Private Tom Backhouse, Leeds soldier killed during the First World War whose remains were repatriated in 1924.

Following the well-publicised return to Britain of the remains of a few dozen soldiers killed during the early stages of the First World War, the British government outlawed the practice. One of the most high-profile of the returnees had been Lieutenant William Gladstone MP, grandson of the eminent Victorian Prime Minister and Lord Lieutenant of Flintshire.

As only the wealthy and well-connected could afford the time and resources to arrange for the removal of their loved one’s corpse, it was considered bad for morale on the home front to see a handful of families able to mourn at a dead soldier’s grave, whilst for the majority their son or husband would forever lie, as the poet soldier Rupert Brooke put it, in `some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England’.

Upon the signing of the Armistice in 1918, the debate was reopened but the government remained firm. Those who fought together and died together would rest together near to where they fell. The Imperial War Graves Commission, under the leadership of Fabian Ware, would ensure the creation and maintenance in perpetuity of beautiful cemeteries in their honour. Despite bereaved relatives forming groups such as the British War Graves Association to press for the right to retrieve the remains of their loved ones, no legal repatriations took place.

However there was one Leeds family who were able to circumvent this embargo and arrange for the return of their dead son.

Tom Backhouse had been born in Leeds but had emigrated to the USA with his brother, both of them becoming naturalised American citizens in 1913.

Private Tom Backhouse body repatriated
Private Tom Backhouse

According to the Yorkshire Evening Post’s In Memoriam column of 19 October 1920, Tom had been killed in the Argonne on 19 October 1918 whilst serving with 325 Infantry, 82nd Division of the US Army. His grieving parents had inserted the lines:

`Years roll on and many tell us
Wounds are healed by passing time
But while life and memory lasteth
Dearest Tom ‘twill not heal mine.

When the war had been at its height, Tom’s mother Emma had written lines of verse which she had printed on postcards and sold to passers-by in Leeds City Centre. The money she raised was used to fund three spinal chairs and a bed rest in Seacroft Hospital for convalescing soldiers. Her work had won widespread praise, and Emma had received letters of commendation from Princess Mary, the Prince of Wales and Lord Kitchener.
One such poem, written in 1917, was titled Lest We Forget:

This is no time for dreaming,
No time for idle scorn;
All should be up and doing,
To cheer some heart folorn
For while our lads are fighting
On land and sea to-day,
Our thoughts should all be centred,
On each one far away
Dear friends I often wonder
When you pass through City Square,
If you notice all the heroes
That are oft assembled there?
Have you watched our gallant heroes,
How they smile and murmur not?
Tis out duty now to help them,
They should never be forgot.
If you read the daily papers,
You will know the City’s needs;
Two thousand beds are wanted,
In our own dear City – Leeds.
What a sad and darkened picture,
To imprint upon your mind,
But to each wounded hero,
‘Tis our duty to be kind.
Then to each Nurse and Doctor,
May aid and strength be given,
To nurse and tend the wounded,
While some find rest in heaven.
Some sleep upon the battle-field,
And some in a foreign grave;
While some sleep in the ocean
Beneath the angry wave.
To Thee who taught us how the pray.
And say “Thy will be done”.
We freely give each one we love,
To dwell with Thee at home.
Then may God’s blessing from above,
Be showered on those that weep,
The mother, wife and children deer,
Do Thou their foot-steps keep.
Oh! Help them on life’s rugged way,
To reach that heavenly shore,
Where loved ones they have only gone
A little while before.
Roll on then day of victory,

When shot and shell shal cease,
When guns shall all be silenced,
And the world be wrapped in peace.
Dear friends, I wish to thank you all,
For help to freely given;
And my our herous when they fall,
Fine rest, sweet rest, in heaven.
Mrs E Backhouse
1917

Emma Backhouse poem

 

Unlike the British government, the American authorities had allowed for the repatriation of its war dead. Families were offered the option of their loved one remaining in a military cemetery in Europe or having the body shipped back to the USA. Around 40,000 families, about 60% of the total, availed themselves of the latter option. The created the opportunity for Emma Backhouse to have her son returned home to Leeds.

Emma, of Altofts Place, Beeston Hill, was involved with the Leeds War Graves Association, which organised for Tom’s body to be returned to his home city. The Leeds Mercury of 6 May 1924 reported on a `​Leeds Family’s Sacrifice, Recalled by Exhumation of a Soldier‘. It was reported that Tom’s body was to be exhumed and brought back to England, to be interred at the Holbeck Cemetery. For Mrs Backhouse, who had had another son killed in the war and another `so badly shocked by a bursting shell that he became a mental wreck, and is now being cared for in the Wakefield Asylum’, the return of Tom’s remains to his boyhood home would provide some degree of closure.

Tom was return on the SS Hull via the eponymous Yorkshire port and then be transported by train to Leeds for interment at Holbeck. Sadly, Tom’s younger brother, Fred, was not to overcome his mental affliction, remaining in the Wakefield Asylum until his early death in 1944. Emma lived to see his tragic decline, dying aged eighty-four in 1946.

I have yet to ascertain if there is a headstone commemorating the life of Tom Backhouse in Holbeck Cemetery.

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