Tun San: London’s Burmese Great War hero

Britain’s effort in the Great War was really an imperial effort. Locally-raised forces travelled from across the Empire to fight in Europe, the Middle East and East Africa. As we have seen, there were also men from across the Empire – and elsewhere – serving in the British units of the Armed Forces. One of these was Tun San, a Burmese man based in Richmond who became a war hero.

Tun San was born in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1888; his father Tun Aung Gyaw lived in the Mawlee Quarter of Akyab (now Sittwe), Burma.* Tun San attested for the army in Kingston-upon-Thames on 10 December 1915, giving his address as 12 St John’s Road, Richmond (although his family name was presumably Tun, he appears in army records as T. San) and his correspondence address as the Burma Society, St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith. Presumably he was living in Richmond at the time but it was not his permanent home; he appears to have given his profession as clerk and as student, so possibly he was studying in London at the time.

At the time Burma was part of the “Indian Empire”, the largest part of Britain’s possessions in Asia. According to the 1911 census, Tun San would have been one of around 3,200 Indian-born people in Surrey at the time, under 0.1% of the population (the 12,000 Indian-born people in London being 0.28% of the population). It is worth bearing in mind that many of those thousands would have been white men and women born in India: the children of soldiers, traders, travellers and administrators. London was relatively cosmopolitan compared to the rest of the UK, with a larger proportion of its population being of Asian or African descent, but the general population was overwhelmingly white. As we have seen, Londoners born in other parts of the Empire did join the British armed forces, including Lal Roy, the Indian pilot who earned the Military Cross, and GEK Bemand, the Jamaican-born artillery officer who died in 1916. Tun San was another of these young men.

Tun San joined the army on 20 January 1916, becoming a private in the East Surrey Regiment. Seven months later, he was posted to the Machine Gun Corps and its Motor section – the forerunner to the Tank Corps. September 1916 had seen the first ever use of armoured fighting vehicles – which the British authorities nicknamed ‘tanks’ – so Tun San and his comrades were at the cutting edge of military technology. On official paperwork his role is listed as ‘1st driver mech’.

Part of Tun San's service record

Part of Tun San’s service record

After nine months of training, he was sent to France and on 30 July 1917 he joined “F” Battalion. He appears to have still been serving with them when the tanks went into action at Cambrai in November – the biggest tank action in history up to that point.

The attack at Cambrai began on 20 November. The infantry were supported by 350 tanks in the offensive against the German ‘Hindenburg Line’.  ‘F’ Battalion attacked south of Cambrai: on 21 November they were part of the successful attack at Marcoing and pushed on towards Rumilly; the next day they continued their attack. The Germans held the attackers off at Rumilly and the offensive ground to a halt. The attack was a great success for the British and news of the advance was greeted with the ringing of bells across the UK (including at St Paul’s) – but the victory did not last long, with a German counter-attack a week later taking back virtually all of the captured territory.

An F Squadron tank at Rumilly. Was it San's tank? (From With the Tanks 1916-1918: Memoirs of a British Tank Commander in the Great War By W.H.L Watson)

An F Battalion tank at Rumilly. Was it Private San’s tank? (From With the Tanks 1916-1918: Memoirs of a British Tank Commander in the Great War
By W.H.L Watson)


Tun San was in the thick of the action near Rumilly and was wounded in the hand while he was in his tank on 22 November, with shrapnel injuring his left thumb and fingers. He was captured by the Germans on the same day. Unfortunately, I don’t know which tank he was in. The photo above shows tank FW1, which seems to have been the only one lost by F Battalion in the offensive, so perhaps that was his vehicle. Official news of his capture was received in January 1918 and he remained in German hands for the rest of the war, before being repatriated straight after the Armistice – he was back in Britain before Christmas.

Tun San did not hang around in Britain for very long after the war. He was demobilised in May 1919 and returned to Burma during the summer. His address there is given as Deputy Superintendent of Police in Thayetmyo (or Thayet, a coastal district). Sometime that summer, though, he would have heard that he had been awarded the Military Medal. Sadly, most awards of the MM during and immediately after the war do not give an account of the action for which it was earned – his name simply appears in the list of recipients in the London Gazette on 20 August 1919. We do know that it was earned for bravery in action, because that was what entitled people to earn the medal; perhaps it was for his actions at Rumilly. He received his actual medal early in 1920. I don’t know how Tun San’s life panned out after 1920, save that he was Deputy Superintendent of Police in Tavoy (now Dawei) in 1931.

The UK’s war effort took all sorts: men and women from all walks of life and from all around the world – primarily from around the British Empire. Tun San was one of from the furthest reaches of the Empire who served in Britain’s armed forces, not only that but doing it with great distinction, being wounded and captured and earning the Military Medal.


*Apologies for any bad spelling of Burmese names and places – a combination of early-twentieth century transliteration and handwriting, and my own lack of knowledge of the region, means that I have probably made mistakes.




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Posted by on 24 November 2015 in Award-winners


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The Sangers and Roses: service, loss and love in South-East London

The toll the Great War had on some families and communities was tremendous. The experience of ‘Pals’ units sent into action together with heavy losses, leading to deep mourning among their friends and relations at home, is well known. Similar stories played out on a smaller scale, as in the case of the Sanger family from South London.

