Robert Metcalf was one the first local men to respond to the famous “Your Country Needs You” call by Lord Kitchener for volunteers to join the fight against Germany. He took part in several battles from 1916 to 1918 and is probably the most highly decorated soldier listed on the Oulton and Woodlesford war memorial.
The Metcalfs had a long connection with the area which can be traced back as far as the beginning of the 18th century. Several generations worked as watermen and lock keepers on the Aire and Calder Navigation and a number of tragedies hit the family over the years.
Robert’s father, Joseph Henry Metcalf, was born at Oulton in 1846 and in 1871 he married Robert’s mother, Fanny Welburn, a farmer’s daughter from Carlton. Robert was the youngest of eight children, born at Goole in 1894. They may have had a house there or they might have lived on Joseph’s flyboat, a steam powered keel which he worked between Leeds and the Humber carrying raw materials to the city and finished goods for export.
After a tough life on the Navigation in March 1901 Joseph Henry became the keeper of Woodlesford Lock and moved his family into the lock keeper’s house. It must have been something of a bittersweet homecoming for him as both his father, also called Robert, and his mother had accidentally drowned there 27 years earlier. Their bodies had been found on a foggy morning in November 1874 and at the inquest, held in sight of the lock at the Boot and Shoe Inn, it was decided that Robert had missed his footing and fallen in whilst he was preparing the lock for the passage of vessels during the night. It was thought his wife Sarah heard him shout and she too had fallen in and drowned as she went to help.
Young Robert and his brothers and sisters must have grown up with that story and strong warnings not to get too close to the canal but tragedy was to strike again in 1904. This time, when he was 10 years old, he witnessed his mother fall in and drown in the same lock.
Fanny, who was 50, was crossing the lock one evening to close the towpath gates on the far side. Apparently she lost her balance and Robert heard the splash. He called for his father who was in the house and when he came out he found his wife floating on her back on the far side of the lock. He pulled her out but she was already dead. uring the same foggy week a farm labourer, a gardener and a workman all fell into the canal and drowned near Woodlesford.
As if that wasn’t enough young Robert would have heard of his father’s great uncle, William Metcalf, who was murdered at Oulton Lodge in 1879 and that his killer was hanged at York Castle. He would also have known about his great uncle, Edward Metcalf, who was born with a severe disability and unable to walk.
Robert was 20 when he signed up at Rothwell in October 1914 to join the Miners’ Battalion, formally the 12th (Service) Battalion (Miners) (Pioneers) King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He was given the army number 12/44 suggesting he was near the top of the queue of volunteers.
Previously he’d been a labourer at Armitage’s brickworks but at the start of the war he was working as a miner at Fanny Pit. It’s possible that Robert and his mates were recruited in an office in the pit yard. One author has suggested that whole shifts of men marched together to enlist in Leeds. They were shepherded by sergeants of the regular army who coaxed others out of pubs to join them.
The battalion had been formed by the West Riding Coal Owners’ Association in response to Kitchener’s appeal for half a million men to join his “New Armies.” The owners planned to recruit 1,200 “healthy” men between the ages of 19 and 35 and pay to clothe and equip them. More than a few were over 50 and lied about their age in order to enlist. Wives of married men were to be given an allowance of 10 shillings a week with 2s 6d for each child.
Between 400 and 500 of the volunteers came from the South Kirby, Featherstone and Hemsworth Collieries run by Lieutenant Colonel John Reginald Shaw. He had fought in the Boer War and since 1907 had commanded the Special Reserve Battalion of the K.O.Y.L.I. He was also the Mayor of Pontefract and had originally suggested the formation of the new unit but he declined to take command citing pressure of work from his military duties as colonel of another battalion.
An early issue was the height of the men who tended to be small from crouching underground in thin seams of coal. Special permission was obtained from the War Office to reduce the height requirement from 5 feet 6 inches to 5 feet 3 inches.
The first destination for Robert Metcalf and the other new soldiers was a camp at Farnley Park two miles north of Otley where they received their initial training. Instead of tents they were housed in wooden huts built on concrete foundations. Each had a coal fired stove and they were lit by electricity which many of the men would not have had in their own homes. The coal owners also paid for mattresses, blankets and pillows. Their chairman Charles Brooke Crawshaw of the Crawshaw and Warburton pits at Dewsbury said: “Everything will be done to keep the men in good health, well trained, and fit as early as possible for the front.”
