Category Archives: CWGC

Will Some Kind Hand in a Foreign Land Place a Flower on my Son’s Grave

Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

I’m back from my latest visit to the Western Front. Yet again I’m left with a sense of awe at the immaculate cemeteries and memorials to the missing. For this, all tribute to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), who organise the maintenance of the final resting places of our war dead and memorials to those with no known grave, ‘in perpetuity’. They, and by extension those working on their behalf around the world, do a wonderful job: one which we often take for granted.

Thiepval Memorial and Anglo-French Cemetery – Photos by Jane Roberts

Established by Royal Charter on 21 May 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission, it updated its name in the 1960s replacing ‘Imperial‘ with ‘Commonwealth‘. With almost 1.7 million Commonwealth war dead commemorated across 23,000 locations in 154 countries on land often granted in perpetual use, its task is to:

  • make fit provision in perpetuity for the graves and memorials; and
  • maintain the records of the dead.

One of its fundamental principles is that the headstones and memorials should be permenant. However, over the years, a number of individual graves and sites have been declared unmaintainable and consequently abandoned. This could be due to their physical setting, or a change in the political situation of the country in which they were located. In these cases the CWGC discharge their responsibility by providing an alternative commemoration elsewhere. 

The cost of supporting the work of the CWGC is shared by member governments, in proportion to the number of their graves. In 2015/16 the member governments contributed £60.9 million (up from £50.9 million the year before). Their respective percentage proportions are:

  • United Kingdom – 78.43%
  • Canada – 10.9%
  • Australia – 6.05%
  • New Zealand – 2.14%
  • South Africa – 2.09%
  • India – 1.2%

Money also comes from agency funds used for the care of military graves from other periods and memorials, and grant income. Taking this into account, the total CWGC income for 2015/16 was £60.9 million, up from £59.9 million in 2014/15. In addition, in 2015/16, the Chancellor awarded a one-off award of £2 million to renovate and tend approximately 6,000 non world war graves predominantly in the UK. 

An interesting, and possibly overlooked, fact are the numbers of World War 1 and 2 Commonwealth dead whose burials are located in the UK – over 300,000 in around 13,000 locations. We mostly associate the Commision’s work with those cemeteries and memorials overseas.

Serre Road No 3, Delville Wood, Norfolk and Mill Road Cemeteries – Photos by Jane Roberts

Our group discussed what exactly ‘in perpetuity’ means, and it raised some interesting points. Hopefully “in perpetuity” means what most people, including me, generally understand by the words – that is forever. However there are some question marks about this in terms of English legal definition, i.e. 100 years. We may also need to consider the definitions applicable to the countries in which our dead are honoured.  The potential implication is it may be a question of political will, both by our government and those governments in whose countries the memorials and cemeteries stand. 

Yes, political instability and conflict across the world has an understandable impact – look to Iraq. However now we are coming up to the end of the centenary commemorations maybe, heaven forbid, there may be a push to save money or reclaim land. There have been suggestions that this was indeed discussed under previous administrations. For example the attached link contains correspondence from the early days of the Thatcher government.

Surely it would be too politically sensitive to cut funding and abandon cemeteries as a consequence? Yes, we are coming to the end of the First World War centenary commemorations, but then there are still surviving veterans from World War 2; and beyond we will be looking towards the anniversary commemorations for that conflict. But will it always be the case? What about the small, isolated battlefield cemeteries? 

One final thought: How many of us visit these cemeteries and memorials, look at the headstones and inscriptions then move on. What evidence is there of our visits? Theoretically the visitors register should record footfall. But how many of us sign the books? And if we do is it just one person from the visiting group? Do the government, in times of  so-called ‘austerity’ see the CWGC as a potential easy target for cuts sometime in the future?  Will they use these registers as a proxy for value for money? For this reason I’m now taking a pen with me and signing the visitor registers – and as a result I’m noticing how few others do.

Ongoing Work of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Belgium – Photo by Jane Roberts

Footnote:  The title of this post is the inscription on the grave of Pte George Thomas Palmer of the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment who died on 28 April 1917 and is buried at Foncquevillers Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais.

Sources:

Every Man Remembered – London’s Hull Brothers

One of my Christmas presents last year was a poppy lapel pin. It is made from British shell fuses fired during the Battle of the Somme. It also includes finely ground earth from places inextricably linked with those months which, for many, define the Great War: Gommecourt, Hebuterne, Serre, Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval, Ovillers, La Boiselle, Fricourt and Mametz. Places which are still etched in the minds over a century later.

Importantly for me the poppy was accompanied by a certificate commemorating the life of a soldier who fell during the second to the 141st (and final) day of the Battle. My wish was to research his life and record it on the “Every Man Remembered” site. It did not work out quite as anticipated. I researched more than one life, in what proved to be a series of deaths which in a matter of months devastated a London family. But this family’s story is similar to stories repeated up and down the country.

The name on the certificate was Pte W Hull, 19930, of the East Yorkshire Regiment who died on 16 July 1916. He is buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt l’Abbe, located 10 kilometres south west of Albert. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website indicate he served with the 1st Battalion, but give no family details.

Certificate for Pte W Hull – Photo by Jane Roberts

The cemetery was the scene of intense activity during the Battle of the Somme, as indicated by the multiple burials marked by many of the headstones. Begun in May 1916, it provided the base for a number of Casualty Clearing Stations. From April 1916 the 36th Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) was located there. In May the 38th CCS joined them, followed in July by the 2/2nd London CCS.