John James Sanger and his wife Mary had fourteen children, of whom eleven survived childhood. In 1901, they lived with ten of those children at 44 Camden Grove North, Peckham (now Cronin Road). 20 year old John James junior was a tin plate worker like his father; two more children daughters were in work, Sarah (19) as a button-hole cutter and Florence (17) as a laundress. The other children were all 15 or younger, in descending order: Caroline, Martha Jane, Louisa, William Albert, Frederick, Arthur Ernest and the youngest was Bertram Ernest, only 11 months old. By 1911 all bar Florence and the youngest five children had left home and the (now smaller) family lived at 31 Reaston Street, New Cross. Only ten year old Bertram was still at school: Florence (now 27) was a machinist, William Arthur (19) a machine engineer, Frederick (18) a haberdasher, Arther Ernest (16) a general labourer (no occupation is stated for Louisa).

When the war came, the younger Sanger boys joined up. Bertram was too young and does not appear to have served (at least not overseas). William, Frederick and Arthur all joined the London Regiment. Into the same regiment also went George Rose, the brother of William Sanger’s fiancée Emily Rose. The Roses were also from South East London, living in 1911 at 36 Kings Road, Peckham. Emily was a 22-year old waitress in a restaurant and George was a gas-fitter.

The four men all joined up in Kennington and given that Arthur, William and George were given consecutive service numbers (2396, 2397 and 2398 respectively) it seems likely that they all joined up together on September 2nd 1914, at the height of the recruiting boom.  Frederick ended up with a higher number – perhaps because he joined later on. Sometime after they joined up, the men posed for the camera in their uniforms.

Frederick, Arthur and William Sanger standing, with George Rose seated

Frederick, Arthur and William Sanger standing, with George Rose seated

In March 1915, these four young men from South London went to the Western Front; in May they were taking part in the fierce fighting at Festubert. They were in the 1/24th battalion of the London Regiment, part of the 142nd Brigade in the 47th (2nd London) Division. The author of the Division’s official history (Alan H Maude, an Army Service Corps officer) witnessed the fighting:

The attack by the 142nd Brigade on the German trenches, known as the “S” bend, north-east from Givenchy, was to be made at 6.30 p.m. on May 25th, and was to precede an attack by the Canadians  farther north at 9 p.m. ; and it was the first big attack in which the Division took part.

From the trenches on the left, near Le Plantin, the present writer saw that attack by the 142nd Brigade. The 21st Battalion was in support, and the first advance was made by the 23rd and 24th London Battalions, who swept across the open ground just like a field-day attack at St. Albans [where the division had trained], and at once captured, with comparatively small losses, the German trenches opposite to them. But they then encountered a fierce and deadly enfilading fire from the German guns, and particularly from a heavy battery posted near Auchy-les-la-Bassee, far to the south and out of reach of the guns of our Division.

Later on these would have been dealt with by other guns which could reach them, but in those days there were no counter-batteries, and no corps artillery, and each division had to rely upon the guns posted behind it in its own divisional billeting zone. Supports were brought up, including the 20th Battalion, which was then in divisional reserve, and desperate efforts were made to extend our gains, but tremendous losses were suffered by the men crowded in the captured trenches. Nothing could be done to keep down this enfilading fire, and by the following morning much of the captured trenches had been knocked to bits and had to be abandoned, but a considerable part of their front line was retained and taken into our own trench system.

One of their comrades in the 24th, Leonard Keyworth, later described the scene (as recounted in an excellent blog post by Neil Bright of the London WFA):

The South London Press recorded his words, “Well, on the afternoon of May 25 we were in our billets behind the lines when we received orders to prepare to get on the move and though we were not told what we were going to do, we all felt we were going to take part in a charge. We got to the communication trenches round about six o’clock and half an hour later we were ordered to get over the parapet. I was one of the bombers with the 9th Platoon. No sooner were we over the parapet than the Germans turned their machine guns upon us and five or ten of our chaps fell. I don’t suppose there were more than half a dozen of our Platoon left.”…

Keyworth wrote to his sister, Lillie about the battle, “…We were told to mount the trenches and straight away commence our attack on the German trenches, which were about 250 yards away. The attack was made without any artillery covering fire. Our lads went at it with go and determination and were very soon successful. I was with the bombing party and came through without a scratch. I went along a ridge on my stomach and threw bombs into the German trench, my distance being about fifteen yards. Men were shot down by my side. I continued and came out safe.”

Over 900 men in the 142nd Brigade became casualties that afternoon; as Maude recounted “The 142nd Brigade suffered severe losses in this affair, and by the evening of the 26th their fighting strength was reduced to 1,225 in all.” A Brigade should have contained around five thousand men. Over their ten days in the battle the 47th Division suffered 2,355 casualties.

Leonard Keyworth survived and earned the Victoria Cross for his bravery there on 25 May, throwing grenades for 2 hours. The Sangers brothers and George Rose were not so lucky.

George Rose and Arthur Edward Sanger died on 26 May, two of at least 132 men of the 1/24th Londons who died on 25-26 May 1915. They are commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial which “commemorates over 13,400 British soldiers who were killed in this sector of the Western Front from the beginning of October 1914 to the eve of the Battle of Loos in late September 1915 and who have no known grave.” Frederick Sanger died of wounds on 8 August 1918 and was buried in Brockley cemetery. Given that he was in the same unit, it may well be that he was wounded at Festubert. His brother William Sanger was.

