On the trail of Leicester and Leicestershire soldiers a century ago

 

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A century ago the world was at war. Leicester and Leicestershire’s boys and men were packed off to the Front. Here’s a feature which gives you a little taste of where we were in 1915, although do remember that not all of our lot would have served in the county regiment.

Loads more piccies will be added to this article, once I’ve found them.

 

Tyne Cot Cemetery in Ypres

Tyne Cot Cemetery in Ypres

Welcome to Belgium, says the satnav’s smokey female voice and the green, open fields slip past the Land Rover’s windows. Twenty minutes later we’re looking around Tyne Cot Cemetery – the first port of call on a three day journey following in the heavy footsteps of the Leicestershire Regiment.

Tyne Cot, a lump in the throat for any visitor, is the largest British War Cemetery in the world. About seven miles north-east of Ypres, it bears the names of 35,000 young men who died fighting in the blackened fields surrounding Passchendaele.

Of its 11,000 graves, tellingly only 3o per cent contain known soldiers.

“Those named on the memorial were just lost in the mud, literally,” explains Richard Lane, the Tigers historian. “Blokes were going off the deck boards and disappearing.

“There are 415 Leicestershire Regiment men commemorated here,” he says. “Only 25 have graves.”

We make our way silently between the neat white headstones and, as we draw closer to the panels listing Leicestershire’s lost, we can see that propped at the base is a tiny wooden cross.

This new, unweathered memento commemorates “Thomas Chapman, House Hero, South Wigston High School.”

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Thomas died amid the carnage of Passchendaele on September 26, 1917.

This sentimental token to a long-dead Leicestershire son is far from unique – during our tour of the Ypres Salient we discover dozens of county tourists wandering the streets, silent battlefields and cemeteries, paying homage to the men who never had the privilege of growing old.

Arguably the most moving of our discoveries is inked in the visitors’ book at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, the permanent home of three dozen county boys.

“So many brave Leicester lads, thank you,” writes one visitor from Leicestershire.

He signs off with an old battle cry: “Go on you Tigers!”

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Today, bathed in the sunshine of late May, Ypres is a beautiful town. It’s an eye-pleasing hotch-potch of chocolate shops and quality restaurants, backdropped by the impressive Cloth Hall, the rebuild of a medieval building obliterated in the war.

A century ago Ypres was unrecognisable. It marked the blackened front line between the Germans attempting to push through to the Channel ports and the British Tommies trying to stop them.

For four continuous years, the town was pummelled into the dirt.

Winston Churchill, Bernard Montgomery and Adolf Hitler were among the troops who saw action here. And while the theatre of war itself was only a half-moon of land covering a few kilometres, it claimed, on average, 5,000 British lives every month.

In deference to the dead, the Menin Gate comes alive at 8pm every night with their siren song – a bugled, goose-bumpy rendition of The Last Post. It’s been performed in Ypres every day since July 1927 and attracts hundreds of sightseers, many, as you would expect, from the British Isles.

“Ypres,” once said Winston Churchill, “…a more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.”

The Cloth Hall at Ypres

The Cloth Hall at Ypres

 

Amid the 55,000 names etched in stone on the Menin Gate, 150 belong to the Leicestershire Regiment and another 80 to the Leicestershire Yeomanry.

We come across 100 or more of the yeomanry’s brethren during our travels. They are in Ypres to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Frezenberg Ridge, and to see the unveiling of a memorial to the Leicestershire men who died here. A third of the cavalry unit who held the line against the Germans were killed in the battle on May 13, 1915.

War, yeah?
A giant garden gnome with an unsettling smile holds a Welcome signpost at the entrance to the surreal Sanctuary Wood Museum.

Today, our group – historian Richard Lane, county motoring magnate Chris Sturgess, Ben Jackson of BBC Radio Leicester and myself – are here to see the museum’s original First World War trenches and tunnels.

They were built in 1914 by the strong, rough hands of Coalville men, many of them miners who had crossed the sea as Britain’s first civilian soldiers.

The museum, which is also a cafe and bar, does a tidy line in tourist tat which it sells alongside 70s vinyl – the sort where album sleeves come draped with a soft focus male in a polo-neck.

Cue poloneck

Cue poloneck

It’s a strange little place, existing in the middle of nowhere. Inside, it has a vast array of military ephemera, regiment badges, uniforms, weapons and trench art in the shape of engraved shell cases.

Outside, the trenches are surrounded by casually stockpiled shells and rolls of rusted barbed wire.

When we arrive, a group of Flemish teenagers are busy being horrified by the museum’s impressive collection of stereoscopes.

Those bones belonged to a young man who never got to grow old because politicians failed in their duty

The skeleton of a young man who never got to grow old – “War is organised murder and nothing else” Harry Patch WW1 veteran

They contain images of war, in glorious 3D, showing dismembered soldiers in a variety of poses. Some are less horrific than others, granted, but I would have bet money that at least one of those kids didn’t sleep that night.

Made by Coalville miners

Made by Coalville miners

We head for the trenches at the back of the museum which are in solid condition, a testament to the craft of the county men who made them.

“I always find it thought provoking being here,” says Richard, “you can almost see the blokes inside the trenches sticking their heads up. These are the original trenches, they haven’t been redug.

“Coalville soldiers dug these – and they did a very good job.”

It was also the miners who came to the fore at the salient’s Messines Ridge, when the Leicesters were having a little problem, says Richard.

“The Germans had the higher ground and were looking down our throats,” he says.