In the early stages of the war there was a shortage of khaki coloured cloth so Robert and the others were initially issued with uniforms made from blue cloth manufactured in Leeds. Later they were given khaki uniforms and Otley photographer Harold Stephenson must have made a small fortune by taking and selling individual and group photographs of the men for them to send home to their families.
The training involved musketry practice, bayonet fighting and route marches, although at the start there was a shortage of guns and ammunition. Charles Ernest Charlesworth, of the family which owned the Rothwell collieries, held the shooting rights on Hawksworth Moor on the other side of Otley and he gave permission for the men to use a shooting range there.
Despite the efforts made to provide good living quarters there was heavy rain for several weeks during November and early December. It turned the camp ground into a sea of mud, an early indication of the grim conditions they would later have to fight in on the Western Front.
Field drains had to be built along with a new road and a 600 yard long narrow gauge light railway to bring in supplies. Whether they knew it or not the men were acquiring skills they would later put to use in France as their main task was to be as “pioneers” supporting the fighting troops.
A reporter from the Yorkshire Evening Post who visited Farnley Park in mid-December 1914 remarked that the huts were “models of cleanliness and comfort.” Frequent concerts were arranged by the men themselves and there was a reading-room and library of “well thumbed” books.
The training continued through the winter into the early months of 1915. A day of light relief came on Saturday 24 April when Robert and his colleagues boarded a special train from Otley to Leeds. There “the sturdy bronzed faced men of the Miners’ Battalion” took part in a parade to encourage new recruits. Led by Harry Lauder’s famous Scottish Pipers’ Band they marched through the city centre to Lawnswood where they were given a meal before marching back to Otley.
A few weeks later the battalion moved to another camp at Burton Leonard near Ripon where they built five rifle ranges. More amusement came with the sight of a travelling circus elephant making off with food from the mess. It was chased by an irate cook who hit it with a frying pan.
The miners were now officially the pioneer battalion of the 31st Division. It was made up of three brigades each of four battalions, all from the north of England. They were exclusively made up of “pals” or friends who had joined up together. The Leeds Pals included many members from the Rothwell district.
From further afield came four battalions from Hull – the Commercials, Tradesmen, Sportsmen and T’Others; the 1st and 2nd Bradford Pals; the Durham Pals; the 1st and 2nd Barnsley Pals; Sheffield City Pals; and from Lancashire the Accrington Pals. The miners were to become known as “T’owd Twelfth.”
In October 1915, a year after joining, Robert Metcalf and the 12th K.O.Y.L.I. moved to Fovant near Salisbury in Hampshire for their final training and firing practices. They were expecting to be sent directly to France but in December, at the last minute, orders were given to send them to Egypt to defend a section of the Suez Canal against a perceived threat from the Turks. That didn’t materialise and within a couple of months they sailed to Marseille and went by train to northern France to prepare to take part in the planned summer offensive on the Somme. It started on 1 July 1916 and is remembered for being one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The Miners’ Battalion were on the extreme left of the attack facing the Germans and it’s believed Robert Metcalf was in No 3 Platoon of A company which was attached to the 94th Brigade.
Five tunnels known as saps had been dug under No Man’s Land towards the German lines and the plan was for these to be collapsed by explosives. The infantry were then to charge down the saps and attack and break through the German defences with the pioneers following behind to shore up the saps and clear out the German communication trenches.
Each infantry man carried 220 rounds of ammunition. The pioneers had 170 rounds plus a pick or a shovel. As well as working on shoring up the trenches they had to fetch and carry barbed wire, wooden stakes, water and food for the infantrymen. They also had to keep them supplied with ammunition, grenades and mortar bombs. In the midst of the fighting they brought out the dead and wounded often burying corpses under the trench floors.
The objective that day was to take the heavily fortified village of Serre but from the outset it all went wrong. The Germans had been able to shelter from British artillery bombardment and were well prepared for the attack.
At 7.30 a.m., as whistles blew and the British infantry went over the top and surged forward in waves, they were cut down by machine gun fire. The Germans also had heavy guns which fired shells behind the British lines and into No Man’s Land raining shrapnel down on the lines of infantry and the pioneers as they came forward.
