The Nursery

Pete Jones   21/08/2019 19comments  |  Jump to last
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The Eurostar train from London St Pancras to the Gare Lille Europe takes an hour and 22 minutes. The onward journey to Brussels Zuid/Bruxelles Midi takes just 34 minutes more, and Paris Gare du Nord is an hour and 15 minutes away. Don’t worry, you’ve not accidently accessed Eurostar’s website and this isn’t about pre-school childcare. It’s about the layers of UK history in Belgium and north-eastern France and how one spot next to the Eurostar line links Everton to that history. Charles de Gaulle, President of France called the area the “Fatal Avenue”, for armies have been crisscrossing the area for centuries. De Gaulle knew that history only too well; he was born in Lille and had fought across the Fatal Avenue during two world wars.

The Eurostar travels at 180 miles an hour and history passes you in a rush even before you emerge from the tunnel. The sea here saw the decisive act of the Spanish Armada in 1588 as English fireships panicked the Spanish into abandoning their anchorage. The running fight that ensued along the coast to the east ensured the safety of Elizabethan England. Here too is Dunkirk, site of the almost miraculous escape of British and French forces in May 1940 and also of the last clash between Parliamentarians and Royalists in the Civil Wars. In June 1658 a French and English Parliamentarian army defeated a Spanish force with an English Royalist contingent in the dunes near where British troops waited to be evacuated 282 years later.

Emerging from the tunnel the high ground on either side hides massive concrete bunkers built to assemble the German V1 flying bombs fired at southern England in 1944. Here too is the site of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a temporary town built for the signing of a peace treaty between Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France in 1520. The two monarchs and their courts tried to out bling each other on their mutual land border, for Calais was English territory between 1347 and 1558.

The loss of Calais ended the attempts by the English monarchy to recover their lost French empire. The other bookend to this is just the other side of Lille, not far from the football stadium. At the village of Bouvines in July 1214 a combined English, German and Flemish army was defeated by the French. This led to the loss of almost all of the possessions that King John, or le Roi Jean as he would have described himself, had inherited from his father, Henri le Deux and his brother, Richard Coeur de Lion. Paradoxically only Gascony in the far south west, the inheritance of Jean’s mother Eleanor de Aquitaine remained. It would remain English for nearly two and a half centuries; it’s where Paul Gascoigne gets his surname. Bouvines was part of a turf war between Frenchmen, but it began the process by which the French kings of England became English. It would also lay the seeds of the 100 Years War; its two great battlefields, Crecy and Agincourt are just over an hour’s drive away.

As the train accelerates the landscape rushes by, but the hilltop town of Cassel is prominent to the east. This is a contender for the source of the nursery rhyme ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ who marched his men up and back down during the early part of what became the Napoleonic wars. If you are travelling to Brussels the short run beyond Lille is ground that the Duke of Marlborough’s armies criss-crossed during the War of the Spanish Succession, and in the southern suburbs of the Belgian capital is the battlefield of Waterloo. Here 600 years after Bouvines another British, Dutch and German army reversed the result against the French, just as decisively.

If your train is bound for Paris it is the First World War that provides the history. You rapidly cross the Arras battlefield of spring 1917, in terms of casualties per day the bloodiest of all Britain and its dominions’ WW1 battles. The train passes three wind turbines which mark the Hindenburg line defences where Everton’s James Roy was killed, and within a mile of the small cemetery where he may lie under an Unknown Soldier’s headstone. A few minutes later the line runs through a shallow valley near the village of Le Transloy where the battle of the Somme had come to a muddy end in November 1916. Here too you are close to another of Everton’s fallen, the larger than life Welsh goalkeeper Leigh Roose whose body could still be in the fields. If the sun is setting in the west it may momentarily silhouette the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, eight miles to the west where Roose’s misspelt name is carved. Both the Germans in May 1940 and the British and Canadians in August 1944 crossed this ground in a matter of hours, possibly mindful of its terrible history.

The tracks cross the old WW1 front lines several times but the first is just as the train slows approaching Lille from the Channel. You cross the river Lys and pass the village of Erquinghem-Lys and then on the opposite side the village of Bois-Grenier and a line of electricity pylons ending in a large substation. Just before the substation is a bridge and just before the bridge is where the British front line ran for three and a half years. In the trees is a moated farm, called La Grande Flamengrie. It is roughly the middle point of the earliest and longest held section of line occupied by the British and its Dominions, yet it is bypassed by the battlefield touring coaches that use the autoroute that parallels the Eurostar line. They ‘do’ Ypres and the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate and then rush south to the Somme to visit Thiepval and the Lochnagar Crater. The bit in between is often called the Forgotten Front; and the short stretch you cross near La Grande Flamengrie farm appears unremarkable by even those standards.

Charles Bean, the historian of the Australians in WW1 called this area “the Nursery Sector”, for its relative quiet meant new formations arriving on the Western front were often given their first front line experience here. One was the 2/10th (Scottish) Battalion of the King’s Liverpool. But right next to what is now the Eurostar line Corporal Wilfred Toman of the 2/10th and formerly of Everton FC was killed on 2nd May 1917. Two other men who played for a football club called Everton also died within earshot, and there are links to other Everton players if you stand still, let the trains rush by and tell the remarkable story of this small section of the line.

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The Eurostar line close to La Grande Flamengrie farm. Wilf Toman was killed close to the bottom right of the picture (Author’s Collection)

Going to Ground

The war first came to this quiet part of northern France in October 1914.

British troops arrived from the Aisne river far to the south following the retreat from Mons to join battalions recalled from the outposts of the Empire, including a large Indian Army contingent, and reservists from the UK. They were hastily organised and sent to try to turn the German’s northern flank in support of the French. The Germans were trying to do the same thing and the result was a series of battles shifting ever northwards where the two sides encountered each other.

One of these battalions was the 3rd Rifle Brigade who advanced east towards Lille on the 17th October. They encountered large German forces the following day suffering heavy casualties, including their Medical Officer, Lt. Reginald Porter, who was wounded but able to carry on. Over the next few days the 3rd Rifle Brigade took part in a fighting withdrawal under pressure from the Germans; it was a story repeated up and down the line that was beginning to form. They found themselves in front of La Grande Flamengrie farm where the line stabilised.

On 26th October 1914 Reginald Porter was killed by a shell in the yard of the headquarters of the 18th Brigade in Bois-Grenier, and from various sources it is possible to create a detailed picture of what happened. A French interpreter, Edmond Barbier described the event in his memoirs after the war, even remembering seeing a pipe that he had given Porter among his collected possessions. From official records we know the contents of his hot drink tins and how much he owed his military tailor; we even know the identity of the chaplain that conducted his burial from a war office telegram to his father. His name was Reverend Neville Talbot and he would become notable later in the war as co-founder of the Toc-H refuge in Poperinge near Ypres.

But we don’t know where Reginald Porter is buried. The telegram to his father just says Bois-Grenier, and we don’t know where the 18th Brigade headquarters was, although we do know that it moved the following day to the other side of Bois-Grenier, to a farm called La Crombalot, which means wonky chimney in the local dialect. It may be that the death of Reginald Porter hastened the departure of the headquarters out of direct observation by the German artillery.

