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
(additional reporting by by Peter
Allen and Sarah Harris)
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
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
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
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
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
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
‘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.’
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