Monday, 16 July 2012

The men of Birkdale at the Battle of Festubert

Every year at the Remembrance Service in St John's Birkdale we sit and listen whilst members of the youth groups read out the names of the men of Birkdale who died in war. Listening to Bruce Hubbard the other week at Full Council talking about the Battle of Festubert in May 1915 I got to wondering whether any of the men of Birkdale died in that battle.

Fortunately at the back of the church thater is a file whilst lists all the men on the memorial and reports the research* that has been carried out them . There are two soldiers who served with the 7th battalion, King's Liverpool Regiment who died in May 1915; Private Robert Johnson Clough (2587)  and Private Robert Brade (2792) also of the 7th Battalion who was born in Birkdale and lived here until he enlisted.

Private Clough  died of wounds -gunshot to his left forearm -on 26th May 1915. His parents lived in Richmond Rd Birkdale. He was brought back to Britain and the Eastern Hospital in Cambridge. He was a member of the 4th Platoon A company (which fits in with Bruce's research). The file in St John's says:

' he received his wounds in the engagement in which his company took part on May 16th 1915. He was 27 years of age, and prior to joining the 7th Kings he was an insurance agent, and also associated with the Y.M.C.A. at Southport'

Little is know about Private Brade. One other soldier seems to have been at the battle, Private John Whiteside. His family lived in Shaws Rd.,  Birkdale-and still do. He was wounded in May 1915 and returned to front by Christmas the same year and died in September 1916.

Bruce has given me his notes about how he came across the link between Southport and Festubert.:

Dining in Albert with a friend a couple of years ago, I noticed that we were eating at 17, Rue de Birmingham. My friend explored this, and wrote up an article about how Birmingham had "adopted" Albert, on the Somme, in 1920. I wondered if this altruism was a one-off, but soon found a list of all the places in Britain that had also adopted a town or village in France in 1920. Southport and Festubert jumped out at me. Three questions came to mind:-
1. Why had Southport adopted Festubert?
2. What did Southport do about it?
3. Why didn't I know anything about this?
I started asking councillors, and officers, and found that my ignorance was shared.
It soon appeared that Southport's interest in the village was linked to the 7th battalion, Kings' Liverpool Regiment. A Company recruited in Bootle, B and C Companies in Crosby and Formby, and D Company in Southport. As a result, this territorial Foece battalion really was from all of what is now Sefton (with the exceptions of Maghull and Aintree)
The 7th Kings were at their annual camp when war broke out. They nearly all volunteered for overseas service for the duration of the war. They completed their training in Britain, and landed at Le Havre in February 1915.
During the first winder of the war, many plans were drawn up, and the French planned to try to capture Vimy Ridge. They asked the junion partner in the alliance to attack further north to tie down German reserves. The French attack was a disaster (see the 44,000 headstones at Notre Dame de Lorette French Cemetery), and the British attacked at Neuvre Chapelle, Aubers and then, on May 16th 1915, at festubert. It was on the latter date that the 7th Kings went over the top for the first time, and for many of the men, for the only time. Over 150 men from Sefton lie still in one of the three cemeteries around the village, or else are named on the Le Touret Memorial to the Missing. Twice as many were wounded. By the time the attack was called off ten days later, the line had been advanced by about a kilometre on a three kilometre front - a success by 1915 standards. However, this was at the cost of some 16,000 casualties.
Festubert was battered by the artillery bombbardment in 1915, and again twice in 1918, ensuring that when the villagers returned to try to rebuild shattered homes and lines it was to a see of devastation, with many homes being little more than smears of brick dust in the mud, and fields covered in shell holes. It was against this background that Southport adopted the village.
Festubert lies on an open plain of agricultural land. To the south lies Lens, with its slag heaps, to the west is Cassel (where the Grand Old Duke of York couldn't make up his mind) and to the north is Armentieres, made famous by a wartime song about the entertaining young ladies. It is not a large place, since its population at the last censes was under 1,200. It is built around a cross-roads, near which there are playing fields.

On one side if a new sports hall, but in the foyer is a stone plaque, declaring it to be the Southport Memorial Hall, for the original was dedicated in the 1920's as a result of fund-raining in Southport. Local school children went on cultural visits from 1922 until 1939.

The Southport vister reports that a Mr Philip King as saying: “The villagers of Festubert were over the moon when the hall was built, but I understand that it has since fallen into disrepair, so it would be fantastic if the links between the two towns could be re-established.

(In  a gentle and courteous way Bruce puts the record straight. 'Unlike Phil King, I have been to Festubert.I have no idea what plans the villagers have to commemorate the centenary of the battle in 2025, nor how a letter of friendship from the Mayor of Sefton will be received by his opposite number, M. Jean-Pierre Douvry. If we don't ask we will never know.

The Southport Memorial Hall was built in the 1920's with money raised in Southport. There was a plaque placed at the entrance, declaring it to be the Southport Memorial hall. When the building was replaced with its current modern building, the plaque was placed on the wall in the foyer. Far from being in ruins, the modern sports hall is in a good state or repair.')

Festubert is thus part of our heritage, and we would be foolish to ignore our heritage

*I understand the research at St John's was carried out by Stuart Baker)
Details of Bruce's motion to council can be found here

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