Just over eight miles north of Bois-Grenier beyond Armentières and the Belgian Border a long north south ridge marks the northern edge of the wide flat valley of the river Lys. From the village of Messines at its southern end much of the valley is visible while the village of Wytschaete to the north looks over Ypres and its approaches from the west. As a consequence the ridge was the scene of fierce fighting in the last two weeks of October, with dismounted cavalry fighting valiantly against huge odds to hold the high ground. Infantry reinforcements were sent in as they arrived amid the confusion; amongst these was the 14th battalion of the London Regiment, the London Scottish. They were the first Territorial Army battalion to go into action in the war, and the cost was huge, with nearly 400 of 700 or so killed or wounded on Halloween 1914 at Messines.

The Territorials had been formed from the old county militias in 1908, originally for home defence to allow the regular army battalions to be sent overseas in the event of war. They were made part of the regimental organisation of the army but were looked on disparagingly by the regulars, being called “Saturday night soldiers” from their weekend training at local drill halls. At the outbreak of war the territorial battalions were asked to volunteer for overseas service; the intention was to replace the regular battalions in India and the rest of the Empire. However the huge losses suffered by the regulars in the autumn of 1914 meant that they were sent straight to France and Belgium, with the London Scottish being first to arrive. A few days later the 1/10th (Scottish) Battalion of the King’s Liverpool arrived in France, fortunately just as the fighting was reducing in intensity. The Liverpool Scottish were the Merseyside territorial equivalent of the London Scots, and together with the 5th King’s Liverpool, the Rifles, were the swankiest of the KLR territorials. Their medical officer was Lt. Noel Chavasse, the son of the Bishop of Liverpool.

The 1 in 1/10th denoted that the battalion was the first line unit; it contained the volunteers for overseas service while back in Liverpool those who chose to stay in the UK became the 2nd line battalion, the 2/10th. This process effectively doubled the number of territorial battalions, but Kitchener as Minister of War decided to raise a new army, for which his face appeared on the famous poster. It was this that the pals queued to join and as a result the territorial battalions often struggled for recruits until conscription was introduced at the beginning of 1916.

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The spires of Armentières from the Messines Ridge; the hotel de ville is the one on the right (author’s collection)

Mud

As autumn turned to winter in 1914 the British Expeditionary Force as it was now called held roughly 26 miles of a line stretching from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. Their section ran from below the northern end of the Wytschaete – Messines ridge down past the eastern edge of a large wood attached to the village of Ploegsteert, crossed the river Lys and the French border and then snaked south west through the villages east of Armentières. From there it passed La Grande Flamengrie farm and Bois-Grenier and then meandered across the flat ground in front of an almost imperceptible rise between the villages of Fromelles and Aubers. It ended just beyond the villages of Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Givenchy, on the south side of the Aire canal that ran east to west through La Bassée.

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La Grand Flamengrie farm in 1915 with the drainage ditch showing how high the water table was (Imperial War Museum Q Image 56220 with thanks)

The two sides now faced a mutual enemy, mud. The hastily dug trenches collapsed in the rain and filled up with water, in some places up to the waist. The Bois-Grenier sector was particularly bad; and if one photograph can paint a thousand words it is of Colonel Philip Robertson, commanding the 1st Battalion of the Cameronians, taken that winter. It shows what is probably one of the drier trenches, the water is below the knee.

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Col. Philip Robertson, Bois-Grenier, winter 1914-15 (public domain)

The British and Indian troops were short of everything and resorted to pillaging abandoned houses for anything to shore up the trenches and provide a solid foundation. The artillerymen were short of shells and those they had were mostly shrapnel, designed for attacking troops in the open, and the barrels of the guns themselves were worn, resulting in serious inaccuracy. Both sides had planned for a short war of movement and the British were completely unprepared for what was in effect siege warfare. Characteristically the Germans were better prepared, especially in having short range mortars and hand grenades. All of this would have been bad enough if the BEF had been able to remain on the defensive; but instead quite a lot of them found themselves attacking.

In December the French began a series of offensives to test the strength of the Germans on the now 400 mile long front. The British, as junior partner in the allied effort felt duty bound to give support, and planned five small scale attacks typically with one or two depleted regular battalions. The first of these took place at Madelstaede Farm and the Petit Bois on the northern slopes of the Messines ridge, just west of Whytshaete on 14th December. It was a disaster.

Four days later two more small scale actions took place just south of Bois-Grenier. Near the hamlet of La Boutillerie, about a mile and a quarter from La Grande Flamengrie farm one attack was carried out by the 2nd Royal Warwickshires, while about the same distance further on, not far from the village of Fromelles the 2nd Scots Guards attacked. The bombardments were short, weak and inaccurate, with the shrapnel posing more of a threat to the attackers than the Germans. The Warwicks attack at La Boutillerie started as it went dark and left a line of dead bodies in front of the uncut wire. Among the 393 men posted killed, wounded or missing was Frank Costello. He had been a professional footballer for Southampton and West Ham before joining the army; his best ever game had been against Everton for Southampton on 11th March 1907 when he scored twice in an FA Cup quarter final replay at the Dell. The Blues, finalists for the previous two years and semi-finalists three years previously, were knocked out 3-2; Frank’s second goal was a brilliant header to seal the win.

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Frank Costello in his West Ham playing days (West Ham United with thanks)

The other attacks were carbon copies, although at the very southern end of the 26 mile sector the actions around Givenchy and Festubert were complicated by German attacks on the Indian and British troops holding the villages, resulting in very bloody fighting. In one place the Germans dug towards the front line held by a battalion of Gurkhas, dug down under the trenches and blew a series of shallow mines, killing most of the defenders. It was a portent of things to come and the war would now be fought both above and below ground.

Not Over By Christmas

The day after the failed attack at La Boutillerie on the 18th a nervous truce was agreed to bury the dead of the Royal Warwicks, which may have included Frank Costello. This was the precursor to several of the truces on Christmas Day 1914 which started with burials of both sides’ dead. But the truces were by no means continuous all along the line. At the hamlet of Le Bridoux, less than three quarters of a mile south of La Grande Flamengrie farm one of the famous photos of the truce was taken. Yet just the other side the farm where the railway now runs two men of the 1st Leicesters were killed. One of them was Lance Corporal George Sutton, and his family maintain that he was shot going out into no man’s land to meet the Germans opposite.

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The Christmas Truce 1914 at Le Bridoux (Harold Robson-IWM Q 50719 with thanks)

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Le Bridoux today. The German lines ran along the tree line on the far side of the field (Author’s Collection)

La Grand Flamengrie farm appears in the entries for this period in an illicit diary kept by a Scots captain in the Cameronians, James Jack, whose commanding officer was the man wading through the flooded trench. General Jack’s Diary was published in the 60’s and is one of the great records of WW1. His battalion were manning the trenches in front of the farm and his company had their headquarters there. He describes sleeping on a raised platform in the cellar as the water from the moat leaked in and stray German bullets ricocheted down the steps. Jack pointed out that the men in the flooded trenches had it far worse and records the start of a solution; building the parapet of the trenches upwards so they formed a raised earth and sandbag wall called a breastwork. In the front lines at least a rear wall was built to stop splinters from shells falling behind. Jack recorded that the Cameronians built theirs 250 yards behind the front line trenches; in other parts of the line the existing trenches were built up gradually by night. However there is evidence that the Christmas truces were informally extended in some places to allow the building of breastworks and other repair work in daylight. The breastworks were eventually so extensive that the Lys valley would be referred to as the breastworks sector.

