Remembering Leeds' Lost Lives

Leeds_Pals.pngThis Sunday, like many other people from our area, I'll be attending the annual Remembrance Ceremony in Victoria Gardens in Leeds city centre, as we remember the ordinary men and women - particularly those from Leeds - who lost their lives in conflict, as we continue to mark the centenary of World War I.

This year, alongside other conflicts, we mark 100 years since the Battle of the Somme. Estimates suggest that over four months, on this 15 mile front, casualties reached over one million on all sides. This is where the historian AJP Taylor said, "idealism perished".

We will never know exactly how many were killed and wounded, but casualties were on such a scale and in such a short period of time, as to make it difficult to today comprehend the impact of the battle for that generation.

This year I've tried to find out a bit more about the connection between the casualties on the Somme and our local communities here in Leeds. The war and the recruitment of the Pals Battalions in 1914 took a whole generation of young men from their local communities, their workplaces, their sports teams, and the Battle of the Somme meant that many never returned home to Leeds.

One of the units sent 'over the top' on 1st July 1916 was the 15th Battalion of the Prince of Wales Own West Yorkshire Regiment - better known as the 'Leeds Pals' Battalion.

The Leeds Pals battalion arrived in France in 1916 and as part of the plans for the Battle of the Somme, were positioned alongside other Pals battalions from Bradford and Durham and tasked with capturing the village of Serre - around eight miles north of the Somme.

One can only imagine the feelings of the men of the Leeds Pals, knowing they would be ordered to climb out of the trench and walk towards the German lines. Reports state that their trenches were already under heavy fire ahead of 'Zero Hour', when they would have been lining up.

Two units had to climb out and take up advance positions in 'No Man's Land' ahead of the attack. Many accounts recall how the Leeds Pals put fear to one side as they advanced into No Man's Land. But the Leeds Pals never reached the village of Serre. At 7.30am, the whistles blew for a 'general advance' and within just a few minutes, most of the battalion was shot down and most of the Leeds Pals lives had been cut tragically short.

Some of the Leeds Pals who survived wrote about their experience. Edward Woffenden wrote: "Terrible bombardment by both sides from midnight. Almost half the battalion out of action before zero hour. Lads mown down by machine gun fire as they advanced". Arthur Pearson wrote: "Men fell rapidly under fire ... I came across some of our company in a shell hole. Here we huddled, sheltered from the bullets but battered by shrapnel. First one man got hit, then another". Cyril Cryer wrote: "I was sent over to find out how the first wave of attack had got on and what advance they'd made, and there was no actual sign of anybody, they'd all been wiped out".

A Private Bristow estimated that those who went over the top numbered, "750 out of the 900 in the Battalion, and only 72 survivors". Laurie Milner, a historian of the Leeds Pals, says the records show 528 casualties. What we can be clear about is the fact that many hundreds of men from Leeds did not survive the first day on the Somme.

But they were more than numbers. We should remember them as men who lived in Leeds, worked in Leeds, drank in pubs and played football and cricket in Leeds. Those volunteers included ordinary working class men like John Morton a tailor from Manston aged 24; Arthur Dobson, a warehouseman from Colton aged 27; brothers Wilfred and Walter Joy, aged 21 and 27, from Harehills; brothers Reginald and Gerald Willkinson,aged 24 and 31. Gerald worked at Cross Gates railway station - a station I use every week.

When we take a moment to consider who volunteered and who was conscripted, where they came from and what they did, we see the real cost of the battle, and real cost of the First World War. That experience affected communities across Britain, but also in France and Germany and elsewhere.

So when I again stand in Victoria Gardens on Sunday, I will take a moment to remember the men and women who died in the war - including the men of the Leeds Pals Battalion. Always remembered - never forgotten.


With thanks to Laurie Milner, author of Leeds Pals, and Stephen Wood's Leeds Pals website - I encourage you to read both.

Photo from Leodis - Leeds Libraries Photographic Archive.

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