For England and Alice

In 1915 an interesting story appeared in several newspapers, concerning L/8863 Sergeant Cecil Robert Newman of the 2nd Battalion The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). Cecil was born in Twickenham but lived in Mitcham. He was a pre-war Regular soldier who had enlisted in The Queen’s at Guildford in 1906, aged 18, for a period of nine years with the colours and three with the reserve. His service record survives and notes his height at 5ft 4ins. He was promoted to sergeant in 1913, his service record stating that he was “A thoroughly honest, trustworthy , clean, hard working, respectable man. Very intelligent and willing. A very good clerk, with a particularly neat hand. Has a good knowledge of type writing. A strict teetotaller.”

Cecil served with the 2nd Battalion and had been posted to Gibraltar and South Africa, where the battalion was located on the outbreak of war. It was recalled and sent to Belgium, landing at Zeebrugge on 7 October. The battalion reached Ypres on 14 October and experienced its first taste of action on the 18th near Dadizeele, east of Ypres. By the 21st it had withdrawn to the Langemarck-Zonnebeke road where it came under a heavy German attack, suffering 18 men killed, 123 wounded, and 37 missing. One of those missing was Cecil Newman. A Surrey newspaper takes up the story:

Metal Disc’s Strange Adventures

“For England and Alice.” That is what Sergeant C.E. Newman, of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, fought and died for on the battlefield of France.

These were the last words that he scratched with his penknife on his metal identification disc while he lay wounded in a farm building near Zonnebeke.

This last message home was entrusted to another wounded comrade, Private R. Cotton, who lay wounded on a mattress in the same shed just before the gallant sergeant died.

The strange vicissitudes of this touching message which closed the brief life epic of Sergeant Newman and the remarkable manner in which it was given to the hero’s family this week were told to a ‘Lloyd’s News’ representative yesterday by Private Cotton, who is now in a London hospital.

“We were retiring from our positions last October,” he said, “near to Zonnebeke, when I was wounded in the leg. I managed to get to a farm shed, where I was taken prisoner by the Germans. There was another man along with me, and the next morning Sergeant Newman, also of our regiment, staggered up to the place badly wounded and lay alongside me.

Altogether we were there three days, but on the second day the sergeant was very ill and got so weak that he passed peacefully away. Our wounds had received no dressing except what we could give them ourselves, and all we had to eat were a few biscuits that we had in our pockets. The sergeant was evidently hit whilst we were firing, for he was wounded in the neck and in several places.

On the third day the position was retaken by the French, who liberated us, and as I had been entrusted with the belongings of Sergeant Newman, I took them with me to Boulogne hospital, where I remained until I came over to England. The pay-book and letter which was inside I handed over to an English officer, but the disc I retained to give to the sergeant’s family.

Cecil Newman’s ID disc

Five months passed by, and I was still ill, having been under several operations; and all this time I did not know that Sergeant Newman had been placed on the missing list, and inquiries made for him through all sorts of agencies.

I was thinking of giving up his disc to the War Officer when one day last week a lady called on me, as she had heard there were a number of comrades of the same regiment as her son in hospital.

So after all I was able to give her the details of how her brave son had met his death.

When I went to the locker by my bedside, and took the identification disc out we were surprised to notice a message scratched on it – ‘For England and for Alice,’ and some initials underneath, which were only noticed then for the first time.”

The disc, which is numbered 8863, has the message scratched on the reverse side, and the four initial under the wording to Mrs. Alice Newman, the sergeant’s wife, are: “G,” “M,” “A,” “I,” for Gwendolyn, Muriel, Alice and Ivy, the dead man’s four little girls. He was only married five years ago, and has had a very promising career on service abroad.

One extraordinary feature of the affair is that some months ago Mrs. Alice Newman dreamed that her husband was standing outside a farm building wounded, and when she saw Cotton and told him of this experience it was found that there were many points of resemblance between the dream and the reality.

Although his service record reports him missing on 21st October 1914, Cecil’s date of death is recorded as the 22nd which ties in with Private Cotton’s account. Cecil was not to know but one of his daughters, Gwendolyn, had died shortly after arriving back in England after contracting measles on the voyage back from South Africa.

His widow re-married almost exactly two years later in Sutton, to a Frederick Charles Stannard. It may just be a coincidence but interestingly a man of that name also served in the 2nd Battalion of The Queen’s (Private L/7953).

Cecil is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres but does not appear to be commemorated on any of the memorials you may expect to find his name on in England.

Cecil Newman’s name on the Menin Gate
Posted in 1914, First Ypres, Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, Remembrance, Research, Surrey Regiments, WW1, Ypres | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Tragedy of War

My research into the men named on Carshalton war memorial uncovered some sad stories, but one particularly tragic one in my eyes is that of Frederick Baldwin.

