On 19th December 1914, the 1st Bn. East Surrey Regiment were about to spend their second day in billets at St.Jans Cappell. They had just completed eight days in the trenches at Wulverghem where the sniper’s bullet and bursting shell were a deadly and ever present threat. The wet and cold had reduced the trenches to squalor, and increasing numbers of men fell sick. Enteric fever had made its first appearance, and as senior officers inspected the men, the MO was busy organising everyone’s inoculation, there were 250 still to be done.
(Neither the war diary or regimental history give a precise location of the East Surreys at Wulverghem)
Lt. W.H. Simpson, a young 21 year old officer from the Special Reserve , had joined the 1st East Surreys at the front just over three weeks ago, but he was not with them now. Lt. W.H. Simpson lay in an officer’s ward of a hospital in Boulogne, transported there after being mortally wounded four days ago. He clings to life by the slenderest of threads …
William Herbert Mostyn Simpson was born in Mitcham on 21st June 1893, the second child and first son of William Francis Joseph and Mary (nee Herbert ) Simpson. Herbert had been born into a privileged and affluent family in the class conscious world of late Victorian society. William’s father was a “Lord of the Manor”, and together with Montague Waldo Sibthorp, one of Mitcham’s principal land owners.
The title, properties and lands had first come to the Simpson family via Hebert’s Great-Grandparents, when William Simpson of Litchfield had married Emily Cranmer at the beginning of the 19th century. Hebert’s father had inherited the bulk of his estate in 1888 and 1890, as the records of the Cranmer-Simpson Estate show:
“(1) The manor of Mitcham alias Canons with rectory, advowson, etc which James Cranmer (d.1801) left to his daughter Esther Maria Dixon and her children in tail, on condition that they changed their name to Cranmer. Her son, the Rev Richard Cranmer, having no son, the property passed to his sister Emily and her husband William Simpson, grandparents of W F J Simpson.
(2) The estate of Mrs Elizabeth Mary Simpson, daughter of the Rev Richard Cranmer, consisting of lands bought by them and by Esther Maria Cranmer (Dixon). She left it to her nephew W F J Simpson.”
(3) Property acquired by William Simpson.”
The Rev. Richard Cranmer, claimed to be a descendent of the famous historical figure Thomas Cranmer.
William and Emily Simpson resided at “The Canons” with their four children: William, Richard, Robert and Emily. William Simpson had studied at Trinity College Cambridge, and his brothers at Oxford. The four siblings converted to Catholicism, and Robert Simpson was ordained as a priest in 1849, and Emily became a Franciscan Nun.
William Herbert Mostyn’s grandfather, would become the second William Simpson to be “Lord of the Manor”. He married Winifred Mostyn in July 1851 and they would have nine children. Their second child was William Francis Joseph Simpson. William and Winifred Simpson were instrumental in re-establishing a Catholic Church in Mitcham, for the first since the Reformation. By 1862 a small brick chapel and a wooden school-room were erected at William Simpson’s expense on land owned by him and facing the Cricket Green. The first resident priest of the parish was his brother, Robert. The present church was opened on 2nd July 1889 on land given by Winifred Simpson amid great celebrations, and was a major event in the history of the Parish.
William Herbert Mostyn’s parents had married in the spring of 1891 in London, and by the turn of the century Herbert was one of four siblings: Lucy Mary, William Herbert Mostyn, Philip Witham and Mary Winifred. Park Place was their home, but they were not always in residence as shown by this notice, which appeared in the Surrey Press in 1905 :
Herbert’s father took his civic responsibilities seriously and served on the “Croydon Board of Governors” and had been listed as a Borough Magistrate, along with his brother Francis Simpson, in Dartmouth where the family had connections. Priest, Robert Simpson, and other family members, had ended their days in Dartmouth.
William Herbert Mostyn had no problem obtaining a commission, and was on probation as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 3rd Bn. (Special Reserve) of the East Surrey Regiment by February 1913.
At the outbreak of war, 2nd Lt. W.H. Simpson remains with the 3rd Bn. East Surreys, who are mobilized on August 8th, and move to the Shaft Barracks at Dover within 24 hours. On the 25th August the first draft of men left for France to reinforce the 1st Battalion who had been at Mons, and another draft leaves on 30th of August.
