Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Tragedy on British shores

Soldiers from the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry form a sombre guard of honour outside Dewsbury Cemetery for the burial of their comrade, Private John Myers, who was tragically killed in February 1915. The Reverend F.J.Martin (pictured), curate-in-charge of St Mary's Church, Savile Town, conducted the funeral service.
Soldiers from the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry form a sombre guard of honour outside Dewsbury Cemetery for the burial of their comrade, Private John Myers, who was tragically killed in February 1915. The Reverend F.J.Martin (pictured), curate-in-charge of St Mary's Church, Savile Town, conducted the funeral service.

Not all the soldiers killed in the First World War died on the battlefield, some died here in England before they had a chance to go out to fight in France.

Two such local soldiers were Private Tom Myers, of Dewsbury, and Private Edmund Battye, of Hanging Heaton, who were killed in a drowning tragedy in Gainsborough in 1915.

Five more of their comrades from surrounding towns also drowned when the raft they had built as part of a training exercise, tipped over and sank in a 32ft deep pond.

Twenty men were on board, all wearing heavy military gear and carrying packs, but 13 managed to swim to the embankment or were rescued.

They were all territorials in the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and had been sent to Gainsborough to learn how to build bridges.

Most were from the Dewsbury, Batley and Wakefield areas, and had no experience of building rafts.

Some couldn’t swim and sank to the bottom in seconds, a tragedy which touched the hearts of the nation.

The men had been inexperienced, ill-prepared and there was only one lifebuoy on the raft.

Verdicts of accidental death were recorded, and the man leading the exercise, Captain Harold Hirst, of Dewsbury, was cleared of blame.

But tragically, he too was to die a few months later in France while performing an act of great courage for which he was awarded the Military Medal posthumously.

One of the men rescued was 19-year-old Private Creighton a miner from Batley, who was brought back to life after he stopped breathing.

Myers, Battye and their comrades had been among 4,000 Yorkshire soldiers sent to Lincolnshire for training before heading off for the battlefields of northern France.

The men taking part in the training exercise were all members of D company, and the raft they had built was only a few yards from the shore when it tipped and sank.

The victims of the drowning tragedy were all buried in their home towns with full military honours.

It is exactly 100 years this week since the tragedy occurred – February 19 1915 – and special services in remembrance of those who died are being held throughout West Yorkshire.

The services include one in Batley today in memory of Private Edmund Battye, aged 20, and another one in Dewsbury tomorrow, in memory of Private Myers, aged 24.

One of the witnesses of the tragedy, who gave evidence at the inquest, was Private Ewart Whiteley Mann, of Batley Carr.

He was later to go to France to fight and was injured in several battles and suffered shell shock.

Although hospitalised a number of times, he was always sent back to fight, and eventually he died from wounds in a Southampton hospital.

After the tragedy, Private Mann wrote a letter to the Reporter paying tribute to those who had died and those who had taken part in the rescue attempts.

He wrote: “When the raft tipped I was about 50 yards away. We did not think the water was so very deep. We ran to the water edge, but all we could do was to give a hand out to those who had swum to the side, and throw poles to those in distress.

“Swimmers jumped in, and more lives would have been lost had it not been for the promptitude of the men belonging to D company.

“I should like to make special mention of the following men: Lance Corporal Chorley, of Leeds, a solicitor, who bravely dived into the water time after time, rescuing man after man until he himself was almost exhausted.”

Another witness, Lance Corporal George Sykes, of Batley, who was doing section drill in a nearby field , at the time of the accident.

He wrote the following letter to his parents:

“I rushed up and got my pack and coat off and dived into the water to try to save the poor chaps. It was awful. We could not tell who was drowning or who was wanting help, and we got two out only just in time. Many of the men looked like dead. Seven poor chaps had to be got out with grappling irons, and all seven were dead. Seeing the chaps, struggling in the water was awful.”

The funeral of Private Myers, who lived in Savile Grove, Savile Town, attracted vast crowds.

A firing party was in attendance and as his coffin was brought out of his home, they presented arms and the officers stood at the salute.

A large crowd gathered in the vicinity of his house, and most of the blinds in the neighbourhood were drawn.

All along the route to the cemetery there were groups of sympathetic onlookers and at the cemetery a dense crowd had gathered.

At the close, the firing party fired three volleys over the grave and the buglers sounded The Last Post.

Private Myers was the son of Mr and Mrs William Myers, and the eldest of a family of nine.

At the outbreak of war he had been a chauffeur in the service of Captain Surgeon Mill, of Ossett, and previous to that Dr T.O. Halliwell, Dewsbury’s Medical Officer of Health.

Private Myers had joined the Ossett detachment of the 4th KOYLI three years earlier and was a very popular member. He attained his 24th birthday shortly before the tragedy and had obtained 48 hours’ leave to come home to attend the wedding of a friend. He was an old boy of Boothroyd Lane Council School, and had four sisters and five brothers.

About 120 members of the 4th (Reserve) KOYLI under the command of Lieut Norman Lee attended the funeral, and a number of men also came over from Gainsborough to represent Private Myers’ battalion.

A ceremony will took place at Batley Cemetery today in memory of Private Battye.

A second ceremony will take place at Dewsbury Cemetery tomorrow (Friday) at noon at the side of Private Myers’ grave, which is in section H of the unconsecrated part of the cemetery.

For those who would like to attend but who do not know which part of the cemetery this is, local historian Christine Leveridge will be on hand carrying a red umbrella.

• I would like to thank historian Peter Bradshaw who researched the tragedy and wrote a book giving full details of what happened on that tragic day. Thanks also to Christine Leveridge for the photograph.