Major William Booth: How a Yorkshire cricket champion lost his life at the Somme

Every major event in history is the culmination of a thousand stories. Great and small, each one provides a window into a world that would otherwise be lost and the story of cricketer-turned-soldier Major William Booth is taking pride of place in Westminster Council’s Somme centenary.

“Westminster City Council is incredibly proud of our armed forces communities and we do everything we can to support veterans, armed forces personnel and their families,”Councillor Rachael Robathan, Armed Forces Champion for Westminster & Cabinet Member for Adults and Public Health.

“Consequently, we are delighted the next generation of school children will learn about this historic event in our nation’s history through the story of Major Booth. Few battles represent the grim reality of conflict and the epic loss of life seen in the First World War like the Battle of the Somme, and I want to thank Marylebone Cricket Club and Lords Cricket in helping us to commemorate the sacrifice of the brave soldiers who fought for our country.”

Peter Daniel, Education and Interpretation Officer from Westminster Council Archives, explained more:

Who was Major William Booth?

Major William Booth (Major being his first name and not a military rank) was born on 10 December 1886 in Pudsey, Yorkshire. The Booth family had lived in this area for generations as handloom weavers, formerly affluent workers who were cast into poverty by mechanisation and radicalised by the Chartist campaign for the vote. Booth established himself as an all-rounder for Yorkshire County Cricket Club between 1908 and 1914, a season in which he was named one of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year.

His international career was restricted to the MCC 1913-14 tour of South Africa, which was the last Test match tour before World War I. Booth served as a 2nd lieutenant in the Leeds Pals (15th West Yorkshire Regiment) and served in Egypt before his death on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

What cricketing talents did he have?

Booth was a talented all round cricketer. His cricket career began with several local clubs near his Pudsey home, including Pudsey St Lawrence and Wath Athletic Club, South Yorkshire (Mexborough League). In 1907, he was selected for the Yorkshire 2nd X1 and in 1908 made the 1st X1, as a talented right arm medium-fast bowler and useful right-hand batsman. Booth was not wealthy enough to play as a gentleman amateur so continued work initially as an electrical engineer at Wath colliery.

Here he witnessed much of the industrial unrest prevalent in the mining industry prior to World War I while also trying to establish himself as a professional cricketer. During 1911, he took 74 wickets and made a total of 1,125 runs for Yorkshire, including a scorching double century in the county match against Worcestershire. By 1913, he had achieved an aggregate of 181 first-class runs (more than any county bowler that season) and had gained a strong reputation at county level for bowling pace and swerve. In 1913, he also took part in a ‘Gentlemen v Players’ (amateur’s v professionals) match at the home of English cricket, Lord’s Cricket Ground (as a ‘Player’).

Major Booth during his county cricket days
Major Booth during his county cricket days

Yorkshire’s rivals for the county championship that season were Kent, and in their match at Tunbridge Wells, Booth was to witness widespread protests by suffragettes who had earlier burned down the pavilion. Booth’s success in the 1913 season led to his selection for MCC’s South African tour. Booth was injured in a car accident during the first test match at Durban and only regained fitness for the final test of the series against South Africa, which England won 4.0.

His enforced absence through injury allowed him to witness the unrest created by Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha protests by Indian miners, which he remarked on during an interview on his return home to Yorkshire. In 1914, Booth’s proven all-round performance, ambition and keenness to impress were rewarded when he was made a Wisden Cricketer of the Year and was honoured to play for MCC in the Lord’s Centenary match. He subsequently took 141 wickets for Yorkshire. A tall, popular, figure described by the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack as possessing a “free, natural” bowling style.

How did he go from county cricket to the Western Front?

Like many sportsmen of his generation, Booth answered his country’s call for volunteers. Along with fellow Yorkshire County teammate Roy Kilner, he enlisted as a private in the 15th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment (15/West Yorks or Leeds Pals), 31st Division. Pals Battalions were units of local men who before the war had worked, socialised and played sport together. After promotion to sergeant, Booth was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1915 and served in Egypt, before arriving in France in April 1916.

What was his role in the Somme?

After leaving Egypt, 2nd Lieutenant Booth and the Leeds Pals were sent into trenches at the northern end of the British line in preparation for the Big Push. These trenches were opposite Serre, a heavily defended German position surrounded by dense barbed wire entanglements. On 1 July 1916, after a week-long artillery barrage, Booth was tasked with leading No 10 machine gun team in the first wave of attacks on Serre.

