Monthly Archives: Nov 2016

Memorial unveiled this day in 1920

On this day in 1920, the Mitcham War Memorial was officially unveiled.  Notice of the ceremony appeared in the local press on Friday 12th November 1920.


published in the Mitcham and Tooting Mercury on 12th November 1920

In events that echo the transformation of the temporary Cenotaph in Central London into the familiar permanent structure, Mitcham’s Civic Memorial had evolved from a temporary memorial placed on the Lower Green for Peace Day, 19th July 1919.

This temporary memorial was an alternative to the nameless memorial that had already been erected in the Parish Church churchyard and had been heavily criticised for its “out of the way” location.  The temporary memorial on the Lower Green had quickly become the focus of Mitcham’s collective commemoration as was noted by H.F. Bidder in his letter to the Finance and General Purposes Committee WAR MEMORIAL, dated 22 July, 1919:

“I suggest that the fact that so many people have now brought offerings of flowers to this particular spot in memory of those they have lost has already given it a specially sacred character which we would wish to preserve.”

Major Harold Francis Bidder DSO had served with distinction in the Great War, having commanded the 2nd Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment in 1915 and later a battalion of the Machine Gun Corps.  He published a memoir in 1919, “Three Cheverons By OREX”, dedicated to the young men who had fallen in the war.  The Bidder family were well known in Mitcham, they had been the owners of Ravensbury Park which had become the Catherine Gladstone Convalescent Home, used as a military hospital during the war, and were closely associated with the conservation of Mitcham Common.  His own cousin Lt. George Weston Devenish was one of the fallen.


The Bidder Memorial, Mitcham Common, Erected 1896

Major Bidder had proposed:

1. To place a permanent memorial to the fallen on the spot now occupied by the temporary memorial.
2. That this memorial should consist of a simple slab of stone occupying the position of the present structure, with a suitable, inscription.
3. That the flagpole be left up, and a Union Jack kept constantly flying on it to typify the flag of Empire which the dead gave their lives to uphold.
4. That oak posts and chains replace the present posts and ropes, and that the turf inside the square be made good and slightly raised.”


“I should be glad to make myself responsible for collecting the necessary funds, which would not be large.
Yours faithfully,
H. F. Bidder.”

The committee, while approving the suggestion: “Resolved That Major Bidder be referred to the Mitcham Common Conservators, from whom consent to his proposals must be obtained.”.  It should be noted that a committee to raise funds had been already been established in February 1919.

Efforts to canvass for the names of Mitcham’s fallen had already started by May 1919:

23rd May 1919 Call for Names

“The War Memorial Committee are desirous of obtaining the names of all Mitchamites who lost their lives in the war, in order that they may be inscribed on the memorial. For this purpose, notices are being distributed among the residents, asking for all the particulars to be filled in on the attached form.  It is necessary to state the full name of the deceased, with address, rank, name of unit, date of death, and place.  The signature and address of the person supplying the information is also to be added, and the completed form is to be sent to the Hon. Secretary, Mr. Stephen Chart, at the Vestry Hall.”

The decision to build the permanent memorial was finalised in November 1919:

7th November 1919 War Memorial Committee Decision
A special meeting of the General Committee of the War Memorial was held at the Vestry Hall on Friday last, 31st ult., at which the following recommendations were submitted by the Design Committee and adopted:-
(1) That the dedicatory inscription to be put on the Memorial should be as follows:- “To the men of Mitcham who, falling, conquered in the Great War, 1914-1918. Their name liveth for evermore.”
(2) That the site for the permanent Memorial shall be that site on the Lower Green at present occupied by the temporary memorial; and
(3) That on completion, the Urban Council should be asked to accept the Memorial from the Committee, and to maintain the same.”

Around the same time, another effort was made to obtain the names of the fallen:

14th November 1919 War Memorial Committee Letter
“To the Editor of “the Mercury.”

In response to the canvas made by the above committee, and to the appeal made through the columns of your papers, the committee have received the names of 552 Mitcham men who have laid down their lives for the country in the Great War. The number is larger than was anticipated, but the committee think that it is still probable that some names have not yet been received. It will be a matter of great regret to all if a single name is omitted, and I am therefore asking you to give publicity to this letter. The committee have received the utmost assistance from the clergy of all denominations in this respect, and from the Press, and it is hoped that those of the public who have any information which will help us will respond as soon as possible, as the complete list will be forwarded to the architect during this month.
Yours faithfully,
Stephen Chart,
Hon. Secretary, 
The Vestry Hall, Mitcham November 14.”


Early photo taken before the addition of sevens names to the bottom of South Face.

Some 5,000 people had gathered for the unveiling ceremony at Lower Green, Mitcham on a cold, but fine, November day.

The details of the ceremony on Sunday 21st November were covered in a lengthy article published in the “Mitcham and Tooting Mercury” on 26th November, 1919.


The war shrine, situated on the Lower Green, Mitcham, was unveiled last Sunday by Major-General Sir H. E. Watts, K.C.B., C.M.G. (formerly commanding the 7th Division and 19th Corps, B.E.F.). The weather, although very cold, was fine, and about 5,000 people were present at the unveiling.

Alderman R. M. Chart (Chairman of the War Memorial Committee) said that this shrine was to commemorate the self-sacrifice of those who made the supreme sacrifice, and show our undying sorrow felt by those who have lost dear ones in the late war. Two years ago the war terminated, and in February, 1919, a committee was formed for the purpose of raising funds for the war shrine. There was some difficulty as to the most prominent place for the shrine, and on Peace Day, when the temporary memorial was put behind the Vestry Hall, it was proposed that that should be the site for the permanent one. It is also proposed now that a fencing should be placed round the shrine, but with facilities for the public to place flowers on it, which he (Mr. R. M. Chart) was sure they would do from time to time. He also said that every effort had been made to obtain the names of men who had been killed in action or died of wounds, and, at present, there were 557 names inscribed on the shrine, and since then more had come to hand, and would be inscribed in due course. The speaker then said it was his duty and pleasure to introduce Major-General Sir H. E. Watts, K.C.B., C.M.G., who had served his country well in the late war. He was commanding in the first and third Battle of Ypres.

Major-General Sir H. E. Watts, K.C.B., C.M.G., said, after what Mr. Chart had said, there was not much more to say, but there was one incident that he would like to remind them of, and that was the late Earl Kitchener’s appeal of “Your King and Country need you,” at the beginning of the war, in which all men flocked to enlist. “Why !” because they knew that they were going to fight for freedom and endure the hardships of war, which was a fine example of self-sacrifice and unselfishness. All honour was due to them who came forward at the country’s call. The men, women and children were also a great help, for, while we soldiers were fighting, those at home endured many hardships, but without murmuring. He then unveiled the memorial, and the “Last Post” was played by buglers of the East Surrey Regiment.

The hymn, “Nearer my God to Thee,” was sung, and then the invocation and prayers were said by Rev. C. A. Finch, the Vicar of Mitcham, after which Rev. J. F. Cowley, of the Zion Congregational Church, said a few words.

Rev. J. F. Cowley said that, in doing honour to those who laid down their lives for us, there should be no mistake, for if they had not done so, no English home would be intact and safe to-day, but the unspeakable happenings in Belgium would have happened in England, and, perhaps, have been even worse, because it was against England that the Germans were so bitter and revengeful. He said we should thank God and our fallen heroes for such a merciful deliverance, and also think God for such sons, fathers, brothers and sweethearts who so cheerfully laid down their lives to save us from shame and dishonour. They must not forget to honour and thank the mothers who gave the best, they had got; and in the future, when one was in despair, they should just go to the shrine and remember what Englishmen could and did do for their country, because they thought that, if it was worth living for, it was worth dying for. Those present then proceeded to place their floral tributes on the shrine, during which Mr. Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional” was sung.

The Jubilee Lodge, R.A.O.B., sent a wreath in memory of fallen “Buffs.” Other lodges also sent wreaths.

The special constables were present under the command of Inspectors Webb and Freeman. Colonel Bidder, D.S.O., was present, and a detachment of ex-Service men lined up round the inside of the ropes. The music for the hymns was played by the Mitcham and Wimbledon Military Band, conducted by Mr. H. Salter.

Footnote: The history of the Civic Mitcham War Memorial has been traced by the diligent research of the local press and entries in Mitcham UD Council minute books by W. Brice, a volunteer on Mertons’s Carved in Stone Project, who maintains a blog at  Transcripts are reproduced here with his kind permission.

Mitcham’s Somme Legacy

This week a hundred years ago the newspaper headlines proclaimed the “Battle of the Ancre” and the capture of Beaumont Hamel as a stunning victory: the “Germans didn’t know what hit them …”, was one quote.  The Telegraph’s reports were typical of the London major dailies.


Douglas Haig had his much needed positive news to take to the next Allied conference at Chantilly.