Brothers Killed - Daily Mirror article 28 August 1915

Brothers Killed – Daily Mirror article 28 August 1915

On 26 May, William arrived at the 4th London Field Ambulance – one of the RAMC units for 47th Division – with a bayonet wound in his right thigh. Two days later he reached Number 9 General Hospital at Rouen, from where he was sent on to England on 29 May. Thankfully, William survived and recovered sufficiently to go to work. Instead of going back to the army, though, he was demobilised to work for mechanical engineering company Waygood Otis (forerunner of the modern Otis lifts company). He worked there from 1915 until March 1918, possibly at their works on Falmouth Road, SE1.

While he was working for Waygood Otis, William married Emily Rose at St Jude’s Church in Peckham on Christmas Eve, 1916. Their daughter Doris was born in 1918. Between those two events, William was recalled to the army – in the wake of the German Spring Offensive of 1918, when men were desperately sought. His second stint of military service did not last long, though, and after two months and a transfer to the Machine Gun Corps (Motors) (i.e. tanks), he was discharged again in May 1918. William Sanger survived the war and died in 1960, aged 68.

Just as in the more famous ‘pals’ battalions, men across the country joined up in 1914 (and indeed earlier) to serve with their friends and relatives. This was helpful for recruiting, but could be devastating when those units suffered heavy losses. In 1915, the Sanger and Rose families in South London must have felt the force of the war’s destructive powers; more happily, though, one of their young men did survive and lived a long life, bringing the families together in a wartime wedding in 1916.


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Posted by on 15 October 2015 in Ordinary Londoners


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Captured at Loos: John Easton’s story

Yesterday, we heard about the 2nd London Division in action at Loos on 25 September 1915. The battle did not end that day, however: the fighting continued over the next few days and the battle itself officially lasted into October. One of those who fought in the days after the initial attack was John Easton from Friern Barnet.

John Easton was born in February 1895 and finished school in the summer of 1914. He had attended the City of London School (then at Blackfriars, now next to the Millennium Bridge) and served in its Officer Training Corps.

On September 2nd, he was one of the 3,479 men who joined up in London (and nearly 17,000 nationwide) – this was the height of the recruiting boom, remember. Easton joined the 19th (2nd Public Schools) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers; as with many recruits to the public schools units, he never saw action with them but was identified as a potential officer.

On 4 January 1915 he filled out a blue ‘Application for appointment to a temporary commission in the Regular Army for the period of the War’ and on the 28th he left the 19th Royal Fusiliers to take up his commission.

In the late summer of 1915, Second Lieutenant John Easton arrived on the Western Front. He was still with the Royal Fusiliers, but now was an officer in B Company of the 12th Battalion – which in turn was part of 73rd Brigade in 24th Division. 24th Division was one of the reserve units used during the Battle of Loos. Along with the 21st Division, the 24th were sent in too late, according to historian Trevor Wilson,

‘But this did not meant they went unused. Late in the morning of the 26th, without aid of gas or significant artillery preparation, they were directed to advance across 1,500 yards of No-Man’s-Land towards solid banks of barbed wire and well sited machine-guns. So hopeless was their task, and so atrocious was the resulting slaughter, that when the battered remains abandoned the attempt and began to stumble back, numbers of German machine-gunners and riflemen stopped shooting because they had not the heart to continue the massacre.’

The 24th Division went into action around ‘the Dump’ and Fosse 8, as seen on this map:

Detail from map of the area attacked by 9 Division on 25 September, showing the Dump and Fosse 8. The red lines are the British front line of 25 Sept, the Green lines the German trenches. From

Detail from map of the area attacked by 9 Division on 25 September, showing the Dump and Fosse 8. The red lines are the British front line of 25 Sept, the Green lines the German trenches. From

John Easton was in the centre of the melee. He later wrote a brief account of the events leading up to his capture at Fosse 8. It gives an impression of the hardship and loss suffered by the soldiers there.

At 11.0 am on Sept 25th 1915 the battalion marched up from Beuvry, where it had breakfasted and slept. Water bottles were empty owing to the non-arrival of the carts, nor could men find opportunity to fill them on the road. We also had no bombs [i.e. hand grenades]. We took up supporting position at 3.0 p.m. and at 7.0 my company with ½ A Coy were pushed up into an advanced position holding workman’s cottages at Fosse 8. Iron rations [i.e. emergency rations] were eaten on the 26th, orders Lieut Col Garnons Williams,* second in command 12th Royal Fusiliers. We could get neither rations nor water in the rear, nor was any of the latter to be found in the houses. Owing to the continuous bombardment, lack of cover in shallow trenches and extent of front [being held], men could get no sleep. We held these trenches until after midday on the 27th, by which time, owing to the success of the German attacks on our flanks (they had captured the Dump and houses between us and the Fosse Trench) we were practically surrounded. Two officers and some sixty men succeeded in retiring through the small gap, 200 yds, left to us between the Dump and the Village. We took up position in Dump Trench and passed the day in repelling attacks, reorganising the men, who were now mixed up with units of two other brigades, and attempting to obtain food, water, and bombs. Rifles jammed in the mud, the night was bitterly could. The men were soaked by a fine drizzling rain, and, owing to the necessity of being on the alert, were again unable to get any sleep. We were now reduced to the last stages of physical exhaustion, several of the men also suffering from light wounds. At 3.0 a.m. on the 28th we joined in with a company of the 1st Berkshires to retake the Dump. We cleared the Dump of the enemy, who however, being much superior in number, surrounded the whole of the bottom of the Dump. We had no bombs with which to dislodge them; both the Berkshire officers were killed so I lined the edge of the Dump facing Slag Alley, while Lieut Skeet lined the Northern edge. I was captured by enemy coming up in rear while engaged to my front. They told me later they had a shaft leading up into the centre of the dump. I had between 15 and 20 men with me while Lieut Skeet had a similar number. The remainder of the attacking force, which had consisted of about 200 men were killed by the continuous machine gun and artillery fire which swept the Dump from all quarters. I was captured at 4.30 am.

