Your article: ‘God’s Finger Touched Him And He Slept’

Berlin South-Western Cemetery.
Berlin South-Western Cemetery.

Before the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, where 20,000 British men lost their lives, soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, including many men from Market Weighton, had been fighting and dying on the Western front for nearly two years.

They fought their first major engagement at Mons on 23 August 1914 before retreating south in front of the advancing German army. Amongst them were men of the 2nd Battalion, Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), who belonged to 13th Brigade, 5th Division, part of General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps.

Struggling to keep ahead of the Germans and with his troops tiring, Smith-Dorrien decided to “stand and fight” at Le Cateau on 26 August. His actual intentions weren’t decided upon until 3.30am. At 03:30, Smith-Dorrien decided to “strike the enemy hard, and, after he had done so, continue the retreat.” The purpose of the operation was unclear to his subordinates. A “hold at all costs-mentality” was evident in the 5th Division on the British right flank. The commander of the 2nd Battalion KOYLI was given a written order that “There will now be NO retirement for the fighting troops; fill up your trenches, with water, food and ammunition as far as you can.” The order was confirmed by a colonel from the II Corps staff, who, upon arriving, repeated it.

When most of II Corps eventually received orders to continue the retreat, two companies of KOYLI never received them. They held their positions until eventually surrounded on three sides. There was hand to hand fighting. Lt Col Bond records in the war history of the Regiment: “There was no surrender. The occupants of the trenches were mobbed and swamped by the rising tide of grey coated Germans.” Fighting ceased about 4.30pm and survivors withdrew along the Reumont road to Estrees.

Although 2nd Battalion suffered total casualties 18 officers, 582 other ranks, despite all the “fighting to the death” rhetoric those 600 included 310 prisoners-of-war. For their gallantry at Le Cateau two KOYLI were awarded the Victoria Cross: Major C.A.L. Yate and Lance Corporal Frederick William Holmes. Major Charles Allix Lavington Yate was interned in Targau prisoner of war camp. After repeated attempts, he escaped a month later on 19 September 1914, but was quickly apprehended by local factory workers who suspected his appearance, and cut his own throat to avoid recapture and possible execution as a spy. He died on 20 September 1914 and after the war his body was reinterred at Berlin South-Western Cemetery.

Another KOYLI captured after Le Cateau was Private Abraham Hawes of C Company, husband of Mary Elizabeth Hawes, of Station Parade, Market Weighton. Abraham was from Sprowston, near Norwich and moved to East Yorkshire early in the 20th century. In 1907 he married Annie Fox of St Helen’s Square, Market Weighton, they had a son, James, but Annie died shortly afterwards. In 1912 Abraham, now a police constable in Hull, remarried to (Mary) Elizabeth Fox, Annie’s sister.

Abraham spent most of the war in various German prisoner-of-war camps but in 1918 it is thought he fell victim to a greater killer, ‘Spanish Flu’, which killed well in excess of 20 million people worldwide. He died in a German hospital, aged 31, on 19 May 1918, officially of pneumonia but more likely a victim of this deadly pandemic. Elizabeth chose a line from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” for his headstone: “God’s Finger Touched Him And He Slept”.

In 1922-23 it was decided that the graves of Commonwealth servicemen who had died all over Germany should be brought together into four permanent cemeteries. Berlin South-Western was one of those chosen and in 1924-25, graves were brought into the cemetery from 146 burial grounds in eastern Germany. There are now 1,176 First World War servicemen buried or commemorated in the Commonwealth plot at Berlin South-Western Cemetery, amongst them Major Charles Allix Lavington Yate and Private Abraham Hawes.

With thanks to the Great War Forum, Chris Baker’s The Long, Long Trail website, the CWGC and the Imperial War Museum.

If anyone has any information or stories about the men on Market Weighton War Memorial that you are happy to share, then please contact me at The Mortgage Advice Centre/Yorkshire Building Society agency on Market Weighton High Street or on 01430 871112.