Alexander Hugh CORNISH
Rank: Rifleman
Number: Z/1906
Unit: 2nd Battalion RIFLE BRIGADE
Date of Death: 9 May 1915
Age: 26
Cemetery: Ploegsteert Memorial, Hainaut, Belgium

Alexander was born in Heaton Norris and the family home at the time of the Great War was 10 Sparthfield Road (and later 10 Ashburn Road). His parents were Thomas & Jane and it is known he had a number of siblings. His sister, Catherine, was younger than him but the others – Christine, Harold, Jane and Margaret - were all older. Harold would also serve in the army during the War on duty in India with the 2nd Gurkha Rifles.

Less than a month after War was declared, Alexander enlisted into the army at Manchester, on 2 September, leaving his job as a Good Guard at Edgeley Station, where he was employed by the London & North Western Railway Ltd. His enlistment papers still survive at the National Archives and these show him to have been 5’ 7” tall and weighing 150 lbs. He had a fresh complexion with Fair hair and blue eyes. Alexander recorded his religious denomination as Church of England.

The 2nd Battalion was one of the Rifle Brigade’s two regular army units. It had suffered badly in the opening weeks of War and had lost many men. Repalcements were desperately needed but it was important that the new men were properly trained. Although Alexander wasn’t a regular soldier and had only joined up for the duration of the War, he was sent overseas to the 2nd Battalion on 11 Decmeber 1914.

On 8 May 1915, thousands of British troops were moving to their assembly positions ready for a pincer attack on German trenches near Neuve Chapelle (itself the scene of heavy fighting a few weeks before). Commanders had not been given specific objectives but told to press on as far as possible. 

At 5.00am on 9 May, a British bombardment started with field guns throwing shrapnel at the enemy barbed wire and howitzers firing 4.7 inch shells at the enemy trenches. Many of these shells were falling short, causing casualties in the British front line. At 5.40, the first line of the attack moved off. It was a fine sunny day, after the recent heavy rain. Minutes later, the second wave also attacked across the 100-200 yards of No Man’s Land. They had barely got 30 yards before machine guns opened up on them, supported by heavy rifle fire. There were many killed or wounded as the machine guns were set to fire at knee height.

The remaining men of the battalion had secured their first objective – 250 yards of enemy trench. However, the attacking units on either side of them had not been successful and, by 8.30am, the Rifle Brigade men were effectively cut off. They held their position throughout the day, but the casualty total continued to grow as the enemy were throwing grenades from positions they still held to the sides. At 7.50pm, there was an enemy counter attack which was driven off with the help of a captured machine gun. The remainder of the evening was quiet, but during the early hours of 10 May, the battalion had to withdraw back to its own line. The battle of Aubers Ridge was acknowledged to have been a failure. The 2nd battalion had suffered 654 casualties, of which Alexander and another local man, Charles Bradbury, were among the 239 killed. Alexander’s body was never found and identified.

(NB: Original research into the attack by John Hartley for the Cheadle & Gatley War Memorials website)

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