Local hero’s last stand

Menin Gate
Menin Gate

by Dr Jack Binns

On September 2, 1914, the Scarborough Pictorial published a photograph of one of the town’s so-called “local heroes”. A young Private of the 17th Lancers, wearing full dress uniform, sat proudly upright on his charger. In his right hand he carried a lance and a sword hung down on his left. The 17th Lancers, the Duke of Cambridge’s Own, were perhaps the most famous cavalry regiment of the Line with their skull and cross bones badge above the words “or glory”.

The young Private’s name was Charles Henry Allison, born on July 31, 1886, at 24 Nelson Street. He was the eldest son of the five children of Mary and Harrison Allison. His father was a time-served cabinet maker. From the age of five until 13 he had been a pupil at the nearby Central Board Schools and afterwards he had taken an apprenticeship with his father. But cabinet-making lacked the excitement and challenges young Charles was soon looking for and at the age of 18 he enlisted in the British army.

At the cavalry depot in Canterbury he had been drilled and instructed to ride a charger and to fight on horseback with lance and sword. The 17th were stationed then at Meerut in India and it was there that Charles served his time in the Colours before returning to Scarborough as a regular reservist. By 1912 his family had moved to 4 Victoria Street and presumably he resumed work in his father’s trade.

So when the war began in August 1914 he was immediately posted, along with other reservists in the Lancers and Hussars, to join the elite Second Life Guards in the Household Cavalry.

Between “old sweat” Lancers like Charles and tall Household cavalrymen there was no love lost. To the Life Guards, Lancers were “short-arsed donkey wallopers” and “pig-stickers”, whereas veterans of Indian and South African wars regarded the “feather-bed” Household cavalry as merely “spit and polish tins”, no better than ceremonial soldiers with shining metal cuirasses. Nevertheless, it must have been some compensation to the little “donkey wallopers” that their daily rate of pay was raised to that of the Householders from 1s. 2d. to 1s. 9d. At Regent’s Park, where the Life Guards had been mobilised, Charles was given his new uniform, sword, rifle and horse.

When these disparate units were melded into a single fighting regiment they were joined by the First Life Guards and the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues) to form the Third Cavalry Division in the British Expeditionary Force.

At the beginning of October, when it seemed that Antwerp, defended by the remains of the Belgian army, was about to fall to the Germans, the Third Cavalry Division was sent to the rescue. It embarked at Southampton in the morning of October 7 and arrived at Zeebrugge the following day; but the Division was too late to save Antwerp and instead its 1,500 cavalrymen were diverted to the defence of Ypres.

However, there was no question of cavalry charges and the guardsmen were sent into the front line as infantry. Almost immediately, they were digging makeshift shallow trenches with bayonet and bare hands.

It was on Zandevoorde Ridge, about four miles to the south of the town of Ypres, that the Life Guards made their last stand, directly in the path of a whole division of German attackers. The Kaiser had come up to the front to instruct his commanders that they must capture Ypres by the end of the month. So it was on Friday October 30 that Private Allison and his exhausted, filthy and unshaven comrades in arms ended their heroic lives against impossible odds. They were all annihilated in their trenches.

The War Office named 17L/6417 Private Charles Harry Allison as “missing”, but in fact, along with the remainder of his squadron, six officers and 154 other ranks, nothing was heard of him again. The Germans took no prisoners and there were no wounded survivors to tell the story. It seems that none of them surrendered, all were killed and buried together in an unmarked mass grave.

Nine months later, the Scarborough Mercury of July 16, 1915, reported that the Allison family were still waiting for news of their “missing” son. The War Office simply did not know for certain what had happened to him and could only “believe” that he was dead. In the event, Mr and Mrs Allison never discovered the fate of their eldest. All they received in 1920 were three military medals, the 1914 star with clasp, the British war medal, and the British victory medal. Private Allison’s name was inscribed on the Menin Gate’s Memorial to the “missing” at Ypres, but it is not known whether his father and mother were aware of it.

Harrison Allison died in 1925 and was buried in Dean Road cemetery in Section D, Border, no.76. On the headstone of the grave is the name of his son, one of Scarborough’s many Great War heroes, though it states wrongly that Charles was killed at Mons, not Ypres.