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Category Archives: Ordinary Londoners

“I am content to have done my bit” – the death John William Irons

What would you want to tell your loved ones if you were killed in action? It must have been a question that many soldiers, sailors and airmen considered during the Great War. This is the story of one Londoner’s last words to his mother.

John William Irons was born in Islington in 1884, the eldest son of John and Mary Irons. By 1901, John senior had died and Mary was working as an office cleaner, living in Lambeth with her 18-year-old daughter Ellen (working as a “fur machinist”), 16-year old John William who was working as an assistant in a stationer’s shop, and two younger sons, Frederick and George. Later that year, Mary married widower Ernest William Collett, who was living in Camberwell. They had three children, one of whom died in infancy. In 1911, Mary, Ernest, their two daughters, Mary’s three sons (Ellen had moved out), and four boarders, were living at 112 Kennington Road – close to the current location of the Imperial War Museum.

Lance Corporal J.W. Irons © IWM (HU 116215)

Lance Corporal J.W. Irons © IWM (HU 116215)

John William Irons was listed in the census return as a clerk. By 1914, he was working for Messrs Adams Bros and Shardlow Ltd, a printing firm based at 72 Chiswell Street, London EC. In August 1914, he left the firm to join the army. When he went out to the front in May 1915, the firm sent him gift boxes every fortnight.

The 5th Berkshires were at Noyelles from 27th February 1916 until the 29th, when they moved into the frontline trenches. According to the war diary “C and D [Companies were] in front line A and B Coys in support trenches”. The battalion also received a “Draft of 43 N.C.O’s and Men arrived from Etaples”. On 1 March, one soldier died, but the war diary doesn’t give any details.

On 2 March, the war diary tells us that a “Mine exploded in front of D Coy and Crator [sic] occupied by Coy Bombers Casualties O.R. 3 killed 7 wounded”. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists three men of the battalion who died that day: L/Cpl Victor J Stokes, Pte William E Carter and L/Cpl John William Irons.

A few days later, Mary Collett back in Kennington received a letter from Revd Jospeh O’Reilly. The letter describes Irons having been killed by a shell; whether this was separate from the mine explosion, part of the occupation of the crater, or simply the generic description of death resulting from an explosion (rather than gunfire) is hard to say.

Dear Mrs Collett

Possibly you may have received a telegram recently with news of your son John, but if not it falls to me to inform you that your poor boy has made the Great Sacrifice for God and Country. The letter enclosed was found on him in an envelope upon which was the written request that the finder might past [sic] it to you.

I sincerely simpathise [sic] with you in your sorrow. He was a very good Catholic boy – always receiving the sacraments when opportunity permitted. He was killed by a shell on the night of March 2nd. Death was instantaneous.

I buried him yesterday and possibly I shall be able to have a photo of his last resting place sent to you.

(Revd) Joseph C O’Reilly, CF

36 F[iel]d Amb

B.E.F

 

The letter Revd O’Reily sent back was addressed to Mary Collett and had clearly been written by L/Cpl Irons when contemplating going into the front line as it is dated “Armentieres, June 7, 1915”, the location and date that the 5th Berkshires went into billets for a week before going into the trenches for the first time:

Dear Mum,

In case I get bowled out I have scribbled this line to you.

Now, Mum, do not worry about me as I am contented at having done my bit. Keep up your spirit and work on as you have always done. Remember me to all at home, also Nell and Sam, and all my chums when you can.

In is hard to imagine the emotions Mary must have felt when she received that letter from her son. In a letter she sent to the Imperial War Museum, she told them that a “Better son a mother never had”.

Mrs Collett was clearly very proud of her son. She sent information about him and a photo of his grave to the Imperial War Museum in 1918. Possibly this was the same photo sent by Revd O’Reily in 1916:

LCpl Irons

Lance Cpl Irons’s original grave marker © IWM (HU 116216)

 

The grave is in Vermelles British Cemetery, where Irons lies alongside Stokes and Carter. After the war, the Imperial War Graves Commission (as they were then known) offered the families of the fallen the chance to add an inscription to the otherwise-uniform headstones. Mary Collett clearly took her son’s letter to heart when she composed his inscription, which reads:

I AM CONTENT

TO HAVE DONE MY BIT

PRAY FOR ME

 

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Posted by on 30 September 2016 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead, Women

 

One road at war: Arthurdon Road, SE4

The Great War had a global impact, but it was experienced my millions of individuals, families and communities across the world. By focussing on one street in South London, we can see something of the variety of war experiences.

