Harry Ridges was not born in Dartmouth, nor, it seems, was he resident there for very long. He was born in Loddiswell, near Kingsbridge, Devon, on 16th September 1892, the eldest son of John Edward Ridges (sometimes called Edward John Ridges) and Florence Yalland. John was not a native of Devon. He came from Hampshire, being born in Eling, a small village on the western side of the River Test, at the upper end of Southampton Water. In 1881 he was recorded working as a "domestic" groom, living in Millbrook, just across the river from Eling, in what is now a suburb of Southampton.
We have not so far been able to identify him definitely in the 1891 Census. It is possible he came to Devon as a labourer on the Great Western Railway, as a "John Ridge" of the right age and born in Hampshire is shown boarding with several other railway labourers in Ugborough in 1891, presumably involved in the building of the branch line from South Brent to Kingsbridge which opened in 1893.By 1892, however, he was definitely in Devon, since it was there that he married Florence Yalland. The marriage was registered in the last quarter of 1892. Harry's birth would appear to have been registered in the same three-month period, in the name of Harry Yalland - presumably a little before the marriage.
Florence was the fourth child and eldest daughter of James Yalland. James had been born in Loddiswell, where his father, another James, ran a farm of 75 acres at Weeke, between Loddiswell and Aveton Gifford. James junior seems to have wanted to broaden his horizons, as he joined the Navy as a Ship's Carpenter in 1854.
On New Year's Day 1860 he married Jane Whitting, in Ugborough. The couple lived for a while in Devonport, where Florence's birth was registered early in 1877, but by 1884, when their youngest child Frederick was born, they had moved back to Loddiswell. Jane died two years later, aged 47. In 1891 James and Florence, aged 15, together with the two youngest children, Ida and Frederick, were living in Towns Lane, Loddiswell, close to James' father, James senior, and his second wife, Jemima.
Florence and John Ridges began their married life in Loddiswell, where John obtained work as a farm labourer. After Harry's birth in 1892, several other children followed:
- Charles Edward, 1894
- Mary Jane, 1895
- George, 1896, who died very soon after he was born
- Florence Annie, 1897
- Ida or Ada Emily, 1900
- John, 1900, who also died very soon after he was born
- Frederick George, 1901
In the 1901 Census the family were recorded at 7 Towns Lane, Loddiswell; James Yalland, Florence's father, was recorded not far away in the village living on his own in Station Road.
School records show that Harry was admitted to Loddiswell National School on 8th December 1895, aged three; and to Cattedown Road Elementary School in Plymouth on 10th December 1901, aged nine. His address was given as 177 Florence Terrace, so perhaps he was staying with a relative, or the family moved temporarily to Plymouth, in search of work for John. It seems they did not stay long there, as his brothers and sisters - Charles, Mary Jane, Florence and Ada - were admitted to Loddiswell School on 3rd February 1902 (or 4th March 1902 in Ada's case). Their address was once again given as Town Lane. The records do not state how long they stayed there.
Sometime after 1902, and before the birth of their next child, Amelia Elizabeth, Florence and John moved to Dartmouth. "Millie" was born on 6th February 1907 and was baptised at St Saviours just under two weeks later, on 19th September. The record shows the address as St Saviour's Court and John Ridges' occupation as "Labourer". By the time of the 1911 Census, the family was living in Victoria Road, and John was working for Dartmouth Council as a labourer. Harry had joined the Army, probably during 1908 - see below. "Charley" was working as an errand boy for a newsagent and Annie, aged 13, as a domestic servant. Mary Jane was also working as a house parlourmaid at Kingston Lodge, Dartmouth, the home of Mrs Mary Mason, a widow. Emily, Fred and Millie were still at school. In 1912, a further baby arrived, who was named John Reginald.
Before the War
Harry Ridges' service papers have not survived, so it is not known exactly when he joined the Army. At the time of his death in January 1915, the Dartmouth Chronicle reported that he had spent seven years with the Devons. His service number, 8795, indicates that he joined the Devonshire Regiment between 8615 on 23rd January 1908, and 8928 on 8th March 1909. If he had already been in the Devons for seven years by January 1915 (or close to that), he must have joined nearer January 1908 than March 1909.
If so, Harry must have been barely sixteen on joining, and possibly less. At that time, adult recruits had to be aged between 18 and 38, and had to be taller than 5ft 3ins. They also had to be assessed as physically fit for service. They were not meant to be sent overseas until they were aged 19. Men signed on for twelve years. Depending upon the arm of the service, a portion of the twelve years (at least three) was spent on full-time service followed by the remainder of the engagement on the reserve - typically in the infantry, full time service was seven years, followed by five in the reserve.
