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The Sounding of the Retreat


Every year, on or around the 25th April, The College of St Bede as was, and now St Hild and & St Bede, marks the anniversary and commemorates the memory of men killed in action and died of wounds at the battle of Gravenstafel Ridge in 1915.

This is an important annual moment at which our College acknowledges the loss of these lives and the sacrifice made by members of one of the constituent parts of our community. It is also therefore an opportunity to recall all the lives lost in that conflict from nations across the world. The event is closely linked to our observance of Remembrance Sunday which takes place each November, again around our war memorial, when we remember all those associated with our College whose lives have been lost in both World War One and subsequent conflicts.

The events of April 1915 reflect all what has become to us an all too familiar example of the horrors of the experience of the ‘Western Front’, especially during early years during WW1. This is before mass conscription and when many young men, possibly excited by service and fuelled with patriotism, enlisted in the British Army as groups of friends and acquaintances through their places of work, education and the such like. After undergoing short period of training, they were then often pitched into battle along the extended lines of trenches that characterised the front line in Belgium and France.

The story of the Bede men is one of many. But, it is special to us as a College because it part of our story as a community of friends and students and alumni and as part of Durham City and County.

From the order of service, Sounding of the Retreat, 2019

Bede College was always a place of traditional loyalties and of ideals of service to the community, though the particular expression of those virtues may have changed with changing demands. It was natural in the 19th Century that those loyalties should find a focus in the Durham Rifle Volunteer Corps, out of which grew the 8th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry, one of whose companies, C Company, later A Company, was known as the “Bede College Contingent” as early as 1880.

No doubt it was that tradition that lay behind what seems to have been a unique feature of the Church Teacher Training Colleges: that they sent past and present students as organised bodies to the Great War. Possibly none sent a larger contingent than Bede and certainly to none came a more sudden or severe testing.

The Bede College Contingent, consisting of 102 offices, NCOs and men, as part of the 8th Battalion DLI, joined the BEF in France in April, 1915, and was thrown into the front line trenches during the second Battle of Ypres. The Bede spirit was not quenched by the Company’s first experience of coming under shellfire. The official history records how they recalled the fireworks at Durham Regatta: ‘Through the darkness came the voice of some irrepressible Bede College member of A Company as a shell passed over - “Aye, it reminds yer o’Durham Regatta. Now lads, up goes another! All together! Bang! Mind the stick!” Then someone called, “Who’s won the Grand?” and there were rival cries of “City” and “Bede”.’

That was on the 25 April, when A and D Companies found themselves on Gravenstafel Ridge, with the Canadians on their right and the French Zouaves to their left, the latter having suffered the first gas attack of the war. They helped to save Ypres, but the Bede Contingent suffered grievous losses: 17 killed, 10 wounded, and 31 taken prisoner. There is a photograph of the survivors, grouped like the sports teams’ photographs of the day, with the poignant caption ‘Bede, all that was left’. We remember them, and those who served at other times and in other places, with thankfulness and pride.


Extracts from the diary of Capt. Harvey - one (before).

Reading 1

Captain Stevens, our adjutant, the finest soldier I ever met, roused us at 6 a.m. [...] and told us to turn our companies out as we were to march within the hour. However, we stood to till six that evening. It was an interesting day. We watched the heavy traffic going forward, and the melancholy trail of refugees from Ypres, with their household goods, young and aged packed on ancient carts. It was a more cheering sight to see a group of German prisoners escorted through. The Canadian hospital lay next to our billet, and we gathered lurid details of the fighting. Hundreds of wounded had been brought in during the night, and hourly the numbers increased, and there was insufficient accommodation. We strolled round and visited a battery of heavies, and bought coffee, eggs and chocolate in the village. We saw some of our Indian troops and the Scots Greys ride through. We could see the Cathedral tower of Ypres being shelled at intervals. We temporarily emptied the convent well to fill the Company water bottles.


Extracts from the diary of Capt. Harvey - two (before).

Reading 2

A Canadian major met me, and inquired who we were. He was very glad to see us. He said he had twice been ordered to retire, and then told to hang on as reinforcements were expected. He gave me the reassuring information that it was a death-trap, that we were certain to be gassed, and that the only thing we could do was to put wet handkerchiefs over our faces when the gas came. I asked for information of distance of enemy lines, and was told that they were about 150 yards, and in front of them was a little wire. He said that if I stood by him he would tell me what he could, but if he didn't get out at once he never would, so the relief took place very rapidly. His men filed out as ours filed in. [...] We had no machine guns, so he left his machine gun section with us, and a magnificent set of men they were. [...] He said he would try and send up a party next night to clear up and bury the dead. A shell caught them soon after leaving our trench, and they suffered heavy casualties.

