Red Roses Grow in Flanders Fields.

Norman Gardner

"But to the end, unjudging, he'll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure"

As the eightieth anniversary of the armistice which ended World War One approached (1), the author visited family graves and Memorials in Belgium and France for the first time. The aim of this article is to explore the origins of Lancaster men who are related to to the author and his wife and examine the military situation in which they died. This will illustrate the human and social reality which lies behind the lists of names found on War Memorials in Lancaster District and elsewhere.

The first to die was the author's paternal grandfather, Richard Lowther Gardner, who succumbed to a hail of high explosive and gas shells at the centre of the Ypres salient in unfinished trenches only three feet wide and deep. They were overlooked by the German occupied Zonnabeke and Gravenstafel ridges, had no communication trenches, telephones or wire entanglements and were situated on the forward slope of Frezenberg Ridge. Richard was a labourer, tram driver and seasonal landau driver who took visitors to Morecambe around Beetham 'fairy steps', noted for his skill with sick horses. He left his wife and three children at Garden Cottage, Hest Bank, near Lancaster to join the King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment's Second Battalion which returned from India in January 1915, and was augmented by the new partly trained recruits training at Saltash, Devon. Still in tropical kit they went to France on 16 January 1915, arriving at St Eloois near Ypres on 3 March, thence to Polygon Wood from where they retired on 3 May and relieved the diminished Fifth Battalion King's Own Royal Lancaster's on 5 May at Frezenberg, the apex of the salient. (2).

Vastly superior in quantity and quality, the German artillery had opened the second battle of Ypres with a chlorine gas attack on 22 April 1915 " Across this plain ... came a flying mass of men, horses, limbers and wagons; men without rifles and teams without guns ... their faces were ghastly, they gasped for breath and staggered about like drunken men". The battle continued to 25 May 1915, resulting in the heaviest casualties for one day the King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment ever suffered, with the obliteration of the Second Battallion at Frezenberg on 8 May 1915. Only one officer and forty men from the original front line remained to answer the roll call on the night of 8/9 May 1915. The Battalion War Diary for the period 4- 9 May, records; 'Officers: Killed 4, Wounded 5, Wounded & Prisoners 2, Wounded and Missing 1, Missing 4. Other Ranks:- Killed 36, Wounded 110, Wounded & Missing 31, Missing 721.'. The 721 missing men were dead. The Regimental chaplain later revealed that after using high explosive for several hours, which flattened the shallow trenches, the survivors were finished off with gas before the German infantry's final advance. Richard Lowther Gardner's obituary appeared on Friday the 13 August 1916. First reports of losses at Frezenberg appeared on the 22 May 1915, when it was reported ' only 150 men escaped being wounded or killed', with no mention of the actual losses. On 6 May 1916 an advertisment publicising the Regiment's flag day hinted at the appalling losses suffered the year before, '6-8 May 2nd and 5th King's Own Held Firm Remember this tomorrow on Their Flag Day'. The official historian writes : "The Germans claimed 800 prisoners (from all regiments in the front line) in their communique. That these were so few when so large a breach was made in the line and such heavy casualties suffered, is a sign that most men fought it out to the bitter end.".

General Sir John French paid tribute to the troops at Frezenberg who had endured the heaviest artillery bombardment ever seen to date, and complained in a letter to the Times newspaper of the scandalous shortage of artillery and ammunition. The poet Isaac Rosenberg who served with the eleventh and first battalions King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment and his most anthologised war poetry , 'Louse Hunting', 'Returning we hear the Larks', 'Dead man's Dump', and others written after August 1916 arose from his experiences in France (3).

Martin Middlebrook estimates that about half all 'unknown soldier' grave sites are in fact in War Graves Commission cemeteries, but it is known many were cremated in 1917 near Cambrai by the Germans. The Germans held their captured ground at Frezenberg near Ypres until November 4, 1917, when the Canadians captured Passendale village, so there is a fair chance that bodies lying in the shallow trenches at Frezenberg were buried behind German lines, or they may have been burned or simply have rotted away and been churned into the mud by relentless artillery barrages over the years 1915-17 (4).

