Private Sam Stephenson, 7446, Duke of Wellington's (West Riding Regiment), 2nd Battalion
Sam Stephenson was born in Ossett on the 22nd May 1883, the youngest son of James Stephenson and Hannah (nee Wordle), who married in 1862 in the Huddersfield Registration District. The Stephensons lived in the Honley, Huddersfield area before moving to Ossett shortly after 1881.
Sam was baptised at Christ Church, South Ossett on the 7th December 1883. In 1891, James Stephenson and Hannah with five of their nine children, aged between 7 and 28 years, were living on South Parade, Ossett Common. At that time, no occupation is recorded for James, and it assumed that he was out of work. By 1901, Sam is now 17 years of age and working as a hurrier in the local pit, but his father is unable to work. Only one of Sam’s siblings remains at their South Parade home.
On the 6th October 1906, 23 year-old South Ossett miner, Sam Stephenson married 23 year-old Lily Walker of Chickenley Heath at the Gawthorpe and Chickenley Heath Parish Church. Sam’s father is recorded as a mason. In 1911, Sam's father, James Stephenson is recorded as a 72 year-old patient in the Dewsbury Union Workhouse. He was to die later in 1911.
In 1911, Sam and Lily Stephenson have two children: Hannah born in the Dewsbury Registration District on the 5th February 1908 and Norman born at Gosforth on the 29th September 1909. By 1909, Sam and his the family have moved to Gosforth, Northumberland where Sam was working as a miner. They had a third child, Ellen, also born at Gosforth on the 15th May 1913.
On 29 April 1903 Sam had enlisted in the Army for twelve years with the first three years in the Army Service and the remaining nine years in the First Class of the Army Reserve. He was as a miner, 19 years and 11 months old, 5’ 4” tall, 131 lbs with a fresh complexion, hazel eyes and brown hair. His religion was recorded as Primitive Methodist and he was duly appointed to the West Riding Regiment with the service number 7446.
After a period 'at home' and in training Private Sam Stephenson was posted to India on the 28th August 1904. Just over a year later in early November 1905, he contracted agua (cholera), a water borne disease and was hospitalised for six days. He returned home on the 27th November 1905, but spent 25 days in Lichfield Hospital in February 1906 being treated for the same disease.
Private Stephenson then served the remainder of his first three years army service on the British mainland. He transferred to the Army Reserve until the 5th August 1914, when he was mobilised and on the 10th August 1914, he embarked for France with the 2nd Battalion, West Riding Regiment.
At the start of WW1 on the 4th August 1914, the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Wellington's (West Riding Regiment) was stationed at Dublin as part of the 13th Brigade of the 5th Division. On the 16th August 1914, the battalion was mobilised for war sailing direct from Dublin and landing at Le Havre. They were soon joined there by their reservists and by the 18th August 1914 the battalion was fully operational.
The Battle of Mons, which began on the 23rd August 1914, was the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the First World War. It was a subsidiary action of the Battle of the Frontiers, in which the Allies clashed with Germany on the French borders. At Mons, the British Army attempted to hold the line of the Mons–Condé Canal against the advancing German 1st Army. Although the British fought well and inflicted disproportionate casualties on the numerically superior Germans, they were eventually forced to retreat due both to the greater strength of the Germans and the sudden retreat of the French Fifth Army, which exposed the British right flank. Though initially planned as a simple tactical withdrawal and executed in good order, the British retreat from Mons lasted for two weeks and took the BEF to the outskirts of Paris before it counter-attacked in concert with the French, at the Battle of the Marne.
The unexpected order to retreat from prepared defensive lines in the face of the enemy, meant that II Corps was required to fight a number of sharp rear-guard actions against the Germans. For the first stage of the withdrawal, Smith-Dorrien detailed the 5th Brigade of the 2nd Division, which had not been involved in heavy fighting on the 23rd August, to act as rear-guard.
On the 23rd August 1914, at Wasmes, elements of the 5th Division faced a big attack when German artillery began bombarding the village at daybreak, and at 10:00 a.m. infantry of the German III Corps attacked. Advancing in columns, the Germans were immediately met with massed rifle and machine-gun fire and were "mown down like grass." For a further two hours, soldiers of the 1st West Kents, 2nd Battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington's Regiment, and 1st Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, held off German attacks on the village despite many casualties and then retreated in good order to St. Vaast.1
One of the officers, Lieutenant O'Kelly D.S.O., who was with the 2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington's Regiment, wrote this account of the fighting at Mons on Sunday August 23rd 1914:
"At that time I commanded a platoon, 54 men strong. I was told that there was a canal in front of me and that I was to line the bank between two certain points. Soon after I got into position I found myself enfiladed by rifle fire coming from our right. Assuming I had been given a wrong front I doubled the platoon out across the open and faced them the other way. In doing this manoeuvre I lost a few men. When I and my platoon were lying out in the open, a very heavy rifle fire opened on us, also shells whistled over our heads, but so far no damage had been done. I saw a sort of natural bank some distance in front of us and moved on, getting the men lined up in it.
