WW1 centenary: Recounting the day a training exercise went tragically wrong

A group of soldiers from D Company, of the 4th Battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, by the pond in Morton.

A group of soldiers from D Company, of the 4th Battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, by the pond in Morton.

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In 1914 more than 4,000 Yorkshire soldiers were sent to Lincolnshire for training before heading off to the battlefields of northern France.

But seven of them never got the chance to fight for King and Country.

The young men from D Company of the 4th Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, drowned during a raft-building exercise just weeks before they were due to be deployed.

Wakefield-born Ernest Cockell and William Atherton, both 20, had built a raft with their company on February 19, using straw, ropes and planks of wood.

They launched the make-shift vessel on a pond in Morton, a village near Gainsborough where they were stationed.

But as 40 soldiers from the company piled onto the raft and paddled through the 32-foot-deep pond, it tipped over.

Historian Peter Bradshaw, from Friends of Gainsborough Cemeteries and Chapel, said: “Within seconds, dozens of men were in the cold, deep water, wearing their heavy uniforms and boots, struggling to survive.

“Initially five bodies were recovered but after a roll call it was found that there were still two missing. Later in the afternoon two more bodies were recovered.”

He said local legend had it that the pond was bottomless and questions were asked why it was used for the exercise, when there was a nearby shallow lake.

Mr Bradshaw’s history group has now commissioned a plaque in memory of the seven men, to mark 100 years since the tragedy.

It will be placed in Morton’s village church.

Mr Bradshaw said: “That morning there were many also acts of bravery by individual soldiers, who saved the lives of drowning colleagues.”

At least five men were rescued including 19-year-old Pivate Creighton, a miner from Batley, who was brought back to life after he stopped breathing.

Soldiers including Lance Corporal Arthur Chorley, from Leeds; Lance Corporal Chapelle, and Private Willie Barber saw the disaster unfold from the bank and jumped into the pond, saving the lives of several men.

Another rescuer was Lance Corporal George Sykes, whose brother was a Batley doctor.

In a letter after the tragedy, he wrote: “I got my pack and my coat off, dived into the water and tried to save the poor chaps.

“It was awful! We could not tell who was drowning or who was wanting help and we got two out just in time. We had a job to get them round but we succeeded after a time.”

Sergeant Charles Hemingway and Private Walter Gatenby also managed to save the lives of three soldiers.

The bodies of the seven Yorkshiremen were taken to the nearby Crooked Billet Pub.

An inquest was held the following and was attended by the drowned soldiers’ relatives. A jury returned a verdict of accidental death but they criticised Captain Harold Hirst, the inexperienced officer in charge.

The next day the bodies were taken back to their home towns to be buried, accompanied by wreaths paid for by Gainsborough residents.

Within days of the tragedy the Yorkshire company was moved to York, and replaced by soldiers from the West Yorkshire Regiment.

By April 1915 – just over a month later – the company was in the trenches, in northern France.

In June, it was reported that Captain Hirst had been shot and killed by a sniper. He is buried in Bois Grenier Cemetery, in France.

Private Barber was killed in action and Lance Corporal Chorley – who had been promoted to Captain – died from wounds. They were both buried in France. Sergeant Sykes also later died from wounds and was buried in Slaithwaite.