Monday, 18 April 2011

yorks and first wipers

By the end of ‘First Wipers’ during November 1914, the 2ND Battalion of the Yorkshire had been a mere shattered skeleton of its once proud former self. A pre war Regular Army unit, the battalion had landed in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge with the remainder of 7TH Division on the 6TH of October 1914, and had initially been intended to take part in the defence of Antwerp.
 However soon after the ‘Immortal Seventh’s’ arrival Antwerp had fallen to the advancing German hordes and the Division had marched westwards to begin digging the first trenches in front of the soon to become notorious Belgian city of Ypres. The story of the ensuing ferocious battle for the city known as ‘First Wipers’ has already been told elsewhere ahillnd needs little further attention other than to say the 2ND Yorkshire, like many of the other fine British infantry units, that had taken part in the battle could barely muster a handful of officers and men.

Relieved from the terrible bloodshed that had taken place in the defence of Ypres during the night of the 15TH of October1914, the Battalion had gone into battle with a fighting strength of around one thousand rifles and by the time that it had left the line the unit had lost ten of its officers killed, and another eighteen had been wounded, whilst the ‘other ranks’ had lost somewhere in the region of six hundred and fifty men, killed, wounded, and missing, leaving just one Captain, three Second Lieutenants, and three hundred sorry looking other ranks to march away from the smouldering ruins of Ypres and their many dead and missing comrades.

The 2ND Yorkshire had at first been marched to the village of Locre where the survivors had been given their first hot meal in many a day before they had moved into comfortable billets where the majority of the battle weary men had fallen asleep within minutes of their arrival. Rest for the Battalion, had however, been short for within a few short hours the still dishevelled unit had crossed over the border into France where the 2ND Battalion had eventually taken up positions near to the village of Ploegsteert, where once again the battalion had been afforded little rest, for during the next few days the unit had been engaged in digging trenches.

Over the ensuing days the 2ND Yorkshire had received large numbers of replacement troops and the Battalion had gradually been rebuilt into a cohesive fighting unit. By the 16TH of October the battalion had been considered fit enough for further active service and had duly marched to the French town of Fleurbaix, where the men had taken up positions in the nearby front line. Beset with almost constant heavy rain, the battalion had rotated with three days in, and three out of these often flooded and collapsing trenches throughout the remainder of 1914.

Fortune had nevertheless shone on Battalion at Christmas that year, the unit being fortunate enough to be in billets throughout the festive period. On Christmas Day each man had received ‘plum puddings galore and other additions from home’, in addition each had received a Christmas card from their King and Queen, along with a tin of sweets or cigarettes, a gift from Princess Mary.

During the same period in the area of Fleurbaix the Germans had asked for a temporary armistice in order to bury a number of their dead that had lain out in No Man’s Land. The request had duly been granted and up until the fall of night of the first day of 1915 Germans and Britons had walked freely about their respective entrenchments and even the usually lethal No Man’s Land. Much to the annoyance of the top brass the officers and men of 2ND Yorkshire had been amongst the large number of British troops that had openly fraternised with the enemy during that first Christmas of the war, the Yorkshiremen exchanging cigarettes for cigars, and their cap badges for German emblems. However, by the opening of the second day of 1915 it had been business as usual, and bullets and shells had once again begun to be exchanged by the two sides. hachette

By the start of February 1915 the 2ND Yorkshire had still been in their waterlogged positions near Fleurbaix. Of this period the Battalion’s Historian reports;

The heavy and continuous rain had reduced the trenches to a deplorable condition, and in places the water was above the men’s knees; if pumping ceased for any reason, the trenches became flooded, while the parapets continually giving way’…


To afford the men some shelter during that particularly wet period of the war it had been customary to hold a number of officers and men in ‘Battalion Reserve’ often in farm buildings away from the front line. This had been the case during the 28TH of February when the officers and men of the 2ND Battalion’s ‘A’ Company had been ‘resting’ in farm buildings close to Fleurbaix. Despite their distance from the front these buildings had been under observation by the enemy and had duly come under attack from German artillery that day. At some point during the bombardment a chance shell had hit one of the farm buildings killing two soldiers and wounding a number of others. One of the dead had been nineteen years old; 3/7696 Private John Megginson.

Born in Scarborough on the 22ND of July 1895 at No.38 Durham Street, John, popularly known as ‘Jack’, had been the youngest son of Margaret Ann, and ‘cab driver/ groom’ Stephen Smithson Megginson, who had been residing in the town at No.83 Trafalgar Road (below)at the time of their son’s death.

A pupil of Scarborough’s Central Board School and a prominent member of the town’s East End Football Club, Jack Megginson had also been a member of the choir of St Mary’s Parish Church. Employed in the Newborough shop of ‘tea dealer, grocer and provisioner’ Abraham Altham prior to the outbreak of war, Megginson had enlisted into the Yorkshire Regiment at Scarborough during late August 1914 shortly after the beginning of hostilities and had duly been posted for training to the regiment’s Depot at Richmond, where he had joined the 3RD [Reserve] Battalion.

