DAVID WHITHORN

A Special Centenary


My fellow battlefield guide David Whithorn posted the following article as a series of photographs and accompanying text on Facebook, on 12th December, 2014, exactly a hundred years to the day after the death of his uncle, Tom Young.  Facebook is not the best medium for this type of commemorative account because it's an "instant" medium and has no real archive.  David agreed to let me republish his combination of words and pictures here, just as they first appeared.  Tom Morgan


The Centenary of the Great War comes home… a personal story for today, maybe a long one but I think you will like it, if you do please feel free to share it, someone, somewhere may be inspired to do something similar themselves. For June Mitchell, Paul Duffy and the remaining members of my dwindling family I have lost contact with many years ago who yet may chance on this – this special story is for all of us…


Known Unto God


12th December 2014…A hundred years ago, to this very day, to this very hour, the British front line before the village of Neuve Chapelle was beginning to ‘stand down’ and start what would be recorded as a ‘quiet’ day. It had been a very cold night, the winter weather was worsening, and soldiers were succumbing to some of the first cases of ‘trench feet’. The night had been a busy one, reinforcing the trench walls to try prevent the inevitable collapses. The men here were from Yorkshire, indeed part of the 2nd  battalion West Yorkshire regiment. They had been used to much warmer weather in India, the Balkans and most recently Malta before a short return home to Hursley camp, near Winchester. For many, this would be a chance for a brief (and last) visit home to see family members they had not seen for years and to meet new ones, born in the time they had been away. It was then off to France to join the BEF there. To date, they had not seen much action, but they could see the results of it for themselves in their immediate surroundings from major actions a few weeks before. Breakfast and a welcome cup of tea would be on their way up from the support lines soon. It would be a time to relax, talk, have a wash and shave before a chance for maybe a little sleep. Apart from the sentries, keeping a look out, other soldiers might now drop their guard…some might become ‘careless’…


Across No-Man’s land, the Germans were starting their day in a similar manner. Maybe the post would be up soon, a chance for a letter from home, for them it would be a ‘quiet’ day too, but not for all of them. Part of the line here included a fortified farmhouse, surrounded by a moat; on maps it is known as ‘Ferme Vanbesian’ the British would call it the ‘Moated Grange’. In the comfortable cellars here were housed the ‘elite’, a group of men who kept themselves apart, keeping the tools of their trade spotlessly clean ready for another day’s work. These men were snipers, expert shots well-versed to using stealth to hunt their pre-war prey in the woods and hills of Bavaria. These days, their prey were the enemy soldiers across No-Man’s land. Some had already set off to take up their chosen spots before dawn, to lie low, keep still and be ‘watchful’…


Sometime around now, 100 years ago, the ‘watchful’ spotted the ‘careless’ and assessed the situation. A British soldier’s head repeatedly exposed between a gap in the sandbags of the parapet a few hundred yards away. Carefully and slowly the rifle would be raised and the target was placed in the sights. Another chance, a single shot, a direct hit to the head – the soldier’s recoil showed this was a fatal shot. Emergency shouts from across No-Man’s land for help. It would not be needed; the sniper laid low, his day’s pay earned…


This sniper would never know the name of this British soldier he had killed today, just another of many that had become victims to the snipers at the ‘Moated Grange’ in recent weeks, there would likely be more to follow. The name of this sniper is not known, nor his future. However, it is likely his future may have been very short indeed...just one week later, soldiers of this brigade with Royal Engineer support would attack the ‘Moated Grange’ at night, to stop this steady stream of sniper casualties. Lt Philip Neame RE would distinguish himself in this attack by personally throwing fifty jam-tin bombs to destroy this sniper’s nest and those in it. For this, he would be awarded the Victoria Cross, he would survive the war and his story would be preserved as a voice recording in the Imperial War Museum…


I can tell you this British soldier’s name, he was 8060 Pte Thomas Young, known as ‘Tom’ by family and friends alike. He was born in Bilton in east Yorkshire and grew up in this little village. Later, he and his family would move to the nearby town of Wetherby and they would live in rented rooms in the rear of the Fox public house. On Sundays, he and his family would attend the Methodist church next door. Like many, Tom was part of a large family who would go their separate ways in the early 1900’s. Tom would not marry, instead he joined the Army and indeed would ‘see the world’…


With succeeding generations, Tom would be forgotten by his family and would only be found by his ‘nephew’ doing the family tree. Yes, that ‘nephew’ is me; this British soldier was my ‘Uncle’ Tom, as he is to the few others left in my family...