About an hour later (3 o'clock, afternoon) we saw the enemy in a great mass several hundreds strong, while we were about 50 only. We opened rapid fire and did terrible damage, the enemy's front ranks falling fast, but always filling up. Each man must have fired some hundreds of rounds that evening. I had sent several messages back to say unless help came very soon we would be wiped out, as, of course, had we retreated into the open we would have been shot down at once. The enemy advanced very slowly, but towards 5 o'clock were within 300 yards of us, at which time I got a message from Major Townsend, our company commander, telling me that there was no possible hope of escape, and that we must sell ourselves as dearly as possible as he was also preparing to do. We fixed bayonets and waited patiently, the men behaved admirably. I told them that our retreat had been cut off and that we could not expect to rejoin our regiment any more. This was the one and only time during that war that I prayed for a bullet, and hoped that it would soon come. Of course, had the Germans known our numbers they would have come on at once.
About 5:30 a lot of bugles sounded 'cease fire'. I concluded that this could not possibly apply to me, so every time the enemy jumped up to advance we continued the fire. This I afterwards learned was treachery on the part of the Germans. They never got closer than 200 yards, as suddenly they started to retreat. They either suspected a trap, cavalry charge, or something else, but imagine our delight when we found they retreated, and we still kept up our fire until we could not see in the dark. Later that night Townsend sent for me and told me to retire. I had 3 men killed and about 12 wounded. We joined the Battalion and found the total losses were very few, Capt. R. C. Carter being the only officer wounded.”
The "Ossett Observer" 2 carried this obituary for Private Sam Stephenson:
"Ossett Soldier Killed at Mons - The death from wounds received in the Battle of Mons, of Private Sam Stephenson, a native of Ossett has been reported to his relatives by the War Office. The deceased soldier who was 31 years of age, was born at Ossett Common. He joined the army at the end of the Boer War, and was eventually drafted out to Dum-Dum in India, where he had an attack of fever. When the present war broke out he was living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, having removed from Ossett about six years ago. Called up as a reservist, he went to the front with the 2nd Battalion, (Duke of Wellington's), West Riding Regiment. His death took place at Wasmes on August 24th. He leaves a widow and three children."
Above: Hand-to-hand fighting at Elouges on day two of the Battle of Mons, 24th August 1914
After Private Stephenson's death in August 1914, his widow Lily was granted an army widow’s pension of 5/- a week and each of his three children received 1/- a week with effect from the 1st October 1914. It appears likely that these amounts were subsequently combined and increased to 20/6d a week. Lily Stephenson was to remarry in late 1915, when she married James H. Ashurst at Castle Ward, Gosforth. They lived at Chapel Street, Coxlodge near Gosforth and had two children: Enid in 1920 and John in 1925.
Sam Stephenson was awarded the 1914 Star and Clasp, which was reserved for those soldiers who served in France and Belgium between the 5th August 1914 and midnight on the 22nd/23rd November 1914. The former date is the day after Britain's declaration of war and the closing date marks the end of the First Battle of Ypres. He was also awarded the 5th August - 22nd November 1914 Clasp, known as the "Clasp and Roses" and awarded only to those who had operated within range of enemy mobile artillery during this period. When the ribbon bar was worn alone, recipients of the clasp to the medal wore a small silver rosette on the ribbon bar. Sam was also awarded the British and Victory medals.
Private Sam Stephenson died from wounds on the 24th August 1914, aged 31 years, at the Battle of Mons, one of the earliest casualties from Ossett during the Great war. He is buried at grave reference II. E. 10. at the Hautrage Military Cemetery, 3 Hainaut, Belgium. The cemetery is located 15 Kms west of Mons on the N547, a road leading from the N50 Route de Wallonie connecting Mons to Tournai. 15 Kms along the N50 immediately before the village of Hautrage lies the left hand turning onto the N547 Grande Route de Mons.
The village of Hautrage was in German hands during almost the whole of the First World War. The military cemetery was begun by the Germans in August and September 1914, and in the summer of 1918 they brought into it a large number of British graves of 1914, mostly of the 2nd Cavalry and 5th Infantry Divisions, from the surrounding battlefields and local cemeteries. After the Armistice 24 British graves were brought in from Couvin, Marche, Mariembourg and Thuin German Cemeteries and from Collarmont German Cemetery, Carnieres. 85 German graves were brought in from the country South-West of Mons.
There are now 235 Commonwealth burials and commemorations of the First World War in the cemetery. 60 of the burials are unidentified and there are special memorials to five soldiers known or believed to be buried among them. Other special memorials commemorate casualties buried in Marche German Cemetery (Belgian Luxembourg), whose graves could not be found on concentration. The cemetery also contains 537 German war graves.
2. "Ossett Observer", 12th September 1914