|Child soldier - a special Inside Out investigation|
Inside Out reveals one of the great secret stories of the First World
We look at how a 14-year-old boy from Manchester became the youngest
ever army officer and led his troops over the top on the fateful first day of
the Battle of the Somme.
It's 90 years since St John Battersby lied
about his age and was eventually commissioned into the Accrington Pals.
Out meets Anthony Battersby, John's son, who will tell his remarkable story for
the first time.
From back streets to bloody Somme
back streets of Blakeley in Manchester to the front line trenches of the Somme,
Officer St John Battersby's story is indeed remarkable.
July 2006 sees
the 90th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, where hundreds
of thousands of British servicemen were killed fighting for their country in the
First World War.
For thousands of families the anniversary will be a time
to stand up and remember those who lost their lives in the battle and the years
But this year will be the first time St John Battersby's
family will know the full story of how he became the youngest boy to go to war.
His father carried his legacy to the grave, but for the first time John's
son Anthony tells Inside Out the story of the great boy soldier.
Our journey begins at the Holy Trinity Church on Goodman Street,
Blakeley, where St John Battersby was born.
It's the first time Anthony
has visited his father's birthplace, and he's hoping it will hold some of the
secrets of his father's remarkable life.
|For King and Country - Battersby in uniform|
a long Battersby family history at the church - Anthony's grandfather Walter,
John's father, was the first Rector here.
As it turned out, he became the
main mover in an extraordinary conspiracy which saw his 14-year-old son answer
Lord Kitchener's call for a volunteer army to serve King and Country.
His story began in 1915 when, shortly after his mother's death and at just a month
shy of his 15th birthday, St John walked into the recruitment office, told officers
he was 18 and enlisted in the British Army as a Private in the Manchester Regiment.
To this day no-one knows why he signed up - but it was his father who
was most shocked at the news - not at his decision to join the army, but at the
lowly rank at which he had joined.
Walter Battersby felt his son should
be an officer, and immediately set about recruiting some powerful acquaintances
to help him try and obtain a commission for his son.
His campaign was
helped along by The Lord Mayor of Manchester, Daniel McCabe, who, along with the
headmaster of St John's school in Middleton, wrote a letter of support to the
War Office, committing perjury in the process.
They knew he wasn't old
enough to enlist, but they turned a blind eye and sure enough St John Battersby
became a Second Lieutenant just days after his 15th birthday.
Richard Van Emden explains:
"It was all about contacts.
Walter Battersby knew who to call, so he just used his influence and his connections
to get John into a respectable battalion as an officer."
St John was one of thousands of young men signing up to fight in
response to Lord Kitchener's famous campaign, which resulted in an average of
30,000 men aged between 19 and 30 joining up every day.
Because the British
Army needed so many new recruits, it has been suggested that they perhaps turned
a blind eye to those that fell outside their requirements, as Richard continues:
|Boys to men - young men like Battersby joined the war effort|
"There was certainly a conspiracy of silence.
got lads lining up outside saying that they're 19, 20-years-old, but there was
no time to question them - they knew they were enthusiastic, they wanted to fight,
they were fit and young, why shouldn't they?
"Certainly lads were
not meant to enlist at the age of 15 - they were supposed to be at least 18 to
see overseas service.
"In August 1914, the government allowed boys
to enlist as officers at the age of 17, with the presumption that they wouldn't
see oversees action for at least a year but many of them did."
was exactly the case for St John Battersby - within a year of enlisting he would
be shipped off to France to join the most famous battalion in Britain.
With his secret tucked safely under his hat,
St John went off to war, along with thousands of other soldiers from the North
West and all around the country.
It was then fate intervened in an extraordinary
way - St John was sent to the East Lancashire Regiment as an officer, and would
eventually join the Regiment's 11th Battalion, more famously known as the Accrington
|The Somme - a living hell|
c/o Press Association
In just a few months time they would be involved in the worst carnage
the British Army had ever known - July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of
The events of that day remain not just on war memorials but
in the memories of the people of Accrington and surrounding Lancashire towns.
Thousands of soldiers from across the country would have been looking
on in desperation at the fate of the Virgin statue on top of the Basilica in Albert,
Legend had it that should the statue fall then the
war would be lost.
But the Pals had a plan. After weeks of going over
their drills and waiting for action, the Battalion had yet to make their mark
on the war, so St John Battersby volunteered to take the lead.
16-years-old, St John Battersby stood up and announced to his platoon that he
would lead them in a series of raids, as Andrew Jackson explains:
formed part of the 94th Infantry Brigade, who were the extreme left of the British
attack on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
a job of tremendous responsibility, to attack and take the fortified hill village
of Serre, and then to defend and secure the left flank of the whole attack."
plan was to bombard the German lines for a week before the attack began, but things
didn't quite go to plan.
