Thursday, 9 November 2017

Oppy Wood, Hull Pals & Finding Easington’s Fallen

This year’s annual Remembrance commemorations will be made even more poignant for me following May’s trip to Flanders fields…

As has become the norm since Easington belatedly gained its own war memorial, this Sunday we shall attend the annual village Remembrance service as a family. It’s a small but moving event and one that I have missed only once; on that occasion I opted to take in the somewhat larger service at the Cenotaph in Hull (prior to seeing City come from behind to beat Stoke in that afternoon’s Premier League fixture - which was a bonus!).
This year’s event will be made more poignant for me personally, as I have been invited to lay a wreath at the memorial. I shall do so in specific memory of the villagers whose graves I visited in person earlier this year, along with those members of the ‘Hull Pals’ lost at Oppy Wood in May 1917.
The centenary of the battle at Oppy Wood was the main reason behind the excursion I joined back in the spring. Accompanied by Burt Graham and Kevin Appleyard, we travelled with specialist company Galina Travel, with the result that the trip proved not only fulfilling but extremely informative. I recorded the details of it in a two-part article for the Holderness Gazette.  With Remembrance weekend ahead of us, I thought it fitting to give the piece another - expanded - airing here…

Oppy Wood 100

On Thursday May 3, 1917 three Battalions of Hull soldiers attacked German defences around the village of Oppy as part of the Battle of Arras. Although generally regarded as “a failed minor part of a mostly failed offensive”, for Hull folk Oppy and Oppy Wood will forever be a symbol of grief and loss, particularly among the Hull Pals. As one veteran later recalled, “Amid the roar of artillery and the crash of shells a blood tie was formed between the city of Hull and Oppy village.”
Formed in 1914 in answer to Lord Kitchener’s request for bodies of troops consisting of men who had local ties to each other, Pals Battalions soon sprang up in more than fifty cities. Civic pride fuelled competition on the numbers signing-up and Hull quickly raised four, the same as Liverpool.
The Hull Pals were given the official title of the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th (Service) Battalions, East Yorkshire Regiment. The 10th (1st Hull) were known as “The Commercials”, the 11th (2nd Hull) were the “Tradesmen”, the 12th (3rd Hull) the “Sportsmen” and the 13th (4th Hull) were simply known as “T’others”. In total Hull raised 6,250 Pals, providing more Battalions per head of population than any other city in the country.

Many of the new Pals Battalions were decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. The Hull Pals avoided this when their scheduled attack on the strongly fortified village of Serre was called off. Their baptism came later, on November 13, when the Hull Sportsmen and T’others mounted a costly attack on Serre as part of The Battle of The Ancre. It was during this battle that John Cunningham became the first Hull Pal to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC).

In May 1917 the Hull Pals were asked to take Oppy Wood as part of a wider series of “bite and hold” operations along the Arras front. At 3.45am, following a creeping artillery barrage the 10th, 11th and 12th Battalions advanced across open ground towards the German defences. But the attack was doomed from the start. The change of start time and a setting full moon ensured that the Germans were aware of their positions. This resulted in the Hull Pals being subjected to hostile fire whilst out in the open. Then, as they followed the British bombardment, the combination of the dark, smoke and dust as well as the darkness of their objective led to confusion and allowed the Germans time to get their machine guns up. Carnage ensued. 
Those involved in the frontal assault on Oppy Wood were cut down by withering fire. It was here that Hull FC player, 2nd Lieutenant John ‘Jack’ Harrison single-handedly destroyed a German machine gun post, armed only with a pistol and grenades. It was an act of bravery for which he was awarded a VC to add to the Military Cross (MC) he already held. Sadly the award would be a posthumous one, with Harrison cut down in the act. Many more men also failed to return. Others were forced to lie in No-Man’s Land throughout the day before retreating under cover of darkness. Several attackers actually managed to reach their objective of Oppy village only to end up being taken prisoner. At the end of the day the Hull Pals had lost nearly 300 men and Oppy Wood remained in German hands.

