The Corlett Brothers

British ships at the Battle of Jutland (© IWM Q 20439)

The Corlett Brothers

Roland Edward Corlett,
M.3967 Acting Armourer, Royal Navy

28342 Private Clifford Noble Corlett,
9th (Service) Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

Francis John Corlett,
Seaman Cadet, Mercantile Marine

HMS Malaya in action at the Battle of Jutland

Origins and Roland Corlett:

The Corlett family moved to Barwick from Potternewton in 1912 and set up
home on The Boyle. Headed by James Henry Corlett and his wife, Rose Ada (née Noble), there were five children in the family, all born between 1890 and 1905. James Corlett was originally from Harpurhey in Manchester, and Rose was from Church, near Accrington.

The eldest child, Roland Edward was born on 1st July 1890, and trained as a fitter. He joined the Royal Navy as a Stoker on 21st September 1908. He initially signed on to serve 12 years, but extended his service until 1930, when he was discharged to pension, having completed 22 years’ service, changing roles from Stoker, to become an Acting Armourer, the equivalent of a Petty Officer. He served throughout the Great War and was present on HMS Malaya at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

He married Hilda Richardson in Portsmouth in 1918, and during his time ashore, and following his discharge from the Royal Navy the couple lived in Portsmouth. Roland Corlett worked as an engine fitter at Portsmouth Naval Dockyard following his release from the Royal Navy. He lived there for the rest of his life. Hilda died in 1952, and two years later, the widowed Roland married Mabel Saint. He died in 1972.

Group System Recruiting Poster (© IWM Art.IWM PST 11983)

A Sister, and Clifford Corlett:

A daughter followed Roland, and she was the only girl in the family. She was named Elsie Rose. When she became old enough to leave school and start working, she got a job with her father, who had left his job as a representative for a wholesale provisions company to become a representative for the National Telephone Company. Elsie worked as a telephone operator. She married Harry Hesketh Swainston in 1922. He had been a Corporal in a Field Survey Company of the Royal Engineers, during most of the Great War, but was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery on 4th November 1918.
The couple lived on Aberford Lane in Barwick, but when Harry Swainston died, aged 46, in September 1938, Elsie went to live with her mother, who was by this time, also widowed.

Clifford Noble Corlett was born in Leeds on 4th August 1898. Little remains to inform us about his schooling, or his employment before he joined the army. Army records relating to him are sparse as well. Using the medal rolls and the ‘Soldiers died in the Great War’ database, it is known that when he joined the army, his first unit was the 62nd (West Riding) Division Cyclist Company.
Using the service records that have survived that relate to men who were close to Clifford Corlett in the regimental numbering scheme, it is possible to determine his journey from civilian to the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

Several determining factors combine to confirm that Clifford Corlett enlisted into the Army via the Group System, which is perhaps better known as ‘The Derby Scheme’ after the Director General of Recruiting, the Earl of Derby, of Knowsley, near Liverpool, who had been responsible for raising the first ‘Pals’ battalions in the city.

Using the service records of men either side of Clifford Corlett in the numbering system, we can be sure that he was a Group System recruit because the other men enlisted in December 1915, but were not mobilised until much later, mostly in May 1917. Because of Clifford Corlett’s age, being born in 1898, special measures were put in place to allow those young men to enlist voluntarily, after the normal closure of the Group System to older men, if they did so before their 18th birthday, which in Clifford Corlett’s case was in August 1916.
Troops training at an IBD at Etaples (© IWM Q 33332)

Clifford Noble's Call-Up:

The men around him were called up for service in May 1917 and were sent to the Army Cyclist Corps, with provisional allocations to various units within the corps. In the event, none actually went on to serve in the corps on active service, as they were compulsorily transferred to the 17th Battalion, The King’s (Liverpool) Regiment on 10th September 1917, immediately prior to their embarkation for France.

