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Category Archives: War Dead

“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

 

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 loss of the Persia

Soon after Christmas 1915, the British public heard bad news from the Mediterranean. A P&O passenger ship, the SS Persia, was sunk by a German submarine with the loss of 334 lives.

The Persia was built in Glasgow and launched in 1900; it left Tilbury docks on 18 December with 519 passengers and crew on board, 184 of them passengers. According to a contemporary newspaper article, “She was very heavily loaded with parcel post and mails, but there was very little cargo on board, and no war material.” After calling at Gibraltar and Marseilles, the Persia headed towards the Suez Canal on its route to India. On 30 December, its journey was abruptly ended in the Mediterranean.

SS Persia at Aden, c. 1900

SS Persia at Aden, c. 1900

Londoner Georgina Lee (in Wales for New Year) wrote in her diary on January 3rd 1916,

“Another terrible tragedy like the Lusitania horror. This time a P&O liner, the Persia, has been torpedoed in the Mediterranean off Crete without warning. Out of about 500 souls, 334 have been lost including 60 women and children. There was no panic, a few boats were lowered, and as the ship went down a few among those washed overboard were taken up into the boats but the vast majority were drownded.
“Some of the lost are American, including the American Consult for Aden [the British colony in modern-day Yemen] and his secretary. Perhaps this new outrage will at last arouse Present [Woodrow] Wilson’s anger and break his determination to remain patient.”

In her hopes about Wilson’s actions, Lee was wrong – it took him another 15 months to declare war, only after having fought a general election in which his party trumpeted his record in keeping America out of war with Germany and with Mexico. Lee’s diary entry gives a good insight, though, into the public revulsion at attacks of this sort. The New Zealand newspaper quoted above referred to “a profound sensation throughout Great Britain” caused by the sinking of the Persia following the recent “piratical destruction” of French and Japanese ships.

The SS Persia was sunk at lunchtime on 30 December 1915, south-east of Crete, by German submarine U-38, which had not issued a warning to the ship before opening fire.

The website The Sinking of the Persia gives a lot of detail about the ship and the sinking. Their description of the passengers is worth quoting at length:

“On board was a diverse mix of military (mainly officers) going out to postings in far flung parts of the British Empire, wives and children going out to India to be reunited with their fathers administering the Empire, there were Belgian nuns heading out to India, a team of YMCA staff heading to Egypt, missionaries, an American diplomat, business executives, the entourage of a maharajah, an Indian gentlemen having just had his case heard at the Privy Council, civil engineers, doctors, nurses, the headmistress of a Bombay school and a miscellany of other professions. The group that was under-represented was tourists for the run had become dangerous and wartime was not a time for the frivolity of viewing the pyramids or going tiger hunting in up-country India.”

That website gives information about many of those who died (including one of the proprietors of the Times of India, F.M. Coleman) and who survived the journey, so I will focus only on a few of the London connections, three women of the 32 who died – only 15 women survived the sinking. The three were women had very different life stories, but strong connections to the Empire.

The most glamorous is Eleanor Velasco Thornton. Nelly Thornton (also known as Thorn or Thorny) was born in 1880 in Stockwell, the daughter of an Australian engineer, and has supposedly found immortality as the model for the female figure on the bonnet of Rolls Royce cars. She worked as secretary to Claude Johnson, the first secretary of the Royal Automobile Club, until 1902 when he became a partner at Rolls Royce and she became the personal assistant of John Douglas-Scott-Montagu MP (later Lord Montagu), the owner of The Car Illustrated. Thornton went on to become his mistress and they reportedly had an illegitimate child together – Montagu was married to someone else.

Nelly Thornton and the Rolls Royce emblem said to have been modelled on her.

Nelly Thornton and the Rolls Royce emblem said to have been modelled on her.

The figure for the cars was commissioned in 1910 by Johnson from sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes. There were rumours immediately after its unveiling that the figure was Thornton, who had certainly modelled for Sykes. According to a detailed article on the subject, however

“By now he [Sykes] had obtained plenty of practice at drawing scantily clad winged goddesses, and at sculpturing nude female figures. He would therefore have had no difficulty in creating the figurine he had in mind, though he would have needed the services of a model to help him perfect details of the mascot’s pose. Jo Sykes remembers Eleanor Thornton as a strong, vigorous, statuesque woman – rather like Nike in many ways – and not the floating delicate form embodied in The Spirit of Ecstasy. So although Eleanor probably posed for the specific purpose of helping Charles develop his design for the mascot, it is not in its finished form a figure of her or any real person.”

