1918 was a bad year for Annie Bridger. She was doubly bereaved, but also suffered the pain of uncertainty about her husband’s fate.
Annie grew up in Wandsworth, the daughter of a labourer – the second-youngest of Charles Henry Langley’s children with his wife Mary Ann. The family lived at 27 Garton Street, off Allfarthing Lane. The 1911 census records five of the children still living at home, 14-year-old Annie was a laundry apprentice, presumably working with her older sisters Louise (21) and Elizabeth (19) who were laundry workers. Two sons were also living in the house: 16-year-old James, working as a railway porter, and schoolboy Walter.
Sometime in the spring of 1914, Annie became pregnant by (I presume) Walter Bridger, a shop assistant two years her senior who lived in nearby Aslett Street. Annie and Walter married in the parish church on 13 September, just at the point when men like Walter (young men in the service sector) were enlisting in the army in vast numbers. On Christmas Day, 1914, their daughter Violet Bridger was born.
The following summer, Walter left his wife and daughter behind in Wandsworth and joined the London Regiment – on 14 June 1915. Another nine months later Annie gave birth to their second child – Walter Charles Henry Bridger. Annie’s wartime address is given variously as 53 Garton Street, 7 Aslett Street (Walter’s parents’ address and his address on his service papers) and 29 Garton Street.
Walter had joined the second-line battalion of the 23rd London Regiment, a unit initially formed to keep the first-line battalion (the Artists’ Rifles) up to strength. A year after Walter had joined up, though, the battalion went out to France in the 181st Brigade, 60th (2/2nd London) Division, before going on to Salonica that December, and on to Egypt in June 1917.
In April 1918, Annie received a War Office telegram bringing terrible news – her husband was reported missing in action. His unit had been engaged in the First Battle of Amman at the end of March, fighting around the River Jordan. The 60th Division suffered 476 casualties, of whom over 100 were killed or missing. One of them was Walter Bridger.
Walter had entered the limbo of the missing, as far as Annie and the War Office were concerned. Like those whose loved ones went missing during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, she sought information about his fate. In May she heard promising news, writing (in the punctuation-light style of many letters of the time) to the War Office that:
I am writing these few lines to you to tell you I have heard some good news about my husband which may please in one way my father saw a gentleman who he new and he said he son wrote home and told him that my husband was taken prisoner of war with one of there fellow mates he saw him taken. Father said the name of the son father was Williams who told father to tell me as he was comeing to my house to show me the letter but has he see dad he told him so I thought it would be best to write and tell you as might find out some time or other about my husband to see if it is right.
Yours faithful Mrs Bridger
Sadly, the rumour – as so often in these cases – was not true, or if he was a prisoner it was never officially reported. Walter’s body was never found and his death was officially recorded in January 1919 to have happened on or after 28 March 1918.
Before finding this out, though, more sad news hit Annie and her family. Her two youngest brothers had also enlisted in the army during the war. James, the older sibling, had joined up early in the war and went out to France in March 1915 in the RAMC; he served in the 4th London Field Ambulance. Walter was conscripted in December 1916 and joined the 7th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. Walter was wounded during his time in the army and was awarded the Silver War Badge to mark his injury. James Langley some how ended up in a series of Yorkshire units in the last 18 months of the war – in the 1st West Riding Field Company (Royal Engineers), the East Yorkshire Regiment, and finally the 1/6th West Yorkshires as they fought the Germans back across France in autumn 1918. On 11 October – exactly a month before the Armistice – James was killed in action near Iwuy, where his body now lies in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.
We can only wonder at the feelings of the Langleys and Annie Bridger when they received this news, and how they greeted the Armistice that ended a war that had so recently taken away James, wounded Walter Langley, and still held Walter Bridger in limbo. Individual circumstances had such a great impact on people’s attitudes to the war. How did Annie, her parents, siblings, and children feel about this war and the men who were taken or scarred by it? How did they remember Walter Bridger – missing so far away and presumably completely unknown to his son Walter and virtually so to Violet?