(* R.D. Garnons Williams died during the battle, he was 59 years old and had played for Wales in their first ever rugby international.)

A much longer account, also written by Easton is held by the National Archives (as part of this file) and makes for very interesting reading.

According to Wilson, ‘Even in a war so rich in episodes of purposeless sacrifice, the travails of these two divisions on 26 September seem cause for indignation’. Immediately after the battle, 73rd Brigade’s commander was dismissed – his successor seems to have partly laid the blame on the greenness of the brigade’s soldiers and staff, but acknowledged that it would have been tough for even an experienced, regular army unit to have succeeded under the conditions that 73rd Brigade found themselves.

Easton remained a prisoner of war until November 1918; strangely he was promoted to acting Lieutenant in July 1917. In August 1916, he is recorded as having been a prisoner in Fürstenberg officers’ camp in Germany. As an officer, he would have been spared the hard labour and terrible conditions faced my the other ranks soldiers, sailors and airmen who were taken prisoner. All sides on the Western and – particularly – the Eastern Front mistreated prisoners of war during the Great War, including physical assault, poor diet and work in perilous conditions, including close to the battlefields (see Heather Jones’s excellent book Violence against Prisoners of War in the First World War for a detailed study of the subject).

By September 1918, Lieutenant Easton was interned in Holland – which is where he wrote the longer account. On 16 November 1918, Easton was sent home via Rotterdam, arriving in Hull on 18 November and reporting to the Prsioners of War Reception Camp in Ripon. He was granted two months’ leave during which time we was asked to write the account of his capture quoted above. In April 1919, a Standing Committee of Enquiry, made up of senior officers, looked into the capture and decided that ‘no blame attaches to him in the matter’.

The fighting on the Western Front could be utterly horrendous and the Battle of Loos was a notoriously badly-handled one on the British side. John Easton’s account of the 12th Royal Fusilers’ part in the battle, and his own capture, give us an insight into just one of the smaller battles fought within the wider battle of Loos.


  • National Archives: Accounts of Loos (CAB 45/120); Lt J Easton’s service record (WO 339/32692).
  • The Long, Long Trail
  • Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War
  • Nick Lloyd, Loos 1915
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Posted by on 26 September 2015 in Events, Ordinary Londoners


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The 2nd London Division at Loos, 25 September 1915

The battle of Loos began on 25 September 1915. It was the first offensive that was viewed, in Britain, as the British Expeditionary Force taking the fight to the Germans in an attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front. It was the largest battle that the British Army had ever fought (soon overtaken by the battle of the Somme), with nearly 60,000 British troops engaged in it, supported (with very mixed results) by poison gas. One of the key units taking part was the 2nd London Division, who attacked at the southern end of the British line.

There are plenty of good accounts of the battle as a whole – for example here on the ever-useful Long, Long Trail website. For us the focus is on the 2nd London Division.

The division was formed in August 1914, made up of units of the London Regiment, an entirely Territorial Force regiment. As the 1915 order of battle (see below) shows, many of its units came from particular areas of London: for example the 17th battalion was the Poplar and Stepney Rifles, while the artillery batteries in VII London Brigade RFA were from Fulham and Shepherds Bush. Others reflected jobs or background, such as the Post Office Rifles and the London Irish Rifles.

Emblem of the 47th (2nd London) Division

Emblem of the 47th (2nd London) Division

The division was eventually given the official title of the 47th Division – rather untidily, since the 1st London Division was made the 56th Division. The 47th Division was sent to France in March 1915, the second TF division to arrive in France and Flanders. The division took part in the battles of Aubers Ridge and Festubert in May 1915 and were allocated a position on the right wing of the attack at Loos.

47 Division's area of the front, 25 September 1915

47 Division’s area of the front, 25 September 1915

The division’s official history is available online. Here is its account of the part the division played on 25 September:

On the morning of the 25th the extreme right of the British line — W1 sector — was held by the 21st and 22nd Battalions, whose left flank was to be the pivot of the whole attack. On their left — in W2 sector — was the 140th Brigade, and on the left again — in W3 sector — the 141st Brigade, which joined the right flank of the 15th Division. The remaining units of the 142nd Brigade were in reserve in the Grenay line.

At 5.50 a.m. zero the gas and smoke operations started. The gas was worked by the Special Coy., R.E., and the smoke by a company of the 4th R.W.F. (Pioneers). On the 47th Division front the gas went fairly well. The cloud rolled slowly forward, and its effect was apparent from the lessening force of the enemy rifle fire. Nearly all the cylinders were emptied, and our own casualties in letting off gas were few, owing entirely to discipline and obedience to orders regarding the wearing of smoke helmets in the advanced trenches before the attack.

