On 24th November 1914, L/Cpl. L/9583 William James Atterbury, 1st Bn. East Surrey Regiment, is in trenches east of Lindenhoek, near Mt. Kemmel, Flanders. William was 26 years old, unmarried, and had been a regular soldier for six years. His battalion has been in these trenches for seven days. It was bitterly cold, rain had turned to snow on the 19th, and the ground was frozen hard. Men were beginning to suffer from frostbite, but there would be no issue of “furs” until after the relief which was due to take place that night. The battalion had suffered days of constant shelling by the Germans, with only the occasional reply from British Guns. With a mounting list of casualties, William Atterbury was as keen as the next man to leave the trenches. There was just one more day to endure …
(Another occupant describes the position in December 1914:
“Imagine a bit of rolling country—rather like parts of Leicestershire,—fair-sized fields, separated mostly by straggling fences interspersed with wire (largely barbed), and punctuated by tall trees. Patches of wood in places, spinney size for the most part. Low hills here and there—;Kemmel, Scherpenberg, Ploegsteert Wood,—but all outside our area. Four villages, Dranoutre, Neuve Église, Wulverghem, and Lindenhoek, of which the two last were already more than half shot to pieces and almost deserted. Opposite our right was Messines—a mile and a half in front of our line,—its big, square, old church tower still standing; it may have had a spire on the top, but if so it had disappeared before we came. Nearly opposite our extreme left, but out of our jurisdiction and in the sphere of the Division on our left, was Wytschaete (pronounce Wich Khâte), one and a half miles off.” )
William James Atterbury was born in Carshalton, Surrey, on 7th October 1888, the first child of William and Mary Ann. His father, William George was born and baptised in Mitcham in 1863. His mother, Mary Ann (nee Wright), had been born in Sutton in 1866. Three of William’s siblings were born in Carshalton before the family moved to Mitcham around 1895. Two further Siblings were born in Mitcham. Both Willam’s father and his younger brother George were employed in one of Mitcham’s chemical works by 1911, and his sister Florence was working as “wardmaid” at the Tooting Asylum, but William had already left home.
At the age of twenty, William decides to join the regular Army. He made his way to the regimental depot at Kingston to join the East Surrey Regiment enlisting on June 5th 1908. There are no records to show William’s first posting. 1908 is the year of the Haldane Reforms, when the old Surrey Militia, becomes the new 3rd Special Reserve and 4th Extra Reserve battalions, and 5th and 6th Territorial Force battalions are formed from the old Rifle Volunteers. Unless, William joined the 2nd Battalion from the depot, his first posting is likely to have been to Jersey, where the 1st East Surreys were on garrison duty until November 1908 (recent recruit 9602 William E Barlow, who joined on 17th June 1908 and was posted to Jersey on 9th July 1908. )
Two years at Plymouth 1908-10, then two years at Kinsale 1910-12 would follow. The battalion was then in Dublin from 30.9.12, until the outbreak of war.
Mobilisation of the 1st Bn. Easy Surrey was not complete until 8th August, and embarkation was delayed until 13th August, a Thursday. After a long wait on the Dublin quayside, they sailed at 6pm on the Botanist for Le Havre. Their arrival at noon on the 15th August, and the long march to the rest camp in heavy rain was greeted enthusiastically by the local populace.
For some reason, L/9583 Atterbury did not sail with the battalion on the 13th. He seems to have been posted to 3rd Special Reserve Battalion stationed at the Grand Shaft Barracks and Land Defences, Dover. The 3rd East Surreys was used for training and supplying drafts to France and Flanders.
The 1st East Surreys had fought at Mons, on the Marne and on the Aisne, with significant losses in all ranks, and continued to receive drafts of replacements throughout this period. The Battalion begins to move north from the Aisne in early October. William Atterbury first enters France on 7th October 1914 , his twenty sixth birthday, in a draft of around two dozen men. He is yet to join his Battalion who have reached Abbeville by the 7th and the Le Bassee Canal by the 11th. The Battalion’s advance toward Richebourgh L’Avoue brings them into contact with German forces on the 12th.
There is no lull in the fighting, day or night, until the 15th of October. This date corresponds to the first mention of the arrival of a draft of men in the Battalion’s October war diary since William Atterbury landed in France – 3 officers and an unspecified number of other ranks.
