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Writing to the bereaved

When service personnel died during the Great War, their officers wrote to the bereaved families. Others also wrote, including those who had recovered the bodies or belongings of the dead. One who did this was Jack Sweeney when he found the body of Londoner Alfred Salway in Mametz Wood in 1916.

On 10 July 1916, the 38th (Welsh) Division attacked Mametz Wood in France, in the early stages of the Battle of the Somme. Eventually the wood was cleared but only at the cost of 5,000 casualties in the division.

Newly hollowed out shelters for the British reserves at Mametz, July 1916 © IWM (Q 3968)

Newly hollowed out shelters for the British reserves at Mametz, July 1916 © IWM (Q 3968)

Among the Welsh Division’s units was the 1st London Welsh, otherwise known as the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh (or Welch) Fusiliers. Among the dead of that battalion was Alfred John Salway, from Hoxton, a meat market porter. He had left his wife Emily and two children (at 1 Buttesland Street) early in the war to join the battalion, going out to France with it just before Christmas 1915.

Battalion shoulder patch for the 15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers (1st London Welsh) © IWM (INS 7649)

Battalion shoulder patch for the 15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers (1st London Welsh) © IWM (INS 7649)

In mid-July 1916, Jack Sweeney, a private in the Lincolnshire Regiment found Salway’s body in the nightmarish Mametz Wood that the Welsh Division had fought through a week earlier. He described the scene in a letter to his future wife Ivy (in Walthamstow) a few months later:

It was on the evening of the 18th or 20th of July (not sure of date) that I found the body of Pte Salway. I was sent with 30 men out of the firing line which was then in Mametz Wood. It was terrible fighting and the cries of the wounded were heart rending, we could not do anything for some of the poor lads but we managed to carry a few of them out with us. There were many dead of both sides but mostly German who I must say looked as thought they had put up a good fight.
The woods was being shelled everywhere – we lost 7 men getting out, 4 were blown to pieces, I cannot describe what it was like but we wanted bombs and someone had to get them.

After dropping off the bombs (grenades) they made their way back, slowly. They

stopped at the next line of trenches and Fritz was shelling a place on our right so we decided to get into the trench running from a road known as The Sunken Road. Just at the corner of the trench we saw 2 men lying, one on one side of the road the other on the other side.
The moon was very bright, the man on the right was in a terrible state, his blood was draining from him into the middle of the road, his head (what was left of it) was covered with a sandbag, we did not touch him at all. The other man was covered with a sandbag but he was not hit about the body like the man opposite. Well something seemed to tell me to look in his pockets, he is the first dead man I have ever touched but I did it and I found a few photos of himself and his wife and children, a pipe and baccy and 1 franc and ½.
Well we got a light and looked at his letters to see who he was, when I saw the address on the top of his letter (his home address) I could have dropped as I knew it very well and I believe I knew the man too. The letter was the last one from his wife and I kept it until after the battle and we got relieved. I left his Pay Book and also his identification disc so as the burning party would know who he was, then we went on our journey with our box of bombs…
After we were relieved we went by train to a place called Arras, I then sent that letter which I found on Pte Salway to his wife and she wrote back and thanked me and asked if I happened to find our where he was buried if I would let her known. Well when we left Arras to go to that ‘Hell’ again I had a look at a good many graves around the spot where I found Pte Salway but I did not find it.
I know where he must be buried now, it is one of the big grave grounds, I passed it on the march. There are about 800 buried there, the graves are well looked after but some of the poor chaps are buried where they fell and a bit of wood made into a Cross to show that some poor lad is buried there, some have no names, others bear on the ‘An Unknown English Soldier’.

The grave and simple wooden marker of an unknown British soldier at Thiepval, seen in September 1916. The cross reads 'R.I.P. In Memory of an Unknown British Soldier Found & Buried 25.11.15' © IWM (Q 1540)

The grave and simple wooden marker of an unknown British soldier at Thiepval, seen in September 1916. The cross reads ‘R.I.P. In Memory of an Unknown British Soldier Found & Buried 25.11.15’ © IWM (Q 1540)

After the war, the thousands of bodies around Mametz were consolidated into Dantzig Alley British Cemetery, where there are graves or memorials to 2,053 dead of the Great War – 518 of them unidentified. Salway’s body was identified (thanks to the items left on the body, which Sweeney mentioned) and he is buried there. He is also remembered on the memorial at his school, St Luke’s Parochial School.

