Henry Butcher


Henry Butcher was born in January 1899. His parents, George and Jane, were living in Denham Green, Denham at the time. Neither parents were born in Hoxne, George being born in Earl Soham and Jane in Weybread, and, typical of many of families at that time, they were tied to agriculture and so moved around very regularly. Henry was born in Denham, his large number of siblings in Hoxne, Weybread, Withersdale (Street) and Needham. In 1911 Henry was aged 13 and living in Low Street, Hoxne but by the time of his enlistment in January 1915 was working in East Yorkshire.

Henry attested on the 22nd January 1915 and is described as a farm servant: physically he stood at 5 foot 6 inches, weighed 133 lbs and had a 35 inch chest with a range of expansion of 3 inches and had a vaccination scar. His complexion was fresh, his eyes, blue and his hair auburn. He attested in Scarborough so, presumably, his employment was in the vicinity.

What prompted Henry's enlistment is unknown but significantly the war had come to Yorkshire on 16th December 1914 when the German High Sea's Fleet sailed, virtually unmolested, up the east coast bombarding Scarborough, Whitby, West Hartlepool and Hartlepool causing nearly 600 casualties including 137 dead, the vast majority of whom were civilians. For the Government embarrassment at the failure of the Royal Navy, on which vast sums had been expended, was quickly turned into a propaganda coup. In Scarborough the local Tramways Company erected a poster exhorting the "Men of Scarborough 19 to 38" to enlist now. Nationally the Government, always mindful that the Armed Forces needed a constant flow of men, were quick to issue recruitment posters stating "Remember Scarborough" "Men of Britain, will you stand this" . Winston Churchill, then First Lord of Admiralty, called the German Navy the "baby killers of Scarborough". Clearly the atmosphere, both national and locally, was febrile.

Henry's Attestation papers show that he choose to enlist into the Yorkshire Regiment but he was transferred into the 1/4th East Yorkshire Regiment on the 4th May 1915. The 1/4th, known as the Alexandra, Princess of Wales Own Yorkshire Regiment, was part of the Territorial Force. On the 2nd April 1915 the Battalion was stationed in Newcastle but on the 5th they received their embarkation orders and after organising the Battalion for a war footing, they embarked at Folkestone early on the 17th and arrived in Boulogne in the evening where they formed part of the 150th Brigade, 50th (Northern). After completing his training, he joined the Battalion as part of a new draft on the 18th August 1915.

It is unclear when Henry joined the Battalion at the front but he would have soon been acclimatised to both the numbing routine and dangers of the front line together with work party details and training. The 50th Division was based near Kemmel in Belgium when the Somme Offence started on 1st July 1916, ironically Henry joined the growing casualty list for that day as he was shot in the thigh and transported to a base hospital. On the 6th July he was sent back sent back to England where he was again hospitalised until his discharge on the 26th September 1916. Following his discharge, Henry remained in England but in what capacity, whether serving or convalescing, it is not clear. But by October 1917, it is clear that the Army considered him for duty as he left England on the 3rd October arriving in France on the next day and re-joining the 1/4th East Yorkshire's on the 12th October.

Between October and November the Brigades of the 50th Division were involved in the Third Battle of Ypres suffering significant casualties in the process. It is unlikely that Henry served in the early stages of the Battle as, after returning to the Battalion, he became sick and was not returned to duty until the end of October. 1918 began quietly with no major engagements. However on the 23rd March the Germans began the first of a series of offensives that, they hoped, would split the Allied lines, push the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) back to the coast and threaten Paris thereby forcing the French to sue for an end to hostilities. The first offensive, St Michel, was an outstanding success pushing the B.E.F. out of their positions and forcing a headlong retreat. The 1/4th were heavily engaged, as was the rest of the 50th Division, pushed back across the River Somme the Battalion took up defensive positions about 3 miles west of the Somme. These positions were quickly breached and the Division was eventually relieved and put into the lines defending Amiens.

Once reinforced by new drafts the Division was sent back into the frontline to relieve the Portuguese Expeditionary Forces which was under considerable pressure but the second German offensive, Georgette, started and the Allies again were soon retreating. The Battle of Lys was fought throughout April and, again, resulted in considerable casualties for the 50th and its Brigades. Once the German offensive was played out the battered B.E.F Divisions that had stemmed the German attack were moved to the relative quiet sector on the River Aisne.

