As part of our general research on local Keighley individuals I have often referred to the war diary pages of the 1/6th Battalion Dukes of Wellington's West Riding Regiment. In April 1915 the report of the deaths of Privates' Tom Critcheson and Fred Pickles has been graphically described as they were both killed instantly by a shell as the battalion was billeted in what I assume were abandoned houses along the 'Rue de Quesne,' which stretches out to the South West of the village of Fleurbaix.
Fred was horribly mutilated by the force of the blast but Tom's body was apparently intact. They were buried in the shell hole together because poor Fred was so mutilated. They had only been in France for two weeks, having arrived with the battalion at Boulogne on SS Onward on 14th April 1915.
1/6th Battalion, Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regimental War diary transcription:
29th April, Rue de Quesne.
Fleurbaix was shelled by enemy, shells dropping close to billets.
11.30 am. D Company temporarily evacuated billets.
12.45 pm. Our billets were heavily shelled for about 1/2 an hour.
1 pm. No. 1958 Pte T. Critcheson & No. 3061 Pte F. Pickles were killed. No. 1658 Pte J. W. Midgley was wounded in several places by the same shell. all of D Coy. The deceased men were buried where shell fell owing to Pte Pickles being so mutilated. Place of burial H. 26. B. 8. 3. Sheet 36 B Series 3rd edition BELGIUM and FRANCE 1/40,000. No service. Chaplain not available.
Trench map showing the location of the billets at the time and the approximate spot where these two men were buried:
Google Street view showing the spot about 50 metres in front of this position, where their burial site was (opens a new tab):
Keighley News May 8, 1915, page 5:
SERIES OF LOCAL CASUALTIES - TERRITORIALS KILLED BY SHELL FIRE
In private letters, reports are being received of the first casualties to Keighley Territorials who left Doncaster recently for the front. Up to Wednesday reports of the deaths of three men had been received, these being Private Critchison(sic), of Parkwood, Private Pickles, also believed to have belonged to Parkwood, and Private James Walsh, of Ada Street.
Writing to Mr Walter King, a member of the Eastwood Conservative Club, under Friday's date, Private Fred Bell, of the transport section of the 6th West Riding Regiment, says:-
"Just a few lines to you and my pals to let you know that I am all right, but in the thick of the war. Poor Tom Critchison and Pickles were killed by a German shell. I was only fifty yards away with the horses when the shell killed them. It was terrible. They buried them where they fell. It made me think of old England. You will all be sorry at the club. Tom was my best pal here. We sleep in holes dug in the ground, like rabbits. Our Keighley lads are in the thick of it, but we shall be victorious in the end."
In another letter received in the town a private in the Territorials says: -
"On Thursday we were shelled by the Germans, and we had two men killed and one wounded - all three Parkwood lads. We were very lucky in not having more killed as it was awful whilst it lasted.
We were in the reserve billets, about two and a half miles from the firing line. I went into the trenches the same night and came out again the next morning with a Keighley sergeant to get rations."
HOW THE CASUALTIES AMONG KEIGHLEY MEN OCCURRED.
A Keighley Territorial tells in a letter home how the casualties occurred in his regiment. He writes: - "On Thursday we were just finishing dinner, when whizzing through the air came the first German shell. It dropped close to 'D' Company's billet, and the men scattered in all directions; then more shells came along the line of billets. I was in my bungalow cottage with a mud floor, when I was told to clear out. I did so, and was making for some dugouts (a kind of underground shelter) when not more than 20 yards away burst about the twelfth of the series of shells. Clods of earth and pieces of the shell flew round in all directions and one piece dropped just at my feet, but I wasn't touched. The shelling was continued from time to time, and after it was over we came slowly and mournfully back. Two of ours have gone to their last rest, and another was wounded, but is going on nicely. Oh, it's a terrible thing is war."
Private Tom Critcheson's grave was exhumed after the war and 'concentrated' into Rue-du-Bois Military Cemetery (about 2.5 km away), probably in 1920 - along with many other battlefield graves. The 'concentrations' of war burials were done to allow the civilian population to take back ownership of their farmlands and place all the war dead into specific cemeteries, rather than having small plots of war graves dotted all over the countryside which would be difficult to locate and also a problem to maintain.
There are 395 'unknown' burials in the Rue-du-Boise Military cemetery and 13 on special memorial panels, indeed Tom Critchison has 'unknown' soldiers buried at either side of him. Is Fred Pickles buried in one of these graves? Sadly we may never know, as the concentration records for this cemetery do not exist and there is a possibility that when Tom was exhumed that they missed Fred's remains or did not recognise that two men were buried in this spot, or that they did find something but could not identify him so they buried him as an unknown soldier.
I sent a request in 2016 for information on this matter to the Commonwealth war Graves Commission, but they could only confirm that for Rue-du-Bois Military Cemetery, the graves concentration and burial return documents are missing.
Private Fred Pickles is named on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing, which is located 25 km to the North west, and is actually in Belgium rather than France, where Fred died.
In the 1911 census, Tom was employed as an iron turner and Fred Pickles was a boltmaker, so they were well connected with the town's engineering and manufacturing industries for which the town was so noted. Both men volunteered early in the war and their names appear in the 'Keighley's Gallant Sons book and in the Keighley Town Clerk's lists of early volunteers for 1914. They are also named in the nominal rolls for the Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment, which appear in the 'Craven's Part in the Great War' book.
Tom Critcheson and Fred Pickles are both remembered in Keighley's Great War roll of honour book in Keighley Library:
Tom is also remembered on the Victoria Park Wesleyan Methodist Church war memorial, currently held in storage with Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley:
Birth, Death and Marriage records.
1901 and 1911 census records.
British Army service records.
British Army medal records.
Soldier's effects records.
Soldiers Died in the Great War records.
Keighley Newspaper archives at Keighley Library.
Clife Castle Museum archives, Keighley.
Craven's Part in the Great War.
The National Library of Scotland - Trench Mapping.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The 1/6th Battalion Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment War diary: WO 95_2801_1 - Apr to Dec 1915.