Name: Edmund Battye
Unit/Regiment: 1/4th Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry)
Service Number: 2067
Date of Death: 19 February 1915
On Friday 19 February 1915 tragedy once more struck the 1/4th KOYLI, this time whilst undergoing training in Lincolnshire. It was the largest loss of life the local Territorial battalion had suffered so far into the war. Seven men were killed, and the ramifications were felt in families across the district. This included the congregation at St Mary of the Angels, as one of those to lose his life was parishioner Edmund Battye. Following on from Austin Nolan in August 1914, he was the second man associated with the parish to be killed whilst with the “Terriers,” this before they had even departed from home shores.
Edmund Battye was born in Bruntcliffe, Morley on 29 October 1892.1 His parents were John and Margaret Battye (née Fitzpatrick). Edmund’s birth certificate states his father worked as a coal miner.
Edmund’s mother, Margaret, was born in Birstall on 7 April 1865, the daughter of John and Ellen Fitzpatrick. By 1881 she was living with her widowed mother at Pitt Lane in Batley, working as a woollen rag sorter. Son John Thomas Fitzpatrick was born a little over two years later. Then, in February 1888, she gave birth to daughter Ellen Fitzpatrick whilst living at Darton, a village midway between West Bretton and Barnsley.2 No father is listed on the birth certificate. However, two years later, son Henry (also known as Harry) Battye was born. The indication from Henry’s birth details is that Margaret was now married to coal-miner John Battye. The couple probably met whilst in Batley. John, born in Holmfirth in May 1863, is recorded as living at Birch Street, Batley, with his parents Hudson and Ellen Battye in the 1881 census – though his occupation in this census is given as a teamer.3
By 1901 John and Margaret had settled in Batley, living at Cobden Street. Now John earned a living as a mason’s labourer. Their other children included Benjamin (born in Mirfield in July 1895) and Ruth Hannah (born in Barnsley in May 1898). Margaret was pregnant at the time of the 1901 census, and daughter Margaret Ann was born in July. She did not thrive long, and her burial is recorded in Batley cemetery’s records in April 1902. Son George, born in January 1903, had a similarly brief life, with his death recorded only six months later. At this point the family were living at Drake Street in the Ward’s Hill area of town. It was whilst living here, in 1904, that a horrific event took place.
Margaret’s mother, Ellen Fitzpatrick, had lived with the family for around five years. In her 70s, very frail, and not very mobile, Ellen was in the habit of sitting close to the open fire. A heavy smoker, she always had pieces of paper nearby with which to light her pipe. On the afternoon of 17 May Margaret went out to work in the mill as usual, leaving her mother at home along with 15-year-old Henry. He was sitting at the table cleaning a knife and fork when his grandmother asked him to stir the fire up. He did so, but had hardly retuned to his task when his grandmother called out to him that she was on fire, and he saw that the left side of her dress was alight. Although it was unclear how her clothing had caught fire, it is likely that poking the fire created sparks, one of which had ignited Ellen’s paper pipe lighters. Henry tried to put out the flames with his hands, but failed. He rushed into the street screaming for help, and a neighbour, Lydia Longbottom, ran to assist. She laid Ellen on the floor, wrapped her in a rug, and extinguished the flames. Dr Doherty arrived, but Ellen insisted to all that she was not burnt. This appeared to be the case, as when Margaret undressed her and got her into bed she did not notice any injuries. They only became apparent later that night. The doctor was called again on Thursday, but Ellen’s condition deteriorated and she died on Sunday 22 May.
The family were still in the Ward’s Hill area, in a two-roomed house at Sheard’s Fold, in 1911. It was 18-year-old Edmund who completed the family’s household return for this census. By now he was working in a coal mine as a hurrier.4 The colliery he worked at is not named on the census form, but when he enlisted he was employed at Howley Park Colliery.
Edmund’s mother, Margaret, died at her Ward’s Hill home on 10 February 1913. By the time of Edmund’s death, his father, John, had moved to Wentworth Place, Fieldhead Lane, Birstall. Edmund’s address remained in Batley though, living with his step-brother and sister-in-law, at New Street. He also retained his link to St Mary’s, including being a member of the St Mary’s Batley Branch of the National Catholic Benefit and Thrift Society.
