This is my Great Uncle, William Boothman, Gunner X8 Battery of Trench Mortars in the Royal Field Artillery. His unit were nicknamed ‘the Suicide Squad’. Men joining it, reckoned their remaining lifespan in days or weeks. He survived several years…
William ran away to join up and was fetched back home, at least once. This picture was said to have been taken from his body. There is indeed a suspicious looking stain on the back.
Someone used a pin to make perforations, presumably to mount the picture in a circular frame, but that never happened.
I inherited the photo when I was still a child. He died on the Marne, in the spring of 1918, and his body was never recovered. He is remembered on a memorial in Soissons cathedral. His younger sister, Lillie, was my grandma.
We have no way of knowing if the handwriting on the reverse of the carte postale was Willie’s, or someone else’s.
When my oldest son, Will, was born on a Remembrance Sunday, we named him after my great uncle. My father’s middle name was also in memory of him. Had he lived, William would have inherited his father’s business, a large dairy in North Leeds.
William died during an action, and it was quite common for photos, money and other belongings of the soldiers to be gathered up, before they went over the top, in case the worst happened. Then their things would be shared amongst their surviving friends, or sent back home to Blighty.
I can remember looking at this picture as a kid and wondering about those moments of boredom, maybe, when Willie sat in a trench with that pin, making the perforations round the photo, so he could frame it, and send it home to the family. The fact it came down to my grandmother, his younger sister, is interesting too. Family legend had it that Lillie was the closest to him of his three siblings; and this would be borne out by the fact the photo came to my father, rather than his cousins.
Willie was the hope of the family; the one who was meant to carry on the family name and business; (which ultimately went to my grandmother instead). With his death, the hopes and future of the entire family must have seemed to be dead and gone, too. I look at the photo of him and wonder whether he was ever have settled back into civilian life. He looks such a changed person, so different to the boy he was…
Look closely, and you can see the ciggie behind his ear. He looks like a jaded, middle aged man in the final photo, but he died aged only nineteen or twenty. It’s quite salutary to compare him to the fresh faced youth, about to go to France, in this earlier photo.
He is pictured with his sisters, Nellie and Lillie, and younger brother, Leslie. As it is an ‘official’ family shot, we know he had already run away and been brought back, so had seen some action already even as that fresh faced young lad. The two photos can only be 2 or 3 years apart, and yet could be twenty years apart, seeing how much he aged between the two shots. This may well be the last photo my grandma had of herself with her big brother. (She is the little girl standing, on the right). All four of the Boothman children’s faces look grim or apprehensive. They knew that he might never be coming home, this time.
I have a draft of a letter written by Willie’s dad, to his Commanding Officer, saying his son had run away underage, and could the Army please send him back, is how we know it is not an apocryphal story that he ran away to join the RFA. The letter was addressed to an officer at Imphal Barracks, here in York. Family tradition has it that Willie was indeed sent home to Leeds, only to join up once more, the moment he reached 16. My grandfather was another Leeds lad who ran away – in his case, aged only 14 – to the Front. His first day of action, incredibly, was the First Day of the Somme (or so his brother once told me). He was a bugle boy.
Both my dad’s parents lost a brother in WWI. My grandad, as my grandmother, also lost his older brother, Cpl Norris Charles Lister, of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
Norris was also born in 1898, in Leeds. His dad, my great grandad, was a printer and like Willie, Norris was the oldest son and so had been trained up to one day run the family business. He became a Corporal, and was an unusally steady, reliable
and well regarded NCO. Like my grandad, he was a keen musician, playing the viola and, I think, the piano. He looks uncannily like my father did, too.
A few months before he died, he was offered a commission. He turned it down. He wanted to stay with his men.
Sometime in September, 1917, he was sent home for three weeks on leave. When he arrived home in Leeds, he was so yellow and jaundiced from exposure to mustard gas, the family literally dragged him to St James’ Hospital, in Leeds, for some medical attention. The doctors there sent him away with a flea in his ear, assuming he was trying to “swing the lead”. In fact, he had every intention of returning to the Front and had been compelled to see the doctors, by his parents.
The week of the infamous mutiny in the British Army camp, Etaples, he passed through it on his way back to the front. We can’t know what he saw (or whether he participated) but like all the witnesses, he was packed off to Passchendaele, where he was killed on the morning of an action, in October, 1917.
In the 1980s, when I first got into genealogy, I set about tracing where he was commemorated. We found he was one of six men in his unit to die together, that morning. Their bodies, we were told, had not been recovered, but the other five were commemorated on the Tyne Cot memorial. When I contacted the War Graves Commission, I was told he was not on the memorial alongside his comrades, or indeed anywhere. His brother, still alive then, told me later that his parents had been told he was definitely on the memorial. I have often wondered if that omission was something to do with the fact he passed through Etaples, that mutinous week…
He was added to the memorial, and for some time was the final name on his section. I’m sure more have gone on since.
My Great Uncle Jack told me that my grandad, only a year younger, had run off to join the army underage, just to be near Norris. Although he joined the West Yorkshires, not the KOYLIs. He also said his mother refused, to the end of her days, to believe her beloved oldest son was dead. She always left a light on in the kitchen for him, in case he came home in the middle of the night. She was visited, after the War, by his friends, who told her that he had died pulling a comrade from the barbed wire. He had died quickly, mercifully, been picked off by a sniper. My father and grandad, later soldiers themselves, grew sceptical about this account, however. They realised it was what soldiers said to their mates’ mothers, to ease their pain.
But the codicil came in the 1990s, when my father finally visited the Tyne Cot memorial and the graveyard where the men from Norris’s unit were buried. At the back of the cemetery, were half a dozen ‘Unknown Soldier’ graves. Dad was told those ones together, were Norris and five of his men. The bodies were found after the War in a collapsed fox-hole. It was known who they were (the number and location corresponding to the losses that day, and maybe cap badges confirmed they were KOYLIs). But no one could be sure which body was which man any more, so they were buried alongside eachother. He is one of those six. It is just not known which one…
Of that generation of my family, three went to War and only one (grandad) returned.
He stayed in the TA, between the Wars and so was called up back into the West Yorkshires, on the day WW2 was declared. There, his unit helped out with firewatch in London during the Blitz; later amongst the British troops liberating Belsen. My grandfather was there from the First Day of the Somme, through many actions, into a second War, and amongst those men bearing witness in Belsen. He would never speak about that. Not even to my dad after he too had been a soldier. He became a Sargeant.
Remembrance Sunday is, for me, to remember the loved ones who survived, as well as those who were killed. They are all gone now. All of them. Sleep tight, lads.
So long as there are stupid, vain politicians – there will be wars. We must never forget these men, even though they have.
I will leave you with the words of another Leeds lad – my favourite War poet, Isaac Rosenberg.
Break of Day in the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver – what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe –
Just a little white with the dust.