Oldham Historical Research Group


Corporal Harold Mercer, M.M.

Regiment: Royal Horse Artillery and the Royal Field Artillery

Unit: A Baty., 49th Brigade

1892 – 1916


Harold Mercer was born in Oldham in the early summer of 1892 the eldest son of Arthur Mercer and Eliza Hardman. The family originated from Droylsden, near Ashton-under-Lyne but came first to settle in Oldham and then to Royton shortly after Harold's birth. In the 1901 Census the family is recorded as living at 109 Highbarn Street, Royton.

Three further sons were born following the family's move to Royton, Wallace in 1894, William Arthur in 1900 and Ernest in 1904. By 1904 there were seven family members, Arthur and Eliza Mercer and their five children, the eldest daughter Ethel, was born in Droylsden in 1891; another daughter, Eliza Hannah, died in infancy, 1898.

Arthur Mercer worked like so many others in the North West in the Cotton Industry. In the 1881 Census, before his marriage, he is listed as 'Piecer on Cotton Mules'. However, by the time he moved to Royton he had risen to Manager and was employed at the Lion Mill, Shaw Road.

Like his father, Harold began his working life in the Cotton Industry, but unlike the humble beginnings of his father, Harold worked in the mill office. At the age of 18, in the 1911 Census he is listed as 'Clerk'. The family then lived at 6 Moss Bank, Queen Street, Shaw.

In the early part of the twentieth century life carried on, as it would have, for many families all over England until the clouds of the First World War loomed like a dark shadow over the whole country. The Mercer family moved to 258 Turf Lane, Royton.

Corporal Harold Mercer enlisted in Shaw in March 1915, before compulsory service, and joined the Royal Horse Artillery and later the Royal Field Artillery, (Soldier number L/17274). No doubt he saw it as his patriotic duty but also, like many young men of the time, he may have seen it as an adventure, an opportunity to see the world, and he may have had little awareness of the horrors that lay ahead of him. At the time of his enlistment he was employed as assistant secretary at the Lion Mill.

The Royal Artillery was the arm of the British Army responsible for its cannons, or guns. It had different branches during the First World War, each with a specific role to play. The Royal Horse Artillery was responsible for smaller highly manoeuvrable guns. The Royal Field Artillery, or RFA, operated the medium guns used to support the infantry in attack or defence.

The role of an artillery battery was to move, deploy and fire its allocated guns at the enemy in the most efficient and effective fashion possible.

Corporal Mercer's service records were destroyed, like many others, during the bombardment of London in the Second World War. However it is possible to trace the actions of his Battery, the 49th Field Artillery in the summer of 1916, the year of Corporal Mercer's death.

artillery soldier

Northern France – 1916

The war moves relentlessly onwards.

Harold Mercer, having completed his basic training somewhere in England, travels to France in the latter months of 1915 or in the early months of 1916, along with thousands of other young men from Kitchener's 'New Army'. Many of these recruits have completed barely six months training in makeshift barracks where they have been drilled, taught the rudiments of soldiering and issued with basic equipment. Because Corporal Mercer is later mentioned in despatches as 'having kept open the line of communication during a fierce attack' it is likely that he joined the ranks of the signallers, those soldiers whose job it was to ensure communication between the men firing the guns and observers trying to direct the shells at appropriate targets.


Fierce fighting continues during the battle of Verdun with a loss of 350,000 German and 460,000 French lives. As a result the French pressed the British strongly to attack on the Somme by the end of the month to relieve the pressure at Verdun. The British agreed and the High Command laid their plans.

General Haig, British Commander in Chief, hopes to smash his way through the German line on the plain around the river Ancre, on land between Gommercourt in the north and Maricourt in the south.

Fourth Army HQ issued the bombardment orders to the artillery units on 5 June. There would be a five-day ceaseless rain of shells on the enemy, in a number of stages. Individual artillery units would fire in 2-hour period with a rest in between.

The bombardment begins: U Day, 24 June 1916
A dull day, low cloud and heavy rain, following thunderstorms the day before.

27-28 June
Thick mist and heavy rain
Bombardment continues. Raiding parties found the enemy in
greater numbers and more alert than previously.

29-30 June
The weather brightened although it was still far from perfect for observing the effects of the firing.
Enemy batteries were spotted in action and fires were seen in many places in and behind the German lines. During the weeklong artillery bombardment of the German lines, 1,738,000 shells were fired.

1 July – Opening Battles of the Somme – Battle of Albert
The sun rose into a clear sky. Along the valleys of the Ancre and Somme a white mist clung to the marches, spilling here and there into the rising re-entrants on either side.

artillery WW1

It was a perfect morning. Despite the din of shelling, birds could be heard singing amongst the nearby woods and out amongst the mustard in the pasture.

To begin with, the artillery programme was designed to give as close support to the infantry as possible. At zero hour it would lift from the enemy fire trench and immediately support in the usual way but thereafter it would 'creep' back. Lifting 100 yards every two minutes, each 18-pounder gun firing six rounds per 100 yards step. The 4-5 howitzers were reserved to destroy machine guns and other reinforced fire positions in the enemy first line, their high angle of fire being more suitable for this task in the constantly rising and falling ground. This was the first attempt at a creeping barrage, which was limited effectively to the 18 pounders only.