In 1918, all men aged 21 or over and servicemen aged 19 or over were eligible to vote. The register for that year therefore lists (or should list) every man on military service in July 1918, when the register was compiled. Those who were absent on military service were marked with a lower-case ‘a’ next to their name and NM in the ‘qualification’ column (as opposed to HO for home owner and R for resident). Unfortunately, the more restrictive franchise for women means that very few female service personnel are listed.

Some boroughs published separate registers listing the military details of those men on war service. Lewisham was one of these boroughs and I have picked Arthurdon Road in Ladywell. The road is opposite the Ladywell entrance to Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery, part of a series of roads with odd names: Phoebeth, Francemary, Maybuth. They were built around the turn of the century (the streets south of Ladywell road are not on the famous and fascinating Booth Poverty maps), so the people living there in the 1910s must have been among the first to occupy Arthurdon Road.

1930s map of Ladywell showing Arthurdon Road - from ideal-homes.org.uk

1930s map of Ladywell showing Arthurdon Road – from ideal-homes.org.uk

There were 148 voters for parliamentary elections registered in Arthurdon Road in 1918 (the local franchise was different, but the general election register is the key one for our purposes). Thirty one men were listed as absent on war service, or 21 %. These were men away on military service aged 19 or older (civilian voters were men over 21, and women over 30 with a property qualification – there were some women on the absent registers but not many, and none on Arthurdon Road).

These servicemen of Arthurdon Road were 31 of the 17,589 absent in Lewisham borough, which was smaller then than today with 81,220 voters, meaning that 31.6% were absent on military service. Across London 433,800 were registered absent of 1.96 million voters (male and female), or 22.1%.

Arthurdon Road today(from googlestreetview)

Arthurdon Road today(from googlestreetview)

Going along house by house, these are the men who were listed as absent voters in 1918:

Odds

1 – At the top of the street were the Youngs brothers, both of them confirmed war heroes:

  • Harold William Youngs was born in 1889 and married Violet Lillian Bellsham in 1911; their daughter Betty was born in 1913. In January 1917, he joined the Royal Flying Corps and in April he went out to France. In June 1918, he is noted as moving from 16th Balloon Company to 24 Squadron, but he appears later to have returned to ballooning. Sadly, he then died in March 1919 in France, serving with 14th Balloon Section; his death was officially attributed to his own negligence. This did not, however, stop the authorities from awarding him the Military Medal in July 1919. The medal was awarded for bravery in action, but sadly no citation explaining what he had done was published.
  • Arthur Leslie Youngs was two years younger than his brother. He joined up first, though, joining the Royal Army Medical Corps on 1 September 1914, leaving his job as a schoolmaster in Tottenham. He went to the Western Front in May 1915 with the 4th London Field Ambulance and remained there for nearly three years. In August 1916, he was awarded the Military Medal (three years ahead of his ill-fated older brother). He did not get through unscathed, however. On 8 April 1918, he was wounded in the right leg. His medical report states “Bricks from a house fell on him and bruised his right side. Was sea sick coming across [back to the UK] and brought up some blood. States he got some gas several days previously. Piece of metal taken from knee in France”. An x-ray showed there was still shrapnel in his leg. He was eventually discharged in March 1919.

3 – Their neighbour George Douglas Sylvester was a tea buyer born in Brighton in 1884, who lived with his mother and stepfather (in 1911 he was in nearby Tresillian Road). He joined the Royal Naval Air Service in September 1917 and later served in the newly-formed Royal Air Force. He served in Italy from November 1917 with 66 and 67 Wings. He was discharged in 1920.

9 – Harry Hayden Ellis was born in Stepney in 1878 and married Emma Frances Thornbury in 1903. In the 1911 census, he is listed as a journalist. During the war, he served in the 6th Battalion of the London Regiment as a rifleman. He died in 1951.

17 – Henry Emerson Sanderson, a bank clerk who had married in 1909, served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He survived the war, but died in 1931.