It was now about 4.30 a.m. Sentries were posted, and rifles cleaned and bayonets fixed, and we felt we were really at the war at last. I think there was a general sense of satisfaction and excited expectancy.


Extracts from the diary of Capt. Harvey - three (during).


Reading 3

Now it is a little difficult to be precise about times during the day. The bombardment which started over D Company soon became general. The noise was terrific. One imagined that the German batteries were very close up, and we were dosed with shrapnel and high explosive for the greater part of the day. [...] During one of our hurricanes two men bumped into me at the corner of a traverse. [...] They had completely lost all control, and were cutting for dear life. [...] I sat and tried to talk to them like a father, not that I profess I felt at all heroic at the moment. Corporal Howard added a few cheery words, and to my great relief they went back to the parapet.

At four o'clock a Canadian officer came to me and asked what I intended to do. I pointed out that we were doing all that could be done in the circumstances. He said that his men had had three days of it and were about done, but if we were going to hang on they were. To retire to the ridge in broad daylight would be simple murder, and there was a little cover where we were. He suggested sending a message, and said he had a man who had volunteered to try to get back to their headquarters. I called the officers round, and we sent the following message: 'We are being heavily bombarded. If I do not get artillery support, failing other orders, I shall try to retire at dusk.' It was time 4.15. We watched the runner dodge from shell hole to shell hole for a while, and then lost sight of him. Things got steadily worse.


Extracts from the diary of Capt. Harvey - four (during).

Reading 4

It was now about 7 p.m., and lighter than I could have wished. The ridge looked a long way off, and I had grave doubts we should ever reach it, and I was by no means certain that the Bosches hadn't got round behind it. My hesitation in organising the retirement brought its natural result. The movement when it came was spontaneous. There was quick movement down by the barn, and before one could speak everyone was on his feet. The only thing possible was to try and control the move. I yelled, 'Get out steadily and scatter for the ridge.' Perhaps it wasn't heroic, but trying to state things as I personally saw them. The men bunched a bit by the tiny stream, but they extended out once across, and made the best line they could. There was no cover, and we had to do that stretch under shrapnel, high explosive and machine gun fire. We lost very heavily; men were dropping in all directions. I got hit through the hip and arm by the stream, but didn't drop. Dann and Heslop closed on me half-way across and offered help, but I could manage alone.

My feelings limping back to Ypres that night [...] were very bitter. With that exaggerated feeling of responsibility one experiences at such times, and the reaction after the excitement, I felt very miserable. I had lost my trench, knew nothing of my companions, couldn't find the Colonel to report to, and though that there was no one to look after the Company. Things were desperately bad.


Extracts from the diary of Capt. Harvey - five (after).



Reading 5

In one sense that day was a catastrophe; in another it was an achievement. Many gave their lives that day, many were wounded, and some, both wounded and unwounded, were cut off by the enemy. To those who survived to fight in other battles it ranks among their worst experiences. To those who became prisoners of war it must ever seem the blackest day, darkened (as it seemed to me at its end) with a sense of failure of our high hopes, and followed by four years of bitter captivity.

Yet turn the situation over, as I have a thousand times. I believe we can honestly say that we did our best in very difficult circumstances. With other scattered and isolated units along that broken front, we administered a check, from dawn to dark, to vastly superior numbers, strongly supported by massed artillery. We contributed to that great feat of arms by which, as the Canadians justly boast, they saved Ypres. We helped to enable others to reconstruct a new line a few miles back, and with that we must be satisfied. [...] The Battalion marched up at full strength, and was reduced to less than ten officers and under four hundred men.

Bede WW1 War memorial is inscribed with 86 names

Bede Coy who died at Gravenstafel Ridge 26-4-1915

Joseph Hewitson Atkinson

Alfred Barker

Joseph William Coulson

Sydney Howard Cunningham (attached to Cyclists Corps )

William Graham Hall

Robert Hogg John Warwick Huggins

James Alfred Nichols

John Edward Prickett

Lawrence Shortridge

Andrew Wilson

Died of Wounds after Gravenstafel

William Arnett

William Henry Bayles

Cyril Stanley Hall

Robert Hogg

Edward Fidler Pattinson

Robert Henry Robson

William James Shepherd

Joseph Matthew Watson



The aftermath of the First World War saw the biggest single wave of public commemoration ever, with tens of thousands of memorials erected across England. This was the result of both the huge impact on communities of the loss of three-quarters of a million British lives, and also the official policy of not repatriating the dead, which meant that the memorials provided the main focus of the grief felt at this great loss. One such memorial was raised at the College of the Venerable Bede, as a permanent testament to the sacrifice made by 86 former students, who lost their lives during the First World War.

