West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Local History

A LARK RISING


by DAVID LOYNES

Private THOMAS CLEGG 15300
Killed In Action - 1st July 1916 (aged 27)

Private LAWRENCE GEORGE HOWARD 24078
Killed In Action - 1st July 1916 (aged 19)

Both the above named were Pontefract men. It is not coincidental that Privates Clegg and Howard both died on the same day.  The 1st July 2007 marked the 91st anniversary of the horrendous first day of the ill conceived, naively planned, and incompetently executed campaign known as The Battle of the Somme.

“He’s a cheery old card said Harry to Jack
As they marched up to Arras with rifle and pack
But he did for them both with his plan of attack.”

The above verse is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s World War One poem, ‘The General’. The obvious irony in the poem was probably prompted by Kipling’s grief at losing his only son, John, in the war. John was killed in the 1915 debacle known as the Battle of Loos.

According to official records from early morning on the 1st July 1916 when the men rose from the trenches, the weather was extremely hot. The sky was blue and cloudless. It appears from testimony given by the lucky survivors of the battle that the sole sound punctuating the deafening silence after the seven day barrage preceding the assault had lifted, was the plaintive mate-seeking cries of the skylarks hovering about 50 metres above the opposing trenches in no-mans land. On the 1st July 1916 this unremarkable bird would literally have had a birds-eye-view of the carnage which was about to unravel below.

At exactly 7.30am bayonets were fixed and the officers blew their whistles. All along the 16-mile front, the men were given a tot of rum. 100,000 men rose slowly from the trenches burdened with a rifle and pack weighing approximately 4˝ stones. They had been instructed to walk and not run. On one section of the line they even kicked footballs along in front of them. They had been instructed there was no necessity for them to run; all the Germans would have been killed by the barrage. With light hearts, assured by their superiors that they would be facing a walk-over, they started their slow walk towards the Germans – and their destiny. The intelligence was flawed however. The bombardment had failed; the wire had not been cut. The Germans were not dead. What followed in the next hour was a scene of appalling horror. The German machine guns raked the lines of lowly advancing men – killing them at will.

By nightfall, when the roll call was taken, 20,000 men lay dead in no-mans-land, a further 37,000 were either wounded or missing. In terms of casualties, the first day of the Somme holds the dubious and shameful record of being the worst day in British military history.

‘Harry’ and ‘Jack’ or Thomas and Lawrence, were like the rest of those killed on the opening day of the conflict – someone’s husband, brother of father. Both were victims of the political and military myth that the way to win the war was to launch “the big push” and end the stalemate of trench warfare by out-killing the Germans. At the time of the offensive the Allied troops outnumbered the Germans by a ratio of 5:1. Coincidentally the ultimate casualty ratio when the battle was finally closed down in November 1916 was in favour of the Germans at an almost exactly inverse proportion.

I do not know whether they were friends, or even knew each other, but from research I have conducted, Thomas and Lawrence both served in the York and Lancaster Regiment. Both men were Pontefract statistics of the slow walk into the 'rat at at tat' of stuttering leaden oblivion.

At the time of his death Thomas Clegg lived at Prince of Wales Terrace. Although he was the son of Samuel and Emma Clegg, at the time of his death he lived at number 7 with his sister Mrs W. Gent. He was 27 when he was killed. His body was never found; he has, therefore, no known grave. His name is remembered and commemorated on Pier 14 of the Thiepval Memorial.

The Thiepval Memorial was unveiled on the 31st July 1932 by the Prince of Wales. It is the largest British War Memorial in the world. Perhaps it had to be. It contains the names of 73,357 British and South African men who have no known grave and were killed on the Somme between the 1st July 1916 and the 20th March 1918.

At the time of his death Lawrence Howard was living with his parents George and Lucy Howard at 9 St George Terrace, Pontefract. He was the elder of two brothers. As with Private Clegg, he too was killed on the first day. Private Howard does have a marked grave and he is buried in Blighty Valley War Cemetery, 2˝ miles north east of Albert. The cemetery contains 1,027 burials of whom only 491 are identified. The vast majority of the casualties in this cemetery were killed on that opening first day.

At the time of their deaths both men’s homes in Pontefract were situated within three quarters of a mile of each other. St George’s Terrace was a row of terrace houses sited opposite what was once the Queens Hotel. It was part of Tanshelf.  Prince of Wales Terrace was again a row of terraced houses bisecting Skinner Lane and the main Pontefract-Castleford road. Having regard to the close proximity of their homes and the fact that they both served in the same regiment, one is drawn to the almost inevitable conclusion that both men would have known each other. I would like to think so. When home on leave, did they share a pint of their mutual experiences in the back bar of the ‘Queens’ or take a walk in the park with girls that they would never live to marry? Did either of them have any conception that on the 1st July 1916 their destinies would collide and that at 7.30am on that morning they would both rise from the trenches and bravely take that slow walk into those verdant fields canopied only by the hovering skylark?

Hopefully this article will in some small way provide Thomas Clegg and Lawrence Howard with a footnote to a footnote in history. Regrettably in 2007 we appear to live in a consumer and finance led society fuelled by an almost obsessive prurient interest in the cult of the celebrity. In terms of today’s values Privates Clegg and Howard would not figure high in any celebrity rating chart but they were men among men prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live in freedom. Whether that sacrifice was justified is another question.

The glory and the pity of it all.

David Loynes


Also by David Loynes

The Dead Man's Penny


 

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