THE First World War was just a few months old when 2nd Lieutenant Henry Noel Atkinson became the first soldier from the Parish of Northop to die in a conflict which would go on to claim the lives of many more young men.
Born at Audlem Vicarage, Cheshire on Christmas Day 1888, Henry was the son of Reverend Arthur Atkinson, Clerk in Holy Orders, Hon. Canon of Chester Cathedral, and Ursula Mary Atkinson, née Cotton-Jodrell.
The Atkinson family had serious upper class connections through Ursula’s line, with many of the male members of the family achieving very high positions either in the military or in the church.
Ursula’s father was George Edward Lynch Cotton, born in Chester in 1813, who distinguished himself firstly in the world of education when he was appointed by Thomas Arnold to be a master at Rugby School where he taught for 15 years and then as headmaster at Marlborough School.
In 1857 he was consecrated Bishop at Westminster Abbey by the Archbishop of Canterbury and then personally selected by Queen Victoria to be Bishop of Calcutta and Metropolitan Bishop of India, Burma and Ceylon.
He drowned in 1866, having consecrated a cemetery in Kushtea, slipping on the plank taking him back to the boat he was using and falling into the Ganges, where he was washed away and never seen again.
Sadly this was not the first tragedy to affect Ursula. In 1879, she married Rev Walter Hillyard, the vicar of St Oswalds in Worleston, Cheshire, but just two years later he died at the age of 28, leaving Ursula a widow.
She remarried in 1884 to another vicar, Rev Arthur Atkinson, who was 24 years older than her and the vicar of Audlem Parish in Cheshire. Four years later their only child Henry was born.
The 1901 Census finds 12-year-old Henry away at boarding school on the Wirral. His father was by then a retired clergyman though he had been ‘promoted’ in the intervening years to Rev Canon Atkinson, an honorary Canon to Chester Cathedral.
He and Ursula lived in the impressive surroundings of Highfield Hall in Northop Hall with a supporting cast of domestic servants.
By the 1911 Census the family was still at Highfield Hall with 22-year-old Henry described as ‘a Gentleman Gardener’ following his education at Charterhouse School and St John’s College, Cambridge.
A keen golfer, Henry would win the Welsh Amateur Cup in 1914, but war was to intervene and he joined the 3rd Battalion Special Reserve Cheshire Regiment, before embarking for France with the 1st Battalion on August 14, 1914.
Henry served unscathed through the fighting at Mons, Le Cateau and The Aisne until 22 October 1914, near La Bassée, at Voilaines, where he was reported officially ‘missing’ and was believed to have been captured.
With his whereabouts still not known, Henry was awarded the Companion of the Distinguished Service Order on December 1, 1914. His citation read: “Henry Noel Atkinson, 2nd Lieut., 3rd Battn, The Cheshire Regiment. For conspicuous gallantry under heavy fire from both flanks by collecting a few men and checking the enemy, thereby facilitating the retirement of his comrades.”
Henry was even promoted to Lieutenant on February 2, 1915, but a year after his son was reported missing, Canon Atkinson died aged 81 years. He only ever knew that his precious only child was ‘missing’ and a commemorative plaque was dedicated to him in Northop Church.
But that was not the end of Henry Atkinson’s sad afterlife. After the war, as no grave could be found, Lt Atkinson’s family had a tombstone laid where it was believed Henry had fallen and it is this memorial which more than a century after his death has become the centre of a moving effort to pay a fitting tribute to Henry and his fallen comrades.
“In 1923 a number of bodies were brought in from the battlefields and reburied in War Grave Cemeteries,” explains Viv Willliams, co-founder of Flintshire War Memorials.
“Henry Noel Atkinson was indentified by his tag and was reburied in Cabaret Rouge Cemetery.
“He had been found 400 yards from where the parents had placed their own memorial stone but clearly the family stone was not appropriate for the new cemetery.
“It was moved to the village of Volaines, a village four kilometres north-west of La Bassee and 28 kilometres north of Arras, and the inscription was extended to include not just Henry, but all those fallen men from the Cheshire Regiment.”
Earlier this month, Viv was contacted by Jean Jacques Delabroye, a member of Le Souvenir Français, a French association for maintaining war memorials and war memory, comparable to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The group were keen to move Henry’s memorial stone to a more fitting location, close to the battlefield where he and his comrades in the Cheshire regiment died and where many of the soldiers still lie with no known graves.
“The village organisation has for some time believed that the memorial has been placed the wrong way,” said Viv. “They have organised the removal and moving of it so it faces the battlefield where they all died.
“It came out of the blue but we were so grateful they contacted us and they obviously feel very strongly that the memorial should face the battlefield. They have really gone to so much trouble and it is very kind of them.”
Henry’s uncle was Colonel Sir Edward Thomas Davenant Cotton-Jodrell – a powerful and wealthy man who owned estates in Cheshire and Derbyshire and was Commander of the Cheshire Royal Engineers from 1888 to 1908.
He also worked in the War Office from 1906 to 1912 and was MP for Wirral from1885 to 1900, and Viv believes his influence explains the unique nature of Henry’s memorial.
“Henry’s death and commemoration were handled very differently to any other soldier we have learnt about,” said Viv.
“He was the first casualty from the parish which made the event more sensational and his uncle was very influential both in the Cheshire Regiment, the War Office and indeed in Parliament.
“Henry was promoted after his death and was almost uniquely allowed to have his own memorial stone in France.
“His sad story gives us a glimpse into a world where patronage and family connections counted for much, but in the end his death on the battlefield was no less harrowing than any of the others – he was a young man cut down in his prime leaving a devastated family.”