REMEMBERING THE GREAT WAR HEROES OF ST MARY’S, SELBY
11th November 2018
'…To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.'
In Flanders Fields by Colonel John McCrea.
The Diocese of Leeds encouraged parishes to ‘do something’ to mark the Centenaries of the 1914-18 War. With this request and the words from John McCrea’s poem in mind, the parishioners of St Mary’s Catholic Church in Selby devised a plan to honour their Great War Dead. The question was: what would signify a meaningful remembrance? With limited time before the anniversary of the first soldier to die, it was decided that a commemorative display should be mounted in church and Parish Secretary Rona Houlton began her research into the lives and deaths of the thirty-one men listed on the St Mary’s Roll of Honour. Missing from that list for reasons unknown was James, the brother of Henry Halliday. One of ‘The Lost’ had now been found and ‘The Thirty One’ became ‘The Thirty Two’.
The statistics are sobering. Twenty five of the men never returned from the Western Front. One died at Gallipoli, another in Mesopotamia. The remaining five died in the UK – either at home or in hospital – and many of those surviving were very badly injured or gassed.
At least seven families had multiple sons (up to five!) engaged in the conflict: Thomas and John Finnegan, who died on consecutive days on March 28th and 29th 1918, were amongst this group. In total, six sets of siblings formed part of more than twenty cousins from Selby’s close-knit Catholic community who number amongst The Fallen.
St Mary’s parishioner, Brigadier John McKeown, acknowledges the importance of keeping their memory alive: ‘My family visited the Menin Road war cemetery in Ypres in 2014 to pray at the grave of my wife's great-uncle who was killed in action in 1916, and were very moved to find there a recent memorial card from his parish, showing he was still remembered a century later. We were very glad to find that our Parish Secretary was doing the same for our parish. This is a wonderful thing to do: from our personal experience it is valuable to individuals, families and parishes.’
Parish Priest Fr Anthony Wilson describes Rona’s ‘personal crusade’ to honour St Mary’s Great War dead: ‘We certainly owe a great debt of gratitude to each of these men for their bravery, courage and sacrifice and to Rona for bringing their stories alive.’
These are just some of those stories: gathered as Rona and the Parish have journeyed together through four years of the ‘War to end all wars’.
LANCE CORPORAL JOSEPH JUDGE – killed in action 31.10. 1914
Joseph was the first name to be researched. He has a living relative in the parish, Mary Fagan, who provided family information and invaluable photographs as the basis of the display. Mary said, ‘Over the last three and a half years it has been a revelation to see the result of an enormous amount of research and work. So much about our former parishioners who gave their lives: their home backgrounds, their army records and the battles in which they died. I hope that some way will be found to give this a wider audience and preserve it for the future.’
Joseph served with the 9th (Queen’s Royal) Lancers. He was involved in a cavalry attack at Elouges on August 24th 1914 in an attempt to halt the British Expeditionary Force being driven out of Mons. Following this charge Joseph became an infantry soldier, losing his life at Messines. His grave was lost during subsequent fighting and he is now remembered on Panel 5 of the Menin Gate. Joseph’s brother James was also killed in April 1917. Two more brothers survived.
PRIVATE MICHAEL SMITH and WAR POET SIEGFRIED SASSOON
Primary war diary sources for Michael’s Manchester Battalion were lost in WWll air raids, but it was discovered that the Manchesters fought alongside Siegfried Sassoon’s Royal Welch Fusiliers. Watching through field glasses on 1st July 1916 as both battalions went into action, Segfried Sassoon recorded in his diary that, the German defences around Fricourt were of ‘exceptional strength’. Sassoon’s further diary entries continued to plot the Manchesters’ progress. Michael was killed in action on August 28th 1916.
‘OLD CONTEMPTIBLE’ 2nd Lt MARTIN BURKE DCM
Martin joined the army aged just 14, fought in the Boer War and became a career soldier. Posted to the Western Front on the outbreak of war with the Prince of Wales’ Own West Yorkshire Regiment he rose through the ranks and was commissioned. According to the Curator of the Yorkshire Regimental Museum, Martin was ‘an exceptionally brave young man’. He was mentioned in dispatches, awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Russian Order of the Cross of St George (IV Class) which was presented to him by Tzar Nicholas II. Martin was lost in battle on September 18th 1916. His body was never found and his name is inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial.