Frederick was born in Carshalton and lived with his parents on Stanley Road. In 1911 he was working as a trainee carpenter, and later became an architect’s draughtsman. After war broke out he enlisted on 24th October 1914 with his friend George Harrison, and was posted to the 8th Battalion of The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), one of the Kitchener battalions.

Frederick Baldwin

The battalion was part of the 24th Division and landed in France on 31st August 1915. They had been hurriedly rushed to the front for the Loos offensive but did not get there in time for the first day’s attack on 25th September. They were held in reserve, being sent in the following day to attack the German lines near Hulluch; it was their first, and for many their last, action.

The war diary for the 8th Battalion The Queen’s records that:

The battalion advanced under heavy machine gun and shrapnel fire in lines of platoons in extended order. As the advance continued over the Lens-La Bassee road, the machine gun fire from the flanks was very heavy. On reaching the enemy trenches it was found to be protected by barbed wire, which had not been cut and it being impossible to get through it, the brigade retired. There appeared to be no panic and the men walked back still under machine gun and shrapnel fire.

This brief description of events belies the chaos and carnage the battalion must have faced – 11 officers and 409 other ranks were casualties, including other men from Carshalton.

After the attack at Loos Frederick was reported missing; in fact he had received a gunshot wound to the chest and was taken prisoner. Initially sent to a prisoner of war camp at Limburg, at the end of May 1916 he was sent to Chateau d’Oex, a small mountain town in Switzerland, under a scheme to repatriate British and German soldiers too seriously wounded to return to fighting. Fred stayed with Samuel and Elise Etter, a couple who operated a ‘Pension’ and who took in a number of British soldiers during the war. He formed an attachment to their daughter Mariette, and in August 1917 their engagement was announced. Sadly the marriage never took place; Fred was repatriated on 11th September 1917 and discharged from the army in November.

Having survived being wounded and his time as a prisoner, unfortunately, weakened by his war experience, Frederick died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. His 14 year old sister had died two days previously from the same cause.

Frederick’s grave in Carshalton

Frederick is buried in Carshalton All Saints churchyard and commemorated on Carshalton war memorial and the memorial chapel in in St. Barnabas church.

Posted in 1915, Carshalton, CWGC, Loos, Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, Remembrance, Research, Surrey Regiments, War memorials, WW1 | Leave a comment

The Longest Epitaph?

Wandering around Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension Nord last year, a particular headstone caught my eye. It is hard to miss; situated at the end of a row, it stands out because almost the entire headstone is taken up by the epitaph. It is certainly the longest one I have seen first-hand in my travels.

The headstone is that of Lieutenant Alfred James Lawrence Evans, who served with the 3rd Battalion Canadian Infantry was who died on 7 December 1915, aged 26.

His epitaph reads:

In loving memory of Lieutenant Alfred James Lawrence Evans. B.Sc. McGill. 1st Canadian Division 7th December 1915. Aged 26 years. Born at Quebec. Died of wounds received on 23rd November 1915 while in command of 1st Bde Mining Sec. 3rd Btn. front line trenches, Belgium. Mentioned in despatches for gallant and distinguished conduct in the field. “The brave die never, being deathless they but change their country’s arms for more, their country’s heart.”

The quote is from the poem ‘Festus’ by Philip James Bailey (1816–1902). In total the epitaph is 455 characters (including spaces) – somewhat longer than the 66 characters that was allowed!

Lieutenant Alfred Evans’ grave

Alfred was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Lorenzo Evans, of 65, St. Ursule St., Quebec, Canada. He was born in Quebec in 1889 and after graduating from McGill University he worked as a mining engineer. He enlisted September 1914 as a Sapper in the Engineers, went to France in October 1914, and was promoted in August 1915. He was Mentioned in Desptaches in the London Gazette of 22 June 1915.

On 23 November Alfred was in trenches in the vicinity of Dranoutre. He and Lieutenant Chevalier (officer commanding 3rd Battalion Mining Section) were wounded by a rifle grenade, Alfred suffering wounds to his head, chest and arm. He was taken by No.2 Canadian Field Ambulance roughly four miles to No. 2 Casualty Clearing Station at Bailleul and died there two weeks later.

Lieutenant Alfred Evans (MacGill University)

Unfortunately the CWGC ‘headstone’ document attached to his casualty record on the website does not shed any light as to why such a long epitaph was permitted, as it refers to a separate schedule. Perhaps the answer lies in the CWGC archive.

So was Alfred’s epitaph the longest? The closest I have been able to find is that of Captain Guy Charles Boileau Willock who was killed at Loos on 25 September 1915 and is buried at Dud Corner Cemetery; his epitaph at 257 characters, whilst still impressive, is still 200 characters shorter.

Update

A couple of other longer than standard epitaphs have been pointed out to me:

Private Edward RustSeriously wounded while advancing with his regiment in the fighting near St. Julien Sat. April 24. 1915 he was taken to the field hospital but was so eager to uphold the honour of his regiment and to serve his country that he returned next day to the firing line and remained with his comrades until they were relieved and died on April 30th courageous to the end and beloved by all who knew him (395 characters. With thanks to Mark Banning).

