As a young boy I walked up and down Grenfell Road countless time on route to my Grandmother’s house in Ashbourne Road, Mithcam. I was far too young to know anything of the Great War, and it was only as an adult that I began to understand that grief is the price we pay for love.
In 1914, Grenfell Road was the home of Paul and Wilhelmine Sherard. Paul Sherard is one of Mitcham’s hidden hundred, a man whose peace time vocation was as far from fighting as any other in his community. Living in Mitcham at the outbreak of war, and leaving a widow, his name could so easily have appeared on the main war memorial. This is their long forgotten story.
A post-war letter written by Paul Sherard’s widow, Wilhelmine, states he was born in Paris on 24th May 1886. Wilhelmine had reason to ask what nationality her husband had given at the time he joined the British Army. In fact other documentation identifies Paul Sherard as the son the English author and journalist Robert Harborough Sherard who had married Marte Valerie Lipska in Paris circa 1888. The first trace of Paul Sherard in England is as a young boy admitted to the Hither Green LCC School in Lewisham as a new pupil on 15th November 1897, his date of birth was recorded as 26th May 1886.
His parents relationship may have already broken down by this time and what contact Paul may have had with his father, or the part his father played in his later life, is unknown. By 1901 Paul was living with his polish born mother in rooms on the Blackfriars Road, Southwark. His mother, Marte Sherard, was a teacher of languages, and Paul, now 14, was apprenticed as a printer. Over the next few years they would move address several times and by 1908 were living at 27b Morat Street, off Holland Street (now Caldwell), close to the Brixton Road.
By 1910, Paul Sherard had meet and married Wilhelmine Thefs at the Brentford Registry Office on 7th May. At the time, Wilhelmine’s family had been living in Dorrell Place, Brixton, for several years. Wilhelmine’s parents had married in 1886 at St Martin In The Fields. Her father, Franz Karl Edward Thefs had been born in Prenzlau, Prussia, in 1863. After the Aliens Act of 1905 was passed, Wilhelmine’s father was obliged to take out naturalisation papers in 1906.
A year after they were married, Paul and Wilhelmine were living in Ealing and he was now employed as a teacher. The Sherards were blessed with the birth of a son, Basil, at the end of 1911. But their happy lives and futures were not to last.
As tensions rose, and talk of a European War turned into reality, Paul and his wife may have had many conflicted feelings. No doubt it might have brought trouble for Wilhelmine’s German born father who had already anglicised his name to Francis, or Carl Edward. While the Nation went to war, their own lives were overshadowed by deep personal loss. Their baby son Basil died aged at the age of three at Joyce Green Hospital and was buried on 19th November 1914 after the family had gathered at Wilhelmine’s parents home in Dorrell Road, Brixton.
Paul never choose to volunteer, he finally joined the Army on 25th April 1916 at Chiswick. Some of Paul Sherards’ service papers have survived, burnt in places and very faint, they appear to be copies made from his initial papers after he was transferred to the Royal Engineers a year later.
Paul Sherard was originally posted to the 3rd line unit of 5th Territorial battalion of the City of London Regiment. He was given the service number 4682 which was later changed to 302790 after all men serving in Territorial units were re-numbered in late 1916 and early 1917. Paul Sherard’s service papers show he was working as a LCC Teacher when he joined the Army and was living at 13 Grenfell Road, Mitcham, an address close to Tooting junction Station and the tram routes running along London and Mitcham Road.
For once the Army did not try to fit a round peg into a square hole. When Paul Sherard’s language skills were belatedly recognised he was transferred to the Royal Engineers Signal Corps, and was sent to their Bletchly centre to train as a wireless operator on 8th March 1917. Sapper 547906, Paul Sherard, first entered France a little under two months later on 2nd May 1917, it was just over a year since he had joined the Army. Initially posted to the 3rd Army’s Wireless unit, Paul Sherard became one “T” Corps Signal Company’s interpreter/wireless operators on 22.6.1917.
No doubt Paul Sherard assured his wife that he was in no immediate danger, he was after all not in front line trenches, there was no chance of him ever going over the top. He was fortunate to be granted 14 days leave on 11th February 1918. Those days spent with Wilhelmine in Mitcham would be the last time she saw him.