23 was the home of the Squires brothers, whom we have met before. Alfred Webb Squires was a clerk working for Nestlé before the war and joined Queen Victoria’s Rifles (1/9 Battalion, London Regiment) in August 1914, he went to France in November that year and served there until he was wounded at Gommecourt, where he was a stretcher-bearer during in the fighting on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He was awarded the Military Medal, possibly for his actions that day. He spent the rest of the war in the UK and got married in 1918. His brother Sidney Charles Squires was already in the Royal Navy in 1914 and served as a sick-bay attendant through the war, on a variety of ships – including one that was involved in a minor way in the Battle of Jutland. Both Squires brothers survived the war.

25 – Their neighbour was Frederick John Bryan Lucas, born in 1874. He does not appear to have married and the other people at number 25 were Wilfred and Katie Kent, so perhaps he was a boarder or relative of theirs. He was commissioned into the Worcestershire Regiment in 1917 but was seconded to the East Yorkshire Regiment. He is listed in the electoral register as a Lieutenant in their 2/4th Battalion, which was then based in Bermuda.

27 – At the next house lived Frank Moorhouse, who lived there with his wife Julia and two children and was working as a traveller (i.e. travelling salesman) when he attested in the Derby Scheme in December 1915 aged 32. He attested the day after his younger child Geoffrey was born. In June 1916, he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery, before transferring to the Military Foot Police, with whom he served in France from May/June 1917 and became a Lance Corporal. He served on the Western Front from May 1917 until he was discharged from the army in September 1919.

Communication sent to Moorhouse in Arthurdon Road in late 1919

Communication sent to Moorhouse in Arthurdon Road in late 1919

35 – Charles Bray served in the RAF, having joined the RFC in Jan 1916 when he was a student aged 18. He served as a wireless operator and was in France from May 1917 to March 1919, when he was demobilised.

49 – Frederick George Hunt was another RAF man. He was born in 1880 in Rotherhithe and worked as a clerk before joining the Royal Naval Air Service in April 1916. He doesn’t seem to have served abroad. In the electoral register, he is described as serving in Group 5, No 1 Area, RAF.

55 – Completing the odd side of the road is Reginald Thomas Wilding, who was born in Dulwich in 1898 and lived in New Cross in 1911. During the war, he served in the Ammunition Column for 57th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. He served in France from 4 October 1915. He survived the war and died in 1969.

 

Evens

12 – On the opposite side of the road William Francis Halfpenny is the first entry at number 12. He was born in 1883 in Walworth and worked as a carpenter and joiner before he joined the Royal Navy in September 1916. He served on a number of ships, including HMS Greenwich. In September 1917, he distinguished himself by his behaviour when HMS Contest was sunk (sadly, the details of his behaviour are not recorded). He was demobilised in early 1919. He died in Lewisham in 1954.

Contest

HMS Contest, torpedoed by German submarine U-106, 18 September 1917 ©IWM (Q 38536)

14 – The Halfpennys neighbours included George Sidney Bird and his parents George William and Sophia Emma Bird. George junior was born in a clerk, in 1911 he worked for the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, but when he joined up in November 1915, he was working for St John’s School, Wellington Street, Woolwich – and the school promised to top up his army pay to the level of his civilian pay. Bird joined the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (16th Londons) on 10 November 1915; he was sent to the Western Front in June 1916 and joined the unit a week into the Battle of the Somme. A year later, Bird was wounded in the thigh and was away from the unit until early October. Soon after that, he was allowed home for ten days to get married to a Sydenham woman named Lilian on October 24th. He was in action again at the start of the German Spring Offensive in 1918 where he was badly gassed on 22 March, as a result of which he was sent back to England at the start of April and remained in the UK for the rest of the war. He was sent out to France again on 20 November but returned to be demobilised in January 1919.

16 – The next household included two servicemen, the youngest of the seven children of Mary Rebecca Gooding and her late husband Charles: Horace Rason Gooding was born in 1889 and was a gas fitter; he served in the Army Service Corps – the register lists his unit as 3rd DMT (District Mounted Troops) Company. Thomas Edgar Gooding managed to serve in both the army and the navy. He was an 18 year old clerk at the Home and Colonial Stores when he signed up for the 21st London Regiment (First Surrey Rifles) in 1909. He remained in this territorial unit through to its mobilisation in 1914. In March 1915, he went to France with them and served out the rest of his contractual period in the battalion before being sent home in January 1916 and leaving the army the February. A year later, he joined the Royal Navy and served out the rest of the war on various ships including NHS Devonshire.