PRIVATE THOMAS CRONIN ‘LOST/PRESUMED DEAD’ 25.09.1916
Served in the same Battalion as Martin and was killed the following week. Thomas’s body lay buried on the battlefield until being found 19 years later. He was identified by identity tags - plus his numbered spoon which had become attached to his tibia. This sounds like a strange place to find a spoon, but soldiers at The Front never knew when or what kind of food would arrive so their spoon was kept at the ready, tucked down one of their puttees!
Thomas was reburied alongside the remains of the officer and two unknown soldiers found with him. Thomas’s great nephew is Bernard Scarcliffe. He and Thomas’ surviving nephew, now aged 86, is grateful for this memorial and provided a photograph plus medals, certificates and a ‘Death Penny’, which took pride of place in the display.
Bernard said, ‘Prior to the research, I had only a vague knowledge from other family members who were somewhat reticent to talk about the Great War. It was enlightening to have an insight into his family history and so moving to read of his last day and how he was killed along with seven of his comrades. Seeing the correspondence and particularly that of his mother signing for his headstone inscription, brought home the sadness his family must have felt. It also made me feel proud of a young man who had given his life for our freedom.’
LANCE CORPORAL WILLIAM JINKS – killed in action 09 .10.1916
William spent five years studying at the Ushaw Seminary before being ‘called to the colours’. If he had completed his training, William would have been St Mary’s first ordained priest. Whilst his display was on view someone left a copy of Thomas Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, signed by William and dated 1915.
MARTIN HIGGINS – killed in action 20.11.1917
Throughout this four year research process a wide range of heart-rending emotions were experienced. One of the saddest was of Martin Higgins. He arrived on the Western Front in August 1914 as part of a West Yorkshire Battalion which was involved in most of the major battles during a 3 year period. Home on leave for an all-too-short time March/April 1917 he was arrested for a ‘minor social transgression’ which necessitated an appearance before the local Magistrate. King’s Regulations ruled that following a civil court appearance the ‘perpetrator’ would be taken by the Military Police to the nearest port (which in this case was Liverpool) to be assigned to a new Regiment (King’s Liverpool) and returned to the war zone. On his arrival Martin’s new battalion was almost immediately involved in the first truly mechanised battle of the Great War: the Battle of Cambrai where he was killed on the first day. Had he stayed with his previous battalion of four years, he would not have been involved in this engagement.
PRIVATE GRAVE IN SELBY CEMETERY
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is not involved in the care and upkeep of headstones where families had opted for a private grave for their son’s burial. Therefore, a grant from Selby’s ‘Central Engagement Forum’ was applied for and awarded in order to have a private headstone in Selby Cemetery lifted, rebedded and restored to its former glory. Victor Leetham Chambers had died of wounds in Glasgow 01.10.1916. The headstone also carries a memorial of his brother, Anthony Gerald, who was killed in action on the first day of the Somme.
ST MARY’S CURATE IN THE GREAT WAR
Chaplains to the Forces are non-combatant, but risk their lives ministering to the wounded, dying and barely-living soldiers on the battlefield, and in camps and hospitals. Many soldiers reported being particularly impressed by the bravery and selflessness of Catholic chaplains during the Great War. One such was Curate at St Mary’s, Selby. In late 1915 Fr Robert Dunford was accepted as an army chaplain and posted to the Western Front. Over the following years, Fr Dunford was wounded, blown out of a trench, and often covered with dug-out debris whilst in ‘No Man’s Land’. Nevertheless, he survived, and on returning home in 1920 he went on to build Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Hillsborough, Sheffield.
Of the painstaking process of her research, Rona says, ‘Information came from Census returns, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site and press archives courtesy of the local paper. Contemporaneous War Diaries were made available by some regiments, and information was provided by the Librarian of the Jesuit College in Derbyshire: all of which was supplemented by personal reading, tours of numerous Great War battle sites, visiting graves and memorials and excellent Western Front museums. I have now made private visits to twenty-three of the men’s graves and memorials, where I left a parish wreath or cross. The final parish wreath was laid at the Menin Gate on 11th July during the nightly service.
Along with Leeds Cathedral, St Mary’s will be one of the churches across the country marking the Armistice with a peal of bells at 11 am on the 11th November, but the church also contains a constant reminder: the pulpit endowed to the parish in 1918 ‘in memoriam’. As long as this structure stands as a focal point in the church, the memory of these brave young men who laid down their lives will never be forgotten.’
‘Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori...’
One must draw one’s own conclusions!