Not many people find out how a family member met their death in The Great War or if they did find out it is from a letter written by a commanding officer where truth might not be the first consideration. Private William McCann 6735 of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers died on the 17th October 1914 and became known as “The Lion Of Houplines”. He had ventured into a cafe where six German soldiers were sitting drinking, he killed the six soldiers and was mortally wounded and died some hours later.
This fascinating story has been researched by Dr John Krijnen and is attached at the end of this equally fascinating article.
One hundred years after this event the town Houplines in northern France wanted commemorated what had taken place by inviting family members, Kathleen and Barry McCann the great grandchildren of William McCann, to a wreath laying ceremony at Strand Military Cemetery, just north of Ploegsteert in Belgium where William McCann is now buried.
The Town of Houplines could not have have made the McCann’s more welcome; Kathleen who had done extensive research into her great grandfather met with the historian Dr John Krijnen who explained that it is very unusual to be able to tell this kind of story in detail, to be able to visit the cafe, now a family home, and see exactly where this tragic event took place. The six German soldiers who’s names or final resting place will never be known but The Lion of Houplines thanks to the cafe owner is remembered and honored by the town.
The Lion Of Houplines
Dr John Krijnen
Readers of Old Soldiers Never Die will remember Frank Richards’s story in Chapter V about the lone British soldier who discovered six Germans drinking in a café:
A café near the cotton factory in Houplines was the scene of a remarkable fight, with only the lady of the café and her daughter as witnesses. When our troops drove the enemy out of Armentières one man who, I expect, was on the scrounge, wandered into Houplines, which was joining Armentières, and entered this café. He came on six Germans drinking: they had their rifles leaning against the wall by them. He recovered from his surprise first and attacked them before they knew where they were. Finally he killed the six but received a very bad wound himself. The old lady and her daughter carried him upstairs and laid him on the bed, dressing his wound the best way they could, but he died within an hour, she told me. They buried the seven in the garden behind the café, the six Germans side by side and the British soldier a few paces from them. The old lady had the man’s identity disc and pay-book, which she was keeping as souvenirs. He belonged to the Buffs (the East Kents) who were in the Sixth Division. The old lady wouldn’t allow anyone to sleep in that bed. She used to say that a grand soldier had died in it; and she was right: the man of the Buffs must have had the heart of a lion, and if ever a man won the Victoria Cross, he did. In the early days of open warfare, where a man fell so he was buried. (1)
Accepting Richards’s description ‘He belonged to the Buffs’ as correct, while preparing the footnotes for the annotated edition of Old Soldiers Never Die I tentatively identified this man as Private Charles Edward Whittingham. But the identification has always bothered me, not in the least because Whittingham died on 14 October 1914, three days before British troops entered Armentières. Although he was the only man of the 1st Buffs in that period who could conceivably have had some claim to be the lone soldier of Houplines, the date of his death in retrospect makes him an unlikely choice and one which I now regret.
Let us therefore assume that Richards got the name of the regiment wrong. The error is understandable, as he probably only saw the identity disc and pay-book for a fleeting instant in late November or December 1914 and did not write the story down until 1932. But if he unintentionally misled his readers, it is clearly time for me to have a fresh and more methodical look at the Lion of Houplines.
Armentières, abandoned by the enemy, was liberated amid wild scenes of joy (2) by the 10th Brigade of the 4th Division in the morning of 17 October 1914, the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders leading. The Germans, in the process of pulling back to a defensible line on slightly higher ground, the Pérenchies Ridge, were beginning to dig trenches in front of Frélinghien on the road north-east from Armentières along the Lys. Small parties of Germans had remained behind to slow down the British advance, firing from the houses, but they were easily dislodged. At the end of the day the 4th Division held Armentières and Houplines, while the 6th Division, the other division of III Corps, continued the line south to La Boutillerie. (3)
On 18 October the 4th Division tried to take Frélinghien but was held up just outside the village. The 6th Division, with 1st Buffs and 2nd Yorks and Lancs on the right flank, reached the line Radinghem – Epinette. (4) This, incidentally, puts the 1st Buffs at Radinghem, at least four miles south of Houplines, a dangerously long distance to go for a man on the scrounge, and suggests that Richards’s memory may indeed have been faulty.
