Category Archives: War Memorial

A Family Historian on Holiday: A Whitby Cemetery and WW1 Shipwreck

What does a family historian with an obsession with the Great War and local history do on holiday? Take a break isn’t the answer, as my recent Whitby visit illustrates.

I’ve no Whitby ancestry to hunt, so I didn’t intend doing anything history-related other than a few evenings working on my neglected One-Name Study. But a walk to Saltwick Bay put a halt to that. A scramble down the steep and unforgiving cliff path to the isolated beach and I was hooked. Apparently there is the wreck of a trawler, the Admiral Von Tromp. However the tide was too high for it to be visible, so I decided to revisit at low tide.

Before returning I decided to pinpoint the wreck location. In doing so I discovered it wasn’t the only shipwreck on that stretch of coastline: at around 4.10am on 30 October 1914 the Hospital Ship Rohilla ran aground on an area of rocks by Saltwick Nab with 229 people on board. That was it. I had to find out more.

The Scar and Saltwick Nab – photo by Jane Roberts

The SS Rohilla, launched in 1906, was owned by the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. Initially a passenger liner operating to India, by 1908 she was working as a troopship. Throughout, she was captained by David Landles Neilson, and he continued in post when, in August 1914, she was requisitioned by the government and converted to a hospital ship. Later that month she was on her way to the Scapa Flow to complete training in her new role. One of HMHS Rohilla’s first patients was Prince Albert, who developed appendicitis whilst on board the HMS Collingwood. At the end of the month the future King George VI was safely transported, along with around 43 other ill servicemen, to Aberdeen where he successfully underwent an appendectomy the following month.

Training complete, on Thursday 29 October 1914 the Rohilla left Leith on the Firth of Forth in late afternoon good weather tasked with her first France and Flanders hospital run, to pick up wounded soldiers from Dunkirk. Captain Neilson had to contend with an unfamiliar route and the threat of mines, using dead reckoning techniques because of the wartime restrictions around usual navigational aids: so no lighthouses, buoy lights and sounds, shore lights etc. As they reached St Abb’s Head, north of Berwick upon Tweed, the weather began to deteriorate. They passed the hazardous Farne Islands Longstones at a distance of seven miles according to the dead reckoning calculations. The ship’s course was altered at just after 10pm to clear minefields, and again at 1.50am. Depth soundings were taken at midnight showing the Rohilla was still on course. The next set were not taken until 4am, by which time the impending catastrophe was unfolding before the eyes of Albert James Jeffries in the Whitby Coastguard Station.

Coastline from Whitby to Saltwick Nab OS six inch to the mile, 1910-1911, Published 1919 – Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

It was filthy weather with squally rain, the wind ranging between near gale to strong gale and a heavy sea when, at around 3-40am on Friday 30 October Jeffries saw the Rohilla. He realised she was heading for the rocks near Saltwick Nab, with no alert from the buoy bell muffled due to war, and no lights to warn her. He tried to contact her via the Morse Lamp and sounded the foghorn, but received no reply.

Back on board the Rohilla, the Morse had been seen but not decoded, the assumption being made that it was from another ship as those on board still thought they were way out at sea. The 4am sounding revealed the ship was far nearer shore than thought, but before anything could be fully reported to Captain Neilson and acted upon, there was an almighty shock as the ship struck something. Officers afterwards reported a lifting sensation, and Captain Neilson’s automatic response was “Mine, by God”. He immediately ordered the vessel to be driven full speed towards shore in a bid to get closer to land and rescuers. She ran aground on the Scar rocks by Saltwick Nab at around 4.10am. She was stuck only 500 or so yards away from the shore.Despite the Rohilla’s proximity to land, the severe weather conspired against the would-be rescuers, whose heroic attempts to save those stranded on board spanned three days and over 50 hours. Some of these efforts were captured on film. The dramatic British Pathé footage can be viewed here. The aftermath is shown in British Film Institute footage here.