18 – There were three voters registered at number 18. Two were a couple Richard John Walsh and Elizabeth Martha Walsh, who had married in 1902 and had at least three children (three are listed on their census return for 1911). Richard was from Bermondsey and worked as a jewellery buyer for a general store in 1911; he served in the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner during the war. The third voter was Frank Ernest Lancaster, who was serving in the Royal Marines Light Infantry, having joined up in 1901. He was born in 1879 in Walthamstow and worked as a slater for Walthamstow Council, taking after his father who had the same job for London Country Council (Walthamstow was then in Essex). Quite why he ended up being being registered at the Walshes’ house – did he know them? Had to lived there at some point earlier in the war? I simply don’t know.

20 – William Albert B. Thornbury was another Arthurdon Road man serving in the London regiment. He was born in Forest Hill in 1898; in 1911 he was a schoolboy living in Honor Oak Park. During the war he joined the London Regiment – I don’t know when, but he was serving before 1917 and in 1918 was in the 6th Londons and ended up as a Corporal. He married Dora Brightwell in Sussex in 1926 and they had at least one child (a son, Hugh was born in 1931), but William died in 1936.

26 – Edward Richard Pettitt was a shipping clerk and enlisted in the London Regiment on 17 April 1917, having already registered with them before his 18th birthday. He later served in the Royal Engineers as a switchboard operator and was discharged in 1919, having served only in the UK.

28 – Herbert Thomas Barnes was born in November 1879 and worked as a “handicraft instructor” for London County Council. He lived at number 28 with his wife Ellen. He joined the Royal Naval Air Service on 2 June 1916 and was absorbed with it in into the RAF in 1918, with whom he served until his demobilisation in February 1919.

32 – Charles Edward Calnan was a Sergeant in the Royal Field Artillery, but I have not been able to find out any more information about his military service. There was a Charles Edward Calnan living in Rotherhithe in 1911, a shorthand typist born in the area in 1890, who died in 1977. Perhaps that was this Arthurdon Road man.

36 – Albert George Maxted (or Manstead) was a theatre manager in 1911. His war service is neatly summed up in the National Roll of the Great War: “He joined in February 1917, and in the following year went to France, where he was engaged with the Cinema Section of the RASC, entertaining the troops in the forward areas.” He ended up as a Sergeant and was discharged in February 1920. He lived another 50 years and died in September 1970.

38 – Lawrence Sydney Pudney was born near Sittingborne in Kent, but lived in South East London before the war. He was married to Marian Bowes in 1912 and was a teacher employed by London County Council when he enlisted in the Royal Engineers in 1916. He served in France for 9 months and left the army in 1919. He lived until 1978.

40 – Bookbinder’s overseer Richard Nathaniel Lamb and his wife Lilian were registered at number 40, with Richard absent in the RAF. Initially, though, he was an orderly working with the British Red Cross, having previously been a territorial member of the RAMC. He went to France in May 1915 and rose to the rank of sergeant-major, working at the Anglo-American Hospital at Wimereux. Then in July 1917 he applied for a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. He became an officer in November that year and served through to 1919 as a Lieutenant in the new Royal Air Force, but doesn’t appear to have gone out to the front with them.

R.N.Lamb's service record, showing the name his house in Arthurdon Road went by in 1918: "Inverkeithing"

R.N.Lamb’s service record, showing the name his house in Arthurdon Road went by in 1918: “Inverkeithing”

44 – Another RAF man lived a few doors down: John Sinclair Jenkins, a civil servant from Peckham who had joined the RNAS as a carpenter in November 1915 aged 29, served in France from June 1916 and by 1918 was a Corporal, serving with number 217 Squadron RAF.

48 – Frederick Kitchenmaster served as a Sergeant in the 4th (Ross Highland) Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders. He was killed in action on 21 March 1918, the first day of the last great German Offensive on the Western Front. He is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, meaning that he has no known grave; given that this was months before the register was compiled, one must assume that his family did not know of his fate in the summer of 1918 – months after his death.

4th Seaforth

A gas sentry of the 4th (Ross Highland) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, Frederick Kitchenmaster’s unit, at Wancourt, 23 October 1917. ©IWM (Q 6132)

52 – Harry George Kennedy appears to have served twice. Originally a private in the 20th London Regiment (Blackheath and Woolwich Battalion), having enlisted on 3 September 1915 he served on the Western Front for exactly six months in 1915. He then suffered from elipeptic fits, which had happened before the war. He was discharged in December 1915, but seems to have rejoined and served in the Labour Corps. On the electoral register he is listed as serving in the Officers’ Mess, 16th Corps HQ.