British troops advancing through gas, taken by a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade (not part of 47 Division) (c)IWM

“Strange figures, hung about with sandbags and bandoliers of ammunition, with no caps, but smoke-helmets on their heads rolled into a sort of turban, with the mouthpiece nodding by way of ornament over their foreheads”  British troops advancing through gas at Loos, taken by a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade (not part of 47 Division) (c)IWM

Forty minutes after zero the infantry attack began. On the right a gallant army of dummy figures, worked with strings by the 21st and 22nd Battalions, made progressive appearances in the smoke-cloud, and did their duty in attracting a fair share of fire. The real attack started opposite the Double Crassier, and north-wards of this point line after line of men left our trenches. In outward appearance they were hardly more human than the dummies farther south — strange figures, hung about with sandbags and bandoliers of ammunition, with no caps, but smoke-helmets on their heads rolled into a sort of turban, with the mouthpiece nodding by way of ornament over their foreheads. Each line went forward at quick time down into the valley and was lost in the smoke. It is a splendid proof of the thoroughness of the practice of the attack and previous reconnaissance that, in spite of the thick smoke, direction was kept all along the line.

The 7th Battalion advanced on the Double Crassier, the west end of which, with the trench running just under it, was their first objective. Their second objective was some 400 yards of the German second line north of its junction with the Crassier. The 6th Battalion attacked on their immediate left the first and second German lines. The 8th Battalion was in close support, and the 15th in brigade reserve. Both the 6th and 7th Battalions reached the first line without many casualties; but it was strongly held, and the garrison seemed to have been frightened rather than incapacitated by our gas, which had mostly drifted across to the 141st Brigade front. The wire in front of the second line was a more serious obstacle, and both battalions had many casualties here ; later in the day the 8th Battalion was sent forward to reinforce them. A counter-attack came early against the 7th. The enemy tried to work round the end of the Crassier and eject them from the front line, but Captain Gasson’s A Company successfully met every attempt, and, with the help of the 8th Battalion grenadiers, established a firm position on the Crassier. The whole of the 140th Brigade objectives were captured by 8 a.m., together with some 300 prisoners and three machine- guns.

From The 47th (London) Division by Alan H Maud

From The 47th (London) Division by Alan H Maud

Out of eighteen officers who took part in the attack the 7th Battalion lost fourteen, ten of whom were killed. Captain Casson was among the latter, and his gallant company was cut to pieces, but he had, by a very bold piece of soldiering, held the German counter-attack till reinforcements arrived.

The 141st Brigade, on the left, had farther to go. Their attack was led by the 15th Battalion, whose objective was the German second line from the Lens-Bethune road (where they joined the 6th Battalion) to Loos Cemetery. Two battalions followed them abreast, the 20th on the right and the 19th on the left, and passed through the i8th Battalion when the latter had attained its objective. The 20th were to capture important points south of the village — a copse and chalk-pit, a small enclosed ” garden city,” and a crassier (slag heap) running south-east towards Lens from the Tower Bridge; the 19th attacked the cemetery, the southern edge of the village itself, and the Pylons, or “Tower Bridge.” The 17th Battalion was held in reserve.

Wrecked British transport amongst the debris in a ruined street, Loos, 30th September, 1915. The famous tower bridge can be seen in the distance. (c)IWM Q 28987

Wrecked British transport amongst the debris in a ruined street, Loos, 30th September, 1915. The famous Tower Bridge can be seen in the distance. (c)IWM Q 28987

The 15th [Battalion] started off, kicking a football in front of them. No Man’s Land was easy going, and difficulty began at the first German line. It was here that the leading waves suffered most severely. The second line was reached well up to time, and was found to be strongly wired, but, fortunately, it had few defenders. On the right the 20th pushed on to the “garden city,” which fell into their hands. A Company, under Captain G. Williams, successfully fought their way to the Chalk-pit. Here they captured two field-guns, which were standing a few weeks later in London on the Horse Guards Parade. A line was established northwards from the Chalk-pit to join up with the companies on the Loos Crassier. The 19th Battalion, in the meantime, had a hard fight for the cemetery, where a trench was cut actually through the graveyard, but they won their way through and on to the village, where they joined the 15th Division in clearing houses and cellars.

Here Lieutenant F. L. Pusch, of the 19th, who was killed in action later in the war, did particularly gallant work, for which he was awarded the D.S.O. He led a party of bombers, and in one house, which he entered alone, he captured seven prisoners, after being badly wounded in the face by one of them.

Another act of gallantry, which also won the D.S.O., was performed by Major E. B. Blogg, of the 4th London Field Coy., R.E. Beneath the church tower of Loos the enemy had laid mines. Under heavy shell fire Major Blogg went in and cut the fuse, thereby saving many lives. The 19th Battalion finally reached their last objective, the Tower Bridge. Lieut.-Colonel C. D. Collison-Morley was killed soon after leaving our trenches at the head of his battalion, and the 19th was put under the orders of Lieut.-Colonel A. B. Hubback, of the 20th Battalion, who so had charge of the whole front line of the 141st Brigade.