While the Ancre and the Somme remained in the press until the end of November, and beyond, it must have been obvious to newspaper readers that the onset of winter had brought large scale military operations to a halt.  Without fanfare, the great Somme Offensive of 1916 had come to an end.  The newspapers would content themselves with articles of a “now the story can be told” nature, reviewing some of the summer’s main events and adding opinion pieces on the damage wrought to the German Army, while continuing to report the minor activities on all fronts.

The year would end with newspaper reports of Douglas Haig’s dispatch taken for the London Gazette, a dry summation of actions on the Somme front that argued the German Army had suffered a defeat.  The Daily Mirror carried the story on December 30, 1916.



There was little mention of the staggering loss of life suffered on the Somme in Haig’s dispatch, the few casualty figures quoted do not acknowledge the monumental scale of sacrifice.

Fed on a diet of propaganda and patriotic newspaper reports shackled by censorship, the public had flocked in their hundreds of thousands to see Malin and McDowell’s “Battle of the Somme” film in 1916.

It is estimated that twenty million people, nearly half the population of the UK, had watched it at the cinema.  People had thirsted for knowledge of the reality of war, some even hoped for a glimpse of their “Johnny” at the Front.  1916 was the year of ever growing casualty lists, when the British People had learnt to mourn on an unprecedented scale. Simple shrines to honour the fallen soldiers began to appear on street corners up and down the country.


Three long years would pass before such collective commemoration found voice in Mitcham with what was at first a temporary memorial on Lower Green, erected on “Peace Day” 19th July 1919.  The decision to create a permanent memorial on the same site was taken in November 1919 and the Civic Memorial was officially unveiled on Sunday 21st November 1920.


Of the 550 names on the Mitcham War Memorial that have been positively identified, 70 men died during the 141 days of the Somme, 1 died on the eve of the Somme Offensive and 10 died elsewhere during those 141 days.  These numbers can be put into perspective by the fact that in the preceding two years of war, from 4th August 1914 until 1st July 1916, 117 of those named on the memorial had become casualties.  Mitcham’s total war casualty figures had nearly doubled in just 141 days.

The men had come from all corners of Mitcham and every walk of life and stratum of society. They had fought in Regular Army units, Territorial Force units, Service Battalions of Kitchener’s New Army and “Pals” Battalions like the “Post Office Rifles“, “Civil Service Rifles” and “Wimbledon’s Own“, the 190th Brigade RFA.   For every man who lost his life, several others were wounded, many others who had served on the Somme would not survive the war.  Mitcham was left counting the cost of a war that was set to drag on into 1917 with no end in sight.

Mitcham’s Last Somme Casualty

A hundred years ago this week the Somme Offensive ground to a halt in appalling weather conditions which made further military operations impossible.


Battle of the Ancre. Bringing in an injured man. Hamel, November 1916.© IWM (Q 4538)


Wounded British soldiers having tea and food at a dressing station near Aveluy Wood during the Battle of the Ancre, 13 November 1916.© IWM (Q 4501)

The beginning of the week had seen the British launch their final effort of 1916 to wrestle Beaumont Hamel, and the heights beyond, from German hands.  After postponements and delays, due to bad weather, zero hour had been fixed for 5.45am on Monday 13th November.  Thousands of men of the 51st Highland Division and 63rd Naval Division battled their way at heavy cost to gain objectives which had defied all previous assaults since that fateful day on 1st July 1916.

The highlanders advanced where Ernest Brookes had photographed Hawthorne mine explosion and Geoffrey Malins filmed the same scene, along with the men waiting in the sunken lane.  Men of the 153rd Brigade would take the Y-ravine, a scene of decimation in the ranks of its attackers on the 1st of July 1916, when Mitcham men Isaiah Lemon and Victor Stokes had been killed and Charles Edward Gibbs had survived.

Operations were not solely confined to the area of the Ancre river, elsewhere on the Somme front the men of the 1st/7th Bn. Northumberland Fusiliers, a Territorial Force unit, would be engaged in their own struggle.  The battalion had been part of the troops holding the FLERS LINE in the previous few days and were ordered to attack the GIRD LINE and HOOK SAP on 13th November 1916, with just 24 hours to prepare.  They advanced in four waves from SNAG TRENCH at 6.45am on the following morning.  As the khaki figures disappeared into the mist to be met by an enemy barrage was 7210, Private Stanley Harrison Latham, from Mitcham, one of those left in ABBAYE TRENCH to act as carrying parties, or left holding SNAG TRENCH?  Less than a year ago Stanley had left the certainty of a life working in his father’s Varnish business to join the Army.


ABBAYE & SNAG TRENCH – Square 17 d

Stanley was the youngest of Joseph and Isabel (nee Harrison) Latham’s seven children: Mabel Josephine, Gertrude Isabel, William Herbert, Francis Joseph, Arthur “Charles”, Ethel May and Stanley Harrison. Born in 1892, Stanley was raised in comfort in the Latham’s ten bedroom late Victorian home called Hawthorndene in Devonshire Road, later numbered 59, a property still standing today.


Hawthorndene Today

The Lathams had first set up home there around 1888, having lived briefly in Robinson Road and a more modest home in Norman Road between 1881 and 1885, where both of Stanley’s sisters were born.  Hawthorndene would remain the family home for nearly 40 years and reflected the status of Stanley’s father Joseph Latham, one of Mitcham’s successful and long established Varnish Manufacturers.

Stanley’s grandfather, William Latham, had started the business over forty years before Stanley was born. His grandfather had lived in a cottage in Robert Harland’s yard in Merton Lane as a young man and by 1851 was advertising as one of Mitcham’s first “Varnish Makers”.  Stanley’s father Joseph was brought up in the far less luxurious surroundings of “Fountain Cottages” Merton Lane, so-called because of a nearby well, next door to the “Prince of Wales” public house.  It was near here that the Lathams made their varnishes, a labour intensive process of heating mixtures in large copper vats and the associated “gum” running.


Prince of Wales Public House pre-1900 ?

Joseph Lathman had worked with his older brother William Jnr, and later his younger brother John Latham. When Stanley’s grandfather died in 1864, the business continued to advertise but under the name “William Latham (exors. of), varnish & japan maker” in the 1867 Post Office Directory.  By 1891, Stanley’s uncle William Latham Jnr was married and living in Croydon, he had retired from varnish making, leaving Stanley’s father to run the business.  Latham’s varnish making continued to flourish in a competitive market and trade adverts from 1902 show how Mitcham had grown into one of London’s important centres of the varnish trade (Merton Lane had been renamed Western Road ).


From 1902 Trade Directory

By 1911, Stanley and his older brothers William Herbert and Arthur Charles were working in their father’s varnish business. His sister Gertrude Isabel had married Alfred James Brock in December 1910 at St.Peter Saffron Hill and 1911 was a busy family year for the Latham’s with two further marriages in the same church: Francis Joseph Latham married Maude Curtis in February and William Herbert Latham married Delcie Maud Wingfield in July.  Both of Stanley’s brothers had given their residence as the “Union Bank Buildings, Ely Place”, commercial offices which stood close to Holborn Circus.  Francis Joseph Latham moved to Croydon shortly after his marriage.

The outbreak of war in 1914 threatened all of the Lathams’ achievements. Yet it proved to offer new opportunities of winning lucrative Government Contracts, vital for the survival of their business.  Joseph Latham had been astute enough to set up London offices in 1914, trading in partnership as  “Latham, Brown & Co. Ltd. varnish, japan, enamel & enamel paint manufacturers,42 Finsbury Sq EC” :

The “telegraphic address” identifies the connection to the Latham’s Merton Works.  The “Brown” partner is unknown, but perhaps they brought the technical expertise of enamel making to the combined business.  Winning War office contracts was one thing, but what of Latham’s workforce, would they volunteer or did they regard themselves as carrying out essential war work?

By 1915, the end of voluntary recruitment was signalled by the summer’s National Registration Act which was soon followed by the introduction of Lord Derby’s Group Scheme in early October, the last attempt by the Government to raise volunteers before introducing conscription. Some men may have been under the misapprehension that they had to volunteer under the Group Scheme in order to take advantage of the protection offered to so-called “starred men”, those deemed to be in essential occupations, and be placed on the Army Reserve.  In any case, a flurry of volunteers from the “varnish trades” can be seen in the “Surrey Recruitment Registers” during November and December 1915.

Among them was Joseph’s own son, Francis Joseph Latham who attested in Croydon on 7th December 1915, describing his occupation as “Secretary Private Co.”.  He was not mobilised until 21st June 1916, when conscription had been extended to all married men between the ages of 18 and 41.  Francis Latham was initially posted to 4th Bn. Norfolk Regt. before transferring to an Agricultural Company of the Labour Corps for the duration of the war.