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How it should be done. Diagram of a breastwork in a WW1 Manual (Great War Forum)

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How it was done. Bois-Grenier Breastworks August 1915 (National Army Museum Image 134525 with thanks)

Bois-Grenier features in another of the great memoirs of WW1 written by a regular private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Frank Richards. He served with the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves and they encouraged him to write long after the war. His book ‘Old Soldiers Never Die’ has a remarkable style for Richards was a born storyteller. He describes the building of plank roads across the damp ground to the front line and paints a word portrait of his fire eating company captain, who the men called Buffalo Bill. Bill experimented with carts drawn by stray dogs to get supplies to the front line, but it was less than successful once the dogs saw rabbits in the fields. Amid the wry humour Richards also describes losing a friend to a sniper, and climbing into the rafters of a ruined farm to exact his revenge. It could well have been La Grand Flamengrie.

The writings of James Jack and Frank Richards would also provide background for the deaths of two Everton players. On 1st July 1916 at Ovillers on the Somme James Jack would record sending a young 2nd Lieutenant called Malcolm Fraser out with a patrol to see who held the village on the afternoon of that fateful day. Before the war Malcolm had been a founder of the CD Everton in Chile; and Jack’s entry sadly records that Fraser did not return. Frank Richards’ descriptions of the fighting in the Hindenburg Line during the battle of Arras in April 1917 give a sense of the horror that would have surrounded the death of Everton’s James Roy, for they were serving in the same brigade.

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Frank Richards and James Jack (walesartsreview.org/reproduced in General Jack's Diary edited by John Terraine)

Over The Garden Wall

As spring took hold around Bois-Grenier in 1915 the front line troops took photos of their new gardens; remarkable as that statement sounds it is testimony to how the atmosphere had changed. In part this was the impact of the new breastworks which meant the men even in the front line couldn’t be overlooked, so flat was the landscape. The Germans also built breastworks on the other side of no man’s land which created a little corridor of war between the sandbag walls. There are many photos of the area from this period, usually taken with the vest pocket Kodak, not much bigger than a large mobile phone which even had advertisements aimed at soldiers.

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Gardening behind Breastworks near Bois-Grenier Spring 1915 (IWM57072 copyright G Knowles Collection with thanks)

The area around La Grande Flamengrie farm was regarded as a quiet sector from this time, but quiet is a relative term, as the graves in the little cemeteries in the area testify. But this sector wasn’t quiet in another way; the war elsewhere was clearly audible, and the tide of war lapped close to La Grande Flamengrie farm on occasion. On the 10th March 1915 the troops in the breastworks would have heard the hurricane bombardment that fell on the village of Neuve Chapelle six miles to the south, and on 9th May the northern attack of the disastrous pincer operation to capture the Aubers Ridge took place at Fromelles just two and a half miles away. Between the attacks to the south, the rumble of artillery would have been heard from Ypres 15 miles to the north, with heavy fighting going on following the gas attack on the French holding the northern part of the salient on 22nd April. From further south the bombardments by the French in the Vimy ridge sector 20 miles away would have been even louder. It set a pattern for 1915, with the British and Dominion forces dutifully supporting the French offensives with little or no success.

The pattern was repeated in the autumn of 1915 when the French again tried to take the Vimy Ridge while the British mounted a support offensive on the coal mining villages around Loos just to the north on 25th September. A diversion for the Loos attack was mounted just a few hundred yards south of La Grande Flamengrie farm on a front of over half a mile. Although the attacking troops successfully got into the German front lines they could not stay there and took serious casualties in the enemy counterattacks. James Jack, whose unit were in reserve, noted in his diary that the problem was the superiority of the enemy grenades. It was symbolic of the make do and mend nature of the British effort in 1915; it has been described as courage without glory.

Anzacs

The second winter at Bois-Grenier passed with the troops a bit warmer and drier than 12 months before. The front lines and the connecting breastworks linking them back to the village gained names and local landmarks in the area were re-christened; Streaky Bacon farm just across the fields to the north is a now inexplicable example. In the spring of 1916 a new set of accents was heard around La Grande Flamengrie farm and led to one line being renamed Kiwi Street. The mnemonic ANZAC stood for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and they arrived in France from Egypt in April 1916. They had landed at Gallipoli 12 months before with huge enthusiasm and high hopes but had been evacuated just before Christmas 1915. They went into the front lines around Bois-Grenier and this led to the phrase ‘the Nursery Sector’.

On 23rd June the ANZACs in the nursery would have heard a low rumble from the south, it was the start of the battle of the Somme. It was not just the sound of the guns that wafted up from 40 miles to the south; orders were given for offensive action to confuse and divert the Germans, and so on the night of the 25th/26th the 17th Australian battalion mounted a raid near Bois-Grenier, probably where the front lines were closest at Le Bridoux.

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One of the great photos of WW1 made more vivid by colourisation. These piratical cutthroats are a raiding party of the 1/ 8th Liverpool Irish at Wailly near Arras 17th-18th April 1916 (Royston Colour - original IWM 510 – with thanks to both)

Trench raids were almost as old as the trenches and had started out as small scale affairs with the objective of taking prisoners for interrogation. The weapons used were often improvised and almost mediaeval with clubs, maces and daggers carried by men whose faces were daubed with boot polish. Underlying the practice was the desire of the army to maintain an aggressive attitude, and a well organised raid could be a huge boost to morale, especially for raw troops. But a badly organised or unlucky one was liable to result in serious casualties for little or no gain. The Germans too would mount raids to test out the new boys and sometimes when they suspected mining under their trenches.

The 17th AIF raid was a small scale affair with around 40 men and was initially successful with many of the German defenders evacuating their breastworks due to the initial heavy shelling. Four prisoners were taken, one by 18 year old Corporal William ‘Bill’ Jackson, a farm boy from upstate New South Wales. Bill Jackson took his man back to the Australian lines, but by this time the German artillery were laying down a barrage in no man’s land and machine gun fire was intensifying. He went back out into no man’s land when he realised that some of the returning party had been hit. He rescued one man, and then went out a second time to help a sergeant bring in a badly wounded private; but a shell landed close to them, knocking the sergeant unconscious, further wounding the private and blowing Bill Jackson’s arm off at the elbow. Despite this he got back to the Australian lines, paused only to have a tourniquet applied to the stump of his arm and went back out for the sergeant and wounded private. He searched for half an hour until sure that no further casualties were left, only then did he return and allow himself to be treated. Returning to England more of his arm was amputated, but for his selfless courage and determination he was awarded the first Australian VC for operations in Europe. Bill Jackson remains the youngest Australian VC winner.

The New Zealand division would become associated with the lines between Bois-Grenier and Armentières, and among them were members of the Everton FC of Auckland, particularly in the city’s three infantry battalions. The Kiwis would christen the main square in Armentières Half Past Eleven Square, for the town hall clock had stuck at that time during shellfire earlier in the war. Having acclimatised in the Nursery sector the Kiwi boys and the Australians would transfer 40 miles south to the Somme during the summer of 1916, where the New Zealand Division distinguished itself on 15th September 1916 in taking the village of Flers on the day tanks were used for the first time. The Australian divisions of the ANZAC corps were involved in the bitter struggle for the village of Pozieres during the high summer on the Somme, but the 5th Australian division, newly arrived from down under suffered appalling losses alongside a weakened British division in a diversionary attack at Fromelles on 19th July. The attack, across the same ground as the ones in December 1914 and May 1915, would have been clearly audible from La Grande Flamengrie farm.