On Wednesday May 3, 2017 about two hundred people gathered in Oppy to pay tribute to the Hull Pals’ sacrifice. Prior to the official service, our coach pulled up alongside the newly-erected memorial to Jack Harrison, which stands on the edge of Oppy Wood. From there we took a commemorative walk in the drizzle down the road into Oppy village before being granted the rare privilege of being allowed access to the wood itself. At a small hut just inside the entrance we were shown artefacts collected over the years, including a rather gruesome looking assortment of boots and helmets once worn by the attacking British troops. 

Our guide through the wood, a former local doctor then took us to the actual spot on which it is believed that Harrison carried out the feat that won him his Victoria Cross. Still visible are the sunken sites of former ammunition dumps, connected by tunnels, and the platform ladders for the type of machine gun emplacement that Harrison attacked. 

The wood is now back in full bloom but a nearby tree stump, still bearing the scars of the British bombardment, gives some idea of how it looked a hundred years ago. A further reminder of this tranquil place’s violent history came with a warning not to stray off the tracks due to the amount of ordnance still to be found therein. No wonder that for many years after the Great War, locals feared to go near the wood even in daylight: “They said it was haunted and peace had left it forever”.

At noon, we gathered at the Hull Pals Memorial in Oppy village. In torrential rain, The Rev. Canon Dr Neal Barnes the vicar of Holy Trinity Church conducted the Act of Remembrance, during which he read out the names of every Hull Pal officially recognised as having died that day. The rain even affected the bugler sounding the Last Post, lending yet more poignancy to an already moving occasion. Ironically, at the same time, bright sunshine accompanied an identical service taking place in Hull city centre. Still, as was commented by several people, “It was pouring with rain, not shells and bullets”.

After the formalities, we were invited to the Vin d’Honneur in a nearby hall, where we enjoyed the hospitality laid on by local villagers. David Bilton, author of several books on the Hull Pals, gave an informative talk on the battle, while those around us drank special bottles of Jack Harrison Gold ale.
Ironically, as we emerged from the hall the rain stopped and the sun threatened its first appearance of the day. A hundred years earlier, that same sun had set for good on those brave boys of Hull and the East Riding.

Finding Easington’s Fallen

The Easington village war memorial lists the names of ten men lost in the Great War of 1914-18. The last of these, Lieut. Frank W. Jennings was not actually a resident of the village but is buried in the local cemetery due to his death having occurred here in March 1916 following "a fatal accident of a very unusual nature" as the Hull Dail Mail reported it. He was observing the attempted exploding of an unexploded mine that had washed ashore on Easington beach, only to be hit by shrapnel when the deed was completed. 
Without any memorial in his home on the Isle of Wight, Jennings' name was added to the Memorial in 2015, along with that of Pilot Officer Jack Buchanan, RAF Volunteer Reserve, lost during the Second World War. Buchanan is also buried in Easington village cemetery. The latter's omission from the Memorial was one that my dad felt particularly uncomfortable about and he would always ensure Buchanan's grave was dutifully marked every Remembrance weekend, prior to the particular wrong being righted a couple of years ago.
It was whilst attending the re-dedication service at which the two extra names were officially commemorated, that I first hatched a plan to honour the nine other village fallen of the First World War at the places they are remembered. 
The first was easy enough. Gunner Thomas William Coupland Docherty is also buried in Easington cemetery. Son of Thomas W. C. senior and Mary J Docherty of Easington, he served with 251st Northumberland Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, a Territorial unit that suffered heavily at the Battle of the Aisne in May 1918. Poignantly, Thomas, a Military Medal recipient, eventually died of his wounds at home on November 11, 1918 - Armistice Day. 
With two of the ten within walking distance of home, May's trip to Oppy Wood gave me chance to honour the remaining eight "Easington Fallen". Burt and Kevin both had reasons of their own for making the same trip. Burt was seeking out the memorial to his great uncle and Kevin was looking to find out more about the Hull Pals Battalions (in which his grandfather had served). But the search for the Easington Fallen soon became our overriding quest.