Going over the top
on July 1, 1916, the whistles blew and 720 Pals went over the top, among them
St John Battersby leading a platoon of 60 men.
In the 10 minutes that
followed, scenes erupted that would be etched in history forever, as Richard explains:
"They were in the very first line of the attack in four successive
waves of infantry, each of something like 200 men in each wave.
|The ultimate sacrifice - many men gave their lives|
"When the barrage pulls away from the German front line, the Accrington
Pals stand up, align themselves and walk slowly towards the German line.
"The expectation is that the artillery bombardment, which now has gone
on for seven days, will have destroyed the German positions completely. The hope
is that there will be no German defenders there and it will simply be a walk over.
"Within moments you have machine gun fire opening up from the German
lines - they were supposed to have been destroyed, but they're still there, and
this artillery barrage is coming down on the Accrington Pals."
Within just 10 minutes, 584 men were dead, wounded or missing,
the heart and soul of a community virtually destroyed in what was referred to
as No Man's Land.
By the end of the day, there were 60,000 infantry
casualties and around 19,000 fatalities, and despite their bravery, many of them
never had a chance to fire their weapons before they were taken down by enemy
|Men of honour - some of the First World War officers|
Incredibly and in the midst of the carnage that befell his platoon,
St John Battersby survived, although he was badly wounded and later had his leg
amputated before being flown home to recover.
But what happened to him
then, and to the men he led over the top?
There's only one place to go
to find out - to the fields around Serre in France, which still bear the scars
of war - giant craters, old trench lines and rows of cemeteries paying tribute
to the lives lost in the Battle of the Somme.
As Anthony travels to Albert, where the Accrington Pals were stationed in
the build-up to the battle, he's about to discover his father's legacy first-hand.
on 26th February 1900.
Battersby 14-years-old when he volunteered
to join the Manchester Regiment in January 1915. He pretended to be to be 19-years-old.
Promoted to Lance Corporal by the time he was posted to the Manchester's 14th
(Reserve) Battalion at Whittington Barracks, Lichfield in March 1915.
to a commission in the East Lancashire Regiment. After serving almost a year,
Battersby was posted to France on 18th April 1916.
Joined the 11th Battalion
(Accrington Pals), then in Divisional Reserve at Bertrancourt.
platoon into the attack on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme in July
1916. Hospitalised in England after suffering gunshot wounds to his wrist and
Returns to France with the 11th Battalion in September 1916. Seriously
wounded in 1917 and his left leg was amputated.
After a personal battle
with the authorities to stay in the forces, he joined the Royal Engineers in London
Demobilized in 1920. Became vicar of Chittoe, near Devizes in
Battersby organised the Home Guard at Chittoe during the Second World
Later served in the Royal Navy and became the chaplain to the Royal
Marines at Chatham.
Active in Civil Defence during the 1950s.
Today it's a peaceful, prosperous town, but 90 years ago it was the
centre of some of the worst carnage the British Army had ever seen.
In the days leading up to the attack St John and his comrades would have been
nervous with the anticipation of how their movements would take place.
Andrew Jackson says, "There would have been a huge amount of apprehension.
They had been assured that it would be a walk over, but I wonder how many of them
actually believed that to be true."
Fellow historian David Hopkins
"I suspect they had very little idea, really, of what they
were about to face.
"I think there was great expectation, great
hope, great confidence, but the men who were on the front line in 1916 had been
on the front line before."
As just a teenager at the time, it was
John's first experience of war, although it wasn't to be his last.
says, "It's remarkable that a lad of 16 should lead a platoon over the top
- it was an incredibly courageous thing to do.
"There were probably
people in that platoon who were certainly old enough to be his father, probably
old enough to be his grandfather.
"They must have had some belief
that he could lead them in action for them to have followed him like they did.
"He must have been extremely scared, but that belief in his battalion,
the belief in his men, made him keep hold of himself, to go forward and attack
the enemy. I find that extraordinary.
"It's a remarkable record and
one I've come across anywhere else."
Indeed St John's memory has been held in great esteem since he made his name
almost 90 years ago, and now as his son visits the famous battlefields for the
first time, St Battersby's memory is remembered at the very spot where he led
his troops to war.
As the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme
approaches, it's clear his memory will live on for years to come, as Richard concludes:
"St John Battersby was not unusual in being an underage soldier but he
was certainly unusual in being an officer and being a second lieutenant.
the tens of thousands who enlisted under age, only a very small proportion were
able to take commissions and lead men in to action as he did.
fact that he came back after being wounded once to fight again in 1917 and to
lose his leg makes him even more remarkable.
"An incredible history
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