At the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914, Herbert Kitchener, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, predicted that the coming conflict with Germany and her allies would be a brutal and drawn-out affair. Britain, who had long relied on a small but professional army, would need to raise a new volunteer force of around 500,000 men in order to play a significant part in the coming struggle on the continent.
The call for volunteers was put out, and up and down the country the now infamous ‘Pal’s Battalions’ were formed, where men from the same football teams, factories, or other such similar communities, enlisted and served together. The City of Chester was no different in this regard; the Cheshire Regiment received a flood of volunteers as men from Chester and the surrounding areas rushed to enlist. Within two months Kitchener’s initial call for 100,000 volunteers had been vastly exceeded, with almost half a million British men having joined up.
Many of these new Cheshire Battalions were raised at Chester in the opening months of the war. A continuous stream of volunteers into the city from across the county meant that by September 1914, five new Battalions of the Cheshire Regiment (8th – 12th) had been raised in the city. The 8th, 11th, and 12th Battalions were specifically raised at Chester Castle, which was also the location of the Cheshire Regiment’s depot for the duration of the war. The 13th Battalion, also referred to as the “Wirral Battalion,” was raised on 1st September 1914 at Port Sunlight when 1,000 men volunteered following an appeal by Lord Leverhulme. They then travelled to Chester, where they were joined by another 200 men from Wallasey and were marched by Leverhulme through the city to the Castle.
Prior to the raising of these new battalions, the Cheshire Regiment’s 1st Battalion was stationed in Derry, Northern Ireland, and a group of 18 men (3 officers and 15 NCOs) were despatched to Chester on 7th August to form a training cadre for the newly raised battalions. The 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion assembled in Chester and having drawn equipment from its stores headed to Birkenhead as part of the ‘Mersey Defences.’ The Battalion was to occupy strategic positions in the Wirral and on Hilbre Island, as well as guarding docks in Liverpool and Birkenhead. The headquarters of the 5th Battalion was at Chester, and was mobilised in the city on 5th August 1914, before heading to Shrewsbury, and later overseas in November of the same year.
Such a massive influx of men into the city resulted in a lack of adequate billeting space, with many of the new recruits being sent to stay in pubs such as The Albion, and later the American Skating Rink on Northgate Street. Col. Arthur Crookenden’s History of the Cheshire Regiment talks of men in the 8th Battalion “joining up at once in their only clothes, many just off the street,” and sleeping at Chester racecourse.
Recruits were set to training immediately in order to get them into a fighting condition as quickly as possible, and the New Army Battalions gradually began to “assume a more military aspect.” Men of the 12th Battalion are recorded as beginning “to feel that Chester might look upon it as a worthy successor to the Regulars.” During a period of poor weather, both the 10th and 11th Battalions notably suffered. The former was forced to remain in their tents for 2 days, whilst the latter, left in a waterlogged field without tents, blankets or food, eventually became discontented with their lack of clean clothing and equipment and the risk of desertion was high. Only an issue of extra beer and the appointment of a spokesperson averted disaster. By the next day, following direct liaison with Lord Kitchener himself, arrangements were being made to have the 11th Battalion moved out of Chester to new billets near Bournemouth.
. . .
My own great-grandfather was one of the men who rushed to sign up in the initial months of the First World War. Edwin Earl, a 16-year-old from Neston, 10 miles outside Chester, lied about his age and subsequently served as part of the 9th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, which was raised in the City of Chester around 5th September 1914. He would go on to serve in both France and the Middle East, being wounded at least twice. For the duration of the war Edwin kept a diary in which he collected cut outs from a Cheshire newspaper; articles concerned with men from the local area serving in the Cheshire Regiment who would have flocked to Chester in the first few months of the war as volunteers. The majority of the cut outs are obituaries of those soldiers from the Regiment killed in action, but there are a few that deal with letters sent home to family members describing life on the front lines, as well as poetry written by Cheshire servicemen.
Over the last 12 months or so I have been researching the lives of these Cheshire men that feature in this small diary and documenting their experiences of the First World War. This short piece will highlight the experiences and fates of some of these men, many of whom had their journey to the frontlines and beyond begin in the streets of Chester.
