1915-2015: Abergele & District Commemorations: Frederick Harding Turner

Second Lieutenant Frederick Harding Turner, ‘D’ Company, 1/10th (Liverpool Scottish) Battalion, King’s (Liverpool Regiment), 9th Brigade, 3rd Division. Killed in action, 10 January 1915. Known as ‘Tanky’, he was the Captain of the Scotland Rugby Union team.

Frederick is not commemorated in the Abergele district despite his connections with Llanddulas. He was buried in a cemetery but the precise site was subsequently lost in the fighting and he is commemorated on Special Memorial 13, Kemmel Churchyard, Heuvelland, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium. Other memorials include: War Memorial for the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, St. Hildeburghs Church, Hoylake; Garston Civic Memorial; Liverpool Cricket & Rugby Club War Memorial; SS Matthew & James’ Church War Memorial, Mossley Hill; Sefton Park Presbyterian Church War Memorial.

Turner - KemmelFrederick Harding Turner was born on 29 May 1888 in Liverpool, the younger son of William Neil and Jessie Turner. William was a principal partner in the Liverpool printing firm of Turner & Dunnett of Fenwick Street. He owned a second home, Bronwendon, in Llanddulas for a number of years until shortly before the war (today this is the building to the right of the entrance to Bron-y-Wendon holiday park on Wern Road). Consequently his two sons, Frederick and William, spent some time in Llanddulas when not away at school and they became quite well known in the area.

Frederick began his education at Greenbank school, Liverpool, where he began to learn to play Rugby, specialising as a flanker. From there he moved to Sedburgh School between 1902 and 1907. There he showed his athleticism in numerous sports and captained both the Rugby and Cricket teams. He also joined the Officer Training Cadets, was a prefect and won the Sixth Form prize. As he left for Oxford, his Master wrote of him, “I hardly remember such a combination of character, industry, and athletic distinction; when the three are in such a harmonious blend the type cannot be improved upon.

In 1907 he moved to Trinity College, Oxford, to study law, gaining a third class degree in 1910. The quality of his degree may have been affected by his passion for sport, especially Rugby. In 1907 he had played for the Officers of the Army v the Officers of the Royal Navy in February and December. He played for Oxford University against the 1908-1909 Australian touring side, and also captained the University team to a welcome win against their arch rivals Cambridge in 1910 . He also played cricket for Oxford as a bowler, averaging a wicket every 16 balls and a batting average of 10 as well as for Lancashire County Cricket Club second XI. In addition he was a keen golfer. Whilst at Oxford, Frederick became good friends with a fellow Rugby player, Ronald William Poulton-Palmer. The two played together in the 1909 Varsity match, when Poulton-Palmer scored five tries.

Frederick's side is Ronald Poulton-Palmer, Captain of England. Next to him on the other side is R. A. Lloyd, Captain of Ireland. Boasting three international Captains this team was quite formidable! In addition to Turner and Poulton-Palmer, Jackson, Ross and E. H. Cowan would also die in the war. Photograph reproduced from W. B. Croxford (Ed.), Rugby Union in Lancashire and Cheshire, Littlebury Bros, 1949.
The Oxford University Rugby team of 1909-10. Frederick is centre, with the ball. By Frederick’s side is Ronald Poulton-Palmer, Captain of England.

He left Oxford in 1910 with an endorsement from the President of the College, who wrote that, “Every undergraduate respected him, not only as an athlete, but as a thoroughly sensible and upright man, and all in authority knew him to be reliable in every way.”

He began working for his father’s printing company and played Rugby for Liverpool FC (Rugby Union) – known today as St. Helen’s Rugby Union Football Club. It was at this time that he probably took up temporary residence in Llanddulas. Known by now by his nickname of ‘Tanky’, due to his physical size and strength, he was called up for the Scotland international side, making his debut as a flanker in France on 2 January 1911. He became an ever present for that and the subsequent season playing against Wales, England, Ireland and France. His 5 conversions against France in 1912 was, at that time, a record equaling feat.

On 18 May 1912 Frederick was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 1/10th (Scottish) territorial battalion of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment. This battalion was very much known as a ‘Rugby’ battalion. One of Frederick’s comrades was Lieutenant Percy Dale Kendall who had been captain of the England international side in 1903.

