Remembering heroes on the Western Front

Bradford Territorials in the Somme, 1916

Private Edgar James Wilkinson DCM; Lance Corporal Eli Johnston DCM; Corporal Joseph Sayers DCM; Sergeant Samuel Meekosha VC

First published in Remember When?
Last updated
Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Photograph of the Author by , T&A Reporter

TRICIA PLATTS, secretary of the Bradford World War I Group focuses on the brave men of the Bradford Territorials who faced the horrors of the Western Front and gave their lives for their country and fellow soldiers

The awarding of a Victoria Cross to Sam Meekosha was not the only recognition of heroism among our local territorials in the first year of the war.

In April 1915, the Bradford Territorials landed in France and were soon in action at Neuve Chapelle. After this baptism of fire, the 6th Battalion was moved north to the tree-lined banks of the Yser Canal, just a mile outside Ypres, where they were to remain from July to December.

The location sounds idyllic and today it is certainly a peaceful spot, however conditions for the troops were very difficult.

In the low-lying Belgian countryside the water table was high and, even in summer time, attempts at digging deep trenches were quickly abandoned as water rose steadily.

Protection for the men in the field was no more than a shallow trench with sand bags piled along the top and the men were to suffer six months of “deepening mud and rising water” (History of the 6th Battalion, EV Tempest).

On either side of the canal, the land became increasingly broken up by the artillery and, while shell holes afforded some protection, they too quickly filled with water. In places the British and German lines were within earshot of each other and casualties mounted throughout the summer.

The objective for the Bradford lads was to keep open the bridges which had been constructed by the Royal Engineers, and to keep the enemy pinned back in their trenches which ranged along the top of the Pilkem Ridge beyond the open farmland.

On July 12, a typical incident resulted in the first gallantry award to a 6th Battalion man. A shell landed on top of a dug out and completely buried two men who were asleep in it.

Men immediately began digging, but Private Ernest Preston went out into the open to dig out the men’s heads from the back of the dug out.

During the course of this, another shell landed within five yards of Private Preston who was wounded in 12 places. The citation for the award of the first Distinguished Conduct Medal in the Battalion describes Ernest Preston as “exhibiting the utmost heroism and total disregard of danger in endeavouring to save his comrade’s lives at the risk of his own.”

The more famous incident involving Sam Meekosha occurred on November 19 in a forward position known as ‘The Pump Room’. This had clearly been spotted and accurately targeted by enemy artillery and a platoon of men was to suffer a heavy bombardment.

During the course of this, six men were killed and seven wounded with all the rest more or less being buried in the mud. Corporal Meekosha, the most senior man surviving, took command and with the “stout assistance” of three other men, all of them Privates at the time, and several lives were saved.

We rarely hear about the others, but they were to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Perhaps had they been of a more senior rank, they too would have received the higher recognition.

The citation for all four men is identical: “For conspicuous gallantry on November 19, 1915, in the isolated trench known as the ‘Pump Room’... Corporal Meekosha took command after all his seniors were killed or wounded in full view of the enemy and at short range from his trenches. By his gallant behaviour, and with assistance of Private Johnston, Sayers and Wilkinson, who stuck to him and most stoutly assisted him throughout, the lives of four men were saved.”

The six who were killed, all from the West Yorkshire Regiment, 1/6th Battalion, were: Corporal Harold Foster, Private Edward O’Grady, Private Walter Midgley, Corporal Thomas Smithies, Private Arthur Simpson and Private Charles Robinson.

Army chaplain, the Reverend Richard Whincup, wrote to Corporal Foster’s parents. He said: “He was with me only a few days before when he suggested that I should write to Bradford to ask for as many warm socks and stockings as possible for the Battalion.

“I was very much grieved to hear that he had been killed....lighten your grief by the thought of the brave way in which your dear son has so nobly done his duty on behalf of his country...Your gallant son is now at rest from the terrible cruelties and frightful hardships of this awful war.”

After the war, he became Rector of St Barnabas, Heaton. The Reverend Whincup was the grandfather of the popular novelist Jilly Cooper.

Samuel Meekosha was born in Leeds but raised in West Bowling. He always thought of Bradford as his home, even years later when he moved to Wales where his granddaughter Pauline Hughes still lives.

She told the T&A last year: “He was married in Bradford and it was there where they lined the streets as he and his bride left the church. His children were brought up there. Before he died, he asked for his ashes to be scattered at Ilkley Moor.”

Sam Meekosha appears to have been a man who valued his privacy, for he later changed his name to Ingham to avoid public attention.

The men pictured above after their promotions in the field, are: left to right: Private Edgar James Wilkinson DCM; Lance Corporal Eli Johnston DCM; Corporal Joseph Sayers DCM; Sergeant Samuel Meekosha VC.

An interesting detail in the photograph is that the men are wearing their original soft hats. The ‘tin hat’, or Brodie helmet, had been introduced in October 1915.

However, there were insufficient for every man in the army and so were originally issued as ‘trench stores’ – for wearing on front line duty.

Private Wilkinson was killed in action on August 11, 1916, and is buried in the beautiful cemetery in the village of Authuille.

The son of James Arthur and Annie Wilkinson, Edgar was brought up with four siblings in a three-roomed house at 26 Back Tamworth Street. Before the war, he had worked as a parcel boy for Bradford Corporation tramways. He was 19 when he died.

Eli Johnston survived the war and, as far as is known, returned to his wife Mary Ann, son Albert and daughter Emma at 219 Sticker Lane. Eli died in 1953. Corporal Joseph Sayers was promoted to Sergeant, but died on July 15, 1916. His name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial. He was from a family of seven boys and four girls and his father Christopher, a blacksmith, had died before the war began.

Joe had worked as a labourer in a dyehouse and married in 1913. After his death his widow Sarah (still only 20 years old) married Michael Ryan.

There are so many more who deserve to be remembered.

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