Edmund joined the local “Terriers” of the 4th KOYLI in early 1914, mobilising with them in August that year. Initially at Sandbeck Park, Doncaster, in November 1914 the battalion moved to Gainsborough, Lincolnshire for training. There were brief spells of specific training elsewhere. For example at the end of January and the first few days of February the 4th KOYLI completed 17 days’ musketry training at Totley. But it was back at Gainsborough that the tragedy struck.
On Friday 19 February, Captain Harold Hirst, of Dewsbury, was in command of “D” Company comprising about 190 men. Half went for section drill in a field, whilst the other half, supervised by Captain Hirst, were taken to a neighbouring pond of water near the banks of the River Trent to learn about raft-building and gain experience in bridging. It was the first time the platoon had undertaken this type of work, and none of those involved knew the depth of the water. The KOYLI men had no say in the location, it being chosen for them. In fact, located next to the flat field, and with no banks to speak of at the water’s edge there was nothing to suggest any depth or danger attached to it, especially since other units had used the same pond for training purposes.
However, the place chosen for the practice was notorious locally though, notable for being the deepest piece of water in the district. In fact those familiar with it often described it as “bottomless”. And locals did question its use for training, believing the ornamental water in Thonock Park – which had been offered for that purpose – was far more suitable. The chosen stretch of water was the first of a series of gymes or pits by the side of the river Trent, between the village of Morton, which forms the northern extremity of Gainsborough, and Walkerith. The origin of these gymes was shrouded in mystery. One theory is they were a result of the earth dug to form the Trent embankment to prevent the swift flowing tidal river from flooding the low-lying land. They were also the subject of many local legends. One newspaper reported that the chosen gyme had literary connections, alluded to in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. She did write the novel whilst staying in the village and fictionalised some of the locations in it.
Apparently constructed in accordance with instructions set out in the Book of Military Engineering, (although when pressed at the inquest Captain Hirst seemed very hazy on the details of these) the raft the men built was composed of two waterproof tarpaulin sheets which were filled with a mixture of straw and hay to make them float. Rumours that wet hay from the fields had been used were dispelled at the inquest. Posts and a boarded platform were fixed by ropes to these floats. The platform of the raft was about 12 feet by 7 feet. A 12 to 14 foot long pole was used to control the raft. Lance Corporal Edward Punyer was put in charge of the punting pole, seemingly based only on the fact he had previous experience at sea. However, he was not familiar with rafting. He subsequently told the Coroner at the inquest that, when the raft was only a yard from the bank, it was impossible to touch the bottom of the pond with the pole. He knelt on the fore-part of the raft and put his arm in the water up to his elbow.
Captain Hirst received no instructions as to how many men should be placed on the raft but, when pressed at the inquest, he said its capacity was 40. The exact number aboard is not known but at the inquest was estimated to be no more than 25. The men aboard the raft were in fatigue dress without belts, only Captain Hirst was in full marching order.
Immediately after pushing off from the bank Captain Hirst warned the men to keep still and steady, and five minutes later he gave the order to return. However it appears that it was around this juncture that Lance Corporal Punyer mentioned that he could not reach the bottom of the pond with the punting pole. He went down on one knee in an effort to get more depth with it. Although it was stated that Punyer’s words caused no alarm amongst the men, and his movement did not create any tilting of the craft, at this point Captain Hirst felt a shift in weight on the raft as men moved, and water washed across it. Twice more Captain Hirst told the men to stand still, but there was a further slight movement, the raft started rocking and they were all thrown into the water. It was around seven minutes past midday.
The only precaution in case of accidents was one lifebuoy on the bank, which was thrown in immediately after the men went over. It was insufficient. Even those who could swim struggled. Two of the men who lost their lives were described as good swimmers, and it was surmised they must have been pulled or dragged down by struggling comrades. This was supported by the fact that the dragging operations in the aftermath of the accident resulted in three bodies being brought to shore clinging together; and one of the men had his coat and waistcoat torn from his back.
