Henry was the third son of Robert Colver, J.P. and Elizabeth Pearson Colver [née Dransfield] and was born in Ecclesall Bierlow, Sheffield, Yorkshire on 21st May 1890. He had ten siblings, two of whom died at a fairly early age. His father was a steel magnate and Master Cutler who ran a well-known Sheffield steel firm [Jonas & Colver Ltd] with his partner Joseph Jonas and was affluent enough to employ a large domestic staff.
Henry, or “Harry” as he was known within the family was educated at St Anselm’s preparatory school and Wellington College. After leaving school he worked as a clerk, most likely in his father’s business, and took up a commission in ‘A’ Company, 1/5th Battalion, The York & Lancaster Regiment, which was part of the Territorial Force
A Territorial Officer was essentially a part-time soldier who would give up some of his free time; e.g. evenings, week-ends, and annual camp. In time of crisis the force would be utilised as a home defence unit.
On Sunday 25th January 1914 “a big car was being driven along the Bakewell Road, near the gasworks, when the rear wheels skidded, and before the driver could bring the car to a standstill it turned completely round twice in the road, and then crashed into the wall. This was the boundary to a field next the river Derwent, and about three feet of the wall was knocked down by the impact.
The driver was the owner, Mr Henry Colver, Rockmount, Ranmoor, Sheffield. There were no other occupants in the car. The two back tyres were ripped off but the car was able to proceed on its journey.”
At the outbreak of the war on 4th August 1914 the Battalion was headquartered at its base in Rotherham when the order to mobilise arrived late that afternoon. At 6.00pm that evening eight hundred and ninety six notices were sent out to the officers and men of the Battalion to report for war duty. The men of the outlying companies arrived in Rotherham on 6th August and were billeted at two local schools [St Ann’s & Doncaster Road].
On 10th August the Battalion moved by train to its war station at Doncaster with a total strength of 28 officers, 876 other ranks and 47 horses where they were all billeted, later moving onto the racecourse where they remained until early September.
On 4th September, with the Battalion by now with a total strength in excess of 1000 officers and men, they marched to Sandbeck Park, seat of the Earl of Scarborough, ten miles from Rotherham. They all remained here until late October when the Battalion transferred to Gainsborough, Lincolnshire minus the 87 NCO’s and men who had declined to sign the Imperial Service Obligation1. Here they remained for the rest of the year, apart from a brief sojourn to Sheffield on a musketry course, as further recruits joined the Battalion from the reserve,
Early January 1915 saw the Battalion move to North Somercotes where they were allocated defence of the Lincolnshire coastline. Here they remained until 25th February and then proceeded by rail transport to York.
It was in York on 31st March that the Battalion received their embarkation orders for France and so on 12th April the advance party of 3 officers, 78 other ranks, 71 horses and 22 wheeled vehicles were transported by troop train to Southampton where they crossed over to Le Havre that night. The remainder of the Battalion, including Harry, departed by train from York to Folkestone the following day and on arrival they too went by ship, this time to Boulogne, where the whole Battalion [including the advance party] reformed. Harry Colver had wired his sister in Hampstead to see if she would meet him at Liverpool St station as he passed through the capital on his way south.
By 16th April the Battalion had been billeted in and around the neighbourhood of DOULIEU and within a few days they entered the line for the first time at FLEURBAIX sustaining their first casualty on 22nd April.
On 27th April Harry wrote to his eldest sister Charlotte, known as Lottie or Tots in the family, [1879-1971]2 who was staying in Folkestone at the time from ‘somewhere too very near the firing line in France’.
My darling Tots, Joe and Kids,
Ever so many thanks for your map case, which is a fine one and just what I wanted. The papers are also very acceptable. We get a Mirror here occasionally, perhaps once a week, if lucky.
Have absolutely gorgeous weather here, very sunny and warm in the daytime, but slightly too cold at night, still it has only rained once, when I was out and then it was very late when returning from the trenches.
