Chairs That Stand Empty: The men behind the names on the Hulme Hall First World War Memorial

Hulme Hall is a historic student hall of residence at the University of Manchester.  Over 250 students who passed through Hulme Hall fought during the First World War.  Forty were to lose their lives, with 33 remembered on the Hulme Hall War Memorial.  After research taken over a period of seven years, former resident James Hern has pieced together the men’s stories.  In 2017, he published Chairs that Stand Empty based on his research.  James was a student at the University of Manchester from 2001 to 2005 and resident at Hulme Hall for his first three years.  In this post, he reflects on using war diaries in his research.

Lies; deception; reluctant courage; absent without leave; rearguard action; administration errors; bravado; missing in action; a court marshal and victims of friendly fire and fate.

If it wasn’t such a tragic reminder of one of our low-points in recent human history, it would be easy to mistake the stories of many of the men who are remembered on the Hulme Hall War Memorial as having been lifted straight out of a novel or Commando Comic.

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day on 11 November 2018, I want to use this blog post to share how war diaries, written by individual Battalions whilst serving overseas, helped to piece together the stories of three of the men on the Hulme Hall War Memorial.  The diaries help indirectly to shape an understanding of where and how an individual would have fought in the war and provided a glimpse into some of the horror, bravery and sheer terror that men were exposed too; too often with tragic consequences.

Eyre Spenser Wilkinson
Hulme Hall 1908-09; Classical Studies

Wilkinson - Profile

Battalion ordered to advance – this done by platoon rushes – on leaving assembly trenches [right half of] Battalion met by heavy rifle and machine gun fire in enfilade & shell fire, both high explosive and shrapnel – during this advance, [right half of] Battalion lost 3 officers and 120 men

The [left half of] Battalion, which advanced at the same time, suffered very little.

This entry is from the War Diary of the 1st Battalion City of London (Royal Fusiliers) on 9 May 1915 at 6:10am.1  Reviewing the diary confirmed that the action at Aubers Ridge in France, in May 1915, was the first of two major offensives that Eyre Wilkinson was involved in with the Battalion.  The indiscriminate nature of warfare is captured in the entry.  With the Battalion split into two, one half advances with little loss of life whilst the other half is torn down within seconds of leaving the relative safety of their trenches.

Four months later Eyre was involved in the Battalion’s second major offensive, this time part of the opening attacks of the Battle of Loos. During the fighting, he was blown up in the blast of a high explosive shell, from which he survived, physically unscathed.  Shortly after being blown up, Eyre joined the Royal Flying Corps as an observer; perhaps having tried to escape the horrors of trench warfare he had witnessed.  He was shot down and killed in January 1916.

A letter from Eyre’s father to Professor Thomas Tout, shortly after Eyre’s death was confirmed, hinted at the toll ten months of fighting had taken.2

The boy is gone, indeed, but I know something of the inner battles that he had to fight to which I think he won. He was with us five days in mid-December radiant and tender and I think with some presentiment of what was coming

William Lawton
Hulme Hall 1913-14; Mathematics

Lawton

The 1 July 1916 is infamous as the first day of the Battle of The Somme; one that saw over 19,000 British soldiers lose their lives.

For Second Lieutenant William Lawton, and men of the 8th Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment, the morning proved uneventful.3

The “great offensive”, as long looked forward to, began at 7.30am; but in Tyler’s Redoubt at Millencourt, we could see nothing, and heard practically nothing.

The first hints of the horrors that had unfolded that day would have come later that evening when the Battalion was ordered to attack the village of La Boisselle at 10.30pm.

Battalion was fallen in, and all the Bombers collected at the front. Unfortunately no guide was obtainable to guide us up to the front line until 9.30pm. We then started up the one communication trench, which was found to be blocked with wounded, and odd men, chiefly from the TYNESIDE SCOTTISH, and others of the 34th Division, who had made an attack in the morning.

As a result of this, our bombers did not get up till 12 midnight, and the 10th Worcesters, who were going to help us in this attack, were in the same plight. The 3 Companies that were following, B, C, D (A being left behind) did not arrive up till 4.30am. As a result of this, we did not attack, because it was broad daylight then, and we were meant to attack in the dark.

The war diary confirms a similar occurrence happened the following night; Staff at Headquarters had agreed to ensure communication trenches were clear but the Battalion encountered a number of wounded men on stretchers which caused more delays.

Finally arriving at the front line at 4am on the morning of the 3rd July, the attack could not be postponed again, which meant the men were not fully briefed before they moved towards the village.

William was killed in the attack, with men of his company later writing to this family that:

Just before his death he was walking around the village (which was still held by the Germans) as if such things as bullets and shells did not exist.4

A victim of circumstances, William, as part of A Company, wasn’t assigned to be part of the original attacks on La Boisselle on the morning of 2 July.  How different would his story have been if the original attacks had taken place as planned?

Robert Southward
Hulme Hall 1915-16

Southward

Robert was killed during an attack on The Somme in August 1916 whilst serving with the 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

In trying to establish more details surrounding his death, Robert’s family were told by his Commanding Officer that he was killed whilst crossing no-man’s land and that he was buried on the spot where he died, near High Wood.

The description of Robert’s death had struck me as odd.  The Battalion suffered 190 casualties that day during the attacks: 30 were killed, 110 wounded and 50 were reported as missing.  Did they really have time to bury Robert?  Wouldn’t it have been too dangerous?  Robert had only been with the Battalion for four days before the attack – would he have known many of the men he was attacking with?

Included in the war diary for August 1916 was an account of the attack, written by Major Phillips.  He noted that:

The right platoon, which was detailed to attack trench X and to form a strong point at NW corner of High Wood, left their trenches and was seen to advance into our intense bombardment, which was not timed to lift until 2.48pm. Remainder of right appears to have followed on too quickly and suffered a similar fate.5

Reading the above account along with the information provided to his family, it seems certain that Robert was part of the platoon that advanced into their own bombardment, subsequently being killed by his own side.


It took me three minutes to read the names of the 33 names of men on the Hulme Hall War Memorial during the 2002 and 2003 Remembrance Services.  Names that once would have stirred memories of friendship, academic success or endeavours on sports pitches had become simply another unknown name on a memorial plaque.  Lives remembered for a fleeting moment.

If you do pause for a moment of silence on Remembrance Day, spare a thought for the men of Hulme Hall who never made it home.  Their stories serve a powerful reminder of the horrors and futility of war and send a clear message to future generations.  They should never be forgotten.

 

Endnotes:

[1] 1st Battalion City of London (Royal Fusiliers) War Dairies, held at the National Archive, Kew, reference WO/95/1730/0/397

[2] Letter written by Henry Spenser Wilkinson, father of Eyre, to Professor Thomas Tout dated February 1916, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester, reference GB 133 HHH/2/9/1

[3] 8th Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment War Diaries, held at the National Archives, Kew, reference WO 95/2081

[4] Extracts from letters received by the Lawton family following William’s death, sent to Rev T Nicklin, undated. Extracts held within Hulme Hall Administration Records 1907-1915, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester, reference GB 133 HHH/2/7/3

[5] 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment War Diaries January 1916 to December 1916, held at the National Archives, Kew, reference WO 95/1270/3

Photographs of Eyre Wilkinson, William Lawton and Robert Southward: Hulme Hall Chronicle 1916-1920, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester reference GB 133 HHH/2/9/1