Erich Maria Remarque’s world-famous novel, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, begins with a short preface in which he states that his book will try to tell the story of ‘a generation of men who, although they might have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the War’.
That war, of course, was the First World War. A war which claimed the lives of millions of soldiers between 1914 and 1918. Yet, those deaths account for only 11% of the men who fought in this ‘war to end all wars’. The other 89% – the overwhelming majority – returned home from it and continued ‘living’ their lives. These are the men Remarque is referring to. Men like my Grandad, Jack Durham, and his brother-in-law, my Great Uncle Bill Crook. It’s an almost perverse fact that we remember the dead of the Great War more than those who lived through and survived its horrors, and obviously, in some respects, that’s only right. The former sacrificed their (often young) lives, after all. But they, the dead, at least have graves and/or memorials (the former still wonderfully maintained even today by the CWGC) and are commemorated, annually, on Remembrance Day.
What of the survivors? the Remarque men? Those who returned home and tried to rebuild their lives, their home towns, their countries? What of them? Surely, they can’t have been forgotten?
And surely, it’s a sweeping claim that their lives were destroyed by the war?
I mean, isn’t it?
It is, isn’t it?
Scratch the surface of any one of the numerous family history platforms available today and you’ll soon find one of your own. If you didn’t, there’d be a likelihood that you would never have been born at all. I’m an example of that. My own Grandad survived the war, albeit having been medically discharged in 1919 with neurasthenia (a condition of fatigue and stress that today could be placed under the same category as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD). If he hadn’t, I literally wouldn’t be here. But, in many ways, the war did kill him. Certainly my Grandma believed it did. He was only 57 when he finally passed away in 1954. Officially, it was lung cancer that killed him, and – as a miner and a smoker – it’d be easy to challenge my Grandma’s sincerely held belief.
But she knew.
She knew it from the very moment the man she fell in love with during the war returned to her at its end, utterly broken.
Shattered, empty, broken.
She – like countless other wives and mothers – believed that the war had destroyed the man. To my Grandma, Jack Durham was one of Remarque’s men.
An even more acute example can be found in the life of my Great Uncle William (Bill) Crook, the brother-in-law of my Grandparents (he was married to my Grandma’s sister, Mary). You see, Bill ‘survived’ the war. But Bill died – quite suddenly, in the end – at the age of 26 years and 8 months. And because he has no memorial, no CWGC grave stone (or any other, as it transpires), he’d almost been forgotten.
And yet, a more interesting, absorbing and tragic war story, I have very rarely found. It’s criminal that he or his story should ever be forgotten.
So, I’m about to tell it here, now.
Bill Crook was born on Friday 10th April 1896 in Bolton, Lancashire into almost stereotypical circumstances. I bet you’ve already got a picture in your heads. Yes, that’s the one. A dreary, smoke-filled northern industrial town; Lowryesque in every respect, and – to be fair – a picture that’s probably quite accurate for the latter days of the 19th Century. Bill was one of ten children born to the wonderfully named Major, and Hannah Crook. Feeding the stereotype further, two of their children died in infancy. Bill was the second born son. Major Crook was a coal hewer, employed in his local coal mine. Whether out of necessity, or in search of better paid employment, Major moved his family to that then, world hub of coal mining, the north-east of England, some time between 1901 and 1904. They initially found residence to the north of Newcastle, but finally settled in Felling, located to the immediate east of Gateshead, on the southern banks of the coal-blackened River Tyne.
Felling gave home to its own colliery, John Pit, which was then owned by John Bowes & Co, and Major became one of its employees. By the time he was 14, Bill had followed his dad into the colliery, gaining employment as a pony driver. This was a role usually given to boys around Bill’s age, and which entailed leading the ponies that pulled empty tubs down the mine, and pulled them back up again, fully laden with the spoils of the labouring hewers. It was, by any standards, long, laborious and dangerous work. But, it meant an extra bit of silver for the family pot and often led to more gainful employment elsewhere, either above or below the coalface. By 1914, Bill had progressed in his career to become – like his dad – one of the ‘kings of the pit’: a hewer.