The College of the Venerable Bede was a men's teaching college, with a tradition of encouraging students to become members of the Volunteer Rifle Corps. When war was declared in 1914, the majority of the students, all Territorials, were at camp and as a body were drafted into the 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, 50th Division, becoming what was known as the Bede College Contingent (D Company). The former students who had already left the college, also managed to stay together, by choosing to join the 18th (Pals') Battalion. On 25 April 1915 the Bede College Contingent, consisting of 102 Officers and men were in the front line at Gravenstafel, near Ypres, where they suffered 17 killed, 10 wounded, and 31 taken prisoner; just 44 of the original officers and men remained.

The first proposal to erect a memorial was made in 1919, at an estimated cost of £1,000. This proposal was for an elaborate semi-circular design; however, the design selected was based on the Roker Cross (1904) dedicated to the Venerable Bede, which was seen as an appropriate memorial for the fallen of the College of the Venerable Bede, with the cost of the memorial deferred by subscription. It was erected on 25 May 1922 and was unveiled three days later on 28 May (Bede Day) by Lieutenant Colonel J R Ritson, Officer Commanding 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry and it was dedicated by Dr Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham. As built the memorial stood on a narrow rectangular podium; however, sometime between 1923 and 1930, the existing walled podium was constructed.

the memorial is located within the grounds of the College of St Hild and St Bede, over-looked by college buildings and the listed Grade II Chapel of the Venerable Bede. It takes the form of a slender cusped Latin cross, mounted on a square plinth, which has a bevelled foot and stands on a single step base. The cross has a central boss displaying the Cross of St George and the arms are decorated by an elaborate Celtic knot design, which is carved in relief. The cross is mounted on a tall tapering shaft that has narrow recessed rectangular panels to each side and a plain base. The north and south recessed panels of the shaft have Celtic knot inspired designs that are carved in relief. The plinth has a recessed rectangular panel to each elevation; the inscription on the south panel reads: IN LOVING AND PROUD MEMORY OF THOSE SONS OF BEDE/ WHO IN THE GREAT WAR/ WHERE SO MANY OF THEIR BROTHERS SERVED AND SUFFERED/ GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR THEIR KING AND COUNTRY. A line of five small rectangular recesses divides the inscription and the remainder reads: LEST WE FORGET - LEST WE FORGET/ GRAVENSTAFEL/ BEDE COMPANY 8TH DURHAM LIGHT INFANTRY./ APRIL 25 1915. The three remaining panels are inscribed with the names of the 86 former students that were killed during the First World War, listed in date order of the year of their entry into the college. The memorial stands on a raised square-plan podium that is set back into a sloping ground surface; it has a stone-paved surface enclosed by coursed quarry-faced stone walls, with flat ashlar coping stones, and the rear wall supports a dry-stone revetted bank. The podium is entered by a flight of steps that are flanked by wing walls forming a shouldered entrance. Attached low stone walls enclose flower borders within the re-entrant angles of the south elevation of the podium.


Durham at War - Bede College War Memorial Cross, Durham, accessed 23 July 2019 from
Durham at War - Bede College, Durham, accessed 11 July 2019 from
Hild Bede Alumni, April 28, 2014 The Sounding of the Retreat 2014, accessed 23 July 2019 from
Imperial War Museum - The Pals Battalions of the First World War, accessed 4 October 2019 from
North East War Memorials Project - Cross 1914-18 Bede College grounds, accessed 23 July 2019 from
War Memorials Online - Bede, accessed 11 July 2019 from
Northern Echo, Friday 30 May 1919, Bede College War Memorial

The construction of this page would not have been possible without the generous contributions and support of the following people

Mrs Julie Blake, Secretary to the College Principal

Rev Tim Ferguson, Chaplain to the College of St Hild & St Bede

Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) John R Heron TD, Secretary to the Durham Light Infantry Association

Mr Chris Lloyd, Chief Features Writer, The Northern Echo | Darlington & Stockton Times

Ms Stephanie Maurel, Alumni Development Officer to the College of St Hild & St Bede

Mr Ian Rawles

Readers from SRC and student community of the College of St Bede & St Hild: Kesia Schofield, (SRC President), Zoe Forbes, Ciaran Duggan, Robbie Keywood and Charlie Gregg.


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