YPRES VISIT 2018 - PART 2
The village of Vlamertinghe was in range of the German medium artillery fire and as a result had been reduced to rubble. The Hop Store was just out of range and used as an Advanced Dressing Station from 1915. The Hop Store remains as it was from the outside, but has now been converted into apartments. The Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery is nearby and contains 240 burials. Started in 1915, it is in an area where Rest Camps were also established.
From Vlamertinghe we moved on to Poperinghe New Military Cemetery. This was a visit I had wanted to make for some time since I had learnt that a former coachman from Baddesley Clinton House was buried there. As a volunteer at Baddesley, a National Trust House, I had supported the work of a research group that the volunteers had established. A colleague, researching the servants who worked in the house, had discovered that the coachman Joseph Harrison had volunteered in 1914 in Hereford, and had joined 1st Battalion, Kings Shropshire Light Infantry.
Private Harrison arrived in France on 8th April 1915, and after some time in the Armentieres area, his Battalion moved to the Ypres Salient and were based near Poperinghe. The Battalion War Diary indicates that from the outset that they were constantly in action and subjected to daily shelling and gas attacks. The weather was bad, the trenches were in poor condition, and movement was only possible at night.
On one day in December 1915 while in trenches at La Brique, 14 men were killed or wounded, four men died from the effects of gas and 39 others were suffering from the effects of gas poisoning. There were other similar days, and one of those killed was Private William Edgar Yates, who was only 17 and like many other KSLI casualties is buried at La Brique No2 CWG Cemetery.
While on a rest period in the Poperinghe area in January 1916 - they were there one week in three - Joseph Harrison committed suicide. The conditions that he had experienced were appalling but we will never know why he chose suicide. What we do know is that there were others who chose the same path.
Private Harrison was buried at Poperinghe New Military Cemetery, and his ‘soldier’s will’ left his effects to his sister, his sole surviving family member – a total of £9 17s and 11p. I was convinced that nobody had ever visited Joseph’s grave, which is why I was privileged to lay a wreath at his grave on behalf of Baddesley Clinton staff and volunteers.
There is nothing on Private Joseph Harrison’s grave to indicate that he committed suicide as all Commonwealth War Graves are identical in form regardless of rank or cause of death. The same applies to the 16 men also buried in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery who were executed at Poperinghe.
2nd Lieutenant Eric Poole, 11th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment was one of only three officers to be executed. He was hospitalized with shell-shock after being hit by shell debris at Contalmaison on the Somme in July 1916. He was declared fit for duty on 1st September. On 5th October while leading his Platoon towards the front line trenches at Flers he apparently wandered off, but his absence was not noted until later in the day. He was discovered two days later near Henencourt Wood, some distance from where he was supposed to be.
Lt General Sir Henry Rawlinson ordered a Court Martial with a charge of desertion. It was stated at his trial that he was easily confused and indecisive and his mental powers were less than average and seemed unaware of the seriousness of leaving his men. An examination on 21st October also concluded that his mental state precluded his ability to deliberately desert.
Despite all this, a five man panel found him guilty as charged and he was sentenced to death. He was further examined on 3rd December by a Medical Board headed by Lt Colonel H Martin, the same officer that had originally declared him fit for duty after his shell shock. They found he was of sound mind and was fully aware of his actions. General Sir Douglas Haig confirmed his conviction and sentence and he was executed on 10th December at Poperinghe Town Hall.
Private William Morris 6th Battalion, British West Indian Regiment, had responded to a recruiting drive in his native Jamaica. He arrived in France on17th April 1917, but many had fallen ill during the voyage, and most found the climate in France challenging. On 20thAugust 1917, having seen seven of his comrades become casualties, he absconded, jumping from a lorry taking him to his battery. For this offence he received 14 days Field Punishment No1. He was arrested again when he attempted to enter a rest camp in Boulogne with no ‘leave ticket’. Private Morris had clear symptoms of shell shock and told his Court Martial ‘I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of guns. I reported to the Doctor and he gave me no medicine or anything’. The Doctor was not present at his trial to confirm this but a Lt Andrews stated that he was of above average intelligence and had caused no trouble other than that for which he had been punished previously. A Corporal Russell said that he had been a willing worker.
A possible factor in his sentence was that it was an attempt to enforce discipline, following rioting by disaffected Chinese and Egyptian labourers at Etaples. Private Morris’ death sentence was confirmed by General Sir Douglas Haig on 15th September 1917 and he was shot in the courtyard of Poperinghe Town Hall. He was 17 and the youngest to be executed.
Buried next to Private Morris is Private George Everill 1st Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment. He had an issue with army discipline from the outset and was sentenced at various times for insubordination, wilful defiance and threatening an officer. He was finally sent for active duty at the front and duly deserted. He was found the following day without his rifle or equipment, was charged with desertion, and executed on 14th September 1917.
Two graves down from Private Everill is Sergeant John Wall 3rd Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment (see Brumration September 1917). He had an impeccable Army record, had risen through the ranks, and following a trial where none of his senior officers spoke in his defence, he was shot for desertion.
In the next grave to Sgt Wall is Private Joseph Stedman 117 Company, Machine Gun Corps, serving with the 39th Division. There is little information on Private Stedman but it appears he was the first from the Machine Gun Corps to be executed for desertion. He was apparently ‘absent from parade’ prior to moving up to the trenches. He was arrested on 16th August 1917 and shot, aged 25, at Poperinghe on 5th September 1917. Prior to this, three men from his unit had been executed for cowardice.
We visited Tyne Cot the following day where there are 11,871 graves, of which 70% are unidentified. There are another 35,000 soldiers who have no known grave commemorated on the memorial wall at the back of the cemetery. Despite its size, there was not enough room for them all on the Menin Gate. One of these men on Panel 90 is Private F Baker 8th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment who was killed on 12th October 1917. With others he had formed up on the tapes on a bitterly cold wet night ready for Zero Hour at 05.25. The attack on a line north of Poelcapelle achieved its objective, which was little more than a line of shell holes at a cost of 18 officers and 340 other ranks killed, wounded or missing.
Jill Kashi, Volunteer at Baddlesley Clinton for information on Private J Harrison
Major and Mrs Holt, Battlefield Guide to the Ypres Salient
Website; IWM Lives of the First World War.