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  • Claire Jordan

Hold On At All Costs

When coal miner Edward Buzzard married his girl Mary Wilkinson in 1893, they moved to the little village which had sprung up around the Whitburn Colliery, on the North Sea coast above Sunderland. 


Edward would spend long, gruelling shifts as a hewer underground while Mary cared for their growing family; two boys amongst six sisters would eventually be born to them: Annie, Elsie, Minnie, Florence, Mary and Laura.


Tom Buzzard, the couple’s third baby, arrived on 30th Jul 1898.


By 1911, his big brother Arthur has joined their Dad down in the pit as a driver; though Tom is then only 12 and still at school, he too was destined for a life underground.


And when he tried on 19th August 1914 to enlist, claiming to be 18, Tom was actually only just past his sixteenth birthday.  


He’d made the trek 120 miles south to the Bradford recruiting office where he must have hoped no one would know him.


When his age was discovered a fortnight later, he was promptly discharged and sent home to his Mum.


But big brother Arthur left the colliery to enlist that autumn – himself aged only 20 – and Tom, after a childhood spent trying to keep up with him, would not be left behind.


So, just before Christmas 1914, he went to a different recruiting office, this time in South Shields, claiming he was now 18 and four months old and tried again. 


He was still only 16.


He is recorded on his first unsuccessful attestation papers as standing 5’5” tall, but four months later, he is measured at a whole half an inch taller.


This little growth spurt (or perhaps wearing four pairs of socks and his Dad’s boots) must have made the difference because this time, he was accepted. 


Things move quickly then; he’s kitted out, trained up and rushed onto a draft heading for France at the end of April 1915. 


Tom’s 2nd East Yorkshires are at Ypres the whole time he’s with them.


That April, at the end of which he joins his Battalion in a draft of 63 reinforcements, had been disastrous; there had been 11 Officers Killed with 17 wounded, and 143 Other Ranks killed with 480 wounded, plus 90 men missing. 


They’re at less than half-strength as a fighting unit when Tom comes to help plug the gaps, all 5’5½” of him.


Snippets from the war diary give us the bones of Tom’s weeks at the Front. 


On 4th May: Battalion shelled heavily from dawn to dusk.  Trenches in very bad condition, full of water.  Two feet wide.  No dugouts and no communicating trenches.


5th May: Battalion violently shelled from 5am to noon and 2 to 5pm.  Germans advanced up to 100 yards on right.  Rest of German attack approached from 3000 to 600 yards.  Part of their force was entrenched within 300 yards.


Casualties: 11 Officers wounded.  ORs 35 killed, 134 wounded, 6 missing.


The Battalion Historian describes this as “a day of torture” for the men.


6th May: Relieved by 3rd Monmouthshires and proceeded to GHQ line at Potizje.  Slight shelling of our trenches.  Heavy shelling of our guns 200 yards in rear.


7th May: Battalion held in continual state of readiness.  In the evening, the Battalion was sent up to dig support trenches behind the Frezenberg line.  Completed the work at 3am on 8th May.


Casualties: 4 ORs killed, 1 Officer and 8 ORs wounded.


The following day, they‘re ordered to go back to relieve the 3rd Monmouthshires.  At 1000 yards, they met with severe opposition and so were ordered to retire to the GHQ line and “hold on at all costs”. 


Another attempt at reaching the Monmouths was also held up; they were forced to dig in but compelled by 3pm to fall back again to the GHQ line.  They tried yet again at 4pm, yet again without success.


When Tom’s 2nd East Yorkshires were finally relieved from this sector on 10th May, the Battalion strength was now given as 5 Officers and 283 Other Ranks (out of a strength which should have been closer to 1000). 


16-year-old Tom Buzzard had survived all of this and was one of the last 283 still standing.


The 2nd East Yorkshires were then moved back a little from the Salient as drafts were scrambled in. 


By 17th May, they were back up to 14 Officers and 837 men, so now it was time to head back into the endless struggle to hold on to Ypres at all costs.


On 21st, they move to Vlamertinghe and from there, they go back into the front-line trenches south-west of Ypres, in front of Armagh Wood.


They are here on 23rd May 1915: CO visited trenches between 10am and 12 noon.  Sanitation requires attention.  Work proceeds during day on communication and repair of No.1 Trench.  CO visited trenches 10.30pm to 1am on 24th.  Work on trenches and protection for dugout.


Casualties: Killed 2.  Wounded 1


Tom is one of the two killed. He’d been in France for twenty-six days.


Back home in Whitburn village, it would be Tom’s Mum Mary who opened the door to the telegram boy, her daughters crowding around her with horror in their hearts. 


Dad Edward would not learn the news until he returned home from his shift underground; perhaps Mary and the girls went to the colliery gates to meet him as he emerged.  Perhaps the minute he saw them, he knew.


Meanwhile, their only other son, their first-born child Arthur, was still in training and not yet embarked for France. 


By the time he set foot on a cross-Channel troopship on 9th September, he was three months past his 21st birthday and we can only guess at his thoughts, or those of his parents and sisters 350 miles away.


With Arthur went all their hopes for his survival, along with his many colourful tattoos: on his left arm, a flag, Cupid and ‘Pitman’s Lass’, and on his right, a girl, a butterfly and a miner’s lamp and tools.


Arthur and his 8th Battalion of East Yorkshires were not bound for Ypres where Tom had fallen but instead for the big attack at Loos, slated for two weeks later, which was to unfold among the huge industrial slag heaps strewn like black Egyptian pyramids across the otherwise flat plain to the south-east of Armentieres.


It would be the first big offensive of the War made by the fresh volunteers of Kitchener’s New Armies, but the first day would be hampered by what would become the familiar story of uncut barbed wire, broken comms and unhindered enfilade machine gunfire. 


Despite the grievous casualties all this inflicted on the British troops who had, hardly a year earlier, been untrained clerks and farm boys, by the end of the first day, they had succeeded in breaking into enemy positions near the villages of Loos and Hulluch. 


Arthur’s 8th East Yorkshires managed to gain a foothold on one of the slag heaps and held onto it that night, in the teeth of constant shelling and sniping. 


But the late arrival of reinforcements meant they simply could not hold on.


Faced with snipers, shells and machine gunfire, a “slight retirement” towards the village was deemed necessary by the remaining men of Arthur’s Battalion the following day, 26th September, and somewhere in that chaotic retirement came the moment Arthur fell.


I do hope his little brother was right there to meet him.


Both Buzzard boys were lost in the endlessly churned battlefields where they died and so neither has a known grave; Tom is remembered on the Menin Gate in the town he died to protect, and Arthur’s name appears on the Loos Memorial near the slag heap at the foot of which he fell.


They had both held on at all costs. 


When you visit Ypres today, there are little roadside markers showing how far the Germans made it in. 


But Ypres never fell, thanks to Tom Buzzard and more than 150 000 men like him.


Lest we forget.


(This image is Will Longstaff’s beautiful 1927 painting ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ held by the Australian War Memorial.)

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