In training until the start of October 1914, Megginson had barely learnt the rudiments of military expertise by the time he had been included in a large draft of replacements destined for service with the sorely depleted 2ND Battalion. Nevertheless, the nineteen years old, along with many young men of a similar age, had found himself amongst a draft of five officers and five hundred and thirteen non commissioned officers and men that had eventually joined the unit in Northern France, near the village of Bailluel, on the 16TH of October 1914, the same day that the 2ND Battalion had begun its march towards the trenches at Fleurbaix.

With little chance of saying his goodbyes to his family before he had been sent to France, Jack had eventually written a letter to his anxious mother in an attempt to ally the many fears she had carried for her young son. It says; ‘Dear mother, I am sorry that I could not say goodbye to you but I say so now, with all my heart. Don’t get worried on my account, as I will be alright. I will write and let you know how I get on and I will get my photo taken and send it to you. Lots of love to you from Jack, your loving son’…

Despite Jack’s assurance of his safety shortly after Margaret Megginson had received the above letter, during March 1915 she had received news of her son’s death in the form of a letter from his commanding officer that had subsequently been included in ‘The Scarborough Mercury’ of Friday the 12TH of March 1915;

‘Dear Madam, --I am sorry to inform you that your son, Private Megginson of the A Company, was killed in action on the 28TH February. We were in battalion reserve in occupation of some farm buildings. Your son was sitting in a room with the men of his section when a shell hit the wall of the building and burst inside the room killing two, one of which was your son, and wounding five others. We had just finished breakfast about 8.30, when the shell struck the house. Death was instantaneous and he could have uttered no pain. I t will be some consolation to you to know he had died a soldier’s death and that he always bore his share of the hardships of the campaign with that fortitude which distinguishes the men of his regiment. He was buried along with his comrade near a military dressing station close to his comrades. We erected a wooden cross over his grave. His grave will be well looked after, as some of the officers and men of his regiment are buried near the spot. With sincere sympathy in your great loss. —Yours truly’…

B.L. Maddison, Capt.

Commanding A Company, 2ND Batt. Yorks. Regt. [4]

Shortly after his demise, the remains of Jack Megginson, and fellow nineteen years old 10366 Private Horace Fields had been taken to a small burial ground located near to the village of Bois Grenier known as ‘Croix-Blanche British Cemetery’, where the two young soldiers had been interred alongside each other. However, at the war’s end the two burials had for some unknown reason been separated when the two men’s remains had been re located to larger cemeteries. Those of Sheffield born Private Fields had gone to ‘Y Farm Cemetery’ at Bois Grenier, whilst those of Private Megginson had been taken for burial to ‘Rue-David Military Cemetery at Fleurbaix, where Jack’s final resting place is located in Section 1, Row A, Grave 18.

Amongst Scarborough’s first casualties of the Great War Jack Megginson’s name is commemorated on the town’s Oliver’s Mount Memorial, and in addition the former choirboy’s name is included on the large ‘Roll of Honour’ located on the north interior wall of St Mary’s Parish Church that contains the names of 156 former members of the Parish that had lost their lives whilst on active service during the First World War

One of four brothers that had served during the First World War, unlike their younger sibling Corporals Rueben and George Megginson had served together with the 18TH Hussars throughout the war, and despite both being wounded during 1914 had survived to tell the tale. Jack’s eldest brother, Private William Stephen Megginson, had served with the West Yorkshire Regiment during the war and had also survived.

Having served under fire in France and Belgium during the qualifying period of 5TH of August to midnight of the 22ND/23RD of November 1914 Jack had been awarded with a 1914 Star with a clasp bearing the inscription ‘5 August—22 November 1914’. Sometimes, incorrectly known as the ‘Mons Star’ he had also qualified for a British War Medal and a Victory Medal, a trio of British Medals that are often referred to a ‘Pip Squeak, and Wilfred’ after a threesome of cartoon characters that had been popular at the time of the Great War.

These three medals had been forwarded to Jack Megginson’s relatives after the war and like most of those mementoes of the Great War had eventually been lost to the family of Private Jack Megginson, only to reappear many years later in an auction that was to be held in London. My local newspaper had got hold of the story of ‘Private Jack’s Medals and the ‘Scarborough Evening News’ of Tuesday the 22ND of April 2008 had reported the story of the nineteen years old Scarborough soldier who had lost his life over ninety years earlier. The auction at London’s Spink at Bloomsbury had duly taken place two days later, Jack’s Medals being sold for £264. Sadly, as far as is known, not to a buyer from Jack’s hometown, which is a pity.

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