The 1911 Census (taken in April) shows Harry as a private in the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, aged 20, already overseas. The source for this return would have been the Army, which rather suggests that he overstated his age on joining. Fraudulent enlistment was far from rare - the Army did not require a birth certificate, and the pre-war regular Army was short of recruits. If Harry was fit and strong, the Army recruiters would most likely have taken his word for his age.
Harry was perhaps inspired to make the Devonshire Regiment his career by the experience of his mother's elder brother, Richard Henry Yalland. Richard had served in the 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment between 1886-1893, and, after nearly seven years in the reserve, had then been recalled in 1900 for service in South Africa. He had been present at the relief of Ladysmith and the final months of the Boer War in Natal. He had then signed on for two years with the Royal Garrison Regiment, an infantry regiment formed in 1900 to provide garrison troops overseas, to allow regular infantry to be sent on active service to South Africa. Richard spent most of that time in Malta, returning finally to Britain in 1904, where he was employed (by 1911) as an iron caulker in Keyham Dockyard, Devonport.
Harry's younger brother Charley also joined the Army, some time between 1911 and 1914. He did not choose his brother's and uncle's regiment but joined the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers. Charley did not survive the war, and his individual story will be published on the centenary of his death in 2016.
Harry's service with the 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment took him in his uncle's footsteps to the garrison in Malta. The Battalion had left Exeter for foreign service on 8th January 1909. They were stationed in Malta for three years. Their farewell inspection by the Governor of Malta was reported at some length in the Exeter papers:
The Devons made a fine show as they marched on to the Palace Square shortly after half past ten o'clock... They formed up in a half-square facing the Palace, three Companies on the right, two in the centre, and three on the left, the band being on the left rear, and the colours in front of the centre Companies...all around there was a huge crowd of interested spectators beng on evincing their admiration of the Devons who had been just three years among them".
From Malta the Battalion went on in January 1912 to Egypt. On the way, two officers and 95 men from the Battalion were landed in Cyprus to deal with unrest in Limassol. British troops were to occupy the town and disperse assemblies "likely to provoke a breach of the peace". Other than this, their service in Egypt was uneventful, and doubtless, enjoyable. Pictures appeared in the Exeter papers of the Battalion marching past Lord Kitchener at the King's Birthday Parade in 1913, with a substantial contingent mounted upon camels; and of members of the Battalion picnicking in front of the Sphinx.
Outbreak of War
The Battalion was still in Egypt at the outbreak of war, and was first ordered to Ismailia as part of a force detailed to guard the Suez Canal. The regimental history says that "though all kinds of rumours and alarming reports were current, nothing had occurred" by 10th September, when the Battalion was ordered to return to England. They returned immediately to Cairo, went by train to Alexandria on 11th September, and by 13th September, were on board the SS Osmanieh on their way to Southampton, "in company with another transport containing the 2nd Gordons and with HMS Weymouth as escort". Their journey home was untroubled, and they arrived in England on 1st October.
Clearly the news of their redeployment had not yet reached Dartmouth. On 25th September the Dartmouth Chronicle reported that Harry's brother Charley had been wounded at Mons. They also referred to Harry: "Mr and Mrs Ridges, of 2 Hanover Cottages, Victoria Road, Dartmouth, have two sons now on active service with the British Army. One son, H Ridges, is with the 2nd Devons at Cairo, engaged in the defence of the canal".
The Devons had been brought home as much needed reinforcements. Two new Divisions, the 7th and 8th, were being pulled together to add to the original six divisions of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France in August 1914. Both were formed in September and October 1914 by bringing together regular army units which had been stationed at various points around the Empire, as the strain on the BEF became obvious. The 2nd Devons were allocated to the 8th Division, and so did not reach France until the first week of November. Their companions coming home, the 2nd Gordons, were allocated to the 7th Division, and found themselves in France a month earlier, just in time for the First Battle of Ypres (for more on the 7th Division at Ypres, see also the individual story of William Bastard in 2nd Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment).
The 8th Division brought together three battalions from India, one from South Africa, another from Bermuda, another from Aden, and the rest from Egypt and Malta. Its engineers came from Egypt and Gibraltar, but its artillery, Signal and Cyclist companies, and other divisional units, were improvised from other sources, as were its senior commanding officers. Reservists were quickly called up to bring the battalions to war establishment but completing the equipment and bringing together all the units required took several weeks. The Division was collected together at Hursley Park, near Winchester. The 2nd Devons, who were some of the first to arrive, were allocated to the 23rd Brigade, with the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, the 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment and the 2nd Battalion Scottish Rifles (Cameronians).
