East Yorkshire Regiment, attached to 9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
Killed in action: 26th April 1918 Age: 22
Commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial, Zonnebeke, Belgium
Commemorated on Thorne War Memorial
Alf was bom on 15th April 1895 at Thorne and baptised at St. Nicholas Church on 5th May; his parents lived at Belle Vue Terrace, Thorne. By the time of the 1901 Census he was living in Stainforth with his parents Tom (a canal labourer) and Miriam (nee Skinn) and 2 month old sister, Jane. At the time of the next census the family was living at Waterside, Thorne. Tom (senior) was then a labourer at a brickyard; Alf had five younger siblings – Hector (born 1906), Tom (1908), Jane (1900), Alice (1902) and Evelyn (1910). Alf was educated at Travis School, Thorne and then worked as a bricklayer, completing his apprenticeship with a Mr. Laurence in 1913. Alf had further siblings Albert (1912), Lily (1914) and Ismay (1917), who died aged 1.
Alf was quick to volunteer when war broke out, signing up on 6th September 1914; at this time his father was working as a pit sinker. Alf went out to France on 9th September 1915 with the Northumberland Fusiliers (No. 5358), gaining promotion to Sergeant in January 1916 in the regiment’s 8th Battalion. He came to prominence when articles were published in both the Goole Times and Doncaster Gazette in September 1916. They related to a night patrol in no man’s land in late June 1916 before the start of the Battle of the Somme.
‘A wounded Thorne Soldier relates a thrilling story’
‘I think myself very lucky for I was reported as being taken prisoner. An officer, 4 fellows and I went out two nights before this big advance started to see whether the barbed wire had been cut. It was at midnight on Wednesday (28th June 1916) we went out to Fricourt. There was just one more dangerous place to go, and so the officer said ‘You and I will go and leave the other men here’. The Germans must have seen us and turned their machine guns on us. They threw bombs and hit the officer right then. I just laid there without getting a scratch, and could have got back again to the British lines, but did not like the idea of leaving my wounded officer; therefore I stayed with him all the following day. Our artillery were bombarding the German front something awful. We lay only 15 yards away and sometimes we were nearly buried. Talk about 24 hours out there, it seemed like 24 years!
What a relief when dusk came. The poor fellow could not bear to be touched. When I found that he could not get on my back, I thought the best thing to do was to make my way to the British lines and get some stretcher bearers to get the officer in. When I got within 70 yards of our own line I got bounced over. As luck would have it I was near a shell hole, so I rolled in. I laid in that shell hole another hour, and shells were bursting all around me. I prayed to God to watch over me, and he did, for no one else could have saved me under such fire.
When the fire ceased I crawled back into the British trenches. An officer came along, saying ‘We gave you up; those other chaps came in and stated you had been taken prisoner’. I told him where the wounded officer lay, and he sent out stretcher bearers to bring him in, but they failed to find him. Poor fellow, I am afraid he will die.’
The letter went on to talk about going to a dressing station. Alf had a gunshot wound to the knee and was back in England by 21st July, receiving treatment in a hospital in Cambridge. Following convalescence in Thorne he returned to France in October, staying abroad until June 1917. The Goole Times reported that Alf was at home on leave in June, preparing to train for a commission. He had applied to the Officer Cadet Unit and had been accepted for a training course at the 8th Officer Cadet Battalion at Lichfield in August. The Goole Times reported that Alf had been ‘gazetted’ as Second Lieutenant on 28th November. He was posted to the East Yorkshire Regiment in December 1917.
Alf returned to France on 6th April 1918 and was attached to the 9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Within a few weeks he was caught in a massive battle at Kemmel, near Ypres in Belgium.
Alf’s battalion was in camp on the morning of 25th April 1918 on standby. At 5.15am they were peppered by gas shells, but as no attack came breakfast was ordered. Further gas shells at 6.30am forced the men to move to higher ground (Hill 44). The men were ordered to hold the line as the Germans attacked and they quickly brought the attack to a standstill. Further assaults by the enemy failed and the Germans dug in for the night west of Kemmel village. Alf’s battalion suffered 24 casualties that day.
At 1am on 26th April the battalion received orders to attack at 4.25am. A promised artillery barrage to clear their way failed to materialise and battalions to their left and right failed to attack at the appointed time. The Germans replied with intense machine gun and sniper fire. The attack stalled and the battalion moved back, suffering an enemy bombardment from noon to 3pm. As the front line was reorganised another bombardment commenced at 4pm. The battalion was eventually evacuated having suffered over 160 casualties, including Alf Abbott. The Goole Times (17th May) reported that Alf’s parents, by now living in Alexandra Rd., Thorne had been told that he was reported wounded at the front on 26th April. They suffered the agonising wait for news, be it good or bad, endured by so many families at times of war. Frustrated by lack of information they placed his photo in the Goole Times with an appeal for information in on 5th July.
‘Mr. and Mrs. Abbott of 6, Alexandra Road, Thorne, would be glad of any information, respecting their son, Lieut. Alf. Abbott, East Yorkshire Regt., attached to the K.O.Y.L.I., who was reported wounded and missing on 26th April. Beyond this information, conveyed by telegram, nothing more is known about Lieut. Abbott’s whereabouts.’
No information was forthcoming and in early April 1919 the War Office wrote to ask Tom Abbott:
‘wether it is your wish that the official acceptance of death be considered ? ’
Tom replied saying:
‘we have been living in suspense for a year hoping he would turn up ’.
A letter from the War Office on the first anniversary of Alf’s disappearance told Tom that his son must be ‘assumed to be dead’. Tom replied in May 1919:
‘Can you give me any facts? I still think there is hope of him turning up yet. I have not heard anything from him or about him. If he is dead what has become of him? We have got nothing belonging to him. Yet I cannot give him up while I get to know something different’.
The War Office’s reply was firm:
‘We have no information on Alf Abbott, 9th K.O.Y.L.I. Since the conclusion of hostilities steps have been taken to secure, from released prisoners of war, information on comrades. The battlefields are being searched as they are cleared, but this will take a long time’.
A final letter in September 1919 reported that no effects belonging to Alf had been found. Tom and Miriam Abbott went to their graves in 1927 never knowing what had happened to their brave son. The family made sure that Alf was remembered in Thorne by including him on Tom and Miriam’s headstone in St. Nicholas Churchyard Extension:
‘ALSO 2nd LIEUT. ALF ABBOTT THEIR SON REPORTED MISSING APRIL 1918′
The headstone has survived to this day and also records Tom’s brother, Ismay, who died in infancy.
Two Thorne men from the 9th KOYLI went missing during the action; Private Edwin Keall on 25th April and Private Conrad Lawrence on the following day. They, and Alf Abbott, are commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial among 35,000 soldiers with no known grave. Alf is also commemorated in the Roll of Honour of the East Yorkshire Regiment at Beverley Minster.
Submitted by Tony Brookes from ‘Thorne’s Sacrifice in the Great War’