From ‘thankful’ to despair – the toll of war on villages

Frank Booth, middle row, second from left.
Frank Booth, middle row, second from left.

Gerry Lees has compiled a book about World War One stories of some of the 90 men from the villages of Arkholme, Over and Lower Kellet, and their contrasting fortunes. One village was among the fortunate few in England which came through not only the First World War but also the Second without losing a single man. The second survived almost without loss, while the third lost a harrowing 10 men from its tiny population

On Christmas Eve, 1915, Captain Frank Booth of Arkholme would have looked over the River Tigris in present day Iraq from the town of Kut-al-Amara, with real sadness.

Walter Jackson.

Walter Jackson.

Under siege by Turkish forces under the German Field Marshal Baron von der Goltz, prospects were not looking good.

Hunger and deprivation had set in and the cold was intense. Gerald Hodgson, a local historian who now lives in Whittington, has a copy of a painting of the outside of Storrs Hall, Arkholme around Christmas and New Year time in the first decade of the twentieth century. It shows the beginning of a foxhunt; red coats, horses, drinks, maids. Jollity and celebration.

I wonder if Frank brought that to mind at the turn of 1915/16, as Kut teetered on the edge of Turkish occupationGeorge Booth, Frank’s father and originally from Rochdale, had made money from his invention of a leather stitched lathe belting which replaced the more fragile cotton type previously used in machinery.

He had moved to Westmorland but then settled in Arkholme; by 1912, he was a Justice of the Peace and local magistrate. At the age of 13, his son Frank was sent to Rossall on the Lancashire Fylde coast, a public school with one of the country’s first army academies as an integral part. After Sandhurst, he joined his local regiment, the King’s Own, based at Lancaster, and moved to India in 1903.

Robert Bibby.

Robert Bibby.

Lt Booth pursued the relatively new army requirement of signalling and by 1910 was Assistant Inspector of Signals. A year later he was posted to the 34th Division, Sappers and Miners. This was announced in the London Gazette on May 11.

It is interesting that at the top of the page the first announcement from the War Office referred to another character: His Imperial and Royal Highness FREDERICK WILLIAM VICTOR AUGUSTUS ERNEST, Crown Prince of the German Empire and of Prussia, To be ‘Colonel-in-Chief of the 11th (Prince Albert’s Own) Hussars.

This was “Kaiser Bill”, and his subsequent military history touched a lot of people.

In November, 1914, Turkey entered the war on the German side and occupied Mesopotamia which is now largely Iraq.

Thankful and not so thankful villages by Gerry Lees.

Thankful and not so thankful villages by Gerry Lees.

Frank Booth was sent with British and Indian troops to get them out and secure oil supplies.

In a forerunner of events nearly 90 years later they made progress almost to Baghdad only to have to retreat back down the river Tigris where they holed up in Kut-al-Amara, a town on a bend in the river, in November, 1915.

The siege lasted six months, despite attempts at relief, efforts that included those of an officer called Rowland Lee Booker from Over Kellet.

Rowland was wounded in the war and committed suicide in 1934, probably as a result of his experiences.

His brother, Gerald didn’t survive the conflict and his name is on the war memorial in Over Kellet.

Kut-al-Amara surrendered in April, 1916. The nightmare got worse as the British and Indian troops were marched, in some cases over 1,000 miles, to prisons in Turkey.

Frank Booth was one who survived, perhaps because of the slightly better treatment given to officers. Of the British troops captured, about 1,750 died on the march or later in the camps.

Frank returned to Arkholme from time to time and left the army in 1925, settling in Emsworth, near Portsmouth. He retained a huge interest in radio communication for the rest of his life. Mentioned in dispatches on five occasions from March, 1915, to June 1921, he served as Chief Air Warden for Emsworth during the Second World War. He died peacefully in 1969.

On October 1 1917, the munitions factory at White Lund, Lancaster, exploded, and due to wartime censorship it was only after the end of the war that more of the facts emerged. The cause of the fire which triggered the explosions was not discovered, but it was thought that it might have been a match carelessly thrown away after lighting a cigarette – this despite stringent security checks on staff entering the factory. There were acts of heroism, with ten deaths, four of them being firemen.

Abraham Clarke Graham and Thomas Kew were off-duty railwaymen and heard the alarm; seeing a fully loaded train close to the fire zone, they were well aware of the risk of further explosions and removed 54 wagons from the danger zone despite some of them being ablaze and exploding, and some needing uncoupling before moving.

The two men worked relentlessly for about three hours and no doubt averted an even greater disaster.

It might be assumed that the people of Lancaster and the Lune Valley suffered like those from all the other areas and communities of Britain, with many loved ones not coming back from the war.

For two villages in the area, however, this wasn’t true. Arkholme and Nether Kellet provided exceptions to the trend, the former having the greatest number of “Returners” – those that went abroad to fight and returned in one piece – in Britain, and the latter managing to get its people back alive from BOTH world wars.

The villages earned the designations of “Thankful” and “Doubly Thankful” respectively. In total, they accounted for 80 men, and their names are on scrolls in the churches of St John the Baptist in Arkholme, and St Mark’s in Nether Kellet.

