On the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme

On Friday 1st July on the Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme we rededicated the War Memorial at the High School.  In his research Mr Williams of the History Dept discovered a further 31 names who were not listed on the original memorial.  What follows is the address that I gave paying tribute to some of these men and also to those who fell on the first day of the Somme Battle.

This morning we remember all those whose names are listed on this memorial.  In doing so I want to tell you some of their stories so that we can start to understand that behind the terrible figures there are real people.  I will start with a few of those whose stories have only recently been uncovered before moving on to some of those who lost their lives 100 years ago today.

I want to start with the story of Second Lieutenant Stanley Coetmore Jones who was here at School from 1881 to 1885.  He died on 3rd September 1916.  Stanley was born into a family of at least 9 children before leaving the School to work on the Thoresby Estate.  He married Henrietta Anne Hall on 4th April 1899 and they had two children.

For some years he had acted as a land agent to Lord Scarborough in connection with his Skegness estates. Lord Scarborough practically ‘owned Skegness and had been largely responsible for its growth and popularity prior to the outbreak of the war.  Stanley volunteered for service in the early stages of the conflict, and for a time acted as a voluntary transport driver in France.  Later he transferred his services to the Royal Engineers and saw action on the western front.  He was a man of fine physique, over six feet high and proportionately broad, and was greatly gifted in engineering, constructional and architectural capacities.  Two of his forbears had been Generals who took part in the Battle of Waterloo so it was perhaps no surprise that he joined up as a volunteer.  He was in his forties when war broke out and therefore under no obligation to serve his country, but in May 1915 he generously devoted his holidays to driving a motor car in France for the benefit of the YMCA.  In July the same year he underwent a slight operation, in order to qualify for more serious work, and he was then granted a commission in the Royal Engineers.  He sailed for France on July 4th 1916 and Stanley was killed in action on September 3rd.  , a brother officer wrote about him: “We had no chance of saving him.  He was killed instantaneously” and he was “a thorough sportsman and a true pal.”

It is perhaps difficult for us today to comprehend the bravery of those who volunteered to fight, this selfless act was to cost Stanley his life but was typical of so many of that generation who fought to protect the freedoms that we so enjoy today.

I now want to tell you about Captain John Leslie Butler who was to be one of those old boys of the school who was awarded the Military Cross for Gallantry.  John was born in 1891 and was at the School from 1901-1903.  He was the nephew of Sir John Robinson, a leading Nottingham businessman and founder of the Home Ales Brewery Company.  John lived in Daybrook and enlisted into the army in 1915, and was commissioned into the Royal Artillery on 12th August 1916, later serving with the Royal Field Artillery.  For some time he served as a staff officer and was awarded the Military Cross in the London Gazette of 17th March 1916, the citation reads: “For conspicuous gallantry when acting as forward observing officer to his battery.  Accompanied by a signaller, he laid a line across 300 yards of open ground under heavy fire.  He established communication and maintained it throughout the day.”  He is reported as having died of his wounds on the 17th May 1919, aged 28 years when serving in India and the probability was that he was detached for service with a Mountain Battery of the Indian Army.  He is buried in the Peshawar Cemetery, in India and his name is commemorated on the Delhi Memorial as well as on a memorial in St Mary’s Church in Arnold.


Next we have Second Lieutenant Sidney Wade.  He joined the army at the same time as his brother Herbert who is already on our war memorial.  Both Herbert and Sidney joined the army together (their military numbers were just one digit apart)  and they were to die less than a week apart.  Their father owned the Wade and Company tannery which had over 100 employees at its peak. Herbert Wade was another to win the Military Cross for his bravery, his citation read: “For Conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.  He collected a few men and a machine gun and remained within 30 yards of the enemy trenches and kept the gun in action for fourteen hours, inflicting severe casualties and being at times under our own barrage and continuous fire from the enemy.”  Sidney died having seen action of pneumonia following influenza, aged just 26 and is buried here in Nottingham at the General Cemetery.

Private Norman Clough was here at School from 1910-1912 but was called upon to make the supreme sacrifice on October 4th 1917, when only nineteen years of age, whilst in charge of a Lewis gun. This is taken from his obituary: “In the camp and trench, as at home and in his church, he carried with him the same quiet dignity and Christian influence which make him hard to be missed.  He had natural gifts for speaking and was anxious to cultivate them.  He was an exceptionally good artistic designer.  Although so young, he had proved his worth very eloquently, and his cheerful optimism will be long remembered.”

I guess many of you here today could be described as having similar “cheerful optimism” and can only imagine the horrors of this early generation who made the ultimate sacrifice.

