The walk between Rievaulx and Helmsley is alive with ghosts. It is not surprising for it is a landscape full of history connecting as it does the ruined monastic splendour of Rievaulx Abbey with the medieval market town mentioned in the Domesday Book as ‘Elmeslac’. It is a landscape that has been inhabited for at least a thousand years by monks, abbots, farmers, herdsmen and even warrior knights. Yet there are modern ghosts, too, whose memory forever links the landscape to the battlefields of the First World War.
On the walk, as you approach the crest of a ridge overlooking Helmsley, you pass Griff Lodge. Belonging to the nearby estate of Duncombe Park, the ancestral seat of the Earls of Feversham, at the turn of the 20th century it was the home of Tom Dale, whose family worked as tenant farmers on the estate. A volunteer who had served in the Boer War, Tom had returned to Helmsley with his wife Jane Ann (formerly Wilson, a distant relative of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx) and gained employment as a herdsman for Charles Duncombe, then Earl of Feversham. The earl himself was an archetype of the Edwardian gentleman. Educated at Eton and Oxford he enjoyed horse riding, raising hounds and hunting. He also took an active part in civic life, serving as MP for Malton & Thirsk as well as an officer in the local yeomanry.
Tom Dale, his wife and children at Griff Lodge before the war
Tom was responsible for raising the earl’s prize-winning herd of Durham Shorthorn cattle, a position which led to him, in 1905, accepting a job working for Señor Don Ismael Tocornal, a prominent Chilean politician, who had imported some of the earl’s prize herd. Tom and his young family lived in Chile for over three years and life in warmer climes appears to have suited them for they returned only briefly to Helmsley in 1909 before emigrating again to Australia.
With the outbreak of the First World War in Europe in 1914, Britain appealed to her Empire for assistance in the war against Germany. In spite of his age (by now in his early forties), with his previous military experience Tom was keen to get back to Britain.
Upon arrival the family immediately returned to Helmsley and Tom enlisted in one of the so-called ‘Kitchener Battalions’. Like in many units raised at the beginning of the war, the problem of feeding, clothing and housing such a massive group of men resulted in poor conditions and frustration amongst recruits. At some point in the autumn of 1915 Tom transferred to a new formation, the 21st Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps. They soon came to be known as the ‘Yeoman’s Rifles’ due to many in the ranks having been recruited from the great farming estates in the north of England – including Helmsley. The man leading this new formation was none other than Charles Duncombe, the Earl of Feversham, and Duncombe Park was used for training the new recruits. In series of manoeuvres, the men were tasked with driving the earl’s deer from one field to another. All went well until the deer had a change of heart and launched a counter-attack against them – the battalion’s first defeat.
The Yeoman's Rifles at Aldershot
Image courtesy of The Helmsley Archive
In 1916, having been promoted to sergeant, Tom Dale and the rest of the Yeoman’s Rifles were sent to the Western Front and settled into a quiet part of the line in Flanders where they were introduced to the rigours of trench warfare. That summer the great allied offensive began on the Somme and it was only a matter of time before the Yeoman’s Rifles were drawn into the inferno. In September 1916 the battalion moved to the Somme to take part in an attack on the German trenches around the village of Flers. With the assistance of tanks, being used in warfare for the first time in history, the Yeoman’s Rifles went forward. Going over the top with fixed bayonets and a ‘Jump to it!’, Tom Dale and his comrades managed to cross the churned-up wasteland and barbed wire in front of the German trenches and capture the village. In the confusion of battle Charles Duncombe led his men forward in another assault beyond the village itself. There he fell, reportedly hit by a bullet as he peered through his binoculars, amid the standing corn of a farmer’s field. The battalion lost over five hundred men with a further two hundred wounded – but Tom Dale was lucky enough to come through the battle unscathed.
Three weeks later an artillery officer visited the battalion’s headquarters in a dugout near Flers. He brought with him a map reference for location of a body believed to be that of Charles Duncombe, found during a patrol. Tom Dale’s platoon officer, a young man not long out of school and affectionately known as ‘the boy’, was dispatched with a group of men to find and bury their colonel. The officer was Anthony Eden, the future Prime Minister, who had been with the battalion since its earliest days. Amongst the burial party of six men was Tom Dale who fashioned a makeshift wooden cross to place over the grave. They searched fruitlessly in the darkness with shells bursting around them but, just as they were about to give up, Tom came finally came across the body of his colonel. They buried him in the field where he had fallen. Eden read a few lines from the burial service he had been given whilst Tom erected his cross over the grave. With a final salute in the pale light of a wintry dawn the mourners left the Earl of Feversham to the fields of Picardy and the enemy shells.
Tom Dale survived the war and returned to Helmsley. As a gesture of thanks for his part in the recovery of the earl’s body, Lady Marjorie, the earl’s widow, ensured that Tom was appointed the first custodian of Helmsley Castle when it was taken over by the Ministry of Works (now English Heritage), a position he held until 1947.
Veterans standing at Feversham’s grave in the Champs du Colonel
Image courtesy of The Helmsley Archive
After the war a permanent memorial was made from timber from the Duncombe Park estate and erected over the earl’s grave. For years after the war it was visited by members of the earl’s family and veterans of his old regiment in a field known to the locals, then as now, as le champ du colonel – ‘the Colonel’s Field’. Tom Dale’s cross returned to Yorkshire where it resides in a local parish church at Pockley. After the Second World War the decision was taken to remove the earl’s body to the nearby cemetery run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission known as AIF Burial Ground, where it can be visited today. The timber memorial returned to Helmsley and can still be found in the churchyard in Rievaulx village.
When I walk the old way between Rievaulx and Helmsley I often think of the Yeoman’s Rifles, the earl’s memorials that stand silently at Rievaulx and Pockley, and of the enthusiastic recruits bested by the deer on the sprawling uplands of the Duncombe Park estate. It is a landscape of memory and of mourning that will forever be linked with the First World War. As I pass Griff Lodge, I take a moment to think about Tom Dale – husband, father, herdsman, adventurer, custodian and veteran of Edwardian Britain’s two great wars. As I descend into the valley the ruins of Helmsley Castle rise up to meet the eye. I like to think that Tom Dale still watches over it even now.
With thanks to The Helmsley Archive
for supplying images for this article.