Evidence of additional difficulties came from Dewsbury man Sergeant Charles Frederick Hemingway, one of the youngest sergeants in the battalion. Described as a promising young three-quarter back footballer, so by no means an unfit man, he was amongst the swimmers thrown into the water. He admitted he had great difficulty saving himself because of the weight of his clothing and boots, and he felt exhausted by the time he managed to clamber on the bank.
Valiant efforts were made by the men who had remained ashore, including those who had been undertaking drill practice, to rescue those in the water. Those who could swim jumped into the icy water and made repeated efforts to save the men. Those who could not threw poles and ropes out to those in distress.
One of those involved in the rescue was Private William Barber from St Mary’s who was tragically to lose his life just over a year later. He remembered saving two from drowning, though other witnesses said three, bravely swimming into the middle of the water at great risk to himself. In a letter home he wrote:
I was on the bank watching the raft, and saw the water was getting into the straw and though it would sink. I took off my coat and got ready to go into the water, but then the raft seemed to right itself, and I put my coat on again. Then the raft started to sink, and this time it went down. I took off my coat again and dived in and fetched out two men.5
Others praised for their courageous efforts included Lance Corporal Arthur Reginald Chorley from Headingley, a 44-year-old solicitor with the Leeds firm of Barr, Nelson and Co., in civilian life. Aided by St Mary’s man Lance Corporal Thomas William Chappell, he was instrumental in the rescue of another St Mary’s parishioner Matthew Crayton. He was amongst those drilling in the field, and after finishing went to watch the raft operations. He was quoted as follows:
As we approached…I saw the raft pushed off, and she floated quite level and well out of the water. It moved slowly towards the centre of the pond, and I saw Lance-Corpl. Punyer put his pole into the water as if intending to put the raft back to the shore. The whole of the pole disappeared in the water and the man’s wrist also went under. I heard him say ‘I cannot touch bottom here, sir.’ There was then a slight movement amongst the men on the raft, with the result that the raft went under on one side, The men then moved to the other side and they were thrown into the water, and the raft ‘shot’ towards the bank. I took off my equipment. I saw a man (Crayton) was in difficulties, and I jumped in and got him to the raft. Lance-Corpl. Chappell, who had also jumped in, helped me get him to the raft. When I was in the centre of the pond getting this man out I saw no others in the water at all. I don’t think any of the deceased men came to the surface again.6
Like Willie Barber, both Thomas William Chappell and Arthur Reginald Chorley died during the war. The former during the Battle of the Somme; Arthur Reginald Chorley was later commissioned as an officer and died of wounds on 28 April 1918
Lance-Corporal George Sykes from “H” Company wrote of events to his parents in Batley as follows:
We went to learn pontoon building on a pond near the Trent. As luck would have it our platoon did not help – we did section drill in the next field.
The two platoons got to the bridge together and about 40 men were on it when it started rocking, and all the lot went into the water. We were about 150 yards away at the time, and rushed up. I got my pack and my coat off, dived into the water and tried 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. We had a job to get them round, but we succeeded after a time.
Many of the men looked like dead, but the two referred to are going on fine. Seven poor chaps had to be got out with grappling irons, and all the seven were dead. I had to leave about three o’clock, for I was getting bad with cramp through standing about in wet clothes. Seeing the chaps struggling in the water was awful. I pumped the chaps until I was simply fagged out, but we only got two round.7
Lieut. Matthews, of the RAMC, was called to the scene of the disaster. He reported that two rescued men were brought round by means of artificial respiration. Three bodies were brought out together at 1.10pm, about an hour after the accident. The remaining bodies were recovered about an hour later. He saw all the bodies taken from the water and efforts at artificial respiration were made in the case of the first five. He noticed that all the men‘s watches had stopped at 12.07pm.