I now want to move on to some of those who fell on this day, 100 years ago.  More than one million soldiers were killed, missing or wounded on both sides during the Battle of the Somme by the time it finished on 18th November 1916.  The first Day of the Somme 0n 1st July 1916 was a disaster for the British.  In total, 19,240 men were to lose their lives on 1st July alone, with a further 38,230 reported injured or missing.   This was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army.  In total 7 Old Boys lost their lives that day, with a further two dying in the weeks that followed from injuries sustained on 1st July.  Here are some of their stories:

Captain Elliott Johnston, another Military Cross holder.  He was at the High School from 1901-1902.  This is his story.  “On the night of the 26th gas was liberated by us (yes, the British too used gas in the first world war) from cylinders in the wood after a great bombardment.  It was the first time the Division had had to do with the abominable stuff, which brought no good fortune.  Many cylinders were burst by heavy German barrage, and serious casualties suffered by the men of the Special Brigade responsible for letting off the gas, and by the infantry assisting them.

Two hours later a raid, led by the High School’s Captain Elliot Johnston was carried out in this sector by a party sent up by the 13th Rifles.  The men, now at a pitch of excitement and enthusiasm that rendered them resistless opponents in hand-to-hand fighting, swarmed into the battered German trenches, shooting right and left, and bombing dug-outs.  They returned with one German officer and twelve other ranks as prisoners, the first captured by the 36th Division.  Their own casualties were six killed and nine wounded, suffered for the most part in the Sunken Road, where they had to lie for some time before it was possible to return to their trenches.  Captain Elliot Johnston won the MC for his daring raid.  Captain Johnston, the leader of the raid, brought in all his casualties, as well as his prisoners despite being seriously wounded.  He was to fall five days later in the greater venture.  The prisoners denied knowledge of the British gas, nor did their respirators smell of it.  It was occasionally felt that the British gas services rated too highly the effects of their devices.  Captain Johnston’s bravery was remarkable and as with the other Military cross holders I have mentioned today their bravery was often shown to the benefit of others, the men who they were leading.

Another of those that fell that fateful day was Colonel Robert Thrale.  I had the great privilege a few years ago of laying a cross in his memory at the Thiepval Memorial in France.  The first mention of his name comes in the records of the School prefects.  At that time the prefects met regularly to hear the disciplinary offences of those in the School and Robert Thrale was ‘convicted’ by them for scribbling his name on the walls of the boys’ toilets.  In Edwardian England, nobody in the School ever used the word ‘toilet’ and they were referred to as the ‘offices.’  Robert was at the High School from June 1907 until July 1910.  His lived in Lenton and his father was a stonemason.

On the 1st Day of the Somme he was serving with the Sherwood Foresters or as they were popularly known, the Robin Hoods.  Their action on this day was described thus:

“When the Robin Hoods marched out of their village just on the eve of the Somme attack to march up to the line the normally fierce regimental sergeant major standing by the side of the road had tears streaming down his face.”

They soon got bogged down in No Man’s Land and were harried by the Germans who continued to fire and throw grenades at them.  Some were captured.  Many men, including some of the officers, including William Walker ON, remained lying or hanging on the German wire in No Man’s Land until March 1917, when the Germans retreated, before they could be buried.  Robert Thrale was a medical orderly on that dreadful day and he went forward with a medical party behind the 4th wave of the Sherwoods attack.  By this time the smoke that had clouded the German trenches was clearing.  As the party emerged from the remains of the smoke cloud in full view of the German trenches, they were caught by the artillery and machine cross fire sweeping No Man’s Land.  Corporal Thrale lost his life.  His body was never found and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.  Three other ONs, Richard Mellard aged 22, Lawrence Kellett, aged just 19 and William Walker were also killed in this flawed and pointless attack on 1st July 1916.  Lawrence Kellett was another listed in the prefects’ punishment book for misbehaving in singing.  Also whilst at school he was travelling by train to an away school cricket match and had been accused of using bad language on the train – he was found not guilty of that particular offence.  More positively he had scored a hat-trick for the School football team against Derby Grammar School.

Robert Thrale is recorded in the Sherwood Forester’s History.  It states that he was the Battaliion Medical Orderly.  It went on to say: ‘He was one of the lights of the medical staff.   His cheerfulness and unvarying good nature, also the fact that he was the Captain of the Battalion Football Team made him a great favourite.  He was gifted with extraordinary endurance on long marches besides having to remain behind continually with men who had fallen out and to regain his place with the Battalion, he usually spent time at the halts performing service for others.”

Another who fell on 1st July was Private Douglas Albert Mackay.  I was delighted earlier this week to hear from one of his relatives, Major Charles Ottowell.  Douglas is his grandmother’s brother on his father’s side of the family.  Major Ottowell cannot be with us today as he is actually visiting the Somme but he has sent us a Somme Cross to lay at our Memorial in memory of his relative, Douglas Mackay.

Private Douglas Mackay was at the School from 7th October 1907 until December 1911.  He joined the Grimsby Chums battalion.  There is a story of their departure for France:

“Whilst waiting on the quayside to embark, a huge hospital ship came in filled with wounded.  From the upper deck a voice shouted, ‘Are you downhearted?’ to which we replied to a man ‘NO-o-o’, Back came the voice, ‘Then you bloody well will be!”