The 1912-13 international rugby season also saw him bestowed with the honour of becoming Captain of the Scotland international team, leading his country to a famous 8-3 victory over England at Inverleith in the Five Nations / Calcutta Cup game and also playing against the touring South Africans. In 1913 he played in three of Scotland’s four internationals as Captain. He then announced his semi-retirement from international Rugby to concentrate on Liverpool FC, but answered the call in 1914 to play in what turned out to be Scotland’s final international before the outbreak of war, scoring a conversion in a 16-15 points defeat to England at Inverleith. The England team was captained by his old friend from Oxford, Ronald Poulton-Palmer. Frederick, Poulton-Palmer and six members of that Scotland team were destined to lose their lives in the impending conflict. In total, Frederick had gained 15 Scotland caps, scoring two tries.

Frederick as Captain of Scotland against South Africa in 1912
Frederick as Captain of Scotland against South Africa in 1912

On the outbreak of war, Frederick volunteered for foreign service and was promoted to temporary Lieutenant on 25 September 1914. The 1/10th Liverpool (Scottish) battalion began arriving at Le Havre in November 1914, with Frederick disembarking on the 3rd. Whilst waiting for the battalion to be allotted to a Brigade, Frederick was involved in some ceremonial duties.

“Field Marshall Lord Roberts, who had been paying a visit to the Indian troops at the front, returned to Sir John French’s headquarters at St Omer suffering from a chill and died there of pneumonia on 14 November. On the 17th his body was to be taken to the Hotel de Ville for a short service and thence to the railway station to be removed to England for burial. The Liverpool Scottish had the honour of being detailed to line the Place Gambetta, in which the Hotel de Ville is, and also the street leading to it. One officer, Lieutenant F H Turner, and twenty picked men, were also detailed to take part in the procession, and a splendid looking lot they were, none of them under six feet in height.” ( A. M. McGilchrist, ‘The Liverpool Scottish, 1900-1919‘. N.B, according to his army records, Frederick was actually 5’ 11″ tall.)

Second Lieutenant Turner
Second Lieutenant Turner

The battalion was assigned to 9th Brigade, 3rd Division on 25 November 1914. They moved into the front line, near Kemmel, south-west of Ypres, on 27 November. Over the next few weeks they moved in and out of the waterlogged trenches. The winter was particularly harsh and the men must have been quite miserable. Many of the soldiers developed trench foot and other illnesses in the terrible conditions and by January of 1915 the battalion, which began with 829 men, numbered just 329, only 32 of whom had been killed in action. The battalion’s medical officer, Noel Chavasse , another friend of Frederick’s, was kept very busy. Noel had grown up in Liverpool, being the son of the Bishop, and was studying medicine at Oxford until 1909. He was also a keen Rugby player and, although not of the same standard as Frederick, it is easy to see how the two bonded. Noel Chavasse would go on to win two Victoria Crosses and the Military Cross and was the only man to be awarded two VC’s in the Great War, and one of only 3 to achieve that remarkable feat in history. He was badly wounded in 1917 whilst carrying out the feat that gained him the award of his second VC and he died of his injuries two days later.

It was during the harsh winter that Frederick saw his first opportunity to get more directly involved in the fighting frustratingly slip away.

On 14 December, the 8th Brigade carried out an attack with two battalions, Gordon Highlanders and Royal Scots, on the enemy’s position in the Petit Bois. They jumped off from the trenches held by the Liverpool Scottish and Northumberland Fusiliers, whose men were withdrawn to Kemmel except for covering parties. The Scottish left in the line one platoon each of the “X” and “Z” Companies, under Lieuts. F.H. Turner and A.A. Gemmell, and the machine-gun section under Lieut. E McKinnell. Owing to a misunderstanding, part of “X” Company’s platoon left the trenches with the remainder of the company, and Lieut. Turner, thinking it hardly worth while to keep such a small covering party as the few men who were left, asked the Royal Scots for permission to join them in the attack but this request was refused.

Frederick was clearly one of those young men with a desire to do more for the war effort and, despite the hardships and dangers, he was clearly enjoying it. It was during the dismal winter in the trenches that Frederick wrote to his brother stating;

It is a man’s life out here, it agrees with me splendidly. I have never felt fitter in my life. True, we have had some hardships and not a little discomfort, but it has been a picnic in comparison with what the regulars went through. They are a magnificent lot.

However, the opportunity to do more was not presenting itself. The 1/10th were in and out of the trenches carrying out routine tasks. Other than the occasional shelling and the ever present enemy snipers, the greatest threat to the men’s health was trench-foot. It was thus that, on 9 January 1915, the 1/10th battalion was in the trenches, still near Kemmel, for another routine day. During the night Frederick oversaw the laying of some new barbed wire entanglements in front of his men’s trenches. As dawn broke the following morning, a short distance away, having noticed some changes in front of the British position, a German sniper kept close watch.

