Quest to trace families of First World War dead 100 years on

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EDWIN MAWTUS was just 18 years old when he perished on a French battlefield, a week before Armistice Day. Now, he is set to be honoured at the church where he went to school as a child, a century on from his death.

His name is one of three inscribed on the alter rail at St John’s Church in Minskip, near Boroughbridge. With just a few months to go until the anniversary of the death of the infantryman, who was known as Eddie to his family and friends, the search is on for the descendants of the two other fallen villagers - Walter Blades and Joseph Crooks.

Robert Beaumont pictured by the alter showing the names of the soldiers who died in the Great War, at St Johns Church, Minskip. Picture by Simon Hulme

Robert Beaumont pictured by the alter showing the names of the soldiers who died in the Great War, at St Johns Church, Minskip. Picture by Simon Hulme

On November 4, exactly 100 years from Mr Mawtus’s death, Jill Bowes, whose mother was his cousin, will plant a cherry tree in the churchyard at St John’s as part of a service that will commemorate all three of Minskip’s First World War lost.

Mrs Bowes, who lives in Scarborough, first discovered Eddie’s name on the alter rail a few years ago, when she visited Minskip while researching her mother’s family tree.

“This beautifully carved feature recognises the men’s sacrifice, their families’ loss and the sorrow of the whole community,” she said.

Her research uncovered that Eddie enlisted into the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry at the age of 18, and in November 1918, when war had raged in Europe for four years, he was deployed to the east of the Western Front in pursuit of enemy troops who were retreating towards the German border.

Robert Beaumont pictured  at St Johns Church, Minskip. Picture by Simon Hulme

Robert Beaumont pictured at St Johns Church, Minskip. Picture by Simon Hulme

“The fighting was fierce as the Germans defended their rear flanks in a bid to avoid capture,” Mrs Bowes said. “The facts surrounding Eddie’s death are vague but the fourth of November appears to be the date when he lost his life in the Mormal Forest between Landreices and Le Cateau.”

She visited his grave at Cross Roads Cemetery in the small village of Foutaine-au-Bois in 2015.

“It is a beautiful, peaceful place surrounded by flat arable land, pastures and small woods, so much like his environment back home,” she said. “In a nearby cemetery is the grave of Wilfred Owen, the war poet, who died on the same day as Eddie.”

Before it was converted into a church in 1911, St John’s had been home to the village school, where it is believed Mr Mawtus, and possibly Mr Blades and Mr Crooks, would have attended.

The alter showing the names of the soldiers who died in the Great War, at St Johns Church, Minskiip. Picture by Simon Hulme

The alter showing the names of the soldiers who died in the Great War, at St Johns Church, Minskiip. Picture by Simon Hulme

Despite extensive research into the two remaining men, Mrs Bowes has now drawn a blank.

A Walter Blades was born in Leyburn and enlisted at nearby Ripon in 1915, but nothing has been found to link him to Minskip. He was a sapper in the Royal Engineers and was killed in action in France in March 1918. A Joseph Crookes died in action in August 1918, but he hailed from Kirby Wiske in Hambleton.

Church warden Robert Beaumont, who is assisting Mrs Bowes in her quest to trace the relatives of the other lost men, said her research had “brought to life” Mr Mawtus for the St John’s congregation.

“I have always been fascinated by the rail and have often thought about these three brave men who died - but knew nothing more than that,” he said.

“To learn that Edwin Mawkus died just a week before the end of the war was so very sad. We are very grateful to Jill for all of her painstaking research.

“Today the church is an integral part of life in Minskip, and it was probably just as much as a focal point when these young men were in our little community. To have a cherry tree in or churchyard is a wonderful way to remember these brave young men.

“The ceremony will not just be about remembering them, but everybody who died in the Great War.”

Anyone with information on Joseph Crooks or William Blades can contact Mr Beaumont on Robert@robertbeaumont.co.uk or 07710127713