My uncle Harold Wootton was a private in the 2nd Battalion of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. He died in Flanders (Belgium) on the 21st October 1914 aged 21. He was the eldest son of Joseph Butlin Wootton and Catherine Elizabeth Wootton, of Little Street, Sulgrave.

Prior to 1914 he had been a member of the local yeomanry, the forerunners of the territorial army. In the wave of patriotism that followed the outbreak of war with Germany in August of that year these units waived their right to serve only for “homeland defence”  and within weeks he found himself with the British Expeditionary Force in France.

German intentions had been to invade Belgium and then cross into France, defeat the French army quickly and secure the route to Paris. This led to the so-called “race to the sea” which ended on the northern coasts of France and Belgium after each army attempted to outflank the other by moving north and west.  This area of Flanders, described by one historian as having the dreariest landscape in Western Europe, contained the last gap through which either side could launch a decisive thrust.

Harold and the 2nd Ox and Bucks arrived on the Western Front as part of the 5th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Division-- one of the first divisions of the British Expeditionary Force to arrive in France. The Battalion took part in the first British battle of the war, at Mons where the British defeated the German forces that they had encountered on 23rd August. The Battalion subsequently took part in the retreat that began the following day, then halting the German advance at the First Battle of the Marne (5th to 9th September). The 2nd Ox & Bucks later took part in all the subsidiary battles of the First Battle of Ypres (19th October to 22nd November) that saw the heart ripped out of the old regular army, with over 50,000 casualties.
Harold Wootton was killed at the height of this battle, attempting to stem the German advance at the tiny Belgian village of St Julian. This village, today known as St. Juliaan, can be found a little to the north-east of Ypres, on the N313. Here and at nearby Langemarck was where, in the words of  the military historian G.S. Hutchinson, "the tiny army of seven Divisions of 1914 stood it's ground before the pick of the world's greatest military force". It is said that the rate of fire and accuracy from their bolt action rifles convinced the Germans that they were equipped with machine guns.

On 11th November the Germans made another attempt to capture Ypres, sending -- on the orders of the German Kaiser-- the élite Prussian Guard against the British forces. The 2nd Battalion counter-attacked them at Nonne Bosschen wood, proceeding to prevent their advance and rout them. First Ypres was the last major battle of 1914. and foreshadowed how the fighting on the Western Front would play out as the war progressed.  Atrociously high casualty figures from each participating army combined with fighting and living in trenches would soon come to dominate the stalemate that was the Western Front until the cessation of hostilities in November 1918.

Largely as a result of superior German field artillery at the time, the bodies of Harold and many of his comrades were never identified and his name is commemorated on the famous Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial with 54,000 others with no known graves.

My father, Sidney Wootton, was the youngest of Harold’s six brothers, being only two years old in 1914. In 1996 when into his eighties, he expressed a wish to visit Belgium to see where his brother died and if possible, the cemetery in which his remains might lie.

Appropriately on November 11th of that year, under lowering rain-sodden clouds, we visited a number of small cemeteries in the still dreary landscape around St Julian. Only one of them contained a memorial stone to an unidentified member of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. As with hundreds of thousands of such headstones, the inscription simply read: “A Soldier of the Great War – Known unto God”. My father stood silently for a long time, leaning on his two sticks, oblivious to the occasional passing car. Eventually he straightened up and said: “Well, I never knew you, brother Harold, but I sense your presence hereabouts”. Nothing further was said. Some things need no discussion.

Colin Wootton

Last photograph of Harold Wootton before he left for France with the BEF

The road from St. Julien to Ypres during the War. Photo: NELS

This photo from Alan Jennings' website World War One Battlefields with his permission.