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   Inside Out - North West: Monday January 30, 2006

Child soldier

Andy Johnston and war graves
Child soldier - a special Inside Out investigation

Inside Out reveals one of the great secret stories of the First World War.

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.

Inside Out meets Anthony Battersby, John's son, who will tell his remarkable story for the first time.

From back streets to bloody Somme

From the 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 that followed.

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.

Early years

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.

Battersby
For King and Country - Battersby in uniform

There's 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.

Historian 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."

Signing up

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:

Battersby family
Boys to men - young men like Battersby joined the war effort

"There was certainly a conspiracy of silence.

"You've 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."

That 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.

Wartime experiences

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 Pals.

Somme c/o PA
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 Somme.

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, Northern France.

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.

At just 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:

"They 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.

"They had 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."

The 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

At 7.30am 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.

War graves today
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."

Loss of life

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 troops.

Officers
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.

Incredible legacy


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.

FACT FILE

Born 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.

Appointed 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.

Leads a 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 thigh.

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 in 1918.

Demobilized in 1920. Became vicar of Chittoe, near Devizes in 1933.

Battersby organised the Home Guard at Chittoe during the Second World War.

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 agrees:

"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.

Richard 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."

Pilgrimage

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.

"Of 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.

"The 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 of service."

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