Harold SKEEN
Rank: Private
Number: 126076
Unit: 3rd Battalion MACHINE GUN CORPS
Date of Death: 15 May 1918
Age: 21
Cemetery: Niederzweren Cemetery, Kassel, Germany

In the late 1880s, John Skeen got married at St Mary's Church, Stockport. His bride was Caroline Jenkins. Over the years, they had at least five children together. In 1901, when the census was taken, the family was living at 3 Charles Street, Hazel Grove (and, later, at 11 Newtown Street).

Harold's story has been previously told by John Eaton for his book "Hazel Grove to Armageddon" and it is not proposed to repeat all the information contained there. He recounts that Harold was a miner and was exempt from conscription but volunteered to join the Shropshire Light Infantry. He was given the service number of 3468. An examination of his medal entitlement records, at the National Archives, show that this is not recorded. This confirms that he never served abroad with Shropshires and will, no doubt, have been transferred to the machine gunners when he had finished his training.

It is not possible to be certain when Harold went overseas but it cannot have been long before he died. Using the CD-ROM "Soldiers Died in the Great War", it is possible to undertake a rudimentary analysis comparing service numbers and dates of death. The earliest death of a man with a service number close to Harold's (126078) was on 21 March 1918. The 3rd Battalion of the Corps had only been formed on 6 March, by bringing together other units, and it may be that Harold had joined at this time to bring the Battalion up to strength.

On 21 March, the German army launched an overwhelming assault on the British lines. Within hours, the front line had been overrun and the Tommies were undertaking a fighting retreat. Harold and his mates were not in combat on this day and were in reserve at "York Lines", near the French village of Neuville-Vitasse. At 5am on the 22nd, they started to come under a heavy artillery barrage. There was a further bombardment at 11am, followed by an infantry attack an hour later.

When under attack, machine gun battalions had a specific defensive role. They operated 64 heavy Vickers guns, each with a seven man team. The guns would be positioned along the front held by the Division so as to have their fields of fire inter-locked. As the enemy infantry left their trenches, the guns would open fire cutting the men down and breaking up the attack. At least this was the theory.

As the Germans advanced towards Harold's position, the machine gunners had some success, but the enemy had developed new tactics and were moving forward in small groups and in short rushes. The Battalion's War Diary records "They became difficult as machine gun targets, flitting from cover to cover when in the open and, for the most part, bombing their way along the trench system. There were untold dead lying in front of the wire of Brown Support where the wiring held unbroken. When a short distance away from his post, 2nd Lieutenant Sloper heard a cry for "help". He re-traced his steps and looking over the parados saw in the trench an unwounded German who fired at him. 2nd  Lieutenant Sloper shot him and returned to his men."

Towards dusk, the British infantry holding the front line was running low on ammunition and was coming under strong attack once more. There was little alternative but to retire. The Machine Gun Battalion just had time to withdraw its guns across the open before the Germans captured the positions. Harold was wounded and it was not possible to evacuate him from the trench as it would slow down the retreat of the others. He was left to be taken prisoner by the Germans and his wounds attended to in one of their field hospitals.

It is not known where Harold died. There was a Prisoner of War camp at Niederzweren but, after the armistice, the bodies of 1500 soldiers originally buried at nearly 200 other camp cemeteries were re-interred here where their graves are now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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