Ralph Hutchinson’s War

Ralph Hutchinson was born in 1891 at Low Beckhead, Ettersgill, Forest in Teesdale. He was the youngest son of John Hutchinson, a lead ore miner and farmer, and Margaret Nichol, and was the ninth of their ten children. His siblings were Adam Scott (Nichol), Jane  Ann, Margaret Ellen, Thomas William, Ophelia, Nancy, John, Mary and Martha Annie.

Ralph Hutchinson as a young man 1891-1918.jpg
Ralph Hutchinson as a young man

On leaving Forest School, he worked briefly for John Kipling a farmer of Stackholme, Lunedale. In March 1914, at the age of 23, Ralph married Jane Beadle, daughter of James and Elizabeth Beadle of Egg Pot, Forest. In September of that year, Ralph was working on the family farm at Beckhead.

In 1916 as the War Office became desperate for recruits, Ralph was called up for service. By this time he was the father of two daughters, Lavinia Jane (known as Vinny) and Margaret Ellen (known as Nelly).

He enlisted on 29 November 1916 in Bishop Auckland.  His army medical gave the following information: “Height: 5’6”; Weight: 132 lbs; Chest 36”, with a 3” expansion.  Good physical condition”. He began his service in the army on 23rd January 1917. The enlistment information described him as a married farmer of Scar End Farm (an alternate name for Beckhead). The following day he was posted to B. Batt. 88 (training Reserve Battalion), and then posted to 3rd South Staffordshire Regiment on 11 July 1917.

His military record notes that he was found guilty of overstaying his pass on 4th September 1917, by a number of days, and was fined 4 days pay. His oldest daughter’s only memory of her father was during this ‘leave’, as he gazed over the barn door at her playing in the farmyard. He was probably aware that he was about to be posted overseas and had found it difficult to return to camp.

Records show that on 1st October 1917 he departed from Wallsend, arriving in Boulogne, France on 6th December, and was transferred to the 8th Leicestershire Battali on (known as “The Fighting Tigers”) the following day. Nothing else appears on Ralph’s war record until he was posted missing in France & Flanders on 27th May 1918.

However, written records of the 8th Leicestershire Battalion show that the 7th, 8th and 9th Leicestershire were on the Ypres Salient during the third battle of Ypres, where on 1st October 1917 the Germans had launched a counter attack on the front line, where the 8th and 9th Battalions suffered heavy casualties, and as the 7th Battalion arrived to give support, they too, suffered heavy losses as they moved up to the front line. The Germans had been pushed back but at a heavy cost, and no doubt Ralph and others were being transferred to replace the losses.

It is believed that one of the first tasks undertaken by these new recruits (including Ralph) was to scour the battlefields for the fallen and remove their remains for burial.  It does not take much imagination to understand the horror this task must have been. Reports from others recruited to this task report that these men were often plied with alcohol by their superiors in order to lessen their distress.

Ralph found time to purchase a tapestry which depicted the battles at Ypres which had been cross stitched by local women, and presumably sold to the soldiers to send home to their families.  His wife, Jane, had this framed inside a fire screen, said to have been made locally from oak which had been rescued from a beam taken from the ruins of Barnard Castle! It is still in the family’s possession.

The movements of the 8th Battalion Leicestershire are somewhat complex to follow from available literature, but they appear to have spend the winter of 1917/18 in Epehy, France, some 80 miles south of Ypres. Their time was spent in improving defences, digging new trenches, with the 9th Battalion being disbanded and merged into the 7th and 9th battalions. The start of the March offensive forced the Leicestershire back from their defensive position, and by April 1918 they had returned to rest camps at the Ypres Salient.