After breakfast, Frederick made his way down the waterlogged trenches to inspect the work of the previous night.

On the way he looked up twice for a second, and each time he was shot at, but both shots missed. He then got to a place where the parapet was rather low, and was talking to a Sergeant when a bullet went between their heads. Lieut. Turner said, ‘By Jove, that has deafened my right ear’. The Sergeant remarked, ‘And my left one too, Sir’. Lieut. Turner then went a shade lower down, and had a look at the wire, and was shot clean through the middle of the forehead, the bullet coming out at the back of his head, killing him instantly.” [Account from a fellow Officer, produced in De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914-24. I have identified the Sergeant as John Blake Jones. Sergeant Jones would later be killed by the same shell that would kill Fred’s brother, William Stewart Turner, in June 1915.]

Stretcher bearers and medical assistance were immediately called for. Quickly on the scene was Noel Chavasse but there was nothing he could do.

We got him down to (name removed by censor) that night with great difficulty and buried him in the local churchyard in pouring rain. The grave, though baled out in the evening, was 18 inches deep in water. However it is quite the best cared for grave in the churchyard, and looks very pretty, with a nice cross put up by one of the other regiments in the brigade, and also a very nice wreath.” [Account from a fellow Officer, produced in De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914-24.]

It was Kemmel that the officer was referring to, and Frederick was buried in Kemmel churchyard. Unfortunately, this was later subject to heavy shelling and the exact grave site was lost. As his grave site is now unclear, a special memorial headstone has been erected.

His old friend Poulton-Palmer , Captain of the England Rugby team of 1914, and now of the 1/4th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, when he heard the news of his friend’s death, wrote that:

I have played behind many packs of forwards, but never have I been so freed from anxiety as when those forwards were led by Fred Turner. His play, like his tackle, was hard and straight, and never have I seen him the slightest perturbed or excited and in this fact lay the secret of his great power of control….his face always showed his cheery satisfaction with the world at large. At any moment he would burst into that cheery and infectious laugh He was always ready to take his part in any harmless practical joking, on tour or elsewhere.

Frederick’s commanding officer, Colonel Davidson, wrote;

Fred was a gallant fellow, a universal favourite and the idol of the men under his command. His ever cheery manner and courageous bearing under all conditions endeared him to all his comrades. One of his fellow officers remarked to me that Fred Turner, above all men he had ever met, was one in whom it was impossible to find a fault, and I heartily endorse this opinion.

Another officer wrote to his bereaved parents that:

Others will tell you of his superlative qualities as a soldier. Never have I met a truer, straighter man than he, or one braver or more honest. He was a man all through – and he was such a dear good chap as a pal. We shall never forget him.” [Rugby Football Internationals: Roll of Honour]

That Frederick was loved by his platoon is clear from the fact that they would petition for his brother William to become their new Officer and also from the following account by one of his men;

His first thought was always of his men; when their spirits were inclined to droop he rallied them and joked with them, though he always took upon himself the most dangerous and disagreeable duties. A sniper who had tracked him along the trench picked him off.”

The preacher of a memorial sermon, Rev. Alexander Connell, delivered in Sefton Park Church on the 19th January, 1915, emphasised his unusual modesty, and the fact that he had been a faithful attendant and communicant at that church; even after a heavy day on a Saturday he would take a long journey to be in his place in church on Sunday morning. He commented on;

….Lieut. F. H. Turner’s deep character, which makes a man’s strength steadfast, protective, kindly. It was a life that shaped towards a settled usefulness and wise counsel in citizenship and the Church of Christ, a life on which many would have come to lean, a life that would have sheltered the weak, and been a staff to rest on by all who followed the chivalrous and righteous cause. His was a loyal soul – loyal to his home, his family, his club, his city, his country.

Buried in the same cemetery as Frederick is his good friend Percy Dale Kendall, a former England Rugby Captain. His special memorial stands right next to Frederick’s: Scotland and England Captain’s, side by side.

Turner Kemmel7 crop


[This account was originally written for publication elsewhere and I acknowledge the assistance of Joe Devereux, the expert on the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, Pierre Vandervelden in Belgium, St. Helens RUFC, and colleagues from the Great War Forum, notably Gareth Morgan, Andy Pay and a chap called Robert who visited Kemmel for me and whose surname, I regret to say, I never quite got! All images are reproduced with permission from copyright holders or are out of copyright.]

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