At 20 minutes past seven on the morning of July 1, 1916, the Leeds Pals climbed out of their muddy trench, crawled through barbed wire and awaited orders in no man’s land. Ten minutes later, the whistle blew and the officers, first, and then the rank and file advanced towards the village of Serre, a movement that was stopped, brutally, as soon as it began.
One of those going over the top in the first wave was Second Lieutenant Major (his forename, rather than rank) Booth, erstwhile of Yorkshire and England and soon to be mown down with the rest of his men. Booth was one of 289 first-class cricketers who fell during the First World War, all of whom, along with 1,499 other cricketers of varying degrees of note, ability and enthusiasm, are
commemorated in the newly published Wisden on the Great War.
In this catalogue of death, Booth’s cricketing achievements are accorded a page, the manner of his death a mere four lines, but Yorkshire researchers, in particular Mick Pope, in his books Tragic White Roses and Headingley Ghosts, have delved a little more deeply and, in conjunction with official records, allow a more complete picture. There cannot have been a more poignant or more tragic
death of a first-class cricketer.
Booth was an all-rounder, a brisk swing and seam bowler and a batsman good enough to have scored a double hundred against Worcestershire. Having made his trial debut for Yorkshire in 1908, and for England on the tour of South Africa in 1913-14, he was in his cricketing prime. Nobody in England took more wickets in the summer of 1914, the year he was made a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.
A long career beckoned until Lord Kitchener pointed his finger.
The recruitment office in Leeds was in Hanover Square and, in August 1914, Booth signed up straightaway, telling contemporaries that “it is our duty; we cannot do anything else”. By September, 1,275 men had been recruited into the 15th Service Battalion (1st Leeds), The West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince Wales Own) — otherwise known as the Leeds Pals.
These pals trained in the Yorkshire Dales for two months, and in December 1915 they sailed for Suez and Egypt. In March 1916, they set
sail back to Marseilles, took the train to Pont-Remy five days later and then marched north to Bertrancourt, arriving on March 29. By
June 30 they were ready and waiting for the big push at what became known as the Battle of the Somme, the important strategic town of
Serre, half a mile across no man’s land, their target.
German machineguns were embedded deeply in wooden and concrete shelters and many of them survived the lengthy eight-day bombardment.
Within moments of the whistle sounding the advance, there was carnage. According to one witness, the advancing men were knocked down
“like tin soldiers swept with a stick” and in that first hour alone roughly a quarter of the Leeds Pals engaged in the battle had died. Few made it to the German lines; those who did found themselves enmeshed in barbed wire and were finished off by German patrols later that same day. Another witness recorded the lines of dead like “swathes of cut corn at harvest time”.
The British Official History records the valour of these Pals battalions sent to their destruction on a day that accounted for 20,000 British soldiers — their “magnificent gallantry, discipline and determination” in the face of machinegun fire.
Booth was in charge of the No 10 machinegun team. After urging on a Pal who had been hit by shrapnel, Booth was wounded, taking shrapnel to the shoulder and chest, so he had no choice but to take cover in one of two shell holes thereabouts. Mortally wounded, in the shell hole he remained.
Following behind the Leeds Pals were the Bradford Pals, among their number a promising 21-year-old cricketer called Abe Waddington. Waddington became an outstanding all-round sportsman, playing golf for Yorkshire — he played twice in Open qualifiers — as well as playing in goal for Bradford City and Halifax Town. He played cricket for Yorkshire after the war and, eventually, for England, with
whom he travelled to Australia in 1920-21 with J. W. H. T. Douglas’s hapless touring team.
Like Booth, Waddington was injured during the advance, taking shrapnel to his legs and hands. He, too, took shelter in a shell hole, amazingly the same one where Booth lay dying. Booth was something of a hero to Waddington, who had seen Booth play before the war, and, more recently, during interbrigade matches. Waddington nursed Booth in his arms — as tenderly, one imagines, as the horrific conditions would allow — until Booth passed away. As night fell, Waddington was rescued, but Booth’s body resided where it lay.
Not surprisingly, the memory of those few hours, in particular the sight of rats tearing away at Booth’s dead body as Waddington was taken away on a stretcher, haunted Waddington for the rest of his life. It was not until nine months later that Booth’s body was found, and even then only because an MCC cigarette case was found in the pocket of a tunic. Nothing else was identifiable.
Booth’s remains lie in a grave in Serre Road Cemetery No 1, along with 2,411 others, many of them unidentified. He is also one of five Yorkshire cricketers commemorated on a plaque just inside the Hutton Gates at Headingley, as well as at the church in Pudsey, west Yorkshire, home of his Pudsey St Lawrence club.
The devastation wrought upon these northern, working-class communities by the slaughter of the Pals on the first day of the Somme is not hard to imagine. Few families remained untouched. Booth’s sister, Anne, refused to believe the news of her brother’s death, not even when Waddington visited her cottage after the war to relive these final, harrowing moments. Booth’s room remained as it had been until 1956, when his sister was forced to leave the family home at Town End Cottage in Pudsey. Until the end, she left a light on in his room for the moment he would return.
It is hard to read of this story even now. What must Waddington have seen as he descended into the shell hole where hundreds of Pals lay wounded, dying and torn apart? What must he have felt as he came upon his hero, Booth? And then, as they lay there, among the limbs, the blood, the mud, the rats and with the carnage swirling all around them? Did any words pass between these two cricketers, or was it too late?
Having survived the war, it is not difficult to guess at the motivation that must have driven Waddington on in 1919, when cricket resumed after the four-year hiatus. In a desperately poignant twist, Waddington got his chance in the Yorkshire team because of Booth’s absence as an all-rounder. Yorkshire won the County Championship that year and Waddington shone, taking 100 wickets in a triumphant start to his career.
Waddington appeared to be a contradictory character. He dressed as a bit of a dandy but played his cricket the old-fashioned Yorkshire way; that is to say, hard and without sentimentality. He occasionally found himself in trouble on and off the field. He was forced to apologise for dissent during a match in Sheffield in 1924, was a ferocious sledger and once at a golf club in Bradford poured a glass of beer over the captain of the club.
Not surprisingly, given his experiences as a soldier who had been ordered into slaughter, it was said that he maintained a healthy mistrust of authority throughout his life.