Lieutenant Robert William Sterling – Scholar of Pembroke College Oxford author of Newdigate prize poem 1914 killed in action at Ypres and in memory of his brother Second Lieutenant John Lockhart Sterling Royal Scots Fusiliers killed in action at Loos 28th September 1915 (233 characters. With thanks to Paul Hilferink).

Lieutenant Eliot BurtHe was an inspiration of radiant brightness and greatly beloved In proud memory of the above and also of A. Gordon Burt passed away at sea 4th Sept. 1919 after much suffering from wounds received while serving in France now glorified (233 characters. With thanks to Michelle Young).

If you know of a longer one please comment below or contact me on Twitter @ww1geek_andy

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Meteren isolated grave

I’ve written previously about a single First World War grave located near to where I live, but they do occur on the continent as well. ‘Meteren isolated grave’ is the description on the CWGC website of the lone grave of Lieutenant Anthony George Atwood Morris. Located just off the D642 south west of Meteren, I suspect he receives few visitors due to the location – certainly fewer than the average CWGC site. However how he came to be here is an interesting story.

The location of Morris’s grave south west of Meteren

Morris was originally from Rugby. He was educated at Winchester and went on to enlist in the Royal Lancaster Regiment prior to the war. On 17 September 1914 he went to France where he joined the 1st Battalion King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment), which was at that time on the Aisne. A few weeks later the battalion entrained for Hazebrouck, which it reached on 12 October – part of the move by the BEF to support the French and try and outflank the Germans.

Anthony Morris

On 13 October reports were received that the Germans were holding Meteren, and the battalion was ordered to attack. The war diary contains a brief description of events:

“Brigade attacked this village – 400x each side of R. Croix Les Ormes Meteren road. King’s Own and Essex Regt in front line Lan. Fusiliers and Inniskillings in second line. King’s Own allotted front of 400x on right of road.

Reached outskirts of Meteren about 2pm. Heavy machine and rifle fire opened on us from village. Enemy had excellent field of fire. About 4pm we were shelled at close range by guns just south of village. There was a large gap between our right and VI Division. Lan Fus were sent to fill in gap but at nightfall they had not reached position.

After dark King’s Own Regt started to entrench and at 9pm Lan Fus marched into village from right and found enemy had evacuated it. King’s Own stayed in trenches all night.”

A sketch of the action on 13 October 1914

The regimental history provides a bit more detail about the attack and the fate of Lieutenant Morris:

“The companies were to advance with Major Jackson’s ‘D’ Company on the right of the front line and Joiner’s ‘C’ Company on the left. Keith’s ‘B’ Company followed ‘D’ and Hodgson’s ‘A’ Company followed ‘C’. Morris was to follow ‘B’ Company with his machine-gun section. The companies deployed in artillery formation and the advance began at about noon. The fog developed into a Scotch mist and in the enclosed country Meteren was no longer visible. The dividing line between the two leading companies was a track which enabled them to keep direction, but although 6th Division was supposed to be on the right, ‘D’ Company was never in touch with it and as the advance continued the gap became wider. On the other hand, even from his excellent observation post on the top of Meteren church tower the enemy was unable to see through the haze.

 About a mile short of Meteren as the country became more open and the mist lifted slightly it became possible to check the position. In front of ‘D’ Company was a farm in some enclosures running across the line of the advance; on its south side was a lane about a thousand yards from the southern outskirts of Meteren; about two hundred yards further east another road ran in a northerly direction into the eastern outskirts of the village. There was still no serious opposition, only a few odd shots from small arms, and the battalion steadily advanced in extended order, four paces between each man. The officers wore their swords, and the first casualty was Lieutenant A. Waterhouse, who had joined ‘A’ Company only two days before and was killed by a bullet as he walked over the quiet fields. It smashed his sword and entered his body. When the first shots were fired the men doubled forwards to take cover in the lane short of the farm. On the right a small German party was seen near the road into Meteren, but it was soon dispersed by rapid fire. Morris took his machine guns into the enclosures to cover the right flank.

Between this lane and the outskirts of the village there was first a field to cross, on the far side of which was a wire fence and a ditch which, while dry on the left, was full of water on the right. Beyond this fence the ground was open to the southern outskirts of the village; the enemy was posted in the houses with an excellent field of fire, but on the right there was a hopfield which afforded some cover. As soon as the battalion emerged from the lane it came under machine-gun and rifle fire, but there was no hesitation and the men continued to advance in perfect order by the orthodox method of the time, in short rushes. The plan was for the machine guns to cover the advance by engaging with fire the enemy on the southern outskirts of the village, but no sooner did Morris emerge from the farm enclosures than he was seen from the church tower. He took up a position behind a scanty hedge, where he and his team were later found in a tidy row of eight, all dead and their gun out of action.”