That was when Lieutenant Moore, a mining surveyor from Coalville, rolled up his sleeves. On June 7, 1917, new tunnels dug by the regiment were jammed full of mines.

“We blew Messines Ridge off,” he says, “and 650 Germans were killed.”

A short walk down the road from the museum is Sanctuary Wood Cemetery.

Sanctuary Wood Cemetery with our boys

Sanctuary Wood Cemetery with our boys

Our boys were in the wood from April to the end of September, 1915. They were holding the frontline from here to Hill 60, two miles away – which was the place where England international and Leicester Tigers player Frank Tarr was killed by a shell splinter.

It’s here, in a cemetery filled with birdsong, that the scale of the sacrifice of the First World War hits home. Again and again the headstones between these uniform rows say the same thing.

A soldier of the Great War. No name, no date, no regiment. Of the 2,000 men buried here, only 700 have been identified.

Among the headstones I spot a Tigers badge: the final resting place of 2419 Private J. Watts.

James, I discover later, was a village boy from Thurlaston.

“A hundred years ago he was alive,” notes Richard. “Like many here, he was killed on July 23, 1915.”

And then more and more Tiger badges come into view. Dozens of them. Our boys. Former members of the 4th and 5th battalions. Killed on the same date.

“A mine explosion,” says Richard. “A lot of it was done by mines, and sniper fire, shell fire.

“Probably the worst of the lot was the mining: they knew the Germans were under them and they were sitting on a time-bomb. And the Germans knew we were doing the same to them.”

At Sanctuary Wood, 1/4 battalion lost six officers and 68 ranks, not including wounded.

The 1/5 Leicesters lost four officers and 85 soldiers. From April to September, the 48th Division lost 917 men and officers.

“It’s a lot of men,” says Richard. “In some places the Germans were only 30 yards away and they were lobbing grenades at each other.”

Further up the road from Sanctuary Wood, we find Mount Sorrel. It’s a long way from home. But you soon learn that Mount Sorrel means different things to different people. To the Leicesters of the First World War, it was the HQ of Colonel Martin of the 4th battalion, who named the hill after his home village.

Mount Sorrel memorial

Mount Sorrel memorial

To the Canadians, Mount Sorrel is shorthand for a bloody death: today it’s a memorial to the Canadian infantry who fought here.

But, confusingly, it’s not the same Mount Sorrel. There are two Mount Sorrels, within shouting distance of one another.

As for Col Martin, he was a director of Mountsorrel Granite Company and a former chairman of the county council. He’s mentioned in the 1935 book Footprints of the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment – August 1914 to November 1918, by John Milne.

Col Martin

Col Martin

“He was the best all-round soldier in the battalion,” says the book, “and the battalion knew it and only got annoyed with him when he exposed himself to danger unnecessarily, which was one of his habits.”

Back at the hotel in Ypres, we bump into a coachload of tourists from Loughborough.

They’re here to dedicate a plaque at St George’s Memorial Church to the memory of 14 old boys from Loughborough Grammar School who never came home.

Paul Fisher, the school’s headmaster, was due to give a reading.

“It’s a big day for Leicestershire tomorrow,” says one of their party, referring to the yeomanry memorial, “and the day after,” he adds, referring to their memorial service.

Our final visit in the salient is Toc H, or Talbot House, once better known as “the first stop after hell”.

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Today it stands preserved in the elegant town of Poperinge and is run as a museum and B&B.

During the war, it provided a retreat from the front for 5,000 men a week.

In the roof of the three storey house is a chapel – it is believed almost 200,000 men once climbed the steep stairs to pray here with the padre, Chaplain Tubby Clayton. Wisely, it’s been left untouched and has the most incredible atmosphere.

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When Richard first came here, two decades ago, you could see the house’s old guest book, signed by our boys in khaki between 1914 and 1918. He remembers seeing the names of two Tigers officers. Many of our boys, he adds, would have rested here.

“Leicestershire had six battalions at the Battle of Polygon Wood,” he explains, “which is further down the road from Passchendaele, on the right flank coming out of Ypres. It was a massive wood, totally destroyed.

“That was where 2nd Lt Philip Bent was killed getting his VC on October 1, 1917, leading a charge and shouting ‘Come on the Tigers!’”
We leave Ypres, a pretty place full of manicured gardens, keen cyclists and clean streets, and head back to the Eurotunnel at Calais.

It’s been a lightning visit, not enough time to see everything.

If you were there a month, you would still be struggling.

We leave our boys behind in the cool earth of Belgium, their home for the past 100 years.

Richard takes the moment to summarise the Tigers’ 1915 war effort in the area.

“During our six month stay in the Ypres Solvent from April to the end of September 1915, the 46th North Midland Division lost 39 officers and 936 men from a strength of 14,000,” Richard says, finally, as Ypres shrinks into the distance.

“From there we went on to the Battle of Loos and to the Battle of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, where we suffered 3,700 casualties in a matter of hours.

“War,” he adds, “it’s a dreadful business – there’s never much in the way of a happy ending.”

 

 

 

POST SCRIPT BACKGROUND

The first draft of this article was published in the Leicester Mercury in May 2015. The photographs, obviously, were taken by me: they’re not pro-standard. Regrettably, I had a bug during the visit and spent two days throwing up. I fed the grass all across Belgium. Kind thanks to Chris for being able to stop the car at such short notice. Also, sorry to the BBC’s reputation as Chris’s car had the reg BBC 2. On a lighter note, the husband was in England and had the same bug, it’s just that he was at Alton Towers when it manifested itself.

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