Harry Gration: Future cricket star lost in the heat of battle

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Conquer we will or we’ll die my lads

All hearts beating as one.

Steadily marching side by side

Steadily tramping on.

THE poignant and tragic song of the Leeds Pals echoes chillingly, even 100 years later. You can almost hear them humming it as they sat in the trenches of the Somme waiting to go over the top. For Major Booth it may well have been one of the last things he ever did.

The BBC will be remembering him this Monday as part of its World War One at Home stories which explore the impact of the war here in Yorkshire, right on our doorsteps.

There are those who say that Booth (Major was in fact his first name, not his rank) could have become one of the greatest cricketers the county had ever produced. Lord Hawke said of him: “England lost one of the most promising and charming young cricketers it was ever my lot to meet.” No mean statement in a sport that has produced so many legends.

Booth began his cricket with Pudsey St Lawrence in the Bradford League but it was in the Mexborough league where he got himself noticed. He was an all rounder. Right arm fast, as well as an occasional spinner and batsman. His big year was 1913. He took 181 first class wickets, including 158 for the county, that season and scored over 1,000 runs.

He was selected for the tour of South Africa and duly played in two Tests. Prior to the First Test while travelling with Jack Hobbs and Bert Strudwick, he was
thrown out of a car near to Umbito. Booth and the driver lay beneath the overturned car. He played in the Test but needed a runner because of a back injury sustained in the crash. Then his career ended abruptly in mid-season the following year – 1914.

War was declared in August and life changed overnight. A recruitment campaign, launched by Lord Kitchener, was launched stirring the fervour in communities and sporting associations. The idea of the Leeds Pals came about quickly.

Indeed it was early in September that the Yorkshire Post reported that the Lord Mayor of Leeds had offered to provide all uniforms and equipment.

The recruitment campaign made it clear that this was primarily a middle class battalion and one showpiece occasion showed off this pride and passion. A cricket match between the Leeds Pals with Booth and Roy Kilner, a Yorkshire team-mate, playing for the Pals against a Yorkshire team.

The Pals, who had trained in the Yorkshire Dales, marched from Leeds station to Headingley. It was easy to see why the likes of Booth would play a key role in the morale of the unit. He was a respected Yorkshire and England cricketer, perfect for an early promotion to 2nd Lieutenant.

Booth spent the first part of the war in Egypt before he and the Pals boarded HMT Ascania and headed for France. Destination, the Somme.

The fateful day was July 1, 1916, and it was 7.30 in the morning. Booth was one of the first over the top as the attack began at La Cigny. Within seconds he saw that a man was injured and tried to steer him to a crater hole. Booth himself was hit by shrapnel, deep in the shoulder. He staggered into another shell hole and was joined by a fellow Yorkshire cricketer from the Bradford Pals, Abe Waddington. He, too, had been hit. They were both in no man’s land and it was here that Booth died in Waddington’s arms. The irony of this is that Waddington later replaced Booth in the Yorkshire team when the sport restarted in 1919.

His loss was deeply felt across Yorkshire. Poems were sent to the local paper in Pudsey and his sister, it is said, never got over his death. For 50 years she kept a candle lit in her cottage and refused to alter his room in any way, the words of the Leeds Pals song never far from her thoughts.

Soon we’ll be far from Leeds my lads

Goodbye to England dear.

Though there’s a lump in our throats my lads

Pals should not shed a tear.

• Harry Gration, the Look North presenter, will tell Major William Booth’s story on BBC Radio Leeds on Monday at 8.15am.