Exhibition honours Drinkstone man killed in First World War

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A Drinkstone man, who was killed in action in France during the First World War, is being remembered in a special exhibition in his home village.

Private Harry Seeley was serving with the 2nd Battalion Suffolk Regiment when he was killed, age 39, by artillery fire on June 16, 1915, during an attack on German trenches near Ypres, in Belgium.

His body was not recovered and he has no known grave, but his name is inscribed on the Memorial of the Missing at the Menin Gate in Ypres.

An exhibition charting his life and military service has been compiled on behalf of the Drinkstone War Memorial Institute (Village Hall) by Robin Sharp, the vice chairman (pictured above), who has researched all 15 of the Drinkstone men listed on the memorial plaque in the parish church for this centenary year.

He said: “We are pleased to be able to remember and honour Harry Seeley and show that his life and sacrifice have not been forgotten by this generation of Drinkstonians.

“He is the second man to be commemorated in this way - the next will be Corporal James Gill, also of the Suffolk Regiment, who died in October 1915.”

“The stories of each man are not ‘complete’ and we would be delighted to receive any further information about Harry Seeley, or of the other 14 men, to help us to celebrate their lives.”

The exhibition will be on display at Drinkstone Village Hall until the end of July.

HARRY SEELEY’S STORY:

Harry Seeley was born at Norton, Suffolk, between April and June 1876, the eldest of eight children of Elijah and Fanny (née Crick) Seeley.

According to the 1891 census, Harry (aged 15) was already working on the land as an agricultural labourer.

Life as a farm labourer in the early 20th century was hard and many men sought to escape from the daily grind, food shortages, wage insecurity and other hardships by joining the forces.

Thus in mid-October 1903 Harry joined the Suffolk Regiment.

At this time soldiers usually served for seven years, with a further five years in the Reserve.

Back in ‘civvy street’ in 1912, Harry married Mary Ann Horrex and on February 28 the following year, a daughter Bessie was born to the couple.

When war was declared on August 4, 1914, Seeley received his summons to ‘return to the colours’ and report to the Suffolk Regiment depot in Bury St Edmunds. By August 15 he was landing with the 2nd Battalion at Le Havre, France, and hurrying off to confront the Germans outside Mons, in Belgium.

On August 26, the 2nd Suffolks reached the Cambrai-Le Cateau road and were told ‘You are going to fight it out here.’

In the subsequent battle of Le Cateau, a battle honour on the regimental colours, the 2nd Battalion carried out a rearguard defence, out-manned and out-gunned by superior numbers.

After more than eight hours of fighting, the Battalion was almost entirely decimated but would not surrender.

Its members were eventually overwhelmed and those that could escape did; most were killed or taken prisoner.

At roll call the following day, just 114 (out of almost 1,000 men) remained. Among survivors, we assume, was Harry Seeley.

The ‘Retreat from Mons’ and the fight-to-the-last-man defence at Le Cateau were, in fact, successes in tactical terms, slowing the enemy advance and buying time to save Paris from being overwhelmed by German forces.

A period of recovery and regrouping for the remnants of the 2nd Suffolks followed, before duties back in the trenches resumed over the winter and spring.

At 4.15am on Wednesday June 16, an attack by British forces was launched on Railway Wood and Y Wood to the east of Ypres.

The attack penetrated Y Wood without any casualties and, indeed, progressed through it.

The official Battalion War Diary takes up the story: “Consequently, our own artillery shelled our men heavily as it had been calculated that it would take some time to get through .... (at) about 10.00am portions of the KSLI [King’s Shropshire Light Infantry] and KRR’s [King’s Royal Rifle Corps] began to arrive .... They were supposed to do a fresh attack through our line. They none of them knew where they were and were scattered ... This was in no way their fault, as practically no guides had been provided ... consequently the Battalions did not get up to the firing line till about 2.00pm, with the help of all our orderlies, servants, etc to show them the way, and suffered immense and unnecessary casualties through exposing themselves to artillery in known bad spots.”

Sixteen men were wounded and five others killed, including Private Harry Seeley.

The fateful message reporting Harry Seeley’s death was delivered to his wife Mary Ann and young Bessie, back at Shop Corner in Drinkstone.

Harry Seeley is still remembered in Drinkstone a century after his death – the second man on its war memorial to have fallen in the First World War.