54 – Victor Robert Stotesbury  was born in Greenwich in 1888 and grew up in Deptford; before the war he was a house decorator. He served as a gunner in 189th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery and survived the war. He lived until 1979.

60 – Percy Edward George Farrow is listed as a corporal in a Royal Engineers Anti-Aircraft unit (service no 563779), but I have not been able to find any more information about his military career. He appears to have been a library assistant, who was born in Chelsea in 1880 and died in 1968.

68 – Walter Herbert Victor Badger was born in 1883 and in 1911 lived in Ladywell, on Wearside Road, working as a gas company’s representative traveller. In 1916, giving his occupation as “outdoor inspector” he joined the RNAS, later becoming an RAF aircraftman, serving in Kingsnorth, Kent (the airfield was where the power station is now), as a fitter.

 

As with any attempt to list service personnel from a particular place, the list is imperfect. For one thing, the names were provided by the head of the household, potentially meaning that men who had moved away before the war were listed because they had no other address even if they had left home already. For example, both Youngs brothers gave addresses on Whitehorse Lane, South Norwood in their files at the end of the war.

In addition, those men who were reported missing but who had died or whose deaths had not yet been reported would have been listed (like Sgt Kitchenmaster). On the other hand, men who had already been discharged or died were not listed as absent voters, so it is far from a full list.

The service dates of those whose information I have been able to uncover may suggest that there were some others who joined up earlier but died or were discharged. Three were already serving before the war (one of them as a part-time Territorial soldier), two joined up in 1914, three in 1915, seven in 1916 and five in 1917. Overall there was a broadly-even split in recruiting between those who joined the Army between August 1914 and December 1914 (as volunteers) and those who were called up in 1916-1918, having attested under the Derby Scheme or been conscripted. In this record of Arthurdon Road, those joining up in 1916-17 far outnumber those from 1914-15. This suggests either that the street was quite unusual in its pattern of enlistment, or that earlier recruits had been killed or discharged – or possibly both. Unfortunately, it is hard to identify which young men living in Arthurdon Road had died or been discharged before the summer of 1918.

One of the war dead associated with Arthurdon Road was Sydney William Batchelor – the only entry on the CWGC database with the street listed in his details. He enlisted in Chelsea and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He died of wounds in 1918 while serving with the 1st/3rd (North Midland) Field Ambulance, and was buried in a cemetery at Etaples. His parents are listed by CWGC as living at 48 Arthurdon Road, possibly meaning that between the summer of 1918 and the return of the Commission’s information form, Nellie Kitchenmaster had moved out and Mr and Mrs Batchelor had moved in.

It is not a complete list, but hopefully this blog post gives some sense of the range of things that Londoners did during the war. And this is only among the military roles that men played, and it doesn’t include the service or work undertaken by women.

Nonetheless we can see that, at the point in time that their service was registered in 1918:

  • Eight served in the RAF and/or its predecessor units (RFC and RNAS);
  • Five served in the Royal Navy or Royal Marines (excluding RNAS);
  • Four served in the London Regiment;
  • Four served in the Royal Artillery (RFA and RGA);
  • Three served in the Royal Engineers;
  • Two served in the Army Service Corps;And the other others served in other infantry units, the Military Police and the Labour Corps.

Arthurdon Road was probably no different to other roads in the area, or many other areas of the country. There was no dominant industry that kept men out of the forces – or pushed them into it through unemployment. Men from Arthurdon Road served around the world – but primarily on the Western Front or at sea. Among them were heroes, decorated for their bravery. I hope that by highlighting some of their stories, I have shown some of the variety of experiences Londoners had in the armed forces during the Great War.

 
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Posted by on 10 August 2016 in Ordinary Londoners, Places

 

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Some of London’s fallen of 1 July 1916

The first day of the Battle of the Somme is one of the most remembered and commemorated days in Britain’s military history. On that day the British Army suffered its worst casualties of any single day in its history.

I try not to focus too much on the war dead – it is also important to remember those who served and survived (and to remember the impact of the war at home in London) – but the centenary of the first day of that battle stands out as a day to reflect on the cost of the war in the starkest terms. It is impossible to say how many Londoners were killed or wounded on 1 July 1916, but we can look at the record of London infantry units involved in the battle.