Only one of the Rohilla’s lifeboats was launchable but, due to conditions, it proved impossible for her to bring a line ashore. Neither could the shore-based rocket brigades establish a viable line to the ship, thus ending any hope of setting up a breeches buoy by which to bring those aboard to safety one-by-one.

Rescue by Breeches Buoy, Popular Science Monthly Volume 15, 1879 – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

So what about shore-based lifeboats? This was still an era predominated by the rowing-boat lifeboat. Petrol-powered motor vessels only just started to make an appearance from 1905. Six lifeboats tried valiantly to battle the elements in what Coxswain Langlands of the Whitby Lifeboat described as the hardest job he’d experienced in almost 40 years’ service. It was impossible to launch the heavier Number 1 Whitby Lifeboat, the Robert and Mary Ellis, due to the severity of the weather. That left the lighter Number 2 boat, the John Fielden. Again the weather meant it could not be rowed out of the harbour, so an alternative plan was successfully undertaken to lift and lower the craft over the breakwater, carry her under the East Pier Spa ladder and then drag her across the Scar, the rocks which run from Whitby to Saltwick Nab.

John Fielden rescue attempt on 30 October 1914

She was badly damaged in the process, but still managed two trips to the Rohilla rescuing 35 people before it was decided conditions were no longer safe and she was abandoned on shore to be smashed to pieces by the ferocious storm, no longer seaworthy.

Whitby Lifeboat Museum Rohilla Exhibition – by Jane Roberts

Amongst the first batch of those rescued were the five women aboard the ship: four nurses and the stewardess. The Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Services (QARRNS) nurses were 38-year-old Margaret Muriel Benington who had been a QARNNS nursing sister since June 1910; Mary Barbara Bennet, from Glass in Aberdeenshire, age 36, who joined as nursing sister in November 1910; Margaret Brand Paterson, age 34 whose seniority date as a nursing sister was 1 August 1911. She was known as Daisy and from Terrona, Langholm in Dumfriesshire; and Devon-born vicar’s daughter Mary Louisa Hocking, age 26, who joined as a probationary nursing sister in December 1913, who was only promoted to nursing sister in June 1914. The older three joined the Rohilla on 18 August 1914, whereas Mary Louisa only joined the ship on 23 October. Letters from two of the nurses appeared in the Whitby Gazette on 13 November 1914, and give a flavour of the help they received. These are as follows:

Muriel Benington: Dear Sir, Please allow me to thank through you, all the people of Whitby who did so much for me and the other survivors of the wreck of the Rohilla. I simply cannot express my gratitude for the kindness which was shown to us from beginning to end by everyone with whom we came in contact. I shall write to thank specially some of the ladies who supplied us with clothes and other things, but I do not know the names of the men who helped me along the shore, or of many who did things for me. Again thanking you for the help and sympathy of your townspeople.

And:

Mary B Bennet: Dear Sir, I shall be so glad if you will express my thanks and gratitude to the crew of the Whitby lifeboat. We sisters realise that they endangered their own lives to save ours, and we cannot be thankful enough to them for the excellent work they did. May I also thank you for the trouble you took over us? It was marvellous the prompt way in which we were fitted out with clothes. I shall never forget he kindness of the Whitby people during our short time there.

After their ordeal the nurses were granted 14 days leave, with Mary Hocking given an extension of seven days. The admirable conduct of all four was acknowledged. Sister Bennet received the Royal Red Cross, the decoration awarded to ladies for exceptional services in nursing the sick and wounded in the army and navy. She received her award from the King at Buckingham Palace in May 1915. That was not the only award she received in her nursing career. In 1920 she was presented with the O.B.E. by the Governor of Hong Kong.

Sister Mary Barbara Bennet

Of the others, Sister Paterson was granted the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class in 1918 (by this stage the decoration could be either 1st or 2nd class) in part for her Rohilla efforts; and Sister Hocking was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class in 1919.