As the generals struggled to save face and recover lost ground in the centre of the Ypres salient, troops at the southern end were thrown in to action to divert the Germans from capturing Ypres and to fulfil General Foch's optimistic vision of a rapid break through the German lines. An optimism not shared by the British who loyally co-operated, mostly for political reasons. At the battle, of Festubert, William Connerton, serving with his father's old Regiment, The Border Regiment, was reported wounded and missing, then as having died in action on 16 May 1915. (5). He was the first of two sons Mr and Mrs Connerton lost in the war. The Roman Catholic family were very patriotic, and family legend states that the last act of William as a civilian was to paint a Union Flag on the cellar door of his parent's North Edward Street home. A single man, he worked in a nearby mill and joined the Border Regiment soon after the outbreak of war. (5).

The Border Regiment's Second Battalion spent Christmas 1914 in the trenches opposite Fromelles. The River Lys flooded the trenches waist deep and caused the parapets to fall in and only selected posts could be occupied. Most casualties were from sniper fire to the head as helmets were not yet issued to the British army in Flanders, gum boots helped prevent frost-bite. On 15th February, fifty other ranks arrived, prior to the attack on Neuve Chapelle on 11-14 March 1915 which was regarded as a 'brilliant success', by Sir Henry Rawlinson, and they were thanked by Sir John French. Further drafts of 133 other ranks arrived in April, and the Battalion marched to Festubert, arriving there on the 15th of May, to take part in the closing stages of the second battle of Ypres. They attacked on the 16th of May and achieved their objectives, despite being shelled by 'friendly fire' and were relieved by the Grenadier Guards on the 17th of May, to return to the old British front line. Casualties in the the battle of Festubert included 11 Officers killed and 5 wounded, 110 Other Ranks killed, 240 wounded, 35 missing. William Connerton was among the missing, who probably died somewhere in no-mans land, east of Festubert. (6). Le Touret, its impressive Memorial with William Connerton's name engraved thereon, is found six kilometres north east of Bethune on the D 171.

Aubigny en Artois communal cemetery extension is adjacent to the village cemetery, at the end of a narrow road just south of the village, which is about fifteen kilometres north of Arras on the D 75, just north of the N 39. (7). It holds the grave of Robert Wilson Noble, unmarried, who formerly lived with his parents at 18 Moss Lane, Morecambe. His father had a joiner and wheelwright's business at 81 Euston Road, Morecambe. Robert formerly worked as an electrician at the Lancaster Wagon Company, Caton Road, Lancaster. It employed over 1,000 workers in 1901, but the company was taken over by the Metropolitan Amalgamated Railway Carriage and Wagon Company who closed the works in 1909, with severe economic consequences for Lancaster, exacerbated by a national economic recession. (8). Unemployed, he emigrated in 1910 to Canada, to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company as an electrical engineer at Calgary Alberta. Canadian military records show he enrolled on 2 February 1915 with the 50th Battalion Canadian Infantry (Alberta Regiment) at Banff, Alberta, and he was taken on Strength on 3 August 1915. His obituary records he went to France in August 1915. The "Fighting Tenth" was formed in September 1914 and took part in the second battle of Ypres, blocking the gap in defences caused by the German gas attack at Saint Julian. They also fought at Festubert (1915), Mount Sorrell, Ypres (2 June - 5 November, 1916) , and the Somme (27, August 1916 - 16 October 1916), at Courcelette. His military record states he was wounded twice, but his obituary claims he was wounded three times. Firstly in October 1915 and secondly in December 1915, when the Battalion were in the Ypres (Douve) sector. Returning to his unit in June 1916 at Ypres, he moved to the Somme area to be wounded at Courcellette in October 1916. he died following the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge of wounds, on 29 April 1917 (9).