William Henry Hull’s birth was registered in Holborn, in the first quarter of 1895. His parents, William George Hull and Ann King (known as Annie), married on 28 October 1894 at St Peter’s Saffron Hill, Holborn. They went on to have four other children: Albert Edward, registered in 1897, Robert George in 1900, Annie Lydia in 1903 (born 2 February) and Charles Frederick in 1907 (born 22 September). Their address in the 1901 census onwards is 17, Northampton Road, Clerkenwell. The family are still recorded there in the 1939 Register.

This was a subdivided property typical of the area, characterised by densely populated high occupancy houses, interspersed with areas of model dwellings, the latter an attempt to provide decent working class accommodation.

A manufacturing area characterised by a high working class presence, Clerkenwell had a significant number of artisan metal-based crafts emanating from its early watchmaking traditions. Although watchmaking in the area suffered a decline by the end of the 19th century in the face of cheap and foreign competition, other offshoots such as scientific and surgical instrument making and barometer and chronometer manufacture had a presence. The other significant industry was printing. This strengthened its grip in the period the Hull family lived in the area. It was, in the main, centred around the printing of small periodicals, engravings, maps, books and pamphlets rather than national or London-wide daily press. And with his printing industry earnings, as a compositor setting the type ready for printing, William (senior) supported his family. William and Albert’s early jobs, as indicated in the 1911 census, were as errand boys at a photographers and barometer works respectively.

By the time he joined the Colours, William worked as a liftman. He enlisted in Clerkenwell on 18 September 1915. On the 19 September he went to join his regiment. Appropriately, given his surname, he was assigned to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, East Riding Regiment, a training unit based at Beverley. Standing at 5’ 4 ½” and weighing 126lbs (9 stones), he had a scar on his forehead and his right upper lip, he also had “I love Jessie James” inked on his left upper arm. And he did, for he married her at Holborn Registry Office on 20 February 1916. She went on to live at 17 Northampton Road whilst William resumed his training.

It was not until 14 June 1916 that he embarked to serve with either the 7th or 8th Battalion East Riding Regiment – his papers are ambiguous. However on 9 July he was posted to the 1st Battalion and joined them in the field on 10 July 1916. The Unit War Diary of the 1st East Yorkshires records it was a fine day, and notes the arrival of two drafts of men from the West and East Yorkshire Regiments, whilst they were en route to Ville via Corbie.

They arrived at Ville on 11 July, in readiness for their next offensive – an attempt to break through the German second position on the line from Longueval to Bazentin-le-Petit. This was the successful Battle of Bazentin Ridge. Launched in the early hours of 14 July 1916 it lasted until 17 July by which time the German second position was captured on a front of 6,000 yards. For a while it even looked as if High Wood lay open, but delays in getting cavalry forward meant the moment was lost.

The Unit War Diary of the 1st East Yorkshires records their part in events. On 13 July they received orders that they were to be attached to the 110th Brigade and left Ville:

….at 3.30pm marching to Carcaillot Farm in the E. border of Meulte arriving about 5pm where rested (tea was provided) until 9pm when we moved to Fricourt (Rose Cottage) arriving at 10.30pm. Hot tea was served to the Btn and tools and grenades were issued. At 12.25am Btn moved to position in reserve at the S.E. corner of Mametz wood arriving about 2.30am where they dug themselves in. Enemy shelled borders of wood and vicinity large numbers of lachrymatory shells being used. Only one casualty in march was incurred”.

The East Yorkshires remained in reserve until 9.30am of the morning of 14 July, when they received orders to urgently reinforce the 7th Leicesters on the north edge of Bazentin-le-Petit Wood. Two companies, A and B, were despatched. A further two, C and D, were sent to the wood reporting as reinforcements to Lt-Col Challenor of the 6th Leicesters. Both advances were made under heavy shell fire, with the enemy barrage in the south edge of the wood and the intervening space between it and Mametz Wood being particularly heavy. The companies in Bazentin-le-Petit Wood were scattered, but C Company’s advance to the north east was made with little resistance and a German counter attack repelled. The Diary reports at this time:

“……an unfortunate incident occurred, our own artillery shelling us from the rear at the same time as the enemy were barraging the N edge of the wood and many casualties occurred”.

It was on 14 July, his first foray into action and with a new unit, that William Hull sustained gunshot wounds (this covered shrapnel injuries as well as those sustained by bullets) to his shoulder and buttocks. Initially treated by the 64th West Lancashire Field Ambulance he was transferred via motor ambulance convoy to the 38th Casualty Clearing Station on 16 July where he died of his wounds that day. Their Unit War Diary records a phenomenal number of casualties each day. On 1 July they numbered 1,767. By 16 July they recorded the admission of 21 officers and 490 other ranks wounded; the evacuation of 23 wounded officers, 408 wounded and one sick from amongst the other ranks; three officers and 13 other ranks died; 12 wounded officers, 404 wounded other ranks and three sick remained. It also records:

No 2278 Sergeant Gillbee RAMC placed under arrest for drunkenness”.

Gillbee was a pre-war regular, who in 1913 received his dispensing qualification. His Medal Index Card records a Field General Court Martial reduction to the ranks on 1 July 1917 as a result of drunkenness.

The 1st East Yorkshire Unit War Diary records total casualties for their operations between 13-17 July as: no officers killed and six wounded, but one of those only slightly so was able to return to duty; 36 other ranks killed, 186 wounded and 126 missing.

William served for 303 days, but only four of those with the 1st East Yorkshire Regiment before his wounds. He was awarded the Victory and British War Medal. His childless widow, Jessie, still living at 17 Northampton Road in 1919, received a pension of 10 shillings a week, with effect from 26 February 1917.