There are no existing records to say when Stanley Harrison Latham volunteered, or was conscripted.  Nor, like other men with service numbers close to his, whether Stanley Latham had been transferred to the 1/7th Battalion before going overseas.  It seems possible that he too had volunteered under the Group Scheme before the end of the year and was mobilised some months later in the Spring of 1916.  He may not have gone to France much before September 1916, after little more than three months basic training (7/7189 Reginald Charles Bryant had enlisted in April 1916 and was in the Herts. Regt before going to France on 1st September, 7/7209 Henry Hannaford is recorded as enlisting on 3/4/1916 in his entry on the Silver War badge Roll).  Whether Stanley Latham was in action with the 1/7th Northumberland Fusiliers near Flers on the 15th September 1916 is unknown.  Casualties were high and reinforcements joined soon after on the 19th, 21st and 26th of September.

Much of October was spent around Millencourt before Stanley Latham’s battalion moved up to alternate between the front line trenches of the FLERS LINE and resting at High Wood during the first twelve days of November.  As part of The 50th Northumberland Division’s final assault on the Grid line, the 1/7th took over the 4th N.F line on the night of the 13th November when the weather had broken again, all the trenches were waterlogged and in bad condition. “Mud was everywhere,” records Capt. F. Buckley in his history of the 7th N.F.

in parts up to the waist, and what was worse, the thicker, more tenacious kind that just covered the boots and clung in heavy masses. The exertion of forcing our way step by step in an already heavily burdened state during our various moves about this line, remains in my mind as some of the most strenuous & exhausting times of the whole war.”

The Battalion’s war diary describes the day’s events in detail and can be read here.

The unit took its initial objective in Gird Trench but because of heavy fire communication was impossible and many men were cut off and wiped out by German counter-attacks. The Butte de Warlencourt was not taken and battalion commanders felt that this attack had been a waste of good men, with 24 killed, 98 wounded and 107 missing.  It was not until the 17th November that casualty lists could be compiled, the names were written on pieces of hand ruled square paper, among them is 7182 Bryant and just below, 7210 Latham. By the 19th November the battalion had been withdrawn to Albert.


One page from the casualty list

News of Stanley’s death would have reached his family shortly after, leaving them to grieve for his loss, while increasing Joseph and Isabel’s anxiety for Stanley’s brothers. Early in 1917, William Herbert faced the prospect of being conscripted, reports of his local Mitcham Tribunal hearing appeared in the “Tooting and Mitcham Mercury” on  9th March 1917:

Mr J Latham, Singlegate, asked for the exemption of his son, who was his foreman varnish maker. His business had been established in Mitcham forty years, and had increased largely owing to War Office contracts. He was certain if his son had to go his business in Mitcham, and the one in London, would have to be shut down. Two of his sons were in the Army, and another engaged in the works. He himself was too old to take an active part in the work.

The conditions for exemption were laid out in the 1916 Military Service Act, and its subsequent amendments, they appeared to be in William Herbert’s favour.


From HMSO List of Certified Occupations, 20th November 1916

But it was not until William Herbert Latham’s case was heard on 30th March 1917 by the Surrey Appeal Tribunal that he was granted an exemption after Joseph Latham had once again stated his son was his manager and absolutely needed.  Further that he was in a certified trade.

Four years after Stanley’s death, the Mitcham War Memorial was officially unveiled on 21 November 1920, his name appears towards the top of the memorial’s north face. His family also ensured Stanley’s name appeared on the Roll of Honour that was in Christ Church Mitcham, close to their home in Devonshire Road.


Earlier, in the summer of 1920, Stanley Latham’s remains were found at location 57c.M.17.d.5.1 along with an unknown soldier, a location that is close to both ABBAYE and SNAG TRENCH.



Map location 57c.M.17.d.5.1

It is possible the second man was nineteen year old Reginald Charles Bryant, whose name appears on the great Somme memorial to the missing at Thiepval.


Stanley Latham was laid to rest in WARLENCOURT BRITISH CEMETERY.



Footnote 1: Joseph and Isabel would have been sent a photograph of their son’s headstone by the IWGC, whether they were one of the families who made the trip to France to say their final goodbyes is unknown, but they certainly had the means to do so.  By 1921 Lathams was trading as “Latham, Brown & Co. Ltd 45 Finsbury Square EC 2 Works Merton Surrey” and “Latham Jos. Western Road Mitcham”.

Joseph Latham passed away in Brighton Sussex in 1926, Isabel Latham passed away in Sussex a year later, and Stanley’s unmarried sister Mabel Josephine passed away in Sussex in 1929.  William Herbert Latham passed away in 1933 when the company traded as “Latham, Brown & Co. Ltd. 326 Western Road, Merton SW19” and was still in business in 1963.

Footnote 2: My thanks to W. Brice , a volunteer on the Carved in Stone Project, for transcripts of the Tribunal reports published in the “Tooting and Mitcham Mercury”.

Corporal – John William Hyde Harrison

John William Hyde Harrison was born in Mossley, Lancashire, in 1898, the second child of Arthur William and Laura Jane Harrison.  His parents were married at St Augustine’s Church, South Croydon on 3rd September 1894.  John’s father had been living in Upper Norwood with his widowed mother and three siblings, at the time of his marriage.  He was then a registered ship’s surgeon, having qualified as a physician and surgeon in 1890. John’s mother, Laura Jane Osborne, was living with her married sister in Croydon and worked as a kindergarten teacher before her marriage.  Their first child, Arthur Osborne Harrison, was born in Croydon in 1896.

Arthur William Harrison’s widowed mother was from Yorkshire, and he had taken her and his family north to work in General Practice from “Stonely House” in Mossley.

After caring for others, it was his own family that suffered loss in 1901 when their first child, young Arthur, died in winter at the age of five.  If John had become the focus of his parent’s affections then the death of his mother in 1908 must have been a heavy blow to him and his father.  Perhaps in an effort to leave such bad memories behind him, Doctor Arthur William Harrison returned to South London with his son to make a fresh start.  By 1910 John and his father were living in Park Road, Colliers Wood.


Life at home changed dramatically for John when his father was married for a second time to local resident Lilian Jane Hackett at the end of 1911.  Lilian was close enough in age to John to seem more like a sister than a mother figure.  Yet in due course, John would be presented with two baby half-siblings.

At the age of twelve 12, young John Harrison was attending Rutlish School, he would be able to walk or cycle there daily.  A direct route  would take John pass the Wandle flowing in front of the Merton Abbey works, on past the Nelson Arms to South Wimbledon, before crossing the junction at Merton Road to follow Kingston Road to the School on the corner of Station Road in sight of the level crossing and overlooking Merton Park station.


Corner of Kingston Road and Station Road (now Rutlish Road)


View from Dorset Road, Rutlish School in Background


Merton Park Level Crossing circa 1914


Schoolboys at the crossing circa 1908

Perhaps occasionally, John would ride the London United tram between South Wimbledon and Colliers Wood.  Before he left school, John would have seen the construction and opening of the London General Omnibus Company’s Merton Bus Garage in November 1913 opposite Merton Abbey Mills.


The school’s broad curriculum had been strong on science since its opening in 1895, as typified by the teaching of Charles Alfred Pauls who held a 1st Class Chemistry Degree and MSc.  If John had any ambitions of following his father into the medical profession, a knowledge of science and chemistry would have been important.  Did John Harrison know Percey Axten?  As they were in different years groups they were unlikely to have been in the same classes, but in a relatively small school of 200 to 300 boys, the two may well have mixed in the playground and on the sports field.

John Harrison was in his penultimate year at Rutlish when the war broke out in 1914 and would have been well aware of all the recruitment activities – posters, hand bills, meetings, parades and marches – near his home. Wimbledon’s New Theatre, the Territorial Force Drill Hall in St.George’s Road and Wimbledon Town Hall were all used for recruitment.  War related events always drew crowds of spectators, something John Harrison may not have wanted to miss.  The endless “war talk” of the Rutlish schoolboys could not be avoided.

John Harrison’s education at Rutlish School was complete by the end of the 1914-15 year. Any thoughts of further studies or future careers were put to one side when John Harrison responded to the War Office appeal for “men with training in Chemistry” to join the Royal Engineers and serve in France.  Exactly when John first saw the circulated forms or newspaper appeals is unknown, but he appears to have taken a copy of the War Office letter signed in his own hand to a Wimbledon recruiting Office on Friday 24th September 1915.


Knowing he was underage, it is surprising John’s father did not object.  But we cannot know what debates and friction occurred between them.  In any case, John’s dress, manner and confidence were enough to persuade others he was close enough to nineteen for it not to matter.  He was passed fit when examined at Wimbledon and recorded as being 5ft 6in tall, weighing a trim eight stones, with a 35 inch chest and had a good physique.

With dizzying speed, John Harrison had passed from his local recruitment office, to central recruiting at Whitehall, to arriving at the Chatham Depot where he was kitted out and sent to France on the 4th October 1915.  Just twelve days had elapsed between being an ex Rutlish School student and becoming 120661 Corporal J.W.H. Harrison of the Corps of Royal Engineers.  In all this rush, John’s father had managed to give his son a parting gift of a pen and watch, something that would later play on his mind.

