It was years before Chris Poole discovered what happened to his father during the Battle of Mons 100 years ago today, reports STEPHEN LEWIS.
ONE HUNDRED years ago today, British and German soldiers were dying in their thousands in Belgium at the Battle of Mons – the first great clash of the First World War between the British Expeditionary Force and the Imperial German Army.
After nine hours of fighting, the British were forced to retreated by the numerically superior Germans. As many as 1,600 British soldiers lay dead. German casualties were even higher – as many as 5,000 according to some estimates.
The battle prompted the legend of the 'Angel of Mons', and a popular wartime song.
Among the British soldiers injured during the retreat at Mons was a young private in the Army Catering Corps, Walter Poole. Apart from one passing remark, he never talked about what happened that day, says his son Chris, who for 50 years worked at the Yorkshire Evening Press, mostly in the composing room. "But he did recall once how there was a big shout of 'The Germans Are Coming'."
It was only when searching through his father's records years later that Chris, now 87 and living in the Stockton Lane area of York, learned what had happened.
"He had been run over by a limber, which trailed after the field guns. It crushed his chest. Ever after that, he was always putting plasters on his chest."
It must have been a moment of sheer terror as the Germans broke through, Chris says. His father would have been stationed behind the lines. "Everybody must have left what they were doing and run like hell to get away from the Germans who had broken through the English lines."
Walter, who hailed from Berwick on Tweed in the Scottish Borders, was sent to Bristol to recuperate – Chris still has a copy of the formal notification sent to Walter's family informing them of his condition. But he recovered enough to rejoin the army and served out the rest of the war without further serious injury.
At some point he must have been stationed in York, perhaps at the army barracks, because he met a young woman named Olive, who was a York tram conductor. They were married in 1918 at Heworth Church, and after the war Walter became a butcher in Bootham.
Two of his three brothers were less fortunate. Both Thomas Poole and Harry Poole were killed in the war: Thomas in October 1914, and Harry in December 1915.
Chris still has a copy of a letter that Harry wrote to Walter on November 24,1915. Harry was in Turkey.
"We made an advance and captured some Turkish trenches," he wrote. "They counterattacked us three times but they were driven back... The Turks came en-masse, they were mown down by our artillery and machine guns."
He wished his brother a Happy Christmas and New Year, adding: "I hope you have a better one than me, because unless we are relieved by then I expect to be in the firing line on Christmas Day." In fact, he didn't survive even that long: he died at Gallipoli on December 18, 1915.
Walter never spoke about Harry, his youngest brother: but he kept that letter all his life. "He obviously felt it deeply," Chris says.
Dreadful as the war was for so many, Chris remembers that in a way it was a liberating time for his mum, Olive. It was only because most of the young men were away at war that she was able to work on the trams, he says. "She loved it. Before then women pretty much went into service: she was so glad to get out of that."