Their objective was to attack the entrenched German machine gun positions in Harcourt Wood. It meant crossing over quarter of a mile of No Man’s Land, up a gentle incline that recent autumn rains had turned into a lethal quagmire. It was to be the last large scale attack of the campaign. In a bid to finally take and hold the Harcourt sector of the German line that had resisted the British advance all summer, the 13th Battalion marched resolutely into the gas cloud drifting across No Man’s Land to do their duty for King and Country.
The northern mill town of Broughtonthwaite, where the regiment had its barracks, was understandably devastated when the tragedy was reported by the local newspaper.
Broughtonthwaite Mercury, Thursday 2nd November 1916
As the town mourned its heavy losses, the relatives pressed for answers from a reticent Government. Philanthropist and magnate, George Everson of Everson's Brewery, twice mayor of Broughtonthwaite and whose son, Second Lieutenant James Charles Everson, was among the missing, brought considerable pressure to bear on the government.
In response, the War Office claimed that the Germans had set off mines dug deep below the British positions, packed with ‘an experimental explosive’. However eye witnesses at the time, as the cutting above illustrates, claimed to hear no explosion that could account for such a catastrophic event.
It didn’t take long for rumours to spring up concerning the extraordinary circumstances of the Pennines’ disappearance. Some ascribed supernatural explanations. Others talked of Bosche Zeppelins and death rays.
Questions were asked in Parliament. The government stuck to its original statement, seeking to turn the tragedy into propaganda while secretly setting up a Committee of Enquiry to investigate the incident. Its eventual findings would be sealed for an unprecedented one hundred and fifty years. The families and descendants of those lost will have to wait until the opening of the records in 2069 to discover the official verdict.