Order: Hold it at all costs

Part of Polygon Wood near Ypres - a tranquil scene today, but 100 years ago it was the scene of fierce fighting between British and German forces.
Part of Polygon Wood near Ypres - a tranquil scene today, but 100 years ago it was the scene of fierce fighting between British and German forces.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

On Friday November 27, 1914, the Scarborough Mercury reported the death in action of Sergeant George Edward Newsome, the only son of Albert and Jane who lived at 135 Falsgrave Road. He was a Lance-Sergeant in the 2nd battalion of the Coldstream Guards. Subsequently, the Scarborough Pictorial published an earlier photograph of the guardsman wearing his scarlet dress uniform.

George had been born in Dewsbury in April 1889. His father then was described as a colliery banksman; but when George enlisted at the age of 18 in June 1907, he was said to be a grocer.

Standing five feet and ten inches tall and weighing 142 pounds, he was assigned to the Coldstream Guards and sent to their depot at Caterham for basic training. In practice, this meant relentless square drilling (“bashing”) and uniform and boots cleaning and polishing (“bulling”).

After passing his education certificates in 1908, he was promoted to lance-corporal with one stripe. However, for reasons which later might have become clearer, he absented himself without leave, soon returned to barracks voluntarily, and was then reduced to the rank of guardsman after a period of detention.

Yet, by March, 1910, he had won back his stripe and at the outbreak of war in August 1914 he had risen to the rank of full corporal.

Along with the Third Coldstreams, the Second Grenadiers and the First Irish Guards, making up the Guards Brigade, the Second Coldstreams were some of the earliest of the British Expeditionary Force to arrive in France. On August 13, barely nine days after the declaration of war on Germany, they disembarked at Le Harve.

By cattle trucks the Guards then travelled north towards Mons, but before they reached the front line there the BEF was already in headlong retreat. A fortnight later, after helping to cover the retreat, the Coldstreams were back on the river Aisne at a place called Chavonne. Here, their attempts to cross the river under heavy German artillery fire proved too costly. Eventually, after suffering appalling losses in dead and wounded, the battalion had to dig trenches for shelter, some of the first on the Western Front.

On October 13, the Second Coldstreams were relieved by French troops and were entrained for Ypres which they reached on October 20. Five days later, the second and third battalions were moved into Polygon Wood to the east of Ypres. Polygon was the name given by the British to this large plantation of Scots pine on account of its shape on the map. Its position just north of the main road to Menin was vital to the defence of Ypres and the Guards were ordered to hold it at all 

For 23 days and 23 nights they did just that. Exposed to the bitter cold, rain and snow, without fire or light, and in shallow dug-outs, not continuous trenches, they were pinned down by German snipers, sometimes only 40 yards distant. Against attackers, they had no barbed wire and lacked artillery support.

It was here, on Monday November 16, 1914, that Sergeant Newsome was shot in the head by a sniper and killed instantly. Before his death in action was officially confirmed by the War Office, the grim news was conveyed directly to his parents in Falsgrave by the battalion. Mr and Mrs Newsome also received from them postcards and French money bills that were found on their son’s body.

Though Sergeant Newsome’s corpse was buried on the battlefield, this area was so destroyed and ravaged by artillery in later months that after the war was over his grave could not be found or identified. As a result, the name of George Edward Newsome of the Coldstream Guards was inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Action.

For his military service, Sergeant Newsome was awarded posthumously what came to be known colloquially as “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred”. These were the 1914 Star, the British War medal and the Victory medal, given to so many of the original BEF who had died before the end of 1914. But surprisingly and inexplicably, the medals were sent in 1920, not to Mr and Mrs Newsome in Scarborough, but to a lady in London, whom he had named as his next of kin. We can only guess that the lady in question was responsible for his temporary “desertion” in 1908.

Newsome’s name is also to be found on the Oliver’s Mount Memorial, as one of the 43 Scarborough men who were killed on active service. He was also included on the Roll of Honour in Falsgrave’s All Saints’ church, which he and his family had attended. Sadly, since 1975, the war memorial inside All Saints’ has disappeared along with the church building. Perhaps a reader knows what happened to it.

Albert and Jane Newsome lived at 135 Falsgrave Road until 1925 when they moved to 25 Spring Bank. Albert died in 1934, Jane in 1937. Both were buried together in Manor Road cemetery, Plot V/Border/29.