Friday, 5 August 2016

The Lads in their Hundreds

Steve Shannon writes about composer George Butterworth, who died on this day 100 years ago.
Lieutenant George Butterworth, 13th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (D/DLI 7/75/26)
D/DLI 7/75/26 Lieutenant George Butterworth, 13th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry
Born in London in 1885, George Sainton Kaye Butterworth grew up in York, where his father was the General Manager of North Eastern Railways. After attending Eton, he went to Trinity College, Oxford but he preferred composing music to his studies and was elected president of the University Music Club. He also joined the Folk Song Society and later helped found the Folk Dance Society, becoming a close friend of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

In 1910, after working briefly as a music teacher, he became a student at the Royal College of Music and for the next few years composed his still memorable pieces - ‘A Shropshire Lad’, ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ and ‘Bredon Hill’.

When the First World War began in August 1914, George Butterworth immediately volunteered and was sent to join The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. Sadly before he left home, he destroyed many pieces of his music that he did not think were good enough.

In September 1914, Private Butterworth was offered a commission and soon joined the 13th Battalion Durham Light Infantry at Bullswater Camp as a Second Lieutenant. He noted in a letter home that 90% of his Platoon were miners from County Durham, “our men are wonderfully good, physically strong, mentally alert and tremendously keen.”

After months of training, the 13th Battalion DLI was sent to France in August 1915, with George Butterworth now promoted to a Lieutenant in A Company.

In early July 1916, the battalion moved to the Somme and on 12 July, his 31st birthday, George wrote to his father, “We have been up to the front line for a few days…the ordinary placid routine of trench warfare exists no longer…shells fly about day and night. Add to that wet weather and mud that requires all one’s energy to wade through”.

During this early Somme fighting, Lieutenant Butterworth was awarded the Military Cross when his Company Commander was wounded by shell fire: “For conspicuous gallantry in action. He commanded his company after his Captain had been wounded with great ability and coolness. By his energy and utter disregard of danger he set a fine example in organising the defences of the front line. His name has previously been brought to notice for good and gallant work.” [London Gazette 25 August 1916]

At the end of July, A Company moved to Munster Alley, a ruined trench that ran east from the newly-taken British front line to the German held trenches, and began to dig a new trench. By 3:30am on 28 July, Lieutenant Butterworth reported that 200 yards had been dug at the cost of ten men wounded. This new work was quickly named “Butterworth Trench”.

Back in the ruined town of Albert, he wrote to his father, “In the trenches again...No trouble at present except intermittent shrapnel. This morning a small fragment hit me in the back and made a slight scratch, which I had dressed.”

D/DLI 7/560/7 Map from 11 July 1916 showing Munster Alley on the outskirts of Pozieres, annotated by Second Lieutenant Frederick Rees
On 2 August 1916, the battalion returned to the front line around Munster Alley, with A Company once again in Butterworth Trench for an attack on 4 August. The attack began in the evening and went on throughout the night, and, despite bombs, machine guns and British artillery shells falling short, some progress was made. However casualties were heavy with the battalion losing over 120 men killed or wounded. One of the dead was George Butterworth, killed early in the morning by a sniper’s bullet.

Brigadier General Page Croft of the 68th Brigade later wrote to Butterworth’s father, “I could ill afford to lose so fine a soldier”.

You can read more about George Butterworth in ‘Banks of Green Willow: The Life and Times of George Butterworth’, a biography of George Butterworth by Anthony Murphy, Durham County Record Office reference: E95. You can listen to ‘The Lads In Their Hundreds’ on the Durham at War website: 

Find out more about Butterworth's music and see a film of him demonstrating folk dances at:

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have produced a short film about Butterworth:

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