Once in France, John’s immediate destination was the newly created base for chemical operations at Helfaut, near St.Omer. There was only time for rudimentary military training and much of the work with gas cylinders, pipes, spanners and emplacements was being improvised.  After spending less than three weeks at the Helfaut base, John was posted to a section of the 189th Company, the last of the original four special companies formed to carry out the offensive use of chemical warfare.


Special company operations at Loos were all but over, and records do not exist to give John’s precise movements over the next few months.  Smaller scale independent actions were carried out by the special companies in November and December as much in the spirit of experimentation as of any significant military objective.  Night gas attacks were undertaken in the days before Christmas 1915 on the 20th and 21st December just south of the La Bassée canal, the north of the canal on 22nd December and in the new year on the 9th January at Fromelles and on the 19th a little north of Armentières.  The special companies then withdrew to Helfaut.  John Harrison was on the sick list at the end of the month, possibly due to the exposure of trench work early in January.  He spent two weeks in the No.10 Stationary Hospital in St.Omer and was discharged on 14th February 1916.

The expansion and reorganisation of the special companies into Brigade strength numbers scattered the original “Chemical Corporals” throughout the sections of the new units in early in 1916.  John Harrison was posted to “N” Company, one of the four companies of the 4th Battalion, lettered “N” to “Q”, whose main task was still cylinder work.  The 4th Battalion had moved to new quarters at Wizernes, an hour’s march North of Helfaut on the morning of 11th February.  They remained here for over three months as new officers and drafts arrived, experienced men were promoted or given temporary commission and cylinder training and gas experiments were carried out.  At noon on the 3rd of June 1916, John Harrison would have seen Sir Douglas Haig for what was probably his first and last time at Helfaut, when the Special Brigade were inspected by the C-in-C at a march past.

Events moved at increasing pace over the following three weeks with the approach of the opening of the Somme Offensive.  The companies of the 4th Bn. Special Brigade were assigned to the VII Corps of the 4th Army working on the 37th, 46th and 56th Divisional fronts.  The latter two divisions would make the ill-fated diversionary attack on Gommecourt on the 1st July 1915, and the 37th were manning trenches a little further north in the Monchy sector.  John Harrison’s company commander, Captain Pelling, had reconnoitred the Monchy-au-Bois front for suitable sites for emplacements and stores by the 7th June.  The 4th Bn. HQ had moved to Bouquemasion by the 13th June and thousands of “White Gas” cylinders began arriving at railheads.  Over the next few days these were laboriously moved first to dumps ready to be carried into the front by infantry parties supervised by members of the Special Brigade.

By the 19th June the 4th Bn. HQ had briefly moved to St.Pol and John Harrison’s “N” company had move up to Bienvillers. The commanders and troops of the 37th Division had no previous experience of British gas attacks and issued orders to reduce manning of front line trenches and the wearing of smoke helmets or respirators at the time of the planned release of gas.  A constant watch was made of the wind’s speed and direction as dedicated telephone communications and codes were established with the Special Brigade and its personnel wore distinctive bassards to ensure their easy passage in the trenches.



During the night of 22nd/23rd June, in conditions of the strictest secrecy, the gas pipes were carried from the dumps by infantry parties from the 110th Brigade, the “Leicester Tigers”.  They were told to wear caps not steel helmets, carry their smoke helmets and rifles slung.  They were to approach the dump in single file in silence and smoking was prohibited.  This operation, under the command and supervision of John Harrison’s “N” company,  took place between 10pm and 3am.

The reports of the “gas flotations”, their effect and enemy reaction, are summarised in the 4th Bn. Special Brigade diary for 26-30th June and the Infantry reports fed back to 37th Division command.  The new companies had suffered their first casualties of the war.  A further night gas attack on 13th/14th July in the Monchy sector resulted in over twenty more casualties in the Special Brigade.

Units of the 46th Division had moved in to the Monchy sector by the end of July, a “P” company gas operation planned for mid August was initially cancelled.  Over 1,200 cylinders had been carried up by the infantry to the Monchy front overnight on the 13/14th August and placed across a 660 yard front.  On the 22nd August, one German shell burst four cylinders, an officer and 19 men were gassed with one fatality.  The gas was finally released on at 10pm.

Sections of John Harrison’s “N” company joined “O” company for operations on 25th of August for release of gas at Gommecourt with zero fixed at 8.30pm on 5th September.  A “successful release” cost the lives of 4 men and many gassed men among the 29 wounded. Yet another release of gas occurred on the night of 14th/15th September, conducted by “P” coy. at Monchy and “O” coy. at Gommecourt, no casualties were reported.  Work had started on filling 2 inch mortar bombs with gas after chemical rounds for the Special Brigade’s 4inch mortars failed to materialise.

In early October, thousands more cylinders of “White Star” gas, the deadly combination of chlorine and phosgene, began arriving at railheads in preparation for three operations. Captain Pelling had reconnoitred the front and after his “N” company had been assigned to operation G1/N they were moved up to advanced billets in Berles-au-Bois on 23rd October 1916. The emplacement of cylinders was completed within a week. The “stand-to” order came on the 12th November 1916, and the gas was discharged on the Monchy front in the early hours of 13th November 1916. The 4th Battalion Special Brigade War Diary blandly reports their casualties as, “OR 2 killed in action; 2OR wounded in action; 1 OR wounded shell shock; 9 OR gassed in action”.

John William Hyde Harrison died later that day at No.43 Casualty Clearing Station, Warlencourt.  He was buried soon after in what now is WARLINCOURT HALTE BRITISH CEMETERY, SAULTY.



The news of John’s death marked the end of his father’s first family, John was just eighteen and Doctor Arthur Harrison’s grief was surely compounded by remorse.  When John Harrison ’s personal effects were returned to his father in January 1917, the pen and watch he had gifted John on his departure were missing.  In an increasingly acrimonious exchange of letters with the Military Authorities, Arthur Harrison demanded to know why the pen and watch had not been returned to him, accusing them of making false statements.  There is a certain irony that without this exchange, the details of John’s final day would be untraceable.  In attempting to answer his father’s demands, the facts revealed John Harrison was first brought to the 97th Field Ambulance.

They were located at La Herliere in November 1916 and the 97th FA diary mentions a “gas attack along selected area of 30th divisional front ..” on 13/11/196. The 97th FA ADMS diary records on 12.11.1916, “we are expected to make a gas flotation this evening”. On 13.11.1916 it records : “Gas flotation referred to in app144 took place place early this morning …”. The 97th FA had to deal with several cases of gas poisoning.  The 97th FA ADMS diary shows that they were making arrangements for a proposed gas attack as early as 2nd November in terms of bearer posts, Advanced Dressing Stations, etc.

It’s the 30th Divisional war diary that holds the key information about this “gas flotation” as described in order 46, dated 31st Oct. 1916, and the subsequent report after it had actually taken place on the 13th November.  The divisional papers identify the Special RE company responsible as “N” company of the 4th Bn.


The two men killed can be identified as pioneers 192541 Cecil Arthur Hunt and 192542 Thomas William Hunter, both transfers from the RFA.  John Harrison was one of those wounded.  It is this report which identifies John Harrison as having served in “N” company of the 4th BN. Special Brigade, Royal Engineers.

John Harrison’s name appeared in the Wimbledon Boro’ News casualty list on 23rd December 1916 without any additional details.

At the appropriate time, his father ensured John’s name appeared on the Mitcham War Memorial and on the “Roll of Honour” at Christ Church, Colliers Wood.

John Harrison is also named on the “Rutlish School Memorial” and in the official “Roll of Sacrifice” of Wimbledon, Merton and Morden and and in 1921 publication:A RECORD OF THE HONOURED MEN OF WIMBLEDON AND MERTON (Author) Mitchell Hughes and Clarke (Publisher)


Rutlish School Memorial in old School, Copyright The Elite Photographic Co.


Rutlish School Memorial was in the old school gymnasium


The memorial today

Footnote:  John’s father, Arthur William Harrison passed away early in January 1932 and was buried on 21st at Church Road Cemetery.  His second wife and their children moved away soon after.  Lillian Jane Harrison’s named was added to her husband’s headstone when she passed away at the age of 88 in 1980.

Pioneer – Walter Gray

Walter Gray lived in Mitcham all his life, but his name does not appear on any of its memorials. This is the story of a forgotten casualty of the Great War who served on the Western Front from April 1915 until June 1918.

Walter Gray was born in Mitcham in 1897, his parents, Alfred Gray and Jane Sophia Foreman, were married on Christmas Eve 1893 in Parish Church of Immanuel and St.Andrew, overlooking the open space of Streatham Common.  Alfred Gray was originally from Bedfordshire and Jane Foreman come from Peckham, they settled in Mitcham soon after their marriage.  Walter was their third child and within a decade there had been three more additions to the family. The six siblings were: Alfred Jnr, William, Walter, Herbert, Jane and Nellie. The family was stricken by loss when Walter’s mother died in 1909, Jane Sophia Gray was laid to rest in Church Road Cemetery on 24th June 1909. The void was partly filled by their Aunt Rebecca Foreman, who came to look after the younger children and kept house for Walter’s father.