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Bill Jackson VC (Australian National War Memorial)

The Great Raid

The Everton Aucklanders returned to the Nursery sector from the Somme in October 1916. The winter of 1916-17 was the coldest of the war, but the sector was quiet again into early 1917. This changed on 21st February when the 2nd Auckland carried out a large scale raid on the German lines just south of La Grande Flamengrie farm at Le Bridoux, in the same area as the Aussie attack of the previous June.

By 1917 raids were often rehearsals for real offensives, with detailed planning, training and heavy artillery support. The technique was to create a protective cordon of shellfire called a box barrage to protect the raiders from the surrounding enemy and give them superior numbers. The attackers would carry the minimum of equipment and they would take prisoners, wreck the German lines and then withdraw before they could be counter-attacked which in real offensives resulted in the heaviest casualties. The experience would stand the attackers in good stead for the real thing.

The 2nd Auckland were to send over 500 men into the German breastworks in the dark in the early hours of 21st February. Their planning had been thorough and as little as possible had been left to chance. Even the duckboards had been wrapped in cloth to dampen the tread of the attacking Kiwis along the approaches to the front line, and pine lozenges administered to those with coughs. In terms of numbers the raid approached some of the disastrous attacks of December 1914, but the organisation, training and particularly artillery support were a world away.

Among those waiting to cross no man’s land was 22 year old Sgt. Harold Boyne, formerly of Everton AFC of Auckland. Born in Leeds in 1894 he had crossed the Pennines to Blackpool with his family before embarking for New Zealand before the war. He and his two brothers were stalwarts of the Everton club and their father was club president. Harold’s brother Reginald, centre forward with the 1912 Auckland championship side was good enough to return to England and sign for Aston Villa the year after, making four appearances, and made a name for himself after the war with Brentford, scoring 23 goals in 50 league and cup games.

Just before the raid a thaw had set in leaving the ground muddy and slippery. The first wave of the 2nd Auckland went forward in the dark but were spotted just as the bombardment opened on the German front line. The second wave, which included Harold Boyne’s platoon on the right just managed to get into no man’s land before the German artillery fell on the front lines they had just vacated. Slipping and sliding forward they got caught up with the first wave who had secured the German front line, and pushed on with difficulty to their objective, the second German line. However in the half light and with smoke from the box barrage hanging in the cold, damp February air many troops got lost. Features that were clear on the aerial photos they had studied had been pulverised by the bombardment and in the confused fighting Harold Boyne was wounded.

As the withdrawal was signalled many of the wounded were missed, including Harold Boyne and the withdrawing Aucklanders had to run the gauntlet of the German barrage on the way back. The report on the raid suggest that the majority of the casualties were caused this way. The final tally was 17 men killed, 6 officers and 75 men wounded, while 56 men were missing; a total of 159 against a claimed 198 German dead. But in the early morning light a brief truce took place to collect the wounded and dead in no man’s land, on or close to the site where the enemies had met to be photographed on Christmas Day 1914. Not all chivalry had been lost in the intervening three years. Harold Boyne survived long enough to be registered as a prisoner of war with the Red Cross but died of his wounds. The Germans buried him with other dead from the raid at their cemetery behind the church in the village of Beaucamps-Ligny, three miles away.

In the end the confusion of that dark smoky winter’s morning was probably the key lesson to learn, proof of the age old adage that military plans rarely survive the first contact with the enemy. The experienced troops who’d been through Gallipoli and the Somme knew how to react, and the new boys would remember provided they had survived their first action.

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Notification of Harold Boyne’s death in the Auckland Star – with thanks

New Boys

The Aucklanders coming out of the line following the raid of the 21st might have heard some distinctly non-antipodean accents among the troops between the front line and the village of Erquinghem-Lys a couple of miles away which was the administrative centre for this section of the front. They were predominantly scouse accents and belonged to men of the 57th (2nd West Lancs) division who were arriving at the nursery to learn the ropes from the experienced New Zealanders. Among them were the 2/9th and 2/10th King’s Liverpool , the second Liverpool Scottish battalion. Both battalions had a former Everton player in their ranks. The 2/9th‘s transport officer was the former amateur international footballer Arthur Berry, who had won gold medals at the two Olympic games prior to the war. The 2/9th had another Everton link; it was the territorial battalion that recruited in the Everton district, together with the rural area around Ormskirk. Its city drill hall was at 59 Everton Road, which much later became the Red Triangle karate club, while the Ormskirk site is now Ormskirk’s Civic hall next to the parish church.

The 2/10th‘s former Evertonian was Wilfred Toman, who had been signed from Burnley in 1899. Wilf made more appearances, 29, and scored more goals, nine, than the rest of the Everton players who fell in WW1 combined. His life and career are also full of mysteries which hint at a complex, intelligent man behind the statistics.

Wilf was born in Bishop Auckland in 1874 to John and Bridget Toman who were both originally from Ireland. Wilf’s parents ran boarding houses and moved north with the family to Aberdeen where Wilf began his football career in local junior football, after apparently taking up teaching. One report suggests he was educated at Winchester College, but no other evidence corroborates this. He made enough of a mark as a centre forward to be signed by Burnley in 1896, making eight appearances with four goals as Burnley were relegated. His breakthrough came in 1897-98 as Burnley romped to the 2nd Division title and won promotion via a playoff; Wilf contributed 19 goals in total, only missing one match. The following season Burnley finished 3rd in the 1st Division with Wilf being their top scorer with 11. This brought him to the attention of Everton who bought him before the end of that season; in 63 appearances for Burnley he had scored 30 goals and the fee paid was reported to be a record.

Wilf played 27 league games for Everton in season 1899-1900 scoring 9 times but left in the close season for Southern League Southampton. Despite injuries he managed 19 appearances with 7 goals as Southampton won the title. He returned to Everton in 1901 but a broken leg playing against Wolves in the first game of the season effectively ended his second Everton spell. The mentions of Toman in the board minutes suggest a troubled relationship with the club hierarchy, and this may explain the season with Southampton. The club appear to have wanted him off the books after his injury but he appears to have dug his heels in. Yet in September 1902, when Everton secretary Will Cuff and trainer Jack Elliot were suspended by the League for tapping up, the papers reported that Wilf Toman took over as temporary trainer, and the board minutes record him being directed to help in the club offices.

On leaving Everton he tried comebacks with Stockport, Oldham and Newcastle before retiring, apparently to Aberdeen. However in the 1911 census a Wilfred Toman was lodging at 34 Cherry Lane, not far from Goodison Park and his occupation was given as ship's steward. He worked for the White Star Line on the Australia run and he was later reported to be working in the purser’s department.