It was hardly the stuff of the dreams of young men, however, and so, when Great Britain finally declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, like many of his pals, Bill spotted an ideal opportunity to leave mining behind and seek adventure – and a change of direction – elsewhere. Mining being a reserved occupation, this was sometimes easier said than done. But for Bill, at least, the opportunity became reality when on Tuesday 10th November 1914, he walked to nearby Booth Street, and entered the drill hall of the old ‘E’ Company, 9th Durham Light Infantry (DLI), and took the King’s shilling.
The 9th DLI was a territorial battalion, originally raised in Gateshead, even then a relatively large town separated from the city of Newcastle only by that same coaly Tyne. The 9th DLI proudly sported the nickname ‘The Gateshead Gurkhas’, a nickname which had little to do with its fighting prowess, however impressive that might have been. Instead, it was given to the battalion because of the similarity in the appearance of its men to those from Nepal, who had served so faithfully in the British Army since 1816. During the late 1800s, the 9th DLI wore similar dark green uniforms and being mainly comprised of men from the shipyards and coal mines, its soldiers were similarly short and stocky in appearance.
Like all new recruits, Bill underwent basic training, possibly at Ravensworth Camp, in County Durham, but more likely to have been in either Newcastle or Boldon, both just a few miles from Felling. Upon completion, Private 3071 William Crook was formally posted to 1/9th DLI, and embarked for France 27th June 1915, eventually joining up with his new companions three days later, on 30th June. At that time, the 9th DLI was located at Kemmel, to the south-west of Ypres, but was frequently occupying front line trenches within the infamous Ypres Salient, in the area around Sanctuary Wood.
The timing of Bill’s arrival on the Western Front might, to some, seem fortuitous, given that it was sandwiched between the end of the Second Battle of Ypres and the notorious flame-thrower attacks at Hooge. Bill avoided both of these events, but was quickly introduced to the harsh realities of trench life, his very first stint in the front line being between 6th and 9th July. That passing without too much incident (despite the constant threat of another German offensive), Bill might have been forgiven for thinking that this war malarkey wasn’t as bad as he’d feared – especially as, soon afterwards, the battalion (which formed part of 151st Brigade of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division) was ordered to take up positions around the much more amenable Armentières sector.
But it’s way too easy, sitting here in 2022, in a comfortable home, with all mod cons, to write such things. It’s way too hard to try and put into words how Bill must have actually felt. Words such as ‘afraid’, ‘terrified’, ‘deeply homesick’, ‘cold’, ‘wet’ – I could go on and on – are just that: words. Nobody living truly knows or understands exactly what these men went through, even in the quietest sectors, and even the relative experiences of modern combatants can’t really compare. It’s something I always try to keep in mind whenever I’m researching, writing, or just reading about them. And it always makes me both genuinely sad and extremely grateful.
After a relatively uneventful time at Armentières, Bill returned to the Ypres Salient with the 9th DLI in December 1915. This time proved to be far more challenging.
There I go again: challenging. What I really mean is that – for me at least – it would have been an absolutely indescribable living hell, one I can barely imagine.
Bill served in the trenches around Hill 60, Sanctuary Wood, Mount Sorrell, and the Bluff. I’ve visited all of these places on many occasions (although not since I’ve fully researched Bill’s story), and although my visits have given me a clearer overview of the events that took place there, of course they have not provided me with anything like the actual experience of them. When I visit, I have a pleasant stroll around the reclaimed, beautiful landscape, read a few information boards, take in the views across to Ypres, and pay my respects at the immaculate cemeteries. When Bill was there, he faced the realistic prospect of death by rifle, machine gunfire, shells and gas every time he went up to the front lines. The losses recorded in the Battalion War Diary bear sobering testimony to this.