William’s younger brother Albert Edward was serving in the Ploegsteert Wood area of Belgium, as a Rifleman with “A” Company of the 21st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (Yeoman Rifles) (KRRC) when his brother died.

Albert enlisted before his elder brother, at Kingsway Recruiting Office, Middlesex on 17 April 1915. At the time he worked as a warehouseman. He stood at 5’ 5” tall, with blue eyes, fair hair and a fresh complexion. For some reason he gave his father’s name as William Henry Hull, but CWGC information as well as other family and address details provided in surviving documentation confirms it was William George Hull.

Albert served initially with the 6th KRRC, the training unit based at Sheerness, before transferring to the 21st Battalion, setting off to France aboard the “SS Golden Eagle” on 31 May 1916. He joined his new Battalion in the field on 21 June 1916. At this time they were based in and around the Ploegsteert Wood area of Belgium, not moving down to France until late August 1916.

The 21st KRRC’s first significant action on the Somme occurred on 15 September when they participated in the opening stages of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, at the start of the third phase of the Battle of the Somme. The battle is particularly noteworthy as the new British weapon, tanks, were unleashed in battle for the first time. Despite a number of early successes, including at last the clearing of High Wood, the capture of Flers, Courcelette and Martinpuich, there was no decisive breakthrough and the battle ground to a virtual halt by the 17 September due to a combination of bad weather and German reinforcements, before finally ending on 22 September.

The 21st KRRC Unit War Diary records events on the 15 September.

The Battalion took part in an attack on the enemy lines in front of Delville Wood. The 124th Brigade advanced on a line which passed between the villages of FLERS on the left and Guedecourt on the right. The Battalion was on the left of the first line with the 10th Queens on the right & the 26th & 32nd Royal Fusiliers in support. The 122nd Brigade was on the left & the 14th Division on the right”.

At 6.30am they commenced their attack, quickly taking without difficulty their first objective, the Switch Trench. They also took their second objective, the Flers Trench, capturing a few prisoners who showed little inclination to fight. They did incur casualties though, by getting too close to their own barrage. Lack of support on the flanks also halted their advance, so they focused on consolidating their gains. Lt Col Charles William Reginald Duncombe, the 2nd Earl of Feversham, of the 21st KRRC and Lt Col Richard Oakley of the 10th Queens (Royal West Surrey) Regiment gathered together some men to try to take the third and fourth objectives in front of Guedecourt village. They did manage to take their third objective and withstood a German counter attack, but the Earl of Feversham was killed. They were eventually forced to retreat and consolidated about 400 yards in front of the second objective, where the remnants of the Battalion remained until relieved at about 3am the following morning, 16 September.

The War Diary records the following casualties for the 15 September: 4 officers and 54 other ranks killed; 10 officers and 256 other ranks wounded and 74 other ranks missing. Interestingly the initials of the officer responsible for the diary from September 1916 are “RAE” – 2nd Lt (Robert) Anthony Eden, who was appointed Acting Adjutant on 19 September. He is better known as the Prime Minister between 1955-1957, in charge at the time of the Suez Crisis.

Albert Hull was amongst the wounded. His casualty form indicates 15/17 September, but from the diary it appears all casualties were incurred on the 15 September. He sustained gun shot wounds and fractures to the legs. He was transferred down the line, admitted to 1 General Hospital at Etretat, before evacuation to England on board the “Asturias” and transfer to the 5th Northern General Hospital in Leicester.

5th Northern General Hospital, Leicester from unpublished book by R Wallace Henry held at the University of Leicester, used in accordance with http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/uk/ (edited, cropped)

This is now part of the University of Leicester. From 1837-1908 it operated as the Leicestershire Lunatic Asylum until the construction of a new Asylum in 1907. In 1911 the now empty building was earmarked as a potential military hospital. Once war broke out it became the base for the 5th Northern General Hospital. New buildings were constructed and as the war progressed it expanded to become a local network of hospitals at more than 60 locations. In total there were beds in Leicestershire for 111 officers and 2,487 other ranks, through which passed more than 95,000 casualties. 514 of these died.

One was Albert. His arrival in September coincided with the opening of the first 101 bed ward of a new five ward extension to the hospital. His final notes from Leicester make reference to the gun shot wound to his left leg, as well as a secondary haemorrhage in France and amputation. There is also a telegram dated 26 September 1916 from 5 Northern General Hospital to the 21st KRRC records office at Winchester stating:

….R11808 Rifleman a Hull a Coy. 21 KRR died in this hospital of his wounds this morning and next of kin advised”.

Albert was buried on 30 September 1916 at Islington Cemetery in a public, shared grave.

Within weeks the family were burying another son in the same cemetery. This time their third child, 16-year-old Robert.

The cause of death was acute suppurative otitis media and septicaemia. In other words an ear infection. More common in children than adults, this particular infection has a number of causes, including upper respiratory infection, sinusitis, smoking (including passive), craniofacial abnormalities and allergies. Additionally, in children (usually between 3-7 years old) their developing ear structure can leave them prone to infection there when food is regurgitated. Poor sanitation, over-crowding and malnutrition are all risk factors too. Symptoms include pain, fever and earache. In Robert’s case, in this pre-antibiotic era, complications did ensue, resulting in hospitalisation and death. He succumbed to septicaemia on 18 November 1916 at St Bartholomew’s Hospital (Barts), London. He was buried at Islington Cemetery on 25 November 1916.

