‘Pals’ suffer darkest day of conflict

Coxyde Military Cemetery, where Arthur Stevenson is buried close to fellow Scarborian Willie Dale
Coxyde Military Cemetery, where Arthur Stevenson is buried close to fellow Scarborian Willie Dale

by Dr Jack Binns

After their ordeals on the Somme and Ypres battlefronts, the Scarborough “Pals” were sent up to the Belgian Channel coast, near Nieuport. They were to take part in the crucial and ambitious plan to capture the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend which were being used as U-boat bases to attack Allied shipping. On February 1, 1917, the Germans had begun unrestricted submarine warfare and during April nearly a million tons of merchant shipping, most of it British, had been lost. Reserves of wheat supply had dwindled to six weeks and coal mines were starved of Norwegian pit props. Something had to be done.

At first, the men and horses of “C” battery enjoyed their new location near Coxyde as a well-earned respite. A nearby farm supplied them with welcome fresh milk, eggs and fruit. On July 5, 1917, they were proud to be inspected by King George V and King Albert of the Belgians who passed down through their wagon lines.

But two days later, another Scarborough lad had met his death. Driver Septimus William Dale, despite his name, was the sixth of the eight sons of Joseph Dale, a bricklayer, who lived with his family at 112 Hoxton Road. Born in 1895, Septimus was baptised at St Mary’s and attended Central School from the age of four until he left at 12. As first errand boy then delivery man, he had worked for the Scarborough branch of the Cooperative Society, then based in Victoria Road. Like “Benny” Benton, “Willie” Dale was a strong swimmer. More than once he had completed the Castle Foot swim before he enlisted in the army in September 1914. Along with “Sykes’s waggoners”, he had first joined the Army Service Corps at their Bradford depot, but in June 1915, he was transferred to the newly-formed Scarborough battery of the Royal Field Artillery. Willie’s death was reported in The Mercury on July 14, 1917, as a “well known swimmer killed” and “one of six brothers serving”. Initially, his parents, now living at 117 Prospect Road, were told that their son had been wounded, but a letter from the army chaplain later contained the sad news that he had died and had been buried locally.

Unfortunately, the Germans had foreknowledge of a British assault and launched one of their own with devastating effects. Employed to carry ammunition with their 18 teams of horses up to the fighting area, the Scarborough “Pals” were themselves the target of intensive and accurate German shell fire. On July 7, another of their drivers, Arthur Stevenson, was hit by shrapnel and died of his wounds.

Arthur was born in 1895 at 1 Taylor’s Yard Cottages in Friars’ Way. He was the eldest son of a cab driver and later chauffeur. After St Paul’s Mission he had gone on to St Mary’s Anglican school from the age of eight to 12. He began as an errand boy and was promoted to delivery man for Alfred Maynard, the grocer whose shop was at 82a Castle Road. He had joined the “Pals” at the beginning in May 1915 and was buried close to his colleague and fellow Scarborian, Willie Dale, in Coxyde military cemetery.

Sunday, August 5, 1917, was a black day in the history of the Scarborough “Pals”. Their battery was dug into the sand dunes at Nieuport under low bivouacs built of corrugated iron. Without any warning, just after dark, high explosive shells rained down on their exposed position. Five gunners were killed outright and five more seriously wounded.

Gunner Alfred Metcalfe Halder was one of the injured who died later. Born at 58 Hampton Road the son of a joiner by trade, after he left school in 1896, he had been apprenticed as painter and decorator by Johnson Wanless & Sons at 31 Westborough. Unmarried at the time of his enlistment in May 1915, he had then lived at 81 Dean Road. On August 24, The Mercury announced that his severe wounds had proved fatal. Gunner Halder was buried near to the hospital at St Omer where he had died.

For four months the “Pals” had been stationed in the sand dunes and fields of the Nieuport sector. During that time they had lost almost half their numbers in killed and wounded; but as veterans of the Somme they were not dismayed to be told that they were to be moved south to the Ypres salient. Here they were about to endure the worst the Western Front could inflict on the British army.

When “C” Battery reached the front in mid-October 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres (also known as Passchendaele) was already ten weeks old. Continuous heavy rain, low-lying, clay soil and four million shell explosions had turned the landscape into a desolate sea of mud. As Sergeant Foord later described the scene: “with no sign of vegetation anywhere, a vast sea of choking, fetid mud, strewn with the wreckage of war...scarcely a brick remained of the farm buildings. In every direction there was nothing to be seen but derelict blockhouses, tanks, guns, limbers and the debris of war...half sunken in the mud, with dead Germans, horses and mules strewn here and there in various stages of decomposition.”

In these appalling conditions, the “Pals” brought their 18-pounders and ammunition up to the very front, though the “road” was under constant bombardment and their gun “platforms” were under two feet of stinking water. Thanks partly to their gallantry and endurance, the Canadian infantry were able to take the ex-village of Passchendaele on November 6.

Less than a week later, the “Pals” lost Bombardier Cecil Edward Featherstone. “Cis” was the third of the six children of Mary and Robert of 22 Fairfax Street. After Gladstone Road school he had been apprenticed at the age of 12 in 1906 to a local builder, James Spink of Belle Vue Street, as a joiner. He had been with the “Pals” since April 1915. Along with many other artillerymen, his body was buried in a military cemetery outside Langemark and his name appears on memorials both at Gladstone Road Juniors and St Saviour’s Roll of Honour.