WW1: Northwood mother lost five sons in war as tragedy struck for Taylors

SACRIFICE: Gallipoli in Turkey.

WIDOW Elizabeth Taylor felt the cold feeling of dread wash over her as she heard her letterbox clatter and spotted the dreaded brown envelope lying on her doormat.

Mrs Taylor had already received five letters from the War Office telling her that four of six sons called to fight in the Great War had been killed, and another wounded.

By October, 1918, Mrs Taylor had just one son fighting in France, her youngest child eligible for service in the Army, 18-year-old Bertie.

As the war dragged, four letters had dropped on her mat in Hanley, as first Jesse, then George, Arthur and Thomas had all been killed.

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Mrs Taylor hoped against hope that the war would end before any more of her children were called to the front. But with trembling hands she ripped open the brown envelope to reveal the standard letter sent out to relatives of the fallen. It stated: “Madam, it is my painful duty to inform you, that a report has been received this day by the War Office notifying of the death of (No) 57730 (Rank) Private (Name) Bertie Taylor (Regiment) Lancashire Fusiliers, which occurred on October 18, 1918 and I am to express to you the sympathy and regret of the Army Council.”

Mrs Taylor – who had lost her husband Jesse in 1911, aged 50 – was so devastated she could not even bring herself to register Bertie’s death. Of eight sons she had just three left – and one of those, William, was crippled by injuries he had received fighting in Mesopotamia.

Her remaining two sons, Ernest and James were just children and thankfully, too young for military service.

The shocking and tragic story of the Taylor family has been uncovered by historians Chris Sheldon and Geoff Mayer, who are currently researching a book about it. Mr Sheldon, aged 66, of Leek, said: “It’s an awful tragedy. She lost five sons and had another one wounded, then lost another son after the war.

“The War Office letters were sealed in a brown envelope. “When the relatives saw a brown envelope, a feeling of dread would creep up on them. But they didn’t know whether their relative had been killed or wounded.”

“After losing four sons, Mrs Taylor must have been desperately hoping that the war would be over before Bertie was old enough to be called up. But this was not unique. Across Britain, there were about 10 families who lost five sons.”

Mr Mayer, aged 49, of Wolstanton said: “The story was located while I was researching my book telling the story of the Wolstanton war memorial. I spent many hours going cross eyed scanning the Weekly Sentinel and the story came to light.

“I believe there must be living relatives of the Taylor brothers. We don’t know where they are residing, but I would like them to come forward so we can fit the final pieces of the jigsaw together.”

Jesse Taylor, an earthenware dipper working in the pottery industry, and Elizabeth Mountford had married in 1888 and the couple made their home at 19 Bucknall Old Road, Northwood. A year later, they had their first child, Jesse, named after his father. Elizabeth gave birth to seven more sons over the next 16-years – William in 1890, Thomas in 1892, Arthur in 1896, George in 1898, Bertie in 1900, Ernest in 1903 and James in 1905.

The Taylor brothers lived out their lives in the cramped conditions in their terraced home, typical of many working class families of the age. As they left school, they found work in the ‘pits and pots’ industries.

In 1910, the family came together to celebrate the wedding of eldest son Jesse, to Jenny Turner.

However, the following year the family were hit by the first of many tragedies.

Head-of-the-household Jesse died at the age of 50, leaving his 49-year-old widow to care for the family, with five of the eight sons under the age of 14.

In 1912 Jesse and Jenny Turner celebrated the birth of their first child, Emma.

But that same year, the family said their farewells to Thomas and Arthur, who left their jobs in the ceramic industry and at Northwood Colliery to join the Army. That year was marked by the first national coal strike, which may well have had some influence on their decision to enlist in the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).

In Spring, 1914, William, the second eldest boy, left the family home to marry his sweetheart, Mary Ellen McGovern.

But like many young couples, their plans for the future were about to be disrupted by events far beyond their control.

When Britain declared war on Germany, on August 4, 1914, Arthur Taylor of the 1st Cameronians was among the first troops sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force.

He was one of the men who took part in the famous retreat at Mons, when although the British were overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the Germans, their rate of fire, fine-tuned by hours of practice, was so great and caused so many casualties, that the enemy were convinced they were facing machine guns.

Arthur survived Mons, and then the First Battle of Ypres. Meanwhile, his older brother Thomas, serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Cameronians, had to wait until November before he arrived in France.

Back at home, two other brothers were among the first of the new recruits to volunteer for service, joining the 7th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment, which was formed at Lichfield by Major Cecil Wedgwood. Jesse, aged 25, left his family behind to fight for his country.

George was just 16 years old, but lied about his age to join his older sibling in the Army.

Not long afterwards, in November, 1914, brother William, aged 24, joined them in 7th North Staffords, leaving behind his new bride.

All three brothers were sent for intensive military training, which meant they didn’t see action until 1915.

Arthur and Thomas had been involved in intensive fighting throughout France in the early stages of the war, but in spring, 1915, Thomas was hit.

During the offensive at the French village of Neuve Chapelle, he was wounded but taken behind the lines from the battlefield for treatment.

His mother, Elizabeth, looking out for her three remaining children back at home, received her first letter from the War Office. The news was bad, but not tragic. Thomas was wounded, but not dead.

He would have been returned home for treatment and a tearful reunion with his worried mother.

Meanwhile, three of her other children were about to enter battle for the first time.

Jesse, William and George were all with the 7th North Staffords who were sent to a corner of the world they had never heard of growing up in Hanley – the Dardanelles. They would take part in Winston Churchill’s plan to knock Turkey out of the war, the Gallipoli campaign.