Suppose you have heard something about my doings from home, but I will just give you a small detailed account.
After leaving you, we had a pleasant journey down to Folkestone. Boated to Boulogne. The crossing was fairly steady. Archie Paul and I had a cabin and managed to snatch a bit of sleep. We disembarked and marched up a fearful hill to a rest camp, where we arrived abt 5 a.m., rather fed up and distinctly warm and rather wet! Our bed was in a ploughed field under canvas, we had no blankets, but seven of us got into one tent and slept off and on. During the next day we put up abt. 3000 tents. Left in the afternoon for a station abt. 6 miles off. Our packs nearly killed us and the roads here are the absolute limit.
We had a fine squash in the train, 8 of us in one carriage and 44 men in one truck! We got to our next place about 1 o’clock and to bed about 3. Fearfully tired. Had a good sleep and shave and wash up and next morning felt very fit. Left abt. 10 and marched 10-12 miles. The day was fearfully hot and the men rather fell out too much. Still we got to our new billets fairly safe and sound.
All “A” Coy officers were in one small house, but we were very comfy. We all slept on the ground, which was somewhat hard at first. We had a jolly good time there and were very sorry to leave. Our next billets were very funny and I slept on an ants’ nest. The village was quite a pretty place and reminded us of dear old England. We marched here yesterday and are now only half a mile from the trenches. Our new quarters are the best we have had. A farmhouse, quite a large one. We have two bedrooms, sitting rooms, and kitchen. Archie and I sleep on the floor and the others in beds. We stand to arms at 2.30 until 3.45 then go to bed again.
Am feeling most fearfully fit and looking so. Never looked better and my appetite is huge. They all tease me about it. Have a very slack time here for three days, then go into the trenches for three. The guns here are many and large, about 600 and some 15”. Have been in the trenches twice now and am none too keen on them for they are none too safe, still we’ve come out for them and in we go on Thursday. The Aeroplanes are a fine sight when being shelled, they get very near sometimes, but the fellows are splendid and keep going back all the time. Having plenty of good food and managing to get along quite nicely.
Hoping you are having a really good time at Folkestone and will benefit thereby.
Very fondest love to you all,
Your loving brother
Between the end of April and June 1915 they were on a rotating cycle of life spent either in the trenches, being part of the Brigade Reserve or in billets. Inevitably whilst in the trenches they were subjected to artillery bombardment and sniper fire and so the casualty toll climbed ever higher. A ‘normal’ situation soon came to be regarded as a period when the casualty toll was a couple of men every day or two. Between the 17th and 22nd June the Battalion experienced “casualties above the average usually incurred” due to stray bullets and increased sniper activity [3 killed & 13 wounded].
In late June 1915 Harry’s mother received the following typed letter from Sergeant A Medlock, his platoon sergeant.
In writing the few lines I wish to thank you very much indeed for your splendid present of a wrist watch to me which I received from my Officer your son Lieut H.Colver who I am proud to say I have the honour of being his Platoon Sergt and I can assure you this watch it will be a treasure to me because there are times when in striking a light to see the time in the trenches may cost men their lives so you will see what a great help it will be to me and it is as I say that myself and all my men are proud to serve under so fine Officer as your Son we are all out here for the same purpose we shall not seek danger no more than we can help but should the time come for us to be in any great affair I can assure you Lieut Colver will find myself and all my men with him to the end. I will conclude my short letter to you again thanking you hoping to have a line from you in return.
I remain yours
June 25th and Harry writes to his family.
My darling Family,
Very many thanks for all your dear letters which I am always so very delighted to get, and hear how you are all progressing.
Had a fine long letter from Ted which I enclose.3 He seems to have had a truly thrilling time; do hope he gets through safely. We leave here tomorrow night about 7-30, and march 12 to 15 miles not all at once. We go to a place behind Neuve Chapelle. Shall be very sorry to leave here for it has been very quiet and it is sure to be very warm there; still it had to come sometime so we hope for the best. We are anyway about 3 weeks in reserve; although we are not very keen on it, still we shall not be in the trenches; most probably road-mending and repairing houses etc.
