With the centenary of the Armistice almost upon us, this year’s Remembrance Day will be especially poignant. Anyone with strong family links to serving personnel, especially those who were killed in action, will be keen to participate in the many commemorative events that will be held.
I grew up believing that no-one from my family had served in either World War. As far as I was aware, my forebears were farmers and thus likely to have been deemed more important to the war effort to remain at home than shipped to some foreign shore to fight for King and country. I always observed Remembrance Day silences and the like from a sense of public duty rather than any personal connection. Being generally disinterested in the ghosts of generations past, I barely gave the matter much more thought.
Then, last year, I spent a little time helping out with a family genealogy project. I thought it was just a one-off, at first. I told myself it would be a laugh and I only did it because others were encouraging me. Do they sound like the reasons addicts give? They should do because suddenly, the whole thing seemed to become very addictive. I was spending more time discovering details about ancestors I didn’t know existed on ancestry.co.uk and when I wasn’t, I was thinking about the next time I’d be doing it.
Before long, I’d discovered all sorts of priceless things. One of the most surprising was that my paternal grandfather had had not just one but two older brothers who had died in their infancy – both called James – which explained a long-term curiosity of mine: why it was that the family tradition of including the name James had mysteriously seemed to skip his generation. Ernest, my grandad, died in 2005 and I’ll never know how much he knew of the existence of his two tragic lost siblings.
I also looked deeper into one branch of the family tree that I did know something about. My grandad’s mother was born Margaret Latham and an impressive sepia photograph of her wedding to my great-grandfather Ernie Bentham has hung on one wall or another for about as long as I can remember. Decades ago, in moments where my apathy towards our family history must have seemed less apparent, I dimly remember being told that it was quite the social event of the year in Standish and that the place where the guests were assembled was in fact the lawn at The Beeches – the Latham family home.
Filled with a new-found fascination for the past, I decided to focus on this pivotal moment in our family’s history and find out more about that day and all the characters it brought forth. First, the basic details. The year was 1907. Edward VII was on the throne, the Liberal Henry Campbell-Bannerman was Prime Minister and Britain was arguably at the peak of her imperial prowess. Rather ironically for a period often romanticised for having endless golden summers, the country had spent much of the year with below-average temperatures, with June being a particularly dismal month. The wedding took place on 3rd September and was conducted by the Reverend Charles Hutton, who would become one of the longest-serving rectors in the history of St. Wilfrid’s church.
Most people in Standish will have heard that The Beeches was the home of JB Almond, of the brewing family but it was actually built for Thomas Latham, a mining magnate from Orrell who had worked his way up from driving pit ponies to owning his own string of collieries from Ince to St. Helens. He’d moved his wife, eight sons and three daughters from Gidlow Lane in Wigan to The Beeches on its completion in around 1903. Margaret, his eldest daughter, had agreed to marry Ernie, the son of James Bentham, a cattle farmer who lived at another of Standish’s more desirable residences, Broomfield House on Bradley Lane. It looked every inch the perfect union of two upstanding families – with all the conspicuous trimmings of industrial and agricultural wealth.
On another wedding photo, among all the starched collars and overflowing bouquets, sat rather awkwardly on the ground in front of the newlyweds, is 14 year-old Harold Latham, Margaret’s youngest brother. Unlike many of his brothers, who joined their father in the mining industry, Harold was determined to enter the legal profession. He’d been educated at Wigan Grammar School and was later to attend the highly-rated Kilgramol School for Boys in St. Annes. Three and a half years after his sister’s wedding, during the 1911 census, he was recorded as being a Law student, boarding at the home of the Reverend Henry John Ferrall at The Parsonage, Heckingham in Norfolk.
1911 was a terrible year for the Latham family. Reportedly, a downturn in fortunes had forced Thomas to sell The Beeches to his friend, JB Almond some time after April – the 1911 census shows the Latham family were still living there on April 2nd. There’s no record of whether or not the stress of his financial situation affected his health but on November 26th, Thomas Latham died, aged 60. Just as the death of Edward VII the year before had done with the Royal family, the baton was passed to the next generation of the dynasty. After the comforts and certainties of the Edwardian age, they were all about to face a very different, very difficult decade.