What solace it gave Mrs Salway to hear from Sweeney, we will probably never know, but finding out that a loved one’s body had been identified and properly buried was often a real comfort to the bereaved of the First World War.

Sources:
The Long, Long Trail
38th (Welsh) Division Memorial, Mametz Wood 
Greater Love: Letters Home 1914-1918 – (ed) Michael Moyniyan. This includes the Sweeney letters, which are held in the Imperial War Museum archive

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Posted by on 10 July 2014 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead

 

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Albert Mason: A brave, blinded war hero

In June 1917, a large crowd gathered for a ceremony in Hyde Park where the King awarded medals to hundreds of men and women.  George V paused during the ceremony for a longer chat than usual with one London veteran, Albert James Mason, who had been blinded during the Battle of the Somme the previous autumn.

The crowd that gathered in Hyde Park on 3 June 1917 saw over 300 servicemen and 12 women awarded medals for gallantry and good work during the war, along with 50 relatives of those who had died since or during their actions.

Towards the end of the ceremony, once the order of precedence had reached the Military Medal. As the Times (4/6/1917) described it:

A murmur ran through the round…, for an orderly was leading a blind man to the King’s presence. It was Corporal Albert Mason, in mufti, for he is a soldier no longer, but he won the Military Medal when in the London Regiment. He was halted in front of the King, who spoke to him for some time and reached down and grasped the wounded man’s hand.

Albert Mason being led up to meet the King and receive his MM from the King (Illustrated London News, 9/6/1917)

Albert Mason being led up to meet the King and receive his MM from the King (Illustrated London News, 9/6/1917)

The scene was a far cry from the battlefields of France, where Mason had earned his medal and suffered his wounds the year before.  He had enlisted as a 19-year-old on 1 September 1914, at the peak of the recruiting boom, joining the Civil Service Rifles.  His address was recorded as the Central London YMCA (the original YMCA) on Tottenham Court Road, but his widowed mother lived in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa; it is not clear whether he was a South African in London or his parents had moved to Natal before the war.

Mason soon took the Imperial Service oath and joined the battalion of his unit that was due to go to France, the 1/15th Battaltion of the London Regiment.  For some reason, he remained in the UK for a year while the unit was in France, only joining them on the Western Front in March 1916.

That summer, he was part of that unit during the Battle of the Somme, serving in the 47th (2nd London) Division.  It is not clear when or for what he was awarded the Military Medal.  Although it was not formally awarded until December 1916, the divisional history and his service record give the date as 9 October 1916.  Mason was promoted to Corporal on 15 September 1916, the first day of the battle of Flers-Courcelette, which saw the first use of and where the Civil Service Rifles were in the heart of the battle at High Wood.  It may be that actions on that day earned him both his promotion and his medal.  Supported by the tanks, the infantry were to attack the German lines without the benefit of a preliminary artillery bombardment, but the Civil Service Rifles found that their tanks were held up and arrived after the attack started. They and their London Division comrades were held up in no-man’s land, suffering casualties all the time, until additional bombardments cleared the German defences and the Londoners broke through to take High Wood – an objective that the British had been trying to take since July. The Battalion, and the Division, had suffered an enormous number of casualties in the attack; by the time they withdrew from the front line on 20 September the Battalion had lost 15 officers and 365 other ranks.

The landscape around High Wood (on the right) before the battle of Fler Courcelette (c)IWM

The landscape around High Wood (on the right) before the battle of Fler Courcelette (c)IWM

Overall the attack was successful, in the context of the Battle of the Somme, but it was still a horrendous experience for the men involved. Jill Knight’s excellent book The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War quotes M.J. ‘Paddy’ Guiton, an Irishman who served in the battalion (having been a clerk in the London County Council  Education department, living is Islington before the war:

I saw men torn to fragments by the near explosions of bombs and – worse than any sight – I heard the agnoised cries and shrieks of men in mortal pain…

We don’t know whether Mason earned his Military Medal at High Wood, or a few weeks later when he was blinded.  The battalion had been filled up with hundreds of new reinforcements (which may explain Mason’s promotion, as a relatively old hand in the unit) and attacked the Butte de Warlencourt. In the afternoon of 7 October, the Division attacked the Butte, under heavy enemy bombardment, while the British ‘creeping bombardment’ crept on too quickly and the infantrymen were left behind. The attack was a failure.