The fifth woman was stewardess Mary Kezia Roberts. This was not her first shipwreck. In April 1912 she was one of those saved from the Titanic. She described her Rohilla experience as even more trying than when the great liner went down. Her trunk, which would have contained her belongings on the Rohilla, was discovered recently on eBay and is now on display at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) museum at Whitby. The museum is housed in Whitby’s former Number 2 lifeboat station.

Mary Kezia Roberts’ Trunk at Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

In addition to the Whitby lifeboats, ones from other North East coast stations were asked to assist. In an echo of the John Fielden efforts, the Upgang lifeboat, the William Riley, over a mile away from Whitby, was brought overland and lowered more than 200 feet down the sheer cliffs on Friday afternoon. However, the ferocity of the weather prevented any launch until Saturday. Even then the weather was such that the rescue was aborted. The Scarborough lifeboat, towed by trawler to the vicinity, was similarly unable to get anywhere near. A trawler also assisted the Robert and Mary Ellis out of Whitby Harbour and to the wreck, but she too was unable to get close enough to affect a rescue. These were all rowing lifeboats.

Help from a couple of motor lifeboats further north was also sought. The Tees-mouth lifeboat, the Bradford, was prepared to set off on Friday, but the weather prevented her launch. She finally set off at around 7am on Saturday morning but broke down in the severe weather off the coast at Redcar shortly after departing her South Gare base. She had to be towed back to port by a fortuitously accompanying tug. That left the Tynemouth motor lifeboat, the Henry Vernon. She put to sea during the late afternoon of Saturday 31 October, arriving in Whitby around nine hours later. With a mind to safety, her rescue attempt was scheduled for daylight.

Throughout these various rescue attempts townsfolk were helping from shore, going into the freezing, swirling sea to assist the lifeboat crews and any survivors fortunate to be saved by them, or those souls attempting to swim from the stricken vessel. That Friday morning they had witnessed the horrific site of the stern breaking away from the Rohilla and disappearing under the waves, men still visible on it – some even strapped to the structure. This was followed by the bows being similarly swallowed by the merciless sea, leaving just the bridge section above water. By now bodies were washing ashore.

Hospital Ship Rohilla grounded at Whitby, Popular Mechanics Magazine January 1915 – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

As time wore on conditions were becoming desperate for those left on what remained of the Rohilla, exposed to the elements with no food or water, and no immediate prospect of rescue. On Saturday morning, as the tide ebbed, Captain Neilson semaphored to prepare for swimmers. Men jumped – some made it, others were swept away and dashed on rocks. Makeshift rafts were also fashioned and men lashed themselves to them. By the evening of 1 November, 50 men remained on-board awaiting their fate. With the impending arrival of the Henry Vernon the signal went to them to hold fast, help was at hand.

At around 6.30am on Sunday 1 November the Henry Vernon, captained by 50-year-old Royal Engineer Herbert Edgar ‘Bert’ Burton, left Whitby harbour. As she approached the wreck she discharged oil on the swirling waves. It had the desired effect, temporarily calming the waters enabling the rescue of all 50 men in one journey. The last man off the Rohilla was its Captain, carrying the ship’s black cat, an action for which he was later awarded the Bronze Medal by the RSPCA. They returned to the haven of Whitby, wet, battered, bleeding, exhausted, bare-footed, ill-clad, some still in pyjamas given the timing of the wreck, but safe at last. In all they had endured over 50 hours of hell. The crew of the Henry Vernon returned home to a heroes’ welcome.

The inquest on the initial bodies of the victims concluded on 5 November 1914. As published in the Whitby Gazette the following day, the unanimous verdict of the jury was that:

“…..the steamship Rohilla undoubtedly struck something a little time before she grounded on the rock at Saltwick, and they think that in the stormy weather which prevailed, and in the absence of lights and all usual safeguards, and in view of the special risks of navigation in the North Sea since the war, the master navigated the ship with all reasonable care, and is entirely free from blame for her loss.”

Given the comparative ease with which the Henry Vernon completed the rescue, the inquest jury also recommended strongly that a motor-lifeboat be provided for Whitby. The Margaret Harker Smith was launched in June 1919.

