First World War: Harrogate Pals travel to the trenches

Image: John Sheehan (s).
Image: John Sheehan (s).

One hundred years ago this week, Colonel CE Wood led his contingent of Harrogate men to the trenches in France.

One hundred years ago this week, Colonel C.E. Wood led his contingent of Harrogate men to the trenches in France.

Editorial image

Editorial image

In the autumn of 1914 they had been a band of apprentices, grocers, builders, waiters, railwaymen, and hotel porters.

They had been musicians, footballers, cricketers, and rugby players. Now, in April 1915 they were soldiers about to be thrown into battle, and many of them were never to return.

Last month I re-traced their foot-steps with my old friend, Richard Taylor, author of Secrets of The National Archives.

I am completing a book on the 5th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, their unit, and together we wanted to pay our respects.

The soldiers had crossed the Channel on a troop-ship escorted by two destroyers, but we took the Channel Tunnel option.

Richard and I drove from Calais to the area just north of Ypres, in the part of Belgium known as Flanders, where the 5th Battalion held the front line for six months from July 1915.

For six days in every 12 they lived in front line trenches which were little more than waterlogged ditches.

To remind them of home, the Harrogate boys had renamed a section of slimy trench the ‘Pump Room’, but it had nothing in common with Valley Gardens.

With the German front line trenches only 70 yards ahead of them, the men could not stand up straight for fear of being shot by a sniper.

On the other hand, the flooded trenches were impassable for much of the autumn and the only way to get about was to hop across the trench parapets in full sight of enemy machine guns.

Constantly, they were under artillery fire too.

On September 27 1915, the pugnacious Yorkshiremen taunted their enemy by holding up a sign saying how many German prisoners had just been taken at the Battle of Loos, a few miles away.

The infuriated Germans sent a party of raiders down the ridge, across no man’s land and into the British trench where they knifed William Chadwick from Pateley Bridge. The Yorkshiremen threw the raiders out of their trench and shot three of them as they fled back across no man’s land.

On Sunday, December 19, 1915, in the freezing early hours, a hissing sound was heard and a strange white mist appeared across no mans land, drifting downhill towards the Yorkshiremen on a light breeze. Gas gongs made out of toffee tins were bashed and men put on their gas masks. Not all were a good fit and as the gas dipped into the British front line trench, soldiers started gasping and choking. Simultaneously they came under shell fire.

Chaos reigned under the terrifying new gas, a potent mix of phosgene and chlorine. Norman Beech, a Gents’ out-fitter with Allen & Co in Prospect Crescent, took matters into his own hands.

He picked up a machine gun and took it up the ridge, firing down into the German trenches to help prevent an attack.

He had no gas mask on, and was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery.

At least 10 Harrogate men lost their lives over 19-20th December, including 17 year old Ronald Marshall, and about 40 were wounded in this attack.

Selwyn Lupton survived long enough to be repatriated and he is buried at Harlow Hill cemetery.

I stopped the car on the quiet country lane and we got out. This is where ‘D’ Company had been when the gas came across.

To the right is the slight rise to the German trenches where the gas canisters were opened. On this ridge Norrie Beech planted his machine gun. Where we are standing died boys from the West Riding, from Harrogate, York, Ripon, and Selby.

We took our photographs, then headed across the Yser canal to the rear area where Essex Farm Cemetery is located. This is where a number of Harrogate boys are buried; it was a forward dressing station in 1915.

It is also where the monument to the 49th West Riding Division is sited, and where the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ was written.

We stand looking at the grave of George Mounsey Cartmel, formerly an iron-monger’s assistant who lived on Valley Drive. Next to him lies an unknown soldier.

That night we go to the last post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres. This is the memorial to the 54,000 soldiers whose bodies were never identified.

Eleven of them are also listed on the Harrogate war memorial. Every night at 8pm the ceremony is held, and is always very well attended.

Share your story. If you have any relevant photographs, letters or diaries, John would be very interested in hearing from you at Westridingpals@gmail.com