Am really delighted you like the photos so much; cannot understand why Watson’s will not send me mine, I have written to them so often. Yes, I certainly think I am a lot fatter and certainly very fit and quite brown. Am sure, Mother, it will be a long time before we want more food. It is always very acceptable indeed. I got the lovely Ham, bread, and fruit etc, for which very many thanks.
Has been raining a tremendous amount here since yesterday. Hope it will be fine by tomorrow, as we have to sleep out all night or day which ever we are told to. Aeroplanes see too much nowadays, so we have to go by night. Hope we do alright, we have not marched far for so long with packs on as well. I am trying to get a small cart for our servants to pull and push then I shall not carry very much if I can help it. Think we are going somewhere where the Lloyd’s are; may see them on our way.
How many of the girls are at home? They seem to get away as often as before; very pleased they still manage to enjoy going about. Have seen Fred, Frank Price, Alec Wever and crowd twice since yesterday. I will write you again very soon. Am rather hard for time now so will close.
Hoping everyone is very fit.
Your loving Son and Brother
By 1st July 1915 the Battalion had moved to a new location east of WATOU on the WATOU-POPERINGHE road either in billets or bivouacs [but sufficiently away from danger that General H.C.O. Plumer, OC 2nd Army, could carry out an inspection].
On the evening of 8th July the Battalion moved to a rest area in OESTHOEK WOOD, near POPERINGHE, where they bivouacked for the night before moving the next evening to captured German trenches south of BOESINGHE, on the eastern side of the YSER CANAL. The state in which they found these trenches was considered disgusting with bodies of the dead, from both sides lying where they fell. There was discarded ammunition, rifles, and bayonets everywhere and large quantities of stores which were re-distributed. Some members of the Battalion took the opportunity to re-arm themselves with, what some regarded, as the more superior German MLE rifle and bayonet in substitution for the British Lee Enfield.
Here they came under sustained bombardment from the enemy. In several locations the parapets were blown in and a Machine Gun overturned burying them underneath leaving 27 killed, 127 wounded and 2 missing. At 8.00pm on 10th July the British artillery undertook a 90 minute barrage of the German lines to try and silence them and in which they succeeded for the time being.
The following evening after being relived in the trenches the Battalion proceeded to the nearby Chateau at ELVERDINGHE for much needed rest and refreshment. Their stay at the Chateau was rudely interrupted on the evening of 13th July when the Germans started deploying gas shells onto the front line, currently occupied by the 1/4th Battalion, with signs of an infantry follow-up. As the reserve, the 1/5th was moved into position but in the end the German attack failed to materialise, so they returned to the Chateau to resume their break.
The evening of 14th/15th July saw their rest come to an end for a short time and they resumed position in the front line once again. Unfortunately although it was mid-July the whole area was extremely wet and the trenches were caked in mud making it extremely difficult to undertake ‘normal’ day-to-day activities. When out of the line for short spells they spent their evenings digging new communication and support trenches and moving supplies up to the front line. They also received a new batch of casualty replacements from England who needed to be integrated, and quickly.
By the end of the month, and with the approach of the first anniversary of the outbreak of war, the weather greatly improved thus allowing the men to catch up on their duties and undertake running repairs across large parts of the line. On the evening of 31st July/1st August the enemy launched a small attack on the front line trenches with the intention of bombing them. However one of their bombs exploded prematurely seriously wounding the German soldier concerned who cried out for help. With the advent of daylight one of Harry’s fellow officers tried to locate the injured enemy soldier and was shot and killed in the process. Not long afterwards the Battalion came out of the line again and returned to ELVERDINGHE as Brigade reserve with their HQ at MALAKOFF FARM. Casualties were still sustained during this period as they moved in and out of the trenches around COPPERNOLLE CABARET.
As August moved into September the weather began to turn with the surface water lying in trenches not draining away properly so conditions were somewhat unpleasant.