The month leading up to Henry's capture was, on the whole very normal. The beginning of May saw the Battalion at Mont-sur-Courville where they were involved in training, on the 5th they moved to billets in Revillon and then into the Front line with a French Regiment, the 118th, on their left and the 5th Yorkshire's on the right. Between the 11th and 15th May the Diary records everything as being very quiet although there were some casualties in the Battalion. Between the 23rd and 24th the Battalion raided two German advance posts after a heavy barrage only to find them unoccupied.

All that changed at 1 am on Monday 27th May, the Battalion War Diary captures the disaster of that day.

"1.0 am Intense enemy bombardment of all calibres including Gas on whole sector lasting 2½ hours causing many casualties & practically destroying trenches.
4.0 am Enemy attacked breaking through line on right of 5th Yorks at eastern end of Craonne Plateau. Battalion completely disorganised but rearguard action fought by isolated parties returning to river Aisne and crossing at Maizy, number which succeeded in crossing being very small.
2 (?) stores and transport forced to evacuate Maizy owing to intense enemy Gas and H.E. (High Explosive) shelling, defence of R Aisne attempted by personnel of 2 (?) & transport but forced to withdraw & abandon all Regimental records and vehicles.
Rearguard action to Fismes which was held for some little time by about 100 men of several units, afterwards retiring through the line held by the French.
Casualties estimated at 30 officers & 642 O.R. (Other Ranks) reported missing, no definite information".

Effectively the Battalion had been decimated and the Diary records its fate between the 28th and 31st May commenting that "Ceased to act as a Battalion but remnants of Brigade acted as composite Battalion under the command of LT-Col. N. W. Stead MC. Total strength representing 4 officers 105 O.R."

The German attack, known as Blucher-Yorck, was the third battle in their ongoing Spring Offensive (there would be two more) and was launched against a "quiet" sector where six weak British Divisions were resting. Given that this was a "quiet" sector there was no defence in depth and so the German rolling barrage recorded in the Battalions War Diary was very effective and the Allied Front more or less collapsed. Given the violence and success of the German assault many of the men unaccounted for would have become prisoners, Henry Butcher being one of them. From an account by a Corporal Golding of the Leicester Regiment, who was captured the day after Henry, it is possible to follow the process to the Prisoner of War Camp. Marshalled at the small towns of Amifontaine and Hirson about 1,000 British Prisoners of War were moved into Germany arriving at their designated camp at Langensalza in Thuringia on the 6th June. Initially confined to an overcrowded isolation camp after a fortnight they were moved into the main camp where conditions were grim, Golding recording, that new drafts of prisoners, men who had been on working parties behind the German lines, were in "a terrible state of emaciation, without clothing" and nearly all of them were immediately sent to the camp hospital.

It is doubtful whether Henry was part of these working party groups but his health was not good and he was hospitalised and died of pneumonia at 1.00 pm on the 20th October 1918. However it was some time before his death could verified. His father, George, not surprisingly was hopeful that, although a prisoner Henry had survived the war. Writing to the East Yorks Depot on the 28th June 1918 in response to official confirmation that Henry is missing George is still hopeful:-

I am in receipt of yours of the inst "Re missing" No 18439 Henry Butcher and beg to state that my son Reg (No?) is 18403 is it possible that there is a mistake, as my son told me that there was another "Butcher" in the Regiment and he sometimes got his letters and vice versa."
There was more correspondence in February 1919, George writing:-
"Dear Sir,
I have enclosed the last card I had from my son Pte Henry Butchers 18439 4th Easy York Regiment which I received last November.
Can anything be done to find his whereabouts"

As George was writing this letter confirmation of Henry's death had reached the War Office. There followed the usual administrative details, on 18th March 1920 George acknowledged receipt of Henry's 1914 -1915 Star. And Henry's effects which totalled £51.5s.2d, including a War Gratuity of £21.10s. 0d, were handed over to his father.

Henry is buried at the Niederzwehren Cemetery near Kassel, Hessen which had been established in 1915 as the burial ground for internees in the local P.O.W. camp. Henry is also commemorated in Beverley Minster as well at Hoxne.