The logical next step for me was to visit Whitby (Larpool) cemetery. What holiday for a family historian doesn’t include a sneaky cemetery visit? The ‘Rohilla Plot’ is a trench grave in which 33 victims, 19 of whom are unidentified, are buried.

One side of the ‘Rohilla Plot’ at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

At the centre of the trench is the Memorial. Erected by the ship owners, it is dedicated to the 91 officers and men who lost their lives in the tragedy.

Rohilla Monument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

RohillaMonument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

RohillaMonument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

Rohila Monument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

There is actually some confusion around the total number lost on the wreck. It seems to range between 83 to 92. The Rohilla Monument lists 91 but the actual number of names on it total 92. The final name etched in the Monument image above is that of F. Randell. Frederick Randell (or Randall) was a coastguard boatman based at H.M. Coastguard Station, Whitby who was killed whilst on duty during the German Naval bombardment of the town on 16 December 1914. He too is buried in the ‘Rohilla Plot’. I have covered the naval bombardment in a couple of other blog posts. Shrapnel and Shelletta looks at war-associated baby names, including George Shrapnel Griffin born during the bombardment of Whitby. The events of 16 December 1914 are covered in more detail in another post as they prompted my great grandfather to lie about his age and enlist on my grandma’s 8th birthday.

’92 LIVES LOST’ is also etched into the ship’s bell from the Rohilla which is on display at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum.

Rohilla Ship’s Bell at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

The loss impacted on communities from all corners of Britain. The then West Riding of Yorkshire (now Lancashire) town of Barnoldswick was particularly hard hit. 15 members of the Barnoldswick St John’s Ambulance Brigade were members of the Royal Naval Sick Berth Reserve on board the vessel. Only three survived. Amongst the dead were brothers Thomas and Walter Horsfield.

One name which struck me on the Rohilla monument was that of a Catholic priest. The Very Rev. Canon Robert Basil Gwydir O.S.B. was born on 20 January 1867 in County Longford, but of a family with Welsh origins. Educated at Douai and ordained in 1891 he began his ministry at St Augustine’s, Liverpool before transferring to St David’s, Swansea. There he was prominent in religious, social and educational circles in the city. His work included being a member of the old Swansea School Board and the Board of Managers at Swansea General Hospital. He had also been admitted to the circle of Welsh Bards.

Canon Gwydir volunteered for service with the Fleet at the outbreak of war and was appointed to the Rohilla only a short time before the disaster. When she struck the rocks he ran below deck, towards danger but also to the assistance of the only patient aboard the vessel, a naval gunner with a fractured thigh. This was in the stern portion of the ship which was soon overwhelmed by the sea and subsequently broke off. Canon Gwydir’s body was washed ashore and recovered, being one of those identified in the initial inquest. He is buried at Belmont Abbey Churchyard, Herefordshire. There is a stained glass memorial window dedicated to him at St David’s Priory Catholic Church, Swansea. He was the first Chaplain of any faith or denomination in all the Allied services to be killed in the Great War.

My final visit on the Rohilla trail was the RNLI museum at Whitby. I was thrilled to discover an exhibition devoted to shipwreck and rescue. As mentioned earlier, exhibits included Mary Kezia Roberts’ trunk and the ship’s bell. But there were so many other artefacts and lots of information about those involved, including the incredibly brave lifeboat men whose efforts I have not done justice to in this post. The pair of oars (below) are from one of the Rohilla’s lifeboats. The museum is well wort a visit, and rounded off my Whitby holiday perfectly.

Part of the Rohilla Exhibition at Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

For far more information about the Rohilla than I can convey here, this is a link to an excellent website devoted to its history.

