With the centenary of the Somme upon us, this is a page from the diaries of Ella Bickersteth, who was the wife of the Vicar of Leeds. When war broke out she began to keep a diary of events and included letters sent by her sons, four of whom served on the front line while another son worked for the War Office in London.
Ella’s fifth son, Morris Bickersteth, was killed on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme, just one of nearly 20,000 British casualties from that day alone. His brother Julian, who was serving as an Army chaplain on the Western Front, sought out the remnant of Morris’s unit, and was able to speak with the last person to see him alive, a Private Bateson. Morris had been a company commander with the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment, and sent seven waves of his men over the top, before going over with the eighth and final wave himself. When they did finally go over, they found that the previous waves had only managed to make it a matter of yards before being cut down. Bickersteth told his men to lie down for a moment “to try and disentangle the living from the dead although there were very few of the former”, and at that point, Bateson, who had been wounded, crawled to his side. In spite of being under fire Bickersteth coolly wrote out a chit for him giving permission to get back to safety, and directly afterwards, he looked round to see if any support was coming from the trenches behind, and at that moment a shrapnel bullet struck him in the back of the head; a second later another bullet passed right through his head, coming out through his forehead. “He just rolled over without a word or a sound … Of the 900 in the Battalion, 750 went in that day, but only 72 came out untouched”.
Morris Bickersteth was buried on the battlefield, and now lies in the Sheffield Memorial Park in what was No Mans Land in 1916. His four brothers all survived the war.
— Katharine Thomson, Archivist
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