When we think of Ypres during the First World War, it is difficult not to picture the toad-skin landscape of devastation so synonymous with the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. For Bill and his comrades, in December 1915, it wasn’t quite like that. But, this entry from the ‘Official History of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division’ paints a fairly bleak portrait of it, even back in late 1915:
Day by day, what had once been fair countryside was dying a slow and agonizing
death; not a humble flower grew in the hedgerow, or crouched beneath some kindly
wall, but was torn from its setting and tossed to the winds, as if to demonstrate man’s
contempt for Nature. Looking east from the ramparts of Ypres one saw a smoking country, as if numerous cauldrons were sending wreaths of smoke heavenwards, so frequent were the shell
bursts. The city, itself, was the abode of Death. No one lingered in the streets, silent
and deserted in the daylight hours save for the awful roar of bursting shells. As if they
were plague spots, such places as the Menin and Lille Gates were shunned and avoided, for the German gunners had marked them down, and ‘gate’ had long been a misnomer.
Even at this period, Ypres was horrible, ghastly.
Bill remained within the Ypres Salient right through until August 1916. The period between December 1915 and August 1916 could be described as ‘routine’. Except that this was the Ypres Salient, where ‘routine’ took on its own bespoke meaning. It was never quiet; it was always dangerous.
And so, when the 50th (Northumbrian) Division was finally ordered to France in support of the Battle of the Somme, which had begun on 1st July, who knows how Bill felt? The losses of that first fateful day would have almost certainly been known to him, so perhaps he might have been justified in thinking he was leaving the frying pan for the very heart of the fire.
If he did, then he wasn’t far wrong. On the Somme, he saw action at the battles of Flers-Courcelette and Morval, both of which saw the 9th DLI heavily engaged and which cost it dearly in terms of men killed, wounded or missing.
Then, in early November 1916, the 9th DLI took part in an attack which is now very much embedded in the regiment’s proud history. Originally planned for 26th October (whilst the 9th DLI was in fact in reserve), this attack was postponed until 5th November, owing to atrocious weather conditions which had turned the Somme battlefield into a quagmire, not dissimilar to that which would subsequently be experienced at Passchendaele, the following year. The postponements meant that the 9th DLI had by now rotated to the front line once again, and it would be Bill and his pals of the Gateshead Gurkhas, together with the 6th and 8th DLI, that would lead the attack.
The 9th DLI objectives were two German trench systems (Gird and Gird Support), which ran north-west to south-east across the (still much-used by battlefield visitors) Bapaume-Albert Roman road, just to the north of the village of Le Sars. In addition, it was ordered to seize a small quarry just to the east of that road. As the left battalion, 9th DLI would have to overcome one particularly challenging (that word again!) obstacle en route to its objectives: the Butte de Warlencourt.
This ancient burial mound formed a modest promontory, of around sixty feet, and served absolutely no strategic purpose. Tactically, however, it did at least allow its holders to view the battlefield back across the British lines towards Martinpuich and High Wood. In attempting to take the Gird and Gird Support trench systems, the 9th DLI would have to cross over the very top of it.
In horrific weather (and battle) conditions, in which rain had fallen in biblical proportions, the 9th DLI somehow managed to get across the top of the Butte de Warlencourt, sieze the quarry, and secure the left flank of Gird Trench. It was even able to set up a command post on the Bapaume-Albert Road. This is another example of where words come nowhere near to doing justice to the actuality of what was achieved. What Bill and the 9th DLI were tasked with achieving is – to me, sitting here now- incomprehensible. The fact that they actually achieved it, nothing less than mind-boggling.
Sadly though, the positions could not be held. The 8th DLI on the right of the attack suffered terribly at the hands of murderous machine gun fire on its right, whilst the 6th DLI – despite some protection on the left afforded by the progress of the 9th – fared little better. Without the support of its two sister battalions, the 9th simply couldn’t hold on and despite becoming engaged in vicious hand-to-hand fighting…
(Stop. Pause. Imagine just what that would have been like if you possibly can. Think of all those men – Bill included – who returned home to continue their lives with the actual memories of it)
…and heroically seeing off numerous German counter-attacks, it was eventually forced to fall back to its starting positions, just after midnight on the 6th November.
