Alan Hurst PRESTON
Rank: Lieutenant
Number: 10/910
Unit: No. 5 Company New Zealand Machine Gun Corps
Date of Death: 7 June 1917
Age: 27
Cemetery: Wulverghem-Lindenhoek Road Military Cemetery, Heuvelland, Belgium

Alan came from a successful middle class family. His father, James, was a provision and egg merchant and, in 1901, the family, was living at Heath Road, Cale Green, Stockport (and later at "Westbourne" in the Davenport area). The national census, taken that year, records James, then aged 39 and his wife, Sarah, 36. They had five children - Wilfred, 12; Alan, 10; Norman, 8; Phyllis, 6 and Enice, 3. James' business was sufficiently successful for them to employ a live-in general servant - 16 year old Annie Gee.

Nothing is known of Alan's early life in Stockport, except that in the two years before emigrating, he had been a member of the 6th (Territorial) Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, in his spare time.. The Battalion had many members who worked in the offices of Manchester's cotton businesses. As a young man, Alan emigrated and settled Makauri, Gisborne, New Zealand, where he found work as a station hand on a sheep farm. When war was declared on 4 August 1914, Alan was amongst the first to enlist, joining up on the 13th. New residents in the Dominions would have still felt themselves to be entirely British and Alan would, no doubt, have felt the same duty to fight for King and Country as if he was still in Stockport.

Alan's service papers are still held by the New Zealand National Archives and these confirm he was born on 28 November 1890. He was a short man, even for those times, standing at 5 feet 4 inches and weighing 9 stone. He had a fair complexion and hair and grey eyes. Alan gave his religious denomination as Anglican. The examining doctor gave him a clean bill of health, noting only that he had three teeth missing on the lower jaw. Alan joined the Wellington Infantry Regiment of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and was assigned to the 9th (Hawke's Bay) Company. After initial training, the Regiment left New Zealand on 14 October and arrived in Egypt on 4 December. Alan took part in the first day landings at the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915. There were many casualties during the landing and over the following 24 hours and, as recounted below, Alan seems to have taken charge of his section, although only a Private.

A soldier writing home to New Zealand recounted "The officer, Lieutenant Wilson and all the non-commissioned officers of the machine gun section were killed on the first day and one of the men, A H Preston, did some smart work, with the result that he got his commission in a couple of days. He deserved it too and I hope he gets through all right. He is too good a man to lose."

Alan was, indeed, made a 2nd Lieutenant with effect from 5 May and the Battalion's Adjutant later wrote to James Preston "Your son was promoted for gallantry in the field and, in recent occasions, has fully maintained his reputation. Originally he was in my platoon but, at present, he is in command of the machine gun section. He is a son to be proud of."

On 15 August, Alan received a minor wound but remained at duty. The next day, he was shot in the arm and also suffered shrapnel wounds and, after treatment at a field hospital, he was evacuated away from the peninsula to hospital at nearby Mudros. On 23 September, he was admitted to the Royal Free Hospital in London. He was discharged on 17 January 1916, being attached to the base depot until he had fully recovered. Later in the month, he received word that he had been "mentioned in despatches" for his service at Gallipoli. Alan's recovery was slow and, on 25 March, there was no alternative but to strike him off the strength on the army.

By the end of May, Alan was fully recovered and was taken back on strength. He was assigned to No.3 Company of the Machine Gun Corps, with which he would serve throughout the rest of the year.

The Machine Gun Companies fired heavy Vickers machine guns, capable of firing 500 rounds a minute. Each gun was operated by a 7 man team. They were used to support infantry attacks but, also, to break up enemy attacks with devastating effect.

The Battle of the Somme had started on 1 July 1916 and attacks had continued on a regular basis since then. 15 September was scheduled for an attack on the German held village of Flers and Alan and his troops would support the infantry. His two guns were attached to the Rifle Brigade. The Official History records:-

"2nd Lieut. A H Preston succeeded in getting his guns forward with few casualties and quickly placed them in two strong posts forward of the Blue Line. These guns were in position by 11am and immediately covered the advance of 1st Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade. At 11.45 Preston observed long files of enemy infantry moving and turned the fire of his guns against them......in five minutes they had completely disorganised the advancing enemy with heavy casualties. The intensive firing had lowered the ammunition so all spare men were employed collecting from the wounded and dead. At 2pm, 2nd Lieut. Morton joined Preston with one gun just as the enemy launched his counter attack against the 3rd Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade. Preston and Morton at once brought direct enfilade fire to bear with excellent results.....The enemy attack was completely wiped out by the artillery and machine guns......At 3pm, the enemy was observed collecting in the sunken road to the left of the Division flank. Preston's three guns and two Lewis guns he had taken under his command were all trained on the road which presented an easy enfilade target. Fire was withheld until the enemy seemed ready to launch his attack. At this moment, the five guns opened a devastating fire practically wiping out the massed enemy, estimated at 300 strong."

The next day, Alan and his men were in action again, firing at point blank range into an enemy attack two companies strong. "This was an excellent example of the wonderful fire power of two sections of machine guns, for while giving every credit to the excellent infantry rifle fire, it would have been impossible to have so suddenly and effectively crushed this attack without the help of the guns."

For his actions over these two days, Alan was awarded the Military Cross. The citation reads "For conspicuous gallantry in action. He handled his machine guns under heavy fire with great courage and ability. He set a fine example to his men and greatly assisted the final success of the operations."

 He was also promoted to Lieutenant from 5 November. Towards the end of the month, he was assigned to duties in the UK, at an instruction school for machine gunners and, in mid-February 1917 was back at the front, now assigned to 5th Company.

7 June 1917 would later be officially designated the Battle of Messines. The British plan was to attack along a nine mile front to the south of Ypres. The infantry advance would be preceded by the explosion of nineteen very large mines placed in tunnels which had been dug under the German lines. The mines exploded at 3.10am - zero hour - with devastating effect and all 28 machine guns in the Company opened fire to cover the New Zealand infantry assault. By 6.30, all the guns were moved forward to a position recorded as "Oyster Support Trench" to the west of Messines. The Company's War Diary notes that they "found it impossible for guns to remain there as enemy's barrage was right on top of them all along the ridge. Heavy shell burst around and inflicted casualties." Their commander gave orders to move forward through the barrage to take up a more advanced, but safer, position. As they were moving forward, the commander was wounded and handed over command to Alan. By 10am, he had ensured all the guns were in position and ready. The heavy enemy shelling was making it difficult to bring up extra supplies of ammunition and some men made six journeys through the barrage. Later in the morning, the shelling intensified on their position and, at midday, Alan was reported to have been killed.

After the fighting, Alan's body was buried in a field on the south side of a trench called "October Drive" to the north of Messines. After the War, many of these small front line burial areas were closed as the land was returned to civilian use. Alan's body was exhumed and reburied in its final resting place. The Cemetery contains over 1000 war dead and their graves are now cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Alan is now commemorated on the War Memorial at Stockport Art Gallery and the town memorial at Gisborne.

   
           
   
     
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