It was a disaster which would end in an inglorious retreat, completed in January 1916, nine months after the troops initially landed in April, 1915.

The three Taylor brothers landed in July, 1915.

Conditions in the trenches were horrendous. Many bodies of killed soldiers were left where they fell.

Flies, the summer heat and the scarcity of water all took their toll on the troops and disease was rife.

Of the 200,000 casualties during the campaign, three quarters of them died of disease. Against this background, Jesse fell ill. He was diagnosed with typhoid fever and was evacuated to a hospital ship.

The ship set sail for England, but Jesse didn’t survive the journey. He died on November 8, 1915, and was buried at sea. He is commemorated on the Helles Memorial to the Missing at Gallipoli.

Back home in Hanley, a postman pulled a brown envelope from his sack and delivered it to number 54 Cromer Street, Hanley. Jesse’s wife, Jenny, was now a widow, while his young daughter Emma would grow up without her father.

Not far away, the cries of anguish and despair would soon be ringing around the Taylor household, once the news inevitable arrived.

William and George Taylor, still grieving for their older brother, were among the last troops to leave Gallipoli.

On January 7, 1916 the 7th North Staffords were in the frontline as they were pounded by a ferocious artillery assault. In the face of this battering by the Turks, William fell. He received gunshot and shrapnel wounds to his left eye and left thigh.

He was evacuated to hospital in Alexandria, Egypt.

His injuries were later reported on in the Weekly Sentinel, after news reached home. For George, the one brother left in action on the Dardenelles, his last sight of Gallipoli was of the abandoned Allied stores burning on the beach, as he boarded a troop transport ship headed away from the peninsular. Back on the Western Front, Arthur was recovering in hospital after being slightly wounded in December, 1915. By then Thomas, who had been wounded at Neuve Chapelle, had returned to action.

But it was George, the one brother to escape Gallipoli unscathed, who was next to fall. He was sent to Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq – with the 7th North Staffords. On April 4, George fixed his bayonet to his Lee Enfield rifle and climbed over the top of the trench to attack Turkish positions at the city of Kut. The attack was a success, but George was hit, one of 200 men and 10 officers killed, wounded or missing.

George was treated for his wounds, but died the next day and was hastily buried in the desert. He is commemorated on the Basra Memorial to the Missing. Another brown envelope was sent to Hanley.

In 1916, more than 20 million people back home in Britain watched a propaganda film showing the exploits of the troops during the Battle of the Somme.

If Elizabeth Taylor saw the movie reel, she would have watched in the knowledge that two of her sons, Arthur and Thomas, were taking part in the fighting. By then Arthur had been promoted to sergeant, but his luck was about to run out. On October 15, 1916, the 1st Cameronians moved from Hebuterne to Bayencourt in the Somme region, a few miles from the frontline.

During the march, two soldiers were killed and three were wounded. One of those injured soldiers was Arthur.

Despite the best efforts of medical staff at the casualty clearing station at Warlincourt, he died two days later on October 17. He was buried at Warlincourt Halte British Cemetery.

Mrs Taylor had now lost three sons in less than a year.

For almost two years Mrs Taylor kept up an almost daily vigil, waiting for letters and cards from her one remaining son, Thomas, who was on the frontline. Thomas gave her constant source for anguish, as he was wounded four times during his service, each time returning to the frontline.

At the same time Mrs Taylor was desperately hoping that the war would be over before her eldest son Bertie – still at home – was old enough to be called up for service.

But the day finally came in 1918, when Bertie turned 18, that he too was called up.

He joined the 10th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

He was joining the Allied Army at an incredibly dangerous time. The Germans launched their infamous Spring Offensive which saw thousands killed as elite stormtroopers launched wave after wave of attacks against the British trenches.

It wasn’t long before another brown envelope was travelling through the post to Hanley.

On April 15, 1918, Thomas was killed on the last day of fighting during the Battle of Hazebrouck, an important supply centre near Lys.

Thomas was a veteran who had been in the Army since the start of the war.

He had survived numerous engagements, gone over the top of the trenches many times to attack enemy lines and been wounded on four occasions. None of his experience could save him at the end.

Now there was just one Taylor brother left alive at the front, the inexperienced Bertie. There was less than a month of fighting left before the Armistice was signed, bringing an end to the war, when Bertie was killed.

On October 12, 1918, Bertie had been with the battalion clearing the village of Neuvilly, near Le Cateau.

The party came under machine gun fire and were then pinned down by a sniper.

Another man of the regiment, Private Frank Lester, sacrificed himself, dashing out into the street and shooting the sniper at point blank range, falling mortally wounded at the same instant. It is not impossible that Private Lester’s sacrifice – for which he won a Victoria Cross – saved the life of young Bertie.

But just six days later, Bertie too fell. Perhaps to a sniper’s bullet during street fighting, attempting to clear another village near Le Cateau.

The final brown envelope was dispatched.

On November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed, bringing about the end of the war. Throughout the Potteries there was jubilation.

It is unlikely they were celebrating in the Taylor household.

All that was left was a quiet relief, that the two youngest sons, Ernest, aged 15 in 1918, and 13-year-old James would not have to fight.

Yet even after the end of the war – when troops began to return from the Western Front and shed their khaki uniforms for more familiar civilian garb – there was still one more tragedy awaiting the Taylor family.

James Taylor, the youngest of the family, died at the age of 18 in 1923.

Of eight children, only two survived to live out their lives in post-war Britain.

Any surviving relatives of the Taylors can contact Mr Sheldon or Mr Mayer at [email protected] or [email protected]