Soon after nine o’clock all objectives had been captured by the Division except the western end of a narrow spinney which ran south-west from the Chalk-pit, which the 20th Battalion had taken. This contained a network of trenches, and its very plucky defenders held us up for the next forty-eight hours.

The remainder of September 25th was spent in consolidating. Local counter-attacks were met and beaten off on the Double Crassier, in the spinney, and on the south-east edge of Loos, largely by the concentration of artillery fire previously arranged in anticipation of this counter-attack.

During the night the Pioneers linked the southern point of the captured trenches with our old line, thus completing the defensive flank which it had been the task of the 47th Division to secure. Units of the Division had sent back as prisoners 8 officers and 302 other ranks, and had captured 3 field-guns. For the measure of success attained our casualties had been light, amounting to about 1,500 all ranks.

The 47th Division was one of the more successful units in the attack on 25 September. In other areas the gas blew back into the faces of the British troops without hampering the defending Germans.

A few notes on people mentioned in the text:

  • The football kicked into action is said, by Ed Harris in his book on the subject, to have been blown up and kicked by Private Frederick Edwards, a 21 year old from Chelsea serving in the London Irish Rifles.
  • Frederick Leopold Pusch was the son of a Russian-born banker; he was born in Islington and educated at Harrow. He was awarded his DSO by the King in March 1916 (as you can see in this newsreel, 6 minutes into the video) after having transferred to the Irish Guards. He was killed in action on 27 June 1916, aged 20 – his brother Ernest died a few weeks later.
  • Major Casson was 42 year old William Casson, originally from Port Madoc, Carnarvonshire. In 1911 he was the chief assistant engineer for London Central Railway (i.e. the Central Line) and living in Notting Hill; in 1914 he had married Annie Gertrude Allsop.

At the time of the battle of Loos, the Division was made up of the following units (list from 140th (4th London) Brigade

  • 1/15th Bn, the London Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own Civil Service Rifles)
  • 1/6th Bn, the London Regiment (Rifles)
  • 1/7th Bn, the London Regiment
  • 1/8th Bn, the London Regiment (Post Office Rifles)

141st (5th London) Brigade

  • 1/17th Bn, the London Regiment (Poplar and Stepney Rifles)
  • 1/18th Bn, the London Regiment (London Irish Rifles)
  • 1/19th Bn, the London Regiment (St Pancras)
  • 1/20th Bn, the London Regiment (Blackheath and Woolwich)

142nd (6th London) Brigade

  • 1/21st Bn, the London Regiment (First Surrey Rifles)
  • 1/22nd Bn, the London Regiment (The Queen’s)
  • 1/23rd Bn, the London Regiment
  • 1/24th Bn, the London Regiment (The Queen’s)

Divisional Troops

  • 1/4th Bn, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (Pioneers)

Divisional Mounted Troops

  • C Sqn, the 1st King Edward’s Horse
  • 2nd London Divisional Cyclist Company

Divisional Artillery

  • V London Brigade, RFA (made up of batteries from Kennington and Paddington)
  • VI London Brigade, RFA (batteries from Brixton)
  • VII London Brigade, RFA (batteries from Fulham and Shepherds Bush)
  • VIII London (Howitzer) Brigade, RFA (batteries from Clifton and Gloucester)
  • 47th Divisional Ammunition Column RFA

Royal Engineers

  • 517th (3rd London) Field Company
  • 518th (4th London) Field Company
  • 520th (2/3rd London) Company
  • 47th Divisional Signals Company

Royal Army Medical Corps

  • 4th London Field Ambulance
  • 5th London Field Ambulance
  • 6th London Field Ambulance
  • 47th Sanitary Section

Other Divisional Troops

  • 47th Divisional Train ASC
  • 2nd London Mobile Veterinary Section AVC
  • 47th Divisional Ambulance Workshop

London soldiers played a full part in this first British offensive (which in fact was part of a bigger French assault in the Champagne region). Indeed the 47th Division did better than most other British divisions on the day; despite the official history’s assurances about light casualties, its attack was still costly.


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Posted by on 25 September 2015 in Events, Ordinary Londoners


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Stepney conscription exemptions scandal

From 1916, all British men of military age could be called up for military service unless they had an official exemption. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some tried to get them through unofficial means. A trial at Old Street Police Court in 1918 highlighted the scale of the problem in Stepney and resulted in one young lady being sentenced to prison.

While a huge proportion of the male population was in the armed forces (as we have seen before, by 1918 nearly half of London’s male voters were in the services), military service was not universal.  Men were able to remain at home because their employment was important for the war effort, because they were unfit, because their personal situation (such as urgent family or business needs) meant that leaving would cause undue hardship, or (for a small number) because they held a conscientious objection to military service.

Early 1916 poster instructing single men to apply for exemption or face being called up. (From US Library of Congress website)

Early 1916 poster instructing single men to apply for exemption or face being called up. (From US Library of Congress website)

In April 1917, there were 3.6 million men in the British Army, including 2 million actually serving overseas, while another 2.74 million military aged men had exemptions from service. Of the latter, 1.8m (66%) held exemptions due to being in ‘protected’ industries, half of those in Government factories. Another 779,900 held exemptions granted by the military service tribunals – which included 373,000 in ‘reserved occupations’ but not granted Government exemptions. In October 1918, 2.57 million men were working in reserved industries, including one million in munitions works, 500,000 coal miners and 400,000 in railways and other transport roles (compared with 2.1 million in the army overseas, 1.6 million of whom were on the Western Front).