At this stage of the war, the system for sending men out to their units had been refined and made much more efficient than it had been in the earlier days of the war, when it had been a regimental responsibility. Enormous camps, called Infantry Base Depots, had been built on the French coast, particularly in the area around Etaples, and all men destined for infantry regiments would pass through these camps to finalise their training and await a draft to a battalion. It was common for men belonging to one regiment to be transferred to another while they were at the Infantry Base Depots (IBD), and that is exactly what happened to the cohort that Clifford Corlett belonged to at 24 IBD. They were transferred to the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment on 21st September 1917 and posted to the regiment’s 9th Battalion, which was in a reserve camp, near Caëstre, and training at the time. The battalion war diary records the arrival of 100 other ranks for 24 IBD on the same date. We can see, then, that although extant records show Clifford Corlett served with three different regiments and corps, the reality is that all his active service soldiering was done while he was soldier with the 9th Bn, the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

His introduction to the battalion appears to have been quite pleasant, with training behind the lines, a divisional fete, and a parade at which some members of the battalion received ribbons for the decorations they had recently been awarded. He would not go into the front line until 5th October, by which time he would have been allocated to a company, and become acquainted with the officers, NCOs and men he would serve with. That first tour of the trenches warrants no more of an entry in the war diary than to mark when it went into the trenches, and when it came out, so it seems the Cambrin sector was relatively quiet at the time, which was the best environment to learn the art of trench-craft. Further rotations in and out of the trenches during October all appear to have been routine and uneventful. At the end of the month, the diary records just 6 casualties during the month, none of which were fatal.

Life in the battalion revolved around the routine trench holding duties, during which time the men would be tasked to go out on patrol, or to mount trench raids on the enemy positions opposite to gather intelligence or disrupt their routines. Patrols and raids were dangerous occupations but were necessary to keep the flow of information current so that battalion and formation intelligence officers could keep track of the enemy identity, strengths, and movements, and make assessments on morale and the condition of the troops facing them. Low-level operations like these were partly responsible for the continual loss of men, as well as those lost due to enemy bombardments and their own patrols and raids. Each man lost would be tragedy for his friends and his family back home, but in an army numbered in the millions, a battalion that lost, perhaps, a dozen men in a month in this manner could consider itself fortunate. Over the months after Clifford Corlett arrived in the battalion, the losses it suffered due to these causes were few, but steadily built as time went by.
The area between Fremicourt and Morchies (National Library of Scotland)

Operation Michael, March 1918:

The 25th Division, to which 9th Bn Loyal North Lancashire Regiment belonged (in 74th Infantry Brigade), had been withdrawn from the line into Corps Reserve in mid-February 1918, and was in camp near the Achiets, a few miles from Bapaume. Well accommodated in Nissen Huts, the men could rest comfortably in their free time. There were still working parties to find, but as they were further back from the front line, it was usually done in relative safety.
On 21st March 1918, the German Army launched its largest offensive on the Western Front, with the first push being directed across the old 1916 Somme Battlefields, and the Achiets and Bapaume were directly in the path of the German advance. The British had gathered intelligence which told them roughly when and where the attack would happen, but when it did come, the weight of the accompanying bombardment took them by surprise. The Germans also had the advantage of dense fog on the first morning of the attack which shielded the troops in the vanguard of the advance from the British defenders until they were almost upon the British lines. Because the German bombardment covered such a wide area, and because the German Stormtroopers were undetected until it was far too late, entire units were quickly overwhelmed, and communications between the front lines and their formation headquarters broke down almost immediately which meant that command and control splintered and was reduced to unit and sub-unit level.
After two days, the British Fifth Army was in full retreat. Mistakes in the German Army’s High Command, such as failures to adhere to established tactics, and concentrating on capturing positions that were not tactically significant quickly used up the resources the Germans had at their disposal and soon afterwards the German advance lost momentum, allowing the British a period of time to organise themselves into cohesive, if depleted, composite formations which could work together to mount a credible defence.
The 9th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment was hard pressed on 22nd March, forcing those who could, to retreat to a line south of the Bapaume to Cambrai Road, near Frémicourt from Morchies, to the north east. Many of the officers of the battalion had become casualties, and enough of the soldiers had been killed or wounded to make their position untenable in the face of the seemingly relentless advance of the Germans.
A precise account of the fighting is difficult to put together because of the pressure the battalion was under, and the loss of those whose job it was to compile the narrative, but according to the German account of where Clifford Corlett was captured, it appears that he was taken quite early in the action, when the battalion was still holding a line in Morchies. He was captured unwounded, which is an illustration of how quickly the German onslaught descended on the Lancashire men. There was no time to hold the Germans off and fight to the last man there.
POWs unveil a memorial at Parchim, November 1918 (Australian War Memorial P03236.340)