By the summer of 1914, Harold was aged 21 and in the process of pursuing his vocation. Working under the Town Clerk of Wigan, he’d passed his intermediate exams and had only his final exams to pass in order to become a qualified solicitor. Upto this point, his life had been filled with privilege and opportunity – at a time when living conditions were decidedly less comfortable for the vast majority of those around him. He’d lost his father at 60, a brother aged 27 and at least two nephews in infancy so he was not untouched by tragedy – although life expectancy and child mortality in those days would have meant such experiences were far less remarkable then, than now. Barely eleven weeks after coming of age, he was tantalisingly close to joining his chosen profession and making his mark on the world.
Unfortunately, in a distant country, a man called Gavrilo Princip was also about to make his own fateful mark on the world – by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. With Europe controlled by four huge colonial superpowers, each protective of their interests and mostly ruled by related monarchs, jealous and distrustful of one other, the ensuing diplomatic crisis created a chain reaction of measures, pushing the whole continent ever closer to the brink of war. When German troops marched into Belgium, Britain was forced to honour her 1839 treaty with the Belgians and declared war on Germany at 11pm on 4th August 1914.
Initially, Harold and his brothers were under no obligation to sign up to fight. Patriotic fervour was such that almost half a million men enlisted within two months, added to whom were another quarter of a million underage boys, seeking either adventure or an escape from poverty, or both. Lord Kitchener, War Secretary (he of the iconic recruitment poster) felt it vital to treble Britain’s army, expecting a long conflict, and pushed to sustain recruitment at 92,000 a month. They were ambitious numbers and conscription was the obvious solution but the Liberal Government was uncomfortable with the idea and instead sanctioned a huge propaganda effort to compel more men to volunteer.
An unlikely ally in the recruitment drive was a section of the women’s Suffrage movement. It became not uncommon for patriotic women to approach men of military age in the street and present them with a white feather, a symbol of cowardice, as a means to shame them to enlist. There’s no evidence that any of the Latham brothers were approached in this way but knowledge of the practice was widespread and any man, particularly from affluent, influential families who had chosen not to volunteer did so in the knowledge that he was inviting public questioning of his honour.
Whatever their motivation, Harold and four of his six surviving brothers (Jack Latham had died in 1906) volunteered for service in early 1915. Frustratingly, there’s no mention of which of his brothers joined up with him. Logic would suggest it was the youngest four of the six: eldest brothers William (40) and Daniel (38) were possibly considered too old for service. Furthermore, both were active in coal-mining, which meant they could have been included among one and a half million men who were “starred” – designated as working in an essential occupation. If that supposition is correct, Harold would have enlisted along with Dick (24), Edward (25), Ernest (31) and Thomas Jr. (33). Harold’s record shows he joined the Royal Engineers, was given the Service Number 72750 and was posted to the 25th Division Signals Company.
In May 1915, Harold and his unit moved to Aldershot to begin final war training. They received their service rifles in August and early in September, the Division was inspected by King George V. On 25th September 1915, they were deployed to France but the first mention of their engagement in battle was eight months later, holding ground captured weeks earlier at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The Signals fulfilled a vital communications role between front line and command. Attached to the Royal Engineers, it’s almost certain that they would have been conveying messages to and from the specialist and newly-expanded tunnelling units as they fought to repel the German offensive Operation Schleswig-Holstein. A total of 2,475 British casualties were suffered over three days, including 637 from the 25th Division.
If that was a brutal introduction to the war, Harold’s next documented action, a few weeks later, was to become even more synonymous with carnage. The 25th Signals are recorded as being deployed at the Battle of Albert at the beginning of the Somme battles on 3rd July 1916, two days after its commencement on 1st July, still the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army with over 57,000 casualties. When Harold’s unit arrived, they were to spend the next two weeks in an environment in which a further 25,000 British casualties were suffered – and this was only the opening phase of one of the defining battles of the whole war.
The next three months were spent in a succession of battles around the Somme, supporting General Haig’s autumn offensive. His Company was involved at Bazentin Ridge, Pozieres Ridge, Mouquet Farm, Ancre Heights, Thiepval Ridge and the capture of the Regina Trench.
