On 23 August 1914, British and German cavalry clashed just north of Mons. The British enjoyed early success against their more numerous foe but the sudden collapse of the French Fifth Army exposed the British right flank. What began as an orderly withdrawal turned into a full-scale retreat lasting for two weeks as the Germans harried the British all the way to Paris.
Amongst the fleeing British troops was Rifleman Henry Robinson Lupton of the King’s Royal Rifles. The heat of the French summer and the stress of battle took their toll on Lupton who fell sick shortly after the start of the retreat from Mons. He was referred to the doctor but deemed too weak to continue the march south. He and eleven other sick comrades were left behind in a French village, abandoned to their fate. The Germans soon surrounded them.
As the weeks passed, news of the fallen and the captured began to filter home. Nothing, however, was heard of Rifleman Lupton. In due course, he was declared ‘missing presumed dead’. Rifleman Lupton’s home was at Back Lane, Horsforth and his family were left to endure the agony of limbo which was sadly to become all too familiar to parents of that generation. There was no body to bury and no grave to tend – just a succession of days in which hope turned to despair.
More than one year passed before, finally, on 30 November 1915, official notification of Rifleman Lupton’s death was received at Back Lane. Notwithstanding the lack of a body, the authorities had concluded that Lupton must surely have died.
To commemorate the second anniversary of her son’s disappearance after Mons, Mrs Lupton placed an ‘in memoriam’ notice in a local weekly newspaper. Less than one week later, however, she was floored to receive a letter from her son dated 16 August 1916.
In his correspondence, seemingly received from beyond the grave, Rifleman Lupton explained that, after he and his sick comrades had been surrounded by enemy troops, he had managed to slip away disguised in civilian clothes. He hid himself in a nearby forest and there he had lived as a hermit for 22 months, emerging only at night to seek food and drink. Eventually, however, he was so weakened by illness and a lack of food that he had been forced to give himself up to the Germans. That was on 11 June 1916 and he had been held captive ever since.
It is impossible to imagine the emotional impact which this news must have had on the Lupton family but, sadly, there was to be no ultimate happy ending. Rifleman Lupton’s health continued to deteriorate in captivity. He died in Cassel prisoner of war camp on 27 April 1917.
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