Sources:

  • Benedictine Military Chaplains in the First World War – James H. Hagerty: http://www.monlib.org.uk/papers/ebch/1998hagerty.pdf
  • British Film Institute: http://www.bfi.org.uk/
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission: https://www.cwgc.org/
  • Craven’s Part in the Great War, John T Clayton, 1918 – e-book via Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52157
  • HMHS Rohilla Website: http://www.eskside.co.uk/ss_rohilla/index.htm
  • Ireland Civil Birth Indexes via FindMyPast
  • Ireland’s Own, Canon Gwydir – A Heroic Cleric of WW1, Margaret Smith https://www.irelandsown.ie/canon-gwydir-a-heroic-cleric-of-wwi/
  • National Library of Scotland Maps: https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • Newspapers via FindMyPast including: Burnley News 4 November 1914; Daily Record 31 August 1915; Dundee Evening Telegraph7 May 1915; Leeds Mercury 31 October 1914, 2 November 1913; Sheffield Daily Telegraph26 June 1919; Western Mail 7 May 1915; Whitby Gazette 6 and 13 November 1914; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 31 October 1914, 2 November 1914, 4 November 1914, 5 November 1914
  • RNLI, 1914-1918 The Great Warhttp://www.eskside.co.uk/ss_rohilla/rohilla_history.htm 
  • RNLI, Whitby Lifeboat Station, Station History: https://rnli.org/find-my-nearest/lifeboat-stations/whitby-lifeboat-station/station-history-whitby
  • Teesmouth Lifeboat Supporters Association – History: http://www.teesmouthlifeboat.org.uk/html/history.html
  • The National Archives Reference ADM 104/161 Nursing Service Register 1894-1929
  • The Tablet 7 November 1914 via the Tablet Archive: http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/
  • The War on Hospital Ships 1914-1918, Pen and Sword Maritime 2008: Stephen McGreal
  • Whitby Lifeboat Museum https://rnli.org/find-my-nearest/museums/whitby-lifeboat-museum
  • Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
  • Redcar.org past and present – People, Thompson James, Tees-Mouth Lifeboat http://www.redcar.org/thompson-james-tees-mouth-lifeboat/
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The Tale behind a Tin: A Soldier’s Story

I was undecided when to write this post: Christmas-time or October 2017. It is about a Christmas present I received from mum and dad a few years ago – a Princess Mary Gift Fund box. So, on the face of it December would be the obvious choice. Instead I’ve decided to do it now as a tribute to a local soldier, for reasons which will become apparent.

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Princess Mary Gift Fund Box

The embossed brass Princess Mary tins were given as Christmas presents for those serving at Christmas 1914. The gift was the idea of Princess Mary, daughter of King George V. A public fund was established to raise money for the boxes and their contents, which were tailored according to smokers, non-smokers and the religious sensibilities of minority groups such as Sikhs. Subscriptions raised over £162,590, far surpassing the amount required. Originally intended for those soldiers and sailors serving overseas, the eligibility was extended to include those serving at home, prisoners of war and the next of kin of those who died in 1914 – over 2,620,000

The smokers box contained pipe tobacco, cigarettes, a pipe, a lighter as well as a Christmas card and photograph of Princess Mary. The non-smokers version had acid tablets and a writing case with contents, instead of the tobacco-related gifts. However, supplies of these original gifts proved insufficient to fill the boxes, so alternative gifts were provided, including bullet pencils, tobacco pouches, cigarette cases, shaving brushes and combs. Whatever the contents, many tins were kept or sent home even when emptied, as they were useful cases. Many survive to this day.

My tin is minus its contents. But what I find particularly special about mine is it is purported to have belonged to a named soldier – George Henry Sorby of the 9th Battalion the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI). Accompanying the box is a picture postcard of him. I vowed to research his life. This post is a result of that research. In the course of doing this work I discovered George lived fairly local to me, in a place I used to visit regularly with my husband. 

George Sorby was born on 28 August 1894 at Warmfield, near Wakefield and baptised less than a month later at Sharlston St Luke’s. His parents were James and Ann Elizabeth Sorby (née Tweedle). They married in the other church in the parish, St Peter the Apostle at Kirkthorpe, on 25 December 1889. George was the third of the Sorby’s four children, and their only son. Eldest daughter Sarah Ann was born on 21 June 1890 whilst the family lived at New Sharlston. By the time Mary Emma was born on 18 July 1892 they were back in Warmfield. Mary died in December 1893. Their youngest daughter Martha Jane was born on 21 December 1896. She too died in infancy, in September 1900.