It’s unclear if Harold and his comrades were then allowed any R&R in the months that followed The Somme or if the onset of winter merely ensured hostilities slowed while both sides dug in. The Company’s record shows their next engagement was The Battle of Messines in Flanders in June 1917, a result of some gained ground over the winter and spring. The battle was significant as it represented a successful British intervention after the failure of the French-led spring offensive, which had resulted in demoralisation and desertion in the French ranks.
What followed was another posting at a battle whose very name was to symbolise the carnage of the war – Passchendaele. The 25th Signals’ record refers, more prosaically, to the Battle of Picklem Ridge, Ypres but the date – 31st July – leaves no doubt. Harold’s company saw action again at the capture of Westhoek in August but seemed to remain absent from the rest of the battle, which ran until October that year.
Again, there is no record of the Company being involved in combat over the winter months but in March 1918, Harold’s comrades were engaged in the Battle of St. Quentin, thus described by the Forces War Records website: “German artillery launched the largest artillery bombardment of the war, swiftly followed by rapidly advancing shock troops, against the British Fifth Army, Third Army and units of the First Army stationed in and around St. Quentin”. With the subsequent loss of ground to the German advance, fighting continued on to Baupame on 24th March.
Throughout April, the unit were engaged in various activities in the Battles of the Lys, towards the Belgian border. In May, the unit travelled further south to Huit Voisins, just outside Reims to assist French efforts to repel Operation Blucher in the Battle of the Aisne.
A further gap appears in the record of the 25th Signals throughout the summer of 1918, implying R&R (troops were supposed to spend equal amounts of time rotating between front line roles, in support roles, in reserve or resting) with their next active service on 4th October 1918 at the assault on the Hindenburg Line, as part of the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, alongside the Australian 2nd Division.
With the Armistice only 38 days away, Harold Latham had now been stationed in France for over three years. Records show his unit had been present at two of the most fearsome battles of the war – possibly of any war – and while the records only detail the Company’s movements, not that of each individual, it’s more than likely that Corporal H Latham was there to witness it all and survive. From today’s perspective, it’s easy to look at this date and presume that after enduring so much, with so little time left in the war, he must surely have made it back to Blighty, to Standish and to a rewarding legal career. Unfortunately, this was not to be.
On 6th October 1918, as the 25th Division were about to capture the town of Beaurevoir, Harold was severely wounded and taken to a casualty clearing station behind the front line, just one of 8,802 British casualties in the battle. Sadly, he succumbed to his injuries and died the next day, aged 25. Sunday 7th October this year was the centenary of his death.
Harold Latham’s untimely passing occurred barely a month before the end of the war in a battle that historians have suggested was so pivotal to the campaign, it began to convince the German high command that there was now little hope of overall victory. It seemed that, apart from the beginning of the Western Front conflict, Harold had been present at many of its most significant moments. Cruelly, he would be denied the chance to see it to its very end.
On November 2nd 1918, following the official process of notification and with a mere nine days of the war left, the Wigan Observer posted notice of Harold’s death. His mother, Catherine was by then 65 and living in Southport. The report also mentions that one of his four serving brothers had been discharged while the other three were still in France.
Cpl. Latham was buried in the Tincourt New British Cemetery at Tincourt-Boucly, approximately 40 miles east of Amiens, 40 miles south of Lens. He was one of 1,114,914 British soldiers to die in the “Great War” and one of seventy-eight from Standish. When the Peace Gate was completed in October 1926, his name was duly included in the list of the local fallen.
It’s also fitting to mention that during the First World War, Harold’s adolescent home, The Beeches, was commandeered and converted to a Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital, known as “Woodlands No.3”, administering aid and recuperation to returning injured personnel – including, perhaps, Harold’s discharged brother. Last year, at the start of our genealogy project, I was fortunate to visit The Beeches and meet the new owners as their renovations began. The plans for the restaurant look exciting and I’m looking forward to dining there when it opens.
As a footnote, I now wonder if any aspect of this new use for the old building could be named after or inspired by Corporal Harold Latham, reflecting its proud wartime connections. It would be a fitting tribute to a man whose life story deserves more recognition and a timely way to encourage the people of Standish to welcome the new venture.