So when did the incident happen? From the preceding paragraphs it is clear that it could only have been in the late morning or afternoon of 17 October, when the 10th Brigade was in the process of occupying Armentières and Houplines beyond it, while some German snipers and stragglers were still present in the eastern parts of the town. When Richards wrote: ‘When our troops drove the enemy out of Armentières…’ he obviously meant the very same day, not the day after.
According to Richards the incident happened in Houplines, but he was only partially right. The village of Houplines was a small farming community, and thus an unlikely location, but between Houplines and Armentières, ‘joining Armentières’ as Richards correctly stated, is the industrial suburb of Nouvel Houplines which administratively belongs in part to Houplines and in part to Armentières. In 1914 Nouvel Houplines boasted several large filatures (factories producing cotton fibres or thread) next to each other between the Lys and the main road over a distance of some 1000 yards (5) and collectively known as the usine coton or cotton factory. These filatures commanded the main road north-east to Frélinghien and Menin, which made them and the houses opposite them eminently suitable as blocking positions for small groups of Germans trying to interfere with the British advance.
Perhaps the six Germans considered a café off the main road as good a place as any – or much better – to set up a temporary strongpoint. More likely they were just stragglers left behind in the German withdrawal. In either case it is plausible that they could not resist sampling the available merchandise and forgot the harsh realities of war for a moment. Richards’s story certainly suggests that they were less alert than their situation warranted.
Enemy parties holding buildings on the main road were no doubt all flushed out in passing by the two leading battalions of the 10th Brigade. A small group of men away from the main road, however, drinking instead of fighting and thus not attracting any attention, would have had a good chance of remaining undisturbed for several hours, only to be discovered in a house to house search or accidentally by a lone soldier on the scrounge.
Logic dictates that our man’s unit must have been one of the battalions of the 10th Brigade (1st Royal Warwicks, 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers) or, somewhat less likely, one of the divisional support units. The Irish Fusiliers and the Seaforths, which led the advance, can probably be disregarded as they would have had little opportunity for scrounging. The 1st Buffs in the 6th Division as we have seen were miles away (and lost no men killed on 17 October), while the 11th and 12th Brigades of the 4th Division were on the other side of the Lys, as was the 1st Cavalry Division operating with III Corps.
A search for the casualties of the 10th Brigade and the 4th Divisional Troops on 17 October 1914 using Soldiers Died produced only five men who died that day, all belonging to the infantry of the 10th Brigade. Additional details were obtained from the CWGC database and archives. (6) If we now examine the scanty information we have about these five men, we can try to determine if and how well the fate of each might fit the facts as Frank Richards related them.
– Private Fred Batchelor 626 of the 1st Royal Warwicks is buried in Houplines Communal Cemetery Extension. His remains were relocated there after the Armistice. He was originally buried in Houplines Communal Cemetery, which probably means that he was killed when the village was occupied in the late afternoon or early evening of 17 October. As Richards put it, ‘…where a man fell so he was buried’ and Batchelor was buried behind and very close to the firing line.
– Privates Murdo Grahame 6480 (Soldiers Died calls him Graham) and John Hutcheson 8821 of the 2nd Seaforths both died of wounds and were buried in cemeteries adjoining hospitals at Hazebrouck and St Omer, far behind the front line. We can safely assume that both were victims of earlier fighting.
– Private William McCann 6735 of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers is buried in Strand Military Cemetery, just north of Ploegsteert, but the section number of his grave, IX, indicates that he was reburied there after the Armistice. According to the archives of the CWGC his remains were recovered from an isolated grave in Nouvel Houplines, at map reference 36.C.26.d.9.4. He too must have been buried where he had fallen.
