How the Harrogate Terriers - our heroes of the First World War - fought and fell for our freedom
Many of us might not know that some of the bravest heroes of the First World War were born here in Harrogate.
The 1/5 West Yorkshire Regiment was initially made up of boys and men from Harrogate, York, Selby, Wetherby and Ripon, when Great Britain declared War on Germany in August 1914.
With hundreds of Harrogate men in the Territorial Force, they became better known as the ‘Harrogate Terriers’, and were the typical infantry battalion on the Western Front.
George Winter, from Dixon Terrace, Harrogate, had volunteered for the army soon after the outbreak of war, following his brother-in-law, Ernest ‘Nobby’ Abrams, from nearby Unity Grove, Harrogate.
After six months training in York and Mablethorpe they, with hundreds of other Yorkshiremen, arrived at the Front in April 1915 and took part in the disastrous Battle of Aubers Ridge on May 9.
Having survived their first conflict, the Harrogate Terriers marched north to the trenches of the Ypres Salient, in Belgium, where the enemy was just 30 yards away across No Man’s Land.
The British trenches were flooded and slimy with mud, making it virtually impossible to move around without being seen by the enemy.
At 11am on August 1, 1915, Harry Holmes, from St Mary’s Walk in Harrogate, was wounded for the first time, when he was hit on the right leg and buttock by a fragment of flying ‘whizz bang’ shell which exploded on his dugout, destroying it completely.
Harry’s mates dug him out of the debris and he was taken to No.1 Canadian General Hospital in France, and then back home to the Royal Bath (Military Auxiliary) Hospital in Harrogate.
Only a month later, on the morning of Sunday, September 5, Nobby Abrams was shot in the head by a German sniper, and died an hour later in George’s arms.
George helped bury Nobby at 6pm that night before writing to his own wife, Nobby’s sister, to give her the news. He wrote: “I hardly know how to start this letter, as doubtless you would have heard of the distressing news of the death of Ernest.
“We came into the trenches on Saturday night, and on the Sunday morning, after ‘standing to arms’, which is from dawn to daylight, I went into my dug-out, intending to go to sleep, when
Ernest came and told me they were going to build a dug-out, as there were not plenty for all.
“Not many minutes later, Harry Waddington came running out and told me Ernest had been shot through the head by a sniper. I went to him but he was unconscious, and died an hour later.”
He later added: “I am asked by many friends in the Company to convey to his family their deepest sympathy. We get relieved tomorrow, and go back to billets for a twelve days’ rest, and
Ernest was looking forward to it, as we intended to have a good time, but his death has quite upset me, and I do not think the rest will do me any good now. I am too upset to write any more now, but will do so later.”
George went on to survive the first use of Phosgene nerve gas on the Western Front in December 1915 and was promoted to Sergeant.
The Terriers of the Somme
By March 1916, Harry Holmes had fully recovered from his injuries in Harrogate’s Royal Bath Hospital and returned to the battalion in time for the Battle of the Somme which started on July 1 that year.
The Harrogate Terriers were based near Thiepval, where a series of hopeless attacks were made on stiff German defences on the first day of the battle.
When ordered to walk forward into vicious machine gun fire around Thiepval Chateau, the 1/5th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment suffered 53 casualties.
Later, on September 3, another hopeless attack saw the Battalion lose 109 men.
General Sir Douglas Haig said that this was their own fault as they were ‘too sleepy to fight well’.
But George Dixon, Harry Holmes and the other Harrogate Terriers proved the old General wrong on the afternoon of September 28, when they were ordered to attack the ‘Schwaben Redoubt’ - a German stronghold which stretched some 600 yards.
This time the attack was successful, as the 1/5th Battalion worked its way up Thiepval Ridge to the Redoubt at the top of the hill, into the teeth of enemy machine gun fire, amid exploding shrapnel shells and poison gas.
Supporting the 7th Bedfords, the Yorkshiremen advanced up two lines of German trenches, clearing numerous enemy dugouts as they went, using their grenades and bayonets, taking hundreds of German prisoners. But during the later stages of the battle Harry Holmes was left wounded again.
His friend, Sergeant Clarke Waite, wrote to Harry’s sister to say that he had last been seen hobbling back down the ridge looking for help.
Clarke wrote: “It is hard lines for us and our comrades, but we have orders to keep going forward until we reach our objective, so you can tell we have no chance of staying behind to give any assistance. I sincerely hope we shall see something of Harry, and that it will be for the best, as I can assure you that we all miss him.”
The cigarettes which Harry had been sent by his sister were distributed among the men of his Platoon. His body now lies in Mill Road Cemetery on the very site of the attack: the Schwaben Redoubt.
The final fight: A five-mile victory
Having lived through the Battle of the Somme, Sergeant George Dixon continued to prove his strength.
In July 1917, he was Mustard gassed, but survived and went on to help lead the attack on Bellevue spur in the horrendous conditions of the Battle of Passchendaele.
In April, in the final year of the War, the Harrogate Terriers were pulverised by the German spring offensive but by October the tables had turned. Our boys pushed the enemy back a phenomenal five miles in the second Battle of Cambrai.
With the German Army on its knees, Harrogate’s George Winter helped lead the attack which was intended to liberate the French railway town of Valenciennes. During the advance
George took a machine gun bullet in the stomach, and was transported from the battlefield to a field hospital near Cambrai where he died on November 3 - eight days before the Armistice.