This turned out to be true.  When they got to France they faced dreadful conditions and in particular rats, some of which were described as being as big as cats, which were to be found in the trenches.  Strangely the night before the attack they were all in good spirits:

“They shook hands with us all when they left, and went off not at all pleased at being out of the show.  We, on the other hand, were in good spirits: I don’t know why, for we all knew that there was a good chance of many being killed or wounded, but we were in good spirits and they were not assumed either – even those who moan as a rule were cheerful.  I think the fact that at last we hoped to get to close quarters with the Boche and defeat him accounted for it.”

Just prior to the attach they lit pipes and cigarettes, the men chatting and laughing.  There was a kind of suppressed excitement running through all of the men as the time for the advance came nearer.  They attached at 7.28 a.m. as the Lochnagar Mine was blown and managed to beat the Germans to the lip of the Lochnagar Crater.  Sadly Private Mackay was one of those who lost his life.  In all the Grimsby Chums lost 15 officers and 487 out of 1000, though the attacking force was probably between 700 and 800 on 1st July so this battalion were luckier than some.  Private Mackay is another of those listed on the Thiepval Memorial.

Captain William Guy Eaton Walker died on 1st July as well but his body was not recovered from the battlefield until March 1917.  He lived in Od Basford and attended the School from 1902 until 1908.  He was in the same battalion as Robert Thrale and Lawrence Kellett.  The Sherwoods suffered the loss of 77% of their men on 1st July.  The stench of decaying bodies pervaded the air for weeks to come.  Many were not recovered for some time and littered No Man’s Land or were draped grotesquely over the German wire.  Reduced to skeletons they were held together by the remnants of their uniform.  This was the dreadful reality of their stories and it is right that we today remember the horror of the situations they faced.  Captain Walker was found on 21st March 1917 hanging on the uncut German wire in front of Gommecourt Park and was then given a proper burial.

Many more ONs were to lose their lives in the months that followed as this Battle raged on.

Finally this morning I want to return to another of those not listed originally on the memorial.   I feel perhaps this is the most poignant story of all and whilst I have told it before in our Remembrance Service, it is appropriate to repeat it today.  It is the story of Sapper Robert Poole.

Robert Poole was at the High School from 1901-1902.  After school he was working as a joiner prior to becoming a Royal Engineer in February 1916.  Previously, he had been the landlord of the Griffin’s Head in Papplewick.  On 22nd June 1916, Robert was lucky enough to be granted six days’ home leave.  He had not gone abroad by this stage, being based at the Royal Engineers’ Eastern Traning Centre at Newark, only 20 miles away.

Unfortunately he was quite ill at the time and decided to use his six days’ leave to visit Blackpool with his wife, Annie, to recuperate.  When he returned, he was no better and a Dr Saunders was called for, diagnosing neuritis and actute gastritis.  He was deemed unfit to travel and a certificate to this effect was sent to the depot at Newark.  Whatever happened to that certificate is unknown but its loss was to cost him his life.

At 9.15 a.m., Saturday 15th July 1916, two weeks after the opening of the Battle of the Somme, a warrant for Robert’s arrest was received at Hucknall police station.  Poole’s home was a matter of minutes from the station so Police Constable Whitsed wasted no time in carrying out his warrant.  He went straight round to Robert’s house to arrest him for being absent without leave.  Answering the door, Robert tried to explain that a certificate explaining his absence had been sent to his commanding officer but PC Whitsed knew nothing of this and said that Robert had to come with him.  Seeming to accept this Robert said, “Oh well, I’ll get ready and go with you.”  As PC Whitsed reported to the Coroner’s court, “The next minute I heard a revolver shot, and, going upstairs, saw him sitting on the edge of the bed with a wound in his forehead and a revolver by his side.  I spoke to him about it and he said he was sorry he had done it.”  A doctor was called and he was taken to the Nottingham General Hospital, where he died at 3.30 in the afternoon.

In evidence to the coroner his wife said that “He was not a deserter.  He intended to go back to the regiment…It was done because he could not stand the disgrace of being fetched.”

A verdict of suicide during temporary insanity was returned, the jury stating its belief that the deceased was not a deserter.  He was later buried in Hucknall Cemetery.  A party of Royal Engineers from Newark attended his funeral, the coffin bedecked with flowers.  He was 30 years old.  He is regarded as a casualty of war by the Commonwealth War Graves commission but his name was not included on either the School’s or the local war memorial.  His name was added to the local memorial in 2012.

Today we remember all those listed on this memorial, those we have added today and in particular those who fell or were injured on this day 100 years ago:

Elliott Johnston, Lawrence Kellett, Douglas Mackay, Richard Mellard, Robert Thrale, William Walker, Eric Whitlock, Sydney Carter, and Henry Hooton.