On 18th September Harry Colver acquired some war booty in the form of a pair of German Trench Howitzers which had been abandoned by them when the trench was captured in July. One of these items was handed over to the Trench Mortar School at Berthen whilst the other he arranged to be transported to England where it was placed in the Battalion drill hall in Rotherham, remaining there for many years as a souvenir.
As October came around the Battalion were still in reserve, although the casualties still increased and on 9th October Harry was promoted to the rank of Captain to fill one of the ‘vacancies’. Their HQ had also moved to LANCASHIRE FARM with the Battalion concentrated on the canal bank where they were able to take advantage of the fine weather once again and undertake repairs following regular enemy shelling.
Oct 11, My darling Tots,
Ever so many thanks for your letter of the 7th(?). I also was very sorry my leave has not been granted, but never mind, I hope to see you and Joe to lunch on the 15th. I will ring you up as soon as I can. Am feeling fairly fit. Having quite nice weather now and fairly good time. Plenty of shelling etc but it does not worry us much. I will bring Mary4 with me, if she comes, which I hope she will. Am feeling as if I want a rest badly. Only wish leave was longer. Perhaps Maud and George will join us for lunch. Will you ask them? Shall not mind London much in the dark. Am somewhat used to it now. It gets fairly dark and we have to mind where we’re going to. I shall spend my first few hours in a hot bath. Have not seen one since I left England last!! Have you seen my new photos? They are fine, I think.
Hoping and longing to see all your dear faces again.
Your very loving brother
Love and Kisses for all.
Then a letter dated 29th October 1915,
Darling Tots and Joe,
Ever so many thanks for seeing me off. Am feeling somewhat down just at present. Had an awful journey.
The periscope has not arrived yet. I hope it will do very soon.
Very fondest love to all
Your loving brother
On his return to France Harry sent his sister a picture-postcard to her address in Hampstead.
Picture of ‘Le Havre – La Villa Aimee’
Arrived safely Fine (?) crossing. Leave tonight.
Same address as of old. Many thanks for yesterday.
Love to all at Alexandra Gardens
Early November brought the wet weather back and some of the front line trench system collapsed under the weight of water. The communication trenches also flooded making them almost impassable. The constant downpours made life in the trenches unbearable and they suffered badly. One of the trenches was flooded to such an extent it was almost impossible to hold.
The bad weather lasted for most of the first fortnight and at every opportunity soldiers were tasked with fixing any water damaged sections of line and improving the drainage systems, some of whom were brought up at night from the nearby rest camp. The only positive comment that could be made about the weather was that it kept enemy activity to a minimum. However, this combination of bad weather and minimal contact with the enemy was not going to last indefinitely.
At 11.00pm on 17th December the Divisional Bombing Officer oversaw the discharge of 24 bombs into the German lines but failed to draw an immediate response. This changed however on the morning of Sunday 19th December at 5.25am.
Gas attack by Germans. Shelling started 05.45 and continued heavily till 9 am & then intermittently all day. At 6.30 am order ‘Attack Move’ was sent to support companies and half each was sent forward into ‘C’ line. None of the enemy left their trenches on our front except a few opposite E24 who were sniped. Left support Co sent up one platoon to reinforce left forward Co at 6.30am and a 2nd platoon at 10.0am. Damage by enemy’s shelling on front & support lines slight – ‘C’ line rather knocked about.5
Three officers of 1/5th Battalion, The York & Lancaster Regiment died that morning of phosgene gas poisoning including Captain Harry Colver. He was 25 years of age.
4 officers suffered the effect of the gas and 1 was wounded. Amongst the other ranks 6 died from gas, 2 killed by bullet, 3 by shell, 23 wounded and 87 suffering from gas. The Battalion was then relieved by 1/7th The Duke of Wellington's (West Riding Regiment) and proceeded to No.1 Rest Camp. The majority of the survivors were feeling the effects of the gas with a great many suffering bronchial trouble.