Harry John Hotten

Rifleman Harry John Hotten, of the London Regiment 1st/5th (City of London) Battalion, (London Rifle Brigade), Regimental Number 971, was killed in action, aged 22, on 26th April 1915, and is commemorated on the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium.

Early Life

Photograph with kind permission of the Hotten Family

Harry was born on 22nd April 1893, to George Thomas and Sarah Roper (née Thomson ) Hotten in West Ham, London. He was baptized on 25th June1893. When Harry was born the family was living at 73, West Road, West Ham.  By the census of 1911 the family had moved to 5, Cheshunt Road, Forest Gate. George was employed as a bricklayer by the Deptford Electric Light Company in Stepney.1 Harry had attended Elmhurst Road School, West Ham before progressing onto Water Lane Higher Elementary School in West Ham. At 17, he was described as a pupil teacher with the West Ham School Board at Bridge Road Boys’ School, where he eventually became an assistant teacher. His brother Fredrick (sic) (15) was a grocer’s assistant at Sainsbury’s, James (10) was at school along with William (7). There were also two younger children, not yet at school, Cyril (5) and Barbara (3). Harry is the eldest living child, however in the 1911 census returns a mother was required to give information on how many children she had given birth to and how many were still alive. In the case of Sarah, she had borne 11 children although only 6 were still alive. Harry may have had one or more older siblings but no census record has been found of the family in 1891 or 1901 which may have yielded additional information.

West Ham 2 is about 5 miles east of the City of London. It became a municipal borough in 1886. Until the 19th Century West Ham remained largely rural. In 1801 the population was around 6,485 but by 1841 it had risen to 12,738. There was a period of exceptional growth between 1871 and 1901 and by 1911 West Ham had 289,030 inhabitants and was the seventh largest county borough. Between the years 1871 and 1901 over 30,000 new houses were built. There would have been plenty of work available for Harry’s father as a bricklayer.

Westminster in 1910

From West Ham to Winchester

After a period of time as a pupil teacher in West Ham, Harry left London for Winchester, where he would study to become a certificated teacher. In preparation for acceptance on a teacher training course, Harry took various courses and examinations. These included courses in organic, inorganic and practical chemistry, and drawing courses in water colours and the principles of architecture. He took Cambridge Local Exams in heat, statics, hydrostatics and dynamics and drawing exams in freehand, model and perspective. His College record shows that he did physical training at the Training Centre which pupil teachers had to attend. By the time that Harry was applying to College there were several Admission Entrance Examinations deemed to be acceptable. One of these was the Cambridge Senior  which Harry took in December 1910, achieving a second class pass. He arrived in the early autumn of 1911 and finished his training in the summer of 1913. We get some information on the students from the college magazine of the time, The Wintonian.  Harry does not feature in any of the articles about sporting or musical prowess, but he frequently had poems published. His style could be described as ‘romantic’.

Harry was one of a group of alumni of the College, who had attended from 1911-13, and were resident in and around London, who met up in March 1914. He was joined by Burt, Dobson, Eason, Moore, Wootton and Wilson. Each one of those young men lost his life in the conflict that would soon begin.

To My Lady

Arise with me, and on the wings of pleasure

Fly to the land of Love divine:

Youth’s winged steeds wait for thy sign,

But Time stands idly by in silent leisure.

See Cupid, how he separates his treasure,

Couples the frail, the bright, the good,

Protects the weak as all men should,

And dances to the Muse’s gentle measure.

Oh! Could we leave this world of ours for ever!

And in that land of Love, we two

Could wander hand in hand be parted never!

Then should my life my days, for you

Be spent, and nothing should us dare to sever,

And to my love I should be true.

Harry did well at College, achieving a first class pass in both his first and second years. In the first set of examinations the students took at Christmas 1911, Harry was placed 2nd in the order of merit for his year group, with an average mark of 73%. The following Christmas Harry had made it to the top of the order of merit list with an average mark of 74.4%.  In his final year he was awarded Grade A in Teaching, Music, Drawing and Science, and Grade B in Reading and Physical Training. In the Board of Education final exam Harry achieved a distinction in Music, English and Mathematics, as well as a Class 1 pass in the Archbishops’ Exam. Harry was also awarded the English Essay Prize.

Photo (below): Prefects – Photograph from the Wintonian Magazine 1910-1914

From Winchester to War

After leaving College, Harry began his first appointment, as a qualified teacher, 3 at Gainsborough Road Church School, in West Ham. Many students returned to the school in which they had been a pupil teacher, but this cannot have been the case with Harry, as the Gainsborough Road School was not opened until 1912.

Harry was one of a group of alumni of the College, who had attended from 1911-13 and were resident in and around London, who met up in March 1914. He was joined by Burt, Dobson, Eason, Moore, Wootton and Wilson. Each one of those young men lost his life in the conflict that would soon begin. Soon after war was declared Harry enlisted in the 5th Battalion of the London Rifle Brigade.