The Battlefield around Bapaume, is where Fusilier Reginald Curwen Airey met his death on 1st of September 1918 aged twenty years. The son of Charles Thomas and Sarah Airey, of Gregson Road, Moorlands, Lancaster, he was the brother of the wife of the author's paternal Aunt. Siegfried Sassoon describes life with the Second Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers, and Robert Graves describes their activities in Lancaster and on the Western Front. (10). Reginald Curwen Airey was barely sixteen when the war broke out, and may have joined up when the Royal Welch Fusiliers were stationed in Lancaster guarding German prisoners at the former Railway Carriage Works in the early months of the war. (11). On the 27th of April, the Second Battallion were at High Wood ( immortalised by Philip Johnstone) under heavy fire. On the 28th they attacked eastwards towards Morval and Lesboeufs and remained there until 1 September when the 2nd Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers attacked Sailly-Saillisel, forming up on the road between Lesbouefs and le Transloy, attacking in a south easterly direction. Their first objective was the railway line, which they took and then advanced uphill against stiff opposition from Germans in Sailly-Saillisel, and under enfilading fire directed from Le Transloy on their left. The Battalion were then forced back on to the outskirts of Morval on a line facing north-east. Other units then captured Sailly-Saillisel and the Battalion were established in Sailly-Sallisell on 2 September. Reginald Curwen Airey probably died during the earlier part of the day because his body was first buried at Morval, suggesting his unit was advancing and could therefore recover his body. He was later re-interred at Sailly-Sallisell cemetery which lies beside the N 17 just south of Sailly-Sallisel. (12).

On the outskirts of Villers-Guislain, near Cambrai, a War Graves Commision signpost indicates an unmade road leading to Meath cemetery and the site of the battle where Joseph Connerton died on 30 November 1917. A mill worker, married with three children, living on Clarendon Terrace, Skerton, Lancaster, he was a Territorial Soldier with the third Battalion, King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. Joseph was unfit for overseas service in 1914 and spent most of the war guarding railways and other installations in England before being posted to France in May 1917, in time for the third battle of Ypres. As Third Ypres ground to a close, on the 25th of September he moved to the Epehy sector west of Cambrai, arriving on 2nd October 1917. He was serving with a detachment of the Fifth Battalion King's Own Royal Lancasters in support of to the King's Liverpool Regiment (Liverpool Scottish), when he died in the main German counter attack following the battle of Cambrai. Using new commando style tactics and combined air power which took advantage of dead ground and early morning mist between isolated outposts in the Banteux Honnecourt area west of the St. Quentin Canal, the Germans outflanked the front line and the support posts of Meath, Limerick, and Kildare east of Epehy. Meath and Kildare Posts fell during the afternoon but a composite party of Kings Own Lancasters ( 4 Officers and 90 Other Ranks), Liverpool Scottish (3 Officers and 23 Other Ranks), and Loyal North Lancs. (1 Officer and 25 Other Ranks) held Limerick post to the south west, ( just north of the D103) until five am next day, when the survivors withdrew to Epehy. Nine Officers and 435 Other Ranks were reported missing on 30 November, including Joseph Connerton. The action was mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig's Official Dispatches,as a bright spot on a dismal story. The Parliamentary inquiry into this reverse, so soon after the apparent victory at Cambrai, laid the blame on poorly trained troops, the moral effect of low flying aeroplanes, lack of rescourcefulness by subordinate commanders, and a want of supervision by higher commanders. In his memoirs, Lloyd George blamed the reverse on muddle by General Byng and the total lack of reserves, he also recalled that the war cabinet, several days after the German counter-attack, recorded its dissatisfaction at the discrepancy between the nature of the German success and the reports which had been consistently received. William Moore supporting Lloyd George, has produced evidence which suggests General Byng bungled the battle and then tried to pass the blame to soldiers in the field. The Battlefield is now traversed to the east by the E17 motorway. (13).

The journey reached its southernmost point in a hail storm on a bleak French hillside, among the graves of men who fell in later battles when the ground was retaken from the Germans in 1918. There was no sign of unknown soldiers who died in November 1917. Louverval Memorial, on the N 30, near Bapaume, east of the D5, D34 intersection includes his name among many others. The overwhelming impression gained by this journey is that no amount of study and reading can adequately convey the immensity of the tragedy of the 'Great War'. Visiting these monuments and cemeteries should be compulsory for anyone who thinks that political problems can be easily solved by warfare, however technologically wonderful and surgical it may be thought to be.


