Alfred Edward Downing (“Eddie”) was born in Warrington, Lancashire on September 17, 1888. He attended Wycliff School Warrington & Commercial Institute and eventually became a “wire drawer” at Witecross Wire Co, Ltd., Warrington, the local wire works.
He attested on August 11, 1914 in Warrington and joined the 7th Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Regiment (KRRR) as a Rifleman (Private). He was 25 years old. They were sent to Winchester for training and within 2 months he had been promoted to Lance Corporal. 5 months later he was promoted to full Corporal and a month later promoted again to Lance Sergeant. He was promoted to full Sergeant on May 11, 1915 one week before the Battalion shipped out to France.
The Battalion shipped to France, arriving in Boulogne on May 19, 1915.
On July 30 1915 the Battalion fought in the Actions of Hooge being the first British division to be attacked with liquid flamethrowers.
On September 25, 1915 they were in action again in the the Second Attack on Bellewaarde, at Ypres.
Wounded in Action (1916)
Wounded in action on May 3, 1916 with a Gunshot wound to the right forearm. He was evacuated from France and admitted to 2nd Western General Hospital, in Manchester, on May 7, 1916. He remained there for approximately 2 months (67 days) being discharged on July 8, 1916. While he was there he also had 5 Dental Extractions (ouch!). On leaving hospital he remained in the UK.
5th Kings Royal Rifle Regiment
On October 4, 1916 Sgt. Downing was transferred to the 5th Kings Royal Rifle Regiment.
On May 5, 1917 he was awarded a commission and sent to the No 18 Officer Cadet Battalion, at Prior Park, Bath.
9th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment
3 1/2 months later, on August 28, 1917, he was discharged to the Special Reserve Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (LNLR) on a temporary commission as a 2nd Lieutenant.
And, as was customary, his temporary commission was published in the London Gazette along with all the other men receiving commissions and officers changing rank.
2nd Lt. A. E. Downing joined the 9th LNLR in France on August 29, 1917.
German Spring Offensive
On March 21, 1918 the German Spring Offensive (Kaiserschlacht) started with Operation Michael. This was the last attempt by the German Armies to break though the allies Western Front, before the arrival of masses of fresh American troops would have made the war unwinnable for them.
On April 9, 1918 Operation Georgette: the Battle of Lys kicked off. The British had been drawn away to the south to protect Amiens. The Germans switched their attack to the area South of Ypres threatening the key railway supply line at Hazebrouck, eventually the channel ports of Calais, Dunkirk would be threatened, raising the British fear of being choked to death.
On 11th April, 1918 Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (Commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front) issued the following Special Order of the Day which summarizes the critical situation of the Allied forces then on the Western Front:
“Three weeks ago today the enemy began his terrific attacks against us on a fifty-mile front. His objects are to separate us from the French, to take the Channel Ports, and destroy the British Army.
In spite of throwing already one hundred and six divisions into the battle, and enduring the most reckless sacrifice of human life, he has, as yet, made little progress towards his goals. We owe this to the determined fighting and self-sacrifice of our troops.
Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest.
The French Army is moving rapidly, and in great force to our support.
There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.
The safety of our homes, and the freedom of mankind depend alike upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.”
At this time, the 9th Loyal North Lancashires were part of the 74th Infantry Brigade, 25th Division, British IX Corps. The 74th Inf. Brigade under the command of Brigadier-General H. M. Craigie Halkett, comprised the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, 3rd Worcesters and the 9th Loyal North Lancashires.
April 12, 1918
“Early on the morning of the 12th April, 1918 the enemy attacked heavily all along the front, as well as to the right and left of the divisional sector, and a retirement became necessary after continuous hard fighting. By the night of the 13th the 74th Brigade, retiring in touch with the 101st and 88th Brigades on right and left respectively, was established on the high ground east of Bailleul. The Germans again followed up and the outpost line of the Bailleul-Armentieres road was driven in: late in the afternoon of the 13th, parties of the enemy succeeded in reaching the high ground, but they were immediately counter-attacked by some of the Battalion led by 2nd Lieutenant A. E. Downing, together with a few men of other corps, and many Germans were killed the rest put to flight and several machine-guns were captured.”
