The First B.E.F. Casualties – 26th August 1914

It’s no surprise that the first casualties to be named on the Mitcham War Memorial come from the ranks of the regular army whose division made up the BEF.  Mobilised on 5th August 1914, the BEF embarked for France within days and first encountered overwhelming numbers of the enemy at Mons on 23rd August 1914.  The battered BEF is forced into a fighting retreat from Mons to Le Cateau. Corps Commander Horace Smith-Dorrien orders II Corps to stand and fight on the 26th August 1914.  Somewhere in the chaos of battle are two men from Mithcam:  private 9520, Archibald Frederick Elgood of the 1st Bn. Lincolnshire Regiment and private 2607, Alfred White of the 2nd Bn. Lancashire Regiment.

La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial

La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial

ARCHIBALD FREDERICK ELGOOD (CWGC Entry)

Tooting born Archibald Elgood had enlisted on 31st December 1912 at Kingston aged 18 years and 9 months, following his brother Robert in joining the Lincolnshire Regiment. Robert was serving in the 2nd battalion at the outbreak of war stationed in Bermuda, while it was Archibald’s fate to be at Mons and Le Cateau.

At the time of the 1911 census Archibald is working as a paper cutter at the local Merton paper mills, but on enlisting gives his occupation as painter labourer.  By this stage he may have been working with his father William who was a self-employed builder and decorator.

The Elgood family had first arrived in this part of Mitcham in about 1894 via Battersea, and by the outbreak of war where living at 7 Briscoe Road, Colliers Wood Merton S W, Mitcham, Surrey. Archibald was one of 12 surviving siblings, and one of five brothers, all living in 7 rooms.  What must have been a crowded household and limited job prospects may have contributed to Robert and Archibald’s decision to join the pre-war regulars, supposedly derided by the Kaiser as a ‘Contemptible Little Army’.  But is was German officers who were to be stunned by the way the British troops brought the German attacks to a standstill time and again in these early days of the war. ( Did the Kaiser ever call the BEF contemptible?  Read on )

From about 6am to past mid-day on 26 August the BEF held overwhelming numbers of the enemy at bay and inflicted severe losses before the order to retire was given once more. The 1st Bn. Lincolnshire Regiment had fought in the Audencorut area a little south of the villages of Beaumont and Inchy close to the centre of the British positions.

According to the history:

Brigadier-General Shaw, the commander of 9th Brigade received his own orders to retreat at around 3.30pm. Covered by the 4th Royal Fusiliers, Shaw withdrew his battalions; 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, 1st RSF and 1st Lincolnshire, covered by gunfire from 107th and 108th Batteries RFA. 2 sections of these batteries were forced to abandon their guns, leaving 4 guns to the enemy. Otherwise the 9th Brigade pulled out in good order, and took position to the west of Bertry, to cover the retreat of the rest of the 3rd Division. Casualties of the brigade were around 180 men and the ease of the withdrawal enabled the brigade to bring out its wounded.”

 The 1st Lincolns losses may have been very light compared to other units who fought at Le Cateau, but by the end of the day Private 9520, Archibald Frederick Elgood was counted amongst the dead, having succumbed to his wounds.P.S.

A hint of the human cost of these engagements first appears in a brief Times article of the 29 August on an inner page. Further reports of the four day battle appear in the Times on 31 August 1914, with news that the British forces are intact and of heroic deeds. S ir John French estimates our losses at 5,000 or 6,000 men.  Other reports will appear in the local press in the days and weeks to come.

When news of Archibald’s death reaches his parents William and Emily their feelings must have been completely at odds with the feverish atmosphere of men flocking to volunteer, keen to do their bit and be part of the big adventure before it was “all over by Christmas”.  It’s not the only time they have had to cope with grief as three of their children had died as infants, nor will it be the last.  As the Great War grinds on for four more long years it will claim the lives of two more sons. Of four sons eligible to fight, only William Jnr returns home.

On a personal note it’s feasible that my grandfather and his father knew of the Elgoods. They lived in the same area and as builders would have rubbed shoulders with people in the same trade.

ALFRED WHITE (CWGC Entry)

Near the end of the long list of names on the Mitcham War memorial is one “WHiTE. A”.  On the 26th August Alfred White is just another soldier at Le Cateau.

Alfred had been born in Earlsfield in 1894, and his family had lived in Wandsworth, Herne Hill and West Norwood before settling on the borders of Mitcham and Streatham before the outbreak of the Great War in area know as Lonesome, a rather drab and isolated place near open lavender fields, the Mizen family’s market garden nuseries and a chemical factory.  Pains firework factory was close by.

Alfred was one of six surviving siblings and one of two sons that would be eligible for military service by the war’s end.  At the time of the 1911 census the family were still in West Norwood, and Alfred described his occupation as “Fitter’s Mate Heating Engineers”.  It’s the same occupation he gives on the 5 June 1912 when Alfred has made the journey to Kingston and the depot of the East Surreys to enlist, he joins the 4th (extra reserve) battalion.  At some stage Alfred is transferred to the 2nd Lancashire Regiment, and his fate is sealed.

According to his Medal Index Card, Alfred is first in France on 22nd August 1914, just days before Le Cateau.  The 2nd Lancs where part of the 4th Division’s 12th Brigade that had arrived just in time to fight at Le Cateau.  The battalion was on the lelf flank and

came under attack from German machine guns, artillery, cavalry and infantry.  With assistance from 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Lancashire Fusiliers held their own, even though it was estimated that the regiment was combating 23 German machine guns, with only 2 machine guns. …. the Lancashire Fusiliers, was subjected to heavy German artillery fire and repeated attempts to infiltrate infantry down the flanks of the brigade. The brigade right flank was held by 1st Rifle Brigade and 1st Somerset LI. On the left flank, 1st Hampshires attempted a counter attack, but the Germans were too strong in artillery and machine guns, and the attack had to be abandoned, after heavy casualties. The brigade hung on to its positions with great tenacity.”

By 5pm on the 26th the 4th Division was in retreat. Overall losses at Le Cateau were estimated at some 8,482 men (12% of the force engaged) and 38 guns. The CWGC register list 99 fatalities for the 2nd Lancashires on that day. Alfred White’s MIC is marked, “Pres Dead 26-8-14” .

When the Armistice comes Alfred’s parents will in due course be sent his 14 Star, British, and Victory medals and will have to sign for his plaque and scroll. In contrast to the Elgoods, Alfred will be their only loss. His parents Alfred and Alice Margaret will remain in Mitcham. In Alice’s case just long enough to see here son’s name added to the Mitcham Memorial and on the memorial in their local church St.Marks.  Alice is buried on 17 February 1922 at Church Road Cemetery, Mitcham. Alfred White is remembered on the family grave in the Churchyard of St.Peter and St.Paul, Mitcham, with the simple epitaph …  “Died at Mons

 

 

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