This was an area rich in coal, and James worked as a miner in the pits around Sharlston and Warmfield. The 1911 census shows George following his father in the industry, being employed as a pit pony driver below ground. This involved transporting the tubs filled with coal mined by the hewer to the pit bottom ready to be taken to the surface, then returning with the empty tubs. In this period, it was often the first coal mining job a boy undertook after leaving school, before eventually progressing to become a hewer. The family were now residing at Frobisher Row in Warmfield, and this remained the family address for the duration of the war.

George’s service records have not survived, so I’ve pieced this together from other sources. 

Shortly after Britain joined the conflict, George enlisted in Normanton, becoming a private with the 9th Battalion of the KOYLI, service number 15766. The KOYLI had its traditional base in the heart of the West Riding of Yorkshire and a massive recruitment drive in the locality took place in the early weeks of the war. The 9th Battalion was formed as part of the K3 phase of Kitchener’s New Army – the third batch of 100,000 recruits who answered the call to arms. They came under the command of the 64th Brigade in the 21st Division.

Initially based in Pontefract, they moved for training to Berkhamsted, then went to Halton Park near Tring in October 1914, from there on to Maidenhead, back to Halton Park in April 1915 and finally Witley Camp in Surrey in August 1915. 

Their Commanding Officer as of June 1915 was the deeply unpopular Lt-Col. Colmer William Lynch, a former regular officer, on the reserve officers list at the outbreak of war. It is said that before the Battle of the Somme, the officers in the battalion had a mess toast where tradition was to include a toast to Commanding Officer’s good health. Captain Gordon Haswell stepped up, but he omitted Lynch’s name, instead saying:

“Gentleman, I give you the toast of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and in particular the 9th Battalion of the Regiment……Gentleman, when the barrage lifts.”

Both Lynch and Haswell were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and are buried in Norfolk Cemetery, Becordel-Becourt. But this was all in the future.

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Norfolk Cemetery – Headstones of Lt-Col Colmer William D Lynch and Capt Gordon Haswell – by Jane Roberts

On 10 September 1915 the battalion’s first line transport and machine gun sections left camp for Southampton and sailed to Le Havre. The following day, the main body of the battalion left Witley Camp to catch the train from Milford station to Folkestone. They sailed on the SS St Seiriol at 11.15pm that night, bound for Boulogne. They arrived at 1am the following morning and, after a brief rest, made their way via Pont de Briques to billets at Zutkerque where they remained until 20 September. Over the subsequent few days they marched in quick succession, interspersed by one-night stops, from Arques to Fontes, onto Amettes and Four-A(ux)-Chaux, finally arriving at a bivouac between Philosophe and Vermelles on 25 September.

It was a hike of around 47 miles, the urgency designed to get them into position for their first action of the war. For the 9th KOYLI, including George Sorby in ‘A’ Company, were destined to participate in a major autumn attack, a baptism of fire for the men of the New Army: The Battle of Loos. This battle took place in the industrial, coal-mining area north of Lens in the north-east of France. It was the first large-scale British offensive of the war, and marked the first use of poison gas by the British Army. The attack commenced on the 25 September.

The initial phase did not involve the 9th KOYLI, who were part of the 21st reserve Division. They were deployed on day two.

Getting to their assembly positions for the day two attack on Hill 70 to the north of Lens was a lengthy, arduous process in the dark, over unfamiliar and difficult ground. They left their bivouac at around 7.15pm on the 25 September and did not reach the original British front-line trenches until about 1am the following morning. They then had to proceed another two and a half miles under artillery fire to the assembly position to the east of the original German front line positions.

