Chairs that Stand Empty: The men behind the names on the Hulme Hall First World War Memorial

Hulme Hall is a Hall of Residence for students at The University of Manchester. Founded in 1870, the Hall has changed constantly over the past 148 years to meet the changing landscape of university life. Over 250 current and former students fought during the First World War. 40 were to lose their lives, with 33 remembered on the Hulme Hall War Memorial.

After research taken over a period of seven years, former resident James Hern has pieced together the lives of the 40 men who lost their lives between 1914 and 1919. In this guest blog post, James tells us about the research that led to the publication of his book Chairs that Stand Empty: The men behind the names on the Hulme Hall First World War Memorial

  • Stories behind the names

Names that once would have stirred memories of friendship, academic success or endeavours on sports pitches had become simply another unknown name on a memorial plaque.

It took me three minutes to read the names of the 33 names of men on the Hulme Hall War Memorial during the 2002 and 2003 Remembrance Services. Names that once would have stirred memories of friendship, academic success or endeavours on sports pitches had become simply another unknown name on a memorial plaque. Lives remembered for a fleeting moment.

James Henderson won the MC in 1915 for holding off waves of enemy attacks during the Battle of Frezenberg. He was wounded twice before being killed in August 1916. Photo: The Manchester University Magazine, held at the University of Manchester Library

In 2010, during an unscheduled brief visit to the Somme, I decided to look into the stories of the men on the memorial, my primary purpose being to help me understand the narrative of the First World War and what made the undulating and barren landscape of this part of France worth the lives of hundred of thousands of men.

I certainly was fortunate. The Hulme Hall archives provided a rich source of information, with photographs, obituaries, administration records, magazines and yearly reports by the Warden. Through cross-referencing the administration records against the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, I identified a further seven men who died but were not listed on the Hulme Hall War Memorial. The reasons for their omission haven’t been confirmed.

With the majority of the men receiving a commission at some point, their service records held at the National Archives at Kew provided a key glimpse into their army life. Howard Harker wrote passionately to the War Office, requesting the opportunity to join the Royal Flying Corps. His work in the experimental department of the Royal Aircraft Factory was considered a reserved occupation. Receiving a commission in 1916, he became a gifted fighter pilot, fighting against Manfred von Richthofen’s squadron during the Battle of Arras in 1917.

Image of George Hebblethwaite, taken in 1912/1913 when he was an Arts Student at Manchester University. Image added to Lives of the First World War by George’s relative

  • Family stories and memories

Whilst the archives at Kew and Manchester provided an insight into the lives of the men, it was making contact with families and discovering letters that brought the research to life and changed it from a personal project to one where I felt I had an obligation to publish the stories I had uncovered. Photographs of the men provided an insight into their character and lives; from family gatherings, weddings, school photographs and in active service.

Harland Watts was studying History at the outbreak of War. He married Sarah Johnson
shortly before leaving for France with the South Lancashire Regiment. Photo: Michael Watts

Of the letters written by the men, the most powerful were those written by Robert Bedford, Harry Pickles, William Wildblood and Harland Watts to their History tutor at Manchester, Professor Tout.

Robert Bedford fought in Gallipoli, Sinai and the Western Front between 1915 and 1918. He wrote eight letters to Professor Tout through this time; his emotions clearly displaced from the horrors of seeing his friend’s bodies lying out in no-man’s land after failed attacks in Gallipoli in 1915, to the boredom of life in the Sinai desert the following year whilst fighting raged in France.

Robert’s humour shines through as he describes dealing with newly qualified junior officers, his men berating their mates who received ‘Blighty’ wounds and the cynicism of the British press reporting on the progress of the War.

Arriving in France in 1917, Robert was subsequently wounded on two occasions; the first during a gas attack that led to him being temporarily blinded for a week and the second when being struck on the foot by shrapnel. In March 1918 he was killed during a German offensive on the Somme.

  • Remembering the men 100 years on

Some day the war will be over and we shall meet again – or we shall meet if we can bear to face the chairs that will stand empty – Reverend J H Hopkinson, Hulme Hall Warden

The lives of the 40 men from Hulme Hall captured unique stories that cover most aspects of the War, from the sea, land and air; Gallipoli, France, Belgium, Greece and Africa. It is my hope that future generations of Hulme Hall students will pause and remember the men behind the names in future years.

Discover the stories of men from the Hulme Hall Memorial, in this Lives of the First World War Community

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