George the Saturday Night Soldier by Ray Hoggart
A tribute to my Grandfather 'George'.
George was born in 1888 in Skelton, Middlesbrough but came with the family to Sunderland when is not certain but he was there by the 1901 Census. He lived with his family in Zetland Street. He married Isabella in 1909 and they lived together eventually in Dame Dorothy Street. At some time George must have joined the Territorial Army and paraded on Saturday night each week at the Drill Hall in Livingstone Road. The Territorial Army was intended for the home defence of the realm and would not have been expected to go overseas and since Britain had not been invaded for some time a home defence force didn’t have much real soldiering to do but paraded every Saturday night. This lead to the Territorial Army being looked down on as amateurs and christened by the Regular Army ‘The Saturday night soldiers’
On the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914 it became apparent that the Regular Army hadn’t sufficient numbers and could not hope to support the French and Belgians in the fighting line which eventually stretched from Belgium to Switzerland. The War Cabinet realized that a huge recruiting campaign would be necessary to fill the ranks of the regular army but as an interim measure the soldiers in the Territorial Army were given the option of resigning or agreeing to go overseas. Any young soldiers who opted out would no doubt be conscripted anyway in the future when it was realized that volunteers were not signing on in sufficient numbers to make up the huge losses being sustained.
George must have agreed to go overseas and eventually sailed from Gateshead on the 19th of April 1915 as the 1/7th Durham Light Infantry,( the high second number indicating it was not one of the main Line Battalions), of the 171st Brigade, 50th Northumbrian Division, and disembarked on the 20th at Boulogne. The 1/7th began moving in the direction of Ypres in Belgium by train to Bavinchove near Cassel, and a billeting area at Ryveld. On the 22nd they were at Vlamertinghe and then marched through Ypres and camped overnight on the 24th at the Chateau grounds at Potijze. This happened to coincide with a German attack in the area where they were to try out gas as an attacking aid, the 1/7th at Potize would have been able to hear the sound of artillery. At dusk on the 25th the 1/7th were ordered to move nearer the line to Verlorenhoek and at 2pm marched to an area NW of Zonnebeke, they arrived at their destination, dug in, but were not needed and on the 27th were moved to the rear. Although the 1/7th did not engage the enemy directly they nonetheless had casualties, around 60 wounded and 8 men killed presumably from shellfire, whether they experienced the German gas is not known. The Regimental Diary says ‘all ranks behaved splendidly’ Quite an experience it must have been, in Sunderland on the 18th and possibly killed in Belgium 7 days later! The 1/7th were ordered to the rear and spent the next month being moved all around Ypres to various temporary barracks and doing various jobs including trench digging
The Germans were having difficulty breaking the line in front of Ypres and on the 23/24th of May an attack again using gas was launched further SW and at 2am 2 Companies of the 1/7th, A and B were ordered into the line beween the Roulers railway line and the lake at Bellewarde with the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers During this attack the trench where A and B found themselves was in a poor condition being filled with water and with very little in the way of protection. The trench was overrun and retaken then overrun again by the enemy and the 1/7th were forced to retire The 1/7th, A and B Companies and the Royal Fusiliers were in that trench at the time and had a bad time of it. At this time George disappeared, it was later discovered he had been wounded, whether by bayonet, bullet or shrapnel is not known. The Regimental Diary states ‘A & B reported to have behaved in a most valiant manner’ and then states the important phrase ‘such men as were left of A & B rejoined the Battalion.’ There wouldn’t be many, the casualties for this time were over 60 dead! How many were prisoners and how many were wounded is not known but using the action on the 25th April as a guide it must have been considerable.
George returned home to Sunderland in 1919 having worked on a farm for the rest of the war.
Of his comrades, 7 were killed on the 23rd April and over 60 in the action of 24/25th May and apart from one buried in Sunderland the rest lie in Belgium, most of them are mentioned on the Menin Gate in Ypres because their remains were never found.
George was means tested in 1926 when he applied for
relief and when it was refused he threw his 3 medals on the fire,
a land fit for heroes they said!
All locations and engagements are taken from the 1/7th DLI War Diary for the period, all references to George are from memory and family recollections and some mild speculation.
Ray Hoggart 2006