Extract from GRO death register entry for Robert George Hull: Image © Crown Copyright and posted in compliance with General Register Office copyright guidance

Whilst coping with the aftermath of the death of three sons in quick succession, the family also faced an ongoing struggle with military authorities to retrieve the personal effects of Albert. The family enlisted the help of a Alice Maunder of 25, Chelsea Gardens, Sloane Square. On 19 January 1917 she wrote to the Rifles Office asking that Albert’s effects be sent to his mother without any more delay. She ended her missive with:

Perhaps you would finally look into the matter and see that the things are sent as soon as possible”.

They were finally sent to the family on 21 March 1917. His were the few typical possessions of an ordinary soldier, providing memories of home, a nod to God’s protection, a little bit of cheer and an indication of his Regiment. They comprised of a linen bag, two gospels (Mark and John), a match box holder, a packet of cigarettes, a cap comforter (a knitted woollen tube pulled cap-like over the head, ideal for keeping warm or whilst on trench raids), shoulder title, cap badge (broken), letters and photographs.

Albert was awarded the British War and Victory Medals. His father did query this in June 1921, asking why his son did not receive a “Star” as he joined the Colours in April 1915. He was informed he was ineligible. Albert did not actually go overseas until May 1916. The 1914/15 Star was awarded to those who who served in a theatre of war before 31 December 1915 and had not qualified for the earlier 1914 Star.

So what became of the rest of the Hull family? William George died at the same hospital as his son Robert in 1925 and was buried at Islington Cemetery 27 August. The 1939 Register shows widowed Annie working as an office cleaner and living with her two unmarried children, Annie (a book binder’s assistant) and Charles (a school porter), still at 17 Northampton Road. Charles eventually married in 1941 and died on 3 January 1973, in Huntingdon. Daughter Annie never married. She died in 1974. I have not found a definitive death for Annie herself, but suspect it was 1960. I have not traced what became of Jessie, William’s widow.

Sources:

Picture Credits:

  • 5th Northern General Hospital, Leicester taken from an unpublished book “Fifth Northern General Hospital” by R Wallace Henry, held by the University of Leicester. Edited (cropped) and used in accordance with the license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/uk/
  • Extract from GRO death register entry for Robert George Hull: Image © Crown Copyright and posted in compliance with General Register Office copyright guidance

“Ley Lines” of the Somme: an amazing Somme 100 experience

Do you believe in fate? Of hidden forces drawing people together? I do after my latest Great War pilgrimage.

I recently went over to Belgium and France and timed the visit to coincide with two of my Hill family death anniversaries. Jesse Hill, who died on 19 September 1915 and is buried at Ypres Reservoir; and Percy Hill who died, according to soldiers’ effects records, at 2/1 South Midland Casualty Clearing Station on 30 September 1916. Percy is buried at Warloy-Baillon Community Cemetery Extension, just to the west of Albert.

Last year when visiting Jesse, on the centenary of his death, I narrowly missed meeting a relative for the first time. Two poppy crosses and the visitors book showed we’d paid our respects at Jesse’s grave within hours of each other. That was coincidence enough, but nothing in comparison to what happened this year.

Two Poppy Crosses by Jane Roberts

Chris (my husband) and I spent a few days in Ypres before driving to Avesnes Le Sec, near Cambrai, to stay with an “old” school friend for the weekend (sorry about the “old” Anne, but it applies to me too). We finished the final leg of our visit on the Somme, initially at the wonderful “No 56” b&b then at the “Royal Picardie” hotel in Albert for the last two nights. The only reason we transferred to Albert was because the b&b only had availability for three nights.

The early evening of 28 September we finished another long day of walking by stopping off at the beautiful Authuile Military Cemetery, in the village of Authuille (note the spelling difference). 

I love this tranquil cemetery with its feeling of peace and calm, and its eye-pleasingly curving layout of headstones sloping down to the river Ancre. An odd thing to say, but it’s probably my favourite cemetery. It is also the final resting place of Pte Willie Barber of the 1/4th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) one of the parishioners at Batley St Mary’s who I spent so much time researching.

Authuile Military Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

As we wandered down to the bottom slopes of the cemetery I noticed another visitor. This was unusual, as it was getting on and the cemetery isn’t one people normally beat a path to the door of. By the time we got to the top she had gone.

I sort of wondered if she was here to see Willie, one of those flights of fancy about impossible coincidences. I’m always a bit over-focussed on the St Mary’s men I researched. But there was nothing in the visitors book to indicate why she’d been there. That was the end of that, or so I thought. A chance to find out lost.

The following day we checked into our Albert hotel. Whilst in town sitting outside a café drinking coffee we saw the lady again. But again never spoke.

And then on 30 September, the anniversary of Percy’s death, we went down to our first breakfast in the hotel and she was there with her mum.  This time we did speak. She was over for the centenary of her great grandfather’s death, that very day. The same day as Percy Hill. 30 September.

We talked a bit more, and amazingly discovered both Percy and her ancestor, Jonathan Pearson, were in the same battalion, 1/4th KOYLI. Both died of wounds and both received their injuries during the same period of duty in the trenches near Ulster Tower in mid-September. She had followed Jonathan’s footsteps for those few final frontline days and was on her way across to Boulogne to his grave on his death anniversary, before returning home to the south of England that evening.

She had photos of Jonathan. I had some of Percy, including group photos with some of his pals. And amazingly on one of these photos was a man who looked remarkably like Jonathan. Same colouring, same features including distinctive nose and cut of hair.

