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Illingworth House: 23 - Injury and Death

Abe Illingworth and Henry Johnson are both wounded in action on the Somme, and Abe's brother-in-law Sam Braithwaite loses his life in battle.

John Waddington-Feather continues his story of the turbulent lives of a Yorkshire mill-owning family.

Abe Illingworth and Henry Johnson were both wounded the same day in the Battle of the Somme, in July, 1916. For weeks the battalion had dug new trenches and laid railway tracks carrying supplies to the front line, but when the battle began in earnest they had experienced nothing like it before.

They were deafened by the constant barrage of shells, and the ground shook and heaved. As the bombardment ended, on the first day of the battle, Abe stood in his trench with Johnson alongside him, waiting for the order to go over the top. A mammoth mine went up near the German trenches and marked the signal for them to advance. The company fixed bayonets and went over.

All hell was let loose as they walked towards the German trenches. Machine guns rattled all around them, while artillery shells screamed over their heads. Thunderstorms the previous week had saturated the ground, and the going was tough. Their footing was bad and Abe could hardly believe his eyes as they climbed out of their trench.

What had been woodland the day before was nothing but blasted stumps. The land they had to cross was a lifeless morass. The artillery barrage didn't produce the desired effect and the Germans were ready for them. Well dug-in they picked off British troops by the score as they struggled across the waterlogged No-man's Land.

Despite heavy casualties Abe's unit had made it to the German line when he was hit and dropped in the mud. Only when they had taken the German trench and were awaiting a counter attack, did Henry Johnson realise Abe Illingworth was missing.

They were 800 yards from the enemy's new position and constantly under fire from their guns. Smoke from the shelling made it difficult to see, but as he frantically searched the land they had just come across looking for his boss, Johnson saw Abe Illingworth lying among a heap of dead and wounded some fifty yards back.

It would have been suicidal to go out in daylight, but when darkness fell, he left his trench with some of his comrades to bring back the wounded and retrieve the bodies of the dead. Crouching, he hurried as fast as he could and found Abe still alive but badly hurt. "O.K., sir," he grunted, lifting the inert body across his shoulders, "I'll soon have you back" and staggered back to the trench.

He had almost reached it when a flare went up from the German line, followed by a long burst of machine gun fire. It caught Johnson, who fell wounded but somehow managed to drag Illingworth the last few yards to the parapet of the trench, where they were both pulled to safety. When the medics had dressed their wounds, they were immediately stretchered back along the maze of trenches to a clearing station.

They had both been so badly wounded that it was the end of the war for them. For weeks they hung between life and death, but they survived. Not so Illingworth's brother-in-law, Sam Braithwaite, who was severely wounded, and died a few days later.

Major Illingworth and Sergeant Johnson were given a hero's welcome when they recovered and arrived on leave in Keighworth. Johnson was transferred to the hospital at Moorton while Illingworth came up regularly on leave from his hospital in London. For their gallantry on the Somme, Illingworth was awarded a bar to his Military Cross and Henry Johnson won the D.C.M.

Rachel visited him a couple of times in London when he was well enough. They discussed a legal separation, which he was glad to give, and not long after she returned to Keighworth with her sister-in-law Victoria to attend Sam Braithwaite's memorial service. It was held in the great Methodist church that Sam's grandfather had patronised along with other Keighworth mill-masters and upper-crustians, who came to pay their last respects.

Dressed in deep mourning Victoria came in sobbing uncontrollably on the arm of Sir Luke, who looked very frail. By then the reality of war was sinking in and the memorial service was a sombre affair. Rachel was dressed for the occasion, too, and for the last time walked dutifully beside her husband who was still on crutches. He escorted his wife to the family pew then sat beside her throughout the service staring grimly ahead, never giving her as much as a glance.

Mary Calow sat in the pew behind looking after John and Rosemary. Rosemary had hardly known her father, but she was to know his successor somewhat better in the years ahead.

At the service a costly memorial tablet was dedicated to Sam Braithwaite's memory. His name was also carved on Keighworth's War Cenotaph after the war. Years later it was damaged when the cenotaph was vandalised. His memorial, too, was removed when the church became a mosque at the end of the century. The stained glass windows went, but were given by the Muslim community to the local museum. Where the tablet went no one knew - or cared. No one remembered Sam a generation on.

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