Even so, Thornton appears to have been as close to being a model for the Spirit of Ecstacy as it was possible to be. She was on the Persia with Lord Montagu, who survived the submarine attack.

Another young Londonerror who perished was Miss Gladys Enid Macdonald. She was also the daughter of an Australian, her father being James Middleton Macdonald, chaplain at Oxford University and later a senior chaplain in India. Enid’s brother Roy was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy when he was drowned aboard HMS Hawke in October 1914; the Macdonalds therefore losthe both of their children at sea during the war. In the official records, Enid’s address is stated as 60 Stanhope Gardens, Kensington (near to the museums). She was on the Persia travelling to India to marry the wonderfully named Rowland Hatt-Cook, of the Public Works Department of the Indian Civil Service; their wedding was due to be held in Bombay in January 1916. Hatt-Cook later served as an officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery.

Gladys Enid Macdonald's entry in the record of lives lost at sea

Gladys Enid Macdonald’s entry in the record of lives lost at sea

Another woman with a London address was Mary Fernandez. In the National Archives’ list deaths at sea, her occupation is stated as “Mrs Bird’s Ayah” and her address as “Ayah’s House, 26 King Edward Road, Hackney”. Ayahs were private nannies hired by British families in India to look after their children and often accompanied the families on their journeys back to the UK. An article on the Women’s History Network blog gives more information about these travelling Indian nannies. It summarises how they ended up in London:

“We can divide them into ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ and professional ‘travelling ayahs’. The usual pattern was that ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ sailed to Britain with the family they worked for in Asia, to help with the children on the voyage. The families were either returning home on furlough, or to re-settle. The ayahs then waited in Britain, sometimes at the Ayah’s Home in Hackney, for a new family who would engage them for the trip back to Asia.”

The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney is precisely where Mary Fernandez gave as her last address. She appears to also have been there in 1911; at least there is a Mary Fernandez listed there in the census, aged 41 and born in Bombay. Her occupation is listed as ‘ayah (travelling)’. The Women’s History Network article also refers to the fact that many ayahs were given European names, so Mary Fernandez may not have been her real name. It would be very interesting to find out more about her than the scant references in wartime records. A set of letters sold in 2014 on ebay mention her and her death on the Persia; these appear to be letters to and from her aunt, Isabella Bell.

The Ayahs’ House in Hackney had been at 26 King Edward’s Road since 1900, when it moved from near Aldgate. It was run by a matron called Mrs Sara Annie Dunn, under the auspices of the London City Mission who tried to convert the stranded ayahs (and other nannies) to Christianity.

According to an Open University article “Mrs Dunn told the India Office in 1910 that the Home dealt with about ninety ayahs a year. The Home was designed not only for Indian ayahs but also for nurse-maids from other countries such as China who were similarly brought over by families and required assistance in returning. The travelling season was March to November and so the Home was practically empty from November to March. During the First World War, women were not allowed to travel by sea and so there were many more stranded ayahs during those years.” Mary Fernandez was obviously an exception to the wartime travel ban for some reason, to her cost. (If you saw the BBC tv series Remember Me, starring Michael Palin, Mary Fernandez’s death is remarkably similar to the series’ back story)

These three women ended up travelling across the British Empire on board the Persia for very different reason: a nanny, a mistress/secretary and a bride-to-be. They all met the same end, though, when the ship encountered a German submarine. The loss of these and the other 331 people who perished on board is a reminder of the reach of the the war beyond the Western Front.

 

 
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Posted by on 30 December 2015 in Events, War Dead, Women

 

Capture the flag

In the newspapers a hundred years ago today were the exploits of young Londoner Ernest Norman Lawrie, who had gone out into no-man’s land to capture a German flag.