We couldn’t believe it. 100 years to the exact day of their deaths we were in a hotel in Albert staring at a picture of what appears to be both men together. It was is if some unseen force had been pulling us together for the past couple of days, starting at Authuile Military Cemetery where fellow 1/4th KOYLI soldier Willie Barber is buried, finally uniting us on the centenary of their death. An incredible, earth-stopping realisation. And if the b&b had been available for the final two days of my visit I wouldn’t have even been in the Albert hotel. A week later and I still can’t believe it.

We parted promising to pass on Jonathan and Percy’s regards at their respective final resting places, around some 90 miles apart.

And so onto Warloy-Baillon. We stopped at Ulster Tower en route and found the poppy cross Jonathan’s family had laid in the area of the KOYLI trenches of mid September 1916. We saw the Pope’s Nose, the German salient with a decaying relic of a observation post/gun emplacement, which was the focus of their trench raids in that period.

We were at Percy Hill’s grave for 1.15pm, the minute is death is recorded. And there, at around 2pm, we met with David Short and his wife Pauline, the relative I so narrowly missed meeting just over a year ago at Jesse Hill’s grave. And in a final piece of symmetry David is from the north east of England, not Yorkshire, the same area from which Jonathan hailed.

Brothers-in-Arms 

Sometimes we overlook more recent family history, concentrating on the more distant past. Currently events of 100 years ago are dominating the news, with national commemoration events for Battles such as Jutland and The Somme, to more individual and personal remembrances for the centenary of the death of a family member.

But here I will focus on a more recent conflict, World War II. We are moving towards a time when this too will disappear from living memory. Sadly those in my family with direct knowledge of this tale are long gone.

This post concerns the fate of Albert Edward Hill, or Ned as he was known: My grandad’s cousin.

Finding out the circumstances surrounding death in conflict can be challenging: Which battle; location; precise cause of death; time; even date; and perhaps there is no known burial place. World War II in many ways presents a bigger challenge than its predecessor, with the public availability of records.

However in Ned’s case it’s all fairly straightforward. He is buried locally at St Paul’s churchyard, Hanging Heaton. His death is well documented. It was not caused by some battle injury. It was the result of a totally avoidably, foolishly tragic accident following a night out.

Ned was born on 2 February 1901, one of the seven children of Albert Hill and Sarah Ann Summerscales. These included Harry who died shortly after birth in 1890; Percy, Annie, Lilian, Doris and Arthur.

Ned never married. The 1939 Register, the population list compiled at on 29 September, as a result of the outbreak of war, shows him living at Wood Lane, Hanging Heaton. He is in the household of his brother-in-law Harry Robertshaw along with Harry’s two young sons. Harry’s wife, Ned’s sister Annie died that summer, her burial taking place at St Paul’s Hanging Heaton on 6 July 1939.

In the 1939 Register Ned is recorded as working as a willeyer in a woollen mill. This was someone who operated what was termed a willeying machine. Fibres were fed into this machine, which separated and combed them ready for carding. Newspaper reports at the time of his death, however, indicate prior to his army service he worked as a builder’s labourer, employed by Hanging Heaton-based building contactors George Kilburn and sons. 

I do suspect some confusion in the report though, and this occupation possibly applied to his brother Arthur. In the 1939 Register he was a public works contractor’s labourer. 

Whatever the true facts are war changed all this, and some two-and-a-half years before his death Ned joined the Army, as a Gunner.

Albert E Hill Batley News July 28 1945 8 (2)

Gunner Hill

His death came entirely out of the blue. Summer 1945, and war in Europe over, Ned returned home to Batley on leave. He finally managed to meet up with his younger brother Arthur, a driver with the RASC, similarly on leave. This was the first time they had seen each other since Ned’s military service. Arthur had been in the Army for four years at this point, serving in Germany, Belgium, France and Holland.

Things must have seemed hopeful. They had survived so far. All being well they would be home soon permanently. The past tragedy of the family would not repeat itself….

Little could they have envisaged that this meeting would be their last, and in three weeks Ned would be dead.

Leave over and Ned returned back to his Unit, the 397 Battery, 122 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment, stationed at Walberswick, near Southwold in Suffolk. This was part of the network of coastal defences, established in response to the threat of German invasion from May 1940 after their rapid victory in Western Europe. That German threat was now gone.

On 20 July 1945 he and another soldier from the same unit, Gunner Leonard Lomax, had evening leave. They left camp at 6pm that Friday for a night out in Southwold. The ferryman took them over the River Blyth and said he would return for them at 10-30-11.00pm.

An interesting aside is the ferry service from Walberswick had featured in Parliament only weeks earlier on 8 June 1945. There had been a seam steam-driven chain ferry which was discontinued in World War II, and it seems a rowing boat service replaced it. The ferry was privately owned and there had been problems in maintaining a regular service. Suffolk County Council was negotiating to acquire the ferry rights to ensure an adequate service.

Walberswick Ferry circa early 1940s Postcard, F Jenkins, Southwold

Ned and Leonard visited three public houses in Southwold and consumed about six pints of mixed beer. They left town at 10.15pm for the return ferry but there was no sign of the man with the boat. As they were debating whether to return to Southwold to catch the liberty truck to camp, a boat containing two soldiers came from the Walberswick side of the river.

These two soldiers, Lance Bombardier Edward Davis and Bombardier George Rennie were from another Battery. They heard shouts from the Southwold side of the river and thought some men from their Company were stranded as it appeared the ferry service had stopped. Despite having consumed three pints, or maybe because of it, seeing a boat moored in the water they decided to cross to collect their companions, but when they arrived found they were strangers. Nevertheless they offered Ned and Leonard a lift back. 