 Morris’s body was originally buried in Meteren churchyard; however his family reportedly travelled to France after the war, exhumed his body and tried to repatriate it, only to be stopped at Calais. The family then received special dispensation from the Secretary of State for Defence to re-bury his body close to where he fell in action. The plot of land where he is now buried was purchased by the family and the structure above his grave built, incorporating a Derby-made clock from the stables of their house.

Lieutenant Anthony George Atwood Morris’s grave

The stables clock above the grave

Anthony Morris is also commemorated on Pailton war memorial, Warwickshire, Winchester College war memorial and Elford war memorial, Staffs.

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Some day, some time we’ll understand

On my recent trip to the battlefields of France and Flanders, I spent some time visiting the graves of men who were killed alongside my Great Great Uncle during a night attack on 2nd December 1917. One hundred men from his battalion, the 11th Border Regiment, lost their lives in the attack; just 15 have a known grave with the remainder commemorated on Tyne Cot memorial.

One of those who does has a known grave is Private Alfred Merryweather, buried at Tyne Cot, plot XXXIX.C.10.

Alfred’s headstone

Alfred’s body was found at map reference V.23.d.7.2 (just to the right of the 11th Border Regiment’s frontage for the attack) in August 1920. Initially the body was not identified, and Alfred was due to be commemorated alongside his fallen comrades on Tyne Cot memorial. However the boots on the body were marked with a service number and text; 50022 MHN (possibly MAN). This was in fact Alfred’s previous service number, as he had initially enlisted with the 4th Manchesters.

The location where Alfred’s body was found

Alfred’s headstone caught my attention with the epitaph “Some day, some time we’ll understand.” I often get asked what it is about the First World War that interests me, and it is something that I sometimes struggle to explain. Yet this epitaph, with its few short words, perhaps best articulates that reason.

There are a number of First World War headstones that feature this epitaph, but there does not appear to be a readily identifiable source for it. One can see its appeal to a grieving family, struggling to come to terms with the loss a loved one. In Alfred Merryweather’s case its choice perhaps becomes clearer with the realisation that his elder brother Charles also lost his life, less than two months earlier. His body was never recovered, or at least not identified, which gives the epitaph even more resonance as the parents maybe channelled the loss of both sons into the inscription on Alfred’s headstone.

Although separated by death, the brothers remain close, for although Charles has no know grave he is commemorated on Tyne Cot memorial, panel 58, just a few hundred feet from Alfred’s resting place. The brothers’ names are also both inscribed on their parents’ headstone in Philips Park Cemetery, Manchester.

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In the Footsteps of the 1st Queen’s

At the end of May I ventured once more to the battlefields of Flanders. There was no specific reason for my trip, more a desire to return after nearly nine months away, for what might be my only visit this year. However I planned an itinerary for the 2.5 days and managed to squeeze a lot in.

Part of the trip was spent following the actions of the 1st Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). It is a battalion I have been researching for a number of years now, and I wanted to trace some of its movements from 1914, 1917, and 1918.

1914 – Langemarck

First stop was Langemarck, where the battalion had been in action from 21-24 October 1914 during First Ypres. The men had been involved in heavy fighting in the Battle of the Aisne. On 15 October they had entrained for Flanders, reaching the salient on 20 October. The following day they marched to Langemarck, acting as advance guard of 3rd Brigade.

The battalion was tasked with taking Poelcapelle station and the main road running from the station to Poelcapelle itself. The battalion spread out both sides of the railway line to Poelcapelle and began to advance north east. However, it soon came under heavy fire from the direction of the station, as well as from German troops to the north, and was forced to withdraw.

Looking north east along the old railway line, from the approximate position of the battalion on 21/10/1914

Picture taken from this approximate location

The following day the battalion was located immediately west of the Steenbeek – better known now as the location of the Harry Patch memorial, and suffered only a few casualties. On 23 October the battalion was sent north west of Langemarck and assaulted the Kortekeer Cabaret, an inn that had been taken by the Germans. This was a successful operation in which 60 Cameron Highlanders taken prisoner by the Germans were freed. During the subsequent fighting that day Captain Stanley-Creek’s company was cut off by the Germans, but under the cover of darkness he managed to extricate them in the confusion. For his actions that day he was awarded the DSO.

Looking south towards the Kortekeer Cabaret

The same view today

1914 – Gheluvelt

By 29 October the battalion had moved to the vicinity of Gheluvelt to counter the German attack there, but it was 31 October that was to prove a pivotal point in the battalion’s history.

I have visited the scene of the Queen’s stand at Gheluvelt on 31 October 1914 previously, but it is still an action that fascinates me (see my blog post here). The battalion held the most forward part of the British line that day, yet managed to cling to its positions as the battalions around it withdrew. This stand cost the battalion dearly, a famous photograph purporting to show just 32 survivors after the battle.

