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_school

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.)

rutlish

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.

sb_bases

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.

rlister_dcm

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.

loos_gas_cloud

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.

trainig_schedule

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_map

Treux Wood at centre of map

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

twood1

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.

twood_photo

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.

axtencwgc

Copyright britishwargraves.co.uk

The inscription reads:

“THE BELOVED SON OF ARTHUR D. & ELIZABETH AXTEN OF WIMBLEDON”

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)

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