© Loyal North Lancashire Regiment 1914-1919, Colonel H. C. Wylly. ISBN-13: 978-1847347978.
May 27, 1918
On May 27, 1918 the third major German Offensive against the French on the Aisne (“Blucher-Yorck”) began, overwhelming Hamilton-Gordon’s IX British Corps which had been sent there to rest and refit after being involved in “Michael” and “Georgette”.
The battalion war diary shows that the 9th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment were in Divisional reserve arriving at Vandeuil in the early hours of May 24. The Commanding Officer inspected the Battalion the next day and the following day (Sunday) they had a church parade. At 7:15pm Sunday evening they received orders to prepare to move at once and by 11pm they were marching to Muscourt, (12.5 km NW) having to wear Box Respirators during the later part of the journey owing to gas shelling by the Germans which started at 1am. They arrived at camp at Muscourt at 4am.
[At this point, 2nd Lt. Downing was approximately 6 km west of the 1/Sherwoods where Pte. Arthur Slater was supposed to be.]
At 9am one Platoon per Company were ordered to proceed to a line along the Aisne Canal bank, N.E. of Maizy, to form a nucleus of defense (2 km NW of Muscourt). By noon, the remainder of the Battalion were ordered to immediately reinforce the defensive line already taken up. The total going into action was 12 Officers and 496 other ranks.
The following is taken from Military Operations France And Belgium 1918 Vol-III, Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds.
Earlier in the day, about 9.30 A.M., Germans (of the 28th Division) had reached the Aisne north of Maizy, but were there held up by artillery fire on the river bridge; later some of them managed to cross by an undefended bridge lower down in the French area. The canal bridge was, however, defended by part of the 9/Loyal North Lancashire, which had just arrived on the scene, and it was not until about 11.30 a.m., after the German artillery had been brought into action on the hill above Beaurieux, to the north, that resistance was overcome. The L.N. Lancashire, with the 74th Light Trench Mortar Battery, 105th Field Company R.E. and a section of machine guns, then swung back and formed a left defensive flank through Muscourt and westward, and the 50th Division Lewis Gun School, coming up with 24 guns to reinforce, extended this flank as far as the hill east of Revillon, on the boundary of the British sector.
In the centre and right of Jackson’s sector, the enemy (6th Guard Division) having been checked between Maizy and Concevreux by the destruction of the canal bridges and the good defence of the 11 /Lancashire Fusiliers and 3/ Worcestershire, had begun to work round by the west. As a result, the defenders were driven from Revillon hill, and then, about 1 p.m., from the Muscourt position, when the left flank of the 74th Brigade fell back a mile to the line Meurival — Beauregard Farm. There, in spite of the appearance of German reinforcements, a further stand was made until between 4 and 5 p.m., when the 9/L.N. Lancashire and the troops with it fell back to the long ridge which lies 1 1/4 miles south of Meurival and runs north-eastward towards Roucy.
There is much more about the 3rd Battle of the Aisne, here.
We do not know the full details of exactly what happened to him but we do have the following letter that was sent to the Downings by Pte. Kent:
The letter reads:
He was my Platoon officer (D. XIV) but on 27th May he went up in command of the Company just outside a place called MUSCOURT, between there and ROMAIN.
I saw him on that day, lying on the ground, wounded in the chest. I passed right by him. A corporal whose name I do not know, was with him and asked him if he could do anything for him but he said “No” and to carry on. I do not suppose he would live; he seemed too bad. Time, probably between 5 & 6 pm. The Germans were driving us back very fast and came over the ground. I never heard more of him.
Pte. H. Kent, 29453, now in camp in France.
PRESUMPTION OF DEATH
2nd Lt. A.E. Downing was reported Wounded and Missing on May 27, 1918. Nothing more was heard of him and his body was never found or identified. Eventually, the War Office needed to remove him from the Weekly Casualty Lists and classify him as officially dead. The following letters and documents chart the course of that task.
Private George Cooper was interviewed by the International Red Cross and provided the above statement which read:
“Lt Downing was wounded the same day as myself May 27th. We were at Massay on the Aisne. We were taken prisoner and were treated at our CCS which was in German hands. From the CCS we were sent to Germany but I did not see him again.”