Apart from this lull, and the briefest of periods in reserve on the 19th and 29th, the Battalion remains heavily engaged in the sector around Richebourgh L’Avoue until the 29th of October. The enemy’s heavy guns, machine gun and rifle fire resulted in a long casualty list of missing, killed and wounded which tells its own story.
The Battalion is on the move in the first few days of November and from the 6th to 14th is close to Laventie where casualties are light. The bitterly cold wind earns the men an extra rum ration. Private L/10492 William Henry Hylands, one of William Atterbury’s fellow draftees, is wounded on the 12th of November.
On the 16th the Battalion moves again taking over trenches held by the French east of Lindehoek near Mount Kemmel. The terrain, close proximity of the Germans, just 50 to 150 yards way, and an approach over open ground make this a difficult task.
For the next seven miserable days up the 23rd of November the Battalion is battered by constant shelling in what are now freezing conditions. Three men who made the journey to France with William Atterbury on 7th October, in what must seem like a lifetime ago, are killed:
There is a slight thaw on the 24th of November, and the Battalion will march back to billets at Dranoutre at midnight, but not before shelling claims more lives – 3 other ranks are killed and two wounded. Luck has just run out for L/9583 William James Atterbury, 1st Bn. East Surrey Regiment.
It will be several days before news of William’s death reaches his family in Mitcham. Inevitably, in time, William’s parents thoughts will turn to their other son George Thomas. He had volunteered in Mitcham on 6th September 1914, was still in the early stages of training and would not be sent to France until July 1915. It will be a long war …
When the time comes, the Atterbury family ensure William’s name appears on the main Mitcham War Memorial, and the “Roll of Honour” in St.Marks Church.
George Thomas Atterbury serves in the Royal Field Artillery from the 06 September 1914 until the end of the war, returns home and remains in Mitcham for several years. William’s parents remain at 3, Spencer Terrace, Spencer Rd., Mitcham Common (later renumbered 74 Spencer Road) until the end of their lives. They are buried in the Church Road Cemetery: William George Atterbury buried on 07 October 1933, Mary Ann Atterbury buried on 16 June 1936. William’s youngest brother , Albert Frank Atterbury remain with his parents until the 1930s. Florence Martin (nee Atterbury) is still in Mitcham on the eve of WW2.
Footnote1: De Ruvignys Roll of Honour states: “William James ATTERBURY, eldest son of William Atterbury of 3, Spencer Rd. Mitcham. Born Carshalton, Co. Surrey, 7/10/1888, enlisted June 5th 1908. Served with the BEF from the 7th of October 1914. KIA 24th November following.”
Footnote2: The casualty list of the November War Diary states William Atterbury’s was KIA on 23rd November. It is the only document which shows that he had been appointed a Lance Corporal. It should be noted that Lance-Corporal was an appointment rather than a substantive (permanent) rank.
Footnote3: Inspection of the “1914 Star” Medal Roll gives a list of the men drafted along with William Atterbury on the 7th of October 1914. It includes a few old hands like William, and a few Special Reserve men, but most are recruits from early 1914:
Sergeant S/1140 Thomas Ball KIA 22.11.1914
Private L/3970 Daniel Buckle
Private L/10789 Albert Croucher KIA 17.6.17
Private 10146 Frederick Darbon SWB 19.4.17
Private L/5298 Ben Ellcome
Private L/10841 Sidney James Ellis
Private S/5983 Charles Ellwood
Private L/10764 William Arthur Foulger KIA 19.11.14
Private L/10492 William Henry Hylands wounded 12.11.1914
Private L/10806 Albert Edward Hammond
Private S/5961 William Herbert
Private L/10811 Frederick Joyce
Private L/10731 William Nicholas Keiley KIA 22.10.15
Private L/10532 James Mackenzie Maclaren KIA 20.1.16
L/Cpl. L/7956 Alexander Mudie KIA 26.4.15
Private L/10824 Robert Henry Thompson KIA 17.11.14
Private L/10736 Augustus Williams
Private L/9695 Samuel Moth
Private L/10807 Sidney A Edgar
Private L/10805 Charles William Milton
Private L/10123 John William Smith
Private L/10649 Henry Thatcher (lands 8.10.14)
Private L/10653 Thomas Ernest Wood
Private G/558 Harold William Weir Milthorp (commisioned to MGC )