Walter had grown up in homes near to Commonside East, in Tamworth Lane and Manor Road.  His father had worked as a market gardener, and by the age of 14, young Walter Gay was employed as a “Gardener Labourer” and his older brother Alfred Jnr. was working as a “Nurseryman’s Assistant”.  The Grays could have all been working in the extensive nurseries of the Mizen family whose glass houses were a prominent feature in East Mitcham.


When war was declared in August 1914, seventeen year old Water Gray was a young man eager to enlist and like so many others adjusted his age to ensure he was accepted.  Walter had travelled to the Kingston Barracks on Friday 28th August 1914 and joined the Royal Field Artillery.  He was described as 5ft 6in tall, weighing 123.5 pounds with blue eyes, a pale complexion, dark hair and with a chest size of 32 inches.  His Army life probably began at Woolwich before he was allocated to one of the many newly formed brigades.  After training to work with guns and horses, Walter Gray finally went to France on 18th April 1915 as Driver 94590, W. Gray R.F.A.


Part of the enlargement and reorganisation of the Special Brigade in the Spring of 1916 was the creation of the 5th Mortar Battalion which consisted of four Special Companies who were to handle gas shells fired from 4-inch Stokes mortars.  Walter was among a large draft of RFA men transferred in the Field in mid July 1916 to the 5th Battalion of the Royal Engineers Special Brigade.  Walter was now Pioneer 193146 of the 2nd Special Company.


A 5th Bn. Group posing with mortars and wearing box respirators

The issue of chemical ordnance supply dogged the efforts of special companies of the 5th Mortar Battalion.  Smoke rounds were in short supply and chemical rounds non-existent for the 4-inch Stokes mortars well into the battle of the Somme.  After the offensive ground to a halt by mid November 1916, Walter Gray’s unit withdrew to their winter camp near Helfaut.  The prospect of another gruelling year of war was the last thing anyone wished to contemplate.  Without records, it is hard to know if Walter Gray was granted leave before the renewed operations of 1917.

1917 was another long slog for Walter Gray.  They were based in Bray and Heilly for operations in March, Sailly La Bourse in Arpil and had moved to Nieppe on the Belgium border by mid May 1917.  His special company supported Australian and ANZAC forces in the last week of May, firing mainly tears gas and thermite mortar rounds at enemy position such as Ontario Farm near Messines.  On the 7th June 1917, nineteen mines were exploded under German positions aiding the capture of Wytschaete and Messines.  Walter Gray’s unit continued to fire hundreds of disorientating tear gas rounds during June’s operations.


Their base moved to Eikhoke, near Boesinghe (now Boezinge) north west of Ypres in July, to carry out operations in the sector of the Guards and 51st Division.


Walter’s special mortar company continued firing thermite and lachrymatory rounds at enemy targets in the build up to the 31st July 1917, the opening day of the third battle of Ypres.  Now simply known as “Passchendaele”, and synonymous with mud and suffering, the attritional battle was fought in nightmarish conditions lasting 3 months and six days. Walter Gray’s mortar company were in the Ypres Salient the entire time.  In July and August they were beginning to make use of lethal phosgene mortar rounds in the mix of munitions fired.  They suffered casualties, eight men in one incident due to a burst gas mortar bomb, but the numbers were slight compared to infantry battalions.  Walter’s company got some respite by late September but they returned to Poperinghe Camp by mid October in preparation for operations in the Poelcappelle sector.

Moving again to Forthem in November 1917 for operations in the Dixmunde sector, they supported the 2nd Belgium Division using types of tear gas, NC and SK, designed to penetrate the enemy’s gas masks.


The last action of the year was undertaken by one section using six mortars on 30th December 1917 firing thermite rounds in support of an infantry attack.

After sitting out the winter at Helfaut, offensive operations began again in March 1918. Casualties sustained on 27th March 1918 included 4 Americans (1 gassed) who were seconded to Walter Gray’s company.  One phosgene bomb was defective and others had been destroyed by enemy fire.  During 22nd-30th April Walter’s company were based at Hazebrouck supporting the 1st Australian Division by engaging strong points and other targets around Merris and Meteren.  The company had begun making use of “livens projectors” to saturate the enemy with phosgene gas.


A typical example of a completed projector emplacement. Not camouflaged© IWM (Q 14944)

Operations continued in the same sector throughout May and into June 1918 with the base still at Hazebrouck.


Area of Operations 22nd-23rd June 1918

On 22nd/23rd June 1918, the whole of Walter Gray’s special company were deployed to fire mortars and projectors from the support lines near the Hazebrouck Road (above Merris Map square X 19 ) as Australian and South African infantry advance between Merris and the Becque ( hist p. 402–1-.pdf )

Positions were reconnoitred on the 24th June for a further operation and mortar base plates transferred.  Without any indication of precisely where, or how, the 2nd Special Company War Dairy blandly states 2 O/R killed and 1 O/R wounded.

Walter Gray’s long war had come to an end, he was buried at LA KREULE MILITARY CEMETERY, HAZEBROUCK.





Pioneer – Richard Brown

Richard Brown was born in early January 1898 and baptised soon after on the 19th July at Wimbledon’s Parish Church, St.Mary.  He was the youngest, by ten years, of six children, and his older siblings had all been born in Essex where the Brown family had first lived after his parents, Walter Skilton Brown and Amy Drake, were married in Gloucester on October 15th, 1883.  Walter Brown, a butcher and son of a farmer, had been raised in Essex as had his wife Amy.

They had come to fashionable Wimbledon around the time of Richard’s birth in 1898, living close to its busy commercial heart in St.George’s Street before shortly moving to the Broadway, their home for the next ten years which they shared with members of the Drake family at one time.


Tabor Grove

By 1910 the Brown family had settled at 12 Tabor Grove, still close to Wimbledon’s centre with its tram and train links to the capital and beyond.  It was the year the construction of the new Wimbledon Theatre was completed, opening on 26th December 1910 with the pantomime Jack and Jill.

In 1910, twelve year old Richard was still at school, while his older siblings were all in established jobs.  Sisters Ethel and Dorothy had worked as Post Office clerks for nearly ten years, brother Tom was a stockbroker’s clerk and brother Jack an insurance clerk.  Their comfortable lives would be changed forever by the Great War.

Richard’s older brother, Thomas Skilton Brown, was the first son of the family to volunteer in August 1914.  Working in the financial centre of the City of London, Tom Brown was one of the eager young men to join a new battalion formed from City employees – the 10thStockbrokers” Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers.  Recruiting began on 21st August 1914 and Tom Brown must have been near the front of the queue of excited men as he emerged from the recruiting offices with the low service number of STK/34.  Over two hundred men had volunteered on that first day, by the 27th August the number had swollen to 1,600.  Dressed in every type of clothing, they paraded in front of Lord Roberts on the 29th and were soon in training at Colchester.  It would be many months before they were ready to go to France.

In the spring of 1915, the worries of the Great War were overshadowed by family bereavement.  Richard’s father Walter Skilton Brown passed away and was laid to rest at Gap Road Cemetery on 21st April 1915, he was 61.  Having lost her husband, Amy Brown was soon to see her son Tom go to France.  Just ten days before his departure, Tom married Beatrice Verinder Virgo at St.James Clapham on 21st July 1915.  Beatrice Virgo had been a P.O. telephonist and possibly a friend of Tom’s sisters Ethel and Dorothy.

By October 1915 reports of the battle at Loos were in the newspapers, it was the long casualty lists that told the real story.  His family must have been thankful that Tom Brown had played no part in this.  The summer’s National Registration had heralded the end of voluntary enlistment, and Lord Derby’s Group Scheme was being introduced, with the possibility of conscription not far away.  Richard Brown had decided to volunteer, it was late November 1915 and he was not yet eighteen years old.

There are no records to give his precise enlistment date, but in late November 1915 Richard Brown first joined the 31st Training Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers via a Central London recruiting office and was given the service number 1792.  Among the few surviving records of fellow recruits are 1777 William Henry Marlow who joined on 23rd November 1915 and 1799 Archibald Swinscoe who joined on the 29th November 1915.  Their papers are both stamped “Whitehall”, the medical took place at 32, St.Paul’s Churchyard and their service numbers are both prefixed with “STK”.  The 31st Training Battalion had been formed out of the depot companies of 10th, 23rd, 24th and 26th Bns.  Perhaps young Richard Brown was hoping to follow his brother Tom in some way.

Whatever his intentions, Richard Brown was transferred to the Royal Engineers before going overseas, becoming Pioneer 129097 and destined to join the newly expanded Special Brigade. He could have been in any of the drafts in the early months of 1916 who were undergoing intensive training in creating trench emplacements, helmet drill, cylinder drill, company drill, physical drill, arms practice, night work and the inevitable route marches.  The Amy had belatedly recognised that “training in chemistry” was not a necessary requirement for service in the Special Brigade.  While some of the work was technical, much was sheer arduous labour.