Map of the battle based on a sketch by Major Watson

It isn’t until you visit the area that you get a true appreciation of the battalion’s position and how the landscape would have impacted on the events that day. The key point for me is that when the companies were dug in, due to the nature of the terrain they would have had limited sight of the companies either side, and therefore limited appreciation of the events unfolding around them.

Gheluvelt in 1915

Gheluvelt today

1917 – Menin Road

A now innocuous-looking residential road off the Menin Road was the battalion’s front line on 25 September 1917, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge; only a short distance from where the battalion had been in action at Gheluvelt three years previously. The morning was misty and at 7.30 a.m. battalion HQ (situated in Herenthage Wood, near the chateau) was informed that the Germans had broken through. A few confused hours of fighting followed, in which most of the battalion’s officers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, but the following day the original line was retaken. The battalion’s casualties totalled just over 400.

On 25/09/1915 the battalion was holding the line along this road, facing the Germans attacking from the right

Photo taken from position marked X

1918 – Meteren

The following day I drove south west from Ypres across the border into France and to the site of a few days’ heavy fighting for the battalion in April 1918. As the Germans tried to push north west during the Battle of the Lys (part of Operation Georgette), the 33rd Division was rushed in to try and plug the gap. On 12 April the battalion took up a position south of Meteren, around the Hoegenacker windmill.

Looking south east from the approximate site of the windmill

This position gave an excellent view towards the advancing Germans; an officer who was present recalled the action: ‘Presently over the ridge came a battalion of Germans marching in column of fours with company officers mounted. There was an officer in front – probably the Commanding Officer – on a grey horse. Undoubtedly, the Germans thought they had only now to walk through to the coast. British infantry had never had a better target – every Lewis gun, every rifle was trained on that slow-moving body – not a shot rang out yet; it would be murder when we did fire, we could not miss them…The whole line vomited out a blaze of fire; ahead of us Germans reeled and fell, the grey horse reared up on its hind legs and horse and rider fell in a heap. The whole column broke and fled helter-skelter, but still the hail of bullets ceaselessly sped from Lewis gun and rifle, and bigger and bigger grew the heaps of corpses in front.’

Visiting the fallen

In addition to following the battalion’s actions, I also tried to visit as many of the graves of the men as I could, to pay my respects. Many of the cemeteries were first time visits for me, from the small CWGC plot at Winnizeele, well behind the lines (resting place of Private Bell, killed during a trench mortar demonstration), to the nine graves located in Perth (China Wall) Cemetery. At Messines Ridge cemetery lay four soldiers from the battalion, all captured at Gheluvelt but who subsequently died from their wounds.

The graves of Private Mates and Private Shute at Messines Ridge cemetery. Both were taken prisoner at Gheluvelt

I also visited sites I’ve been to many times before; Ypres Reservoir Cemetery, where the battalion’s CO Lieutenant Colonel St Barbe Russell Sladen is buried, killed by a shell on 12 March 1918 whilst inspecting the battalion’s positions, and Tyne Cot, where Private Dilks lies directly behind the Cross of Sacrifice, one of the original burials in the cemetery.

The grave of Lieutenant Colonel St. Barbe Russell Sladen in Ypres Reservoir cemetery

In total I visited the graves of 70 soldiers from the battalion across 20 cemeteries, 15 of which I had not previously been to, as well as paying my respects to the 353 men of the battalion commemorated on the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot memorial, and Ploegsteert memorial.

It seemed fitting that the last stop on my trip was Nine Elms cemetery; ten men from the battalion are buried here, including Private James Nicholls who is commemorated on my local war memorial. His epitaph poignantly reads ‘In loving memory of our dear son never forgotten by father mother and all at home’.

Private James Nicholls headstone at Nine Elms cemetery

Posted in 1914, 1917, 1918, CWGC, First Ypres, Passchendaele, Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, Remembrance, Research, Surrey Regiments, WW1, Ypres | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haig Homes

Douglas Haig and his Housing Legacy

When I first started my journey researching my family’s involvement in the First World War, I never expected that my ‘day’ job and my ‘hobby’ might ever cross paths. Yet now more than ever, as we reflect on the post-war period, I find the two becoming more entwined.

My day job is in social housing. I have held a variety of roles in different organisations over the last decade, each with different visions and values; but essentially social housing exists to provide housing for those in need. These days this can apply to a variety of complex personal situations, but after the First World War there were many families who required support as a direct result of the war – this could have been due to the death of a soldier in the family, but also due to the number of wounded and incapacitated veterans.

The wider impact of the war on housing is fascinating in itself. Much has been made of Lloyd George’s (misquoted) promise of ‘Homes fit for Heroes’, but one outcome was the seminal ‘Addison Act’ of 1919 and from this we can track the development of state intervention and control of social housing and even the development of modern construction methods and materials.

One aspect of post-war housing that is probably not so well known is the link between Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force for most of the war, and the provision of housing for ex-servicemen and their families.

