William Cressey is a member of Mitcham’s “Out in the cold” group because his death was never properly reported, leaving a family in limbo for years never knowing quite what to believe. This is an astonishing story of muddle and confusion involving William and his brother George, both casualties of the Great war, and a family left struggling to get answers far beyond 1918.
Unpicking the facts today is made harder by the variety of spellings of the Cressey family name that appear on documents, and George Edward Cressey’s apparent lack of contact with his family before his own death in 1918. George Edward Cressey’s commemoration at the CWGC has no family information, and his name does not appear on any of Mitcham’s War Memorials. George Edward Cressey’s sole legatee was his aunt Jane E. Smith, not a wife, parent or sibling. Luckily fragments of his service papers have survived to link him to his brother William, and tell us what part he played in this sorry tale.
The only reason to be alerted to the fate of William Cressey at all is because the name “CREASY W.” appears on the Mitcham War Memorial and “Creasy, William” on the “Roll of Honour” at nearby St.Mark, Mitcham. But there is no plausible candidate in either the CWGC or SDGW records, nor anyone in the “British Nationals Armed Forces Deaths 1796-2005” index, or any other Naval or RFC/RAF service records, by which he can be identified. Looking for families with this or similar names in Mitcham provides a valuable starting point and ultimately unlocks the puzzle. This is the story of William Cressey, lost and forgotten in the chaos of war.
William James Cressey was born on 10th March 1894, the second child of George Edward and Annie Cressey (nee Collier). William’s parents were married on Christmas day 1893 at All Saints with St Margaret, Upper Norwood. Their first child, William’s older brother George, had been born on 21st April 1891 and was baptised in the year George and Annie were married. The family lived in Norwood for over a decade and by 1902 William was one of five siblings, with a younger brother John and two sisters Annie and Ada. William and his brother George were close enough in age to both be admitted to the Beulah Road Boys School, Norwood, in 1903. The two brothers would already have left school when the family moved to 62 Marian Road, Lonesome, a neglected backwater of Mitcham, in 1908. Their address was 23 Marian Road in 1913, and by the outbreak of the War they had moved to 21 Marion Road, this would remain the family home for another decade.
William was the first of the two brothers to turn to the Army to break the monotony of everyday life. On the 12th August 1910, when not quite 18, William travelled to Kingston to join the Special Reserve of the East Surrey Regiment as Pte. SR/6343. The 3rd Special Reserve and 4th Extra Reserve battalions, and 5th and 6th Territorial Force battalions were formed from the old Rifle Volunteers as a result of the Haldane Reforms two years before. Unlike “Terriors”, the part-time special reservists received the same initial training as regular soldiers of several months and then 3-4 weeks training per year thereafter.
It was not until two years later that William’s brother George decided to follow his brother’s example. George Cressey joined the Special Reserve as Pte. SR/6751 at Kingston on 30th October 1912.
1914 starts badly for the Cressey family when William’s mother dies in the spring aged 43.
At the outbreak of war both William and George were mobilised and initially posted to the 3rd Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment which acted as both training battalion and a pool of reinforcements. The two brother must have been aware of the losses the East Surreys were sustaining in France and Flanders during the retreat from Mons, on the Marne and then in the defence of Ypres as 1914 came to an end. But their war did not start in earnest until early in 1915.
George Cressey was the first to be sent to France on the 19th January 1915, joining the 1st Bn. East Surrry Regt. on the 28th January in a draft of 90 men at the front near Nueve Eglise. William Cressey followed about four weeks, later on the 17th February 1915, joining the 1st Bn. East Surrry Regt. on the 24th February in a draft of 50 men. The battalion was still manning part of the front near Nueve Eglise. Trench conditions were appalling: rain, snow and alternate freezing and thaws meant misery for all. Cases of frost bite and exposure were adding to a growing sick list. Brothers William and George were confronted with the stark realties of trench warfare as sniping and shelling accounted for a steady stream of casualties.
The 1st Battalion remained in trenches in the Neuve-Eglise (Nieuwkekre) sector in front of Messine until moving to trenches N.E. of Kemmel in the last week of March 1915. The shell and rifle fire directed at their positions claimed more casualties in the next few days until on the 7th April the Battalion marched to Ypres which, as ever, was being shelled. The war diary records a rare meeting taking place on the Saturday 10th April:
(It is strange to think of the Cressey brothers cheering on two of my Grandfather’s cousins.)
