Thruppence Ha’penny a Letter

Three Hull Pals from the 10th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment (The Commercials) were killed 101 years ago today and are buried in the St. Vaast Military Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais.

I haven’t been able to pinpoint the action in which they lost their lives. The Battle of the Somme was ongoing and the 22nd September was the last day of the associated Battle of Flers-Courcelette – but that was about 80 kilometers away from St Vaast.

About three months earlier the Pals were a similar distance south west of Flers, heading for the trenches at Doullens. It is heartbreaking now to see the smiles on their faces. What were they thinking? Perhaps William Richard, Corporal Eric Claude DUNN and Private WOFFINDEN are among the cheerful captured by the camera.

Photographer: Lieutenant Ernest Brook, IWN Non-Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 743)

A rough count puts 28 soldiers in the picture. Whatever their labours on that day the cost to the British Empire in wages would have been 28 shillings (at 1914 rates and assuming all the men were “Infantry of the Line”). This princely sum, if their parents could find it, would pay for 96 letters to be carved on a son’s war grave headstone, should their boy make the ultimate sacrifice.

Private William Richard Skelton’s father, also William Richard, stumped up 16 bob, to have the following words inscribed:

Father in Thy Gracious


We Now Leave Our Loved One


The clerk was punctilious with the letter count and rounding down to the nearest penny.


(I have “Photoshopped” the document so that you can read the column heads. You can find an image of the original at young William’s CWGC page.)

At age 16 William Jnr was working as a Laundry Errand Boy but later took up his father’s “trade” as a Gardener. Then he volunteered to join the Hull Pals, went to war and didn’t come home.

His parents must have spent a deal more than 16 shillings to have their thoughts carved on the family headstone in St Oswald’s churchyard.

He sleeps not in our native land

But neath a foreign sky

Far from those who loved him dear

In a hero’s grave he lies

Fold him in thy arms O Lord

And ever let him be

A messenger of love between

Our aching hearts and Thee.


I think only a small percentage of bereft families could afford an inscription and of those that put their feelings in the public domain nearly all accepted their loss gracefully. On a First World War forum, one “Old Sweat” has offered an example that runs counter but goes to the heart of the matter.

I am here

As a result

Of uncivilized nations.


William Richard Skelton, father and son, are on FamilySearch Tree.

Update 23 September

Thanks to the loan of David Bilton’s book Hull Pals: 10th, 11th, 12th & 13th Battalions East Yorkshire Regiment I know what the jovial soldiers pictured above were thinking. In the immediate aftermath of the first day of the Battle of the Somme the 10th received orders to move and after leaving camp a CO asked the men to smile for a cameraman who was further along the road. When he was spotted the soldiers not only laughed but hurled remarks “that would have given the true Somme atmosphere”. Seventeen of the soldiers pictured have been identified but none are the three buried at St Vaast.

I mentioned the Battle of Flers-Courcelle, 15-22 September 1916, and an appendix in Hull Pals lists a fatality on the 16th, two on the 18th, one on the 19th and an additional two on the 22nd. Unfortunately, the casualty records for the period have been lost and there is a vague indication that the battalion was in a quiet area where the only action was occasional shelling and random raids on German trenches.

The two soldiers who were killed on the same day as William Richard Skelton were Privates Walter DENNISON and George Albert WARD. They rest in Merville Communal Cemetery about 15 kilometers away from St Vaast.