the 94th Brigade to Brigadier-General T. Carter-Campbell, whose place I have temporarily taken during this great battle, I wish to express to all ranks my admiration of their behaviour. I have been through many battles in this war and nothing more magnificent has come under my notice. The waves went forward as if on a drill parade and I saw no man turn back or falter. I bid good-bye to the remnants of as fine a Brigade as has ever gone into action."

The CWGC records show that 245 Officers and men of the 12th Battalion were killed in action on the First Day of the Battle of the Somme. 161 have no known grave and, like Maurice, are commemorated on The Thiepval Memorial. A further 11 died in the following week, many from wounds received.

On the 15th August 1917 Maurice's father received from the War Office his effects, which amounted to: "Flash lamp, veil, F & E Dictionary, letters, photos, pipe, cards, pr. of Opera glasses in a sock". In total he had served a total of 1 year 291 days with the colours.

·  After the war, Sheffield placed a memorial in the village of Serre to the men of the City Battalion
   who had fallen in the attack of 1st July 1916. In 1936, the Sheffield Memorial Park was opened
   on the site of the British lines below Serre.

· I am grateful to Jonty Wild for the photo of Maurice's name on the Memorial
· "History of the 12th (Service) Battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment" by Richard A. Sparling (1920)
· "Tracing British Battalions on the Somme" by Ray Westlake (ISBN-10: 1844158853)
· "Slaughter on the Somme - July 1916" by Martin Mace & John Grehan (ISBN 978 1 84884 770 5) pps. 173 - 5

Link to CWGC Record
The Thiepval Memorial
Pt Maurice Lait's name on the Memorial
Sheffield City Battalion Memorial, Serre
Sheffield City Battalion Memorial, Serre
..... about The Sheffield Pals Battalion
..... of The War Diary