Everything was leading up to the use of gas during the opening phase of the Somme Offensive.  Richard Brown is believed to have been in number 22 section of “D” Company, 1st Bn. of the Special Brigade by June 1916.  They were to conduct operations on the 4th Division front just to the north of Beautmont Hamel.


Gas cylinders in front line trench ready to be discharged that evening on the German trenches at Serre,1916. Fair Dealing Copyright

Working in front line trenches, Richard Brown and others in his company were exposed to the same dangers as the infantry, with the added risk of being gassed by leaks or clouds blown back over our own positions in variable weather conditions.  Gas releases were planned for the night of the 24th June 1916 from trenches that were held by the 1st Bn. Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  It was “U” day, the first day of the great Somme bombardment.



Contemporary reports describes how Lt. Jones and men of the Special Brigade released “White Star” gas at 10.7pm in a light wind that carried the cloud over the enemy positions. The Germans responded with a heavy artillery barrage.  Disaster struck around 10.30pm when a cylinder leaked after being hit by a shell fragment and the wind dropped and reversed, blowing back the gas over the 1st Warwicks trenches.  The Special Brigade under Lt. Jones were all badly gassed and worked as long as they could to prevent the spread of the chlorine and phosgene mixture.  The 1st Warwicks had suffered some 160 casualties that night, many had been gassed.

Richard Brown and three other Special Brigade men were evacuated as far as No.4 Casualty Clearing Station at Beauval, roughly 12 miles behind the front lines at Beaumont-Hamel. There was little that could be done, and all four died of gas poisoning within 48 hours. Army Chaplain, Reverend H.D.W. Dennison, CF, wrote to the sister of 130519 Pioneer William Morrey:

It is with deep regret that I have to tell you of the death of your brother, Pioneer W. Morrey.  He was admitted into this hospital yesterday afternoon suffering severely from gas poisoning, and though everything possible was done for him, he died early this morning.  I am burying him this afternoon with four of his comrades who suffered the same fate in Beauval Cemetery.  May he rest in peace, and may God comfort sad hearts that his loss will cause……



The men buried with Richard Brown are:

Pioneer 128027, James Duckett from Manchester, formerly 2320, Manchester Regt.

Pioneer 128805, Walter Norman Welton from Wallington, Surrey, formerly 4347 the Queen’s Regt.

Pioneer 130519, William Morrey form Widnes, formerly 32486, Manchester Regt.

The Brown family suffered a shattering double blow in 1916, receiving news of the death of Richard’s older brother Tom Skilton Brown who died of wounds on 10th July 1916 on the Somme, just two weeks after Richard.

Both sons were remembered in the “Warrior Chapel” of St. Mary’s Church, Wimbledon.


Both the Brown brothers are listed in  in the Official Roll of Sacrifice for Wimbledon, Merton and Morden 1914-1918, and the 1921 publication: A RECORD OF THE HONOURED MEN OF WIMBLEDON AND MERTON (Author)  Mitchell Hughes and Clarke (Publisher)

Chemical Corporal – Charles Harold Honess

Thirty six year old science schoolmaster Charles Harold Honess volunteered at Whitehall around the same time as Percey Axten.  Judging by their service numbers, both Percey Axten and Charles could well have arrived at the Royal Engineers Depot at Chatham on the same day in late August 1915.  Charles Honess was married with four children, his decision to volunteer cannot have been taken lightly.  He was now 113222 Cpl. C.H. Honess, Corps of Royal Engineers.

Charles Harold Honess was born in 1879 and spent his formative years in Fulham where his family lived for some thirty years.  One of six siblings, Charles Honess was fortunate to attend the Westminster City Day School at the age of ten.

The school’s Headmaster, Mr R.E.H Goffin (1874-1906), had studied under eminent Victorian scientists – Hofmann the celebrated chemist, Tyndall, famous for his researches in Physics, and Huxley, the eminent biologist.  Goffin had established a strong science curriculum which included Mechanics, Physics and Chemistry, and his school was one of the first in the country where science was taught in the laboratory.  It was here that Charles Honess’ love of science had first been nurtured.


How long he was at the school, or what his occupation was on leaving, is unknown. Charles Honess married Annie May Stewart in 1899 and by 1905 was the father of four children, all born in Palmers Green.  Charles Honess does not resurface again until the 1911 census.  Now aged 31, he is a schoolmaster at the “East Anglian School, Norfolk Road, Bury St.Edmunds”, run by the Wesleyan Board for Secondary schools.  He described himself as single, possibly to obtain and keep his post.  Photographs of the period show a well equipped school chemistry laboratory.

Charles Honess also appears on the local Electoral roll in Bury St.Edmunds between 1912 and 1914.


All the time he was working in Bury, his wife and four children remained in Raynes Park, living initially at 434 Kingston Road before later moving to Prince George’s Avenue.  If he had returned to Raynes Park in the summer holidays of 1915, his family would have been shocked by his decision to volunteer and the speed at which he departed.

In those first few days of being kitted out and receiving some rudimentary induction into the Army at Chatham, if Percey Axten and Charles Honess had met they would have soon found the student and teacher had much in common.  Axten and Honess were among a draft of twenty or so men dispatched to France on 7th September 1915.  In the group were students, teachers, men with university degrees, an industrial chemist and the son of a Naval reserve officer. Men from East London, Aberdeen, Sheffield, Newcastle-on-tyne, Southampton, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Hull, County Waterford, Durham and Glasgow. Their immediate destination was the newly organised base at Helfaut, near St. Omer, to be allocated to one of the four special companies that had been formed for “gas operations” – the 186th to 189th.  Each of the four companies had been organised into ten sections, each of about 30 men.


Bases used by the Special Brigade

In the absence of any records, it’s impossible to say if Axten and Honess found themselves in the same section, let alone company, or if Charles Honess remained with any of the men he had been drafted with.  For the Army, the pressing matter was the proposed use of gas at the planned Loos offensive where the B.E.F would make its first mass use of chlorine on 25th September 1915.

113222 Cpl. Charles Honess may not have been involved on that day, but there is a distinct possibility he was in action when the Loos offensive was renewed on 13th October 1915, where troops had been issued with “Hypo Helmets” as a primitive protection against chlorine gas.  At 1.00pm: Gas and smoke was discharged on three fronts: South-West of Hulluch by the 1st Division; between the Hohenzollern Redoubt and the Vermelles-Auchy road by the 46th Division, and between the road and the canal by the 2nd Division.  As described here.


113220 Cpl. Rhodes Lister of the 189th Coy was awarded a DCM that day, and the draft of men which included Charles Honess suffered its first casualty: 113252 Harold Austin Millard, 186th Special Coy R.E.

In the months after Loos, a number of smaller scale night gas attacks were undertaken, in the days before Christmas 1915 on the 20th, 21st and 22nd December and in the new year on the 9th and 19th of January. (106106 Cpl. EW T Freund, 186th Coy R.E. died of wounds on 22/12/1915. Eric Wolf Theodore Freund was from Wallington, one of four siblings and the first child and only son of Emil and Annie Freund. He was educated a Wallington Grammar School, Sherborne School and attended London University before volunteering in Jul 1915.) The special companies were now withdrawn from the line for its expansion and reorganisation.

The men of the original four special companies were scattered among the newly expanded “Special Brigade”.  It was perhaps then that Charles Honess was promoted to Sergeant and found himself in the new “G” company of the 2nd Battalion.  Not everyone was impressed by the changes, Cpl R. Ginns, later commissioned to serve in India and Afghanistan, was acerbic in his criticism:

The new drafts came as pioneers, the second draft was a different sort of man – throw outs from the reserve line in England, but some good steady old workers.  We were still not up to strength and the third draft consisted of men from the divisional artillery transport, now largely replaced by motor transport.  The artillery apparently thought it a good opportunity to get rid of their riff-raff. A worst set of scallywags I have seldom met…

The training and preparation through February to May was for the use of gas attacks at the opening of the battle of the Somme.  Charles Honess moved from Heuringhem, near St.Omer, to the Somme by 9th June 1916. “G” company were billeted in Albert, already battered by shelling and famous for its “Leaning Virgin on top of the Basilica”.


