A Prisoner of War
Ralph Hutchinson, born in 1891 at Low Beckhead, Ettersgill, Forest in Teesdale, was the 9th of ten children born to John Hutchinson, a lead ore miner and farmer, and Margaret Nichol. Ralph attended Forest School and when he left he worked for John Kipling, a farmer of Stackholme in Lunedale. In March 1914, aged 23, Ralph married Jane Beadle, of Egg Pot, Forest in Teesdale. Ralph started to work on the family farm at Beckhead later that year. Ralph and Jane had two daughters; Lavinia Jane (known as Vinny) and Margaret Ellen (known as Nelly).
However, in 1916 the War Office became desperate for recruits and Ralph was called up for service. He enlisted on 29th November 1916 in Bishop Auckland, where it was stated on his army medical records that he was of good physical condition. He commenced his service in the army on 23rd January 1917. He was posted the following day to B. Battalion 88 (the training Reserve Battalion). On 11th July 1917 he was posted to the 3rd South Staffordshire Regiment.
Ralph was found guilty of overstaying his pass on 4th September 1917, by a number of days, and was fined four days pay. He was more than likely fully aware that he was about to be posted overseas and had found it difficult to leave his wife and young daughters. His eldest daughter’s only memory of her father was during this period of leave, of him gazing over the barn door as she played in the farmyard.
On 1st October 1917 Ralph departed from Wallsend, arriving in Boulogne, France on 6th December, where he was transferred to the 8th Leicestershire Battalion (known as the “The Fighting Tigers”). At this time the Germans had launched a counter attack on the front line at Ypres and the Battalions suffered heavy losses. The Germans had been pushed back but at a heavy price. Ralph and others were no doubt being transferred to the Leicestershire Battalions to replace these losses.
It is believed that one of the first tasks that Ralph and his fellow recruits had to undertake was to scour the battlefields for the fallen and remove their remains for burial. It is reported that senior officers would ply the men with alcohol to lessen the distress of such a horrific task.
In April 1918, the Leicestershire Regiment were 125 miles south of Ypres, in the Aisne Valley. As the likelihood of a German attack was deemed to be low at this time, the troops were rested. Neglected trenches were overgrown in the green hills where French farmers went about their work peaceably. Little attempt was made to clear the trenches and the troops relaxed for a week. The respite was, however, short-lived, as increased activity was reported behind the German lines and rumours of a planned attack on 27th May abounded.
With military precision, the Germans started to shell the area just before 1 am on 27th May 1918. The British were unprepared and were quickly overcome. Many of the men were injured, killed or taken prisoner, with reportedly only around a thousand men making a full retreat as dusk fell that day.
Ralph was posted as missing in France and Flanders on 27th May 1918.
No more was heard of Ralph until his death was notified to the War Office. It is believed that Ralph had been captured. He died in the care of French nuns in Montherme on 15th July 1918, from dysentery.
Ralph had been sent to Montherme where he worked in a stone quarry. Conditions were bleak, food consisted of bad black bread and soup made from dried mangel-wurzel; a beet vegetable normally grown for livestock. It is believed that the soup was the cause of the many cases of dysentery reported.
Ralph was buried in a civilian cemetery, but in 1934 the Commonwealth Graves Commission moved his body to the Noyers-Pont-Maugis French National Cemetery, near Sedan in the north east of France.
Ralph was awarded the British and Victory Medals. £22 11s 8d was returned to his wife Jane in February 1919, Ralph’s personal effects.
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