The attack commenced at 9am on 26 September, with the 9th and 10th KOYLI still held in reserve. It was a confusing battlefield picture marred by miscommunication and misunderstanding. It culminated in 9th KOYLI independently committing to an attack at around 12 noon, whilst Brigade HQ desperately tried to get orders to them to halt any further advance and concentrate on consolidating.  It was carnage. The 9th KOYLI were quickly forced to retreat to the trenches. The Unit War Diary notes that by 1.30pm they had lost 215 rank and file, either killed, wounded or missing. Final figures indicate 47 killed. By 3am the following day they left the trenches and were on their way back to a bivouac between Vermelles and Nouex les Mines. Their first taste of battle was bloody, short-lived and costly.

George’s initiation typified it. He suffered a gunshot wound to the neck in this very first encounter with the enemy. He was evacuated to Number 2 General Hospital at Quai de Escales, Le Havre where he underwent treatment for 2 days before being shipped back to England on the Hospital Ship HMHS St David. The former steamer was requisitioned at the outbreak of war and commissioned into service as a ship to transport patients back to Southampton.

George did recover and returned to serve once more with the 9th KOYLI. His war finally came to an end during 3rd Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele. This offensive lasted from 31 July to 10 November 1917. He survived the Battle of Broodseinde Phase on 4 October, where once more the battalion suffered heavy losses. The Unit War Diary indicates in the period 1-8 October casualty totals were 20 officers and 360 other ranks.

Sorby - George Henry Trench Map 2

Trench Map Showing Location of the 9th KOYLI on 22 October 1917: Source – National Library of Scotland  http://maps.nls.uk/index.html
under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence.

Now an Acting-Corporal, on the evening of the 21 October the battalion were once more in front line trenches, near Reutel to the east of Polygon Wood. The above trench map shows the location, circled in green. Early the following morning, the 22 October, the Unit War Diary notes:

“Enemy shelled trenches heavily between 4 A.M. and 7 A.M. the shelling being particularly severe in reply to our barrage at 5.30 am. C Coy. in support suffered several casualties.”

Nine men, including George, were killed.

Sorby - George Henry Casualty

The Men of the 9th KOYLI, Killed on 22 October 1917 – Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

George has no known grave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing. He is also remembered on the Warmfield cum Heath War Memorial in the Churchyard of St Peter’s, Kirkthorpe. He was awarded the 1914/15 Star, the British War and Victory Medals. Unmarried, the soldiers effects registers list his father as legatee. No soldier’s will exists for George.

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George Henry Sorby , the Princess Mary Tin and his Inscription at Tyne Cot – by Jane Roberts

George’s parents eventually moved to Normanton. His mother died in around late October 1929. His father died in February 1939. Their burials are recorded in the Warmfield Burial Register. His sister Sarah Ann, who married Henry Rann on 23 February 1913, had two children – Margaret Kathleen in March 1917 and Cyril born in 1923. She died in 1977.

Warmfield-cum-Heath War Memorial – by Jane Roberts

We Will Remember Them: Contemporary Parish War Register Books

War Memorials can be found in churches, towns and villages the length and breadth of the country, inscribed with the names of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Years later researching those named can prove problematical, as all that exists on the Memorial is a name.  I know this only too well from my Batley St Mary’s research!

However some Parishes and Districts went a step further and, in addition to these Memorials, they produced registers and books containing more details about their war dead.

This Christmas my parents bought me a limited edition reproduction of one such book, the Upper District of Soothill War Register and Records of War Service 1914 to 1920.  Soothill War Book

The original was compiled by the Rev W.E. Cleworth, Vicar of St Paul’s, Hanging Heaton. Printed by E.F. Roberts in Batley, it was based on a War Service Register kept by the Vicar from the start of the war. The Soothill Upper War Memorial Committee subsequently assisted. When the war ended 1,000 Record Forms were printed, information inserted from the Manuscript Register and then these were distributed to households in the area for correction and additions. Over 900 were returned and these were used in the production of the book, which was truly a parish effort. Copies of the original book are held at St Paul’s Hanging Heaton and Batley library.

It is particularly noteworthy that this book contains the names of not only those who gave their lives in the course of the conflict; it includes information about all those from the District who served. So a wonderful record of those who came home and are all too often overlooked.

