I’m hoping to travel to Ypres Reservoir Cemetery again soon. I’ve been several times over the past few years. But this will be a particularly poignant visit. It will mark 100 years since the death of my great grandad’s youngest brother Jesse Hill, killed in action in WW1.
Jesse was the son of Joseph Hill and his second wife Mary Ann Simpson. He was born on 13 November 1895 at Rouse Mill Lane, Soothill and grew up in the family’s home on Spurr Street, just across the road from Batley railway station and all the grand cloth selling houses which lined Station Road.
An extremely popular boy, he attended Mill Lane Council School where he was a prominent member of both the school cricket and football team.
After leaving school he joined the finishing department at Messrs Wrigley and Parker’s Greenhill Mills minutes down the road from his home. This was one of the many mills upon which Batley’s fortunes were built upon.
Whilst Jesse was in the early stages of his working life older brother Charlie enlisted in the Army. Jesse therefore had direct contact with a serving soldier and first-hand accounts of military life.
When war was declared on 4 August 1914 the persuasiveness of the recruiting sergeant’s triple-pronged seduction techniques of a general appeal to patriotism, the more specific exhortation of defence of your country and women-folk from the barbaric Germans and the desperate desire to avoid accusations of shirking duty and the accompanying dreaded white feather of cowardice kindled a response in Jesse.
Swept along with a tide of emotion and the fear of missing out on adventure because, after all, it would be over quickly, Jesse was one of those young men who in their thousands gathered in the Dewsbury recruiting office and recruiting offices the length and breadth of the Kingdom to take the King’s Shilling. Jesse even added a year to his age in order to ensure he would be accepted. And with a cursory medical and a few swift pen strokes on 7 August 1914 Jesse was in the Army for the duration, duly assigned to the newly formed 6th (Service) Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry), (KOYLI).
From Pontefract the Battalion moved initially to Woking and then in November 1914 to Witley Camp, Surrey one of the many temporary army training camps flung up in those early months of the war. In February 1915 they moved to Aldershot for their final preparations prior to deployment overseas.
It was whilst at Aldershot and with embarkation for France and the Front Line looming that Jesse wrote his will. He used the standard Army Form designed specifically for the purpose. The harsh reality that he may never return may have struck home by filling in this one basic form. His will, dated 17 March 1915, was witnessed by two Birstall men, Thomas Kelly and John W Learoyd. He named his now married half-sister Nellie Armstrong, daughter of Mary Ann Simpson, as Executor.
The will stated that in the event of his death and following discharge of debts and funeral expenses, everything was to go to his sister Martha, a testimony to the closeness of Jesse and his youngest sister.
On 20 May 1915 an advance party from the Battalion were sent from Aldershot to Southampton in preparation for departure to France. On 21 May 1915 the main body of men split into two groups and, accompanied by music played by the band of the 8th Devon Regiment, marched to the railway station at Aldershot ready for departure to Folkestone. By 11pm that night they arrived in Folkestone where they embarked on a cross channel steamer and, after a calm crossing, arrived in Boulogne in the early hours of 22 May. From there they marched the two miles to Ostrohove Camp where they remained for just one night before moving up the line and into Belgium by the end of the month.
Belgium was the sector which was the focus of sustained fighting at this point of the war. Only a month earlier the first gas attack on the Western Front, perpetrated by the Germans, took place initiating the 2nd Battle of Ypres. 2nd Ypres ended on 25 May pushing the Allies back, compressing the Salient and bringing the Front Line closer to Allied held Ypres. Reinforcements were urgently needed, and it was to this “hot spot” that the 6th KOYLI and Jesse Hill were sent.
This is where they remained for the next few months, undergoing the rotational routine of trench warfare. Typically most men spent five days in the frontline, five in reserve, five back at the frontline and finally five in reserve. However, this was not fixed because, if circumstances demanded it, they could spend anything between four and eight days in the frontline trenches. While some men were in the front fire trenches, others would occupy the support lines, ready to provide reinforcement when hard-pressed in an attack or a raid. Finally the battalion was removed from the frontline trenches and taken to the rear areas, a process known as relief and carried out at the dead of night via the communication trenches. But even when in reserve trenches they were kept busy and still at risk, undertaking sentry duty and providing digging, wiring and ration parties.
