Robin Longbottom examines the extraordinary life of a soldier killed at Ypres in 1915

IN February, 1915, Ben Hodgson had the unfortunate distinction of being the first soldier from Silsden to be killed in the Great War.

He had been a colourful character in the town and well known for his thirst for adventure.

Ben was born in Shipley in 1877 and after moving several times his family finally settled in Silsden in the early 1890s.

He first attained notoriety aged 16. In June, 1894, he had slept over with a friend, Marmaduke Dawson. Whilst rummaging through a drawer they came across £12 10 shillings and a cheque for £5 15 shillings belonging to Marmaduke’s father. The next morning Ben took the money and fled to Liverpool. On arrival, he cashed the cheque, and bought a new suit, pocket watch and chain and a ticket on the SS Ohio bound for New York. However, the police were hot on his trail and detained him as he was about to board the ship. He appeared before Skipton Magistrates Court a few days later. His solicitor blamed his actions on wild tales of fiction he had read in penny novels, nevertheless he was sentenced to three months in prison.

In September, 1895, he married Annie Tillotson. They settled in with her widowed mother, and a son, Willie, was born the following year. However, after two years of marriage, he left his wife and joined the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. His attestation describes him as 5ft 3in tall with blue eyes and brown hair and on his left forearm he had a tattoo of a cross with the letters AT and BH and the word LOVE. After little over a month, he was “claimed by the parish authorities for wife desertion” and discharged.

Later the same year he took off a second time and joined the Gordon Highlanders. When the second Boer War broke out in 1899 the regiment sailed to South Africa. The Gordons were involved in several engagements against the Boers and in 1900 Ben was wounded and invalided back to England. After recovering he learned that he would be returning to South Africa but decided that he would rather face his wife and the authorities in Silsden than the Boers once again. So, he wrote to tell his wife of his whereabouts, she notified the authorities, and they contacted the regiment and he was discharged for deserting his family.

Ben now settled down and led an uneventful life until two new police constables, Cook and Henthorn, were appointed in Silsden. Their heavy-handed approach to policing soon made them unpopular and late one night Cook was set upon and given a beating. A short while later, on April 4, 1911, Henthorn was also beaten up. However, he claimed to be able to identify two of the assailants, one of whom he said was Ben Hodgson. The Skipton magistrates acquitted the second man but despite witnesses providing an alibi for Ben, he was found guilty and sentenced to three months in prison. Four nights later a mob, incensed by the injustice, attacked Silsden Police Station, and broke all the windows. Order was eventually restored, and both Cook and Henshaw were subsequently transferred to other divisions.

When war in Europe broke out in 1914 Ben left his family once again and joined the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment but having been kicked out once, he signed up under the alias Ben Harrison. With his previous military experience, he was immediately sent out to join the 2nd Battalion on the Ypres Salient in Belgium. He was killed by shrapnel on February 23, 1915, and with no known grave is remembered on the Menin Gate under his alias, Ben Harrison. Helmets to reduce injuries from shrapnel were finally introduced in June, 1915.