I have just added Joseph Wilson Ridley to the A-Z Roll of Honour. He enlisted as Private 22535 and rose to the rank of Acting Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant, surviving the war to return to his work as a warehouseman with the Co-operative Society in West Stanley, County Durham
Easter has come a little early this year. One hundred years ago the Easter weekend culminated on Monday 24 April 1916. In Dublin on the steps of the GPO building, Padraig Pearse read out a proclamation of the Irish Republic and the end of British rule in Ireland, heralding what we now know as the Easter Rising. It lasted a week until the rebels surrendered to overwhelming British military force assisted by a battleship in the Liffey. Hundreds were subjected to Field General Courts Martial, most were jailed, the leaders were executed, while some supporters and civilian sympathisers in the streets around were despatched under a ‘shoot to kill’ order.
At the same time, the men of 11 DLI were stationed near Oodezeele on the Ypres Front in Belgium. There had been church parades the day before but on Monday it was back to work, mostly behind the lines on roads and constructing new billets. The added attraction was a visit from top brass from 20th Divisional HQ come to inspect the Pioneers at their work. Otherwise the week that followed was a period of general rest and recuperation, interspersed with training and sports activities.
So what is the connection between these two coterminous sets of events? It has to do with the reasons for fighting. The men of 11 DLI, along with the rest of the Army including several battalions of Irish volunteers, were ostensibly on the Western Front in defence of smaller nations such as ‘plucky little Belgium’ against imperialist German militarism. The personal reasons for the men involved could have been very complex, though this might well have been a part of their motivation.
The rebels of Sinn Fein were also asserting the rights of smaller nations in the face of (British) imperialism and military might. They were a little clearer as individuals, as they were following the clearly stated aims of the Proclamation: that the Republic would guarantee “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens” and it would resolve “to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all children of the national equally”.
In terms of the wider context of the Great War, all parts of the British armed forces, wherever they were stationed (at sea, in western Europe, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, in India, in Africa) including Ireland, they were in practice defending and maintaining the integrity of the British Empire and that would become even more clear three years later at Versailles. That was as true of the Irish divisions as 20th Light Division.
In the end the ordinary men did not, in either case, get what they might have thought was their due. When it came, Home Rule in Ireland fell a long way short of the ideals of the Proclamation. The miners and labourers of 11 DLI who survived what was to follow went home to face years of continued exploitation and, indeed, military repression when they struck to stop wage reductions.
Meanwhile, just two months on from Easter 1916, tens of thousands on all sides of the front met their deaths in the slaughter of the Somme. While the poet WB Yeats could classify the Easter Rising as ‘a terrible beauty’, no such description has ever been applied to that.
The one thing always on a soldier’s mind when he is away from home is his next leave. It is never more true than in the approach to Christmas. It was on the mind of Private Robert Bennett in training at Woking in 1914: “I am saving my money to come home at Xmas, it costs 22/9 for us to Durham and the fare to Shotton will amount to about 25 shillings return.” He promised is little sister Kitty that he would bring her something special for writing to him. Instead they moved from Inkerman Barracks to Pirbright Camp, swapping huts for canvas. He was in “the last batch to go away but one” and had to content himself with the rumour that “we are going to get a good dinner on Xmas day”. In fact he would have to wait several more weeks.
It was even worse when the Battalion went overseas. Long before Xmas 1915 Robert was predicting that it would be at least three months before he got home leave. Writing again just before Xmas he was still predicting 9 or 12 weeks and intimating that the lads had been told the last posting day for Xmas was 17 December. On 1 Jan 1916 he returned his Xmas cards for the family to keep but “we had a good time at Xmas. We got tons of bacca and tabs sent out to us and a lot of Xmas pudding.” He never did make it home and he was dead before the next Xmas.
Two more men from 11 DLI were the occasion of domestic mourning around the 1915 festive season. Private 12115 John James Surrey was killed aged 24 just before New Year’s Eve and Lance Corporal 13797 John Henderson died of wounds on 19 December – no doubt the occasion of a badly timed letter from the War Office to his family. John Henderson was the husband of Julia and father of William and John, a hewer from Dudley in Northumberland. Ironically he had been on Xmas leave in 1914 and lost a day’s pay for arriving back at camp in Pirbright a day late. That was his last Xmas at home.
What will ‘the lads (and lasses)’ be doing this year?
When my wife and I visited Bouchoir Cemetery back in 1999 searching for the last resting place of my grandfather, Sergeant Thomas Bashforth, B Company, 11th DLI, we adopted the headstone of an unknown DLI soldier in a group of unknowns alongside Private John Kennedy (page 237 of the book). The body of Thomas Bashforth was never identified, but if he is buried in a cemetery anywhere it is most likely at Bouchoir, a mile or so from where he fell at Arvillers.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website now has much more information available for casualties, including report forms made by those involved after the War in creating the concentration cemeteries such as that at Bouchoir. I discovered this while checking some information for a descendant of a 7 DCLI man, Harold Masters (who is buried there). I have now been able to relate the map reference given in the concentration report for ‘my grave’ to the appropriate grid references on the trench map 66E NE, only to find that the location is near Mézieres, some distance away from Arvillers.
The battalion was involved with others from 20th Division in an attempt to retake the village on Good Friday, 29 March 1918. Whoever this man was must have been buried where he fell, somewhere in ‘Wheelbarrow Wood’ just to the north west of the village. It is possibly one of four men: Lt Frederick Arnott, or Privates Joseph Barnard, John O’Brien and Clifford Pollard. The two ‘unknown soldiers’ from my group were found in the same general vicinity but may have been from another regiment. Pte Kennedy was moved from what had probably been a field hospital burial ground near the village (he died on 25 March 1918, before the battles reached this spot).