Haig died on 28 January 1928, and as early as two weeks later it was announced that as well as a statue in Whitehall, there would also be a memorial to him in the form of homes for ex-servicemen. Full details of the ‘Lord Haig Memorial Fund’ quickly followed, officially launched at an event on 2 March.

Speakers included the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister. A national appeal was launched, containing signatories such as Stanley Baldwin, Ramsey MacDonald, Lloyd George, Admiral Jellicoe, Field-Marshal Milne, and Air-Marshal Trenchard. The appeal read as follows:

‘His Majesty’s Government has decided to erect a statue of as a memorial to Field-Marshal Earl Haig. We know, however, that the British people will desire an individual opportunity of expressing their love and admiration for the great soldier and gallant gentleman, who embodied the finest qualities and traditions of our race. We feel too that they will desire this expression to take a form definitely associated with the work which he did for the ex-Service men and their dependants.

Several proposals have been examined by us, but the one which we are convinced would have appealed most to Lord Haig is that of homes, adequately endowed, in various parts of the country, for the benefit of ex-Service men of all ranks, their widows and orphans. It is suggested that these homes should be called “The Douglas Haig Memorial Homes.”

Such a memorial would be no ephemeral one; the homes would be kept in good repair from the Endowment Fund. They would endure long after the Great War ex-Service men had passed away, becoming available for men of future generations of the Regular Forces, the Royal Naval Reserve, the Territorial Force, and the Royal Air Force Auxiliary Reserve, and their families.

We are confident that the public will respond to an appeal for such a fund with which to erect and endow these memorial homes. We consider that the sum required for this purpose, including endowment, will be at least £500,000.

The Prince of Wales (patron of the British Legion) has given his warm approval to this appeal and trusts that the response will be one worthy of the great Field-Marshal.’

£500,000 was no small sum, equivalent to over £20 million today. Initially donations quickly poured in; proceeds from the 1928 Empire Day and collections by Boy Scouts helped, but there were larger donations too. The Anglo-Danish Society donated £25,0000; Imperial Tobacco £5,000; and the Ex-Services Association of India and Burma £3,749.

One ex-serviceman forwarded 2s, 6d, representing his pay for 11 November 1918, suggesting that as little work had been done that day, it would be an appropriate response for all who were serving on that date to donate this amount to the fund!

Individuals and organisations donating over £1,000 were able to endow an individual dwelling; one such house, completed in 1933, was known as ‘The Times House’ following donations from the newspaper’s staff and book club. Another was gifted by Miss A Sawbridge in memory of Captain Frank Symons Mills, Somerset Light Infantry, killed at Langemarck on 5 August 1917.

By August 1928 £170,000 had been received, but it seems donations began to dry up as people struggled economically. By 1930 the amount raised had increased to £221,000, with building works in progress in Liverpool, Morden, Sheffield, Penzance, Ashtead, Bristol, Birmingham, Leicester, Warrington, and West Wycombe. By the end of the year 124 homes had been occupied, increasing to 244 by 1931, and 287 by 1933. Some of the funds were used to give grants in aid of rent.

Profile of Douglas Haig on one of the Haig Homes in Morden

Most of the homes feature a bas-relief portrait of Haig, copies from the original in the Scottish National War Memorial. Some also have ceramic plaques, the inscription reading:

Remember with thankful pride the

services to King and country of

Douglas Haig

Field-Marshal Earl Haig of Bermersyde. OM. KT

Commander-in-Chief France

The Great War 1915-1919

As first President of the British Legion

He gave the last seven years of his

life to helping his comrades

This home was built

to honour his memory

Haig Housing is a relatively small organisation in the housing sector, now owning 1,500 homes, yet continues the legacy of providing quality homes for veterans. For further information see https://www.haighousing.org.uk/about-us/overview-history

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Promenade de Verdun

One of the first blogs I ever wrote on this site was about how the legacy of the First World War lives on in some of our street names. The ‘usual suspect’ names prove to be the most popular, with (generally speaking) the names of those who led the Allies to victory trumping battles in terms of popularity (there are no ‘Passchendaele Streets’ for instance – perhaps something to do with the spelling?!). However at least sixteen roads in the UK are named after the Battle of Verdun, which is interesting given the fact that it was not a battle that British or Commonwealth troops were involved in.

I suspect the majority of these (and indeed most other roads) could not be classed as war memorials in themselves. However the ‘Promenade de Verdun’ in Purley is different. Not only is it named after the infamous battle, it features a memorial to the battle and the French troops who lost their lives during the ten months of fighting in the area.

The promenade was the creation of William Webb, a local surveyor who designed the Woodcote Estate. He wanted the Promenade to be a tribute to the French as well as to highlight the friendship between the two nations.