He would have had experience of rifle shooting in the time he spent at College, in the Territorial Force of the Hampshire Regiment. The London Regiment was unusual. All of its Battalions were of the Territorial Force, but each battalion was regarded as a corps in its own right. The 1/5th (City of London) Battalion (London Rifle Brigade) landed at Le Havre in November 1914 where it became part of the 4th Division. The Germans had dug in along the heights above the River Aisne.  British attacks on their positions were repelled. Fighting degenerated into a stalemate where neither side would give ground and both sides started to develop fortified systems of trenches. The whole of the British Expeditionary Force then moved to Flanders as part of an effort to outflank the Germans. Once there however, they met German troops who were also attempting an outflanking manoeuvre. By November 1914, there was a continuous front line running from the North Sea to the Swiss border, occupied on both sides, by armies ‘dug-in’ in defensive positions.

The badge of the London Rifle Brigade carved into the hillside during WW1, at Fovant, Wiltshire

There were no major engagements in that part of Flanders, during the late winter and early spring into 1915. The 1st/5th London Rifle Brigade was in the trenches at Ploegsteert (nick-named “Plug Street” by the troops), where at Christmas 1914 they took part in the Christmas truce. Henry Williamson 4, then a 19 year old Private in the London Rifle Brigade wrote to his mother on Boxing Day.

Christmas Truce 1914

Dear Mother,

I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?

By April 1915, all thoughts of a truce were over. The Second Battle of Ypres began on the 22nd April with a surprise German attack, using poison gas, against French North African forces who were holding part of the line near Ypres. This was the first mass use of poison gas by the German forces, although there had been a previous failed attempt 5.

At approximately 5p.m. on 22nd April 1915 the Germans released 168 Imperial tons of chlorine gas over a 4 mile front. The gas cylinders were opened by hand and relied on the prevailing wind to carry the gas towards enemy lines. This method of deployment was hazardous to both sides and large numbers of Germans were injured or killed while releasing the gas. The French troops sustained 6,000 casualties. Many of those died within ten minutes from asphyxia and lung tissue damage and many more were blinded. Chlorine gas is denser than air and so sank into the trenches forcing troops to rush out into the open, directly into the line of fire. The French Colonial troops were completely surprised and they swiftly gave way. The effect of the gas attack on Gravenstafel Ridge was described by Anthony R Hossack of the Queen Victoria’s Rifles.

Plainly something terrible was happening. What was it?  Officers, and Staff Officers too, stood gazing at the scene, awestruck and dumbfounded: for in the northerly breeze there came a pungent nauseating smell that tickled the throat and made our eyes smart. The horses and men were still pouring down the road, two or three men on a horse I saw, while over the fields streamed mobs of infantry, … away went their rifles, equipment, even their tunics that they might run faster. One man came stumbling through our lines. An Officer of ours held him up with levelled revolver, “What’s the matter, you bloody lot of cowards?” says he. The Zouave 6 was frothing at the mouth, his eyes started from their sockets, and he fell writhing at the officer’s feet.7

The gas attack exposed the left flank of the Canadians. British Expeditionary Force reinforcements were rushed to the front but on the 24th April the Germans extended their attack to the Canadian front, advancing into the village of St. Julien. The village was in the rear of the 1st Canadian Division until the gas attack of the 22nd, when the Germans were able to advance through the 4 mile gap and it became the front line. On the morning of the 24th April the Germans released another gas cloud towards the Canadian line just west of St Julien. Troops urinated on their handkerchiefs and held them to their nose and mouth as the ammonia in urine was believed to neutralise the chlorine.  These counter-measures were insufficient and the Germans took the village.

On the 25th April 11th Brigade, now part of 28 Division, was ordered to relieve the scattered detachments between St Julien and Berlin Wood. As the early morning mist dissipated a ferocious German bombardment began.

The 1st Battalion (Hampshire) War Diary stated:

With the lifting of the mist the German guns opened. It is hopeless to attempt to describe it. Owing to our being at the extreme point of the salient we had guns almost all round us, and owing to the shape of the ground and the Germans holding ridges north and east, which commanded every yard of the Ypres enclave, these guns could be laid with deadly accuracy. For eight days and nights their guns never ceased. At times shells were falling on our trenches at a rate of about 50 a minute…The marvel was that anyone was left alive, or any trench existing…and not only did we not give way one yard but we pushed our trenches forward on the right towards the Royal Fusiliers and extended them on the left till we eventually joined on to the Rifle Brigade and at the end our line was intact and not a man left behind except our hundred dead.

Harry was killed in action on the 26th April 1915. His Headmaster, Mr Goldfinch from Gainsborough Road School, wrote to the Principal at Winchester Training College.

I am able to give you the following details of Mr H.J.Hotten, one of our Assistant Masters.

He was in the 4th Company, 13th Platoon, of the 5th Battalion of the London Rifle Brigade, B.E.F.,France.