They clambered in the small boat, which turned out to be a yacht’s dingy and using the home-made paddles which were aboard the boat, Edward and George set about rowing back. About halfway across Leonard became aware of his feet feeling wet, water sloshing over the top of his shoes.

George and Edward were now having difficulty controlling the craft and stood up to paddle. They were about eight yards from the Walberswick side when the boat got into trouble with the tide and started to drift back towards Southwold and then seawards. The boat was filling up with water, either the result of a leak or overloading.  At this point Ned grabbed a paddle from Edward and the boat turned over throwing all four men into the river.

Leonard and George managed to get hold of a step ladder running down the harbour wall and climb ashore. They could not see the other two men, so made their way to Southwold to inform the police.

Meanwhile Edward, realising that Ned could not swim, tried to keep him up despite not being a strong swimmer himself. He managed to get them both to the concrete wall where Ned grabbed some weeds. Unfortunately they broke away. Edward continued to hold onto Ned but eventually became too exhausted and he had to let him go. Edward then managed to get hold of the ladder and escape.

In summing up the Coroner censured the boat’s occupants. The accident, he said, was the result of four “landlubbers” knowing nothing whatever about boating. The two soldiers should never have taken Leonard and Ned aboard because they overloaded the boat. There must have been some movement with the result that the boat capsized.

He went onto say that he hoped the tragedy would be a warning to others not to take boats without leave, and not to go on a swift running river like this one unless they were experienced persons who know how many a boat would take. “It is difficult to blame anyone because it is pure ignorance” he added.

A verdict of “Death through drowning through the upsetting of a boat” was recorded.

The Commanding Officer of the Battery wrote to Ned’s sister Doris extending his and the Battery’s sympathies as follows:

On behalf of the ranks of this battery wish to express to you our horror at this tragedy. Gunner Hill was a grand soldier and a man well-known and loved by the men of this unit”.

Ned’s body was brought back to Batley and he was buried in the church yard at St Paul’s, Hanging Heaton, just weeks before VJ Day and the war effectively ending.

Arthur survived the war. But Ned’s fate echoed that of another brother in another conflict, Percy. He died almost 29 years earlier in The Great War, during the Battle of the Somme.

Memories too of the newspaper “Roll of Honour In Memoriam” notices which the Hill family, including the then teenager Ned, placed in the papers all those decades before, mourning the loss of Percy.

Batley News – 5 October 1918
Hill – In sad but loving memory of our dear son and brother, 1736 Sergt Percy Hill, 1st-4th KOYLI (Batley Territorials) who died from wounds at Warloy Baillon, West of Albert, France, September 30th, 1916, aged 24 years.

When last we met, and fondly parted
Our hopes were high, our faith was strong,
We trusted that the separation
Though hard to bear would not be long 

We often sit and think of him when we are
all alone
This memory is the only thing we can call
our own;
Like ivy on the withered oak, when other
things decay
Our love for him will ever live, and never
fade away 

Ever remembered by his sorrowing mother, father, sisters and brothers, 92, Back Bromley Street, Hanging Heaton 

A family which had now lost a brother in both World Wars.Albert and Percy Hill Headstones

Sources:

Somme Centenary Commemorations – Thiepval, 1 July 2016

I’m still struggling to absorb the many levels of the amazing remembrance ceremony which took place on 1 July 2016. Still lost for words. Still unable to believe I attended the Somme centenary commemorations at Thiepval. It left me with a complex mix of feelings. It was a unique, emotional, exhausting, exhilarating and, strangely given the context, enjoyable experience. But above all it was an absolute privilege to be one of around 10,000 people present, to pay my respects and remember: from the great and the good, to those ordinary British, Irish and French citizens who were allocated tickets in the public ballot.

Somme Poppies

Somme Poppies – by Jane Roberts

I don’t have any family connections to any of the over 72,000 British and South African officers and men named on the Thiepval memorial, with no known grave. However I do have relatives of direct-line ancestors who died in the Battle of the Somme and have identified graves elsewhere. And the names of 11 men from my parish church, St Mary’s of the Angels RC Church, Batley are etched in the Thiepval Memorial stone: 11 men whose lives I researched:

  • Edward Barber: 18th (Service) Battalion, Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment)
  • Thomas W Chappell: 1st/4th Battalion, The King’s Own ( Yorkshire Light Infantry)
  • Thomas Finneran: 1st Battalion, The King’s (Liverpool Regiment)
  • Martin Gallagher: 6th (Service) Battalion, The King’s Own ( Yorkshire Light Infantry)
  • James Garner: 10th (Service) Battalion, The King’s Own ( Yorkshire Light Infantry)
  • Joseph Gavaghan: 17th (Service) Battalion, The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment)
  • Patrick Hopkins: 9th (Service) Battalion, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)
  • Edward Leonard: 1st/8th Battalion, The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment)
  • John Lyons: 1st Battalion, The King’s Own Scottish Borderers
  • Thomas McNamara: 7th (Service) Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry)
  • Michael J O’Hara: 1st/4th Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment)

I applied for tickets in the public ballot last year, as did my husband, Chris. Neither of us were successful initially. However Chris received an e-mail in March informing him of a second chance of tickets if still interested. No question about it. He jumped at the opportunity.  To say we were thrilled was an understatement.

Although we have travelled several times to the area, this time rather than making independent arrangements we booked to go with Leger Holidays on their Somme Centenary Tour. That way we didn’t have the worry of sorting hotels and navigating the daunting exclusion zone which surrounded the area. We also had two full day’s organised tours of key areas of the Somme battlefield with a fabulously knowledgeable guide.