“Pte Warrel, [463055, who ended up at] Geissen Camp, Germany was in the next bed to Lt. Downing [at the CCS]. Col Wilkin A.D.M.S. for the 50th Division operated on our men, having been a prisoner himself.”
One of the problems with this statement is that the Assistant Deputy Medical Services (ADMS) for the 50th Division was actually Colonel Alexander Milne-Thompson, RAMC. The War Office also had a “list of admissions and evacuations” for the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) at Beaurieux which they had obtained from a “English Nurse” working there called Louisa Constance Colt-Williams (and the “CCS” was actually a Field Ambulance not a CCS).
Beaurieux is North of Maizy and North of the Aisne. On the morning of May 27, 1918 the Field Ambulance (FA) at Beaurieux was overrun by the Germans early in the day (around 9:30am) capturing Col. Milne-Thompson, Nurse Colt-Williams and all of the staff and patients there. The Field Ambulance continued to operate and fresh casualties were brought in throughout the day.
However, as the only thread of information received by the War Office regarding 2nd Lt. Downing they resolved to seek clarification.
So the War Office sent Col. Milne-Thompson, RAMC the following letter asking for any information he may have about 2nd Lt. Downing, prefixing their request with their assumption that the officer in question was most probably Capt. R.J.P. Hewetson of the 9th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.
And Col. Milne-Thompson duly replied, repeating the theory put forward by the War Office.
At the same time, the War Office also sent a rather curt letter to Pte. Cooper asking him for clarification of his statement.
And Pte. Cooper duly replied:
In this letter he states:
“With reference to letter enclosed I gave you what particulars I could concerning LT Downing. I told you that a Officer of the LNL was at this Hospital but I cannot say what became of him as we all got shifted, but I am sending you a card as my wife got sent to her from the English nurse that was taken prisoner also from the Hospital that the Major and Colonel was encharged of, hoping you can get to know some particulars through this card.”
On March 11, 1919 without any additional information or evidence that 2nd Lt. Downing was a Prisoner of War, the War Office moved to declare a presumption of death.
But before they did so they sent his widow one last letter to ask if she had received any word of her husband.
And so, on May 28, 1919, one year and a day after he was killed in action somewhere near Meurival, the War Office officially declared him dead.
A.E. Downing was 29 years old when he was killed in action. He is commemorated at the Soissons Memorial located in the town of Soissons, in the Aisne département of France.
The memorial lists 3,887 names of British soldiers with no known grave who were killed in the area from May to August 1918. It also contains this inscription (in French and English):
“When the French Armies held and drove back the enemy from the Aisne and the Marne between May and July 1918 the 8th, 15th, 19th, 21st, 25th, 34th, 50th, 51st and 62nd divisions of the British Armies served in the line with them and shared the common sacrifice. Here are recorded the names of 3,987 officers and men of those divisions to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.”
He is also listed on the WW1 Memorial in Warrington:
SHORT SERVICE RECORD
11 Aug, 1914 – 18 May, 1915 Home
19 May, 1915 – 16 May, 1916 BEF, France
7 May, 1916 – 28 Aug, 1917 Home
29 Aug, 1917 – 27 May, 1918 BEF, France
DETAILED SERVICE RECORD:
11 Aug, 1914 Enlisted, Warrington
13 Aug, 1914 Attested Rfn, to 7th KRRC Winchester
21 Aug, 1914 Posted as Rfn (Rfn = Rifleman)
05 Sep, 1914 Appointed w/ pay (L/Corp)
2 Feb, 1915 Promoted Corp
15 Mar, 1915 Appointed w/ pay (L/Sgt)
11 May, 1915 Promoted Sgt, BEF France
07 May, 1916 Posted D (Evacuated to 2nd Western General Hospital, Manchester)
04 Oct, 1916 Posted 5th KRRC
11 Aug, 1916 Granted C Class I P.P. Sgt
05 May, 1917 Posted to No 18 OCB (Prior Park, Bath)
28 Aug, 1917 Discharged to Special Reserve Battalion, LNLR
27 May, 1918 Killed in Action, Aisne.