April 26th 1915: the Second Battle of Ypres, the Hunter Brothers and the Realities of War

 With good reason, this weekend all eyes are on the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli. However, at the same time there was another great battle that had just got underway, the second battle of Ypres. On the 22nd April, 1915, the Germans used poison gas in the form of chlorine, for the first time (it had been tried on the eastern front, but had frozen). It left a 4 mile gap in the lines, which the Germans had not prepared to exploit: for our purposes, it heralded the start of the second battle of Ypres.

There are many myths that surround the outbreak of war in 1914. One of the most enduring is that of the massed crowds and the rush to the colours of August 1914. Of course, there were crowds; there was also a rush to the colours. However, the great wave of recruitment did not come in August. In August, it was still possible to believe that it all might be over by Christmas. After the battle of Mons, let alone the Marne, we were patently in for a long war and there was a good reason for enlisting. The men also needed something to enlist into, and they were the famous pals’ battalions.

This is not a story of the pals, though it is a story of pals. Those who did join up in August 1914 joined territorial battalions. In 1907, the great Liberal secretary of war, Richard Haldane, reformed the British army, creating the BEF that would sail for France in 1914, and the reserve and territorial forces that would follow them. Before that, there had been local volunteer battalions. One such was the 6th Northumberland Fusiliers (Newcastle City) which, in 1908, became a territorial battalion.

George and Howard Hunter were middle class Gosforth boys, being brought up in a large and attractive house built by their father on what we would now call The Grove (named Wentworth after the Wentworth Road where their father Edward had begun married life). They both entered the RGS in 1896.

Both were clearly very able young men. The elder brother, George, became an architect; by 1913 he was a partner in a stockbrokers. The younger, Howard, was a surgeon, having graduated from Armstrong College, Durham (as Newcastle University then was), and gone on to study at St Barts and Vienna. Both had joined the 6th as junior officers: George in 1904, Howard in 1906. By 1914, both held the rank of captain. They were,it would seem, all too typical of the middle class Newcastle men of their time. Both were members of Northumberland Cricket Club and Northumberland Golf Club, and it would seem clear that he whole family were worshippers at St Nicholas’ parish church; George had been a Freemason since 1911.

They had a sister too, and she was betrothed to Arthur Garton, who worked for the Bank of England, who in those days had a Newcastle branch in Pilgrim St. By 1914, he was Lt Garton, 6th Northumberland Fusiliers.

Territorial soldiers were not committed to going to war overseas; the vast majority opted out of overseas service. However, with the declaration of war in 1914, almost all waived that veto. Thus it was, after the terrible losses sustained by the BEF, that the territorials headed for France intone spring of 1915. The 149th Brigade of the 50th Division, of which the 6th were part, sailed to Boulogne on the night of the 21st April 1915. The following day, the Germans launched their attack on Ypres.

The 6th found themselves passing through Ypres on St George’s Day, April 23rd. By then, the pattern of the second Ypres was already establishing itself, in the form of a series of bloody, desperate and futile counter-attacks, all designed to convince the enemy that the British had plenty of reserves and thus halt a potential advance, and all mounted with insufficient artillery support.  

On the 26th, the Lahore Division mounted another assault in what became known as the battle of St Julien. As that attack floundered in the face enemy fire, the order came for the three of the four battalions of the 149th Brigade in situ to advance, at about 1.30 that afternoon. What they did not know as that the Lahore division’s order to attack again had been cancelled. The report of Brigade HQ after the event gives us a flavour of the obstacles they faced:

The distance from Wieltje to St Julien was approximately 13/4 miles and the ground had not been previously reconnoitred by the staff or any of the officers of the Brigade. No information was received or could be obtained as to the actual position of either our own or the enemy’s trenches nor was it known that the GHQ line was strongly wired and that there were only certain places through which the troops would be able to pass.

No communication was ever made with the artillery and no artillery officers got in any way into touch with the Brigadier. The time was short, the order to attack being received at 1.30pm, nevertheless considering that any failure to attack on the part of the Brigade might seriously hamper the operations General Riddell decided to carry out the orders he had received impossible as they seemed.

The 6th found themselves at the mercy of an unmolested German machine gun emplacement, with predictable results: the 149th suffered 1,940 casualties (from a fighting strength of well under 3,000), including their CO Brigadier General JF Riddell (who is buried in Tyne Cot). Among those killed were George and Howard Hunter.

Of George, the school Roll of Honour gives us a brother officer’s words:

He led his men with great courage and a total disregard for himself, and was right in front of the enemy’s position when he was killed by a shell fired at short range.

Of Howard, the Durham University Medicine Gazette recorded:

We have all heard with pride and aching heart of his entry into action. The first torrent of bullet and shell only seemed to increase his absolute indifference to danger, and his  example and courage infected the whole company.   He led his men through a crossfire of machine-guns and shrapnel, trying to reach the German trenches by a series of rushes. When close to his objective he was struck on the leg but stuck to his job, gamely cheering on his men. We can imagine his bitter disappointment when he had to fall out so near the end of his task. While being helped to the rear he was struck again in the chest and almost immediately dropped dead.

Arthur Garton was killed the same day.

For the Edward and Anne Hunter, we can glimpse something of their grief in the way they remembered their fallen sons. We can also se something else: pride. We can read it in their words of reply to their eldest son’s Masonic lodge:

Our only consolation is the kindness we have received from our friends and the knowledge that our boys did their duty.

They went much further than that, paying for a memorial window in St Nicholas, Gosforth. In it, St George (the patron saint of the Northumberland Fusiliers) brandishes his sword in martial glory. The words above are from the book of Samuel:

They were lovely and pleasant in their lives and in death they were not divided.

The historian of St Nicholas’ Gosforth is George Harbottle. He was one of the 6th, and he survived. I will write more of him anon. He wrote of the window, and the Hunters:

This window has always had a special significance for the author of this book, because he served as an NCO in the battalion himself and took part in the actionable which head fine young men, along with many others, were killed, while he had the good fortune to survive.to him, therefore, it is an emblem of thankfulness and an inspiration to service.

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