16 Middx

Soldiers of the 16th Battalion (Public Schools), Middlesex Regiment are taken back down the slope after having reached the crater on Hawthorn Ridge, which is on the centre of the horizon. The photograph was taken at 7.45 am, 1st July 1916. © IWM (Q 755)

If we look at the number of fatalities recorded for 1 July and the subsequent four days (many of whom would have died of wounds from 1 July), we can see how badly some of the London and Middlesex battalions were affected by the fighting. These figures come from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database of the war dead:

Unit 01-Jul-16 02-Jul-16 03-Jul-16 04-Jul-16 05-Jul-16 Total Of which recorded on Thiepval memorial to the missing
1/2nd 1/3rd and 1/4th Bns, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) 275 11 7 4 5 302 183
1/12th Bn, London Regiment (The Rangers) 149 2 3 154 100
1/13th Bn, London Regiment (Kensingtons) 58 6 1 2 67 42
1/14th Bn, London Regiment (London Scottish) 220 3 1 224 180
1/15th Bn, London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade) 275 6 1 282 219
1/16th Bn, London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) 172 2 1 175 131
1/9th Bn, London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles) 221 4 1 2 1 229 179
London Regiment total 1370 32 15 9 7 1433 1034
2nd Bn, Middlesex Regiment 270 3 1 0 0 274 237
4th Bn, Middlesex Regiment 90 82 0 2 0 174 113
12th Bn, Middlesex Regiment 6 0 0 0 8 14 4
16th Bn, Middlesex Regiment (Public Schools) 160 7 2 2 0 171 91
Middlesex Regiment total 526 92 3 4 8 633 445
               
London and Middeseex Regiments 1896 124 18 13 15 2066 1479

So, from these 11 battalions, over 2,000 men died over those days. Almost three quarters of them have no known grave and are recorded on the Thiepval memorial to the missing. (The ‘total’ figures are for these battalions, not the whole London or Middlesex Regiments, each of which suffered a handful of other casualties during those days).

Each figure in the table was, of course, a man – most likely a young men and in this case probably a Londoner. Among them were:

Clifford Hugh Butcher, an 18-year-old from Leyton, whom we met in a previous post about the appeals for information published in the newspapers during the latter half of 1916. His picture appeared in the Daily Sketch in August 1916.

Rfm Clifford H Butcher from Leyton

Rfm Clifford H Butcher from Leyton © IWM (HU 93372)

 

Private Henry Leicester Oldham from Lavender Hill, SW. He was the son of a retired butler and was serving in 9th Platoon, “C” Company, Queen’s Westminster Rifles when he was reported missing on 1 July.

Pte Henry L Oldham from Lavender Hill, Battersea

Pte Henry L Oldham from Lavender Hill,  Battersea © IWM (HU 93490)

 

 

One man who was wounded but not killed that day was Captain George Johnson, an old soldier commissioned from the ranks during the war. The National Army Museum has his tunic, which I discovered and researched for their 2006 exhibition on the Battle of the Somme when I was a curator there.

Tunic of Captain Johnson, 2nd Middlesex. He was wounded in the hip and arm on 1 July 1916, his tunic clearly shows where it was cut away from his wounds. Image © National Army Museum

Tunic of Captain Johnson, 2nd Middlesex. He was wounded in the hip and arm on 1 July 1916, his tunic clearly shows where it was cut away from his wounds. Image © National Army Museum

The caption I wrote for it is used on the NAM website:

“Johnson was wounded on 1 July 1916 during the attack on Ovillers-La Boisselle on the Somme. Machine-gun fire devastated his battalion and although a few men reached the second line of German trenches, by the end of the day all had returned to the British lines or lay in no-man’s land. All but 50 of the battalion were killed, wounded or reported missing. Johnson was wounded in the chest, pelvis and right forearm. You can see where his uniform was cut away from his arm. He survived the war and lived until his 90s.”

These men were just some of the thousands of Londoners who were killed or wounded on 1 July 1916. The British Army suffered nearly 60,000 casualties that day, including 19,000 dead. The sheer number of casualties – and the reality of the fighting that caused them – is almost unimaginable for most of us today. One hundred years on, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the sacrifice made by the nation, its Empire and its allies that day in Picardy.

