100 years ago, Harry Holmes from St. Mary’s Walk in Harrogate was declared missing at the Battle of The Somme. He was a celebrity in his home town and a hero on the Western Front.
Before the war Harry was a carpenter and builder, and on Sundays he sang in St. Peter’s Church choir as principal alto. When Great Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, he joined the local battalion, the 1/5th West Yorkshire Regiment, along with hundreds of other Harrogate men. They became soldiers of the Territorial Force, or ‘Terriers’.
After 6 months’ training in York and Mablethorpe they arrived at the Front in April 1915 and took part in the disastrous Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9 May 1915. Then they moved to Ypres, in Belgium, to hold the line for 6 months in terrible conditions of mud and rain.
At 11am on 1 August 1915 Harry was wounded for the first time, when he was hit on the right leg and buttock by a red hot fragment of flying ‘whizz bang’ shell which exploded on his dugout, destroying it completely. Harry’s mates dug him out of the debris and he was taken to No.1 Canadian General Hospital in France, and then back home to the Royal Bath (Military Auxiliary) Hospital in Harrogate, where he stayed seven months. On 24 November 1915, W.H. Breare wrote in the Harrogate Herald that Harry had been in to see him ‘looking extremely well. Just a little paler, but full of life, and spirits as ever.’
While a patient at the Bath hospital, Harry organised the hospital concert party which performed around Claro District, including a date at the Harrogate Grand Opera House (now Harrogate Theatre) raising £200.
By March 1916 he had fully recovered and returned to the battalion in time for the Battle of the Somme which started on 1 July 1916. The Harrogate Terriers were based near Thiepval, where a series of hopeless attacks were made on stiff German defences on the first day of the battle. The 1/5th Battalion themselves suffered 53 casualties when ordered to walk forward into vicious machine gun fire around Thiepval Chateau. There was another hopeless attack on 3 September when the 1/5th Battalion lost 109 men.
General Sir Douglas Haig said that this was their own fault as they were ‘too sleepy to fight well’. Harry Holmes and his mates proved the old General wrong on the afternoon of 28th September 1916, when they were ordered to attack the bristling ‘Schwaben Redoubt’.
This time the attack was successful, as the 1/5th Battalion worked its way up Thiepval Ridge to the Redoubt at the top of the hill, into the teeth of enemy machine gun fire, amid exploding shrapnel shells and poison gas. Supporting the 7th Bedfords, the Yorkshiremen advanced up two lines of German trenches, clearing numerous enemy dugouts as they went, using their grenades and bayonets. On the way, they cleared a series of machine gun posts and took hundreds of German prisoners.
The Brigadier later said the ‘fight became one of individual bravery, and separate battles between our men and the enemy, in which our men invariably proved themselves superior.’ Commanding the 1/5th Battalion, Colonel Hugh Bousfield from Leeds commented on ‘fine leadership of the Company Officers, and great steadiness on the part of the men’. He described that ‘there was much confused fighting in the German front and second line trenches involving hand to hand scrapping and dug-out clearing.’
During the later stages of the battle Harry was wounded again, in the leg, and might have survived except for the lack of stretcher bearers. His friend, Sergeant Clarke Waite, wrote to Harry’s sister to say that he had last been seen hobbling back down the ridge looking for help. Clarke wrote that ‘It is hard lines for us and our comrades, but we have orders to keep going forward until we reach our objective, so you can tell we have no chance of staying behind to give any assistance. I sincerely hope we shall see something of Harry, and that it will be for the best, as I can assure you that we all miss him; he was a good friend to all he met.’
The cigarettes which Harry had been sent by his sister were distributed among the men of his Platoon. His body was discovered some time later and he now lies in Mill Road Cemetery, on the very site of the attack: the Schwaben Redoubt.
John Sheehan is the author of ‘The Harrogate Terriers: A History of the 1/5th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment in the Great War’ available for pre-order from Pen & Sword (Barnsley).
He will be speaking at Harrogate Library on November 11, 2016 at 7.30pm on The Harrogate Terriers on The Somme.