After another battle at the end of the month, they ended up in the Aisne Valley, just over 125 miles south of Ypres. This had been a quiet sector since 1917 when one of the bloodiest battles of the whole campaign, the great French offensive had taken place. Now, the likelihood of a German attack was estimated at low – the idea was to rest the battalion and improve the morale of the hard pressed soldiers. The area was lush, with rolling hills, the French farmers all around were going peaceably about their work. The neglected and overgrown trenches stretched in all directions, full of tangled barbed wire, but hidden under fresh greenery. The 8th Battalion appear to have been reinstated once more, and were allocated a series of trenches forward of the Aisne River, which had been used previously by both French and German troops.

Little attempt was made to clear the trenches, or to explore and set up some adequate defense plans. For a week the Brigade relaxed, caught up with friends and the latest gossip. Their respite was short, increased activity was being reported behind the German lines, observation balloons were seen, and rumours that their prisoners camps were being emptied. Eventually, the French captured and examined German prisoners who confessed that an attack was planned for a midnight on 26/27th May. A signal officer from the French Army Headquarters, who visited the previous day was of the opinion that such an attack was purely rumour, and that the British were “windy”.

On cue, shortly before 1 a.m. on the 27th May the Germans began to shell the area. Experts at the time believed many tactical errors had been made – amongst these being the lack of knowledge of the trenches, whilst the Germanys knew the trenches well from their previous use of them; and the relaxed attitude of the British army contributed to the unpreparedness for battle.

The British troops in the trenches forward of the Aisne River, which included the 8th Leicestershire, who were in a trench on the right flank, were quickly overcome and forced back across the river, while the German battalions rapidly followed up their initial attack. It was reported that barely a thousand of the soldiers made it back across the river, many taken prisoner, many injured or killed. The battle lasted most of the day, and as dusk fell, somewhere around 9 p.m. the division was in full retreat.

Once more, the 8th Battalion was disbanded, replaced by the 1st Battalion Wiltshire Regiment.

The above information is taken from books and records of the movements of the Leicestershire Regiment during World War 1.

Ralph Hutchinson was “Posted missing in France and Flanders” on his War Service Records on 27th May 1918, the date the Battle of Aisne began. Nothing further was heard of Ralph until his death was notified to the War Office by means of the German Official List, stating that Ralph Hutchinson died at Montherme on 15th July 1918. Montherme is some 90 miles north-west from Aisne, where Ralph was believed captured. Information recieved of his death,  from the War Office, was that Ralph had become ill with dysentry, and had been in the care of some French nuns at the time of his death.

An account given by Rifleman Victor Denham of a similar march, makes interesting reading    (http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/captivityintheardennes.htm) and paints a vivid picture of the desolate conditions which prevailed in France at this time. The country had been laid waste – the German soldiers were hungry, and meals for the Prisoners of War, consisted of bad black bread and soup made from dried magel-wurzels.  Rifleman Denham claims that it was this soup which was the cause of daily cases of dysentry. Camaraderie between the prisoners rapidly declined as hunger became entrenched, with the weak going hungry; pity and kindness non-existent.

Ralph made it as far as Montherme, where he was sent to work in the stone quarries. He and another British soldier died and were buried there in a civilian cemetery. In 1934 the Commonwealth Graves Commission moved his body, along with 7 other British soldiers and were placed in Noyers-Pont-Maugis French National Cemetery, near Sedan (some 40km south of his original burial place. This was to ensure that the graves could be maintained in perpetuity by the Commonwealth Graves Commission.  During the 1939-1945 war four British airmen were also buried there..

Ralph was awarded the British and Victory Medals. His service record shows that his wife, Jane was sent £22 11s 8d the equevalent of over £1,000 today from the War office in February 1919, being personal effects.

After Ralph’s death, Jane and her daughters moved back to her family home at Egg Pot, eventually retiring, with her brother, John Beadle, to The Hude, Middleton in Teesdale. Her oldest daughter, Vinny married John William (Jack) Worley, and Nelly married William (Billy) Evans, both living in Barnard Castle.

His family kept a piece of cross-stitched embroidery he sent from France.

by WWI Project Volunteers.

See all exhibition details and the events regarding the WWI Project here.


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