On 8 October, Mason was evacuated away from the unit with a gunshot wound in the right eye – probably either a bullet or a piece or shrapnel.  After medical treatment at the front, he was transferred back to the UK at the start of November, and was discharged on medical grounds and with an excellent character reference in January 1917.  Sadly, this is where his record ends so we do not know where he went or what he did after being awarded his Military Medal for bravery in the field.

Albert Mason was just one of the Londoners flung into battle in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His unit suffered heavily in both the successful attack on High Wood and the failed attempt to take the Butte de Warlencourt. In one (or both) of those two battles, Mason performed with remarkable bravery.  Within days, though, he was blinded and his military career was over.

Sources:

Illustrated London News (6/6/1917) and Times (4/6/1917)

The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War by Jill Knight – an excellent book, which I used for the descriptions of the battalions actions in 1916.

 
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Posted by on 11 August 2013 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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Three of the fallen of 1 July 1916

The first day of the 1916 Battle of the Somme is notorious as the deadliest day in British military history, the day when over 19,000 servicemen were killed in action for little territorial gain. This post remembers three Londoners who were among those thousands.

L/Cpl ECL Read, 8th Norfolks

L/Cpl ECL Read, 8th Norfolks

Edwin Cyril Laffan Read was born in South London in 1894 and educated at the London County Council School on Eardley Road, Streatham.  After leaving school, he became a tailor.  On 1 September 1914, he joined the army – at the height of the recruiting boom after the battle of Mons.  He joined the 8th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. On 1 July 1916 he was serving with them in 53rd Brigade in 18th (Eastern) Division, which successfully attacked Montauban. He was killed and now lies buried in Dantzig British Cemetery in Mametz, in ground captured during the battle – but he was probably one of the 25 men of his division moved there from a cemetery in Carnoy.

Cpl R.L. Brewer, Queen's Westminster RIfles

Cpl R.L. Brewer, Queen’s Westminster RIfles and Royal Fusiliers

Richard Leslie Brewer was born in Leyton in 1895, the son of an insurance broker. He enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) on 14 September 1914 and served with them in malta and Egypt before landing at Cape Helles in Gallipoli in September 1915 and serving there until the retreat at the end of 1915. In 1916 he was transferred to the Western Front and in April joined the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (the 16th Battalion, London Regiment) as part of 56 (1st London) Division. On 1 July 1916, according to letters to his parents, he was seen to assist a wounded comrade before leading his platoon after their officer was hit.  Soon after that he was killed by a shot to the head; he now lies buried in Gommecourt, where hundreds of the dead of 56 Division lie.

2/Lt B Boncker, 1st East Yorks

2/Lt B Boncker, 1st East Yorks

Barry Boncker was born in Upper Norwood in August 1897, but educated at Ardingley College in Haywards Heath. In 1914, he was living on Upper Grove in South Norwood and working as a clerk at the National Bank of South Africa. On 1 September, he joined the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) in the ranks.  In November 1915 he was given a temporary commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the East Yorkshire Regiment. The official notice of his promotion was published in the London Gazette on 30 June 1916. On that day, he and the rest of A Company, 1st East Yorks, were parading and moving into their positions at Fricourt, where they were to attack at dawn on 1 July. The excellent Long, Long Trail website has a transcription of their war diary for that week, which describes how the brigade reached their first objective ‘in spite of heavy losses’ by 8.05 am. After repulsing a German attack, the battalion was too depleted to attack further and dug in. They were relieved by another brigade over night, leaving their positions by 6 a.m.  The 1st East Yorks were in action again over the next few days but 1 July was the bloodiest with five officers killed on that day alone out of six killed and anther 13 injured or missing by 4 July, along with 35 other ranks killed, 239 wounded, 158 missing and another nine wounded and missing. Barry Boncker was one of those four dead officers on 1 July 1916. He has no known grave, but is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing – just one of 72,203 names recorded there, 12,360 of them the fallen of 1 July 1916.