For those who were not automatically exempted because of their jobs, or who were young and liable to be ‘combed out’ of protected jobs when lower age limits for exemptions were raised, getting an exemption from the local tribunal could be vital if they were to avoid military service.

In Stepney (and, presumably, elsewhere as well), some men were willing to resort to corruption.  An investigation by the police found that of the 8,000 men they detained and questioned about their exemptions from military service there (albeit not all of them were Stepney residents):

  • 30% held exemptions (presumably Government exemptions)
  • 20% were exempt on the basis of hardship or running a one-man business (presumably granted by the tribunal)
  • 10% were Russians (whose military service was dealt with by a different body)
  • 12% or 960 held ‘legitimate exemptions’ (this term is not defined in the description)
  • 8% or 640 had forged exemption papers
  • 5% or 400 had papers stolen from the tribunal

The Old Street trial focussed on the office of Robert Abrabrelton, clerk to the Stepney tribunal, where his two assistants Miss Carter and Miss Terleshky were alleged to have given papers to men who were not eligible for exemption. The Old Street trial in August 1918 focussed on Ida Lilian Carter, a 19-year-old (in 1918) clerk in Abrabrelton’s office from summer 1916 to July 1918. She was the daughter of an engineering clerk and grew up in Poplar; in August 1918, her address was given as Marsala Road, Lewisham.

The trial focused on papers given to men who had received exemptions in the past and were applying for renewal. It was the young ladies’ duty to look after these forms, which were prepared in advance by using stamps bearing Mr Abrabeltron’s signature and the address of the tribunal. It turns out that no record was kept of the number of forms issued each day and very little control was maintained over the signature-stamp (at one point it was kept in a locked draw, but apparently it was still accessible without the key).

Example of an exemption certificate stamped rather than signed (from Peace Pledge Union website)

Example of an exemption certificate stamped rather than signed (from Peace Pledge Union website)

According to the Times’s report:

Mr Abrabrelton and his assistance being engaged upstairs, the young women [Carter and Terleshky] and their young male friends had the office more or less to themselves. The defendant in a statement said:-“I must admit that I have been asked as has Miss Terleshky, on many occasions, by young men of military age attending the tribunal, to get them a form which would keep them out of the Army. These young men have given us money to buy chocolates and sweets, the usual sum being 2s 6d. When they met us in the streets they would buy us ices and sweets.”

Counsel for the defence noted that “Both she and Miss Terleshky were good looking young girls and they had been flattered and cajoled by the young men who came to the offices and who wished to dodge the Army.” Carter had also, apparently, sent a fake exemption certificate to her brother “for the purposes of a joke he wished to play on another member of his orchestra” in Brighton. The brother was arrested, sentenced to a month’s imprisonment and then drafted into the army.

The matter seems to have come to a head at the point at which Carter was sacked by the Tribunal anyway. She had already left their employ before the trial, apparently on the basis of “irregular attendance”. Abrabrelton told the court that “He had warned the defendant about accepting chocolates and sweets. She was told she would be dismissed, but her parents had intervened, and as he had a great respect for her father he had kept her on.” This rather makes it sound like he suspected that something dodgy was going on, but hoped that Mr and Mrs Carter would be able to get their daughter into line.

Defence counsel appealed for lenience on the grounds of ‘her youth and respectability’, but the magistrate “said that the charge was very serious. There had been very serious results, and it was impossible to pass over the matter by a fine” and Carter was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment.

Many men hoped to avoid military service during the Great War. While most sought out protected jobs or went through the official tribunal procedures, clearly some were inclined towards corruption to keep themselves out of khaki and blue. Apparently, all it cost in Stepney in 1918 was 2s 6d, some sweets and a bit of flattery.


  • Times reports of the trial
  • Statistics of the Military Effort

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A long way to Piccadilly

In 1920, a book called 500 of the best Cockney War Stories was published by the London Evening News (“with an opening yarn by General Sir Ian Hamilton”).

Here is one, contributed by R. Allen, a veteran of the Middlesex Regiment (one of its battalions in the 41st Division), living in Finchley after the war. For context you need to know that Swan and Edgar was a department store on Piccadilly; like many famous landmarks it had a trench named after it.

Towards the end of September 1918 I was one of a party of nine men and an officer taking part in a silent raid in the Ypres sector, a little in front of the well-known spot called Swan and Edgar’s Corner. The raid was the outcome of an order from Headquarters demanding prisoners for information.

Everything had been nicely arranged. We were to approach the German line by stealth, surprise an outpost, and get back quickly to our own trenches with the prisoners.

Owing perhaps to the wretchedness of the night—it was pouring with rain, and intensely black—things did not work according to plan. Instead of reaching our objective, our party became divided, and the group that I was with got hopelessly lost. There were five of us, including “Ginger,” a Cockney.

We trod warily for about an hour, when we suddenly came up against a barbed-wire entanglement, in the centre of which we could just make out the figure of a solitary German. After whispered consultation, we decided to take him prisoner, knowing that the German, having been stationary, had not lost sense of direction and could guide us back to our line. Noiselessly surmounting the barbed wire, we crept up to him and in a second Ginger was on him. Pointing his bayonet in Fritz’s back, he said, “Nah, then, you blighter, show us the way ‘ome.”