Early in November,1914, he was in the trenches in Flanders. He remained there throughout the winter of 1914-1915. He was killed in action at the battle of Ypres on April 26th,1915, when the Germans made their great thrust for Calais. A bursting shell struck him on the head, and he died in a few minutes! Mr S. Roberts, another colleague from this School, and his life-long friend, was about seventy yards away from him at the time, and assisted to bury him at night. The spot where he fell was Zonnibeke.

Mr Hotten was a fine specimen of English manhood, and we all greatly deplore his loss.I think I am correct in saying that the L.R.B. went into action nearly 1000 strong, and less than 150 came out alive!

His body was never recovered from that hastily dug grave, or possibly later recovered but not identified. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium (Panel 52 and 54).

He left £6 3s 7d to his mother Sarah Hotten.

 

Researcher and Author: Dee Sayers

Menin Gate courtesy of Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Hotten’s Signature From the Student’s Register photograph by Dee Sayers

Footnotes
  1. By far the largest company supplying electric lighting was the London Electric Supply Corporation and their central station at Deptford was the largest one in the country.
  2. Ham originally meaning low-lying pasture
  3. Teachers were not certificated until they had completed two years teaching after leaving College. Harry would probably have been described as an assistant teacher.
  4. Henry Williamson later became a naturalist and author. His most famous book was ‘Tarka the Otter’
  5. A gas attack had been attempted at the Battle of Bolimów on the Eastern front 3 months earlier (January 31st) but the gas had liquefied in the cold and become inert.
  6. Zouave – a member of a light –infantry corps in the French Army, originally of Algerians and long retaining their oriental uniform.
  7. Hossack Anthony R – The First Gas Attack
Sources

Ancestry (2018). Home page. [online] Available at: www.ancestry.co.uk [Accessed 2018].

British History Online (1973). West Ham: Introduction, pp.43-50. [online] Available at: www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol6/pp43-50  [Accessed 2018].

Commonwealth War Graves Commission, (2018). Home page. [online] Available at www.cwgc.org/ [Accessed 2018].

The Dictionary of Victorian London (1889). The Lighting of London. [online] Available at: www.victorianlondon.org/lighting/lightingoflondon.htm [Accessed 2018].

Gainsborough Primary School (2018).  Home page. [online] Available at: gainsborough.newham.sch.uk [Accessed 2018].

Geograph (2016). Fovant Badges. [online] Available at: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5232796 [Accessed 2018].

Henry Williamson Society (2018). The Christmas Truce.  [online] Available at: http:// www. Henrywilliamson.com [Accessed 2018].

The Hotton family archive (personal contact).

The Long Long Trail, (2018). Welcome to the long long trail. [online] Available at: http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/ [Accessed 2018].

The Royal Hampshiore Regiment (2016). Home page. [online] Available at: royalhampshireregiment.org [Accessed 2018].

Vickers, J. University of Winchester Chapel Memorial Rail image.

Wikimedia (2016). File:London. Westminster Bridge and House of Parliament.jpg [online] Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:London._Westminster_Bridge_and_House_of_Parliament.jpg [Accessed 2018].

Wikimedia (2018). File:Eerste Wereldoorlog, krijgsgevangenen (3019092964).jpg [online] Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eerste_Wereldoorlog,_krijgsgevangenen_(3019092964).jpg [Accessed 2018].

Wikipedia (2018). Christmas Truce. [online] Available at: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_truce [Accessed 2018].

Wikipedia (2018) London Rifle Brigade. [online] Available at: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Rifle_Brigade [Accessed 2018].

Wikipedia (2018). Second Battle of Ypres. [online] Available at: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Battle_of_Ypres [Accessed 2018].

 

 

University of Winchester Archive – Hampshire Record Office
Reference code Record
47M91W/ P2/4 The Wintonian 1899-1900
47M91W/ P2/5 The Wintonian 1901-1902
47M91W/ P2/6 The Wintonian 1903-1904
47M91W/ P2/7 The Wintonian 1904-1906
47M91W/ P2/8 The Wintonian 1905-1907
47M91W/ P2/10 The Wintonian 1908-1910
47M91W/ P2/11 The Wintonian 1910-1914
47M91W/ P2/12 The Wintonian 1920-1925
47M91W/ D1/2 The Student Register
47M91W/ S5//5/10 Photograph of 5 alumni in Mesopotamia
47M91W/ Q3/6 A Khaki Diary
47M91W/ B1/2 Reports of Training College 1913-1914
47M91W/ Q1/5 Report and Balance Sheets 1904- 1949
47M91W/ R2/5 History of the Volunteers Company 1910
47M91W/ L1/2 College Rules 1920
Hampshire Record Office archive
71M88W/6 List of Prisoners at Kut
55M81W/PJ1 Managers’ Minute Book 1876-1903
All material referenced as 47M91W/ is the copyright of The University of Winchester. Permission to reproduce photographs and other material for this narrative has been agreed by the University and Hampshire Record Office.