– Private Martin Sculley 7465 (Soldiers Died calls him Scully) of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers died at Nantes on the Loire, either from disease or as the result of an accident, and is buried in Nantes (la Bouteillerie) Cemetery. According to the more reliable CWGC records, however, he actually died a day later, 18 October, and belonged to the 4th Royal Dublin Fusiliers (Extra Reserve).
Privates Batchelor, Grahame, Hutcheson and Sculley can be crossed off our list for the reasons described, leaving only Private McCann. This may look like a disappointing result, but the little we know fits this ‘identification by default’ amazingly well. His battalion was not in direct contact with the enemy, a situation which would have afforded an enterprising and experienced soldier ample opportunity for scrounging (Frank Richards, a master in the art, demonstrated that many times). The map reference of his original grave shows that he was buried behind a corner house at the end of an unpaved side street opposite the largest of the filatures.
Local research has established that before the Great War the corner site where McCann’s remains were found was indeed occupied by a long forgotten little café, the Café St Joseph. This discovery provides powerful supporting evidence for the identification of McCann as the soldier in the story. After the war the Café St Joseph reopened in a better location opposite St Charles’s Church and is still in business, though under new management. The side street is now the Rue Curie and a rather nondescript house built in the 1930s (7) occupies the corner where the café stood in 1914.
Unfortunately the CWGC Grave Concentration Report for Private McCann does not contain any information on the presence of German graves behind the Café St Joseph. That does not necessarily mean that there were none. Records of relocated graves are organised by concentration cemeteries, not by original locations, and without knowing a name or a destination it is virtually impossible to find the information. Moreover, many CWGC records of German graves were later handed over to the German authorities.
The archives of SESMA (the Service pour l’Entretien des Sépultures Militaires Allemandes) at Pérenchies hold a document (the Hauptgräberliste) listing all isolated gravesites (Geländegräber) for the Houplines area. There are only two, both in map square 36.I. at least three miles from Houplines: one at the railway halt of La Fresnelle and one in the fields between La Fresnelle and Epinette. Twenty-one of the men buried in these two graves were unidentified British soldiers, one was an officer of the North Staffs (mysteriously identified as ‘Capitaine Goffre’) and one was an unidentified German soldier who was transferred in March 1928 to the Cimetière Militaire allemande de Lille-Sud. The list is therefore unfortunately useless as corroborating evidence.
With the exception of the six German soldiers ‘buried side by side’, who will probably remain untraceable, all available evidence points to the same man as the hero of Frank Richards’s story. He died on the expected date and was buried in the garden behind a café, some 300 yards from the cotton factory. We can never be completely certain, of course, but considering the evidence presented above there now appears to be little doubt that Private William McCann 6735 of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers was the man with the heart of a lion.
William McCann was the third of nine children of Edward McCann and Jane Carvin (also spelled ‘Kerwin’) of 4 Clonard Street, Balbriggan, Co. Dublin, and was born on 29 March 1880. After a few years working for the Post Office as a telegraph engineer like his father, he had enlisted at Naas, Co. Kildare in 1901. Following his Colour service he and his elder brother Patrick, also a telegraph engineer, moved to Glencarse, Perthshire, looking for work. He found not only work but also a wife, marrying Jane Band, a domestic servant, at Chance Inn, Glencarse, on 4 November 1910, two weeks before her 19th birthday. A son, William, was born in 1911 but sadly died in January 1912. Later that year a second son was born, David Band. Now the head of a family, when his years with the Reserve ended in 1913 he chose to become a Section D reservist, thus for four more years augmenting his income by sixpence a day paid quarterly. He was called up on 4 August 1914 and landed in France with 2nd RDF on 22 August. His daughter Jean Williamina Kerwin was born in 1915, when he was already dead.
The personal inscription on his headstone, which must have cost his next of kin 17/6, reads
WITH LOVED ONES FAR AWAY
J & D McCANN
The text was chosen by Mrs J Don of Chance Inn: Jane had remarried in August 1919, her new husband being David Don. The ‘J & D McCann’ are believed by the family to be Jean and her brother David. Nobody knows why Jane excluded herself.