- Sgt Charles Richardson (KIA 25/09/1915)
28-year-old Sergeant Charles Harrison, who had worked as a tramcar conductor before enlisting, was killed when an artillery shell blew in a German trench that he and his men had captured during the Action of Pietre. 24 men were buried, with only one, a Lance-Corporal Evans, surviving. In a letter written by Evans to Harrison’s mother, he claims it was her son who ultimately saved him from being buried alive. Prior to the burial, Harrison had saved Evans twice “from certain death by the bayonet,” and despite having been killed by shrapnel to the head, Evans claimed “his old chum Charlie” had saved him once again:
How fearful it was, God only knows. 24 men buried and one left alive, thanks to my pal, who was on top of me with his legs sticking out of the ground. Someone saw him and pulled him out, and then they saw my hand underneath, which was warm, so they dug me out.
- Cpl Harry Heathcote (KIA 25/09/1915)
Corporal Harry Heathcote, of the 9th Battalion’s “D” Company, was also killed on 25th September 1915. A comrade of his wrote a letter to Heathcote’s mother, describing how he was struck in the shoulder by a German sniper as he attempted to enter the sap leading to his trench. He had been attending to those wounded men left stranded in no man’s land after an assault. Under cover of machine gun fire, he was loaded onto a stretcher, but was hit in the side by an explosive bullet as he was being carried into the trench. Heathcote died just a few minutes later.
- Pte Harry Delamere (KIA 01/11/1915)
Soldiers were not always killed as a result of terrifying charges into enemy trenches or daring ventures into no man’s land. Private Harry Delamere was killed by a German sniper as part of a working party tasked with the seemingly mundane job of repairing a trench parapet on 1st November 1915. The Sergeant-Major of his company wrote to his wife, Margaret, about the circumstances of her husband’s death:
He was immediately tended and taken to hospital, his chum assisting. He was quite cheerful, and we had great hopes of his recovery. Unfortunately, we received the sad news of his death three days later.
Harry is buried at the Chocques Military Cemetery in France.
- Pte Joseph Brassey (KIA 26/12/1915)
On Boxing Day of the same year Joseph Brassey, a 16-year-old soldier, and also of the 9th Battalion, is listed as having “died of wounds,” and is buried at Merville Communal Cemetery in France. Earlier in the year Brassey was featured in Edwin’s diary as part of an article which praised his patriotism and hailed him as possibly the youngest soldier in the British Army, having enlisted 12 months prior, likely in Chester, at the age of 15.
- Pte Walter Jones (KIA 30/04/1916)
Private Walter Jones, of the 13th Battalion, was killed in April 1916 by a sniper near Arras at the age of 22 years old. His platoon’s Sergeant, C.S.M. Wareham, wrote to Jones’ wife concerning the circumstances of her husband’s death:
I wish to state, on behalf of the platoon, that the men feel they have lost a valuable comrade by his death. He was highly esteemed by us all, and when he met his death in the act of carrying water to his comrades, every man felt a sense of personal loss. He was shot by a sniper, but you will be pleased to know that he died quite painlessly and instantaneously.
I have known him since the regiment was first formed, and knew him to be a brave and most reliable soldier, and I can assure you that we shall all feel his loss most acutely.
Walter is buried at the Ecoivres Military Cemetery in France
- Pte Edwin Earl (Wounded 02/07/1916 & 23/08/1918)
Edwin Earl was a Private in the 9th Battalion and took part in the capture of the village of La Boiselle on 2nd July 1916 during the opening attacks of the Battle of the Somme. His unit, initially in reserve at Albert, was called up to attack La Boiselle in support of the 34th Division on 1st July, but due to masses of wounded men blocking trenches, and the ferocity of the German artillery, the attack could not be adequately co-ordinated in time. It was not until 2:30am on 2nd July that the Battalion was fully assembled. Orders to “bomb through” the village were received at 4:00am and carried out by the Cheshires half an hour later.
Edwin was wounded in the attack, both his left knee and foot hit by shrapnel. He was evacuated from the front line to a clearing station and was operated on in London. After recovering he was re-assigned to the 1/4th Battalion of the Cheshires, spending time at the Regimental depot in Chester, before moving to the Middle East in early 1917.
He returned to France in 1918 as part of Allied counter attacks following the German Spring Offensive, with his unit being placed under French command. On 23rd July, during the Battle of Soissons, he again received wounds to his left foot and was taken to a mixed hospital in Orleans where he had two toes amputated. This was his final involvement in the First World War.