The memorial itself is inscribed “Aux soldats de France mort glorieusement pendant la Grand Guerre” (To the soldiers of France who died gloriously during the Great War). The soil for the trees was brought from near Armentieres, and was reputedly so full of shrapnel and bullets that it had to be sifted several times to prevent souvenir hunters damaging the avenue. The Lombardy poplars that still line the road also came from Verdun.

The road is a cul-de-sac and today the houses along it command multi-million-pound asking prices, so I doubt many people are aware of its historic significance or the memorial. Yet it is a fascinating legacy of the war and I would urge anyone who is in the area to make a detour to see it for themselves.

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The gory details

I am often struck when reading newspaper reports or personal accounts from the war at just how frank they can be, in a way that you just would not see in newspapers these days. These accounts often include the ‘gory details’ of how many of the enemy were dispatched, and how – in many cases accompanied by a fairly graphic illustration (think propaganda publications such as The War Illustrated or Deeds that Thrill the Empire).

One such account appeared in The Fifeshire Advertiser on 1 January 1916, under the headline ‘Dysart Hero’s Gallant Exploit. Kills Seven Germans, Then Falls’:

Details of a gallant exploit, in which Private William Riley, Durham Light Infantry, killed a German officer, six men, and captured a German machine gun, have been received by his mother, Mrs Riley, 16 Dovecot Crescent, Dysart, in a letter from another member of the regiment. Private Riley was, unfortunately, killed a few hours later.

His comrade states that he was one of the few left who came out originally with the regiment. He was within a hundred yards of Pte. Riley when the latter fell, and he was respectfully buried by the Queen’s Westminster Rifles.

The writer continues – “His gallant action will remain with the regiment for many years, especially in the minds of those who saw him. I don’t know if he was recommended for any reward, as all his officers were killed, which makes all the difference in the world. I will tell you of his action, according to some of the chaps who were with him at the time. After a very stubborn resistance by the Germans, our regiment took the first line. Young Willie jumped into the trench and as he did so, a big German officer got hold of his throat and tried to strangle him. But Willie blew this officer’s head nearly off. After this he walked into the next traverse, killed six Germans, and captured a machine gun. After doing this his company officer sent him to report something to regimental headquarters, and while on his way back he was killed. No doubt you will be greatly upset over this sad affair, but you have the satisfaction of knowing your son died a hero’s death. He died for a great cause, and a gallant hero, too. If he had survived I daresay you no doubt would have been the mother of a V.C. hero. It was something like the feat of Michael O’Leary when he won the V.C. If young Willie had only done what the commanding officer told him to do he might have been spared. In delivering his message to the C.O. he was told to have a bit rest to get his wind back, but instead of this he rushed straight back to the trenches, and it was on his way back that he met his fate. No one was more touched than I was when the signaller at the Durhams’ headquarters signalled it through to me.”

William Riley had been overseas with the 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry since 8 September 1914. The action referred to in the article took place on 9 August 1915, when the battalion attacked from Sanctuary Wood toward Hooge, suffering 48 killed, 268 wounded, and 100 missing. Riley’s grave was subsequently lost and he is commemorated on the Menin Gate. On the same day as the newspaper article, his name was listed in the London Gazette as ‘mentioned in despatches’, presumably for his actions on the day he was killed. He is also commemorated on Dysart war memorial.

Map showing the 2nd DLI’s positions prior to the attack at Hooge, 09/08/1915

The action of Michael O’Leary referred to in the letter took place near Cuinchy on 1 February 1915. O’Leary, serving in the Irish Guards, stormed a machine gun nest, killing eight Germans and taking another two prisoner. There are several illustrations depicting this event; two are shown below.

Depiction of Michael O’Leary’s VC action. From ‘Deeds of Heroism and Bravery’

Depiction of Michael O’Leary’s VC action. From ‘Deeds that Thrill the Empire’

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‘The position was a helpless one’ – The 2nd Sherwood Foresters at Ennetieres, 20th October 1914

The accounts that officer prisoners of war had to give when they returned from captivity make for fascinating reading. Not only can they flesh out the sometimes sparse and clinical war diary entries, but they can give an insight into how these men acted under intense pressure, often in confused circumstances, and with enemy forces bearing down on them.

One such officer was Captain Edward Drury-Lowe, of the 2nd Battalion The Sherwood Foresters (Notts & Derbyshire Regiment). The battalion was part of 18th Brigade, 6th Division; proceeding overseas on 20th September 1914, Drury-Lowe was captured exactly a month later.

On this day, 20th October, the German Fourth and Sixth Armies launched attacks in the Ypres to Armentieres area, in response to the British advances of the previous days. The 18th Brigade was holding a salient in front of the main bulk of the division, consisting of a line of scattered posts. Three battalions, including the 2nd Sherwood Foresters, were holding a line of about three miles, with the Sherwood Foresters occupying the village of Ennetieres, south east of Armentieres. The battalion to the rear was about 700 yards away, and on the Foresters’ right flank there was a gap between the battalion and the left battalion of the 16th Brigade.