This became Jesse’s daily routine in the areas around Ypres, Vlamertinghe, Hooge, Sanctuary Wood areas, frequently negotiating the Menin Road and Hellfire Corner to get from Ypres to the frontline trenches.
During these months he had a couple of narrow escapes. On one occasion he and four others were buried by shell wreckage; on another time a “motor char-a-banc” in which he was travelling overturned and Jesse sustained what were described as comparatively slight injuries.
On the evening of 15 September 1915 it was the 6th KOYLI’s turn to have another spell in the trenches leaving Ypres through the Menin Gate, up the Menin Road and into the frontline. It appears that Jesse was in “A” Company in H16, H17, S17, H16A and H15A trenches.
It was all fairly standard stuff. During the relief, always a dangerous time, the Battalion lost a Machine Gun Sergeant and four men just after arrival in H14 to a large shell. On the 16 September 1915 the diary notes continuous shelling from their own guns behind the lines, as they were trying an experimental shell. The German reply was not vigorous. All in all the 16 September was a fairly quiet night, with 60 more men coming up from base as the Battalion had been allocated far too much work and were having to carry their own rations. 17 September followed a similar pattern. Shelling increased from both sides on 18 September and six men from “B” Company were killed as a result, but overall once again the night was described as “peaceful comparatively”.
Friday 19 September dawned with heavy bombardment from the Allied guns at 4.50am. These rounds fell short of the German Lines and gradually became shorter and shorter until they were raining rapidly on the British held trenches, mainly around H18 and H19. However, because the telephone was out and the Forward Observation Officer had been killed, the Officer Commanding in the trenches could not report back to the guns. Shells were now hitting H18, H17A, the bombing post at H18A and H19 and casualties sustained – both dead and wounded.
19 September is the day that official records, both CWGC and his Army Death Certificate, state Jesse died. If so, he was killed by this so-called friendly fire.
However, there is a small question mark. On the first anniversary of his death in September 1916 an “In Memoriam” notice appeared in the local newspapers. This indicates that the family believed his death occurred on 20 September.
The Unit War Diary for 20 September notes that at 4.55am High Explosives from Hill 60 landed at Charing Cross killing six men.
Pte Healey wrote to Jesse’s family and the details appeared in the local papers in mid-October. The newspaper article puts it bluntly as follows:
“A companion named Private Healey wrote to the relatives a few days ago informing them that Private Hill met his death suddenly, both legs and part of his body being blown off, and an official intimation confirms the sad news”.
So, although official records state Jesse’s death took place on 19 September, it may conceivably have been 20 September.
CWGC records show that after the war Jesse’s body was recovered in June 1919. The trench map reference appears to relate to the Ypres area. I initially believed he may have been buried in what was known Ypres Reservoir Middle Cemetery, (also called “Prison Cemetery No.2” and “Middle Prison Cemetery”), which was located near the prison and reservoir. It was used in August and September 1915, and rarely afterwards. It contained the graves of 107 soldiers from the United Kingdom, 41 of which were from the 6th KOYLI. However a further analysis of CWGC records appears to discount this theory. After the War the graves from Middle Prison Cemetery, other small burial grounds around Ypres and graves from the Salient battlefields were brought together in one cemetery, Ypres Reservoir. This is Jesse’s final resting place.
Jesse was awarded the awarded the 1914-15 Star, Victory Medal and British War Medal. He is remembered on the Batley War Memorial and the Soothill Upper War Memorial at St Paul’s, Hanging Heaton. The UK, Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects show following his death that the Army owed his sister, Martha, as next of kin, £1 13s 3d and a £3 10s war gratuity.
- Ancestry.co.uk – British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920 Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901-1929: http://home.ancestry.co.uk/
- “Batley News” – 9 October 1915
- Birth Certificate
- CWGC: http://www.cwgc.org/
- Death Certificate
- “Dewsbury District News” – 16 October 1915 and 30 September 1916
- FindMyPast – Census information, Soldiers Died in the Great War: http://www.cwgc.org/
- Gov.UK Website – Find a Soldier’s Will: https://www.gov.uk/probate-search
- The National Archives – Unit War Diary, 43 Infantry Brigade: 6 Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. WO 95/1906/1: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
- “War Register and Records of War Service 1914-1920 Urban District of Soothill Upper” – Rev W E Cleworth MA
- Photos of Jesse Hill, “H” sector trenches, headstone and Batley War Memorial inscription – my own