First World War: From a humble farm boy to the recipient of a Military Medal for bravery, Harry Boreham tried to make a difference - and succeeded
- Credit: Contributed
Diana Hunt last year visited the First World War battlefields where her grandfather fought for peace amid mud, noise, savage losses and the stench of death. She felt “chokingly proud” that thousands had risked their lives for peace and a free country, but also “so angry”.
“I wanted to bring them all home to English soil. It’s heartbreaking to see all those graves. Not that they’re not loved; but it’s such a waste.”
A senseless loss? “No, I mustn’t say that, because that is diminishing the sacrifice, and I never want to do that. But I wish we could find a way of resolving our aggression which didn’t mean you kill hundreds of thousands of people. I think that was the sadness.”
Her grandfather was a product of feudal Suffolk, “which is why I’m quite keen his story is told. The First World War enabled him to break out of the mould. And then my father, with the Second World War, went on to do the same – went on to become a barrister and a High Court judge. “They both used their brains and worked very hard. That’s why I’m rather proud of both of them.”
Harry didn’t speak about what he’d seen. It wasn’t until the 1970s, living in a bungalow at Kesgrave, near Ipswich, that he wrote down his wartime memories. “Until then, absolutely nothing.
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“His diary has no emotion. Absolutely none. It is just a factual account of what happened. He’ll talk about a sunken road somewhere and he’ll say, ‘This road was full of bodies, and what I found difficult was the smell’, and then he just carries on.
“I think his generation was one which considered ‘self’ hardly at all. They considered their country, their job, the people around them, their families… and they themselves were bottom of the list.
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“Now, it’s all ‘me, me, me’ – and that would have been something completely foreign to him, I would say.”
This son of a farm worker was born on November 10, 1892, at Valley Farm, Layham, near Hadleigh. As a lad he helped with stone picking, paid two shillings for each tumbril – a farm cart. The stones were used to mend the roads. In 1901 his father bought Rose Cottage at Holton St Mary, near East Bergholt. It cost £100. Harry joined the church choir, helped his grandmother in her garden, went rabbiting and was a beater during the shooting season – activities that earned extra shillings for the household. He went to Holton St Mary School, which had 35 pupils.
In 1905, he left on a Friday, and on Monday started as the “Backus Boy” (back-house boy) at Four Sisters Farm. His wages were 2/6 a week.
In 1906 he went to the Oaks at East Bergholt. Harry was employed in the garden, with the horses, and helped with the car: a large Renault with big brass headlamps. His pay was 4/6 a week.
Out walking with friends one Sunday afternoon he saw “a young lady come along from the Stratford St Mary direction. She was dressed in a brown costume with a hat to match and, on the hat, little white pom poms”, he wrote. “I plucked up courage to talk to her and as this was not resented I walked with her along the Higham Road. She told me her name, Mary Amelia Randall.” The parlour maid would become his wife.
“Millie” changed her job once or twice and Harry courted her on his bicycle – the nine-mile journey to see her no obstacle on his day off. In 1914 he moved to a new job in Boxted, paid £1 a week and taught by his employers to drive their four-seat Arral Johnson car.
But before long, posters went up, seeking volunteers to bolster British forces in France. The war was two weeks old when Harry made a trip home. Brothers George and Ernest had just joined the Essex Regiment. “I discussed the matter with Millie, after which I decided to join up. My employer, like all employers, readily agreed,” he later wrote. Harry travelled to Colchester and signed up on September 9, 1914 –joining the 11th Battalion of the Essex Regiment. Recruits were sent to Shoreham-by-Sea, west of Brighton. They had to pitch bell-tents on the damp grass: 16 men to a tent and four blankets between them. Next day: bread and marmalade. Harry was swiftly identified as good material and put in charge of 16 men.
Recruitment campaigns had proved so successful that there was a shortage of essentials such as utensils. Harry’s group had Irish stew every day for six weeks, lumps of fat floating in it. The same containers were used to boil the water for tea, so a cuppa had a film of grease on top.
