Hunt for relatives of Hackney Gunners who fought at Somme 95 years ago

This year marks the 95th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, and historians are trying to find out more about 198 men who were recruited in Hackney to join the war effort.

The men joined up at Hackney Baths in October 1915 and were to play a part in the Battle of the Somme which claimed the lives of 400,000 British soldiers, including 19,000 on the first day alone. Another 40,000 were injured.

In Hackney, recruits responded to their Mayor’s appeal to join the war and became the Hackney Royal Garrison Artillery 152nd Heavy Battery.

The soldiers trained at Larkhill in Hampshire and made the crossing to France in May 1916.

It was the first time most of them had ever left the country.

One of the men who joined up was London typesetter Michael Holden, whose grandson Brian Eves has spent eight years researching the story of the Hackney Gunners.

They were sent behind the British front line at the small village of Mailly-Maillet, where they dug their four 60-pounder guns into deep gun pits.

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On June 24, they opened fire on the German lines, hoping to cut the barbed wire that would slow the progress of the charging British Tommies.

The battle started at 7.30am on July 1 when they targeted the German gun batteries.

The Battle of the Somme continued until November 1916 and the final death toll on both sides reached 980,000.

Of the Hackney Gunners, 23 were killed in action and were buried in France.

Most of them were in their early 20s and include Gunner James Knight, from Hackney, who was killed in action on September 17, 1918, and Bethnal Green-born Sgt Francis Wilkinson, who later lived in Hackney.

Sgt Wilkinson died of his wounds, aged 22 or 23, in 1918, and was also buried in France.

Mr Eves has made the pilgrimage to visit Gunner Knight’s grave in France together with those of the other men who died in action during the conflict and he has meticulously collected photographs of each soldier’s resting place and discovered their military and medal records.

He hopes that other relatives will be able to help provide photos and piece together other parts of the story and has shared his grandfather’s story which he has pieced together from the records.

City typesetter Michael Holden enlisted at Hackney Baths just a month after his 25th birthday.

He worked in Holborn and responded to the Mayor of Hackney’s call for arms along with men from all over London and joined the queue to sign up at the baths in Lower Clapton Road.

The people of Hackney had raised funds to send the soldiers overseas.

Gunner Holden was wounded in France but returned for a second tour. The six men in front of him in the queue to enlist were killed but he survived the war and returned to the print works, never talking about his experiences to his two children.

But some 90 years after the Somme, his grandson Brian Eves decided to uncover his story and that of his pals.

Mr Eves, who is a retired fire protection officer, said: “I remember him from when I was about four, lying on a couch at his home in Tottenham. He died quite young and had chest problems like many of the men who served in the war.”

Armed with just a photograph with a service number, he has uncovered the medical, medal and burial records of many of the Hackney Gunners and is keen to share them with their descendants.

He is currently studying a map of the trenches and the position of the Hackney Gunners during the Battle of the Somme.

He said: “The Hackney Gunners were firing shells three miles away. I would like to find out who was under them when the barrage was going on – the men who had to go over the top or ‘hop the bags’ as they called it.”