‘He died that we might live’
These were the words chosen by a mother to be inscribed onto the gravestone of her youngest son, Gunner 104915 George Croft – killed in action at Passchendaele 100 years ago.
George was born in Blackpool, in 1893, the youngest of nine brothers and sisters, living in a small, terraced house in Cecil Street, Blackpool. They were an ordinary family and George followed two of his older brothers into the butchery trade to help support their widowed mother and his family.
Like so many families at the time, World War One would soon be making great demands on the Crofts. George joined the same two older brothers in the Army, to fight for King and country.
George enlisted with the Royal Field Artillery on August 3, 1915, and just as he had supported his mother when he was at home, he ensured 6d of his daily wage was sent back home for her.
Following six weeks training at Preston and Woolwich, he sailed for France, arriving on October 5, 1915.
Little is known about his life for the next two years as his service record did not survive the Blitz of the Second World War, but it is likely that as a gunner, he would have served with the royal artillery batteries and moved between brigades to replace fallen or injured colleagues when required.
As was the practice of the day in many towns and cities, the local newspaper published lists or “rolls of honour” of local men who were serving with the forces. George and eight of his neighbours from Cecil Street feature in the Blackpool Times and Fylde Observer, on February 2, 1916.
Shortly before George’s death in October 1917, he was transferred to C Battery of the 74th Brigade.
September had been a difficult month for the artillery batteries, who took a heavy pounding from enemy guns; one officer and seven lower ranks had been killed, together with 24 other men wounded or gassed. It’s quite likely George may have been transferred into the unit to replace one of those killed or injured.
In early October 1917, preparations began for the Battle of Broodseinde, which would become one of the most successful allied attacks and part of the wider Battle of Passchendaele. The brigade received its orders and artillery was moved forward into areas, already been devastated by shell-fire and soaked by the return of heavy rain. Allied artillery positions were often within range of enemy counter-battery fire and as George and his comrades would soon find out, would become targets themselves.
The Brigade War Diary describes what happened on October 4 1917, the first day of the Battle of Broodseinde: “Some rain in the night. We attacked at 6am... All objectives gained. Much desultory enemy shelling. C/74 while shooting an SOS had two officers and 10 OR killed or wounded.”
Sadly, Gunner Croft was one of those killed, together with one of his commanding officers, Lieutenant Francis William Finn.
George was only 24 years old.
George’s mother would have received written notifications informing her of her son’s death, but what would have perhaps been more poignant to her, were the letters she received from some of his Army friends, giving personal accounts of his life and death and giving valuable insight into his final moments.
Corporal Kearns wrote: “I can only tell you he did not suffer any pain. He was hit in his back. His comrades spoke to him, but he could not answer.
“He was put on a stretcher to be carried to the dressing station, but he was only carried a few yards when he groaned and passed away... He had not been long with us in the Battery, he soon made friends with everyone, and we all miss him.”
Sgt Bubb described how George “was killed by the concussion of a big shell which dropped behind him while working his gun. He felt no pain, as it was all over in a minute... He is buried at Canada Farm and a cross marks his grave.”
Sgt Bubb sent home George’s pocket watch, which he removed from his body – it is still treasured by his family today.
The simple cross described by Sgt Bubb has since been replaced by a pristine white Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone, at Canada Farm Cemetery, near Ypres.
George is also remembered on Blackpool Cenotaph and on his parent’s grave in Layton Cemetery.
George’s mother was never able to visit her beloved son’s grave in Belgium but his family ensure his memory remains. To mark the anniversary of his death, they made their own commemorative journey and stood beside his grave at Canada Farm cemetery exactly 100 years later, laying a poppy wreath in his memory. A small sample of soil from his parents’ grave in Layton Cemetery was placed on his grave and a sample of soil removed to be placed on his parent’s grave in Blackpool as an act of remembrance.