In the next two weeks section officers reconnoitred the infantry divisional fronts, while thousands of cylinders were moved from the railhead to dumps and finally to their front line emplacements.  By 22nd June 1916, over a thousand gas cylinders and been installed by “G” company in both 34th and 8th Division fronts facing Orvillers and La Boisselle. Charles Honess was bivouacked south of the Albert-Amiens by the 23rd.  Unfavourable weather postponed planned discharges fixed for 10pm on the first day of the Somme bombardment.  Only partial release of gas was achieved two days later on the III Corps front after 6pm on 26th June – three R.E. men had been killed and 14 wounded.  In the next four days leading up to “Z” day the companies of the 2nd Bn. Special Brigade suffered nearly 70 more casualties, either wounded gassed or killed.  The work to retrieve gas cylinders could not begin until 6th July.  Salvage worked continued, until “G” Coy returned to routine work by 18th July.  In August they were given the task of preparing newly supplied 2 inch trench mortar munitions to be filled with “white star” gas when munitions ordered for the Special Brigade’s 4 inch mortars never materialised.  At the end of August, in what must have seemed a rather bizarre episode, the men of both “F” and “G” coy were interviewed by a visiting officer about working for the Ministry of Munitions.  A few days before, Charles Honess may have witnessed a demonstration of flame projectors and so-called oil mortar which was in fact an early appearance of the “Livens Projector”.


Loading a battery of Livens gas projectors. Taken at Royal Engineers Experimental Station, Porton, UK.

After the Somme offensive had finally ground to a halt in mid-November and Charles Honess had endured another winter on the Western Front his company would be trained to use the “Livens Projector” – a cheap and simple electrically fired one use mortar like device, capable of firing canisters of poison gas with a range of 1,300 yards.  Accuracy was limited, but when used in large numbers it could deliver a saturating gas attack on the enemy.

The first major offensive of 1917 was at Arras on 9th April.  On 15th April Charles Honess was with sections of “G” Coy supporting the assault on Bullencourt at the southern extreme of the Arras Offensive in the area of the 7th and 62nd Division.  An operation took place a 03:10 am with 135 bombs fired from Liven’s projectors into the German defences at Bullencourt.

Surviving documents show the planned casualty evacuation routes to be used by our infantry leading back to Mory.  But the records show Charles Honess was killed in action that day and Mory became his final resting place.  He was buried at MORY ABBEY MILITARY CEMETERY, MORY.



Charles Harold Honess is commemorated on the war memorial in the grounds of St. Saviour’s Church , Grand Drive, close to the home of his widow, Annie May, and their four children: Violet May, Cyril Stewart, Harold and Leslie Percy.


His name also appears in the official roll of sacrifice for Wimbledon, Merton and Morden and the 1921 publication:  A RECORD OF THE HONOURED MEN OF WIMBLEDON AND MERTON (Author) Mitchell Hughes and Clarke (Publisher)

Chemical Corporal – Percey Elmer Axten

Percey Elmer Axten was born on 3rd March 1897 and baptised at St.Andrew, Earlsfield, on 9th May 1897.  Percey’s parents, Arthur Dawson Axten and Elizabeth Percey, were married at St. Michael and All Angels, Paddington, on 29th July 1891.  By 1893 they had made their home at 24 Brocklebank Road, near to the bustling heart of Victorian Earlsfield.  Percey was their third child and by 1902 he was one of five siblings all born in Earlsfield – Mary Elizabeth, Katharie Dorcas, Percey Elmer, Dorothy Helen and Donald William.

For all its convenience, Brocklebank Road was adjacent to the “Wandsworth and Clapham Union Workhouse” in Swaffield Road and by 1904 the Axten family had moved to the more pleasant Edwardian environs of Raynes Park, finding a new home at 26 Trewince Road, where members of the family would remain into the 1930s.

By the age of twelve Percey Axten had already shown himself to be a talented scholar, winning a Surrey County Scholarship which enabled him to attend the fee paying Rutlish School located on the corner of Kingston Road and Station Road (now Rutlish Road), close to Merton Park station.


Rutlish Science School had officially opened on the afternoon of Thursday, 26th September 1895.  Although there was to be an emphasis on science education, the boys received a general education (Religious Education, Reading and Writing, English Grammar, Composition and Literature, Geography, English History, Arithmetic, Mensuration, Euclid, Algebra, Trigonometry, French, German, Chemistry, Mechanics, Electricity, Drawing, Shorthand, Book-Keeping, Vocal Music, Drill or Gymnastic Exercises, Manual Training, including Woodcarving and use of Tools.)


The school had expanded twice before Percey started there in September 1909 and “Science” had been dropped from its name.  After its original benefactor John Innes had died on 1904, the John Innes Charity was founded.  In January 1909 the Charity became regulated by a Scheme of Charity Commissioners. Under this Scheme both The John Innes Scholarships Foundation, and The John Innes Horticultural Institution were established.

Percey remained at Rutlish until the end of the school year in July 1914.  By that autumn, he had gained entrance to London University, with every prospect of further academic success and a career in science.  But the Great War would caste a shadow over all this, as Percey’s life was about to take another path.

The events of April 1915 across the channel at Ypres where a desperate struggle took place to resist the German onslaught demanded yet evermore man power for the British Army. The new use of chemical weapons had to be both countered and, despite any scruples, exploited.  At what must have been the end of Percey Axten’s first undergraduate year of study he made the momentous decision to volunteer as someone with “training in chemistry” and joined the Royal Engineers.  It’s not known if Percey was already a member of the University’s Officer Training Cadets, but he clearly thought there was an immediate need and use for his scientific knowledge.

Young Percey Axten’s service papers have not survived, but in a rare example of such documents his name does appear in the “Surrey Recruitment Registers”.  The modern transcription spells his name incorrectly as ATTEN.

Percey Axten walked into his local Wimbledon recruiting office on Tuesday 17th August 1915.  Like so many other volunteers, Percey Axten was not truthful about his age, which is recorded as 19 years 2 months, when in fact he was still eighteen.  But at 5ft 10 inches tall, 156 pounds, and a 37 inches chest with 3 inch expansion, Percey Axten easily passed the fitness test and his age was never questioned.

The enlistment process was rapid, and Percey would have passed through the Whitehall recruitment office and on to the Chatham depot in a matter of days.  He is likely to have met schoolmaster Charles Harold Honess, soon after, if not actually on the day of his arrival at Chatham. Issued with his clothing, instantly promoted to Corporal and armed with a heavy Webley .45 service revolver, he had become 113209 Cpl. Percey Axten of the Corps of Royal Engineers, all at bewildering speed.  In the same group of men assembling at Chatham was 113220 Cpl. Rhodes Lester, a trainee Chemistry Teacher from Heckmondwike, and 113222 Cpl. C.H. Honess.  All three were part of a draft of men who embarked for France on the 7th September 1915, it was just 21 days since young Percey Axten had volunteered.

The Royal Engineers base at Helfaut, near St. Omer, was their immediate destination, newly created for gas operations under Major C.H. Foulkes R.E.


Bases used by the Special Brigade

Not only are there no service papers for Percey Axten, and the others, but no War diaries were kept for their units until early 1916.  It is known that the first two companies, the 186th and 187th, had formed in July with volunteers like Ernest Worth.  Percey Axten would have been assigned to one of the second pair of companies formed, the 188th or 189th.  Each was organised into ten sections, each of roughly 30 men.  Perhaps he remained with fellow volunteers Honess and Lister.  If so, then it is likely Percey Axten was at Loos on the 13th October 1915, when the offensive started on the 25th September was renewed. 113220 Cpl. Lister was awarded a DCM for his action in bringing in a wounded man while exposed to heavy machine gun fire.  Percey Axten’s baptism under fire may have come a mere eight weeks after he had volunteered.


The British Army’s first use of gas as a weapon was on the opening day of the Battle of Loos on 25th September 1915, releasing a mass of chlorine gas from some 5,000 cylinders. It was meant to supplement the inadequate artillery bombardment, but a change in wind direction resulted in many of our own troops being gassed.  After some initial gains, the first phase of the battle proved to be a costly failure with German machine guns claiming thousands of lives.  One remarkable photograph was taken by a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade of troops advancing through a cloud of poison gas.


Taken by a soldier of the London Rifle Brigade on the opening day of the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915 Copyright Fair Dealing

Perhaps one of the clearest accounts of the actions of the Royal Engineers at Loos on the 25th September 1915 can be found in an appendix of the history of London Rifle Brigade. Four LRB officers had been attached to the special companies of the Royal Engineers by 3rd September 1915.  They describe how each section of around 30 men was a mix of Corporals with knowledge of chemistry bolstered by 10, or so, men with experience of trench warfare who had transferred from other regiments.  The detailed accounts can be read here.

The renewed offensive opened with another gas attack on the 13th October 1915, with the men like Percey Axten creating cylinder emplacements, connecting pipework and being ready to release the gas at the allotted time.  The appearance of these groups of Corporals in front line trenches, all armed with revolvers, had made them the butt of jokes, they were the “Comical Chemical Corporals”.  But they had lost three lives that day, and were often exposed to the same, and sometimes greater risks, as any front line infantry.  Operations ground to a halt in the winter months

The costly failures at Loos led to the replacement of Sir John French by Sir Douglas Haig. One of Haig’s first orders was an expansion of the four special companies of the R.E. Percey Axten found himself part of a much larger force by the Spring of 1916 which had grown to Brigade strength with a total establishment of 208 officers and 5306 men.  Four Special Battalions, each of four Companies, were to handle gas discharge from cylinders and smoke from candles.  Other units would deal with stoke mortars and flame projectors. Percey was part of the 2nd Battalions “E”, “F”, “G” and “H” companies.  With sections moving between companies, Percey’s exact movements are not known but later in June 1916 on the Somme he was part of “F” Company.