Almost in-between is Over Kellet, which was typical of so many places in the country; it has a striking war memorial, and on it are the names of 10 men who went away to fight ... but didn’t survive the conflict. Twelve men had left the villages in the years preceding the Great War in a quest for a better standard of living abroad.

Eight went to New Zealand, including three Bibby brothers. They all returned to fight in the war. Robert Bibby was one of them. In the autumn of 1917, he found himself in probably the worst battle of the Great War; Passchendaele. He was in the thick of this offensive and was seriously wounded.

Already gassed two months earlier, the family story is that he saw a colleague about to be shot and did the ultimate by trying to shield him. To do this he must have been yards from the Germans. The bullet struck Robert and passed through him, still hitting his pal. The man died.

The official record for Robert describes a severe gunshot penetration wound to the chest; after field hospital he was shipped to the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital located in Brighton.

He was finally discharged from there in February 1919, and sailed back to New Zealand the following month.

What is interesting is that family tradition again has it that he was shot in the stomach and nursed back to health by his sister Lucy, a qualified nurse, at Thorneys in Arkholme.

The official record shows continuing bouts of enteritis so perhaps he did have some stomach wound that produced infections from the contaminated Flanders mud.

Robert Bibby was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Passchendaele.

Walter Jackson was born in Nether Kellet a week or so before Christmas 1885. His story is in some respects typical of the hard times he lived in.

He never knew his mother Agnes, as she, it is thought, was disowned by her parents on getting pregnant out of wedlock at the early age of 16.

Walter was brought up firstly by his grandfather John Jackson and step-grandmother Ann, and then by John’s brother Isaac after John had a serious accident at the quarry where he worked.

Walter became a builder’s labourer and by 1911 was living in Jubilee Terrace, Nether Kellet, with his wife Florence, whom he had married in 1905, and daughters Nancy and Nellie.

He joined the army at the outbreak of war in 1914, and spent much of the following three years in training.

The latter end of 1916 saw the need for fresh troops in France/Belgium and his battalion was located to Kent. He had clearly shown natural leadership qualities and achieved the rank of Sergeant in February, 1917.

The photograph highlights his proficiency and status as a sniper instructor. Walter Jackson served through the war at places like Fleurbaix, Passchendaele, Lys-Scarpe, then at the Drocourt-Queant Line, Canal de Nord, Cambrai and the final advance east of Cambrai in 1918, consistently acting with bravery, leadership and intelligence.

His courage and ability were recognised and the following was published in the London Gazette in March 1920:

DISTINGUISHED CONDUCT MEDAL

240700 SERGEANT W. JACKSON

2/5TH BN. R. LAN. R.

T.F. (CARNFORTH)

He carried out many daring patrols. Under heavy shell and machine gun fire he has shown great coolness in sending back valuable information.

During the whole time his unit has been in France he has trained the sniping and scouting section, and maintained a high level of efficiency. After the war, Walter returned to his job as a builder’s labourer and continued to live at Jubilee Terrace in Nether Kellet, where his wife Florence died on the October 21 1928, after a long illness. She is buried at Bolton-le-Sands.

Walter remarried nine years later to Blanche Tyler, who had been born in 1901, in Featherstone, West Yorkshire.

They continued to live at the terrace until Walter died in his bed on September 30 1966.

He was buried next to Florence at Bolton-le-Sands and in 1993 Blanche was laid to rest with them.

Just before the outbreak of war General Haig is reputed to have told an officers’ meeting: “I hope none of you is so foolish as to think that aeroplanes will be usefully employed for reconnaissance purposes in war. There is only one way for commanders to get information by reconnaissance, and that is by the cavalry.”

Trench warfare, shell holes and mud proved the comment wrong and photography from planes and air-to-ground wireless communication were developed by the Royal Flying Corps so that army commanders could have fast and accurate information upon which to plan movements and artillery campaigns.

It then became necessary to promote methods of concealment, and attempts to shoot down the enemy became sophisticated dog fights.

The pilots became semi-celebrities and names like the German von Richthofen, the Canadians Billy Bishop and Ray Collishaw and the Brits McCudden, Ball and McElroy were household names.

It wasn’t advertised that many of these true heroes carried loaded revolvers to kill themselves if they were shot down in flames.

In June 1915, Arthur James Graham, of Oak Lea, Over Kellet, joined the newly formed Royal Flying Corps as a Wireless Operator.

By August, 1917, Arthur was a Flight Sergeant and Chief Mechanic, earning a reasonable seven shillings per week and by 1918 had been promoted five times, offered a commission which he turned down and awarded the Croix de Guerre by the King of the Belgians.

He had been on leave in Over Kellet just after the end of the war and became ill on his return; he died in a Canadian hospital in Boulogne and is buried in Terlincthun British Cemetery, Wimille, just outside the town.

These lives, stories and in some cases deaths, are some of many from the area of the Lune Valley in the years 1914-1918.

There were those that joined up underage or used a false name, some that came back and just resumed where they had left off and others that were very quiet heroes.

* Thankful and not so Thankful is available at Waterstones, Lancaster, and Carnforth bookshop, priced at £12.95, or via Amazon.

Signed copies can be bought via emailing thankfulvillages@hotmail.com.