So the search for the last resting place of Thomas Bashforth continues, though some judicious searching of the CWGC website might just come up with a grid reference for the ground in front of Arvillers. Meanwhile I will continue to hold the same headstone as a temporary marker – I am sure he is not far away!
 This is available on line from the National Library of Scotland, along with a good selection of other maps.
During October 1915, 11 DLI was involved in a bizarre piece of trench theatre, with what can only be described as the most likely consequences. The Pioneers were having one of their regular training stints in the front line trenches. Some bright spark in the military hierarchy decided that it would be a good idea to provoke the Germans with a bit of a stunt. Bear in mind that on this stretch of the line the distance across No Man’s Land was not very far at all.
On 13 October (an unlucky day for some) the lads were issued with dummies on sticks that they proceeded to wave about above the parapet of the trench, drawing the inevitable interest of the enemy. Smoke was laid down to make it look as if this was part of an attack. Not surprising then that the German artillery immediately opened fire on the British trenches, the position of which was perfectly well known to them. Three men from 11 DLI died instantly and 14 were wounded, of whom one died the following day.
Sadly I don’t know much about the four fatalities, so if anyone out there has any information I would be glad to hear from them. The four men were:
Lance Corporal 18830 Gawin Cowell
Private 3/10374 William McGregor
Private 18685 George William Ledger: aged 30, husband of Mary Jane Ledger of 2 St Bede’s Row, Birtley
Lance Corporal 13002 George Pearson: aged 23, the husband of Gladys Pearson of 71 Westminster Street, Gateshead, originally from Carlisle
Even in 1915, surely there was a less idiotic and humanly expensive way of pinpointing the location of German artillery than that? In any case they probably moved position fairly regularly. The first three men are buried at Rue du Bacquerot No 1 Cemetery and the last one, who died the day after the event, at Sailly sur La Lys Canadian Cemetery.
Of all the guys from 11 DLI who lost their lives 100 years ago in September 1915, perhaps the most poignant is the case of Daniel Lister. Private 17430 Daniel J Lister served in the machine gun section of C Company. It is probably fair to say that he was a ‘bit of a lad’, as he would have been described in his home town of Wingate in County Durham. During training in the UK he was confined to barracks on at least four occasions for overstaying passes and being absent from parades. It was in the pursuit of his laddish behaviour that, sadly, he was to lose his life. The events happened in the trenches near Laventie and are vividly described by his comrade Robert Bennett in a letter home:
There was a lad killed in No 2 section he belongs to Wingate it was his own fault he was getting pears about 100 yards behind the first line trench a sniper fired 10 rounds at him and he come away. He went back and was hit in the head with the 11th. He is some relation of Catherty they call him Danny Lister. He only lived a few minutes.
Danny lies buried at No 1 Cemetery, Rue du Bacquerot in the village of Laventie, not far from where he fell.
Having just posted up the last entry covering the 11th DLI Battalion War Diary, it might be thought that that was the end of the story. Not quite. It is time now to shift the emphasis away from recording the events of 100 years ago. In future posts I want to look at the way 11th DLI, the men and their families and communities were and still are remembered. Some of this will cover official commemoration, but mostly it will be about personal and family memories.
Perhaps it is best to start closest to home with myself. As a child I was aware that my grandfather had died in the First World War. I was very young when my sisters took me to the parade and ceremony at Darlington Memorial Hospital on Remembrance Sunday one year. It was all a bit confusing. I was lifted up to look at what I thought was his name in a book – but having visited the Memorial Hall more recently I now know that what I was looking at was the Memorial Book for the Second World War and the name was my sisters’ father, Joe Hinnigan, killed in the first week of WW2 in a freak accident. Our family is complicated by a number of early parental deaths. My grandfather’s name, Thomas Bashforth, was on one of the walls round the hall – wall after wall after wall. Most of all I remember the parade, the bands and all the people in uniforms with medals. That’s what boys tend to like.
More importantly I remember that while I was growing up neither of my parents ever bought or wore a remembrance poppy, though they never really explained why. My father had never seen his own father. My mother had lost her first husband. Both had reasons to be angry, rather than to share in some ‘one size fits all’ official form of remembrance of ‘our glorious dead’. It wasn’t that they were disrespectful – my Dad lost friends in WW2 and had a rough time himself escaping from Dunkirk in 1940 and Italy in 1943. Later in life they relented somewhat and watched the national march past on television every year – at least Mam did, while Dad was down the yard in his shed where he kept his own private mementoes (as I found out after he died).
Their reluctance to wear the poppy, I inherited. At school in my teens however I was not given the choice of whether or not to wear one. It was compulsory, as was the annual remembrance day service in the school hall. As a protest the rebels among us took to wearing a CND badge in the middle of the poppy replacing the plastic centre with its reference to the Haig Fund and the man we considered the butcher of the killing fields of France and Flanders. What I did not realize then was that, up at the top of the school hall behind the platform, on the massive wall plaques listing the ‘Old Boys’, were two men who had served as officers alongside my grandfather and may even have known him personally.
My attitudes changed later in life, largely as a result of researching the book and corresponding with other descendants of 11th DLI men. I can remember being challenged once for not buying a poppy and replying that my family had given enough already. I would not do that now, though I still cannot abide the formal parades and the pomp and ceremony. Now I tend to think of the private grief of my Gran when she got the news her beloved husband was dead, and her brother-in-law on the same day at another part of the line. I think of how she would have nursed that grief for years afterwards. I think of all the other widows and fatherless children, then and since. I wear the poppy, but keep my own counsel. There are too many hypocritical politicians out there only too pleased to dress themselves up as ‘great war leaders’. There are better things to spend tax payers’ money on than nuclear bombs to make politicians feel important on the international stage.
So, this will not be the last post. The Last Post on the last war has not yet sounded. May it be soon.