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