Sent to the front of hell

The carnage of the First World War began a hundred years ago next week. In the midst of it all, two men from Yorkshire met very different fates. Jayne Dawson reports.

Peter Corah has a last look at the World War One letters before handing thewm over to Alexandra Everleigh at West Yorkshire Archive Service

This is a story about two soldiers. Both joined the same regiment, both fought in the mass slaughter that was the Great War, both were sent from the inner city streets to France, two homely young men whose horizons were broadened in ways they could never have imagined or wished for.

But there is no mystery about this tale. I’ll tell you now that one lived and one died, but in the end they were both losers. It’s more a question of how it happened.

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We meet the first man in 1914, pictured with the Buslingthorpe Vale rugby team. He is directly behind the cup they had won, legs apart, arms akimbo, severe centre parting and an expression somewhere between proud and don’t-mess-with-me.

British infantrymen occupying a shallow trench in a ruined landscape before an advance during the Battle of the Somme.

The cobbles make it quite a period piece. What makes it more heartbreaking than nostalgic is the poster behind the team advertising the latest show at Leeds Grand Theatre.

The date of the show is May 1914, which means that, some time after the merry day of the photograph, most of these men would have found themselves walking across a foreign field to their slaughter.

Our man is called James Arthur Dent and what I can tell you about him is this: he was aged 22 when his rugby success was crowned and he was by trade a boot riveter, so let’s say he was an ordinary working class man of the Edwardian era.

The next time we meet him he stands in uniform and besides him sits a demure, pretty woman, doing her best to 
disappear from the picture. She has soft, smooth hair drawn back into a bun, and she wears a dark blouse and skirt of the type which might then have been called “serviceable”. It’s her boots that jar, looking big and badly formed to the point of ugliness.

This is Pte James Dent with his wife Maggie and I am guessing it is their wedding, since it had to be a big occasion to have a picture taken, and I know they married in 1916.

After that, she went to work in a munitions factory and he rejoined his 
West Yorkshire Regiment, first at Seaton Sluice Camp in Whitley Bay, later in France.

We meet him one more time – again in uniform – in much the same pose as when he won the cup: arms folded, in the middle of a group of three, all of them in uniform. They look perky and like very new soldiers – but let’s leave James there and meet our second man.

To do that we need to move on a year. It is 1917 in northern France and Pte Leonard Wragby is enduring life in the mud and blood filled trenches, also with the West Yorkshire Regiment.

What we know about him is this: he is married to Annie and the couple have a four-year-old daughter, Madge.

Leonard was a shop worker before he became a soldier, eventually making it to the position of manager.

Those are the bare bones, and I can tell you little more of Leonard, Annie and Madge – but Leonard can.

Leonard brings his family to life in ways that are unbearably tender as he writes home over a winter spent among the living, the dead and the desperate.

Let me give you an example: at the end of one letter, in a now faded corner, there are 45 neat kisses and a drawing of Charlie Chaplin, with his famous moustache and hat.

“For Madge” it says, a drawing of the superstar of the era to make his daughter laugh. The final kiss is almost as big as Chaplin himself.

There are many letters, written in pencil on thin paper. They reveal details, tiny and poignant: Leonard and Annie used to meet outside Leeds market in their courting days, Annie has never eaten porridge, Leonard’s platoon sings old hymns in the trenches.

This extract will give you the measure of the man: “I am concerned about you and I want you to look after yourself. I shall want a smiling face to greet me, you know. Get plenty of Quaker Oats down you. We get them in the Army (now and then). I shall be able to show you how to make them when I come home. Don’t you bother to send me anything as I think you have enough on trying to keep you and our Little Madge comfortable.

“Tell her dada is always thinking of her. I feel confident in myself that I shall soon be coming home to you. I can picture you looking as well as you did when I used to wait for you at the top of the market. I only wish I was there now but we have to be contented as we are.”

Who wouldn’t want a husband like that? A man who is kind, full of love and concern about his wife and his little girl back in Yorkshire even as he faces daily terrors; a man who reveals a yearning to be home and a determination to convince his little family that life in the trenches isn’t all that bad really.

“My hands are all sore with wiring in No Man’s Land but thank goodness I got over it alright, I can stand the sores. I hope our little girl is being a good girl and looking after her mama,” he writes

But you will be wondering how Pte James Dent is getting on and, more to the point, you will be wondering which one lived and which one died.

Well then, here is how it went. On Monday, December 10, 1917 Pte Leonard Wragby wrote: “It is about time it was over, I am thinking, but never mind as long as we both pull through alright. Wishing you and our little girl a prosperous Christmas and may I be home for the next.” Two days later he was dead. He was 30 years old.

Pte Leonard Wragby died at the Battle of Arras, one of the bloodiest clashes of the First World War. The exact circumstances of his death are unclear. He has no grave but his name is inscribed on a memorial there.

Back to Pte James Dent who, clearly, is the one who lived. You may or may not know but more than sixty per cent of war records for soldiers who went through the Great War were destroyed in a fire in London during, ironically enough, the Second World War.

James Dent’s records were among them, so there is no proud war record and there are no letters, but we do know this: he was gassed. The chemical weapon that was used by both sides worked its poisonous way through his body so that though he lived, life as he knew it ended for James.

Unlike Leonard, James came home but he never worked as a boot riveter, or in any job, again. And he never had his photograph taken again.

For the next 24 years he lived day and night in a downstairs room and finally died in 1942.

His son Brian was seven when his father died, one of eight children, and he is my father.

“There was no emotional bond with him. He was this person who was bedridden, I didn’t know him. It was a chaotic family, we were just trying to survive I suppose, there was no closeness.

“My mother was always out working, she cleaned houses. On the day he died she got him out of bed and shaved him in the morning, that’s all I remember. I think she knew he was about to go.”

So that was the end of the man who proudly posed with his rugby cup months before war broke out. He died bedridden and largely unmourned in a council house in Leeds shared with a poor and dysfunctional family, in the midst of yet another war.

But what about Leonard Wragby’s much-loved little family? Did they fare any better? I’m afraid the answer to that is no, their story is unbearably sad.

Annie and her daughter moved back to Leeds after a period spent in York and lived in Halton. Annie never remarried and Madge, known as Margaret as an adult, never married at all. She lived with her mother and worked as a hairdresser. Those who knew her in later life remember a spinster who was a good pianist and played at St Theresa’s RC Church in Crossgates, Leeds.

Neither it seems was she ever again enveloped by such love as Leonard gave.

Margaret died in 1980, aged 70, the last survivor of a little family who clung together across a sea and through a war, but were never reunited.

The letters encapsulating what might have been were kept in an old leather bag and at the very top was the one informing Annie of her husband’s death .

“Madam, it is my painful duty to inform you that no further news having been received relative to Pte Leonard Wragby who has been missing since 12-12-1917 the Army Council has been regretfully constrained to conclude that he is dead.”

So that really is it, the story of two Leeds men who went to war. One died, one lived, but they both lost and two families were changed forever.

There is, however, a footnote. Leonard’s story was nearly lost but by a fluke it survived.

The letters, never publicly discussed in life by Annie or Margaret, lay in an old leather bag.

In 2004, that bag was discovered in the home of a friend and neighbour, Mary Corah, after she had died.

Her son Peter was clearing his mother’s home and came across the old bag and its precious contents. Eventually the letters were given to West Yorkshire Archive Service, to be available to others.

At the time, Peter said: “ I found it so incredibly sad.”

What else is there to say?

• Records were traced with the help of