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Remembering the First World War fallen - Walter Rawleigh Humphries

When we think of the Great War of 1914-18 the British are most likely to envisage the bloody battlefields of the Somme in July 1916.  The Battle of the Somme, however, was not just one battle fought in a single day, but a series of skirmishes, raiding parties, and a war of attrition that lasted for months. Most towns and villages across England can count at least one of their war dead amongst those who died during the Somme campaign in 1916.

Eastby lost Walter Rawleigh Humphries on the night of 26th July 1916, at Neuve Chappelle on the Somme.


The Humphries family were originally from Bradford, where Walter’s father, Rawleigh Humphries, had worked as a very successful draper.  He had owned property in Eastby for some years, and often visited Bridgend House, with his wife Susannah, and children – John, Walter, Julia, Joan and Marjorie - before moving permanently there during the early years of the war. Convinced he was a descendant of no less than Sir Walter Raleigh himself, Rawleigh Humphries had ensured that at least 2 of his sons bore the name Rawleigh (his eldest boy as his first name, and his youngest son, Walter, as his middle name). By the time the family moved to Eastby they had already lost 3 children – twin babies, George and Norman, and the eldest boy Rawleigh, who had died aged 26 in 1911.

The youngest surviving son, Walter Rawleigh Humphries, born in January 1896, had followed in his father’s footsteps to enter the textile trade. As a student at Bradford Technical College, he won first prize in a competition run by the Clothworkers’ Guild of London and was apprenticed to a wool merchant in Bradford. Outside of work, he was a keen player at Bradford Rugby Football Club, and, alongside his mother, an active member of his local Methodist Chapel in Great Horton, where he taught Sunday School.  [Some say he played rugby for Yorkshire, but there is no verifiable evidence for this.]


                                     c.1906 at Bridgend House, Eastby – [back row] Rawleigh, Joan, Susannah, John;

                                      [front row] Julia, Marjorie and Walter. 

                                      (photo courtesy of Barry Thomas]

This promising young man was just 19 years old when he enlisted with the Bradford Territorials (6th West Yorkshire) – he was very quickly promoted from Private to Lance-Corporal. In late July 1915 he was wounded by shrapnel at Ypres, but recovered to attend his sister Julia’s wedding in Bradford in October. The following January, he was promoted to Acting 2nd Lieutenant and transferred to the 18th Battalion of the Prince of Wales’s Own West Yorkshire Regiment (The 2nd Bradford Pals). He fought on the Western Front as a Lewis Gun Officer, where his battalion suffered heavy casualties in the opening days of the Somme offensive. However, he was able to write home on 1st July :
"I have come through the battle with hardly a scratch, my helmet saving me from several nasty rounds, both shrapnel and bullets. My men were absolutely fine. It is not wise to say anything about casualties."

Those casualties had been heavy, and Walter’s battalion was soon withdrawn from the front line to recuperate.  They were returned after a week or so to a "quiet" section at Neuve Chappelle near Richebourg St Vaast, but at half-strength were thinly stretched.

The Unit’s war diary recorded the events of the night of 27th July in great detail. From 9.30 pm the battalion had been heavily bombarded with shrapnel and mortar fire, followed by machine-gun fire. Some of their communication lines went down, and the Company commander had to rely on runners for information about a German raid on neighbouring trenches. Counter-attacks were launched, and communication lines re-established just after midnight. The situation appeared to quieten down about half-past midnight, despite occasional rifle fire. The British front line had been held and reinforcements arrived just after 2 in the morning. Captain Kyall made his inspection rounds and messages came in about the state of the various companies and their casualties. The unit’s diary summed up the day as follows:-
“Casualties for 24 hours ending 12 noon. Officers, 2 killed & 3 missing (reported prisoners). Other ranks, killed 4, wounded 38 (of whom 4 died of wounds 28/4/16 {sic}), missing 33, Slightly wounded, on duty – 2.
Missing – Lieut. A. Howarth, Lieut. L.C. Watson, 2/Lt. L.S. Watson ; Killed – Lieut. R.S. Cross, 2/Lt. W.R. Humphries. “


                                                                   The telegram [courtesy of Barry Thomas]


The dreaded telegram arrived on 31st July, scrawled with the stark message :- 
“Deeply regret to inform you 2d Lieut W.R. Humphries 18 West Yorkshire Regt was killed in action July 28. The Army Council express their sympathy.”
A more sympathetic letter came later from his commanding officer, who wrote:-
“He was always so cheerful and full of life, and we miss him very much… it was whilst visiting his guns in the front line that he was killed.”

His father was heart-broken – returning the complicated bureaucratic forms needed to settle his son’s estate, he wrote to the War Office :-
 “I have done the best I could. I do not fully understand it. Second Lieutenant Walter Rawleigh Humphries was my youngest son from whom we all expected so much, and now that he is killed my heart feels broken.”
The inscription that his father chose to have carved on his war grave in the Saint Vaast Military Cemetery at Richebourg, was simply “A Good Son.”
Walter’s mother died in November – no doubt her death hastened by the tragedy of losing yet another son.


                                      The unveiling of the memorial, October 1917. Rawleigh Humphries is the white-bearded

                                      gentleman with walking cane.
                                      [photo courtesy of Barry Thomas]


Grief-stricken, Rawleigh Humphries invited friends and family to his garden at Bridgend House, Eastby, in October 1917, to unveil a private memorial dedicated to his sons Rawleigh, and Walter, and to their mother, Susannah. It was inscribed “They shall learn war no more for ever.” Several members of a Methodist chapel in Bradford were present to sing hymns and deliver eulogies in praise of Mrs Humphries and her son Walter. The West Yorkshire Pioneer newspaper reported:

“Mr Rawleigh Humphries with broken voice and under deep emotion thanked all for the gifts of flowers in such profusion at the foot of the monument – lovely roses, chrysanthemums, Michaelmas daisies, etc., the gift of the people in the village, and remarked how much his son loved the village. The organist of Embsay Primitive Methodist Church played the harmonium and the choir was in attendance.”
When he was killed in action, Walter was just 20 years old.

Jane Lunnon
Embsay Research Group (part of the Upper Wharfedale Heritage Group)
With grateful thanks to Barry Thomas for additional information and photographs.

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