Heroic resistance of the Saturday soldiers at St Julien

Remains of a fortified shelter alongside the Yser canal where the Yorkshire lads first saw action on April 24, 1915.
Remains of a fortified shelter alongside the Yser canal where the Yorkshire lads first saw action on April 24, 1915.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

The British had a long, proud tradition of raising part-time, home-guard soldiers, both infantry militia and cavalry yeomanry. In 1908 they had been amalgamated and reformed into a new organisation for home defence called the Territorial Force. To each of the existing regular army infantry regiments was attached a volunteer Territorial battalion which assembled at night in drill halls, marched out at weekends and trained at annual summer camps. Known to their detractors as “weekend warriors” or “Saturday night soldiers”, they were intended to serve only at home when the regulars were on duty abroad. By 1914, Scarborough’s company of Territorials had their drill hall in North Street and were attached to the local infantry regiment, Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own, Fifth Yorkshires, the Green Howards.

Part-time Territorials ordered to hold hamlet at all costs

Though the Territorials were not required to serve overseas and Lord Kitchener doubted their ability to withstand the ordeals of active service, the heavy losses soon suffered by the regulars of the BEF gave Asquith’s government no choice but to employ them full-time. Accordingly, after they had returned home from their summer camp in North Wales on August 4 Scarborough’s Green Howard Terriers began serious full-time training. As part of the Northumbrian 50th Territorial Division in October 1914 they were sent off to billets in Newcastle. When the question was put to them all volunteered to serve abroad, though they assumed that it would be in the Middle East or India.

However, there seems little doubt that this whole battalion of Green Howard Territorials, drawn mainly from Driffield, Malton, Pickering and Scarborough, were some of the best trained and fittest of their kind in the country. Under Sir Mark Sykes of Sledmere, their lieutenant-colonel, a severe disciplinarian, before the war they had been route-marched hundreds of miles over north-east Yorkshire, from Sledmere to Richmond and from Doncaster to Scarborough. In fact, they were probably fitter physically than even the regulars and reservists who had first gone out to France with the BEF. And now, every day, promptly at 8.30am, they were marched out of the city of Newcastle for their exercises in open country.

But nothing could have prepared them for what happened in the last days of April 1915. Most of them had never been as far away from home as Newcastle and none had travelled abroad, but suddenly on April 17 they found themselves on a train to Folkestone and the next day across the Channel in Boulogne. Then, after experiencing the discomforts of French cattle rail trucks, they were marching into Belgium. Yet, instead of being allowed a few days’ rest, shelter and cookhouse food, they went straight into the line on April 24 along the west bank of the Yser canal two miles north of Ypres. Only two days earlier, the Germans had employed a new weapon of war – 6,000 canisters of liquid chlorine – directed against the French and Algerian troops dug in along the north side of the Ypres salient. Within hours the allied front had collapsed and a gap five miles wide had opened up in front of the advancing Germans. And it was this vital space in the neighbourhood of the hamlet of St Julien that the Yorkshiremen were ordered to hold at all costs.

For the next five days, under constant bombardment and sheltering in only gas-filled, shallow trenches, they withstood every attack. All they had to eat were their emergency rations of tinned bully beef, hardtack biscuits, and so-called tinned “apricot and apple jam”. They drank the muddy water from the bottom of their trenches. When they were finally relieved, they had lost two officers and 129 other ranks killed or wounded. One of the missing from the roll-call was Private George Thomas Thorpe. He was only 17 years old and his active war service had lasted just eight days. George was born in Hull in 1897, the only son of a ship’s steward who later became a Bridlington fisherman. After his father died in 1912, with his widowed mother and two younger sisters he had moved to Scarborough. The family lived there at 3 Darling’s Yard in James Place. His mother took in washing and he worked at Tom Laughton’s Wines and Spirits Warehouse in Sussex Street and then for Scarborough and Whitby Brewery in North Place. At 16 he had volunteered for the Territorials.

Not until June 1915 did Mrs Thorpe receive a telegram from the War Office telling her that George had been wounded in action. This news appeared on June 4 in the Mercury under the heading “Anxiety for Private Thorpe”. A fortnight later, after she had written several letters regarding her son’s fate, she was told that he was “missing believed killed in action”. Astonishingly, it was a full year later, April 26, 1916, that George’s distraught mother read that her only son was “presumed” dead and that his body had not been recovered.

Until her death in Scarborough hospital in 1953, Mrs Thorpe placed an In Memoriam notice in the local press on the anniversary of George’s disappearance. Her only consolation was that his name was inscribed on the Menin Gate memorial along with the other 54,000 British soldiers who had no known grave.

Young George Thorpe was not the only Scarborian to lose his life in what the local press called this “glorious episode”: there were at least five others. Private Harry Betts was a tailor by trade with Tho. Etches & Sons of Huntriss Row. He left four fatherless children at 4 Mill Yard, Mill Street. Along with another comrade, Private William Coulson, he was buried in a military cemetery at Boulogne. Private Alexander Harold George Bradley of 90 Westborough was barely 19 years old when he died of wounds in Huddersfield’s military hospital. His grave is in Manor Road cemetery. And finally, Private Arthur John Waller, an upholsterer for Marshall & Snelgrove, was another Scarborian whose name appears only on the British memorial at the Menin Gate.

After their heroic resistance at St Julien the First Territorials of the Green Howards were thereafter called the Yorkshire Gurkhas, but in reality they were the first of the county’s Saturday soldiers who paid the ultimate price for a country and a cause that they could scarcely have understood.