from Daily Mail Saturday 23 June 2001
It was the week's most haunting picture: 20 Tommies buried arm-in-arm in A First World War grave. The Mail traced their identities.
Paul Harris reports
HARRY Boulton had ,just woken up on his 21st birthday when the orders came. It was 5.3Oam on a desperately cold Easter Monday - April 9, 1917 - and snow had turned the battlefield white. Soon it would be red with blood.
From their trench, Harry and his comrades would clearly have seen the German front line, and the coils of barbed wire that turned the no-man’s-land ahead of them into a death trap. But they knew what they were required to do.
Along the line, 20 members of the Grimsby Chums - the jaunty nickname given to the regiment in which they served — fixed bayonets, waited for the sound of their officer’s whistle, and went over the top.
Through the mud, the hail of machine-gun fire, and into the jaws of the enemy.
They were the advance party in the Battle of Arras, the most savage infantry action of World War I. They wouldn’t be coming back.
For another 84 years, their names would remain on military records and war memorials across the country as killed or missing in action. A telegram would have carried the news home. A mother, a widow, a child would be in mourning, yet unable even to attend a funeral. Precisely what happened to Harry Boulton and his comrades that day has been a mystery ever since.
But two weeks ago, the first sign that it might at last be solved began to emerge from the former battlefield around Vimy Ridge in northern France, near the area of Point du Jour. Inch by inch, archeologists unearthed a war grave containing 20 skeletons, plus a Naval officer’s grave nearby and a shell hole with three men in it.
BUT who were they? All identity tags and personal belongings had been stripped from their bodies. Not even a cap badge was left. The only clues that survived were scraps of shoulder-flashes from the 10th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment, affectionately known as the Grimsby Chums because of its links with the port.
Yesterday, however, some pieces of a wartime jigsaw began to fail slowly into place — and families across Britain were given the hope that the last resting place of their long-dead loved ones might finally have been found.
Traced by the Daily Mail, relatives of several men on the missing list for Arras helped to reconstruct a poignant picture of ordinary young men who gave their lives for their country in circumstances of extraordinary courage.
An officer who was studying mathematics at Cambridge, a teenager who marched 15 miles to Grimsby to enlist, a 17-year-old who lied about his age to sign up, a craftsman, a mill worker, a miner.
And one family might have provided the key to the mystery of the Lost Chums: they were notified by the government in 1917 that their son had been blown up by a shell while sheltering with a group of 20 during the first Arras push on April 9.
In their regimental records the Lincolns have compiled a list of name, rank and serial number of soldiers unaccounted for in the Arras offensives of April 1917.
For April 9 there are 21 names for which no information is available, and for which no graves were ever discovered. Naturally, military sources are reluctant to say for certain that the Point du Jour graves contain the missing 21 - and they admit that proving it might be impossible.
But they acknowledge there is compelling evidence that these comrades in arms are the Lost Chums, leaving open the possibility that their officer might yet be discovered along-side his men in a separate grave. The story of the Chums reflects the wave of patriotic fervour at a time when Lord Kitchener famously demanded: ‘Your country needs you!’
A Lincolnshire Regiment poster in Grimsby urged: ‘Wake up Grimsby! Young men do your duty. Join now with your pals. 500 men from all classes must be recruited at once.’
And all classes was exactly what they got- bankers, public schoolboys, factory workers and farm labourers. They enlisted to fight in the so-called Pals’ battalions, some youngsters pretending they were 18 to qualify, Harry Boulton was among them. He was born in Thorganby, Lincolnshire on April 9 1886. His passion was art. He sketched all the time and had won a coveted place at the Slade school in London. But inspired by his elder brothers (infantryman Edward was wounded at Gallipoli while Charles served on the convoys to Russia) he walked 15 miles from the family home at Immingham to enlist in Grimsby as Private 40894 early in 1915.
With hundreds of others he trained at the Earl of Yarborough’s Brocklesby estate, about ten miles outside Grimsby. The Chums joined the 34th Division before embarking for France on January 4, 1916.
Within months the infamous Battle of the Somme had started. Fifteen officers and 487 men out of 1,000 Lincolns were killed missing or wounded in the first few days alone.
Survivors were given much-earned leave. Records show that many were allowed home between December 24 that year and January 3, 1917, to be with their families for Christmas. They were no longer fresh-faced, optimistic youngsters. Nor, incidentally, were they all from Grimsby - massive casualties meant recruits were now being taken from all over the country
It is not hard to imagine the Chums’ thoughts when they returned to the horrors they had briefly left behind over Christmas.
Harry Boulton's life was to end a few weeks later. He never got to take up his art school place, never saw his nine brothers and sisters again. Among the personal effects that somehow got back to his family was a bleak sketch of a cross with the initial 'H' carved across it - almost certainly a premonition of death.
YESTERDAY Elsie Kennedy, Harry's 77-year-old niece, rekindled his memory. 'I visited Vimy Ridge on a coach trip a few years ago, and felt so happy because I knew that somewhere, it was the place where Harry was,' she said.
'He was an artistic, handsome, sensitive, kind and brave man, and I'm proud to know that his name is on the memorial to the war dead here in Immingham.
'The thought of him dying on his birthday along with so many of his brave friends is such a sad one, but the discovery of these bodies would be a very moving end to the mystery.'
William James Easby was one of three brothers and three sisters born and raised on Tyneside in South Shield. His younger brother Harold died aged only seven and his father, John, died from meningitis in 1910. That left his mother Nell to bring up the family with her eldest daughter Mary to help. At the age of 17 James, as he was known, lied about his age and left his job at a shipyard to join the war effort, His niece Ena Lightfoot recalls stories from her mother, Mary, and grandmother.
Ena, 81, from South Shields, said: ‘I remember them talking about my Uncle James, He was sent to France. He had only been in the Army a matter of weeks or months before my grandmother got word he had been killed.
‘She was devastated. She had already lost a son at the age of seven, and now this. She never wanted him to join the Army - she told him he was too young. But she knew he wouldn’t wait. He wanted to join the war effort.
‘She got word from the Home Office that he was among a group of 20 in his platoon sheltering in a hut that was hit by some sort of shell or bomb.
‘From that day on, even though my grandmother had a war pension, she refused to accept her son was dead. She kept expecting him to walk through the door. She died in 1939 when she was 72. I know she went to her grave hoping her son was still alive.
‘The rest of us accepted he must have been killed because the War Office would not have given a pension otherwise.
‘I would like to see my uncle given a full military burial, and for his body to be brought back to his home in South Shields.
I think as a serving soldier who fought for his country, it is the very least he deserves.’