Around this time the Surrey press report the reaction to “Kitchner’s Call to Arms”. Among the many committees set up throughout the county are those overseeing the Territorial Force recruiting stations. Herbert’s father becomes chairman of the “Mitcham District Committee”, recruiting for the 5th East Surreys centred at the Drill Hall in St.George’s Road Wimbledon.
By 10th September in Dover the 3rd Battalion was reorganised into companies “A” to “H” as its numbers grew beyond a 1,000 men. Companies “A” to “D” were regarded as consisting of trained men, while the rest were in training. Major Hay has initial command of company “A” , with 2nd Lt. Simpson, Luffman and Evanson as subaltern officers. More drafts leave for France during September, and William Herbert Simpson is promoted to Lieutenant.
As events unfold at the front, it would have been clear to the Simpson family that it was simply a matter of time before their son was sent to the Front. Lt. W.H. Simpson embarks for France on 8/11/1914.
Lt. W.H. Simpson joins the 1st East Surreys, together with 2nd Lt. B. L. Luffman, and 83 other ranks, on the 26th November 1914 when the battalion had just come out of trenches east of Lindenhoek and were billeted at Darnoutre. While 200 men were able to get a bath at Bailleul, the usual inspections of rifles and other kit took place. The Battalion had received orders from staff at 14th Brigade HQ for 7 unfortunate men to parade in marching order in various combinations of winter clothing. Could it all be carried?
On 28th November, the battalion prepared to move to trenches at Wulverghem. This move was completed at night in a storm of wind and heavy rain. Battalion HQ was based in a farm cottage hidden from enemy view.
Lt. W.H. Simpson’s first two days in the trenches are relatively quiet, with few casualties:
The next of kin of both Lt. W.H. Simpson and 2nd Lt. B. L. Luffman are put on record, and their names added to the “Nominal Roll of Officers”:
The battalion is relieved on 1st December by the Dorsets at around 6pm, the men get a ration of soup to ward of the cold when assembled at Neuve Eglise and finally get to billets at St.Jans Cappell around 1.30am. The following day the entire Battalion parades at 10am for an inspection and address by the C in C, Field Marshall Sir John French, who praises the 1st East Surreys for everything they’ve done and endured in the last four months. Reactions are not on record, but it would serve to remind newcomers exactly what the men around them had been through.
On 3rd of December, the Battalion is on parade again as King George V is visiting the troops in Flanders. One company parades in a field near Brigade HQ and the rest line the road from St. Jans Cappell toward Meterin. The King’s visit ends with a traditional “hats off” and three cheers.
The battalion is allowed to remain in reserve while the rest of the 14th Brigade move back into the line. They move to Neuve Eglise on the 5th where they stay for five days. Presents of warm clothing and tobacco from home are distributed on the 6th December. The Battalion moves back to the trenches near Wulverghem on the 10th of December on a very dark and wet night. The 11th is a quiet day which is spent improving the conditions of the trenches as best as possible. The war dairy describes the events leading up to the 16th :
Herbert’s father receives a telegram on 17/12/1914 which reads:
Regret to inform you that Lieut W.H.M. Simpson 1st East Surrey Regt was wounded on 15th December – degree not stated –
A second telegram from the War Office is received three days later on 20/12/1914:
beg to inform you that Lieut W.H. Simpson 1st East Surrey has been admitted to no.7 Stationary Hospital Boulogne with gunshot wound spine dangerously ill
The Simpson family receives a final telegram on the 21/12/1914:
Deeply Regret to inform you that Lieut W.H.M. Simpson 1st East Surrey Regt is now reported to have died of wounds on 19th December Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy
A notice appears in the London Times on 22nd December:
Christmas 1914 will be a very sober affair for the Simpsons. The family comes to terms with their loss knowing their second son, Philip Witham Simpson, contemplates seeking a commission. In March 1915, they finally receive some of their son’s effects, and his father makes polite enquiries as to the whereabouts of his son’s sword, field glasses and wrist watch.