My thanks to Ron Baird in Canada, and Geoff Parkinson for their assistance concerning R.W. Noble and R.C. Airey and to museum curators in the regiments named.


1 S. Sasoon, 'The Redeemer ', E.L. Black, 1914-18 in Poetry, (London, 1978), p. 43.

11 November 1918 - 1998, the visit took place 8-9, September 1998. J. & W. Connerton. were brothers. R.W. Noble and R.L. Gardner were brothers-in-law.

2 J.M. Cowper, The King's Own Story, 3, (Harmondsworth, 1957), p 59.

3 F. Hawkings, Fom Ypres to Cambrai, (Morley, Yorks, 1973) pp. 50-51, 63. Encyclopaedia Britannia 23, (London, 1959), pp. 908-909. 2 Battallion King's Own Royal Lancaster's War Diary 9 May, 1915, Lancaster Guardian (22. 5. 15) p. 8. Lancaster Observer & Morecambe Chronicle, (13. 8. 1915), p.5. Lancaster Guardian (5. 6. 1915), p.5. J.E. Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium, 3, (London, 1927), pp. 310-359. I. Parsons, The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg, (London, 1979) pp. xiii, xiv, 108-111 and passim.

4 M. & M. Middlebrooke, The Somme Battlefields, (Harmondsworth, 1991), p.355-6.

W. Moore, A Wood called Bourlon the cover up after Cambrai, 1917, (London, 1988), p.223. Encyclopeadia Brittanica, 23, (London, 1959), p.911.

5A.J.P. Taylor, The First World War, (Harmondsworth, 1974), p. 83. Lancaster Guardian (3.7. 1915) p.8, (17.7. 1915) p. 8, (29.4. 16) p.8.

6 H.C. Wylly, The Border Regiment in The Great War (Aldershot, 1924), 2nd battalion, The Border Regiment War Diary, (1915).

7 Maps used: Michelin 236, Nord Flandres-Artois Picardie 1/200000, (Paris, 1998), 3615 Institut Geographique National, 7, (Paris 1995), 1cm/1Km.

8 S. Constantine & A. Warde, 'Challenge and Change in the Twentieth Century', in A White, Ed., A History of Lancaster 1193-1993, {Keele, 1993), pp 201-203.

9 Lancaster Observer and Morecambe Chronicle, ( 8 June 1917), p. 8. D.G. Dancocks, Gallant Canadians The story of the Tenth Canadian Infantry Battalion 1914-1919, (Calgary, Canada, 1990), pp. 57,61,63,64,68, 94,95,89. M. & M. Middlebrooke, pp. 175-178; Macdonald L, Somme, (London, 1983), pp. 222,315,319-321,325,330-331, 334.

10 S. Sasson, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, (London, 1973) pp.129-171. R. Graves, Goodbye to all that, (Harmondsworth, 1960), passim.

11 R. Graves, Goodbye to all that, passim.

12 P. Johnston 'High Wood', in B. Gardner, Up the Line to Death, (London, 1976), p. 157. War Diary, 2 Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers 15 Feb 1917 - 30 Apr 1919. Register of names, War Graves Commision, Sailly Saillisel, Morval and Rancourt cemeteries and six isolated graves in the neighbourhood, [London 1925), pp 6,7.

13 Lancaster Guardian (22.12.1917), p.8.

Maps used: Carte de France 1:50 000, Peronne I.G.N. (Paris, 1974), I.G.N. 365. J.O. Coop, The Story of the 55th Division, (Liverpool, 1919), pp. 76, 78.

E. Wynall, History of the King's Regiment (Liverpool), pp. 546. ff.

A.M. Gilchrist, The Liverpool Scottish 1900-1919, (Liverpool, 1930), p.139 ff.

J.M. Cowper, The King's Own Story, pp. 191-193.

B.R Mullaly, The South Lancashire Regiment.

Prince of Wales Volunteers, (Aldershot, 1952), p.551.

R. Woolcombe, The First Tank Battle, Cambrai 1917, (Aldershot, 1956), pp. 147-149, 178-185, 198-201.

W. Moore, A Wood called Bourlon the cover up after Cambrai, 1917, (London, 1988), pp. 78, 143-154, 165-200

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