A hundred years on we commemorate the Centenary of the Great War 1914-18…but today of all days, that centenary commemoration comes home - to me...please now let me tell you a little more of this story…


Neuve Chapelle
Neuve Chapelle from Google Earth


Perhaps the finest piece of free software for Great War research…Here is the map showing the locations in this story, the positions of the 2nd West Yorkshire on 12/12/1914 and the ‘Moated Grange’. Just about all signs of the actions around this once famous village are gone. Also here is marked the original location of the grave of 9814 L/Cpl James Fearnhead of the 2nd West Yorkshire killed here on their previous tour earlier in December 1914…but I am getting ahead of myself…


Google Earth picture from the British Lines


This is just about the last view that ‘Uncle’ Tom ever saw - from the British front line looking towards the German lines and the ‘Moated Grange’, a quick look, perhaps…but not quick enough…






Google Earth picture - from the German Lines


This is the view the German sniper had from the ‘Moated Grange’. The British line (near tree line) looks distant. However, to his credit, he knew his stuff alright and perhaps the telescopic sight on his calibrated rifle would give him the necessary edge he needed.


Google Earth picture - the Moated Grange today



Google Earth ‘Street view’ is amazing isn’t it? Here is ‘Ferme Vanbesian’ or the ‘Moated Grange’. The original farm buildings were destroyed; today they have been rebuilt into a lovely home. You do have to be there though to notice that the lowest brickwork courses on some buildings are the originals. It is nice to know the present owners are fully aware of the history of their home, the ‘nephew’ of Lt Neame VC sent me their photographs on a visit to their house some years ago…the original moat still remains though, quiet and still…


Fox Yard, Wetherby


Back to the UK now and a rare and ultimately poignant photograph found among some family papers that led to quite some confusion… On the back is a direction to a particular soldier with a reference of ‘Uncle Tom’. This pleased my mother, until I pointed out that this simply could not be…’Uncle Tom was in the West Yorks. not the 155th RFA, given their history the photograph can only have been taken after his death’…silence…the significance of the picture became clear later…this photograph was kept, not because of the soldiers but the central civilians…these are Uncle Tom’s parents (William and Elizabeth Young, my g-g-grandparents) and two of his sisters and maybe a niece, but I do not know whom. The photograph also bears a location ‘Fox Yard, Wetherby’ where the family then lived. At least whichever one of my great-aunts added these details; she got this last bit right! As for the soldiers? I once thought these men must have been billeted here (lots of stabling at the rear of the Fox public house) and had been cared for during their stay by our family – but no, I was wrong – the 155th RFA were exclusively raised in Wetherby and were all from the town (the town’s ‘Pals’ unit), they had no requirement for a billet in Wetherby, they already lived here. ‘Uncle’ Tom was Wetherby’s first war casualty, All these men are the Wetherby men who formed this ‘Pals’ unit showing support for our family in the aftermath of ‘Uncle’ Tom’s death – there are no smiles here…it really is quite a poignant photograph when you know its secret...



Fox Yard, Wetherby, 2011



No, this is not a ‘Health and Safety’ poster on where not to store quantities of combustible material…though it should be. This is the site of the 1915 photograph as we found it. The fire escape dominates the photograph, but if you look carefully you can see through the alleyway the same view, the drain cover is a replacement but in the same place, but the original drain-pipe ‘bucket’ is still there…


Wetherby, Remembrance Sunday, 9th November, 2014

I was committed as a member of the ‘Great War Quarter-Guard’ on the Basingstoke War Memorial in this centenary year. I contacted the Wetherby News who printed ‘Uncle’ Tom’s story and a request that a cross would be placed on the Wetherby War Memorial for him on my behalf. I am indebted to Chris Noble who did this for me and possibly many other kind people besides…the people of Wetherby had rallied round for our family once more, 100 years on…





Le Touret Memorial



Uncle’ Tom has no known grave as is commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial to the Missing (panels 9, 10). Unlike its better known counterparts, the Menin Gate and the Thiepval Memorial, for every 1000 visitors they receive, Le Touret Memorial might get 5 if lucky. The place saw no other visitor than me when I went to see ‘Uncle’ Tom’s name engraved here. There is tragedy here and a greater tragedy too, for the visitor. The internal corridors are dark and the engraving is so feint it is almost impossible to read the names, let alone photograph one. In desperation, some visitors had ‘pencilled’ them in. I would never do this and was content with simply and lightly tracing the letters of his name with my fingers…was this an end to my searches? For those who know me well they would know that this would be but a beginning…