 
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Posted by on 1 July 2016 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead

 

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News from Jutland

News of the great battles of the Great War took time to reach home. With no instantaneous method of communicating information to the public, information filtered through newspapers, telegrams, letters and rumours. This was true of the lengthy land battles, but also of the shorter naval battle at Jutland on 31 May-1 June 1916. News came through over the next week and it was confusing. There were great losses, but what should be made of the result?

Damage to the HMS Queen Elizabeth, being worked on in dry dock after the battle of Jutland © IWM (Q 23212)

Damage to the HMS Queen Elizabeth, being worked on in dry dock after the battle of Jutland © IWM (Q 23212)

Londoner Georgina Lee was out of town at the time, but her diary gives a good indication of how the news filtered back:

Saturday June 3: There has been a great naval battle in the North Sea, and it was very serious in our losses. With a naval force which included 28 battleships and 5 battle cruisers we attached a powerful German fleet of 34, off the coast of Jutland, with the result that we have lost 3 battleships Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Invincible and several other warships. Over 2,000 men on the Invincible died: there were only 6 survivors.

Sunday June 4: The naval battle was a far bigger affair than anything we dreamt of. In their endeavour to get through our blockade the German High Fleet were frustrated, for they fled back to their ports when they found Sir John Jellicoe with the main fleet coming to the rescue of Admiral Beatty’s cruiser-fleet. By their hasty retreat, when confronted with our Dreadnoughts, they robbed us of the opportunity of another Trafalgar.

Monday June 5: The Battle of Jutland is now being viewed in the light of a British victory, as news comes into the Admiralty of fresh German losses. It is now stated that the Germans lost 18 ships to our 14. This, taken with the fact that the Germans fled back to their harbours and that Jellicoe remained in possession of the high seas, goes to show that our Fleet got the best of the encounter.

Well-connected business-man F.S. Oliver recorded a similar evolution of news from the battle in his letters to his brother. On Saturday 3 June, he commented “We heard abut the Naval Battle last night, but so far I don’t feel that I understand exactly what it amounts to. One thing, however, is quite clear – it will shake up the British people more than anything which has so far occurred in the war. That is a good thing, whatever evil may be done in other directions.” By the 8th, he was criticising the “lily-livered Liberal papers” for scaremongering in their (accurate) reporting that the Royal Navy had suffered greater losses than the German Imperial Navy. Like Mrs Lee, he also alluded the Trafalgar, in this case to demonstrate that the victors in great naval battles did not immediately scuttle off to their ports pursued by the enemy. Thanks to reports of a German victory, he implies, “Saturday was not a very pleasant day in London, neither was Sunday (no place is more unpleasant I think at times of crises and excitement than a nerve centre)… On Monday morning, however, the situation was set out in quite a rosy light.”

Contrary to what Lee and Oliver had heard in the days after the battle, the Germans had in fact lost fewer ships and men during the battle. It is fair to say, though, that it was a success from the British perspective because, as the London County Council’s record of war service puts it “Their [the Germans’] fleet did not continue the contest, but in the darkness of the early morning of 1st June returned to port. Our blockade was maintained, and never again did they venture to dispute our naval supremacy.

 

One group of people in London who must have longed for news over those days were the families of the sailors involved in the battle. As Mrs Lee’s diary shows, the loss of ships was known quite early on. Families and friends of sailors would have known what ship they were serving on. According to the ‘British Royal Navy & Royal Marines, Battle of Jutland 1916 servicemen transcription‘ some 38,890 men served at Jutland, of whom 4,856 were born in London (presumably not including the areas of Essex, Surrey and Kent that are now in London) and another 360 from Middlesex.

So great were the casualties on 31 May 1916, that the record-keepers made a stamp to mark service records with men's date of death. In this case Benjamin V. Brown from Wapping.

So great were the casualties on 31 May 1916, that the record-keepers made a stamp to mark service records with men’s date of death. In this case Benjamin V. Brown from Wapping.

The WW1 Naval casualty records shows that 5,705 died on 31 May and 1 June 1916, including over 650 from London and Middlesex – a casualty rate of around 12.5%. Among them were William R.C. Wiseman from Peckham, and George Dorling from Shepherd’s Bush, who had worked for the London Fire Brigade before the war.

Acting Leading Stoker William Richard Charles Wiseman of HMS Invincible.

Acting Leading Stoker William Richard Charles Wiseman of HMS Invincible.

