Recalling the ‘baptism of fire’ for Yorkshire’s infantry

Private James Sullivan, of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, who took part in the battle of Le Cateau in 1914.
Private James Sullivan, of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, who took part in the battle of Le Cateau in 1914.
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Descendants of Yorkshire soldiers who fought in an August 1914 battle in France met at a commemoration event in Leeds. Andrew Robinson reports.

RETIRED teacher Frank Beevers was a boy of eight or nine when he spoke to his grandfather about his Great War service.

Four decades on, he can recall everything he was told, from his involvement in the battle of Le Cateau at the end of August 1914 to his numerous escapes from prisoner of war camps.

His granddad, Private Haigh Swallow, joined the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) in 1912 to escape his job as a miner in Barnsley.

In August 1914 he and his Battalion were fighting a desperate action against larger German forces at Le Cateau which helped other British units to retreat in good order.

Unlike many veterans, Mr Swallow was open about his war service and his grandson was eager to hear the stories.

“He told me about the whole action at Le Cateau. It started in the morning when they were placed at the side of a road to stop wave after wave of Germans coming towards them.”

His grandfather described how KOYLI infantrymen used the tactic of volley fire – having a line of soldiers firing weapons simultaneously – which had the Germans “falling like flies” and wrongly believing they were facing machine guns.

As the afternoon wore on, German artillery fire became more accurate and shrapnel shells began bursting over men, who had very little cover.

Private Swallow was hit in both arms which left him with scars still visible in his 80s.

After using water to cool rifles, the men began to run low and when ammunition ran out, Major Charles Yate ordered them to fix bayonets and to advance in an action which won him a Victoria Cross.

Private Swallow was later picked up injured from the battlefield by a German stretcher party and spent the next five years in prisoner of war camps, from which he escaped several times only to be recaptured.

After one escape, he evaded capture for three weeks while he wandered the countryside only to complete a “huge circle” and end up back at the gates of the same camp.

“He found the gates open and all the guards saluted him. The war had ended. He had to wait a long time to be repatriated and didn’t get back to Barnsley until May 1919.”

Mr Swallow returned to the pits and later became a postman. He died in 1973 aged 83.

Mr Beevers, of Rotherham, recalls asking his grandfather what had happened to his fellow soldiers.

“He said ‘they were just shot down around me’. He described people being hit by bullets or killed by shrapnel.”

Apart from his grandfather’s 1914 Star medal, nothing else survived from the war era. “Grandma got hold of everything, including his medals, and put them on the coal fire. She could not stand looking at them.”

The experience of being a prisoner left his grandfather with white hair in his 30s.

“He was emaciated and had lost his teeth. People were shocked by his appearance.”

Mr Beevers said no-one in the family had wanted to hear the war stories except himself.

“I had a sense then that this was an important account of a battle from a witness. Nobody paid him any note and he was told to ‘shut up’ about the war stories.”

Retired headmaster Dr James Hagerty, of Leeds, also attended the Le Cateau battle centenary commemoration at Leeds Armouries.

His grandfather, Private James Sullivan, was injured at Le Cateau but survived the war after further service in France with KOYLI.

Meeting other descendents was “wonderful”, said Dr Hagerty.

“It was incredible to think their antecedents were with my grandfather.”