Map from the British Official History showing the situation on 20th October 1914

The battalion war diary records how the Germans commenced shelling the village at daybreak. A number of attacks were made against the salient, with the battalion being shelled from all directions, and just five platoons holding a front of 1,500 yards. Eventually during late afternoon the battalion was forced to fall back, however during the course of the retirement it became clear that 16th Brigade to the right had already fallen back, and the Germans approaching from the rear cut off any route to safety. The bulk of the battalion was left with no option to surrender, but Drury-Lowe and the remnants of his men managed to hold out until the next morning. In total almost 500 men of the battalion were taken prisoner. Drury-Lowe’s account of the action is reproduced in full below:

On Oct 20th D Coy, of which I was in command, occupied the trenches on the extreme right of the Battalion’s position. I had taken over the trenches the night before from the DLI.

The position was a hopeless one. Lieut. May’s platoon (No 13) had been temporarily taken from me to form an independent post on my left. Nos. 14 and 15 platoons were entrenches close together, while 2nd Lieut. Smith’s platoon (No. 16) was entrenched about 300 yds to the right of No. 15. The only way to reach these trenches was across open ground with no cover whatsoever. Further still to the right across open more open country was a railway crossing held by the 16th Bde with whom Smith was in communication.

I had orders to withdraw No. 16 platoon as dawn on Oct. 20th to D Coy Hd Qrs, which were at a farm some 150 yds in rear of Nos. 14 and 15 platoons. Directly they arrived, the Germans began to shell the farm, and it was soon in flames. This resulted in the loss of some of the rifles and all the equipment belonging to two sections. The men however were all got away under cover before the buildings were completely destroyed.

I sent at one to inform the CO, who told me to send these two sections to him at once. He also told me to send No. 16 platoon out again to the trenches, as an attack was developing on our right. I sent Smith off with the other half of his platoon, telling him that I should be with No. 14 platoon on my return from the village.

I then took the two sections to the CO. It was about 11am when I handed them over to him. I told him that Smith had only ½ platoon in his isolated position, but the CO could not spare me any more men. I returned to No. 14 platoon. As there was not much firing going on, we dug hard, and did what we could to improve the cover.

About 4.15pm, I received a written message from Smith. He said he had seen nothing of the enemy, and asked for field glasses if I had any spare to spare.

Soon after this some of the men of the DLI came and crowded into our trenches – there was no officer with them. They said that they had been sent ‘to assist in covering the retirement’, but there was then no reason to retire.

Presently however, as it was getting dark, we heard shouting from our left rear (the direction of LA VALLEE), as if men were charging. Soon after we saw men about 300 yds behind us. I estimated their numbers at not less than 1000. Directly I could see that they were Germans, I ordered the men to turn about, and then opened fire, but I soon found that we were being fired at from the front. I now ordered the men to face alternately front and rear, and not to fire unless they were compelled to, as I know that we were completely outnumbered, and our ammunition was running short.

As it got dark we could hear the Germans in rear digging themselves in. Later they set fire to a building near No. 14 platoon. I expected every minute that they would rush our trenches, and ordered every man to stand to. There was also a building on my left, by which I posted a piquet.

At dawn the piquet reported that the enemy had brought up a machine-gun on our left, and as soon as it was light, I saw what looked like a Battalion of the enemy drawn up on that side.

I knew then that we were completely surrounded, I considered that the only course open to me was to surrender.

I surrendered at about 5.15am on Oct 21st with about 50 men, a few of whom were DLI.

I received no messages from and heard nothing of Smith after 4.15pm on the 20th, and I received no messages or orders from the CO after I left him in the village about 11am.

I fear there can be no doubt that Smith and his men were all killed on the evening of Oct 20th, his trenches being rushed from the rear. The ground sloped down slightly behind his trenches, which would enable the enemy to come up unseen.

Drury-Lowe’s sketch map of the action. His original position can be seen left of centre above the ‘Coy’ of D Coy; the asterisk marks where he was surrounded and captured

Brigadier-General Congreve wrote after the battle “The Battalion had done exceedingly well all day; it was just worn out and overwhelmed by superior numbers.” The action of the men that day highlights the resilience of the British Army at the time. Despite having already suffered heavily in action, being led by new officers, with very few of the original platoon commanders who had accompanied the battalion to France, and having been reinforced by men new to the battalion, the men still held out under extremely difficult circumstances.

The same area shown on a later trench map; position of Drury-Lowe’s capture marked

Casualties were hard to estimate due to the loss of all the battalion’s paperwork and records when the HQ was shelled early on in the battle, but in addition to those taken prisoner it was estimated that over 100 men were wounded. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records 77 men of the battalion killed on the 20th, 72 of whom have no known grave and whose names are inscribed on the Ploegsteert Memorial. Amongst these names is that of Lieutenant Harry Smith, referred to in Drury-Lowe’s account.

Ploegsteert Memorial

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