Lawrie and the German flag, Daily Mirror 9 June 1915

Lawrie and the German flag, Daily Mirror 9 June 1915

Ernest Norman Lawrie was born in West Hampstead in April 1893 and grew up in Kew Gardens. He was the son of John and Elizabeth Lawrie; John was the manging director of Whiteley’s department store in Kensington. After being educated at Haberdasher’s School in Cricklewood, young Lawrie (who appears to have been known as Norman) started working at Elkington and Co plate silver makers of Regent Street in 1912.

Norman Lawrie was among the first wave of volunteers for war service after the Britain declared war in 1914. On August 10th, he joined the Kensington Battalion, the 13th Londons. Two and a half months later, he and his comrades went to the Western Front. Lawrie saw action at Neuve Chapelle in early 1915 and was commissioned as an officer in the battalion on 3 April 1915.

In a letter home he describes his efforts to win glory among the officers and men of the battalion soon after he was made an officer himself:

“The first time I went into the trenches as an officer I had rather an exciting experience.

“It had been a very dark night, and I kept on telling the sentries to keep a good lookout.

“In the morning we were surprised to see, midway between our lines and the German lines, a little German flag flapping in the wind. Underneath was a board with some writing on it, and all this stuck on to a post.

“It had been put there by some German patrol, who had the cheek to come thus far and stick it in the ground.

“Great excitement reigned all day, and our fellows potted at the post ‘like mad’ to knock it down, and the Boches potted at our fellows to do likewise, but neither side succeeded.

“During the evening I heard a group of about ten officers talking about it, and each saying he was going out when it was dark to bring it in.

“Well, to cut a long story short, I didn’t wait till it was dark but at dusk I strolled out, revolver in hand (loaded in all six chambers), with a corporal, in case I should get potted.

“After passing the word along our sentries, ‘Cease fire, patrol going out in front,’ the corporal and I started on our journey.

“We first of all had to climb over our own entanglements – that is one of the reasons why I went out before it was quite dark, as you get torn to pieces by the barbed wire in the dark; and reason number two, I wanted to get there before our other officers; and number three, because I didn’t want to meet a German patrol, which always comes out in front of their wire in the dark.

“Having safely climbed our wire, we crawled along and found to our dismay a ditch 5ft across and with 7ft of water in front of us.

“I had a pretty long journey. Well, we got there all right, and I gripped the post, when a sudden fear seized me.

“Here was I isolated between the two trenches, and suppose a wire was attached to the post from the trench and when I pulled it they would open a machine gun on me.

“Well, I felt carefully all over it, but ah! no wire. So I tore it out of the ground and – good heavens! A star shell went up and dropped within 5 ft of the corporal and I.

“You know what a white flare is like at a firework display, which shows up everybody all round. Well, both sides use these as rockets to show up the ground between the trenches at night, and this was one of them.

“Of course, the Boches spotted the flag was gone, and then spotted two black forms lying flat on the ground.

“My word, it was hot for a moment! The bullets fairly scraped us as they whizzed past. Well, we waited till the flare died down, and, picking up the flag, we ran to a hole in the ground made by a shell and dropped into this. And once more a star-light went up, but we were hidden this time.

“At last the star-lights stopped, and we hurried back to our trench, and huge cheers greeting me hugging the flag like a baby.”

 

The Daily Mirror described the incident as showing “better than anything the spirit of our men at the front” and revealing “once again the British soldier’s utter contempt for death”. Viewed another way, it was a reckless gamble with two men’s lives over a simple flag. Either way, it certainly shows how important such symbols as the flag were in the contest over no-man’s land.

From de Ruvigny's 'Roll of Honour'

From de Ruvigny’s ‘Roll of Honour’

Norman Lawrie was killed in action a few weeks later. I don’t know how he died, but his commander’s letter says that “He met his death leading his men in the true British way, and under circumstances as exacting as any that troops could be called upon to face”, so it doesn’t seem to have been in another wild venture out into no-man’s land.

Sources:

  • de Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour
  • Daily Mirror 9/6/1915
 
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Posted by on 9 June 2015 in Events, War Dead

 

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Patience Huthwaite and Reginald

War can break families apart, it can disrupt the normal patterns of family life through absence or death on war service. Patience Huthwaite suffered just this problem when her boyfriend Reggie Bryant was sent to serve in Iraq in 1916 and was reported missing in action.