We departed Hull for Zeebrugge aboard the Pride of York on Monday evening. Early the following morning our journey began as we made our way down through Flanders, recreating the British Expeditionary Force’s initial retreat from Mons of 1914. Our eventual destination was Arras in Artois, which was to be our base for the three days. As our guide Barry Matthews recounted the tales of 1914 through to 1916 and the fateful Battle(s) of The Somme, our journey through Picardy was punctuated by stops at many places of interest, mainly military cemeteries.  The first came at Serre Road No.1 Cemetery in the Pas-de-Calais region, a venue that came with an official warning from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, following reports of visitors having experienced “intimidating behaviour from a local resident when visiting this site”. One alleged incident had been of a tractor being deliberately driven at a young girl! 
We found the first of the Easington Fallen on that first day of our tour. Fittingly in terms of the purpose of the Galina trip, Private Arthur Carrick, 13/904, ‘A’ Company, 13th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment was a Hull Pal, although his origins were from the south. He was born in Upper Holloway, Middlesex in 1894, one of six children; four of who moved with parents Henry and Alice to Easington. Arthur eventually moved to Hull where he lived at 3 Bangor Place, Walker Street. He was an unmarried farm labourer, working for the Gardner family of Thorngumbald and his Army records describe him as being of “good physical development”. He enlisted in the 4th Hull Pals (“T’others”) on November 30, 1914 and had served in Egypt before being transferred to France on February 29, 1916. He suffered gunshot wounds to the face and neck on July 29 and was killed in action four months later at The Battle of the Ancre, on November 13. He was 22 years old. His mother was officially informed of his death on February 22, 1918. Originally, along with many other members of the 12th and 13th East Yorkshires he was buried at John Copse near Hebuterne (now part of the Sheffield Memorial Park). However, after Armistice Day, the bodies of all those buried there were moved to Euston Road Cemetery, near the village of Colincamps (just north of Albert). Previously unadorned, Arthur’s plot now has a cross bearing the date of our visit and the simple slogan: “Easington Remembers”. It was quite a moment when we placed that first cross.

Next up was the towering memorial to the 36th (Ulster) Division, built on the site of the Schwaben Redoubt opposite Thiepval Wood, which the Ulstermen eventually took. However, if the 70ft Ulster Memorial Tower is impressive enough, the next monument we visited was even more so. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of The Somme, designed as a towering arch to represent the alliance of Britain and France, bears the names of over 72,000 officers and men of the UK and South African forces who died on the Somme sector before March 20 1918 and have no known grave. Behind it is the Anglo-French Cemetery and we also visited the nearby 18th (Eastern) Division Memorial, located nearby in the hamlet itself.
The sheer scale of things was the most difficult to comprehend. Up next was Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel, where a beautiful sculptured caribou looks out over the land on which the 1st Royal Newfoundland Regiment launched its ill-fated attack on July 1 1916. Original trench-lines and The Danger Tree give the Park even more of an atmospheric feel. Dartmoor Cemetery, the South African Memorial at Delville Wood (“Devil’s Wood”) and the nearby Footballers Battalion Memorial provided further points of interest 
Not surprisingly for a rural village, most of the local lads had worked the land prior to the War, as with Private George William Marritt, 203070, 12th/13th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, who we paused to remember at Thilloy Road Cemetery, Beaulencourt on our last visit of the day. At the time of the 1911 census, George lived on Back Street, Easington, a house he shared with parents John and Elizabeth Marritt and his three siblings. Both George and his younger brother Walter served in the Great War. Walter spent much of the conflict as a Prisoner-of-War; George was not so lucky. He was 39 when he died of wounds on September 29, 1918, just five weeks before the end of hostilities.
May 3 brought another early start as well as a turn for the worse weather-wise. Our first port of call was Ablain-Saint-Nazaire and the French Military Cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette (the largest military cemetery in France). However, it was the magnificent ‘Ring of Remembrance’ International Memorial that really caught the eye. Inaugurated as part of the WW1 Centenary commemorations, the vast ellipse of 500 steel plaques is engraved with the names of nearly 580,000 names of all nationalities lost in the Nord-Pas de Calais sector. 