There are more questions than answers about Wilf Toman. He was clearly an intelligent man but perhaps spoke his mind more than was wise in an era when footballers were expected to be seen and not heard. His post football career is complicated by a second Wilf Toman from Aberdeen, also a seaman, and the presence of his nephew Wilfred in the British army during WW1. Even his age is difficult to be certain of, as he reduced it at each census. Following the outbreak of WW1 he continued to sail the Australia route, sailing on the liners Belgic and Runic during 1915. He is likely to have enlisted in late 1915 as part of the Derby Scheme, named after Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby which allowed men to volunteer rather than be conscripted. He enlisted at Southampton, but perhaps because of his Scottish connections was called up to join the Liverpool Scottish, probably in mid 1916. He arrived at the Nursery sector with the 2/10th and the rest of the 57th Division in last week of February 1917.

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Wilf Toman at Southampton (David Bull/Southampton FC)

Each battalion on active service was required to keep a war diary detailing day to day activities; a good war diary is a goldmine of information although the quality varies. The diary of the 2/10th Liverpool Scottish is outstandingly detailed for the first two months they were at the front, but it was a relatively quiet introduction, this being the nursery sector and the winter of 1916-17 being particularly long and hard. Despite this the entries record an early casualty to friendly fire, a case of shell shock and an example of a self-inflicted wound implying that for some men even the nursery was too much.

The 2/10th had 10 men killed up to the middle of April before an upsurge in German activity from the 23rd caused that figure to more than double in just over a fortnight. Apart from periodic artillery fire the enemy fired what the diary called pineapples which were fragmentation bombs propelled from very light mortars. The 2/10th retaliated by firing rifle grenades into the German lines, which drew more German fire. On 2nd May 1917 the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record two men killed, one of them was Wilf Toman. The war diary notes heavy shelling of Kiwi Street where it joined the light railway line called Tramway or Tramline Avenue running back toward the rear and it is the most likely cause of his death. The light railway may have been one of the plank roads mentioned by Frank Richards in early 1915.

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The 1917 map of the front lines at Bois-Grenier superimposed on today’s map. The Eurostar line runs from top left to bottom right and Kiwi St is just to the left of the 26 alongside it (National Library of Scotland)

But as with so much about Wilf Toman we cannot be sure. The war diary entry for the 2nd May starts with its usual detail, including a description of German aircraft, including a machine painted bright red giving a display of aerobatics overhead. However it shows signs of being filled in at different times and ends abruptly, as if some emergency had intervened, and it is taken up the following day in a different hand. No mention of casualties for the 2nd May is made. What is certain is that Wilf was buried in the extension to Erquinghem- Lys’ communal cemetery, three miles from Kiwi Street .

The other man to be killed that day was a Private Alfred Murch, who lies next to Wilf Toman. They have consecutive service numbers and it has been claimed that they were friends from before the war who had joined up together. Alfred Murch was a married clerk from Clubmoor not that far from Wilf’s lodgings in Cherry Lane, but Wilf enlisted in Southampton, probably on his return from an Australia trip, so while not impossible it is unlikely. They may just have been called up in the same group and stood next to each other as the numbers were allocated. They may well have become friends during training and in the trenches, but we can’t really know.

Pillars of Fire

Five weeks later, on the short night of 6th/7th June 1917 the 2/10th were again in the front line breastworks around La Grande Flamengrie farm; with them was the newly arrived 2nd Lt Basil Rathbone. If he was off duty and trying to catch some sleep he may have been woken, not by noise but by silence. For over a week 2,230 artillery pieces had been pounding the Messines ridge and the area either side of it from just south of Ypres down to Ploegsteert Wood. The troops holding the front line near the junction of Kiwi Street would have become used to the noise of the massive bombardment. At 3.00 am on 7th June 1917 the noise suddenly stopped and an eerie stillness descended; it was reported further north that birds started singing.

At 3.10 am the sentries would have seen a series of flashes from the north, followed seconds later by earth tremors which would make them hold onto the parapet. The ever detailed war diary of the 2/10th King’s Liverpool made an additional note of the event;

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2/10th (Scottish) battalion King’s Liverpool war diary for 7th June 1917 (National Archives)

The tremors were caused by 20 massive mines being blown under the German defences as they curved round the Messines ridge. The northern most mines were under Hill 60 and the Caterpillar which were spoil heaps from the railway cutting that crossed the front lines just south east of Ypres. The area had already seen extensive mining by both sides, as had the village of St Eloi due south of Ypres where the largest of the mines was sited.

The highest concentration was in front of Whytshaete and Messines. From the northern end three mines were laid under Hollandsechuur Farm, again the site of earlier blasts. Next were two mines under the Petit Bois and another under Madelstaede Farm, site of the first disastrous attack before Christmas 1914. Two mines were dug under a farm called Peckham by the British, but one was lost when the tunnel filled with quicksand. The dominating position of the wrecked windmill at Spanbroekmolen had a single mine dug under it; it had been wrecked by a German counter mine but re-dug ready for the attack. Just a few hundred yards down the slope from the mill four mines were laid along the lane called the Kruistraat.

In the shallow valley below the village of Messines a mine was placed under a strongpoint called Ontario Farm and just to the south a mine was dug under a farm called Le Petit Douvre. This was discovered and wrecked by German countermining so the tunnellers flooded it by diverting water from the stream that gives the farm its name. Close to the north eastern corner of Ploegsteert wood four mines were blown under German strongpoints in Trenches 127 and 122. Four further mines were dug under a German position called the Birdcage just to the south but this was evacuated before the attack, possibly because the Germans suspected digging.

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The two remaining Kruistraat craters with Spanbroekmolen right of the tree, Peckham Farm on the skyline to the right of it and Madelstaede Farm and the Petit Bois on the far right (Author’s collection with thanks to Howard on the Great War Forum)

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The farm formerly known as Peckham and Spanbroekmolen on the skyline taken from the crater at Madelstaede Farm. The Peckham crater is just behind the line of trees beyond the ploughed field and the abandoned mine is beneath the farmhouse (Author’s collection)

The mines blown at Ploegsteert Wood were just under 8 miles to the north of La Grande Flamengrie farm, but two other Evertonians, Privates Harry Churchill and John Corlett were much closer to the explosions. It is not certain that Harry was the Churchill named in the Everton Auckland second XI in the New Zealand Herald of 30th May 1913. The other Auckland Everton men killed in WW1 have mentions of the club in their obituaries, but Harry Churchill’s has no mention of football, just a heartfelt and probably original poem inserted by his friends. However he lived in the same area of Auckland as other club members so it is possible he is the man named on the team sheet. He deserves remembrance either way.

Harry Churchill had left his family in Deddington in Oxfordshire and had emigrated to New Zealand just before the war. John Corlett had been born in Everton before emigrating to New Zealand with his family. His younger brother Alfred was an Everton Auckland player who had died of wounds in Egypt having been wounded in the first days of the Gallipoli landings in 1915. Churchill and Corlett were with the 2nd Auckland as they waited to go forward in the second wave of the attack. From where they were in the low ground in front of the ridge they would have had a grandstand view of the explosions, provided they had something to hold onto as the shocks were like an earthquake as John Corlett vividly described in a letter home:

The effect was wonderful and awful in the extreme. We were assembled in trenches a mile away and the ground rocked as though we were going up too. The sight was awesome……The rumble of the mines was drowned as far as we were concerned, by the sharper and more insistently near thunder of artillery of all calibres, but from what the papers say the mines were head in England….

