The Somme: When Yorkshire’s finest faced their toughest test

Major Booth was a talented and charismatic all-rounder for Yorkshire and England. He was killed on the first day of the battle while serving with the Leeds Pals.
Major Booth was a talented and charismatic all-rounder for Yorkshire and England. He was killed on the first day of the battle while serving with the Leeds Pals.
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The contrasting fates of a trio of Yorkshire cricketers bring home the horror of the Battle of the Somme and its harrowing after effects. Grant Woodward reports.

RELAXING with a smoke outside their tent as one of their number washes up, they look like friends enjoying a scenic camping trip.

In fact, the sepia-tinged photograph captures the members of the Leeds Pals as they prepare for war. These brothers in arms would swap their training camp amid the sweeping hills of Colsterdale in North Yorkshire for the carnage of the Western Front and a fight that would live on in infamy – the Battle of the Somme.

Officially named the 15th Battalion (1st Leeds), The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment), they were just one of a number of volunteer battalions raised across Yorkshire following the outbreak of the First World War. The only major power not to begin the conflict with a mass conscripted army, it quickly became clear that Britain would need huge numbers of volunteers to wage war. Amid a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands came forward.

Then it was realised that many more men would enlist if they could serve alongside their friends, relatives and workmates in so-called ‘Pals battalions’. Barnsley promptly supplied two, as did Bradford, while Leeds, Halifax, Grimsby and Sheffield each sent one. Hull raised four – the Hull Commercials, Hull Tradesmen, Hull Sportsmen, and, with, wry humour, Hull T’Others.

The men who joined spanned all classes. Managers signed up along with men from the shopfloor. Miners from Charlesworth Colliery marched into Leeds to enlist and formed the backbone of the Pioneers of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, becoming known as T’Owd Twelfth.

Members of the Leeds Pals at training camp in Colsterdale in 1914.

Members of the Leeds Pals at training camp in Colsterdale in 1914.

Well-known names from the world of sport also did their bit. Leeds City and Bradford City star Evelyn Lintott, later to head the Professional Footballers’ Association, became the first professional player to gain a commission in the Army. Second Lieutenant Alfred Edward Flaxman, a Barnsley-born Olympic discus and javelin competitor, inspired awe in his comrades with his ability to throw a grenade a full 75 yards across the battlefield.

Hundreds of first-class cricketers also joined up, and it is the stories of three who played for both Yorkshire and England before doing battle at the Somme that reveal both the horror of the war and its devastating after effects.

Second Lieutenant Major William Booth was a charismatic, good-looking all-rounder who twice played cricket for England. As he lay wounded in a shell hole on the first day of the Somme, he knew the game was up. With him was Private Abe Waddington, a rising star bowler for Yorkshire who would get more than 800 first class wickets. Booth, 29, was a hero to young Waddington, who held the mortally wounded lieutenant in his arms until he died.

Behind the lines sat Booth’s closest friend, Yorkshire batsman Roy Kilner, who would play nine Tests for England and become one of the most popular stars of his day. He was being treated after his wrist was shattered by shrapnel minutes before the attack. Corporal Kilner had no idea that 2nd Lt Booth, best man at his wedding 21 months earlier, was already dead.

Abe Waddington survived the Somme but the horrors of the battle would haunt him forever.

Abe Waddington survived the Somme but the horrors of the battle would haunt him forever.

The “Major” in Booth’s name was not a rank but his first name. Born in Pudsey in 1886, he had joined up as a private with the Leeds Pals, telling friends: “It is our duty, we cannot do anything else.”

Between 1908 and 1914 Booth played 144 games for Yorkshire, scoring 4,213 runs and taking 556 wickets, including a double century against Worcestershire. His career was at its height in 1913-14, when he played in the last Tests before the war on England’s tour of South Africa and was named one of Wisden’s cricketers of the year.

Booth rose to sergeant with the Leeds Pals before being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and posted to Egypt in December 1915. Back in France, he was in charge of No 10 machine gun at Serre on July 1, 1916. As his men advanced he urged on a comrade who had been hit, then was wounded by shrapnel in his shoulder and chest.

Abe Waddington was rescued that night but Booth’s body was left in the shell hole and not found until the next spring, identified only by the MCC cigarette case in his tunic. He was buried at Serre Road No 1 Cemetery in Beaumont-Hamel. Yorkshire President Lord Hawke paid tribute, saying: “England lost one of the most promising and charming young cricketers it was ever my lot to meet.”

Roy Kilner was wounded by shrapnel before the battle began. He later learned his best man, Major Booth, had been killed.

Roy Kilner was wounded by shrapnel before the battle began. He later learned his best man, Major Booth, had been killed.

Booth’s sister Anne refused to believe he was dead. Despite a visit from Waddington, who described his last moments, she left his room as it was and for 40 years kept a light in the window of their cottage in Pudsey in case he should ever come home.

Booth’s close friend Roy Kilner recovered from his wrist injury and was posted to Preston Garrison as a mechanic where he played football for Preston North End. He faced more anguish when his brother Bernard was killed at Ypres in 1917. Kilner, born in Barnsley in 1890, had been purely a batsman before the war but afterwards developed into an all-rounder, loved by the fans for his cheery personality and mission to entertain.

At the time Yorkshire were disliked for their uncompromising attitude but Kilner stood out. When he ended his first class career in 1927, he had amassed 14,707 runs and 1,003 wickets.In the winter of 1927-28, he went to India to play and coach. On the way home he developed a fever and by the time got home to Wombwell was seriously ill. Despite hospital treatment he died on April 5, 1928.

Five days later the streets of his small town were packed with an estimated 100,000 mourners and tributes came from all over the world. More than 1,000 were at the cemetery and Yorkshire cricketers, including Waddington, carried his coffin. The rector said: “A Yorkshire wicket has fallen and one of Yorkshire’s best men is out; and we lament his loss.”

His obituary described Kilner as “not only a notable exponent of the game, but a man of rare charm. Few modern professionals commanded such a measure of esteem and kindly regard from his colleagues and opponents in the cricket field as did Roy Kilner”.

Bradford lad Abe Waddington, born in 1893, survived the war but was haunted for the rest of his life by those hours in the shell hole. The medium fast bowler played cricket twice for England on the unsuccessful 1920-21 tour of Australia and turned out 266 times for Yorkshire until 1927, claiming 852 wickets.

Former England cricket captain Mike Gatting, shown with a photograph of Major Booth, is backing the Royal British Legion's Sport Remembers campaign.

Former England cricket captain Mike Gatting, shown with a photograph of Major Booth, is backing the Royal British Legion's Sport Remembers campaign.

He also found time to play football for Bradford City and Halifax Town and to represent Yorkshire at golf. He had a fiery temper, resented the class divide in cricket and would sledge opponents and argue with umpires, both unheard of in those days. He once poured a glass of beer over the captain of a golf club in Bradford, claiming the man had used bad language in front of a woman.

A motorcycling enthusiast, Waddington regularly attended the Isle of Man TT, although his love of fast cars brought him trouble from the police at times. In 1938 he was fined £5 for using obscene language as he pushed a policeman who had asked him to switch off his headlights.

In 1950, he was banned from driving for trying to start his car while drunk. Then, after the Second World War, he was tried and acquitted for fraud over alleged missing payments to the Ministry of Food from his fat-producing firm. Forty-three years after that terrible day in the shell hole, Waddington died in a Scarborough nursing home, aged 66.

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