It also meant rather than being individuals we were able to experience the occasion as part of a group. That was, in my opinion, the best way to assimilate and process the emotions of the day: sharing with others who were there.

Somme Programme

Somme Centenary Programme Cover – by Jane Roberts

The commemoration was well organised, right from getting to and from the event, through to provision of food and drinks, even down to a goody bag with a poncho in case of rain. And goodness, was that needed at certain points during proceedings, especially given the umbrella ban. Torrential rain showers doesn’t adequately describe the day’s downpours.

And despite the heavy rain showers over a prolonged period in the lead up to the event the site looked perfect. The head gardener told us that planting preparations had commenced three years earlier.

All involved in organising such a complex and sensitive event in front and behind the scenes over many months deserve massive recognition and thanks: from planning, security, ticketing, staging, catering to those performing, showing guests to seats and tidying up afterwards. An incredible achievement.

The readings and music perfectly encapsulated the themes of honouring and remembering all those involved in the Battle of the Somme from the 1 July start date to 18 November end, reflecting a wide range of nations and roles.

It is difficult to pick any one highlight. If pushed for me it was the hauntingly beautiful Gaelic love song, “An Eala Bhàn”, (The White Swan). It was written during the Battle of the Somme by poet Donald MacDonald, serving with the 1st Battalion Cameron Highlanders, to his sweetheart Maggie Macleod. Listening to those bleak words sung in the crystal clear tones of Julie Fowlis against the backdrop of the Thiepval Memorial sent shivers down the spine.

I came away from the commemoration with an immense sense of admiration and thankfulness for all those who served 100 years ago. But I was also left with a profound feeling of sadness at the immense loss of lives, youth, innocence; with individuals, families and communities changed forever.

As I mentioned, because we travelled with Leger Holidays we visited a number of other key Somme sites and points of interest during our stay. These included Lochnagar Crater, the result of the detonation of the Lochnagar Mine at 7.28am on 1 July 1916, two minutes before Zero Hour and the launch of the Somme offensive; Delville Wood and the South African Memorial; Devonshire Trench and the scene of the 9th Devons advance straight into ferocious, concentrated enfilading German machine gun fire on 1 July, leaving 160 dead; Sheffield Memorial Park, commemorating the Pals Battalions of the British Army’s 31st Division; Newfoundland Park Memorial at Beaumont Hamel, with its largely untouched ground revealing the scars of shell craters and trenches, as well as its cemeteries, preserved trenches and memorials. This includes the Caribou, one of five on the Western Front, commemorating the Newfoundland Regiment; the town of Albert with its iconic Golden Virgin statue; and Pozières with its Australian connections.

I experienced a couple of take-your-breath away moments. The first occurred at Sunken Lane, the scene of the famous Geoffrey Malins’ film of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers shortly before they went over the top on 1 July 1916. As we arrived a group of soldiers in Great War uniforms walked towards us, an eerie reminder of events 100 years ago.

Sunken Lane.JPG

Sunken Lane – by Jane Roberts

The second was at Ulster Tower. In the midst of another torrential downpour I heard pipe music and saw the top of flags coming towards me from the direction of Connaught Cemetery. The sun came out as the men marched in for a wreath-laying ceremony. As the pipes played “When Johnny comes marching home again” I admit I had a lump in my throat.

I’ll end with some stats. 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, left over 19,000 British dead. That was but one day in the 141 days of the Somme Offensive, which finally ended on 18 November 1916. By its end, out of the over 3.5million men who took part across all sides, there were well over one million casualties, dead, missing and wounded. It can however be easy to overlook the fact that the war dragged on for a further 723 days. And it lasted 1,568 days in total, from the first shots on 28 July 1914 to the 11 November 1918 Armistice.

img_3359

Pozieres British Cemetery and Memorial with Thiepval in the background – by Jane Roberts

 Sources:

  • All photos by Jane Roberts, except the poncho photo which is by Chris Roberts

Remembered by Families in Batley Cemetery; Remembered by the CWGC Elsewhere

This is the first of my posts in the run up to Remembrance Sunday.

The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is familiar to many. They care for cemeteries and memorials in 23,000 locations across 154 countries, ensuring the 1.7 million people from Commonwealth forces who lost their lives as a result of the two world wars are never forgotten.

Batley cemetery contains CWGC 66 burials. Predominantly these plots have standard CWGC headstones, but there are also some Private Memorials where families chose to erect their own headstone on a war grave. All are listed on the CWGC website.[1]

Unsurprisingly some families who had loved ones commemorated elsewhere by the CWGC, chose also to include their names on family headstones in home cemeteries. This is not exclusively confined to those military personnel with no known graves.  These are not classed as war graves. The service person is not buried there. So they are entirely distinct from CWGC recognised Private Memorials.

These inscriptions would provide a focal point close to home for families of service personnel with no known grave, or buried far from home. They are a visible sign of love, acknowledgement and family remembrance.

These headstones can prove invaluable for researchers in terms of family and service details. But, as they are not war graves, they are not recorded by the CWGC. So it is a case of seeking them out.

Here are four I spotted in Batley cemetery.

Able Seaman Farrar Hill, killed on 31 January 1918[2] when his submarine, HMS E/50,  was lost in the North Sea. It is believed to have struck a mine near the South Dogger Light Vessel.  He is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial. But he is remembered on the Hill family headstone.