Extracts from the 2nd Battalion War dairy illustrate the scope of training in the expanded units that was carried out in February, March, April and May 1916.


Finally, the four companies of the 2nd Bn. of the Special Brigade moved from Heuringhem, near St.Omer, to the Somme.  Battalion HQ was based at Corbie by the 9th June 1916, with “F”coy.  and three sections of “H” Coy. in camp at Treux Wood.  This was the area of operations of the 7th Division and in the build up to the Somme offensive was crowded with troops, dotted with supply dumps and congested with military traffic.


Treux Wood at centre of map

An earlier occupant of Treux Wood in May had described it in idyllic terms,


But by June 1916 the constant flow of men in and out of the wood could hardly be described as peaceful.  A later photograph taken in 1918 gives some idea of the view from the wood with the Amiens to Albert Road running along the distant ridge.


View of the Dernancourt battlefield taken from Treux Wood. The Albert Amiens Road runs along the distant ridge. In the foreground, lie the heavy marshes of the Ancre. 1918

While much has been made of the week long bombard which preceded the Somme infantry attack on the 1st July 1916, it is less well known that many gas attacks had been planned along the entire Somme front.  For Percey Axten in June, the whole effort of the Special Companies was in creating emplacements and installing gas cylinders in front line trenches, either supervising or doing the work themselves, as the cylinders arrived at local railheads and were moved up by lorry.  Thousands of cylinders were used, mainly “White Star”, a deadly mixture of chlorine and phosgene, and some “Red Star”, which was just chlorine.

On the Tuesday 20th June 1916, the same day of the week Percey Axten had volunteered just ten months earlier, the men of “F” company were in their camp in Treux Wood.  A shell fired from some anonymous distant gun fell on the edge of the camp, the explosive burst caused three casualties.  The battalion war diary blandly states that “1 cpl died of wounds, 1 cpl wounded, 1 pnr wounded”, the entry for 21st June 1916 adds, “1 cpl wounded, 1 pnr died of wounds”.

Percey Axten had lived long enough to be evacuated from Treux Wood to No. 5 Casualty Clearing Station at Corbie.  Succumbing to his wounds, Percey died the same day and was buried soon after in the CORBIE COMMUNAL CEMETERY EXTENSION.  130348 Pioneer Edward George Davies, who died the following day, lays next to Percey Axten.



The inscription reads:


Percey Elmer Axten is also remembered in the “Warrior Chapel” of  St.Mary’s Church Wimbledon.

When Arthur Dawson Axten died in 1920,  Percey’s name was added to the family headstone at Gap Road Cemetery,  with the simple words – “Died of Wounds”.  Elizabeth Axten was laid to rest in Gap Road Cemetery in 1944.

His name also appears in the Official Roll of Sacrifice for Wimbledon, Merton and Morden 1914-1918 and the  1921 publication: A RECORD OF THE HONOURED MEN OF WIMBLEDON AND MERTON (Author)  Mitchell Hughes and Clarke (Publisher)

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!

A painting and a poem depict two of the most enduring and recognisable images of the Great War, they reinforce our cultural memories of the conflict’s horrors, when chemistry had been turned into weapons.

At the age of 62, American artist John Singer Sargent had travelled to France in the summer of 1918, accompanied by physician-artist Henry Tonks, at the behest of the British Government.  Sargent had received a letter from Prime Minister David Lloyd George urging him to do “a work of great and lasting service to the nation” by executing a large painting in which “British and American troops are engaged in unison“.  It was commissioned for a Memorial Gallery in London, which was never built.


In a case of art imitating life, or at least life on the Western Front, Sargent had found his subject on August 21st, when he and Tonks witnessed the scenes at a dressing station after mustard gas had been used against advancing American and British troops.  His near life size painting was of epic proportions, some 7ft 6 inches by 20ft, and came to have the one word title “GASSED”.  Completed around March 1919 and first exhibited at the Royal Academy soon after, it was not liked by all.  Criticised by some as being too heroic, too beautiful even, it evokes both sympathy for the men’s suffering and revulsion for its cause.  It is very reminiscent of photographed episodes of other gassed casualties, and while the trauma of blinding should never be underestimated, mercifully for many victims this was only temporary.


Battle of Estaires. A line of British troops blinded by tear gas at an Advanced Dressing Station near Bethune, 10 April 1918.© IWM (Q 11586)

Another, less well known, painting held by the Imperial War Museum was commissioned by the RAMC whose members were only too familiar with the suffering of the victims of chemical weapons during the Great War.


Gassed. ‘In Arduis Fidelis’© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3819)

In this grim painting, the stark depiction of death is a shocking reminder of the squalor of the Great War, we are in the realm of Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, possibly the most widely read description of the horrors of war in the English language.

In just twenty lines of prose, Wilfred Owen’s graphic description of death by gas poisoning has come to represent everything bad about the Great War.  Written in the style of a first-hand account, it should be noted that although the poem may accurately describe the effects of chlorine gas, it was written in 1917 when the far deadlier phosgene gas was in use and the standard-issue gas mask – the “small box respirator” – provided good protection against chlorine and phosgene.


It was the Germans who had first used chlorine gas on the Western Front in the Spring of 1915, beginning a new chapter in the history of warfare.  Whatever the outrage, or moral and ethical scruples held at the time, the British would soon respond in kind.  Its use as an offensive weapon was carried out by the officers and men of the Royal Engineers Special Brigade.

Our use and development of chemical weapons was not widely acknowledged or talked about and remained a sensitive issue even after the war as the Special Brigade’s commander Maj-Gen C.H Foulkes found out when writing the unit’s history published in 1934.  His attempts to include photographs of a base visit by King George V were blocked on the grounds that associating any royal with “frightfulness” was unacceptable. Some of those same photographs can be readily viewed today at the Imperial War Museum.


King George V and Edward, the Prince of Wales, watching a gas mask demonstration at the Gas School, Helfaut. 7 July 1917 © IWM (Q 5610)

The German use of gas on 22nd April at Langmark near Ypres against unprotected French troops caused panic and wide spread casualties.  Facing a cloud of yellowish-green choking gas, the French withdrew in confusion leaving an undefended gap in the line which was partly held by men of the 1st Canadian Division.  Chemist soldiers at the front had quickly recognised the gas as chlorine, which is water soluble, and improvised a basic form of protection by urinating on, or soaking in water, any rag or cloth that could be held over the nose and mouth.  The Canadians had arrived in Ypres with little training and were poorly equipped, their dogged and fierce resistance in appalling conditions saved the Allies from a possible disaster in the immediate days following the 22nd April 1915.

There was a predictable reaction in the British press to the news that the Germans had released clouds of poisoning gas, supposedly prohibited by the Hague Treaty of 1899. The “Devilish Hun” was the general reaction, as typified by this Daily Mirror headline:


It was a sentiment shared by those on the spot, one Tommy serving in the Dorsets was quoted as saying:

“Clean killing is at least comprehensive but murder by slow agony knocks me. The whole civilised world ought to rise up and exterminate those swine across the hill.” (From Donald Richer, Chemical Soldiers: British Gas Warfare in World War I)

In late April 1915 and early May, the first priority was to devise a defence and the War Office turned to Chemistry experts in the academic community for analysis of the gas used and methods of protection.  But military minds soon contemplated the offensive use of gas.  Sir John French, C-in-C of the B.E.F. in 1915, had implored Lord Kitchener: “I strongly urge that immediate steps be taken to supply similar means of most effective kind …”.  A number of committees sprung up to co-ordinate the efforts of the War Office, Ministry of Munitions and leading academics.

As early as 28th May 1915, the War Office had prepared a form for circulation that appealed for men with chemistry training to join the Royal Engineers for service overseas with the offer of immediate promotion to Corporal, with pay of 2/6d a day, plus 6d Engineers pay. The forms were distributed to Universities and Technical Colleges, and were accompanied by newspapers adverts.  After reporting to their local recruiting office, fit volunteers were given a travel warrant and asked to report to the Central Recruiting Office, Scotland Yard, Whitehall, London, for enlistment where they would then be dispatched to the Royal Engineers Depot at Chatham.


For some, there was the sense of adventure, as early recruit Ernest Worth (106239 Cpl E. Worth, initially 187th Coy RE, later Sgt.“P” Coy 4th Bn. Special Brigade) admitted when interviewed years later by the IWM, others put any reservation to one side and regarded volunteering as a patriotic duty.

By August 1915, London University undergraduate student Percey Elmer Axten from Wimbledon, and science schoolmaster Charles Harold Honess, with family in Raynes Park, had made the decision to volunteer …