It may have been rumoured, or known, by the men of Paul Sherard’s signals unit, that the British were anticipating a major attack in the Spring of 1918. An offensive the British were ill-prepared for, and one that nearly ended in defeat. Four weeks after his return to France, Paul Sherard was either in, or near, Hargicourt when the storm broke on 21st March 1918.
An intense barrage opened not on front line defences, but on the rear artillery and machine-gun positions, headquarters, telephone exchanges, railways and other important centres of communications. The ensuing chaos would hinder any British response, and after a few hours German infantry attacked, operating in small groups, specially trained to “infiltrate” and exploit gaps.
The Manchester Regiment were fighting in Carpeza Copse, close to Hargicourt, and gave this account of the action that day:
“The 66th … faced 6 German Divisions who were infiltrating through very heavy mist. Forward communications were instantly severed and the situation so obscure and chaotic that to this day it is difficult to reconstruct the events of 21 March 1918. Up until about 11 a.m. the Germans delivered a terrifically heavy barrage mixed with heavy concentrations of Mustard Gas. … By 2 p.m. it was clear that the 66th Forward Zone had been overrun and a salient formed with both flanks dangerously exposed, but this division was far from beaten. By 6 p.m. the Coy of 2/7 Manchesters… was finally overrun. There were pitifully few survivors. By 7 p.m. Maj. Fisher of 2/5 Manchesters and Maj. Howarth of 2/9 Manchesters were reinforcing CARPEZA COPSE with orders to hang on for as long as possible.”
Wilhelmine may not have been aware of the danger her husband had been in when reports of the German offensive first appeared in the British press, but she was soon to receive the news that all relatives hoped never to hear, Paul Sherard was reporting missing since 21st March 1918. Whatever else transpired in the coming weeks and months, her life would be dominated by the painful wait for further news of her husband. Wilhelmine would hope and pray Paul had been taken prisoner.
The records of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) show enquiries were made at least twice, the answer was “Négatif envoyé” on both 23.5.18 and 20.9.1918.
The second enquiry was made by Alice Muriel Fiddian, she would later become Robert Harborough Sherard’s third wife. The enquiry was made on the request of Paul’s father, either some kind of contact had been maintained between father and son, or Wilhelmine had turned to Paul’s parents for their assistance. Wilhelmine had been very unwell with influenza in August 1918, and was having to deal with the Army bureaucracy over various allowances and payments.
Miss Fiddian persisted in her correspondence with the Royal Engineers Record Office who supplied her with a list of names of four men of “T” Corps Signal company reported missing on 21st March 1918, and were now known to have been taken prisoner.
On their own initiative, they attempted to make contact with Sapper Lihou via the Red Cross and with his mother in Guernsey. When the Armistice came, and prisoners of war began to be repatriated, there was still no news of Paul Sherard. Finally, unwanted news come back from Sapper Henry Martin Lihou, Paul Sherard was believed to have been killed on 21st March 1918. Yet, there was still not definitive proof of Paul Sherard’s death. Whatever Wihlemine may have believed, it was not until 18th September 1919 that the Army Council decided that Paul Sherard had died on or since 21st March 1918.
With no known grave, Paul sherard’s name was added to a panel on the Pozieres Memorial.
When Wilhelmine received her husband British and Victory Medals in 1922, she was still living at 13 Grenfell Road, Mitcham where she stayed until at least 1924. By this time Wilhelmine had qualified and was working as a teacher in a school in Southfields. Her work and care for her elderly parents would be the focus of her life now. Wilhelmine would later live in leafy Cottenham Park Road, Wimbledon, for nearly three decades, her address at the time of her death in 1969, aged 81.
Footnote1: Paul Sherard’s name may not appear on any memorial in Mitcham, but his contribution to the Great War is acknowledged in the London County Council’s Record of service in the Great War 1914-18:
First name Paul
Last name Sherard
Unit or regiment London Rgt; Royal Engineers
Died Missing 21st March 1918
LCC dept Education Officer’s Department
LCC section Teaching Staff
Theatre France 10 months
War service from 1916
War service to 1918