The men had returned from hot climates and were about to face the rigours of winter trench fighting in Flanders. Calls went out for help: the Mayoress of Exeter mounted an appeal in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette to the "women of Exeter and of Devon" to set to work without delay to ensure that the 2nd Devons received "1000 shirts, 1000 pairs socks, 1000 scarves and helmets, 1000 pairs woolly gloves or mittens, and also comforts - pipes, tobacco, and cigarettes". Although the weather in England through most of October was fine, when the 2nd Division left Hursley for France at 2.30am on 5th November, they paraded and marched off "in torrents of rain and through a sea of mud", according to the Regimental History, a foretaste of what was to come.
The crossing from Southampton to Le Havre on the SS Bellerephon was quiet and Harry and the 2nd Devons reached France on the morning of 6th November. The Official History of the 8th Division comments rather poetically that: "the quiet night crossing, in which the peaceful stillness of the elements made contrast with the object of the journey, was a strange introduction to the long series of desperate encounters and grim, hard-fought battles which destiny had ordained to be the career of the 8th Division in the Great War. No division in the British Army was to be more buffeted by the tempest of war than the one now borne upon a peaceful autumn sea".
Arrival in France
The Battalion disembarked at Le Havre on 6th November and by 5pm on 12th November were in the trenches south of Ypres, relieving two battalions of the Cavalry Corps, at the tail-end of the First Battle of Ypres. They immediately encountered heavy shelling but escaped with only two casualties. On 17th November the Battalion was moved south to Estaires to join the rest of the Division which was to hold a portion of the front line around Neuve Chapelle (the line went around the west side of the village, which was in German hands). Here they were at the southernmost sector of the front held by the British Army, which extended from the La Bassée canal, through Armentières, up to the area north-east of Ypres. (Shortly after this, British troops north and east of Ypres were relieved by French divisions, and the upper end of the British line moved southwards to Wijtschate, a few miles due south of Ypres).
According to the Divisional History, the entry of the 8th Division into line "coincided with the gradual settling down of both combatants to the first winter of trench warfare". However, this did not mean that the sector was completely quiet. The trench lines were close, about 100-200 yards. Houses and other buildings still provided cover for snipers, and hedges and trees had not yet gone. During the rest of November the 2nd Devons had two tours in the trenches, each of three days, and sustained a number of casualties.
However, the major source of difficulty was the weather. The snow and frost was unusually hard, the troops were completely unacclimatised, and the equipment and experience which later in the war made trenches just about habitable, were unknown. Notwithstanding the socks, mittens and vests provided by the women of Devon, within a few days frost-bite had accounted for more than 70 men sick.
During the early part of December the Battalion's routine continued to consist of short tours of a few days in the trenches, interspersed with similarly short periods of time in billets as reserve. The main focus of activity was to maintain and improve the trenches, and the Battalion was subject to both shelling and sniping, causing some casualties. On 18th December, however, the Division was involved in a more significant operation, and it seems most likely that it was during this action that Harry sustained the severe wounds that led to his death.
According to the Divisional history, the overall strategic objective at this time was to maintain pressure on the German lines in the west so as to prevent transfer of German troops to the Russian front in the east, where the winter campaigning season was about to begin. Among a series of initiatives along the allied front was a planned attack by the 58th French Division against German positions immediately to the south of the La Bassée Canal, next door (so to speak) to the 8th Division. The 8th Division was therefore tasked, at rather short notice, to launch an attack on the German trenches at Neuve Chapelle, to prevent help being sent to the threatened portions of the German line to the south in response to the French attack. "D" and "C" companies of the 2nd Devons were to lead the attack, "D" company on the right and "C" company on the left. The particular focus was an advanced trench positioned by the Germans just in front of a ruined farmhouse called the "Moated Grange".
However, very little time had been allowed for planning and preparation, and company commanders had only a few minutes, after being briefed themselves, to explain to platoon and section commanders what they had to do. In the words of the regimental history, "there was not enough time even to cut our own wire properly".
After 15 minutes preparatory bombardment, "C" and "D" companies attacked. "C" company came almost at once under heavy enfilade fire from their left, while their progress was hampered by fences which ran diagonally across their line of advance. The company commander, Major Goodwyn, was wounded at once and as he had had insufficient time to explain the plan of attack to his officers, the company did not know where they were going. They then were caught up in barbed wire, both British and German. A burning hayrick lit up the ground they were struggling to cross, and the company sustained very heavy losses.
"D" company were more fortunate, the configuration of the ground protecting them from the enfilade fire which had mowed down "C" company. They had also managed to carry out reconnaissance work before the attack, which had located enemy wire, enabling them to avoid it. "D" company was able to take a section of German trench, though encountering some stiff resistance, and was reinforced by "B" company, with the remnants of "C" company joining them. They were then able to hold the trench, though under heavy shell-fire and sniping. But their position was sufficiently secure for them to be relieved by 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment at about midnight.