Sources:

de Ruvigney’s Roll of Honour (Brewer)

Croydon during the Great War (Read and Boncker)

Long Long Trail

 
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Posted by on 1 July 2013 in Events, Ordinary Londoners, War Dead

 

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The Big Push on the Big Screen

This week in 1916 a blockbuster film had its first general release in London’s cinemas. The film went on to be the most popular film in British cinemas until 1977.  It showed genuine footage of men in battle on the Western Front in the Battle of the Somme.

The film was made by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, who mixed short sections of mocked up battle scenes with plenty of genuine footage of guns firing, troops moving around in the trenches, men attacking over no-man’s land, the wounded and the explosion of the mine under Hawthorn Ridge (on top of which was a german redoubt).

 

After a few private showings, the Battle of the Somme film opened in 34 cinemas across London on 21 August 1916. The next day, the Times reported that:

Never before has there been so large a demand for a long film. Managers of cinema houses have to make their arrangements many months ahead, and  in order to show the war pictures they have had to cut out of their programmes films rented many months ago for exhibition this week. […] The early arrangement of programmes has in some cases had the unfortunate effect of associating the war pictures with fimls of a light and trivial character, but this could hardly be avoided. One cannot imagine, however, that an audience which has seen men “go over” the parapet, and tumble back dead or wounded into the trench, can afterwards have the heart to laugh at picture theatre inanities.

A week later it was released across the country. Every copy of the film was reportedly in use that week. By the first week of Setember, the film was showing in more than 1000 ‘picture theatres’ across the UK.

Advert for the Somme film at the Philharmonic (Times 25.9.1916)

Famously, 20 million tickets for the film were sold in its first six weeks (in a nation of 45 million people). The next film to sell so many tickets was Star Wars in 1977 – more than 60 years later!

Most other films shown at the time were short pieces or serial shows – much more like TV programmes (soaps, news, dramas, comedies, etc) than what we see in the cinema today. The most popular of these attracted audiences of 10 million each week for their installments, which means that the success of The Battle of the Somme was as much in the continued demand for it (presumably more than 20 million tickets were sold over the month or so it was on, probably including many repeat attendances) as in the numbers watching in any one week – although the demand in late August was clearly vast. The film provided people in London and across the UK with a view of the battlefields like they had never had before. It interested millions and shocked a great number of them.

Frances Stevenson (Lloyd George’s secretary) wrote in her diary after a private showing on 4 August:

We went on Wednesday night to a private view of the ‘Some films’ i.e. the pictures taken during the recent fighting. To say that one enjoyed them would be untrue; but I am glad I went. I am glad I have seen the sort of thing our men have to go through, even to the sortie from the trench, and the falling in the barbed wire. There were pictures too of the battlefield after the fight, & of our gallant men lying all crumpled up & helpless. There were pictures of men mortally wounded being carried out of the communication trenches, with the look of agony on their faces.

A photograph taken while filming. The caption in the film reads “British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire. (This man died 30 minutes after reaching the trenches.)”

Similar films made in 1917 were nowhere near as successful, and people drifted back to the usual serial or comedy films (such as those of Charlie Chaplin). The Battle of the Somme was the great success in the war-documentary genre in the Great War. It was shown at a point when the images it showed were new and shocking, but (perhaps) before the failure of the Allies to win in 1916 made the war seem to grind on interminably.

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Sources:

The Times

Wikipedia

Nicholas Hiley, ‘ ‘At the Picture Palace’: The British Cinema Audience, 1895-1920’, John Fullerton (ed.), Celebrating 1895: the centenary of cinema

Nicholas Hiley, ‘Introduction’ in Geoffrey H Malins, How I Filmed the War

Nicholas Reeves, ‘Cinema, spectatorship and propaganda: ‘Battle of the Somme’ (1916) and its contemporary audience’ in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 1.

Rachel Low (ed), History of British Film, Vol 3 (1914-1918).

Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War

 
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Posted by on 24 August 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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Rain delays

July 1st, 1916 is one of the great memorable dates of the Great War for the British. The first day of the Battle of the Somme has a resonance, alongside the 11th of November. That this was not the date it was supposed to start might be a surprise, until one realises why: it was delayed by rain! A rain delay in mid-summer? That may seem familiar to any cricket or tennis fans this year.

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Posted by on 1 July 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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