On the dominating height of Kemmel Hill just across the valley the 2nd Army chief of staff General Tim Harrington was watching with a group of war correspondents. He told them that they might not change history but they were certainly going to change the geography. The correspondents felt the shock waves and described the flames being like red roses rising into the sky. The mines were officially timed as going off from south to north in 19 seconds, but one officer positioned down the slope from Spanbroekmolen stated that the mine there went off 30 seconds after the Peckham mine beyond it resulting in casualties from falling debris as the troops left their trenches. Some fragments were described as being as big as farm carts.

John Corlett goes on to describe the effect of the mines and the bombardment as they advanced across the German lines behind the first wave:

…they did their work efficiently, as we saw for ourselves when crossing over where the Hun trenches had been. I doubt whether an earthquake would have made a bigger mess of things in general.

The first wave of Kiwis went up the slope to the village and overwhelmed the stunned defenders; a strongpoint built into the base of the village windmill was stormed and the attackers consolidated the village with relatively few casualties. To their right the Australians pushed the line back from Ploegsteert Wood and on the left Irish troops took Whytshaete and the northern portion of the ridge. It was the first time that troops from the nationalist and unionist traditions had attacked together. Further north where no mines had been dug the going was harder but overall the morning’s work had been a huge success.

For the 2nd Auckland, coming into the shattered village in the wake of its capture the task was push on beyond the ruins and establish a defensive line on the eastern side of the ridge. John Corlett summarises what happened neatly:

We went up and through and entrenched ourselves beyond the ruined town despite the barrage from the enemy’s heaviest guns and what is more, we held our ground against counter attacks…..it is nothing short of a miracle that anyone remained alive in our sector of the trenches.

John Corlett survived to tell the tale, but Harry Churchill wasn’t so lucky. He was among the 61 2nd Auckland men to be killed on Thursday 7th June 1917; but he had played his part in the first unequivocal victory by the British and Dominion forces in WW1. They met all their objectives and achieved all that was asked of them. The seizure of the Messines ridge opened the way for the long planned offensive to break out of the Ypres salient and clear the Belgian coast, but unlike the Messines triumph that would turn out very differently.

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Harry Churchill’s obituary photo in the Auckland Star 25.07.1917 with thanks

Three weeks after the triumph at Messines a much smaller event took place, back at Le Bridoux near Bois-Grenier. On the 29th June the 2/10th Liverpool Scottish mounted a daylight raid of their own in the same location as the Australians 12 months before and the Kiwis the previous February. It was named ‘Dickie’s Dash’ after its planner and leader Captain Alan Dickinson, and successfully got into the German positions, but like the previous raids serious casualties were suffered. But the battalion had mounted its first offensive action and could count itself ready for bigger things. Those bigger things would come at Ypres the following autumn, and like so much else would founder in the Belgian mud.

Georgette

Early in the morning of 21st March 1918 the troops of the 57th Division back holding the line at La Grande Flamengrie farm would have heard the roar of thousands of guns from the south. It was the start of operation Michael, the first of the great German spring offensives. Having forced Russia out of the war and gained a vast empire in the east the Germans had fresh, victorious divisions available to try and win the war before the Americans arrived in numbers. Michael succeeded in punching a bulge 40 miles deep into the allied lines but was stopped just outside Amiens at the beginning of April.

The character of the breastwork front lines around Bois-Grenier and the units holding them had changed since the days when gardening was possible. The front lines were now a series of outposts with the main defences in a series of zones much further back, copying the Germans. But manpower shortages during the winter of 1917/18 meant that the planned defences were often incomplete or non-existent. It also meant that the three infantry brigades in each division were reduced from four battalions to three. The territorial battalions merged their first and second line units, so the 2/10th Liverpool Scottish merged with the 1/10th and went a few miles south to join the 55th West Lancashire division around the village of Givenchy. Their counterparts the 2/9th did the same with the 1/9th but remained with the 57th division around Bois-Grenier.

The 57th came out of the line at the beginning of April and were replaced by the 40th division which had suffered badly in the fighting further south; a spell in the nursery sector would allow them to rebuild. To add to their problems they left their own artillery on the Somme front and inherited the artillery of the 57th division.

The area south of them was held by Portuguese troops. Portugal was Britain’s oldest ally and had suffered German attacks on its African colonies and from U-boat action. Germany declared war on Portugal on March 9th 1916 and the first troops of what became two Portuguese divisions arrived in the nursery sector on April 4th 1917. 12 months later they were still there, cold, neglected and demoralised by official indifference back home. They were due to be taken out of the line on the 9th April.

Dense fog covered the area in the early morning of the 9th, when out of the murk all hell broke loose; it was the start of Operation Georgette. Massed German guns initially pounded the rear areas to isolate the frontline posts, and gas was used heavily to make life as difficult as possible for the defenders, in particular the artillery. The German artillery then fired a hurricane of shells onto the front lines before their attacking waves went forward. The German tactics were to send forward stormtroops to find areas of weakness in the defences and infiltrate deep into the defensive zone, leaving follow up troops to mop up any resistance.

The troops in front of La Grande Flamengrie farm would have heard all this but were not attacked directly. Instead it was at nearby Fromelles, scene of bitter fighting in 1914, 1915 and 1916 that the Germans broke through. This was in the sector held by the newly arrived 40th Division, although the Portuguese would be blamed for the debacle for a century until detailed recent research created a more balanced picture.

The men at La Grande Flamengrie farm found themselves being attacked not from in front but from behind, and were forced to defend the communication lines running back to Bois-Grenier and Erquinghem-Lys against Germans flooding through the gap to the south. The following day the Germans attacked north of Armentieres, re-capturing the Messines ridge. Despite many gallant rear-guard actions including a spirited defence of Erquinghem-Lys, the Germans were over the river to the south and the whole area had to be abandoned. Ten miles south west of the farm the 55th West Lancashire division fought a bloody epic in defence of the village of Givenchy and prevented the Germans rolling up the lines to the south. Instead the Germans pushed north west towards the vital railway junction at Hazebrouck; its capture would have meant the loss of Ypres. Over the next three weeks desperate defensive efforts by the BEF aided by French and American reinforcements, stopped the German advance. The end of the battle at the end of April left the Germans holding a second deep bulge into the allied lines. They would try again three more times further south in the French sector, but by midsummer they had shot their bolt.

The Germans buried many of their dead in the cemeteries started by the British, including Erquinghem-Lys Churchyard Extension, so Wilf Toman symbolically faces the German graves at the lower end of the cemetery. In August the allies, now under the unified command of Ferdinand Foch began a series of offensives up and down the line. First they regained the areas lost in the spring and then broke through the original German defensive lines. In the Lys valley the Germans gave up their salient from the previous April and retreated back to the deep defensive system they had built around Lille. Bois-Grenier was re-occupied on 3rd October, and the re-capture of the Messines ridge to the north forced the evacuation of the city on the 16th.

It fell to the 57th (2nd West Lancs) division to liberate Lille the following day. They camped at Fromelles overnight and advanced a few miles south of the route taken exactly four years earlier by Reginald Porter and the 3rd Rifle Brigade. The road from Fromelles passed through a hamlet called Fin de la Guerre - End of the War and the men of the 57th might have begun to believe that the name was prophetic. The 8th King’s – the Liverpool Irish were the first troops into Lille, an event captured for posterity in a series of photographs. As for Le Grand Flamengrie farm unsurprisingly its ruins do not appear to have figured as the noise of war left the area for good.