Although not held by the Durhams on this occasion, the fight for the Butte de Warlencourt (which according to the C.O. of the 9th DLI, Lt Col Roland Bradford VC, had become an ‘obsession’) was soon added to its battle honours, and three wooden crosses, commemorating the men of the DLI who had fallen on this ‘little Gibraltar’, were placed on the Butte within weeks of the Australians taking it over, following the Germans’ withdrawal to the Hindenburg line in early 1917. Today, these three crosses can be found in the parish churches of Chester-le-Street, Bishop Auckland and Durham Cathedral.
It was an even more significant event for Private Bill Crook. During the attack, he was shot in the neck and sustained serious wounds which required him to be medically evacuated back to England on 11th November.
Shot in the neck.
Easy to write.
Virtually impossible to imagine the shock and pain experienced.
I somehow get the feeling Bill might have been inwardly quite relieved to be leaving the Western Front behind. Certainly in some respects. However he was feeling, one thing soon became apparent: his days as a Gateshead Gurkha were now at an end. Despite his wounds, however, his war most certainly wasn’t.
With the typical efficiency associated with army administration, Bill was struck from the ranks of the 9th DLI on 30th December 1916 and posted to 5th DLI. This was a home-based battalion located at Catterick, in North Yorkshire. During his time with this battalion, as a result of the wholesale re-numbering of the old territorial forces, Bill acquired a new army service number: 20338.
Being back in England had also brought him back into physical contact with his sweetheart, Mary Donald. Proof of this can be found in the fact that their first daughter, Elsie May, would be born in October, later that year.
GCSEs in Maths or Biology are not required.
On discovering Mary’s pregnancy in the spring of 1917, Bill clearly decided that urgent action was required on his part. Although Bill was himself baptised into the Church of England, Mary was a Roman Catholic, and just how her pregnancy, outside of wedlock, would have been viewed within her own church community (and family) does not need elaborating upon here. Whether or not Bill requested leave in his attempt to sort the matter out, and was refused, is not clear. What is clear, however, is that on or before 2nd April 1917, Bill Crook deserted.
Few wartime crimes attracted more disdain or greater punishment than desertion. 306 men were actually executed for it during the First World War. Fortunately for Bill, he was not one of them and, in fact, appears to have been treated very leniently.
Following his desertion, Bill married Mary, in Gateshead, on 16th April 1917. He then took some further time, which he spent with his new (pregnant) bride, and put his own affairs in order, before surrendering himself, voluntarily, to the authorities on or before 17th May. On this date, he was sentenced to 28 days detention.
Why was Bill treated so seemingly leniently?
Well, I believe there are a number of factors worthy of consideration.
Firstly, Bill had not deserted from the battlefield. He was a wounded, convalescing soldier who would have been viewed as something of a hero by many (especially around his home town of Gateshead). Secondly, he had a previously unblemished service record; not even a single, minor misdemeanour had been recorded against him. Thirdly, the bespoke circumstances of his situation might have had some bearing: he clearly felt an urgent need to make things right in his personal life and – quite possibly – was refused leave to do so legitimately. With the support of at least one senior officer and some positive character testimony from NCOs and other companions, I suspect there were ample grounds to justify the leniency seen in the sentence meted out.
What is less easy to explain, however, is the sentence of 28 days given to Bill on 1st June 1917, after he was arrested in York by civilian police, having escaped from custody and deserted for a second time, on 27th May. I can only assume that the two incidents were connected and that they were therefore viewed in the same light.
Notwithstanding this, it is fair to say that Bill was leading a somewhat charmed life at this time.
Bill managed to serve his ‘full term’ on this occasion, during which time he was posted to the 20th (Service) Battalion, DLI, commonly known as ‘The Wearsiders’. This Sunderland-based battalion was raised in 1915, and consisted of volunteers who had answered Kitchener’s call to arms at the beginning of the war. It formed part of 123rd Brigade in the 41st Division. The move from Tyne to Wear (the local rivalry existed even back then, in some quarters) is unlikely to have bothered a Lancashire lad like Bill.
Bill arrived back in France on 12th July 1917 and met his new battalion comrades for the first time at Mont des Cats, near Ypres. Preparations were well underway for a new offensive, which would become known as the Third Battle of Ypres, or – less accurately, but more infamously – ‘Passchendaele’.