Royal Irish Rifles Cemetery, Laventie

From the records, between 1-14th December 1914, the 2nd West Yorks. lost just 5 other ranks in holding the line here before Neuve Chapelle. All these look to have been casualties from snipers (other battalions too of this brigade holding the line here would suffer similar casualties). Of the 5, two died of wounds (8480 L/Cpl John W.Blakeley and 3/9415 Pte John R.Gill) and are buried in Merville (1 K 43) and Estaires (1 C 8) cemeteries respectively, some distance away. This leaves just 3, 8060 Pte (and ‘Uncle’) Thomas Young and (remarkably, but no relative, he came from Leeds) 3/9357 Pte Harry Young are both side by side on the Le Touret Memorial to the Missing. This left me with just one, 9814 L/Cpl James H.Fearnhead. This soldier does have a grave, he is buried at Royal Irish Rifles Cemetery, Laventie (1 V 19)…This cemetery is quite some distance from where the 2nd West Yorks were when he was killed and the cemetery itself took quite a bit of finding, but was well worth the effort…This is not a very large cemetery by Ypres or the Somme standards, but big enough. Finding L/Cpl Fearnhead’s grave was not too difficult, and the really exciting bit was to find that his grave was one of a short run of five graves placed together, none of the other soldiers being identified…the cemetery register did reveal that this cemetery, although it was started in 1914, was enlarged by the concentration of graves from smaller cemeteries after the war and the bringing in of isolated graves from the Neuve Chapelle area at the time…this is about as far as I could take matters then, there would need to be a new source of information to go further…this would only come in this centenary year…



Relocated Graves, Royal Irish Rifles Cemetery (Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

The photograph again says a great deal, if you realise what this signifies…The release of new contemporary records by the CWGC onto its website this year has been very useful. This has included the original cemetery (final) lists at the end of the war with their many alterations etc. Also included are map references to the original locations of graves that were removed and relocated into these final war cemeteries…this is such a page from RIR Cemetery, Laventie showing these details for L/Cpl Fearnhead indicating the original location of his grave and indeed that his and all the other four unknown graves alongside him were brought to this cemetery from Map Sheet 36, Square M34…this would represent a reasonable area, but here too are closer coordinates…I mentioned almost at the beginning of this story, my Google Earth ‘map’ showed the original location for L/Cpl Fearnhead’s grave…now you can see, as might be expected, this was very close to where the 2nd West Yorks. were in the line in front of Neuve Chapelle. Now what of the other four ‘unknowns’?...yes, all came from the same place…the temptation here, and it is a very human desire to say this, is to say one of these four could well be the grave of ‘Uncle’ Tom lost for a century…sadly, we will never know, he may yet still lie in an undiscovered grave somewhere in front of Neuve Chapelle or have been dismembered by a shell in later fighting scattering his remains to the four winds…However, the next time I get the chance to go to Laventie, I can at least visit these graves once more with this new knowledge, just in the hope that one grave here indeed just might be, my ‘Uncle’ Tom…


And finally, I am again deeply indebted to Chris Noble of Wetherby for providing this photograph of my ‘Uncle’ Tom from an old microfilm copy of the Yorkshire Evening Post, this is the only likeness of him I have, but he looks familiar somehow…This soldier was killed exactly 100 years ago today, indeed as you read this - just one of the many millions in the Great War, of all nationalities… Somewhere in our families we all have our ‘Uncle’ Tom, lost, forgotten for generations – just one poppy maybe among the many at the Tower of London this year… I hope this story will show all who may read it that we are ALL affected by the Centenary of 1914-18, and not just for the ‘big days’ the whole nation will commemorate. Each and every day of these four long years will be special for someone, somewhere if they but knew it...Today, 12
th December 2014 has been my family’s special ‘Great War Centenary’ day. Thank-you for reading my special story today - may it encourage you too to find your ‘Uncle Tom’ sometime in these next, historic years...

For a direct link to the author of this article, email David Whithorn

Copyright David Whithorn, December, 2014

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