Apart from the mentions of the farm in the books by Frank Richards and James Jack the history and literature of WW1 forgot about the area, indeed it became known as the Forgotten front. But it was not forgotten by the men who fought and left their friends there. After the war the veterans of the Liverpool Scottish formed an organisation which still honours their memory a century and more later. And recently a group of historians, researchers and just as importantly the families of the men who served and died there have built a body of literature and research which is growing by the year.

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The Liverpool Irish liberating Lille, Private Arthur O’Hare carries the Lewis gun over his shoulder (IWM Q5979 with thanks)

Where Are They Now

After the war the battlefields were searched for bodies and over the following decade and a half the cemeteries and memorials were built to ensure that everyone killed over the four years of war has their name inscribed in stone.

Reginald Porter, Frank Costello and George Sutton, all killed around Bois-Grenier in late 1914 have no known graves and are remembered on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing on the other side of Armentieres. Working through the evidence relating to Reginald Porter I think he may be one of the unknown soldiers in Bois-Grenier’s communal cemetery, but so early in the war there are no records that might provide clues; but I’ll keep looking for reasons that will become clear in a few paragraphs.

Harold Boyne, buried by the Germans in their cemetery at Beaucamps-Ligny was re-interred after the war at the British cemetery at Pont-du-Hem, six and a half miles from La Grande Flamengrie farm. Harold’s headstone is a special memorial, bearing the words ‘buried near this spot’ as it is not certain that it is his body under the stone, but the concentration records show that if it is not him he is within a few feet either side. Pont-du-Hem acted as a concentration cemetery for the area, and eleven Liverpool Scottish casualties from Dickie’s Dash were re-interred there too; like Harold they too were originally buried by the Germans at Beaucamps-Ligny.

The body of Harry Churchill was not identified when the Messines area was searched after the war and his name is inscribed on the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing in Messines village. It is built around the base of the windmill strongpoint that he may well have passed on the day of his death.

If you add up the graves in the small Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries close to the Eurostar line between La Grande Flamengrie farm and Erquinghem-Lys the number is a staggering 3,354; spreading the net a little wider north and south probably doubles that number. It is proof that the Nursery sector was nothing like a nursery, and that it was never all quiet on the Western front.

A Series of Postscripts

The afternoon of 17th July 1955 was close and humid at Ploegsteert Wood. The Messines mines were now a curving line of large fish ponds stretching north, and after 38 years the four unexploded charges under what had been the German Birdcage strongpoint had been forgotten. A line of concrete posts had been erected along the Chemin de Loups to carry electricity cable, and as a thunderstorm broke over the wood one of the posts was hit by lightning. It found the cables to one of the charges and detonated it, leaving a huge crater, but the only casualty was a cow. This is allegedly the source of the phrase ‘poor cow’ but this may be what we now call an urban myth.

The explosion was big news and a French schoolboy called Jack Thorpe cycled with his English father and cousin from Erquinghem-Lys just across the border to visit the crater. Almost exactly fifty years later Jack, now the historian of the Erquinghem-Lys area would stand with the members of the Liverpool Scottish organisation at the dedication of a memorial cairn at Le Bridoux where Dickie’s Dash had taken place. The dedication was performed by the Reverend Harry Ross, and his son Philip was a prime mover in the project, for Harry’s dad had served with the 2/10th in those same fields. Along with the men of the 2/10th I will think of Harry when I next visit and remember what a good and kind man he was.

Nine years later, on Wednesday 22nd October 2014 Jack Thorpe attended another ceremony at Y Farm British Cemetery, just three quarters of a mile from the Liverpool Scottish cairn. Fifteen soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, the York and Lancaster regiment were reburied, having been discovered just north of the Beaucamps-Ligny German cemetery where Harold Boyne was initially interred. Thirty four men of the regiment had died in the area 100 years before and from the families who could be contacted DNA analysis allowed the identification of eleven men. One of the possible candidates not among the fifteen was Huddersfield Town full back Larrett Roebuck, who is believed to be the first English footballer to be killed in WW1.

The following day Everton played LOSC Lille ten miles from Y Farm at the Stade Pierre Mauroy. An official deputation from the club, led by chief executive Robert Elstone and Lord Grantchester laid tributes on the grave of Wilf Toman in Erquinghem-Lys before the match. The ceremony was organised by Phil Ross, Harry Ross performed the dedication and Jack Thorpe paid his respects along with officials from the village and travelling fans. Both Everton and Erquinghem-Lys know their history, it was a wonderful gesture.

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Robert Elstone lays a tribute at Wilf Toman’s grave in Erquinghem-Lys on Thursday 23rd October 2014 (Everton FC)

So if you are travelling on the Eurostar from Lille, Paris or Brussels as you look out of the window at the French or Belgian geography you are also looking at English, Welsh, Scottish, British, Irish and Commonwealth history. As the train accelerates round the curve as it leaves Lille you might see the electricity substation with La Grande Flamengrie farm in the trees beyond it. For a split second you are close to that little bit of Everton history as you pass where Wilf Toman was killed. You pass Erquinghem-Lys and you may glimpse the river which runs past his resting place, and just possibly the Messines ridge on the horizon. Perhaps you can spare a thought for Wilf, Harold Boyne, Harry Churchill and all of the others.

For the rest of your journey travelling at a mile every 20 seconds makes it difficult to identify much else; but if you hear some plonker trying to describe the history you are hurtling across, that will probably be me…..

Pete Jones. Copyright 2019

This is dedicated to my friend JP Levinge, without whose help it could not have been written. I only know JP via the internet but she is a world class researcher and was able to find masses of material for Wilf Toman, the Kiwi Everton players and much much more. So good was her research in the New Zealand archives that I thought she was based there. Her own family tree is fabulous and includes over twenty men killed in WW1 including her great uncle, Lt. Reginald Porter, killed at Bois-Grenier in October 1914. I will never be able to repay her for all her kind help, but I try to visit her relatives when I can, and looking for Reginald’s last resting place is a small token towards the debt I owe her.

Acknowledgments and Thanks

Chris Baker, who has forgotten more about the Forgotten front than I’ll ever know.
David Bull, Duncan Holley and Dave Juson at Southampton FC.
Charlie Gilbert, my getaway driver on visits to the Everton fallen, including Wilf, Harold and Harry.
Delphine Isaaman for her help with her great uncle Edmond Barbier’s memoirs and letters.
Alison Jones, whose proof reading skills are priceless. Any errors you find are mine alone.
Harry and Philip Ross for all their help getting me started researching Wilf Toman.
Ian Riley and Dennis Reeves of the Liverpool Scottish organisation.
Billy Smith for his brilliant research and the Bluecorrespondent website, the Encyclopaedia Evertonia for students of the Blues.
And last but not least my good friend Jack Thorpe

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La Grand Flamengrie farm today (Jack Thorpe)


Reader Comments (19)

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David France
1 Posted 21/08/2019 at 20:08:26
Congratulations, Peter, on an expertly researched and beautifully crafted article. As always, it's a fantastic read.
Phil (Kelsall) Roberts
2 Posted 21/08/2019 at 20:11:25
Wonderful piece.