It contains addresses, Units, age when war service commenced, places served, promotions, distinctions and other points of interest about the service careers of those featured.

Details of the limited edition reproduction organised by Margaret Watson, including more about the original, can be found in October 2014 editions Batley & Birstall News. However I understand the reprint has now sold out. The book includes a number of men linked to my family tree, including Jesse Hill, so I am so pleased to now own a copy. And I am indebted to Margaret and all those who worked on putting the reprint together.

On a recent visit to Lavenham, Suffolk I popped into the local Parish Church of St Peter and Paul to look at their War Memorial. To my surprise and joy beneath their Memorial they too had a book.

Lavenham Church

Lavenham Parish Church – Jane Roberts

This one commemorated those who died in both World Wars. A handwritten Book of Remembrance dating from 1922, it was compiled with the specific intention that those who died would have more than their names remembered.

Lavenham War Memorial

Lavenham War Memorial – Jane Roberts

There appeared to be a page devoted to each man, giving name, age and address alongside service details and even extracts from letters informing families of their loss. A wonderful lasting legacy for generations to come.  Lavenham book of remembrance

These books are particularly poignant because of their “of the time” nature. I wonder how many more are out there? And how many are being reprinted to ensure these men’s memories are perpetuated?

King’s Cross War Memorial for Railwaymen

This week was a full-on working week with two long London trips. Although I didn’t have time to do any family history research, I did take the opportunity to visit the War Memorial at King’s Cross station.

Over 20,000 railwaymen died in the First World War and there are various memorials to them dotted around the country. The one at King’s Cross is dedicated to employees of The Great Northern Railway (GNR) who lost their lives in that conflict. It contains 937 names. Originally erected in 1920, it was further dedicated to employees of the London and North Eastern Railway who gave their lives in World War Two. Their names are not listed.

The memorial was re-designed and re-dedicated in 2013. Its 11 tablets are reminiscent of John Singer Sargant’s painting “Gassed“.

I had a particular reason for wanting to stop off at the memorial. Amongst those named is William Colbeck. He was a parishioner at St Mary’s, Batley, and someone whose life I researched as part of my St Mary’s War Memorial book.

Born in 1887, William was the son of David and Catherine Colbeck (neé Garner). He initially followed his father’s trade as a woollen spinner before switching to become a platelayer employed by the GNR at Batley station.

William enlisted in March 1916, serving as a Sapper with the 264th Railway Company, Royal Engineers. The Royal Engineers by the end of the war numbered over a quarter of a million officers and men. Amongst a myriad of other construction roles, they built and maintained the railways. These were a vital part of the war effort, essential for moving men, supplies and equipment. So Williams specialist skills, developed in civilian life, were utilised during his military service.

He died from pneumonia in the 41st Stationary Hospital, France on 6th November 1918 and is buried at Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery.

At the time of his death his family placed a number of “In memoriam” notices in the “Batley News”. The one below is from his fiancée Elsie:

No one knows how much I miss him,
None but aching hearts can tell;
Forget him, no, I never will,
Loved him here, I love him still.
“Ever in my thoughts”
From his loving fiancée Elsie.

More information about railwaymen who died in the First World War can be found at the National Railway Museum (NRM) website. It includes a searchable database on the fallen.

I’ve included a series of close-up photos of the names of the men, which hopefully will be of use to those connected with the men commemorated.

Kings Cross 1

Close up of the names on the first two tablets

Kings Cross 2

Close up of third and fourth tablets

Kings Cross 3

Close up of marble tablets five to eight

Kings Cross 4

Close up of the names on the final three tablets

However, as with many War Memorials, not all those names you expect to find are included. Michael Lydon, another St Mary’s man, is one such example. According to newspapers he was employed as a goods porter by the GNR at Batley station. He lost his life on 1 September 1918. He does not feature on the GNR memorial or on the NRM database.

It would be good if both men (and any others with connections) could be remembered at Batley Railway Station.  

Colbeck and Lydon