Date of Death:14/03/1915
Cemetery:Royal Irish Rifles Graveyard
Bertram Lees was born in Oldham in 1886 to parents James & Sarah. Unfortunately James had passed on by the time of the 1891 census (there is a likely James Lees who died at the age of 33 in 1889). Bertram had two older brothers - Harry & Rowland at the time and a younger sister, Mary. Himself and Harry are not with his mother at the time of the 1891 census, probably living with close relatives nearby but unfortunately Lees is a very difficult name to research in the Oldham area due to the sheer numbers. By 1901 Bert was living as a lodger at Higher Thorpe Farm in Springhead and was working in a cotton mill. His mother had in the meantime married a James Hargreaves and settled at 4 Cocker Street in Royton. From his mother's new marriage Bert gained four new siblings - Sarah, Thomas, Alice & Elizabeth.
Bert went on to the join the army and was serving in India with the 1st Manchesters from around about 1906. After eight years as a regular soldier in India he found himself, along with the rest of the battalion, being rushed back to Europe in August 1914. They arrived in Marseille on September 26th and after re-equipping for the Western Front found themselves in the front line for the first time on October 26th. The next day they suffered their first casualties which included Fred McSweeney.
On December 20th, Bert and his comrades found themselves involved in desperate hand to hand fighting with the Germans in the village of Givency.After taking the village they withstood furious German counterattacks before being forced to withdraw when the French on their left flank were forced back. But the Manchesters werent finished yet and retook the original trenches. Again they came under fierce attack and eventually withdrew again but only after they had held out long enough for reinforcements to be brought up and secure the line. During the fighting another man from the Royton area was killed, James McGivern. After the action Lieutenant General Watkis visited the men and said:
"It gives me great pleasure to come and speak to you this morning. I want to tell you how very pleased I am with the work you did on the 20th and 21st. Yours was the Battalion detailed to carry out the attack on the village of Givenchy, and from all accounts I hear that it was a magnificent piece of work. I have not heard this from your own Officers, but from others, and all the time you were doing your duty I was receiving wires telling of the splendid way you were behaving, and in my reports to higher authorities I could only use the term ' Gallant Manchesters.'
You went into the attack steadily, you carried the village, also the trenches, and held them all night in the rain and mud. Next day you were subjected to a hell of a bombardment, still you hung on, and when you had to retire you did so in the same way that you advanced. When you were called upon to go back, by God, men, you went back. Perhaps you do not know exactly what you did, but I may tell you that at that particular period, the village of Givenchy was the most important point, not only in your Brigade or Division or Corps, but of the whole British line, and had you given way God only knows what would have happened. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are a very brave set of men".
It seems Bert was something of a prolific letter writer and several of them were quoted in part by the Oldham Chronicle.
On February 6th 1915 they printed the following excerpts from two letters he had sent to his mother and his sisters:
"I have no doubt that you will have received quite a shock when you heard I was in this melee as I call it. I suppose you got to hear of poor McSweeney who was killed by a "Jack Johnson" as people term the big shell the Germans use.He was completely buried alive,he and 3 more. They dug them up but only 1 man was alive. What appeared to be a nuisance at the last place I was at was the snipers, who fire at people who fly from one place to another,I was orderly for the Brigade up to my Regiment and was fired on many times but luckily I was not hit once"
"I was hit on the 21st inst,but luckily I was not hurt much. I was sitting with a man of the ASC at a fire when suddenly a shrapnel shell burst, and blew the wall on top of me,bruising my elbow a little, my cap had a hole in it,but my head was only just scratched.We have not seen the ASC man since,I went back to look for him but all I could find was his cap.I have not come across the Lancashire Fusiliers yet, I wish I could for probably Harry will be with them. Our Army is doing splendid work and although you may have seen the casualties they are nothing compared with those of the Germans. Of course we shall lose men,for we cannot fight without.It is a pity for those that do get hit and one never knows when one's turn is coming.We all hope for the best. Don't be downhearted,pray for our return.....I am very proud of our Tom,who although so young has responded gallantly to his country's call.No doubt it is very hard for mother to bear up,but it cannot be helped and it is for our country's sake...my opinion is that the war will last a considerable time yet.Still,when the end does come we shall see England conquerors again.The times are very hard for the soldiers now,and I hope I am not putting on your good nature when I ask you to send us some cigarettes and a little soap...we are fighting a cruel nation, and not only that we are fighting for our very existence".
