The husband of a Huddersfield woman won a Victoria Cross during the First World War before his mysterious death just weeks after the conflict started.

In a story not revealed in the Examiner before, research has shown that Almondbury-born Florence Helena Brigg married Major Charles Allix Lavington Yate, who went on to win his country’s top military honour.

She was the daughter of Huddersfield Mayor John Brigg, JP, who lived at Greenhead Hall in Huddersfield and died in 1899.

He was mayor for three years in all in 1875/6 and again from 1881 to 1883.

It’s not clear how the couple met, but they were married at St George’s Church, Hanover Square in London in September 1903.

The major, who was born in March 1872, graduated from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, ninth out of 1,100 cadets, and joined the 2nd Battalion, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry on August 13, 1892, in Bombay.

He first saw action in India in the Tirah expedition from 1897 to 1898 and was seriously wounded during the Boer War at the Battle of Graspan in November 1899.

Major Yate, who became a major in 1912, was fluent in French, German and Japanese and could also speak Hindustani and Persian.

He was 42 years old and serving with the 2nd Battalion, The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, when he won the Victoria Cross during the battle of Le Cateau in France less than a month after the war started.

Major Yate’s regiment was mobilised and sent to France as part of the 13th Brigade of the 5th Division of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

He was placed in command of B Company of his Battalion, which arrived in the Mons area on August 22.

The massive German assault on Mons drove the British Army into retreat towards the south-west where, after a 30-mile march, the 5th Division dug in to make a stand near the little village of Caudry, a few miles west of Le Cateau.

Major Charles Allix Lavington Yate
 

What came to be known as the Battle of Le Cateau on August 26 was a blocking action to slow down the German pursuit so the majority of the BEF could retreat towards Paris to regroup and make a stand.

Soon after the battle started many of the hastily-prepared British positions were destroyed or severely damaged by German artillery which outnumbered the British guns six to one.

The infantry then came under direct attack from an overwhelming number of German troops. Major Yate’s B Company held its fire until the Germans closed in and were then able to force them back — but only for a short while.

By 2pm the order for a fighting withdrawal was given, but Major Yate either did not receive the order or decided to remain, possibly to give other troops the chance to withdraw. About two hours later the remnants of B Company together with a few men from another company were surrounded on three sides and had all but run out of ammunition.

All the officers, apart from Major Yate, were either dead or wounded. Refusing calls to surrender, Major Yate rallied his 19 remaining survivors out of an original strength of 220 men and led a bayonet charge against the German troops but was quickly captured.

The 2nd Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry suffered more than 600 casualties on the 26th, just over half of them being taken prisoner.

Despite the heavy British casualties, the Battle of Le Cateau is seen as one of the most successful holding actions of the war as it held up the German advance long enough to allow the bulk of the BEF the time it needed to make its orderly withdrawal.

Major Yate’s death a short time later is shrouded in some mystery.

Chaplain Benjamin O’Rorke, a fellow prisoner at Torgau, wrote in his book In The Hands Of The Enemy: “Poor Major Yate! He attempted to escape 10 days later and lost his life in so doing. One of the sentries affirmed that he shot him as he made his way through the barbed wire and that the major fled wounded into the river from which he never came forth alive.”

He adds that Major Yate had memorised the names and addresses of all his fellow prisoners of war so that he could notify their next of kin if he managed to escape.

But this explanation contradicts the first volume of the Official History of the British Army’s part in the Great War which was published in 1933 and in which Brigadier General Edmonds adds a footnote to the section on Le Cateau to the effect that Charles Yate “escaped from his prison camp in Germany and was found near Berlin with his throat cut.”

Other accounts mention research at The National Archives which states that Major Yate escaped in civilian clothes but was challenged the next day by some factory workers who were about to search his haversack when he pulled out an open razor and cut his own throat.

It has been suggested that Charles Yate’s experience with the Japanese Army in 1905 had imbued in him a belief that death was preferable to captivity as the Japanese military culture viewed surrender and captivity as extremely dishonourable.

First world war one historic images powles2013How three thousand British infantry at Le Cateau withstood nine thousand of the crack Prussian cavalry
 

The possibility of Major Yate preferring suicide to capture is reinforced by an unsubstantiated report that he had tried to shoot himself just as he was about to be captured, but a German officer knocked the gun out of his hand.

Another Victoria Cross was won by one of Major Yate’s own men, Lance Corporal Frederick William Holmes, who rescued a man under heavy fire and then helped to save one of the British artillery pieces. He wrote of Major Yate “He was always in front, and his constant cry was ‘Follow me’!”

Major Yate is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Berlin South-Western Cemetery in Stahnsdorf near Potsdam, Germany.

Florence remarried in 1921 but died just three years later aged 57.