Very coolly and without the slightest trace of fear, the German replied in perfect English, “I suppose you mean me to lead you to the British trenches.”

“Oh!” said Ginger, “so yer speak English, do yer?”

“Yes,” said the German, “I was a waiter at a restaurant in Piccadilly before the War.”

“Piccadilly, eh? You’re just the feller we want. Take us as far as Swan and Edgar’s Corner.”

German prisoners, September 1918 © IWM (Q 11334)

German prisoners, September 1918 © IWM (Q 11334)

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Posted by on 16 September 2015 in Famous companies, Ordinary Londoners


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The National Register: the beginning of the end of voluntary recruitment

August 1915 brought Britain a “Registration Day”, an extraordinary census on 15 August recording information about every man and woman between 15 and 65 for a new National Register. Its purpose was to find out how many men of military age were still civilians, how many could be spared for war work and, more pressingly, how many could join the armed forces.

During the first year of the war two million men had joined Britain’s army and navy (the air force was not formed until 1918). Hundreds of thousands were also serving as regulars, reservists or territorial force men, having joined up before August 1914. By February 1915, 15% of London’s male industrial workforce, and probably more of its service sector employees, were serving. (This was roughly in line with the national picture for industrial employees, but London’s large service sector bumped up London’s level of war service).

By early 1915, the numbers joining up each month had levelled out at around 110,000 and the authorities were worried that not enough men were coming forward to build up an army (and replace its casualties) to win the war. The Government wanted to know how many eligible men were still available. The National Registration Act 1915 was passed by Parliament on 15 July 1915, paving the way for the creation of the register a month later on August 15th. While the register did not in itself make men liable to serve, the responsible minister (Walter Long) said that ‘it will compel them to declare that they are doing nothing to help their country in her hour of crisis.’

Preamble and first clause of the National Registration Act 1915 (from

Preamble and first clause of the National Registration Act 1915 (from

The Derby Scheme website summarises the process of building the register well:

“The registration was to undertaken in a similar way to a census however, unlike a census, the head of household was not responsible for completing the form and instead each person who came under the act would complete their own form. Some 29 million forms were issued across England, Scotland and Wales.

Men were required to complete a granite blue form and women a white form.

“The returned forms were collected shortly after 15 August 1915 and compiled by the local authority. A summary of the register was passed to the Registrar General who compiled statistics however the actual forms were retained at a local level.”

Registering in a common boarding house from Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War

Registering in a common boarding house from Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War

It was a major undertaking and required a huge amount of work to complete. In England it was organised by local authorities (in Scotland it was centralised), and conducted with the help of a large number of volunteers. In St Marylebone, the council’s general purposes committee noted on 7 October that,

“The Town Clerk has reported to us on the steps taken for compiling and maintaining the Borough’s portion of the National Register. The work has engaged a very considerable number of voluntary helpers and a large number of the staff since the beginning of August. The invitations of the President of the Local Government Board and the Registrar General for capable voluntary helpers from among the professional and official classes did not meet with a very large response, although several barristers, members of the Council, and leading residents kindly offered their services; but at the last moment a number of church workers, workers from the Women’s Emergency Corps, the Women’s Service League, and others, came forward, and a sufficient number of enumerators undertook the difficult task of the distribution and collection of the Registration forms.

“Owing to the large number of foreign residents in the Borough it was also necessary to secure interpreters, and several residents volunteered for this work.”

The register of men in St Marylebone had been completed by 7 September but the register of women was still being worked on. Nearly 100,000 forms had to be dealt with and over 70,000 certificates completed and sent out.

National Registration work in Bermondsey town hall. From Daily Mirror 11 Sept 1915

National Registration work in Bermondsey town hall. From Daily Mirror 11 Sept 1915

The information on the forms was sent to the Local Government Board, who transferred the details of men of military age (i.e. 18-41 years old) onto pink forms that listed their employment and family details. If they employed in war work (for example, coal mining, munitions work, railways and some agricultural work) their pink forms were marked with a black star – leading to the term ‘starred’ meaning that someone had an essential war role.

Article on the pink form, Daily Express 18 August 1915.

Article on the pink form, Daily Express 18 August 1915.

People who were registered were sent a registration card:

National Registration card

National Registration card

As you will see, this one – for Thomas Gorman of 28 Farmilo Road, Leyton, records his name, address and occupation. It also carried the mark of the next step in the process – the Derby Scheme: Thomas Gorman ‘attested his willingness to serve’ in December 1915.

Nationally, the 1915 register showed that over 5 million men were not in the forces, of whom 2.18 million were single and 2.83 million were married. Of those single men (the first to be conscripted in 1916), 690,138 were in ‘starred’ roles meaning that nearly 1.5 million were potentially available for military service.

The National Register was a major waypoint in the move from the voluntary recruitment of 1914 to the conscription system introduced in 1916. It gave the Government a statistical breakdown of how many single and married men, of what ages, remained in the civilian population – and it gave them those men’s names and addresses. After those men were asked to enlist or attest in the Derby Scheme at the end of 1915, the Military Service Acts of 1916 introduced compulsory military service for all men of military age (unless they could get an exemption).


  • Trevor Wilson, The Myriad Faces of War
  • Derby Scheme Website
  • Peter Simkins, Kitchener’s Army
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Posted by on 25 August 2015 in Recruitment


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