The torment of a Yorkshire family whose son went missing on the first day of the Somme is laid bare in a series of heartbreaking letters writes Hugh Sebag-Montefiore.
The first telegraph telling Whiteley Tolson and his family that something was wrong was wired the day after the July 1, 1916 attack. The chaplain with the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment (Leeds Pals) informed 2nd Lieutenant Robert Tolson’s wife Zoe that he had apparently been wounded. He ended the letter ‘You will probably see him soon.’
However, eight days later, the chaplain wrote to Zoe Tolson again, to tell her that he was in fact missing. ‘Six men told me that they knew he had been wounded, but was brought in. But all was confusion after the battle, and I am afraid it is too true that he was not brought in. I have searched the hospitals and find no trace of him, and we can only say he is missing.’
We will remember them...
Nevertheless the family’s hopes must have been raised by a letter dated July 13 from the 93rd Brigade addressed to Whiteley Tolson, Robert’s father, a wealthy Huddersfield businessman. It stated the Brigade had been told that his son had been wounded and sent to a base hospital, although they had not been told which one. The writer of the letter added: ‘I think he is all right or we would have heard.’ However this was contradicted by another letter to Zoe from the Battalion’s chaplain, sent five days later, which commiserated with her on Robert’s death.
The uncertainty about Robert’s fate as a result of the contradictions in these letters was to carry on for months afterwards, torturing Whiteley and his family, who did not know whether to mourn Robert’s death, or to carry on searching for him.
On July 22, an officer from the Battalion wrote to explain to the family that Robert had advanced with the last wave, and had made it past the front line. ‘He could not have gone further than our wire, but in that short distance anything could have happened. Our front line was being shelled. Shrapnel and every kind of missile at the command of the enemy was bursting on every side. The wounded, who could not get out of the trench to the dressing station, were liable to be buried, as the trench was blown in. I am sorry to say that many were buried in this way.’
The family were still waiting for news at the end of July. On the 27th , Newcombe Wright, a cousin with the BEF, went over to see the remains of the Battalion, and then wrote to Whiteley, telling him what he had found out. Apparently the Battalion had been more or less ‘wiped out’ by machine gun fire:
‘Robert’s company (A Company) caught it worst, and only two or three of his platoon ever came back, and those wounded. Only two officers escaped. None of these saw Robert. One man of his company, but not of his platoon, who got back unhurt, told me that as he was lying out in front of our wire, a wounded man, who was trying to get back to our trenches, told him that Mr Tolson was shot through the neck.
‘None of our men reached the German wire, and immediately after the attack, the German artillery barraged No Man’s Land, and on our front line trench, knocking it in, and burying many of the wounded who had managed to get back. The man did not think there was much chance of anyone who was out, coming through alive.
‘There is just one gleam of hope, but personally, I am afraid I should not think much of it. I am told that although the Germans, when the barrage stopped, would not let our stretcher bearers beyond our own wire, their parties picked up a very few wounded of ours. They were watched by our men, who did not fire on them, as they were bandaging and looking after our wounded. It is just within the bounds of possibility that Robert was picked up by them.’
Notwithstanding the temptation to carry on hoping Robert might have survived, Whiteley Tolson had more or less given up hope. On July 28, he wrote to his older son Gerald: ‘Personally my hopes that Robert is a prisoner are faint. No private soldier suggests with any force there is any possibility of Robert being a prisoner. If mentioned at all, it is said in a comforting sort of way as a last resource.’
In a subsequent letter, he revealed the pain he was suffering: ‘It was a murderous situation to charge into No Man’s Land with the Germans so well prepared with machine guns. Robert was sacrificed, and many a hundred besides (the Leeds Pals sustained over 500 casualties on 1 July 1916). It makes me have a sinking sick feeling to imagine his end, perhaps bleeding to death, for Newcombe heard he was wounded in the neck.’
But still, he could not let the matter rest. As he wrote to Gerald, ‘Zoe still clings to the hope that Robert is a prisoner.’
It was only on about September 5, that they had a breakthrough. They received a letter from the Red Cross stating that a Private Jepson, who was in a hospital in Epsom, had fallen into a trench right onto the dead body of Lieutenant Tolson’.
A letter was swiftly send to Private Jepson asking for a meeting. And on September 8, Jepson wrote back agreeing to meet outside the hospital gates the following Sunday.
On September 11, Gerald wrote to tell his uncle Legh what Jepson had said. During the attack, he had been wounded on his face, and had ended up falling into a trench, which he thought was the German first trench. He had landed on Robert’s dead body. ‘Robert was stretched out face downwards, arms extended. His body was cold and stiff and his eyes were closed.’
Whiteley wrote back to his son, who had also filled him in: ‘Words fail me to express my horror of his dreadful end. There is no glory in it for me. It was downright wicked murder!’
But even Jepson’s account could not be accepted as incontrovertible proof of what had happened to Robert because Jepson had been half blinded by the blood coming from the wound on his face. However, approximately six weeks later, a lance corporal sent Whiteley his verdict. According to this man, he had seen Robert lying in the British front line trench. ‘I took him to be dead’ he said. ‘I cannot understand how he has been reported missing unless the trench was blown in and he got buried.’
It was only in March, the following year, that the family were given what they regarded as definitive proof of Robert’s death. After the Germans moved out of the Somme village of Serre, a skeleton was found wearing Robert’s wrist watch with a handkerchief bearing his name wrapped around its leg. This was assumed to be Robert’s remains, he was given a proper burial, and the Tolson family at long last had closure.
The letters referred to in this article are featured in a DVD made by Huddersfield’s Tolson Museum, which was donated to the town by Whiteley Tolson’s brother Legh in memory of his two nephews who died on the Western Front. Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Somme: Into The Breach is published by Viking Penguin, price £25.