- Pte Henry Jones (KIA 04/07/1916)
Private Henry Jones was killed in action as the 9th Battalion continued their attack on La Boiselle on 4th July 1916. In a letter written to his mother, an officer from his unit, H.M. Moses, described what the loss of Henry meant to his Company:
It is with deep regret that I have to inform you that your son was killed in the advance on La Boiselle, bravely doing his duty nobly. He was one of the few lads left with the Company that came out with us in July last year, and I am the only officer, and it was a great loss to me to lose such a willing, good-hearted lad. With my most sincere sympathy to you in your great loss, I remain, yours sincerely, H.M. Moses.
Henry’s body was not recovered. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in France.
- Sgt Herbert Bostock (Died from wounds 20/08/1916)
Sergeant Hebert Bostock, of the 9th Battalion, received gunshot wounds to the abdomen in the July of 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. He died of his wounds a month later in England on 20th August. Herbert was 31 at the time of his death and was laid to rest in Birkenhead’s Flaybrick Cemetery.
- Pte Edward Lloyd (Died of Wounds 14/06/1917) and Pte Robert Lloyd
Highlighted in the diary is the story of two brothers, Edward and Robert Lloyd, who both served as part of the Cheshire Regiment in the 13th and 8th Battalions respectively. Edward, the eldest of the two by 7 years, was wounded during the Battle of the Somme, receiving a gunshot wound to the back. He returned to his wife, Lauisa Ann, in England to recover. Unfortunately, Edward died the following year, on 14th June 1917 at the age of 29. He is buried in Neston Cemetery in Cheshire.
His brother Robert spent the duration of his service with the 8th Battalion in the Eastern theatre, being station initially at Gallipoli and later Mesopotamia. He survived the war and died in 1975 in Chester, at the age of 79.
- Pte Thomas Taylor
Private Thomas Taylor served as part of the Cheshire Regiment’s 15th Battalion during the First World War.
Thomas was killed on Sunday, 19th August 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele. He was officially reported as missing on 3rd October 1917, and it was not until 8th April the following year that Private Taylor was officially listed as having been killed in action almost 8 months earlier. At the time of his death, he would have been 26 years old.
Thomas is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in France.
- Sgt John Randles (KIA 06/11/1917)
John Randles served as a sergeant in the 1/4th Battalion, having previously served eight years in India and four years in the Reserve, after which he joined the National Reserve. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was mobilised and remained in England until 1915 when he was drafted out. He took part in the Suvla Bay landings, as part of the wider Battle of Gallipoli, in August 1915, where he was shot through the right cheek. He was hospitalised for several weeks before returning to action.
John was killed on 6th November 1917 whilst leading his platoon. He died instantly, at the age of 36, when a shell exploded near him. A Sergeant Rixon wrote to John’s parents concerning their son’s death:
We have completed the little cross over his grave in memory of one of the finest pals and soldiers we have ever had the pleasure to meet. His death has caused a treble loss – firstly, you have lost a noble son, secondly, I have lost the best pal a man ever had, and thirdly, our regiment has lost one if not its best N.C.O. and soldier.
John is buried in Israel at the Jerusalem Memorial, and is commemorated on the St Oswald’s Church Memorial in Bidston.
- Pte Francis King (KIA 30/07/1918)
Private Francis King, nicknamed ‘Major’, served as part of the 1/4th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment. Francis spent most of the war in the Eastern theatre, fighting at Gallipoli until December 1915, before his unit was moved to Egypt. The Battalion moved once more in May 1918 to France, where it was attached to the 102nd Brigade as part of the 34th Division.
Francis was killed in France on Tuesday 30th July 1918, and is buried at the Rapiere British Cemetery, Villemontoire.
- 2Lt Norman Hughes (KIA 02/08/1918)
Norman Hughes served in the First World War as a Private, Lance-Corporal, and eventually Second Lieutenant in the Cheshire Regiment’s 4th (later 1/4th) Battalion. He took part in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, and later fought Ottoman-Turk forces around Gaza and Jerusalem before his Battalion was redeployed to France in 1918.
Norman was wounded on 1st August 1918, and he died the following day, at the age of 24. He was wounded in the Capture of Beugneux Ridge, during the Second Battle of the Marne (15th July – 6th August 1918), the final German offensive on the Western Front which culminated in a relentless Allied counterattack, marking the beginning of the end of the First World War.
Norman is buried at the Senlis French National Cemetery.