Clifford Corlett - Captured at Fremicourt:

Being unwounded, Clifford Corlett could be sent back to Germany immediately, and his journey ended in the town of Parchim in Mecklenburg in northern Germany. The camp at Parchim could accommodate up to 25000 prisoners, but like many other of the main camps, it was also used as a processing centre before the prisoners were sent out to satellite camps where they were put to work, predominantly as agricultural labourers. There could be a further 20000 men administered through the camp at Parchim in this way.
If the men who were working through the satellite camps remained fit and healthy, and able to work, life could be tolerable for them, especially for those men working on farms. Even towards the end of the war, when most supplies were becoming scarce, the prisoners working on farms could usually find enough food to eat, and with the meagre pay they received, some other goods could be bought. They were generally treated with kindness by the farmers they worked for. Things could be markedly different for the men left in the main camps, or those in hospital. Meals were infrequent and of a quality that decreased as the war went on. The parcels they received from home and through the Red Cross were searched for food and medical supplies, and any that were found were confiscated. Hospital treatment became increasingly rudimentary as medical supplies ran low or were diverted to the front. The men who were receiving treatment often had to endure squalid conditions as the system broke down.

Repatriated prisoners of war were interviewed on their return so that details of ill treatment could be collated, and punitive action taken against the perpetrators if necessary. Such treatment was relatively rare, and many returning prisoners reported that their captors remained courteous and humane, even when the camps were suffering their most serious privations and it was clear that Germany was beaten.
Cologne Southern Cemetery (CWGC)

Captivity and Death:

Clifford Noble Corlett died on 16th November 1918, just five days after the Armistice. It is probable that he died of the ‘flu that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

Following the end of the fighting, the British would send troops into Germany to form a part of an Allied occupation force, with the British being headquartered in Cologne. Because the fighting had ended so abruptly, there had been no time to make detailed plans for the composition and movement of the occupying force from their current positions on the Western Front into the zone of occupation, and the first troops marched eastward more than a week after the Armistice was signed. Parchim was a further 270 miles distant from Cologne, which means that when Clifford Corlett died, the camp was still under German administration, and his burial will have been organised by the German authorities locally.

Many German towns had buried prisoners of war in their existing cemeteries, and some of the larger camps had established plots solely for the use of the camps, and because of the expense and logistical problems maintaining the graves in the numerous cemeteries would cause, it was decided that the best course would be to concentrate all the burials across Germany into four permanent cemeteries that would be viable in terms of cost and ease of maintenance. Clifford Corlett’s grave was moved to Cologne Southern Cemetery in the Zollstock district of the city in 1923 and concentrated there along with burials from more than 180 cemeteries from across northern Germany. As well as being remembered on the Barwick War Memorial, Clifford Noble Corlett’s name also appears in the Leeds City Roll of Honour for the Great War.

Frank Corlett - Mercantile Marine, Police, Coldstream Guards

Francis John Corlett, known by all as Frank, being born on 19th December 1901, was too young for any form of military service during the Great War. With the introduction of conscription under the terms of the Military Service Act of 1916, almost all means of entry into the army for underage, but adventurous young men had been blocked. In 1918, at the age of 16 years, he joined the Mercantile Marine as a Cadet, with the intention of becoming a merchant seaman. It isn’t known how long he served in the Mercantile Marine, but it is known that he had time to join the West Riding Constabulary, becoming a policeman, before, in October 1925, he enlisted into the Coldstream Guards. He married Eleanor Mabel Greenheld in Wakefield the following year, and was, soon afterwards, posted to Shanghai in China to serve with the regiment’s 2nd Battalion. After 12 years’ service as a Coldstreamer, he was discharged, and the couple had three children and settled in London, with Frank dying in Enfield on 12th March 1981.