Harry was promoted to corporal (later sergeant) and in the November was consigned to the infirmary, with German measles! Most days featured five-mile route marches – the recruits singing made-up patriotic songs.
By Christmas, the men still hadn’t been issued with khaki. “I was so disgusted with the old badly-fitting blue suit that I decided I would buy my own khaki suit. Several of us did the same and it took 30 bob from each of us in a shop in Brighton,” Harry remembered.
Here’s something else odd. In the spring of 1915 they were all told to grow moustaches, only for the order to be rescinded shortly afterwards!
There was musketry tuition at Aldershot. Those deemed first-class shots got an extra thruppence a day, putting a private on 1/3.
At the end of August the men boarded a train to Dover and then a troop ship to Boulogne. For Harry – now company quartermaster sergeant responsible for the food, clothing and pay of about 250 troops – it was his first trip across the sea.
The soldiers marched through France before Harry’s group was billeted in a shed on a farm. There was, at least, clean straw and they were able to buy two pints of milk each weeknight, into which they poured a pint of cognac. “We took this as a nightcap.”
After two weeks’ training the division marched 75 miles – into the Battle of Loos, near the Belgian border, on September 20, 1915.
Harry remembered: “When we were within a few miles of Loos we met streams of casualties walking back to the casualty clearing stations. As we came in sight of the slagheaps, we came under shellfire and very soon under rifle and machine-gun fire.”
They hadn’t gone far before they started suffering casualties.
The Germans had the high ground at Hulluch. At daybreak, the British were ordered to advance. A colonel, “a very brave man”, led the way.
“Within a few hours we had lost 20 officers out of a total of 24. They were either killed or wounded. We also lost between 350 and 400 other ranks, out of 700 who’d gone into action. Not an inch of ground was gained, because it was impossible to get through the barbed wire.”
The forces regrouped. Harry and his comrades were sent to the Ypres front. Trench fever put him in hospital for a spell in 1916.
It often rained. “The weather was not the only menace. I sometimes thought the lice were even worse. The dugouts were infested with them. When you tried to get a little sleep, they would torment you. My mother used to send me cakes of disinfecting soap, which gave off strong carbolic scent. I used to rub the seams of my shirt with the soap and this did keep them at bay.”
They were moved up to different woods during the wet summer.
“The casualties in this battle were terrible. It meant that some of the sunken roads in that area were literally filled with dead bodies. Having been for several days in warm weather, the smell was terrible. The sight of blood didn’t affect me at all, but smell I found much more difficult.”
Harry was involved in the capture of Lesbouefs. “A number of ordinary soldiers like myself felt we should and could have kept on, as the morale of the Germans was rather low just then. There is no doubt the war could have been won that year…” Early in 1918 he returned to England and got married. He was 24, his bride 27. The groom then returned to the battlefield. In the last week of September, Harry earned the Military Medal. His company was in what he called “a very forward position” at Ypres “and I and my party had great difficulty in getting to them with supplies as we had to cross open country under heavy shell fire... We succeeded but lost half our party, either killed or wounded, but the company still got their supplies.”
That spring, brother George was killed. He was barely in his 30s. George has no known grave, but is remembered on the Pozieres Memorial near Amiens. Diana went there. “I wanted to lay a wreath, just to let him know he wasn’t forgotten.”
By the time the guns fell silent, Harry had a son he had never seen. He was sent to Germany as part of the occupation. Troops had to march there from France, but on arrival it was a treat to sleep in a real bed.
At the end of February, 1919, Harry learned he was being demobbed. He reached Manningtree station and walked the five miles to Holton St Mary.
He called at his parents’ house to let them know he was safe, and have a cup of tea, and then walked to Higham to see Millie and his son. “And that was it – all he said. War was over.”
Diana, a former High Sheriff of Suffolk and a magistrate since 1985, understands the desire to repel the aggression of Germany – during both world wars – but suggests there had surely to be alternatives to such carnage.
“I’m not in a position to judge the rights and wrongs, really; you’re just left with this overwhelming sadness that a generation died.”