In his history of the war Colonel Reginald Copleston Bond wrote: “The waves of the attack melted under the hail of metal. They advanced at the only pace they were permitted – the quick time, never the double. Those “who followed” had to rebuild trenches that were crumbling under heavy gunfire, forward supplies of ammunition, dig new trenches, and help in the later hours to save some of the wounded.”
The official history said: “There was no wavering or attempting to come back. The men fell in their ranks, mostly before the first hundred yards of No Man’s Land had been crossed. The magnificent gallantry, discipline and determination displayed by all ranks of this North Country division were of no avail against the concentrated fire-effect of the enemy’s unshaken infantry and artillery.”
At the end of the day Robert’s A Company alone had lost 90 men killed or wounded. Across the whole battlefield 20,000 British troops had been killed.
With nothing more for them to do at the front Robert Metcalf and the surviving miners were pulled back and a week later were billeted at Mollinghem. Directed by the Royal Engineers they spent the next four months in a variety of tasks which included unloading coal barges, digging drainage systems, making tramways, tunneling, building strong posts and forest control.
They next saw action at the front in the Battle of the Ancre which started on 13 November 1916, the final British push that year before the winter weather paused the fighting.
It was here that Robert Metcalf won his first medal. After being promoted from private to lance corporal he was one of 356 men and 12 officers from the 12th Battalion who attacked with the 92nd Brigade. The brigade’s role was to draw the fire of the Germans to assist in the advance of other units. They were successful in reaching their objectives but had to withdraw during the night because of incoming fire from the front and on both flanks.
Along with 69 other volunteers led by two officers Robert stayed behind in No Man’s Land to help rescue the wounded of the brigade and during the night he too was wounded.
In his history R.C. Bond wrote: “In acknowledgment of the services of this party the following message was received: “The Brigadier General has asked me to write and thank you for the great help your men rendered to the brigade last night in bringing in wounded. From several sources he has heard of their good work, and how extraordinarily hard they worked. He hopes that his thanks will be conveyed to the officers and men who volunteered last night.”
Lance Corporal Robert Metcalf and five others were awarded the Military Medal. The officers received the Military Cross. His commendation reads: “He showed great courage and coolness under fire and gave valuable assistance. He has always shown great devotion to duty and was particularly conspicuous in the attack on July 1st.”
Robert was promoted to corporal and in the New Year’s Honours for 1917 he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The citation reads: “For conspicuous gallantry in action. Although wounded he remained at his post and dressed the wounds of several men under heavy fire. On another occasion he showed great courage and initiative in manning his trench after the explosion of an enemy mine.”
His sergeant, Harry Brittlebank, another miner from Astley near Swillington, wrote a letter to the editor of the Rothwell Courier and Times. It was published on 10 February 1917: “Sir, I desire to bring to your notice and the readers of your paper and the people of Woodlesford the honours which have fallen to the lot of one of the Woodlesford men, namely, Corporal Metcalf, who has won the Military Medal and has just been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery in the field. I am his platoon sergeant and can personally say he thoroughly deserves the two great honours that have fallen to him, and the N.C.O.s and men of his Company feel right proud of him. He enlisted in the first rush of the war, and has served in the Miners’ Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry ever since with distinction and ability, both in Egypt and France, and, knowing him to be a very quiet, unassuming fellow, I think his people and fellow townsmen should know about his honour. I think they have every reason to be proud of him. Yours, etc., Sergeant Brittlebank.”
Harry Brittlebank himself was later awarded the Belgian Croix-de-Guerre. He survived the war and returned to live in Normanton.
In early 1917 the miners were based at Bray-sur-Somme, again working on the roads and laying narrow gauge railways which brought in new and heavier guns and more ammunition.
Meanwhile the Germans had made a strategic retreat behind the fortified Hindenburg Line. As they left they destroyed villages and roads and left booby traps in a desolate landscape which any attacking allied troops would have to cross.
Robert and his battalion next saw action in the front line on 3 May 1917 when they took part in an attack in the Third Battle of the Scarpe near the town of Arras. Again they were building trenches and supporting the infantry but the attack was called off after heavy losses were incurred and the miners returned to their railway work.
