Battle at ‘Death’s Corner’

A heavy gun of the North Riding Battery in action.
A heavy gun of the North Riding Battery in action.

The Scarborough “Pals” battery of the Royal Field Artillery were not the first local gunners to see action on the Western Front. In May 1915, as the “Pals” were being gathered together in their home town, their comrades in the North Riding Battery were already engaged in one of the fiercest battles of the whole war in the so-called Ypres salient.

On May 28 the Scarborough Mercury published a list of 48 names of men who had recently enlisted for the Royal Field Artillery’s North Riding Battery. They included men from Staithes, Guisborough, Whitby, Grosmont and West Heslerton, but the majority of 30 had Scarborough addresses, of which at least two, Engine House Cottages and Thompson’s Yard, George Street, no longer exist.

These 48 new recruits were fortunate that they had not been at Ypres four days earlier on Whit Monday May 24. This was the fateful day that none of the survivors of the original North Riding Battery would ever forget.

Until this time Scarborough’s attention had been exclusively focused on the fortunes and fatalities of its Territorial infantry, the 5th Green Howards. However, as Bombardier Percy McCourt from St Mary’s Walk, writing to Mrs Wilkinson of 52a Newborough about her son, complained, Scarborough’s gunners had also been “in the thick of fighting”. (Later, it was reported that McCourt had been “gassed” in the battle).

From then on, more and more news began to filter through to Scarborough from its gunners in Flanders fields. Harry Hall of 19 Britannia Street told his mother there that they had been in action continuously for the past eleven days and that they were “in the hottest part of the front”. Gunner Hill was known locally as the goal keeper for the East End football team and he had two brothers also in service with the 3rd Yorkshires.

Bombardier Young of 27 New Queen Street explained to his parents that “We have had no time to wash and shave for a week. We look like old men...We have no chance to dry our greatcoats. They are caked up with mud.”

But the worst was yet to come. About 2.30 in the morning of Whit Monday May 24, the Germans launched a full-scale infantry and gas attack. The gunners were taken off guard. Gunner Lewis Atkinson of the Bell Hotel, Bland’s Cliff, told his wife that he was sleeping alone in a dug-out when the shelling began. He dressed quickly in trousers and socks but couldn’t find his boots and left without them. As he did so, the next dug-out received a direct hit and went “plonk”. In his haste and panic he lost a sock but found a pair of rubber boots. Both guns of the battery were already firing in reply, though “the gas kept telling on us” and they had only “bits of wet rag” to cover their mouths. Using shrapnel ammunition, the British 18-pounders kept the German infantry at bay, but they had given away their position and were now the target for intense high-explosive shelling.

One of the North Riding detachments was “blown to bits” by a direct hit and four Scarborough men were killed instantly. Their bodies were buried that night and the next day Gunner Atkinson made wooden crosses for their graves. The four dead men were Gunner JW Clarke, Corporal Tom Carr, Algie Robinson and “Milkie” Joe Rowbottom.

Clarke was the only son of Mrs Clarke of 6 Lower Albion Street. He was only 20 years old. Thomas Adamthwaite Carr was a gun layer whose parents lived at Beaconsfield Villa in Scalby. As a civilian he had worked at Dalton’s bookshop in Newborough and as a night assistant at the Telephone Exchange. Robinson had been particularly unlucky. On Sunday night he had just taken the place of Jack Brown, who had been taken off to hospital with influenza. His home address was given as Londesborough Vaults, Westborough. Finally, “Milkie” Joe, who was a single man of 27 years, was from 8 Park Road, Falsgrave.

Several more letters from Scarborough survivors confirmed what had happened at “Death’s Corner”. The North Riding men had stuck to their guns throughout Whit Monday until six in the evening. The German artillery had been unrelenting and accurate. As Driver Devonshire told his mother at 25 Hoxton Road in a letter dated May 31, “The shellfire was terrific, and this, coupled with the use of gas, resulted in our poor men being killed like rabbits on the roadside”, but “the Scarborough lads stuck it well”.

In these letters there were no references to any shortage of ammunition, though perhaps they did not pass the censor. However, at least two letters, which complained of their lack of high-explosives, did escape scrutiny. Driver Appleby wrote to his sister at 52 Nelson Street from a rest camp: “I think it time we used high explosive shells because the French are using gas shells like the Germans...We are doing some damage to the German infantry. We have killed thousands of them.” In other words, shrapnel ammunition caused havoc amongst infantry advancing in the open: it had little effective use against troops sheltering in trenches. Trooper Perryman had joined the Canadian cavalry from his home in Filey and he had no doubt about how the war had to be fought and won: “What we want out here is more artillery and high-explosives. Our gunners are simply splendid, provided they have the ammunition, as this war will be won by artillery”.

Fortunately, his was unsolicited advice that the newly-appointed Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, was all too willing to accept and act upon.