Private Edmund Battye, aged 22, was among the dead and one of those initial five brought to shore. The others who lost their lives were Private William Atheron (20) of Wakefield; Private Alfred Bruce (21) from Harrogate; Wakefield man Private Ernest Cockell (20); Private Fred Cooke (34) of East Ardsley; Private William Robinson Dent (21) from Churwell; and Private John Myers (24) from Savile Town.
Private Ewart W Mann from Batley Carr was one of those on the pool bank who assisted in the rescue. Writing to the Batley News he described Edmund as:
…a real friend of mine, and, a very good-hearted lad, too – so quiet, modest, and true, and a soldier. My heart, as well as those of my comrades, goes out to the parents of those who have departed this life under such terrible circumstances.8
The inquest was held the day after the incident, in the village school at Morton before Coroner P. A. Gamble. Distressed relatives were present. The uncle of Private Myers questioned the inadequacy of life-saving provisions. One lifebuoy was not sufficient if several men could not swim. The mother of Arthur Bruce wanted reassurance that her son looked peaceful. The Coroner gave it saying he saw his body on the bank and he looked as if he was sleeping.
The inquest concluded that the men were accidentally drowned. The jury regretted the inexperience of the officer and men involved and expressed the opinion that the raft was inadequate for the number of men and that there had been insufficient life-saving apparatus. The Coroner said the pond was a terrible danger spot and that it was very regrettable that this place had been chosen for such work. He pointed out that Captain Hirst was only carrying out his instructions by conducting the pontoon practice and cleared him of blame. Captain Hirst was killed in action only months later on 24 June 1915
Edmund’s death certificate, erroneously registered under the name of John Battye stated he “drowned in pond whilst engaged in Military Duty (accidental death).”
Edmund’s funeral took place in Batley on the afternoon of Tuesday 23 February. He was interred in Batley Cemetery with full military honours.
The cortege left New Street, where his body had lain since the previous afternoon. The coffin was draped with the Union Jack and covered with floral tributes. It was carried shoulder high from the house to the hearse by Edmund’s comrades from Gainsborough and men of the Batley Company, The 2/4th King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry) including a bugler and a firing party. The firing party, followed by the rest of the military, preceded the hearse in the procession to the cemetery, whilst immediately behind it walked the family mourners, relations and friends of the deceased. Large numbers of people lined the route through Wellington Street, Clerk Green and Woodwell to the cemetery. It was estimated that there must have been thousands at the cemetery.
His coffin was taken off the hearse at the cemetery gates and carried shoulder high to the grave where Father Lea performed the burial service. At the conclusion the firing party fired three volleys over the grave and the bugler sounded “The Last Post”.
Edmund is buried in Section O of Batley Cemetery. He was not eligible for any campaign medals. In addition to St Mary’s, he is also remembered on the Batley War Memorial.
Edmund’s step-brother John served with the local Territorials; his brother Harry served as a bugler in the Australian Infantry; and other brother Benjamin was briefly with the 11th Battalion King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, but was discharged shortly after enlisting because of ill health. All survived the war.
But one more tragedy hit the family. With echoes of the death of Ellen Fitzpatrick in 1904, on 6 February 1918 Elsie Battye, the four-year-old daughter of Edmund’s sister Ellen, died in Batley Hospital. She lived with her mother at 10 Coal Pit Lane, and had spent the night next door at her aunt Ruth Hannah (now Mrs Tillyer). In the morning her aunt left her to collect her day clothes. When she returned she found the the little girl ablaze in her flannelette nightdress, a candle and three spent matches beside her. Her extensive burns proved fatal.
1. Registered as Batty;
2. Registered as Fitzpaterick;
3. A teamer, or carter, was someone who drove a team of horses attached to a heavy dray, wain or timber cart, drawing a heavy load. This is from A Dictionary of Occupational Terms Based on the Classification of Occupations used in the Census of Population, 1921 – published by the Ministry of Labour in 1927.
4. Hurriers were responsible for the corves (tubs) used to transport the coal mined at the pit face to the pit bottom;
5. Batley News, 27 February 1915;
6. Dewsbury Reporter, 27 February 1915;
7. Batley News, 27 February 1915;