1914: The First Battle of Ypres – Zwarteleen, near Zillebeke
Not a victory… not even a rugby match, but this was an heroic defensive effort of exactly 100 years ago, writes Kevin Coughlan, in which a Bath rugby player, vice-chairman of the club no less, sacrificed his life as a Reservist.
Serjeant Alfred Ernest Cleall was known as ‘Alf’ to family, friends and all those who valued his leadership qualities as fleet-footed captain of Bath’s A team.
Also a keen cricketer and footballer, he was one of the best known and best loved men in Bath. Alf had been landlord, with his brother Wilfred, of the Rising Sun in Grove Street – popular with Bath Supporters’ Club to this day – and also of the Full Moon (now Sam Weller’s) in Upper Borough Walls.
He was a few weeks short of his 41st birthday when he was fatally wounded on 17th November 1914, fighting off a German attack with fellow Reservists of the North Somerset Yeomanry.
The NSY were one of the very first Territorial Force regiments to be sent to Flanders and Alf was a senior NCO, with valuable experience as a Dorsetshire Regiment infantryman in India and in the Boer War.
They held off the first attack on their front-line trenches at noon on 17 November, but with heavy losses, and it was early evening before they were relieved by the Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards. As well as Alf, the dead included the Officer Commanding B Sqn, Captain Frederick Liebhart, along with two more officers and 21 NCOs and other ranks.
Three were recorded as ‘missing’ and 39 wounded out of a total of 64 casualties from ‘200 rifles’.
Alf’s best friend and another Bathonian, Serjeant Charles Gibbs, wrote later: “When we saw the Germans coming up on our right, I had four bullets through my cap and the fifth grazed my head and Alf said, ‘Mind, Charlie, let us have a go at them on the right,’ and no sooner had he turned round than he went down like a log.
“A German on our front had shot him through the neck. He bled freely and I bandaged him up as best I could . . . I dragged him out on one side because he was getting trodden on and the shells were knocking down our trenches . . . When night came I went to find Alf and he was just in the same place as I left him. He asked for a drink of water.
“I tried to lift him up like I used to on the football field. But I soon found I was not so strong as I used to be and you couldn’t stand for mud. I had made up my mind to get a stretcher for him, but that was the last I saw of him.’
Alf’s burial place was obliterated in subsequent fighting so his name appears with 54,388 others on the ‘Memorial to the Missing’ at the Menin Gate in nearby Ypres. His bravery earned a posthumous Mention in Despatches, some comfort to his widow Winifred and young daughter, Evelyn.
At the end of the war, when the club’s management committee was re-formed, there was one empty chair. Wilfred Cleall was solemnly called forward to take his brother’s place.
The ‘North Somerset Yeomanry’ name lives on in the title of a modern Army Reserve unit, 93 (NSY) Support Squadron, 39 Signal Regiment, which is based in Bristol and Bath.
Kevin Coughlan is author of the two-volume history of the Bath club, Before The Lemons and After The Lemons. www.afterthelemons.co.uk