Exactly a year after the disaster on the Somme the miners moved to Belgium where they were billeted near Poperinghe. There, along with Canadian engineers, they supported the attack on the Paschendaele Ridge north of Ypres by laying railway track which could be quickly moved as the front line advanced.
Despite it being summer there was heavy rain and the ground turned to a sea of mud slowing the advance. They were often under heavy shelling and attacked by German bombers. Casualties were continuous and it was calculated that the average life of a soldier in their sector was just three days. After four months living in bivouacs and temporary huts they were withdrawn and returned to France.
By early 1918 they were based at Ecurie five miles to the north of Arras supporting the brigades of the 31st Division responsible for a section of the front containing Vimy Ridge. As they prepared for a German offensive they were hard at work building dug-outs, camps and hutting as well as tramways and barbed wire defences. As R. C. Bond put it: “Besides this routine existence there was the probability that in the near future the battalion would be called upon to cast away the pick and grip the rifle if the enemy achieved success in his offensive. In order to be prepared, all who could be spared, officers and others, were sent to attend schools and courses, for Lewis gun and bomb, gas and pioneer training.”
It was during this period that Robert Metcalf was promoted to Acting Sergeant and proudly sent home to his father a photograph bearing the words: “With love from your loving son. Bob xxx.”
The expected German offensive started on 21 March 1918 with a massive artillery bombardment. In just five hours they fired a million shells at a section of the front. Elite storm troopers broke through and by the end of the day 21,000 British soldiers had been taken prisoner.
Led by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Bertram Charlesworth the 12th Battalion were transported from their camp by bus and on 23 March went into action supporting other units by digging trenches under heavy fire. That continued for five days until they were detailed as a counter-attack battalion. Luckily the Germans didn’t break through in their sector. Relief came on 31 March when they were replaced and able to withdraw.
The miners had a brief break away from the front for the first ten days of April 1918 when they refreshed their infantry and musketry skills because it was expected that they would soon have to abandon their their picks and shovels and act as a defensive force. Then on 10 April they were ordered into the front line near the village of La Couronne and it was in the fierce fighting of the next three days that Robert Metcalf probably received the wounds that were to lead to his death.
It’s not clear precisely where and when Robert was hit but what is known is that on the afternoon of the 12th his battalion, made up of 19 officers and 510 men, was under heavy machine gun fire and shelling as it sought to hold the line next to a battalion of the Grenadier Guards.
They spent the night dug in and on the morning of the 13th, again under heavy machine gun fire, they successfully beat off four attacks. The Germans however, under the cover of heavy mortar fire, were able to work their way forwards in a trench they had built the previous day and force the miners back. In the afternoon they again came under heavy machine gun fire and the Germans were able to break their line. At one point part of the battalion was partially surrounded but later they rallied and were able to fall back to a position near a farm. More pressure forced them back again to a line held by an Australian division. Finally on 14 April they were withdrawn.
R. C. Bond wrote: “The battalion had the satisfaction of knowing that at a critical moment, when called upon to take its share in the stern fighting in the front line, it had shown that its brief training was not wasted, and it acquitted itself with honour. The battalion fairly earned the title of “Yorkshire Guards,” with which it was dubbed that day.”
In the ranks 15 men had been killed in action and Robert Metcalf was amongst the 154 who were wounded. 94 of his fellows were missing, presumed taken prisoner.
Robert died four days later on 17 April 1918. It must have been hard news for his 71 year old father to take having first lost both his parents, then his wife and now his youngest son. Within a couple of months he closed the lock gates at Woodlesford for the last time and moved to be with his oldest son and his family at Norden near Rochdale.
The wider community learned of Robert Metcalf’s death from the Woodlesford parish magazine and the Rothwell paper. It was notified along with that of 40 year old John Borman. He was a kiln fireman from Armitage’s brick works who was in the 9th Batallion K.O.Y.L.I. and had only been in France a short time: “Robert Metcalf, who had been in the lines nearly all the time, has died from wounds in a base hospital in France. He had greatly distinguished himself and won the M.M. and other distinction, and been promoted to the rank of sergeant.”
Written a century ago the paper’s concluding words should mean as much to us now as they did then: “They, along with all others who have died in defence of our country, win our lasting gratitude, and their relatives and friends have our sincerest sympathy.”