THOUSANDS of British soldiers died at the hands of their comrades in so-called “friendly fire” incidents in the First World War. Veteran journalist Peter Rhodes tells the tale of a doomed Yorkshire regiment – and a feat of heroism that had to be hushed up

ALVIN Smith went to war for the love of a girl. Twice he had volunteered for the Army. Twice his father had refused to let him go, insisting that Alvin was too valuable as a worker on the family farm in the Yorkshire Dales to be spared for the Western Front.

Young Alvin obeyed his father, but it was a desperately embarrassing position. All the best chaps seemed to be in khaki. The spur came at Christmas 1915 when he was walking with his girlfriend, Amy in his home village of Lothersdale, near Skipton.

‘Would you love me if I was a soldier?’ Alvin suddenly asked her.

’Well,’ teased the pretty 17-year-old, in a reply which was to haunt her for the rest of her life, ‘I might respect you a bit more.’ Respect. That did it. Alvin resolved to sign up. Over Christmas dinner with friends and family, he turned to his best pal, Willie Smith, and said: ‘We’d better enjoy this Christmas, Willie, because we probably won’t see the next one.’ ‘There was nothing dramatic about the way he said it,’ Amy told me many years later. ‘It was just a statement of fact.’ Alvin and Willie enlisted together on January 29, 1916, as privates in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding). Within a few months both were dead.

There was always something odd about Alvin’s death. He perished in that rarest of things, a successful attack on German lines. Yet no-one in the family ever talked about it.

Alvin was my grandfather’s brother. When I asked my grandmother how Alvin had died she told me: “One of the soldiers went back for water. When he got back to the trench, Alvin and all the others had been blown to bits.”

An uncle told me he had heard that on the morning after the attack the sergeant-major had ordered the men to go on parade but they had refused and thrown down their rifles.

Fascinated, I began researching Alvin’s death. It was not easy because he died in a small-scale attack by a single Territorial battalion. I have read dozens of books on the Somme but this assault, over the chalk slopes to the south of the German-held village of Thiepval, is not mentioned in any of them. The Official History merely refers to the date, September 17, 1916, as “a day of consolidation” on the Somme.

The one published account of the attack, based on the battalion diary, appears in The West Riding Territorials in the Great War, published in 1920. It is a gung-ho authorised history designed, like so many books of that post-war period, to persuade a distraught nation that nearly a million of the brightest and best young Britons had not died in vain.

It tells how the attack (“this little action”) was a great success and taught some useful lessons, including the need for every man to carry an entrenching tool. It reports that Lieutenant General Hubert Gough visited the battalion soon after the battle to congratulate the Yorkshire Territorials on their success.

But how did that square with the rumour of the men refusing to go on parade afterwards? Why were these Yorkshire soldiers in mutinous mood after such a victory?

It was only when I studied the original diary of the 1st/7th Battalion the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment that a deeper and darker story emerged.

It began with a division in disgrace. Alvin’s battalion was part of the 49th (West Riding) Division which had been in reserve on the first day of the Somme on July 1, 1916, when nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed and almost 40,000 wounded.

The 49th Division got its first blooding in an attack on September 3rd. It failed wretchedly. The British commander-in-chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, was furious. He wrote scathingly in his diary: ‘The total losses of this division are less than 1,000!’ In the grim arithmetic of the Somme, where every yard was measured in deaths, the West Riding lads were not dying quickly enough.

To infuriate the top brass further, some of the division’s troops had failed to salute a visiting general, which probably explains the terse entry in the 1st/7th Battalion’s diary for September 8: ‘Games before breakfast followed by saluting drill.’ It was in that mood of humiliation, with the whiff of cowardice in the air, that three companies of Alvin’s battalion, about 600 men, moved forward for their attack.

The battalion diary reveals that it began at 6pm on Sunday, September 17, with a disastrous error. The attack was preceded by a storm of bombs fired by the battalion’s Stokes mortars aimed at the German trenches. These weapons had been issued only a few weeks before. The inexperienced mortar men got the range wrong.

Their mortar bombs fell in the 1st/7th Battalion’s trenches, exploding a store of hundreds of hand grenades. It must have been hell on earth. The battalion diary refers to “a number of casualties” caused by the mortars at two grid points on the trench map, 45 and 68.

In the horror and confusion of this ‘friendly fire’ incident, Captain Basil Lupton from Ilkley calmly climbed on to the trench parapet and rallied the men. For his coolness and courage Lupton was later awarded the Military Cross. The citation reads: “For conspicuous gallantry in action. He commanded and rallied a detachment with great gallantry under very heavy fire.”

No mention is made of the fact that the “very heavy fire” was British.

Lupton, who went on to win a second MC, was a hero who survived the war and settled in Ilkley. But he could not be mentioned in the authorised history without revealing the horrific mistake with the mortars. And so his heroism and the horror of that friendly-fire incident were hushed up. Astonishingly, the untried Yorkshire Territorials, many no more than teenagers in their first front-line attack, recovered from the mortar calamity and fought like lions.

The Germans, usually so solid in defence, broke and fled. As they ran away over the open ground, about 80 German soldiers fell to the Lewis guns and Lee-Enfield rifles of the West Riding lads.

It was all over in an hour. The 1st/7th Battalion had not only fought a text-book infantry attack and taken the German trenches but used their initiative to advance 130 yards beyond their objectives, a massive distance in trench-war terms.

But at what cost? When the roll-call was taken the next day 220 men, more than a third of those taking part in the attack, were dead, wounded or missing. To make it worse, some had been killed by their own mortars. No wonder the survivors, serving alongside pals from their own towns and villages in Yorkshire, took it so badly and refused to go on parade.

Nearly 100 years later, it is impossible to say precisely how and where Private Alvin Smith was killed. For years I assumed he had been hit by German shells. That is the version of Alvin Smith’s war that appears in my 2009 book, For a Shilling a Day.

But a couple of years ago a letter came to light on an internet Great War site.

It had been sent home by a soldier after the death of Alvin’s friend Willie Smith in July, a few weeks before the attack. The writer refers to the “Lothersdale Lads” serving in C Company. And the battalion diary tells us that C Company was deployed before the attack at point 68, where some of the mortar shells fell.

It is my belief that Alvin was one of a group of Tommies, waiting for a comrade to bring up their filled water bottles before the attack began, who were blown up by their own mortars at point 68.

This would explain why his comrades knew he had been blown to pieces, and why Alvin’s remains were never found. It may also explain why his grieving family spoke so little about their soldier son. Did they know about the friendly-fire tragedy? Or did no-one ever tell them?

Alvin’s name is inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial to the 73,000 British soldiers who died on the Somme and have no known grave.

Alvin’s sweetheart Amy lived into her 90s. Shortly before she died in 1994, we were talking about Alvin and his generation. I suggested that going off to war must have seemed a great adventure to them.

The old lady bridled. By the time her Alvin volunteered, she said, everyone knew about the slaughter awaiting. Alvin had foreseen his own death at his last Christmas dinner.

“It wasn’t an adventure. They went out of nobility. Pure nobility,” said Amy.

  • Peter Rhodes is the author of For a Shilling a Day (Bank House Books), available on Amazon.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Woodland Trust