The Leeds Pals were virtually wiped out, losing its commanding officer, ten officers and 528 other ranks. Among them was 2nd Lt Major Booth, representing Yorkshire and his country for the last time. Mortally wounded by shrapnel leading his men near the ruined farm at La Cigny, he took refuge in a shell hole and died in the arms of fellow Yorkshire cricketer Abe Waddington.

Who was Abraham Waddington?

In 1916, Private Abe Waddington was a 21-year-old soldier serving with the Bradford Pals, who were part of the second wave of attacks on Serre. Waddington was a promising 2nd XI player at Yorkshire who fancied himself as an all rounder and had looked to Booth as a role model as he tried to establish himself as a young professional before enlisting in the Bradford Pals. After the war, Waddington became an outstanding all-round sportsman in the post-war period, playing golf for Yorkshire – he played twice in Open qualifiers – as well as playing in goal for Bradford City and Halifax Town. He eventually played cricket for England, and travelled to Australia in 1920-21 with JWHT Douglas’s hapless touring team. In effect, he stepped into Booth’s shoes for both Yorkshire and England.

Waddington’s experiences on the Somme never left him. He was plagued by nightmares of those awful scenes on 1 July and his anger would lead him to question authority for the rest of his career particularly the class system exemplified by the annual Gentleman v Players match at Lord’s.

A colour Illustration of Major Booth emerging from the Lord's Pavillion
A colour Illustration of Major Booth emerging from the Lord’s Pavillion

Can you describe his final moments?

Booth was in charge of the No 10 machinegun team. After urging on a Pal who had been hit by shrapnel, Booth was wounded, taking shrapnel to the shoulder and chest, so he had no choice but to take cover in one of two shell holes thereabouts. Mortally wounded, in the shell hole he remained. Like Booth, Waddington was injured during the advance, taking shrapnel to his legs and hands. He, too, took shelter in a shell hole, amazingly the same one where Booth lay dying. Booth was something of a hero to Waddington, who had seen Booth play before the war, and, more recently, during inter brigade matches. Waddington nursed Booth in his arms – as tenderly, one imagines, as the horrific conditions would allow – until Booth passed away. As night fell, Waddington was rescued, but Booth’s body resided where it lay.

Not surprisingly, the memory of those few hours, in particular the sight of rats tearing away at Booth’s dead body as Waddington was taken away on a stretcher, haunted Waddington for the rest of his life. Booth’s body was identified nine months later from an MCC cigarette case found in his tunic pocket. Nothing else was identifiable. Booth’s sister, Annie, refused to accept his death.

She left a candle burning in the window of their Pudsey home in the vain hope he would one day return. Booth’s grave is at Serre Road Cemetery No 1 and he is also commemorated on memorial plaques at Headingley and at Pudsey church. Roy Kilner made sure his name would be kept alive by naming his first-born son Major. Major Kilner become a decorated hero of D-Day in 1944 and rose to the rank that matched his first name, Major.

How is his life being commemorated?

On 1 July, 1916, the British army suffered 60,000 casualties, 20,000 of which were killed in one day. This devastating loss was to cast a shadow over the first half of the 20th century and would influence many of the changes that came about because of the war. Due to this significance, Westminster Archives, collaborating with their partners, The Marylebone Cricket Club and The National Army Museum, put together a programme of events to mark this major national anniversary.

This was funded through Westminster Council’s Community Covenant, which seeks to honour the debt we owe our armed forces. The impact the Somme had on the nation was told to local children through the story of Second Lieutenant Major William Booth, who was one of those 20,000 men killed on the opening day of the Somme. Booth’s story was used to show the world he knew prior to the outbreak of war disappeared forever on that infamous July day and how those that survived hoped they could create a better one.

Ten Westminster primary school classes took part in the project. Each school learned about Booth’s story through a session using historical artefacts and documents. The key learning intention was for them to understand that how those that survived the Somme were determined that their comrades’ sacrifice would lead to the building of a better Britain, a fairer society after the war. All the children who took part were shown an image of Booth’s grave at Serre. They could see this aspiration for equality was apparent in the uniform nature of the graves that surround the Yorkshireman’s grave and were asked to use the image to sum up what they had learned.

Major Booth’s story provides an insight into the inequalities that existed before WWI, and how the huge sacrifices made in that war brought about a desire for change. Booth’s grave was identical to both of the private soldiers’ graves that lay alongside him, and the children could see that this was because those that survived the war wanted greater equality – a key British value and ideal of the new national curriculum. After watching the MOD performance at Lord’s, each of the ten classes worked with the actors so that they could share the story with the rest of their school at special school assemblies on 1 July 2016.

All images credited to Westminster Council Archives.

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