We stay at a farmhouse on our way to our Maison Secondaire. The farmhouse is 15 minutes from Azincourt. We smile at the English translation which describes Henry's disease ridden, hungry, dispirited, wounded army wearily dragging themselves across Northern France being constantly harried by French troops. It then says until they faced the French at Azincourt... at which point the leaflet says no more. I wonder why?

Pete Jones
3 Posted 21/08/2019 at 21:34:09
David and Elizabeth, thank you for your kind words, they mean so much to me.

Likewise Phil, thanks;

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile; this day shall gentle his condition; and gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks that fought with us on St Crispin's day".

I am envious of your stopover, I haven't been for over 25 years – the greatest away win in English history.

Steve Ferns
4 Posted 21/08/2019 at 23:07:15
An astounding article, Pete. Superb stuff.
Don Alexander
5 Posted 21/08/2019 at 00:00:03
Lovely essay, and such people should be commemorated in such times. Their fate has real significance to us in the 21st century.

I just wonder as the UK (that's "united" for now at least) is being dragged out of Europe by closed-mind muppets in the Tory/Brexit parties who display no awareness whatsoever of the wars between European nations that for many hundreds of years damaged the world in which those very warring nations all suffered, "victorious" or not.

Peter Mills
6 Posted 22/08/2019 at 09:57:14
Pete, that is a wonderful article.

I was pleased to catch the tail end of the ceremony at Wilf Toman’s grave, on the way to the Lille game.

It was an opportunity to honour that man, and another, my Grandad. He was badly wounded in World War 1, but recovered to lead a full and happy life, and to be responsible for 4 further generations of Evertonians.

Lest we forget.

Jack Convery
7 Posted 22/08/2019 at 12:39:48
Congratulations on a Wonderful article. May they all rest in peace and never, ever be forgotten.
Derek Thomas
8 Posted 23/08/2019 at 01:45:13
A fitting reminder and memorial, Pete. I was involved in Auckland local football for 17 years and never knew about Everton AFC.

Lest We Forget.

Mike Gaynes
9 Posted 23/08/2019 at 04:16:45
A brilliantly lyrical piece of work, Pete. You are a wonderful historian. Thank you for inspiring my curiosity about a corner of history about which, like most Americans, I know little.

Courtesy of your mentions, I have ordered General Jack's Diary and Old Soldiers Never Die from Amazon. I look forward to being further educated about this area.

If I may, two trivial historical addenda to your mention of Lt. Basil Rathbone (who apparently was quite the war hero). One, that same London Scottish regiment included Claude Rains and Ronald Colman. (I have no idea why or how I remember that.) And two, 50 years earlier a distant relative of Rathbone's, US Army Col. Henry Rathbone, had been sitting next to President Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, and was seriously wounded trying to prevent Booth's escape.

Roy Johnstone
10 Posted 23/08/2019 at 08:53:26
Brilliant article, Pete. You're right about the Bois Grenier sector being the Forgotten Front. My great grandad, Jimmy Gorman is buried in Y Farm cemetery. When I did some research into his death in October 1915, it was described as a minor skirmish in a subsidiary sector of the Battle of Loos. A minor skirmish costing 200 soldiers their lives that month. Incredible.

Y-Farm has an amazing array of stories beneath the graves, including H Dallas Moor VC. His VC was awarded for shooting at his own troops as they panicked and ran at the Battle of Gallipoli, forcing them back into the line. You couldn't make it up.

Pete Jones
11 Posted 23/08/2019 at 20:40:09
Thank you again for all your kind comments.

Mike (9), You've homed in on the mention of Basil; his story and those of Claude Rains and Ronald Coleman were in the original draft, together with Rathbone's co-star Nigel Bruce. The importance of the Rathbone family on Merseyside and the sheer number of WW1 veterans in Hollywood made me take it out as it was threatening to dominate the article and make it even longer. I had visions of Lyndon spending weeks formatting it. I'm going to work it up as a separate article with an admittedly tenuous Goodison connection. I'd quite forgotten about the other guest in the presidential box at Ford's Theatre however; good reminder.

Roy (10) Another large chunk that was lifted from the original is about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and their work, and how each of Everton's dead is remembered. As you say even small cemeteries will usually have many stories, although at 837 graves Y Farm is not what you would call small. I'll be back with that one too

Roy Johnstone
12 Posted 23/08/2019 at 22:18:21
Pete, you're spot on about the CWGC and the colossal amount of work that they do. The scary thing is that although you cannot consider Y Farm as small there are so many cemeteries that are larger. As a teacher I've taken countless trips to Northern France and Belgium and its the stories and the scale of the loss on both sides that always hits the kids the most. I'm really looking forward to your future articles on this on this subject.
Bill Watson
13 Posted 24/08/2019 at 21:57:48
Peter thanks for a wonderful, excellently researched, piece of work and I can't begin to imagine how much time you put into it.

The scores of war cemeteries in this corner of Belgium and France really brings home the monstrosity of the carnage that was WW1, as does the young ages of most of the victims.

If the EEC and EU has done nothing else it has, at least, prevented a repeat.


Mike Gaynes
14 Posted 20/09/2019 at 06:53:46
Pete, I know it's been quite a while since anyone posted on this thread, but I hope you see this message.

You must... simply MUST... find and see a 2018 film called "They Shall Not Grow Old" by Peter Jackson of "Lord of the Rings" fame.

I just finished watching it on HBO in the US. It's an extraordinary oral history of WWI made up entirely of the recorded vocal remembrances of well over 100 British veterans of the war -- illustrated by colorized and computer-enhanced images of the old newsreel and movie films of the war. It puts you right in the trenches, and pulls absolutely no punches. Don't eat before you watch it.

Magnificent.

Incidentally, I am enjoying General Jack's Diary and I thank you again for your educational efforts on this period in history.

David Pearl
15 Posted 20/09/2019 at 07:14:26
Mike, thanks for bringing attention back to this article. I missed it on my travels. I'm getting ready for TW golf day but will read it later when I'm back. Hope all is well!
Drew O'Neall
16 Posted 20/09/2019 at 07:46:22
David @ 15

Is the ToffeeWeb Golf Day a TW organised event for anyone or something organised privately by a sub-set of ToffeeWebers?

If the former, can you link to registration/details.

Thanks and good luck to participants.

Martin Nicholls
17 Posted 20/09/2019 at 08:38:47
Drew #16 - David put an article on TW about the golf day back on 20/8/19 which should still be accessible.
Mike Gaynes
18 Posted 20/09/2019 at 17:22:29
No problem, David. Keep it in the fairways.
Pete Jones
19 Posted 23/09/2019 at 18:54:58
Mike, Jackson's film was shown in the UK to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice on November 11th 1918. I know what you mean, it was remarkable; I think I've walked a couple of the streets shown and it was like you were there yourself. The bit of footage where the howitzer fires and the roof tiles fall off is a particular highlight. The detail was so good that you noticed just how bad the soldiers teeth were. I did find the poppies shown growing on every patch of ground a bit weird but overall it is remarkable.

Good luck with the golf guys, one of the 17 or so things I'm writing at the moment is about our best golfer and his namesake, so this is timely.

Pete.

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