Get in touch: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting YORK to 80360 or send an email»
Resting place of those we lost
9:11am Friday 13th April 2012 in Features
A British soldier keeping watch on ‘No-Man’s Land’ in 1916 as his comrades sleep in a captured German trench at Ovillers, near Albert, during the Battle of the Somme
York’s sacrifice in the First World War is marked all over northern France. Jon and Alison Haslock even moved to the Somme to contribute to remembrance. JOHN WOODCOCK reports.
AMONG the clay and chalky landscape of northern France, the Great War cries out ceaselessly. The enormity of the slaughter and its impact on countless distant places can emerge when least expected. Along a dipping lane almost within earshot of the Eurostar rail line and a roaring motorway, is one of the little creamy-white cemeteries among dozens scattered around the former Western Front.
Often their names have a poetic charm, or so readily identify with England that at times you forget this is a foreign country. A few sombre French acres will be forever ours: Euston Road, Hawthorn Ridge, Brewery Orchard, Dud Corner, Happy Valley, Ten Tree Alley, Cuckoo Passage….
In that hollow between the villages of Héninel and Chérisy near Arras, is a specific link to York. Bootham Cemetery was named after a nearby trench which in turn owed its identity to Bootham School. The origins of the connection are something of a mystery now. Possibly there’s some association with an old scholar.
Although the school was founded on Quaker beliefs that embrace pacifism, a large number of former pupils were involved in the First World War. Bootham’s archivist, Jenny Woodland, can find nothing in their records that adds to a potted history on a website supported by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The cemetery was begun in April 1917 by the 56th London Division Burial Officer. It contains, in one long row, the graves of 186 British soldiers, of whom 71 belonged to the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers, and 44 to the 16th Londons (Queen’s Westminster Rifles). The remaining 71 could not be identified. It’s enclosed by a rubble wall and planted with Irish yews, scarlet thorns and flowering shrubs.
Today the headstones are overlooked by wind turbines. In adjoining fields tractors go about their business, occasionally still unearthing, almost a century on, remnants of a war that claimed the lives of nearly 750,000 Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Of those more than 300,000 have no known resting place but are remembered on stone panels like those at the Faubourg D’Amiens war memorial and cemetery in Arras. Like all the others, it is meticulously tended and reveals how the scale of the war’s suffering touched virtually every corner of Britain.
Within minutes I found four references to the York area, and there are probably several more at that site alone. Among the 2,650 graves is that of Private Robert Victor Pickering, 40962 of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, killed in action on 6 January, 1917 aged 29. “The husband of Mary Pickering, 45 Markham Street, Haxby Road, York” records the memorial’s register. His headstone has the inscription: “Sleep on. Thy Rest is Eternal”.
The 35,942 who died in the Arras sector between the spring of 1916 and August 1918, but weren’t found or identified, include Lance Corporal Charles Whisler Burton, of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, killed May 3, 1917, aged 20, the son of Charles Bouchier Burton of Copmanthorpe; Private Charles Brotherton, of the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own), killed March 26, 1918, aged 26, son of Mrs Ellen Brotherton of 4 Park Lane, Holgate, York; Private Henry Boyes of the Lancashire Fusiliers, killed May 12, 1917, aged 27, the son of Richard and Mary Boyes of Pottery Lane, Strensall.
Another York soldier is being remembered in an exhibition entitled Missing of the Somme, which opens in the Museum of the Great War in Peronne this month and continues until November. It includes some of the personal possessions of Lance Corporal James William Barron of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He died when his trench was hit by a shell on September 3, 1916. He was 19, the son of a railwayman, and before the war had worked at Rowntree’s. The family lived in Barbican Road.
Attempting some understanding of what men and boys endured either side of No Man’s Land and in its midst is an impossible quest. Such a hell is beyond understanding, especially now that time has cloaked so many of its scenes with a tranquillity that is almost heartbreaking. I cycled through countryside strikingly similar to parts of the Yorkshire Wolds to the village of Bullecourt. There, at five o’clock on the morning of March 21, the first day of spring 1918, my grandfather’s battalion faced a German artillery barrage that for hours blasted a front of forty miles. It has been described as the most ferocious of the entire war.
Private Percy Fern Smith of the Sherwood Foresters, and then aged 38, was among the survivors of his decimated unit. He was wounded and taken prisoner, subsequently escaped and somehow managed to return to ordinary life as a cobbler in Derby.
I was in Bullecourt 94 years to the day after his unimaginable experiences there. It’s safe to assume grandfather would not have recognised its normality – villagers watering their early-season plants, a woman painting her front door, boys playing football on the trimmed verge in front of two memorials to the fallen.
The war’s impact reaches out to current generations in different ways. A couple from near York, Jon and Alison Haslock, moved to the Somme with their daughter seven years ago and have since opened the Old Blighty Tearoom in the old front-line village of La Boisselle. It serves a growing number of visitors to the region’s immense history.
Alison grew up in Alne and worked in the pharmacy at York Hospital. Jon, from Sessay, used to be a steelworker, did a history degree at Leeds University and became a guide at the Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate and Knaresborough Castle.
His role now could not present a greater contrast. He has been working for the Somme Trench Museum in Albert, Picardie, and is establishing himself as an independent battlefield guide. I found him pointing out trenches and grassy depressions that were shell craters once to a group of British schoolchildren at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial which witnessed some of the greatest carnage on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
What brought the Haslocks to the Somme?
“I’ve been interested in the war since childhood,” said Jon, “and Alison’s love for the area and understanding of the subject grew through our visits over many years. When the opportunity arose, we made the decision to settle here. We felt it was right for us, a kind of empathy with remembrance of what happened in these places.”