From there it was a short drive to Vimy Ridge and another amazing structure, the towering Canadian National Memorial to the 60,000 countrymen lost during the First World War. At both venues, the misty, murky start to the day again helped enhance that feeling of desperate loss. The ‘Mother Canada’ figure looking out over Hill 145 also gives the visitor some idea of the task the Canadians were faced with that April a hundred years’ earlier. At Vimy we bumped into Mike Fuller and his Freedom Flame group from Hull, fresh from their early morning vigil in Oppy. That was where we were heading next (as recounted above).
'Oppy Wood Day' was completed with visits to four more cemeteries. Nearby Orchard Dump saw two ladies from our coach lay a wreath at the grave of their granddad, while that at Vis-en-Artois saw another passenger locate the grave of his great, great uncle who had also died a hundred years ago that day. Cabaret Rouge and the vast German cemetery at Neuville St Vaast were also visited before we arrived back in Arras. 
The vast Arras Memorial in the Fauborg d'Amiens British Cemetery proved rewarding on three fronts. Among the names of over 35,000 missing men, Burt located the panel relating to his great uncle Sapper Thomas W. Graham, whilst I marked that of my 'distant cousin' Sapper Austin John Lusmore (to my knowledge the only Lusmore listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site). We also got to place a cross at the foot of the panel on which Private George William Tennison, 201393, 1st/4th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment is remembered. He was one of ten children born to William and Mary Tennison and shared a bedroom with his brothers Ernie and Jack at home at Grange Farm in Kilnsea. The story goes that having retired for the night, George slipped out whilst his brothers were sleeping, travelled to Hull and enlisted in the East Yorkshires. He was killed on St George’s Day, 1917 during the Second Battle of the Scarpe. His body was never found. Brother Ernie later recalled, “We got to say goodnight but we never had chance to say goodbye”.
After our final night in Arras, it was time to head back north, taking in the battlefields of Flanders en route to Zeebrugge. Messines Church (where Hitler was reputed to have slept in the crypt during the Great War), and the huge nearby Spanbroekmolen Crater (one of 19 exploded by the Allies during the Battle of Messines) were visited before we paused at Brandhoek to visit the grave of the only double VC winner of the War, ‘Flying Doctor’ N. G. Chavasse. From there we headed for Ypres and the amazing Menin Gate. 
Opting to forego lunch and free-time in the city, our small party instead took up Barry's offer of a quick dash to Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, near to Hill 62 a couple of miles outside Ypres. Here lies the grave I’d most wanted to visit, that of Gunner Lewis Abraham Clubley, 204764, B Battery, 102nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. He was one of twelve children to George William and Mary Elizabeth Clubley and younger brother of my great grandfather, Francis John Clubley. Born in Easington, Lewis lived at the family home on High Street before finding work as a horseman with the Ellis family of Welwick. Prior to the War he moved to Hull where he boarded with a Builders Merchant’s labourer on Alaska Street. There he met and married Sculcoates girl, Elsie Bilton in late 1914. A year later their son, Lewis William, was born. Sadly, he would never get to know his father; Lewis Abraham died on the night of August 10, 1917; the events of which are recorded in the Brigade War Diary: “The Group carried out barrage in support of attack by 18th Division on Inverness Copse and Glencorse Wood. Barrage lasted 45 minutes. Attack was unsuccessful. Casualties 2nd Lt. T. J. Corder wounded. 1 O.R. killed. 9 O.R. wounded.” The “Other Rank” killed was almost certainly my great-great uncle. Standing there amid such beautiful countryside, having been shown by our guide where the two target locations were in relation to the cemetery was for me the most moving experience of the whole trip. How I wish Dad (who passed away in January) could have shared the moment.
Essex Farm Cemetery is perhaps one of the most visited and has some history. It is on the site of a former Advanced Dressing Station, the remains of which can be seen in the form of the concrete shelters used to treat wounded soldiers. It is also the place in which Major John McCrae is thought to have written the famous poem “In Flanders Fields” and is home to the grave of “Boy Soldier” Joe Strudwick, killed at the age of 15 on January 14 1916. Towering above the canal bank on the far edge of the cemetery is the memorial to the 49th (West Riding) Division Memorial and the cemetery is also noted for carrying the scars of battle from the Second World War. Several stones shown the signs of repair work carried out after they were pock-marked by bullets.
Cement House Cemetery on the Boezinge-Langemark Road is the resting place of Private Clarence Edwin Sculpher, 11027, 10th (Service) Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own). He was killed in action on November 18, 1917, shortly after the second battle of Passchendaele. At first glance, it’s hard to see where Clarence’s link with Easington originates from. His birth was registered in the Sculcoates district of Hull and it was there he was listed as residing in 1911, when he worked as an Errand Boy in a “fruitshop”. Yet he was named on the original memorial in Easington Church. His gravestone is also confusing, being marked “G. E. Sculpher”, despite the official records citing his correct first name.
There are also naming issues with Private Louis Carrick, 202914, 1st/4th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers (as well as a service re-numbering that could have caught us out). One of four children to John Henry and Emily Carrick of Baulk End, Easington, he is listed as “Lewis” on the 1891 census and again ten years later when boarding with the Briglin family of Burton Pidsea, with whom he was employed as “horseman on the farm”. The spelling has changed in 1911, by which time Louis was back at the family home in Easington, working as a farm labourer. He died aged 34 on October 26, 1917 and is one of 33,783 UK soldiers remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing situated outside Passchendaele.
Tyne Cot was our final stop, leaving us two short of our target. Agonisingly, we actually passed very close to Ridge Wood Cemetery, where rests Private John Richardson Longhorn, 19287, 8th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment. Born in Kilnsea, a resident of Skeffling and before the war a horseman with the Screeton family at Haverfield Farm in Welwick, John was killed in action on April 26, 1916. Sadly, he will have to wait a little while longer for his cross, as will Gunner John Alfred Webster, 64054, ‘B’ Battery, 174th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery who is buried at La Clytte, west of Ypres. The plan now is to visit those two graves when we head back for the Armistice Centenary commemorations in a year’s time.
In the meantime, on Sunday I shall be privileged to step forward, lay that wreath and bow my head in memory of those brave, brave men from our little village in the back of beyond. 
Lest we forget.