By the following week he had written again:
"We have experienced awful weather lately,and it is a wonder that some of us are not ill.The trenches which we have just left are nearly full of water....they have started to give men leave now,so if we stay long in this place it will be my turn.I should love to come now while there is a chance.It is pretty hard seeing some men going home who have not long been left England.My mind will be at rest,however,if I can only get a leave at all."
then he learned he was not to receive his yearned for return to England....
"It is not so much a rest I want,as a desire to see the old home again, and the dear old homeland after so many years service in India & now France.....I am very happy that the rumour that our Harry had been captured by the Germans is incorrect for there is no knowing what might have happened to him had he been captured.I would rather die a soldiers death than be taken by such wicked rascals.We are told to forgive our enemies,but it seems to us out here that we shall never forgive the Germans".
Then on March 1st he wrote the following which appeared in the paper on the 13th, the day before his death.
"Don't forget when you send cigarettes again to send the dear old Woodbines.They are liked by almost every Tommy.Some cigarettes and a letter from home are the silver linings to many a black cloud.Many of our darkest hours are passed over by rings of smoke."
On March 10th the Battle of Neuve Chapelle began, the 1st Manchesters were not part of the initial wave and marched to the south east of Neuve Chapelle that day. The following morning they were due to attack but this was cancelled, nevertheless they were close enough to the enemy to come under machine gun fire and take casualties. At 1pm on the 12th the 1st Manchesters moved forward after a half hour artillery bombardment. The leading two companies immediately came under intense fire and men were falling fast. By 1:30 these two companies had reached front line trenches occupied by Gurkhas, they were followed by the remainding two companies who suffered heavy casualties from machine gun fire before they could reach the comparative safety of the trenches. The men were supposed to press on and attack the German positions but it was decided against by General Willcocks. The battalion were withdrawn from the line between 03:15 & 04:30 on the morning of the 13th but unfortunately the dying didn't finish there. Bertram Lees is listed as being killed on March 14th along with sixteen other men of the battalion. Only Bert & one other man(Jeffries) have known graves, the others are all remembered on the Le Touret Memorial.
The other men were:
BOHANNA ALBERT 38 Private 2938 from Sheffield
BOTTOMLEY ALBERT Private 2010 from Oldham
DOWD THOMAS Private 902 from Liverpool
FURNISS GEORGE Private 2030 from Manchester
GALLAGHER EDWARD Private 2366 from Manchester
HALL THOMAS Private 1948 from Manchester
HOWARD REUBEN Private 2753 from Manchester
JEFFRIES HW Private 505
JOHNSON GEORGE Private 1902 from Liverpool
KEAN THOMAS 39 Serjeant 3974 from Salford.Boer War veteran
KILROY JAMES 32 Private 9862 from Rochdale
LAIRD ERNEST Private 1329 from Kennington
LEECH WILLIAM Private 2391 from Ashton-under-Lyne
McCALL MARTIN 36 Private 3374 from Manchester
McPHEE NORMAN Private 927 from Manchester
NIXON EDWARD 32 Private 6717 from Manchester
After his death, Bert's mother received a letter from a grieving comrade - A.Rankin (very possibly this man) ...
"Dear Mrs Hargreaves - just a few lines hoping they will find you all in perfect health.By now you will have heard about poor Bert.I was the chum that Bert used to mention in his letters,and I was very sorry to hear about him. I was not with him when he was killed but I believe he only lived a few minutes...I hardly know what to do with myself now for I miss him so much....this loss to you must indeed be great,and I can only ask God's comfort for you all in your bereavement and ask you to accept my sympathy in your irreperable loss.I could not write sooner as I got slightly wounded myself and have only just got back to hear this terrible news about your son.It was a terrible time for us all during that last engagement. The shelling was terrible,and the casualties pretty heavy,but if we suffered you can rest assured that the Germans were ten times worse than ours.I wonder when this terrible war will end."
There is a mention in the Oldham Chronicle that Bert Lees was well known in the Waterhead area, presumably he worked in a mill there when younger, and that he had a fiancee in that district.