John Buchan – Battle of the Somme

The British moved forward line after line, dressed as if on parade; not a man wavered or broke rank, but minute by minute the ordered lines melted away under the deluge of high explosive, shrapnel, rifle and machine gun fire.

Sir Edward Spears (Eye Witness Account)

The British, rigid and slow, advancing as on Aldershot
Parade in lines that were torn and ripped by the German guns.

They could not move much faster, for each man carried 66lbs mostly ammunition, and the ground over which they advanced had been torn up by the preliminary bombardment. Soon they had another obstacle, the bodies of those who had been advancing in front of them.

Around 20,000 men were killed and about 40,000 wounded on the first day. But the vast majority did not meet their fate by advancing shoulder to shoulder at a slow walk. Nor did the high command order them to do so. At least some of the battalions who walked across no man's land at a steady pace did so because they were following a creeping barrage. These were some of the most successful units of all on the first day.

The German High Command, aware that an attack was imminent due to the previous days of heavy bombardment, had strengthened their defences, which were deeper, better constructed and more elaborate than had been anticipated. Although the bombardment may have seriously damaged the German trenches, the barbed wire proved resilient. Many of the soldiers advancing across no man's land faced barbed wire that needed cutting before they could even reach the trenches.

If the first day of the Somme was the most disastrous day of battle in British history, no sense of doom or despair appears to have penetrated the minds of the high command. On the 2 July, when casualty lists of 40,000 were made apparent, General Haig commented that the numbers 'cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged'.

We can only speculate on Corporal Mercer's reaction but George Coppard, a machine gunner at the battle gives a clear account:

'The next morning (2nd July) we gunners surveyed the dreadful scene in front of us.. It became clear that the Germans always had a commanding view of No Man's Land. The attack had been brutally repulsed. Hundred of dead were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high watermark. Quite as many did on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish in the net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as if they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. Machine gun fire had done its terrible work.'

In spite of all the carnage on the first day, between the dates of 2 and 13 July formidable fortified areas such as La Boiselle, Contalmaison, Mametz Wood, and Trônes Wood were captured by the British in the relatively short period of 12 days, although at a cost of many lives.

At 2.40am on 11 July, the fiercest British bombardment yet was fired on
Trônes Wood, which needed to be taken before a planned assault on Guillemont and Longueval. The enemy was rushing reinforcements in Trônes and, by great fortune, German orders for a counter attack were found. Consequently at 6pm, an intensive barrage was fired on their planned forming-up area between Trônes and Guillemont, which effectively destroyed the attack and allowed British troops to enter the wood unopposed. However, sections remained in enemy hands until 13 July.

Wednesday12 July
A trace of rain, 68 degrees, fine but overcast
Corporal Harold Mercer is wounded in action.
The British moved to the south-eastern edge facing Guillemont and dug in below the strong point at Trônes Alley. A new trench was dug westwards to link with the British troops still in the south-western part of the wood. That evening a counter-attack on Maltz Horn Trench was repulsed from this line, assisted by British and French artillery fire.

Extract from the Oldham Evening Chronicle: July 1916

Corporal Harold Mercer, R.F.A., received a shell wound in the right shoulder on Wednesday 12th July and died on Saturday (22nd July) from haemorrhage at the Bramshot Military Hospital in Hampshire. His home was 258 Turf Lane, Royton. He was 24 years of age and before enlisting in March 1915, he was assistant secretary for the Lion Spinning Company in Royton. His father who is inside manager at the Lion was with him when he passed away.

Mrs Mercer received the following letter, dated July 14th(sic), from Corporal Mercer's commanding officer, Captain J. Noorve:

Dear Madam:

I regret to have to inform you that your son, Corporal H. Mercer, of the battery under my command was wounded yesterday morning. He received a piece or two of shell in one shoulder. I saw the medical officer at the dressing station at which he was attended to, and he told me that the wound was not serious. I trust that this will prove to be so and that Corporal Mercer will soon be all right again. I am very sorry to lose him, for he was an able and conscientious n.c.o. As you are no doubt aware, I had his name forward for mention in the last despatch, in which I was pleased to see it appear.

Corporal Mercer was mentioned in despatches for gallant conduct in keeping open, with the help of three colleagues, the line of communication during a fierce attack

Corporal Mercer's younger brother, Wallace, also served in the Royal Regiment of Artillery RG Field Artillery in WW1. He married Annie Raw on 13 August 1914 at the Wesleyan Chapel Royton. His brother, Harold Mercer, was a witness at the wedding. Wallace Mercer survived the war.

The ruins of the Cathedral in Albert

The ruins of the Cathedral in Albert


Gunners in Action during WW1

Military medal

Military Medal

The Military Medal was first instituted in March 1916 as an award for distinguished service in the field for Warrant Officers, NCO's and lower ranks.

Awarded to Corporal Harold Mercer in the summer of 1916.

Corporal Harold Mercer M.M. is buried in Royton Cemetery

Gravestone of Harold Mercer MM


Joan Stott – 2014
In Memory of Corporal Harold Mercer M.M.

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The above was written and contributed by :
Joan Stott – 2014

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