On the 31st July 1917, the first day of the battle, 20th DLI were in front line trenches at Battle Wood, just to the south of Hill 60. Its primary objective for that first day was to secure a German trench line named ‘Imperfect Trench’. The trench was taken without too much difficulty, but in pursuing its second objective, the 20th DLI suffered greatly from machine-gun fire emanating from a hitherto undetected German pillbox on its right. The discovery of this and other pillboxes, left unscathed by the pre-bombardment, meant that the 20th DLI was tied up for much of the remainder of the day (successfully) clearing them out. Thereafter, the Wearsiders valiantly fended off a number of German counter-attacks, entailing ferocious hand-to-hand fighting. More horrific memories for Bill to take back home with him. The battalion had fought magnificently during that first day, but at a very high cost: 431 men killed, wounded or missing. These losses temporarily put paid to any further action for the battalion, equating to almost half of its overall strength.
Battered and bloodied, it was pulled out of the line and sent (via a series of very unwelcomed route marches) to Esquerades, 17 miles from the north French coastal town of Etaples, where it was re-equipped and had the honour of being personally inspected and thanked for its efforts by General Haig himself. On 20th September, however, the battalion – now with its newly-acquired replacements – was back in the Salient and ready to take its place in the Battle of the Menen Road.
By the 20th September, the battlefields of Ypres were in the condition so synonymous with that particular battle. The record-breaking rainfall, which had begun on the very first day of the offensive, had persisted throughout, and now the trenches were no more than water-filled shell holes; the ground quite literally being a morass of liquid mud. Despite this, the 20th DLI (in the second wave of the attack) was given objectives to pass through the first objective of the attack (the red line on the map above), cross the Basseville Beek, and to take the 2nd objective (the blue line). From there, if successful, it should push on to the third objective (the green line).
Sounds simple enough.
Looks it, as well, from the map above.
But, the conditions condemned it to failure from the very outset.
Wading through the cloying mud, the Wearsiders somehow managed to reach the blue line. However, the time it took the entire brigade to join them there meant that there was insufficient daylight to push on to the green line. This attack, therefore, took place the following day, but was an unmitigated disaster. The artillery’s ‘creeping barrage’ was wholly ineffective for the conditions and Bill and his comrades were able to progress a mere 200 yards before German gunfire brought them to a halt. Unbelievably, they then had to fend off German counter-attacks, which met with a similar fate to that of the 20th DLI’s. The Germans had clearly failed to heed the old adage, (probably incorrectly) attributed to Einstein, that insanity is doing the same thing time and time again, and expecting different results. However, once again, the losses sustained by the 20th DLI had been substantial, meaning that – for good this time – its involvement in the Third Battle of Ypres was at an end.
By the end of September 1917, Bill found himself in a much quieter sector to the east of Dunkirk on the northern French coast. Here, he was employed in shoring up defences in the aftermath of the German attack on 10th July 1917 (Operation Strandfest, or ‘Beach Party’). Things appeared to be getting even better for him when, following the ‘Disaster at Caporetto’, during which Italy was very nearly knocked out of the war, the 41st Division (along with four other British divisions) was sent to Italy – a posting one 20th DLI man described as ‘a picnic (compared to) Passchendaele’.
Deployed along the banks of the River Piave, near to Nervesa, the 20th DLI saw very little action (or warm sunshine) during its stay in Italy, despite the terrible omen of losing its commanding officer to an exploding Austrian shell on its first day there. During this time, Bill was ‘promoted’ to unpaid lance corporal. Why he was unpaid is unknown, but it does perhaps suggest that he was reluctant to receive his new rank. This was not uncommon. Many privates were unhappy at the thought of having to be in charge of their old comrades, and the role of a junior NCO was one of the most dangerous of all. So, perhaps Bill was presented with a fait accompli. He must have been well thought of though, as on 22nd January 1918 he was promoted to full (paid) corporal.
The Wearsiders’ stay in Italy was cut short by the gathering storm clouds of an anticipated major German offensive back on the Western Front, and on 7th March 1918, Bill was back on the Somme.