Farrar Hill - family headstone

Farrar Hill – family headstone

Pte Robert Hirst, 6th Bn King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He was killed in action on 24 September 1915 and has no known grave. His name appears on The Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial. His family have included his name on a relatively new headstone in Batley cemetery.

Robert Hirst's relatively new headstone

Robert Hirst’s relatively new headstone

Rifleman Edward Leonard, 1st/8th Bn West Yorkshire Regiment, killed in action on 2 July 1916 and commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. His sister Annie, a munitions worker at the Barnbow factory at Garforth, Leeds, died on 21 July 1916 from picric acid poisoning – the same day as the Leonard family received news Edward was missing. His and Annie’s name appear on the headstone.

Headstone - Edward Leonard

The Leonard family headstone

Pte Albert Smith of the 2nd/5th Bn Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment died of wounds on 27 May 1918. He is buried in Bagneux British Cemetery, Gezaincourt, France but he is also included on his family headstone.

The Smith family headstone - including Albert Smith

The Smith family headstone – including Albert Smith

So, even for those service men and women commemorated on CWGC memorials and in cemeteries elsewhere, do not discount information provided on family headstones closer to home.

The Royal British Legion launched its 2015 Poppy Appeal on 22 October. This is their link: http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/

Sources:

 

[1] http://www.cwgc.org/
[2] Some sources indicate the submarine was lost “on or around 1 February 1918”, but 31 January is the CWGC date

Pro Patria, Pro Rege, Pro Familia: WW1 Centenary Visit

Last weekend I returned to Ypres. A visit I felt compelled to make. 19 September marked the centenary of the death of my great grand uncle, Jesse Hill.[1] So it seemed appropriate to visit his grave in Ypres Reservoir Cemetery.

Ypres Reservoir Cemetery

Ypres Reservoir Cemetery

It was a weekend full of coincidences. And an unforgettable one. The events of 100 years ago still resonate emotionally with many today.

I visited Jesse’s grave on Friday evening, the eve of the anniversary. The headstone is beneath trees and as a result every time I’ve visited it’s rather mud-splattered. Friday was no different. However when I returned first thing on Saturday morning, the anniversary of his death, the headstone had been cleaned!

There was only one other person in the cemetery at 9.30 that morning – and it was someone I know from home! He was visiting the graves of Dewsbury men from 6th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), comrades of Jesse, who died at around the same time. So a huge coincidence that we’d both travelled 350 miles and turned up in that cemetery at the exact same time.

Ypres Reservoir Cemetery

Ypres Reservoir Cemetery

Before I left I placed a poppy cross, brought all the way from Batley, on Jesse’s grave.

From Unit War Diary maps, I’d located the area occupied by the 6th KOYLI the morning Jesse died. So on Saturday afternoon I walked around Railway Wood and what was the vicinity of the ‘H’ Sector trenches. Walking the ground brought home the frighteningly close proximity of the British Front Line to the German trenches in a way maps cannot. And it made the concept of “friendly fire” incidents far more understandable.

RE Grave, Railway Wood

RE Grave, Railway Wood

On that walk my husband found two pieces of shrapnel. It’s not unusual, but then again in all my many visits it’s only happened to us on two previous occasions – so it did feel incredible that this find occurred on the 100th anniversary and in that very location.

On Sunday morning I returned to Ypres Reservoir Cemetery. Unbelievably a second poppy cross lay on Jesse’s grave. A look I the visitor register confirmed that another Hill descendent also had the urge to pay an anniversary visit Jesse’s grave.

Jesse Hill's headstone

Jesse Hill’s headstone

Later that morning I attended a Rededication Service at Birr Cross Roads cemetery. Thanks to the patience, perseverance and unstinting efforts of Australian volunteer researchers, three soldiers’ headstones previously carrying the “unknown” epitaph now have identities; and the families of these three Australian soldiers, Pte Huntsman, Pte Eacott and Pte Neilson, now have named graves to visit. It speaks volumes of the emotional pull of the events so long ago that families of all three soldiers travelled halfway across the world to be at the service. It was a privilege to be there too.

Birr Cross Roads Rededication Service

Birr Cross Roads Rededication Service

Other visits that day included Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial. The sheer size of the cemetery even after many visits is difficult to take in with 11,956 First World War servicemen buried or commemorated here, of which in excess of 8,000 are unidentified. The list of almost 35,000 names on the memorial is equally staggering.

Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial

Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial

I returned home on Monday. On the way back to Calais I stopped off at the first CWGC site I ever visited: the majestic, lion-flanked Ploegsteert Memorial. Although I’m a Rugby League fan, as it’s the Rugby Union World Cup it seemed appropriate to pop across the road to call by the grave of England Rugby Union captain Ronald Poulton Palmer at Hyde Park Corner (Royal Berks) Cemetery.

Ploegsteert Memorial

Ploegsteert Memorial


Ronald Poulton Palmer's Grave

Ronald Poulton Palmer’s Grave

Final stop was Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. I wanted to visit the graves of three men whose lives I researched and who have connections to my home Parish of Batley St Mary’s: John Collins, Henry Groa(r)k and Patrick Lyons. The cemetery has an excellent visitor centre with information about the soldiers buried there. I’ve supplied information about the St Mary’s men, and there is a webpage if others wish to do the same.[2] There is also a wall containing some of their images. The first one I noticed was remarkably familiar – the photo of Patrick Lyons. It seemed a fitting end to my latest visit to Belgium.

Lijssenthoek Visitor Centre

Lijssenthoek Visitor Centre

[1] See blog post https://t.co/JcKGrZVh7t

[2] http://www.lijssenthoek.be/en/page/160/visitor-centre.html