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Regimental History - First World War

1st/5th Battalion and the Didcot Connection

North Berkshire Herald – Sunday 22nd May, 1915
Didcot Man Writes Home From Front

To: Mr J Morse, Glenthorne, Didcot
From: Lance corporal Ernest Harlowe, 5th King’s Own Lancaster Regiment.

The great battle of Ypres is now over, and the German push checked, I trust for good.  The city is in flames and at night presents a scene of unparalleled splendour.  The spires of the churches, especially showing up prominently, and rather singular.  These seem to stand days after all the surrounding buildings have been burnt out and fallen.

Doubtless you will have read in the papers all about the terrific bombardment we were subjected to all last week so I need not repeat it here!  Therefore I will confine myself to our own share in the awful struggle, we first noticed the great concentration of Germany artillery on the 4th May, after the previous nights retirement and on the 5th it was more violent than ever, all sorts of shells beings hurled at us.  I say at us because our battalion was in the centre of the fire line and the enemy where advancing in that direction.  Our boys were occupying the fire trench and here we have suffered terribly.  Whole trenches being occupied by perhaps only one or two individuals, the rest being killed or wounded.  Shrapnel is our greatest enemy.  The Germans belching this at us for all they are worth, but I thank God we held out although if they had the pluck of a mouse and advanced towards our trench I question if one of us would have escaped either being killed or captured.  However, we were relieved on Wednesday evening by our second battalion but were called back out again on Friday and Saturday when the bombardment was worse than ever.  It commenced at daybreak and finished in dark for fourteen hours we were dodging shells fired at a rate of 60 to 80 a minute.  It was awful that at times we could not hear one another speak and even then they could not shift us from our position.  All battalions have suffered severely but even then the enemy would not advance but sheltered behind their trenches like rats in a hole.  They are a cowardly lot and sniped at us with their rifles.

Our losses last week were very severe, many of the 200 being killed or wounded.  Both the Cathcarts that were billeted with Mrs Workman are among the fallen and Mr Peel also got wounded with shrapnel – but whether seriously I cannot say.  I do know however, that as a battalion we have now practically ceased to exist.

What I have seen this last month will never efface from my memory.  Poor wounded fellows making their way to the dressing station in droves – some with arms blown off, hands off and other injuries.  Dead lying by the road side, horses lying in heaps in all stages of decomposition.  These are some of the horrors of war let alone the fact that shells are bursting all about us as we enter or leave the trenches.

However, thank God I have escaped so far although I had a narrow shave on Sunday.  A shell bursting about two yards away from myself and fifteen others, and on Monday a bullet pierced my entrenching tool about 1 ˝ inch from my thigh.

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Lance corporal Ernest Harlowe, number 2198, was killed in action on 27th May 1915.  He was the husband of Fanny Panter (formerly Harlowe) of 8 Havelock Street, Bowerham, Lancaster.  He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial.

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Number 2091 Private James Cathcart and number 2093 Private George Cathcart are mentioned in the letter, both went across to France on the 14th February 1915 with the rest of the 1st/5th Battalion.  James was killed in action on 4th May 1915, and George died of wounds on 27th April 1915.

Extract from Berks and Oxon Advertiser, June 1915.

It is with great regret that we report the death of Lance corporal Earnest Harlowe of the 5th King’s Own Lancaster Regiment.  He lost his life with four other comrades.  Whilst stationed at Didcot he made many friends and assisted with the PSA work.

Extract from Berks and Oxon Advertiser, July 1915.

A memorial service for the men of the King’s Own Lancaster Regiment was held at Didcot All Saints Church.  Many local dignitaries attended.

From H Beck (Motor Ambulance Driver)

I am writing a few lines as I thought you might like to know how things are going on out here.  Well you would be glad to know I have had the luck to meet up with the King’s Own Lancaster over here last Monday, but I am sorry to say there was a good many faces we used to know when they were at Didcot missing.  I am sorry for them as they have been terribly cut up but they are very cheerful and asked me to remember them to all their friends in Didcot where they spent their happiest days since the outbreak of the war.

I had intended to write to you before but had the misfortune to run into a cloud of German gas about ten days ago and it was not at all pleasant.  I can tell you it is real agony as you have to fight for breath, but I am almost recovered and I am very thankful indeed.

I am driving a ambulance car and when we were going to fetch the wounded at night that I got gassed.  I often wish I was back home especially on Sundays when I think of people at the PSA and wish I could go there myself.  We are working very hard now there seems no time for anything and the night work is terrible – no lights anywhere – not even a cigarette.  It is so bad for one to see the wounded.  They must suffer terribly some are quite beyond recognition.  We are having nice weather now it is very hot.  We have a lot of Indian troops around here and they are very decent fellows.  Some of them speak a little English but they hate the name of German if you speak to them about Germans.  All they will answer is “German no good”.

I was very sorry when I was told that Lance Corporal Harlowe was killed.  He was so highly respected.  I shall be very pleased to hear from you at any time as news from home is more precious than gold out here.  The roads are very bad indeed.  Of course they have so much traffic on them day and night.  Some of them are quite unusable.  I wish I could tell you just where I am.  It is the hottest quarter of the war and we are billeted just behind the firing line.  It is like a constant roar of thunder here when the artillery opens fire and it seems to shake everything.  By the way, we saw one of those Zeppelins that raided London, flying within a few miles from us.  We all thought they were going to pay England a visit.  I haven’t time for more now as we shall be going to the dugouts.  Best wishes to you all, trusting the PSA is going as strongly as ever and wishing it every success.

Yours truly,

Harry Beck

© 2012 Trustees of the King's Own Royal Regiment Museum