The German spring offensive began on 21st March 1918, although the 20th DLIs first contact with the marauding German troops did not take place until the 23rd, at Vaulx-Vraucourt, where it bravely fought off repeated German attacks with deadly Lewis gunfire, before – like everywhere else in that part of the line – the unrelenting German advance forced a series of tactical withdrawals.
As the first phase of the German offensive fizzled out (it came to an end on 5th April 1918), the 41st Division was moved up to the Ypres Salient in anticipation of the second phase. When that second phase duly began (the Battle of the Lys, or Fourth Battle of Ypres, or Operation Georgette, just to use some of its names), the 20th DLI was located to the north of Ypres, at St Jean. As the German attacks focused on the south and east of the Flemish town, the Wearsiders consequently avoided the main thrust of the German assault and had a relatively quiet time of things.
The German spring offensive finally ended in abject failure at the 2nd Battle of the Marne, in July 1918. On 8th August, the British launched its Battle of Amiens offensive. It heralded the beginning of the end for Germany, and from that day until the armistice on 11th November, the Germans suffered defeat after defeat after defeat. Bill’s role in all of this – initially – was to remain in the Ypres Salient until the Germans based there – recognising the highly precarious state of their position – began to withdraw and head east. For the 20th DLI, this presented an entirely new concept: a war of pursuit.
Then, Bill won the Military Medal (MM).
On the 14th October 1918, the 20th DLI took part in an attack to secure the town of Menen. A stupendous pre-bombardment ensured that the resistance they encountered was light. However, during the advance, Lieutenant J Foster and six of Bill’s comrades were killed. With his officer down, Bill assumed command of the remaining men of his platoon and – despite encountering enemy resistance – successfully led them on to secure their objectives. The courage, initiative and leadership he displayed on that day led him to being awarded the MM. Alongside that award, just a few days later, Bill was promoted to the rank of lance sergeant.
The 20th DLI’s war of pursuit continued right up until armistice day on 11th November 1918, by which time they had reached the outskirts of Mons, at Nederbrakel.
It seemed Bill had survived the war.
He had seen almost four years of active service, with one short exception, all on the Western Front.
But, it had taken its toll.
On 29th January 1919, Bill was medically discharged from the army with a condition called ‘Disordered Action of the Heart’ or, more colloquially, ‘Soldier’s Heart’. It’s another condition that today would fall under the auspices of PTSD. The war was deemed to be the cause of Bill’s condition (its symptoms can include a racing or irregular heart beat, extreme stress and fatigue) and he and Mary were awarded a pension of 8s and 8d, and 3s and 6d respectively, up to 12th April 1920.
Notionally at least, Bill returned to Felling Colliery later that year, but he was a sick and tired man and unable to return to the physical strain of his pre-war job as a hewer (hence the disability pension).
On the 7th December 1922, Bill’s heart finally gave out, and he died. He was just 26 years and 8 months old. Three months after his death, his first and only son, William (Bill) Crook was born, deprived of the opportunity of ever meeting his dad.
Bill was buried in St Mary’s churchyard at Heworth, just down the road from Felling. He still lies there today.
His grave, located against one of the outer walls which remain today, has long since been lost and buried over. Of course, had he have died just over a year earlier, he would have qualified for a CWGC burial. Whether or not Mary would have wanted one for him is a moot point. Instead, Bill was almost forgotten.
But not quite.
His grandson, my cousin, knew something about him having served in the First World War and asked me if I could find out anything about it. This blog is a small part of what I discovered.
Like I said at the beginning, we’ve all probably got a Bill somewhere in our ancestry. Many soldiers are well remembered thanks to the incredible work of organisations such as the CWGC and the Royal British Legion. Some, however, like Bill, are – if not forgotten completely -disappearing into the mists of time.
And that is something I personally find extremely sad.
That’s why – for me – its’ so important that we continue to try and remember them all. And that goes for men like Bill, and men like my own Grandad, Jack Durham.
Shells didn’t kill either of them. But, as Remarque astutely noted, the war destroyed them both.