FOOTNOTE: Unfortunately it appeared that Burt had been given false information as to his great-uncle's memorial (which made his inadvertently stumbling on his name elsewhere all the more beneficial!); whilst Kev never did find reference to his grandfather in the 12th East Yorks...because he actually served in the 12th West Yorks!  


  1. Hello from Virginia, USA. I was born in Cottingham many years ago . . I stumbled onto your blog, and had a few thoughts further to your mention of Louis Carrick whose body was never found at Ypres, presumed dead. He was my great uncle, my mother's uncle (Rose Mary Carrick Begue). He was actually one of seven brothers and a sister. Most of the boys fought in the Great War, including my grandfather, Edgar, his little brother Ernest, who lost a leg in the war, his older brother William who sustained a bad head injury and had to have a metal plate put in for protection -- had terrible headaches, I was told. Incidentally, as you are a history buff, my father was Georges Begue, a Frenchman, who worked with SOE, "Churchill's Secret Army". You can google his name to find out what he did. Thanks for your post on Louis -- I put it into the genealogical records of my East Riding of Yorkshire family. kindest regards, Brigitte Begue Hartke. p.s. I may have written to you years ago, and told you all of this already!

  2. Hi Brigitte. Many thanks for your post and information on Louis. And no I don't think you have been in touch before. Fascinating stuff. Incidentally, I had a phone call some time back from somebody who thought he might be related to Louis (or was it Arthur?). I'll have a search through and find the details. Carrick is a family name still well represented in these parts.
    PS: I've just read up on your father. He sounds a very brave man.

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