Patience Huthwaite was born in London, daughter of house decorator Henry Huthwaite and his wife Patience. In 1901, she was seven and living with her parents and three brothers (Henry junior, James and George) at 40 Euston Road.  In 1911, though, she was living in an “Industrial School” in Blackburn Lancashire, doing laundry work

In August 1915, she was living in central Colchester. We know this because she was receiving letters from Reginald Bryant, a young man from Diss (apparently also a decorator) who was in training in Colchester as part of the Norfolk Regiment. These letters are available on the Great War Archive. It is not clear whether Patience was already in Colchester and met Bryant there, or moved to Colchester to be near him – something a number of girlfriends and wives did during the war.

Reginald Bryant, Norfolk Regiment (image from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford) - sadly there are no photos of Patience

Reginald Bryant, Norfolk Regiment (image from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford) – sadly there are no photos of Patience available

Sometime in early 1916, Reggie was sent overseas. Unfortunately for Patience he was sent to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), meaning that he was unlikely to be able to come back on leave – which men serving on the Western Front could about once a year (or more often for officers).

Reggie being away was a particular problem because Patience was pregnant. Worse was to come, though, when Reggie was reported missing in action. He was with his unit at Kut-al-Amara when the garrison there was besieged and defeated by the Turkish Army. The garrison fell at the end of April and a large number of Reginald’s comrades were taken prisoner (and treated terribly by their captors). Reggie Bryant was not among those prisoners, however – he was reported missing a week before Kut fell.

Letter to Patience confirming that Reginald was missing in action (from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford

Letter to Patience confirming that Reginald was missing in action (from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford

Patience gave birth to a son in September 1916, whom she named Reginald Bryant Huthwaite. As the letter above shows, when Regginald junior was born it was still not confirmed whether his father was alive or dead – Patience was writing to the War Office in December 1916 to try to find out. The advice sent to her was probably that she should write to the Red Cross office that dealt with inquiries about missing servicemen.

Contrary to what is often thought, pre-marital sex was not so uncommon in the first half of the twentieth century. In some ways the change from the 1970 was more in how people responded to pregnancies, with unmarried parenthood becoming more acceptable.

As Pat Thane put it in a report for the British Academy:

“Until the 1970s, illegitimate and legitimate birth rates followed similar trajectories: they rose and fell together, both rising between c.1750 and 1850 and falling from the later nineteenth century to the 1930s, suggesting that they were influenced by similar factors. In 1846-50, 67 in every 1000 live births were illegitimate. The figure fell steadily to 40 in 1906-10. During World War One it rose to 53.9 in 1916-20. This was probably due to marriages being prevented or delayed due to the absence or death of men at war rather than, as was assumed at the time, to licentious behaviour by young people liberated by wartime conditions.”

At the time of the Second World War (in advance of which illegitimacy rates were similar to before 1914), the moral panic about illegitimacy that had occurred in the Great War re-emerged. The Registrar General’s pre-war statistics showed that pre-marital pregnancies (i.e. illegitimate births and those within marriage that occurred significantly less than nine months after the wedding) accounted for 14.6% of all births, and more among younger mothers. This figure decreased as illegitimate births increased during the war. He felt that the explanation for the increase in illegitimacy was

“almost unquestionably to be found in the enforced degree of physical separation of the sexes imposed by the progressive recruitment of young males into the Armed Forces and their transfers to war stations at home and abroad, rendering immediate marriage with their home brides increasingly difficult – and, in the case of many – quite impossible”

It seems more than likely that Reginald Huthwaite was one of those children whose parents would have married had they had the chance. Eventually, the authorities decided that Reggie Bryant had died (usually this was after about a year with no news). This left young Reginald without a father of course. He soon acquired one, though, when Patience married Reggie’s brother Clarence (also a veteran of the Norfolk Regiment in the Great War: the Commonwealth War Graves Commission page for Reggie says he was one of six brothers who served). According to the family’s account (on the Great War Archive), Reginald Huthwaite was brought up by his maternal grandmother, Patience senior, in London. He remained a Huthwaite for the rest of his life and died in 1999.

The Great War affected families in many ways. The lives of Reggie Bryant, Patience Huthwaite and their son show just one of those stories.

 
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Posted by on 24 March 2015 in War Dead, Women

 

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