By the 19th April the 1st East Surrey were drawn into the battle for Hill 60, a strategic position SE of Ypres and close to Zwarteleen. In December 1914 the Germans forced the French off the hill, and despite attempts to recapture it, which included exploding a number of small mines, the hill was still in German hands when the British returned to this sector in February 1915.
On the evening of April 17th 1915 the British fired five mines beneath the German positions on the hill and quickly took the craters and shattered remains of the German trenches. A furious and deadly struggle raged until 22nd April as the Germans attempted to retake Hill 60. The nature of this combat is best understood by reading the relevant pages of the Battalion’s war diary in conjunction with the history of the East Surrey Regiment, by Pearse and Sloman. Such was the intensity of fighting and the dogged defence and courage shown by William and George’s battalion that VCs were awarded to three men: Lt. G.R.F.Roupell, Lt. R.H.Geary and Pte. Edward Dwyer of “B” coy. Others would receive the MC and DCM. The cost to the battalion had been high. Seven officers and 106 other ranks had been killed, and 8 officers and 158 other ranks wounded, with many missing and accounted for. Among the dead was the C.O., Major W.H.Paterson.
It is the chaos of this action that lies at the root of all that follows. The 1st Bn. East Surrey part II orders contain these entries:
Cressey W Pte 6364 7-Jun-1915 Admitted to Hospital 20/4/15 Wounded ESR/2/2/25/1 45/1
Cressy G Pte 6751 23-May-1915 Reported Missing 21/4/15 ESR/2/2/25/1 42/1
Although recorded as “missing – presumed killed 20/4/1915” in one place in his records, George Cressey would subsequently be accounted for when he rejoined his battalion four days later on 25th April 1915. It would later transpire the William Cressey’s wounding was never recorded by the War Office Casualty section and other erroneous data pointed to him serving in the MEF later in 1915, that could only have true if he had been transferred to the 2nd Bn. East Surreys.
Back in Mitcham, the Cressey family would know none of this, William’s younger brother John would later say he hadn’t seen William since 1914 in response to police enquiries. The family had no news from, or about, William after 1915 other than being told about his death by a friend. William’s married sister Mrs. Annie Baker would later write:
“We neather have had any official notice of his death. We only heard he was killed by one of his mates that came home and said he was blown to pieces at Hill 60 ..”
Pte. 6751 George Cressey stayed with the 1st East Surreys and experienced some of the worst trench warfare on the Somme when the battalion was in action around Longueval and Deville Wood in last week of July. In the two days from 27th July to the 29th July, the battalion’s casualties are 12 officer and 308 other ranks.
George Cressey suffered a head wound which resulted in his evacuation to the UK on 31.7.16. He recovered and returned to the front on 16.3.1917, posted to the 9th Bn. East Surreys. In the time he was in England communication between George and the rest of the Cressey family seems to have broken down. George apparently gave them no news of his brother William. George was later transferred to the 12th (Wandsworth) Battalion of the East Surreys and was killed in action on 12th August 1918.
At the end of the war the Cressey family was left morning two sons, one seemingly at least in part estranged from his family, and another whose death had never been officially confirmed. It’s highly probable that William Cressey is in fact the “CREASY W.” named on the Mitcham War memorial. Why his brother’s name should not appear on any memorial in Mitcham is unknown. It was only in the early 1920s that members of the Cressey family took their case to the War Office in an attempt to finalise their brother William’s affairs. What followed must have seemed an excruciatingly long inquiry, during which William’s father George had suffered a stroke and could not be interviewed.
In October 1926 an internal letter finally concludes that William Cressey died on or since 20th April 1915. But Williams’s service file does not contain the evidence that this was accepted by the Military Authorities, nor if his family at long last received official recognition of William Cressey’s death.
William’s story could so easily have been lost for ever in the fires of the London Blitz of WW2. Only fragments of his burnt service papers have survived, but amongst them is part of that all important letter. A century has already passed since the costly action for the East Surreys at Hill 60, surely not many more should pass before one old solider gets the recognition he deserves?