By 8th April 1915, 2nd Lt. Philip Witham Simpson has joined the 3rd Bn. East Surreys, along with fellow probationer William Stanley Mansell. Almost a year after Hebert’s death, his brother Philip Witham Simpson is sent to Gallipoli in November 1915. He will be promoted Captain before the war’s end and will serve with the Northamptons and Warwicks.
On April 21, 1915, Herbert’s father writes to acknowledge receipt of notice that his son’s grave number is 962 in the Boulogne Cemetery. He continues to use personalised black edged mourning stationary for correspondence.
When the IWGC create the Boulogne Eastern cemetery we know today, W.F.J. Simpon Esq., who gives an address in Reigate, requests the following inscription for his son’s headstone:
PRAY FOR THE SOUL OF
W. H. M. SIMPSON
EAST SURREY REGIMENT
DECEMBER 19TH 1914
ELDER SON OF W.F.J. SIMPSON
ESQ., OF MITCHAM, SURREY
WHO DIED OF WOUNDS RECEIVED
AT WOLFERGHEM, AGED 21. R.I.P.
It was only natural that the Simpson family should wish to erect a similar memorial in the Roman Catholic Church of SS Peter and Paul Mitcham. ( This was in the form of a Portland stone pulpit with an inscription around it on a projecting frieze at about the height of its inner floor. It is believed to have read “Pray for the soul of Lt W H M Simpson, died of wounds at Wolferghem, 19th December 1914.”. The memorial was lost as a result of later alterations within the Church )
Their son’s name appears on the Mitcham War Memorial as “SIMPSON H.”
In 1922 , Park Place is sold to the News of the World and the estate is developed and maintained as a sports ground for the next 32 years. It is now a “Carvery”. Mary Simpson passes away in 1930. In May 1931, Herbert’s father writes a final letter to the War Office requesting a “Death Certificate” for his son, in order that he can finalise his own affairs. William Francis Joseph Simpson passes away in 1932.
The Canons was occupied as a private house until shortly before outbreak of war in 1939 when it was purchased by the then Corporation of the Borough of Mitcham. It is still owned by the London Borough of Merton.
Footnote 1: At the time Lt. W.H.M. Simpson was wounded, the artillery bombardment of the East Surreys positions at Wulverghem was, in part, a response to a British attack made by the 3rd Division to their left by the 2nd Royal Scots and 1st Gordon Highlanders, against Petit Bois and Maedelstede Farm near Wytschaete. The attack was a tragic disaster with heavy losses.
VC winner Billy Congreve was on the staff of the 3rd Division at the time and wrote an highly critical comment on the 15th December 1914:
“Yesterday we made an attack and, as we only put two battalions into it, the attack naturally failed. We had about 400 casualties. It is very depressing. I should have thought that we had learnt our lesson at Neuve Chapelle [in October 1914] about unsupported attacks, but it seems not. The truth of the matter is this I believe: Sir John French wanted to see the Army on the offensive, so an attack on the Petit Bois was arranged. Then later, for some reason or other, it was decided to also attack Maedelstede Farm. Sir John, Sir H. Smith-Dorrien, HRH the Prince of Wales and many other lights of the Gilded Staff sat about on the Scherpenberg, and watched the preliminary bombardment by ours and the 5th Division’s artillery – and then saw these two unfortunate battalions go to more or less certain failure. The reason why? Because it was considered time to be able to report some form of victory. It failed and the reason is obvious“.
More can be read here:
Footnote 2: The Vicar’s son, Brooke. Laud Luffman, who served with William Herbert Simpson in both the Special Reserve and 1st Battalion in Flanders, remained with the East Surreys until retiring from “ill health” in the Spring of 1916. He later worked for the War Office. B.L. Luffman died at the relatively young age of 48, in 1938.
Footnote 3: The text of Sir John French’s address of the 2nd December 1914 was reprinted in full in both the 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalion War Diaries.
Footnote 4: My thanks to Tony Scott for providing information about the memorial to W.H.M Simpson which was erected in the Roman Catholic Church of SS Peter and Paul Mitcham. My thanks also to David Underdown for providing information from Lt. W.H.M. Simpson’s file at the National Archive, Kew.