Rifleman Percy Speight, 17/2100, Royal Irish Rifles, 22nd Entrenching Battalion, late 11th/13th Battalion
Percy Speight was born in Ossett on the 15th March 1894 and baptised at Ossett Holy Trinity Church on the 17th June 1894. He was the youngest child of John Speight and his wife, Louisa (nee Pickersgill), of Wakefield Road, Ossett who were married at Dewsbury All Saints Church on the 18th January 1885. Louisa was the daughter of George Pickersgill, inn keeper of the Cross Keys Inn. The couple had five children, three sons and two daughters. Louisa was born in Dewsbury and the rest of the family were born in Ossett between 1886 and 1894.
In 1901, the Speight family were living at the Old Workhouse on Wakefield Road, Ossett. Percy was aged 7 and at school and his father, John, was a card fettler. John died in the early 1900s and in 1911 widow Louisa Speight was living with her five children at 39, Ryecroft Street, Ossett. All of the children were working in rag mills and Percy, now aged 17 was working as a rag warehouseman. Sometime later Louisa Speight moved to 14, Wycliffe Street, Ossett.
Percy Speight’s army service record has not survived, but it is known that he enlisted at Ossett, and joined the 11th/13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles and was attached to the 22nd Battalion as a rifleman. Percy’s service number was 17/2100 and he died on the 31st March 1918.
Rifleman Percy Speight was posthumously awarded the British and Victory medals, but not the 194/15 Star, indicating that he did not serve overseas before the 31st December 1915.
The 22nd Entrenching Battalion was formed in early February 1918 and the battalion was under direct command of the GOC 50th (Northumbrian) Division's infantry on the 28 March 1918. Officers and men arrived from the 11/13th Royal Irish Rifles, making an "extremely strong and well equipped unit", according to one of its officers. Another officer reports that the battalion never actually used the title 22nd Entrenching Battalion. The battalion was at first positioned at Essigny and Grugies, both in the area of the 36th (Ulster) Division south of Saint Quentin but moved to Douchy on the 11th February. There it worked on cable trenches. The battalion then moved on the 17th February to Misery, an aptly named village between Chaulnes and Peronne. Working parties were sent to Marchelepot, Brie and Villers-Carbonell, where the battalion was put to work under Canadian Railway Engineers. Unfortunately during this period the battalion had its Lewis guns taken away. It was involved in the fighting against the German spring offensive, being ordered early on the 24th March 1918 to move to Guillancourt and dig a defensive line from Rainecourt to Rosieres. The left hand company then took part in a counter attack at Framerville. The battalion C.O., Lieutenant Colonel Philip Blair-Oliphant died of wounds on the 8th April, a result of injuries he sustained in this action. In the withdrawal that followed, the battalion ended up near Hangard with its right flank next to a French unit.1
Rifleman Percy Speight was killed during the German Spring Offensive, Operation Michael, which started on the 21st March 1918. His battalion was in the general area of Guillancourt or Framerville, but were being pushed back rapidly in a fighting retreat westwards by the German offensive towards Hangard.
The "Ossett Observer" had this brief report in 1919:
"Ossett Casualties - An official intimation has been received during the week presuming the death, in action in France, of Rifleman Percy Speight (24), Irish Rifles, son of Mrs. John Speight, of 39, Ryecroft Street, Ossett. The soldier joined the army in February 1916, and went out to the front in the following June. He had been reported missing from his regiment since taking part in fighting in March last year, and from that time there had been no trace of him. In civilian life he was employed at a local rag warehouse and was a teacher at Holy Trinity Church Sunday School."
Rifleman Percy Speight, aged 24 years, Son of John and Louisa Speight, of 14, Wycliffe St., Ossett, died on the 31st March 1918. He is remembered on Panel 74 to 76 of the Pozieres Memorial,2 Somme, France.
The Pozieres Memorial relates to the period of crisis in March and April 1918 when the Allied Fifth Army was driven back by overwhelming numbers across the former Somme battlefields, and the months that followed before the Advance to Victory, which began on 8 August 1918.
The Memorial commemorates over 14,000 casualties of the United Kingdom and 300 of the South African Forces who have no known grave and who died on the Somme from 21 March to 7 August 1918. The Corps and Regiments most largely represented are The Rifle Brigade with over 600 names, The Durham Light Infantry with approximately 600 names, the Machine Gun Corps with over 500, The Manchester Regiment with approximately 500 and The Royal Horse and Royal Field Artillery with over 400 names.
The memorial encloses Pozieres British Cemetery, Plot II of which contains original burials of 1916, 1917 and 1918, carried out by fighting units and field ambulances. The remaining plots were made after the Armistice when graves were brought in from the battlefields immediately surrounding the cemetery, the majority of them of soldiers who died in the Autumn of 1916 during the latter stages of the Battle of the Somme, but a few represent the fighting in August 1918.
There are now 2,758 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated in this cemetery. 1,380 of the burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to 23 casualties known or believed to be buried among them. There is also one German soldier buried here.
Thanks to Anne-Marie Fawcett for the additional information.