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Looking back on the life of a brave Cobbler who passed 100 years ago

7 August 2018

Harold Redhead by BBC Radio Northampton’s Graham McKechnie and military historian Jon Cooksey

Harold Redhead looked every inch the archetypal young First World War officer. The face gazing back at the viewer from photographs more than a century old is a friendly one. There’s a hint of a smile – modest of course, no teeth showing. His eyes are dark beneath even darker brows and his thick black wavy hair is swept back from his forehead in a side parting. He is the epitome of youthful optimism, vigour and innocence. In a famous squad photograph his captain, Fred Lessons, sits three to his left on the front row, sporting an altogether more resigned look. And behind Redhead, on the back row, stands the great Walter Tull: defiant and proud. The photograph was taken in 1912. By November 1918 - the end of the war - all three would be dead.

Redhead was not a typical footballer for the time. Unlike Lessons and Tull, he was an amateur, playing whenever needed by the Cobblers but mostly appearing for the reserves. Playing for the Cobblers could not have been more convenient - Redhead lived with his parents on Abington Avenue, just a few yards from the entrance to the County Ground. When he wasn’t playing centre-back for the Cobblers, he worked for the Government’s Land Valuation Department in Leicester, having trained as an architect and surveyor. When war broke out in 1914, like so many other men of his generation, Redhead enlisted and joined the Coldstream Guards as a private in January 1915 before receiving his commission as an officer and eventually being posted to the 6th Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment.

In July 1916, aged 25, Redhead fought in the Battle of the Somme. It was here that the 6th Northamptons proved their worth, taking part in a successful attack on 7th July and then, a week later, capturing the German stronghold of Trones Wood. There, Redhead led his man admirably in a chaotic, vicious and bloody battle, often involving hand-to-hand fighting. Wounded twice during the battle – a bullet wound across the left shin and a bayonet wound to the inside of the left ankle - he was mentioned in the official reports of the battle for what he achieved that day.

Evacuated back to Britain four days later he was treated in hospital in Denmark Hill London, but was soon fit for duty once more and he returned to the fighting. A severely twisted knee saw him return to England again for treatment in late June 1917 but he was back on the Western Front in France in early 1918.

The year 1918 saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. The once mighty German Army was on its last legs. Its last gasp offensive in the spring and early summer had failed and the cost of four years of war was having a devastating effect on both the army and the home front. The Allies were boosted by the imminent arrival of thousands of fresh American troops. On 8 August 1918 the Allies would launch their own attack at Amiens and for the final 100 days the war would became more open with soldiers leaving the safety of their trenches as the German Army was pushed back relentlessly towards Germany.

On 7th August 1918, on the eve of that great Battle of Amiens, Harold Redhead was leading men of the 6th Northamptonshire Regiment into action once more near the village of Sailly-le-Sec. Ironically, two years on from July 1916 he was back on the Somme again – a few miles from Trones Wood - when he was struck down. This time the wound proved fatal. Originally buried in Essex Cemetery near Sailly-le-Sec, Harold Redhead’s body was moved 1,000 yards further south in the 1920s and he now lies alongside other men from Northampton in a cemetery called Dive Copse on the north bank of the River Somme in what is today a remote and peaceful corner of France.

Redhead may not have made hundreds of appearances for the Cobblers. He may not have had the chance to win medals or command a battalion. But he did his bit like so many others and like them all deserves to be remembered.

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