But this success had been bought at a severe price. 2nd Devon casualties were heavy: three officers killed and five wounded, and 121 NCOs and men killed, wounded, and missing. Casualties were also heavy on the German side (the Regimental History says that one estimate put them at around 100), and (according to the Battalion War Diary) 27 German prisoners were taken.
The British were unable to hold the position, however. The 2nd West Yorkshires were counter-attacked the following morning, and were bombed out of the trench, also with heavy casualties. They were forced to withdraw to the old line, leaving the trench they had taken once more in German hands.
It would seem that one of the wounded and missing in this confused situation was Harry Ridges, who, according to the account in the Dartmouth Chronicle, which the paper presumably obtained from the family, found himself severely wounded and behind enemy lines:
As far as can be gathered the trench occupied by the deceased and his comrades was stormed and taken by the Germans, and Private Ridges was terribly wounded by shrapnel shell in the left side, a bullet also entering the abdomen. He was also bayonetted in two places - undoubtedly after he had fallen. For four days, from the 19th [December] to the 23rd, the gallant soldier lay on the battlefield in his agony, but on the latter date he was picked up by a German ambulance soldier and was taken over to the British lines.
The Divisional History comments ruefully that more or less the only consolation to be gained from the failed attack was that the purpose of distracting the enemy had been achieved. To the south, the French attack had been successful "and had gained an advantage of some local importance".
On his return to the British lines, Harry was repatriated to England (the Dartmouth Chronicle does not record by what route), and sent for medical care to the Victoria Hospital, Blackpool. Evidently Florence and John Ridges were contacted and made the long journey north. According to the paper: "there he received every attention, but it was evident from the first that his case was hopeless, and in the presence of his parents he passed away" on Sunday 3rd January 1915. His body was then brought to Dartmouth the following Wednesday for burial, the coffin arriving by rail and borne by soldiers from the Dartmouth railway pontoon to the bereaved parents' home.
Harry was given a full military funeral, which took place on Sunday 10th January at Longcross and was reported in the Chronicle on 15th January. It was well attended. It was taken by the Reverend Ernest Elliott, the Congregational Minister. The coffin was draped with the Union Jack and covered with wreaths. Harry's father and mother, and his four sisters were present, as was his brother Charley, given leave by his regiment. Also present were three other members of the 2nd Devons, all wounded in action and on sick leave: Privates Webber, Henry Grant, and Thomas Collins. A detachment from each Company of the 11th Battalion East Surrey Regiment was present (the East Surreys had recently arrived in Dartmouth and were being billeted in the town). Men of the same regiment acted as bearers. After the interment, the "Last Post" was sounded.
There also appeared in the Dartmouth Chronicle a notice from "Mr and Mrs Ridges and Family" to thank "all kind friends, including soldiers, for their kind sympathy and beautiful floral tributes".
Harry Ridges grave at Longcross is marked by a Commonwealth War Graves Commission gravestone (number 253 in the cemetery). Harry's brother Charley died in 1916 and has no known grave. He is also remembered on Harry's CWGC gravestone, in an inscription requested by his family.
Harry is also commemorated on the Dartmouth Town War Memorial and the St Saviour's Memorial Boards.
On 9th October 1920, Florence gave birth to her last child. He was named Charley Harry Ridges, evidently for his brothers.
The CWGC database gives Harry's age at time of death as 23, and the Dartmouth Chronicle describes him as "in his 23rd year". The date of birth we have used in our database is that given in Harry's school record at Loddiswell. If this is correct, he was in fact 22 when he died.
The 2nd Devons War Diary, Martin Body, published by Pollinger in Print, 2012
The Devonshire Regiment, 1914-1918, C T Atkinson, published Exeter and London, 1926 (still in print)
The Eighth Division, by Lt Col J H Boraston, CB, OBE and Captain Cyril E O Bax, 1926, reprint published by Naval and Military Press
Information on Army Service Numbers from Army Service Numbers 1881-1918
Information Held on Database
|Military Unit:||2nd Bn Devonshire Regiment|
|Date of Death:||03 Jan 1915|
|Age at Death:||22|
|Cause of Death:||Died of wounds|
|Action Resulting in Death:||Neuve Chapelle, 18th Dec 1914|
|Place of Death:||Victoria Hospital, Blackpool|
|Place of Burial:||Long Cross Cemetery, Dartmouth|
|Born or Lived in Dartmouth?||Yes|
|On Dartmouth War Memorial?||Yes|
|On St Saviour's Memorials?||Yes|
|On St Petrox Memorials?||No|
|On Flavel Church Memorials?||No|
|In Longcross Cemetery?||Yes|
|In St Clement's Churchyard?||No|
|On a Private Memorial?||No|
|On Another Memorial?||No|