William McCann is mentioned on the family grave at Balscadden, near Balbriggan, where he is simply described as ‘WILLIAM killed at Armetiers [sic] 17th Octr 1914′. That inscription and the headstone in Strand Military Cemetery have been his sole memorials. The old lady of the café and her daughter were the only ones who witnessed his death. If the story of his heroic fight ever reached his Battalion at all, and there is no indication that it did, it was not recorded in any official document. (8) His next of kin only received a cap badge, said to have belonged to him, and a photo of his grave (9) with an ornate cross in the French style inscribed followed by his father’s name and address (10) and that was all. They never knew what had happened to him. But fortunately I can now at last set the record straight.
Soldat du Royal Dublin Fus [?]
Tué en Action 17.10.14
Private Frank Richards, DCM, MM, late of the Second Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers, undoubtedly a man who knew what he was talking about, gave William McCann his final – and finest – epitaph: ‘…if ever a man won the Victoria Cross, he did’.
- Richards F.: Old Soldiers Never Die (Faber & Faber 1933), page 57-58; annotated edition by H.J. Krijnen and D.E. Langley (Krijnen & Langley, 2004), page 39-40.
- The 2nd RDF War Diary (PRO WO95/1481) describes ‘… inhabitants wild with joy at our entry, surrounded the troops, giving coffee, cigarettes etc.’
- Edmonds J.E.: Military Operations – France and Belgium 1914, Vol.2 (Macmillan, 1929), page 106-107.
- cit., page 111-114 and Map 10.
- Map sheet 36NW2 – 1915.
- Soldiers Died in the Great War CD; Naval & Military Press 1998; http://www.cwgc.org/; CWGC, personal communication.
- Interestingly, it has a much older carved stone over the front door showing the Sacré-Coeur, a heart surrounded by barbs, pierced by arrows and set in a cross with the words in hoc signo vinces, since the Vendée War of 1794 a symbol of France’s resistance to her enemies and worn by millions of French soldiers and civilians in the Great War. The stone may or may not have belonged to the original café.
- The 2nd RDF War Diary just says ‘ – One man killed.’
- The envelope, believed to have come from Aldershot, has unfortunately disappeared so we shall never know who sent the photo and the cap badge. But the photo, published as a postcard by a company called the ‘Franco Art Co.’ with five addresses in Dublin, is intriguing in itself. The grave shows clear signs of having been lovingly decorated by the citizens of Nouvel Houplines: the inscription on the cross is in French, the flowers and the eight plants in their ornamental pots appear to have come from people’s homes. The little wooden cross lying on the grave is probably the original one put up immediately after the burial, the one further back on the left marks a grave which evidently in the eyes of the locals did not deserve any special attention and therefore may well be that of a German..
- The name and address of McCann’s father are phonetically spelled ‘M. McCaun’ and ‘Skeury Street’ [Skerries Street] as they would be pronounced by a Frenchman. They must have come from the pay-book seen by Frank Richards. One wonders why Edward McCann, and not Jane, was entered as the next of kin.
I received invaluable help from Britain, France and Ireland. Mr Roy Hemington, CWGC Archive Supervisor, provided essential details on the (re)location of wartime graves. My friend M Bernard Cousin mobilised the Mayor and citizens of Houplines on my behalf. Mme Odette Schlatter of the Societé d’Histoire, Mme Laurence Creton of SESMA, M René Monvoisin, M Pierre Olgiati, Mme Laurence Delamotte and the Houplines youth club ‘La Cité d’Or’ all helped to solve the puzzle. Mr Sean Connolly of the RDF Association checked the 2nd Bn War Diary for me. Ms Kathleen McCann, astonished as she was when I found her on the Internet and explained my mission, told me all she knew about her great-grandfather. Mr Joe Curtis sent additional information on his grand-uncle. I cannot thank them enough.