George Dorling from Shepherd's Bush, who died on HMS Queen Mary

George Dorling from Shepherd’s Bush, who died on HMS Queen Mary (image posted on IWM Lives of the First World War by Maggie Coleman)

 
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Posted by on 2 June 2016 in Events, Ordinary Londoners, War Dead

 

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Permission to return home

Separation in wartime meant that many servicemen and women must have missed the deaths of their parents or siblings, or the births of new family members, at home. One soldier from Forest Gate was lucky enough to be granted special permission to go home to his mother’s sick bed.

Eliza Georgina Benison married civil engineer Alexander van Ransellaer Thuey in 1877 and they raised eight children, first in Stevenage and later in Forest Hill. Alexander died in 1902, but the family were living at 1 Sidney Road, Forest Gate in East London in 1911. Alexander junior (the eldest son) and his wife and son (also Alexander) lived there along with Eliza and five of her other grown-up children (Johnny, whose name is crossed out on the census form, was boarding in nearby Courtenay Street with his employer, a grocer). Shortly after the census was taken, Eva married an Adolphus Herbert Fiford from the Isle of Wight

Census entry for 1 Sidney Road, Forest Gate, 1911

Census entry for 1 Sidney Road, Forest Gate, 1911

When war came, the three Thuey brothers all joined up.  John joined the Essex Regiment on 8 March 1915, Alexander enlisted in the Army Service Corps as a motor driver on 29 May 1915, and Cecil joined the Royal Field Artillery – I’m not sure of the date, but he was a Corporal by the end of 1915, serving on the Western Front. Someone called Herbert A Fiford served in the artillery during the war, it seems likely that this was Eva’s husband.

Alexander Thuey had gone to the Western Front (via India, after enlisting at Grove Park) in September 1915. On 21 November 1915, he was at Armentieres when he was seriously wounded in action – his service record lists his wounds as GSW, i.e. gun-shot wound, a generic term that could include shell fragments to his left foot, head, Hand and abdominal wall.

Eliza collapsed in shock when she heard that her eldest son was badly wounded. According to newspaper reports, she was “crying out day and night for sight of her boy” (whether this meant Alexander or Cecil is not clear). The family feared that she was dying.

When he heard about his mother’s condition, Cecil immediately requested leave from his unit to go and be with her. It was refused. Another letter, countersigned by their doctor (a Dr Goodson) also had no effect. Desperate to get her brother home, Eva Fiford then wrote to the King, explaining the situation.

Daily Mirror article on the Thueys' story, 27 Jan 1916

Daily Mirror article on the Thueys’ story, 27 Jan 1916

Remarkably, the King replied positively – or rather B.B. Cubbitt (later Sir Bertram Cubbitt, vice-president of the Imperial War Museum), a senior official at the War Office, wrote to her saying

Madam – In reply to your petition to the King, which was forwarded on to this department, I am commanded by the Army Council to acquaint you that a telegram has been sent to the military authorities over-seas that leave may be granted to your brother, Corporal C. Thuey, R.F.A., as an exceptional case. – I am your obedient servant, B.B. Cubbitt

So, Cecil Thuey, who had apparently concluded that he would never see his mother alive again, was woken in the night and told that he was allowed to go home. He then rushed back and his presence apparently had a huge restorative effect on his mother, who recovered and survived her illness. Cecil returned to the front in late January 1916.

In September 1916, Alexander Thuey was discharged from the army suffering from bronchitis, which had developed prior to the war but was aggravated by his active service. Sadly, he then died on 2 October 1918, leaving Gertrude a widow.

Having served on the Western Front in the Essex Regiment in 1916-17, John Thuey transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as a driver in February 1918 and thus joined the Royal Air Force when it was founded in April that year. He served with his unit in South Russia from April 1919 until March 1920, after which he left the RAF. He and Cecil both survived their military service: John died in 1943; Cecil married Neva Oxley in 1918 and lived until 1975.

Eliza Thuey died aged 61, towards the end of 1919, a year after her eldest son had passed away and while her youngest son was still absent on military duties. I hope that Cecil and his sisters and sister-in-law were able to be there for her at the end, as they had been when she was ill four years earlier.

Sources:

 

 
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Posted by on 26 January 2016 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead, Women

 

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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 battlefields1418.50megs.com

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 battlefields1418.50megs.com

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.

Sources:

  • 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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