The fallen and the unforgotten

Avril Williams and the Somme trench at her home in Auchonvillers
Avril Williams and the Somme trench at her home in Auchonvillers
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A Yorkshire-born cricketer who inspired one of the most famous characters in comic fiction is among those being remembered in a poignant exhibition on the Somme. John Woodcock reports

There are three places where the son of a Yorkshire railwayman has left his mark on the nation’s history and culture. He is best known in printers’ ink, but it was a stonemason who had the last word.

His name was Percy Jeeves, a man who displayed skills with a cricket bat and ball that earned him entries in Wisden. Yet he had something extra that caught a writer’s imagination and inspired a legend on the pages of bestsellers.

At a county match in which Jeeves was playing, one of the spectators was PG Wodehouse. The writer was so taken by the all-rounder’s performance that he later attached the surname to a character who became one of the most loved in English fiction, Bertie Wooster’s resourceful valet Jeeves.

Wodehouse’s Jeeves first appeared in September 1915 and within a year the real one was dead, one of the 1.2 million casualties of the Battle of the Somme in northern France.

Private Jeeves of the 15th Battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and son of Edwin and Nancy of 1a Craven Street, Ravensthorpe, Dewsbury, is one of some 71,500 British servicemen commemorated by name at Thiepval, the vast arched memorial overlooking part of the old battlefield that has long since reverted to a Wolds-like landscape of peace and rolling charm.

The site is an awesome symbol of remembrance of those whose bodies were never found or could not be identified. But a more personal tribute to the Missing of the Somme has just opened in Picardy at the Historial museum of the Great War in Péronne.

Rather than focusing on the collective loss from a military perspective, the exhibition tells individual stories – at least one for each of the 141 days of the battle that lasted from July 1 and November 18 1916. Of those featured, Jeeves is among 19 with Yorkshire connections and often revealing personal lives.

Second Lieutenant Alfred Edward Flaxman, for instance, who was born in Wombwell and killed on the first day of the battle, was an athlete, a member of Britain’s 1908 Olympic team who competed in hammer-throwing, the standing high-jump, pole vault and javelin.

Another star sportsman was Lance Corporal John Abbott King. Born in Leeds, he went to Giggleswick School, captained the Yorkshire rugby union team from 1911 to 1913 and played for England. On his death, a Colonel Davidson wrote to King’s sisters: “...I am convinced that the Rugby Footballer makes the finest soldier in the world...”

Corporal Alexander Robertson, of the York and Lancasters, was another who fell on the British Army’s bloodiest day. He was a lecturer in history at Sheffield University and a published poet.

There was Company Sergeant Major Frederic Hillersdon Keeling of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He’d been manager of Leeds Labour Exchange, a leading member of the Fabian Society and assistant editor of the New Statesman magazine. He enlisted with seven friends and was the only one to decline a commission.

Pontefract-born Major Wilfred Tempest of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry had previously cheated death, first when he fought the Zulus, and then at Ypres in 1915.

Before the war, Private William Laycock from Keighley had been a journalist on the Craven Herald; Corporal Ernest Goodridge was an old boy of Doncaster Grammar School and became a solicitor’s clerk; Private Bernard Locker, aged 19, came from Silsden and worked as a bobbin turner. He’d joined the regimental band of the East Yorkshires and had been in France only 26 days when he was killed.

And there was Percy Jeeves whose name at least lived on when others were forgotten. Jeeves played his first serious cricket for the Goole club and then became a professional at, of all places, Hawes.

He had trials with Yorkshire but it was Warwickshire who gave him his chance and he played against the Australians and South Africans with a bowling technique that was described as “on the quick side of medium pace, and with an easy action came off the ground with plenty of spin”.

He owes his lasting fame to that spectator who was forming in his head the identity of a “gentleman’s personal gentleman”, an urbane but streetwise servant who could take in hand a complete duffer of the upper class.

PG Wodehouse recalled: ‘I was watching a county match on the Cheltenham ground before the First War and one of the Warwickshire bowlers was called Jeeves. I suppose the name stuck in my mind and I named Jeeves after him’.

His namesake was killed by shrapnel at High Wood on July 22, 1916. He was 28 and left an estate valued at £223. In his obituary the local paper described Percy Jeeves as “one of the finest specimens of the clean-living young cricketers that ever donned flannels – a true sportsman through and through, with a heart too big for defeat and a temperament too free from conceit for success to spoil”.

References to cricket and how it brought into being a deathless fictional figure seem out of place in France, but you’ll find them in Péronne and at the Thiepval Visitor Centre. In its bookshop there are numerous other reminders of how unlikely names perished in the surrounding countryside. There’s a shelf lined with titles about the Yorkshire communities whose menfolk went to war together, and often died together: the Bradford Pals, the Hull T’Others, the Sheffield City Battalion, Halifax Pals, Barnsley Pals, Hull Sportsmen…

Dawn Drouin works at the centre, one of many Britons in the Somme area who are consumed by the First World War. Another is Dawn’s friend, Avril Williams, who used to live near Skipton and ran the youth club in Bradley.

Now she’s three miles from Thiepval, beyond the Mill Road military cemetery and the Newfoundland Memorial with its preserved trenches and grassed-over shell craters, in the village of Auchonvillers. It was on the British front-line during the Somme carnage and “Tommies” had difficulty pronouncing the French version so they called it Ocean Villas. It became the obvious name for Avril’s tea room and b&b.

She’s been there 21 years but when she arrived, initially to help in her sister’s business, Avril didn’t speak French and knew little about the Great War. She bought a dilapidated farmhouse with a couple of acres and, helped by her son and daughter and their families, began uncovering and sharing the history she’s living with. As well as her largely self-taught expertise, she organises lectures by professional historians and guided tours. One is beneath her guest rooms.

Military archaeologists have unearthed a trench running from the back garden into her cellar which was used as a stretcher-bearers’ post and dressing station, the graffiti of war still visible on the walls.

Dotted around her café are some of the artefacts they’re still finding: bullets, shell remains, a bayonet, boot, toothbrushes, cap badges, morphine capsules, mouth organ, crucifix, and a whistle –- forever associated with the signal to go over the top. As if the fighting man didn’t face enough means of destruction, there’s a shaving brush stamped “Anthrax-free horse hair. Sterilised”.

Some of the finds must have offered the soldiers a particular reminder of home, like a now rusting tin that once contained Nuttall’s Doncaster Butterscotch.

Avril enjoys pointing out that if their ghosts returned to the scene today they’d still find bottles of HP sauce on her tables and a menu that is traditionally English. “It’s what I cook. There’s no point in producing sub-standard French.”

She’s already taking bookings for 2014 – the centenary of the war’s outbreak – and particularly 2016, when pilgrimages to the Somme, especially around July, will have an even greater significance than usual.

After those milestones Avril worries that interest in the Great War may begin to wane.

Visitor numbers to the area, the educational trips, relatives looking for ancestors, the ever-increasing research and discoveries, all suggest otherwise.

She’s doing what she can to preserve memories, and plans to establish a remembrance centre in her village. “What happened here and in all the other places must never be forgotten.”

www.somme-missing.com The exhibition runs until November 25.

www.avrilwilliams.eu