On the day that “Wimbledon’s Own” 190 Brigade RFA returned to action around Oosthoek, the 9th Battalion, Easy Surrey Regiment were marching back to the front after a period of rest. Just ten days before there had been one those surreal interludes with a chance to forget the grim realities of war for a few hours and even enjoy yourself – the Battalion had held a “Sports Day” !
By the evening of 21st two companies, C and D, had occupied the old German front and support line around what had been the village of Zwarteleen. Twenty-four hours passed before the remaining companies, A, B and HQ, moved forward. Passing through Dickebusch and on to Voozmezeele their route took them close to the guns of the 190th Brigade as they followed the well trodden way across the Ypres-Comines Canal to the front line.
The moves through the maze of trenches at night were not complete until companies A and B exchanged places with C and D, while companies C and D occupied a more forward position in “Image Crescent”, a trench about 750 yards in length, running north and south, just north of Klein Zillebeke. Battalion HQ was established about 400 yards from, and a little to the north, of Hill 60.
Hill 60 had been a hateful place, bitterly fought over in late April and early May of 1915. The 1st Battalion, Easy Surrey Regiment had suffered heavy casualties there. The Cressey brothers of Mitcham were just two of many. Three East Surrey men were awarded the Victoria Cross for their part in the action.
But Hill 60, which was nothing more than spoil from the nearby railway cutting, had disappeared, turned into a crater by the explosion of a deep mine as part of the Messines assault in June. It was a desolate place, strewn with wreckage of war.
Robert Cedric Sherriff, author and writer for stage and screen, who is probably best known for his play Journey’s End, was serving as 2nd Lieutenant with the battalion in 1917. Writing home on the 22 July, he seemed to be in a fatalistic mood:
“It is now some time since I was last in the line, and there is no doubt, of course, as to it being my turn and I sincerely hope I shall be lucky enough to come through safely as well as through all future periods in the line … “. He added, “We are bound to have a fairly rough time at some period during our next spell in the line .. but some have got to come through safely and the most I can do is hope and trust that I shall be one of these.”
Perhaps too, hope and trust is what sustained many in the ranks. One of those was 9590 Pte Richard Wheeler, from Mitcham, an old hand who had been out in France and Flanders since the end of 1915. He’d spent months in the Salient then and somehow had survived the Battalion’s serious losses on the Somme in mid-August at Guillemont and early September at Deville Wood in 1916.
Fumbling in the dark Richard Wheeler’s section was dispersed along the trench with each man left to find the best spot he could. Maybe it was the time for idle chat as there was slim chance of getting any sleep with our own guns blazing away all night. In any case, there were always sentries to be posted and talk of patrols. They were meant to be relieved within 48hrs, perhaps the prospect of two nights and days in the front trenches wasn’t so bad after all. But just keep your head down, in case the Germans have other ideas .
It was Spring 1915 when twenty eight year old Richard Wheeler went to Wimbledon to volunteer. Born in Mitcham, Richard had lived near Beddington corner during his early life. His father had died when he was just three, leaving his mother Caroline with Richard and his older brother William. Richard’s mother was re-married soon after to Charles Heath and Richard lived with his four half-siblings in Mill Green Lane, close to a sleepy stretch of the River Wandle and open land.
Aged 21, Richard married local girl Ada Elizabeth Parker in 1909 and by 1911 the couple were living with Ada’s mother and two young sisters at 8 Prussia Place, Nursery Road, Mitcham. Their home in small terrace could only be approached on foot via the footpath from Nursery Road and the cottage garden.
Richard had secured employment at the Mitcham Gas Works as a “carman”, moving the coke. The company ethos had fostered a loyal workforce with a strong identity. It had its own football and cricket teams, a must in Mitcham, together with an impressive military brass band.
Many of its employees had volunteered soon after the outbreak of war, and others like Richard, enlisted in 1915. He had been beaten to France by his brother William who served on the Western Front from August 1915 with the Royal Engineers.
For the family in Mitcham, the seemingly unending war left them in a state of constant anxiety about their loved ones, for the men themselves it was a case of day to day survival. The innocence and expectations of 1916 had been replaced by a mood more of determination to get the job done: “we’re here because we’re here, boys.”
Those two days in the trenches around Hill 60, and further forward in ”Image Crescent”, turned into a nightmare game of chance as German shells came crashing in leftward from the direction of Polygon Wood. The results were all too predictable with numerous casualties among both officers and men. Every man is named regardless of rank in the Battalion’s war dairy, which is very rare. Richard Wheeler had lost that deadly game of chance on 24 July 1917.
That night the Battalion was relieved, 2 Lt. R.C. Sherriff emerged from the trenches shaken by the deaths of Lt. J.A. Picton MC , 2 Lt. P.Y.Bogue and the popular medical officer Capt. C.S. Pirie (RAMC). Sherriff would return to the old battlefields in France and Flanders with his father Herbert “Pips” Hankin Sherriff in 1921. Among the papers recording their reactions was a poignant photo taken of the original graves and markers of Picton and Bogue who were buried near Klein Zillbeke.
In contrast, Richard Wheeler has no known grave and his name appears on the Menin Gate at Ypres. Without knowing his company, it is not possible to say with any exactness where Richard Wheeler was when he lost his life, nor if he was ever under the command of Picton, Bogue or Sheriff.
But there is one document which might tell a different story. In 1919, the remains of Pte. Frederick James Duck and Cpl. Victor John Wilkins were found near the old trench systems close to Zwarteleen. They were re-buried at the Perth China Wall Cemetery. The IWGC records show a number of unidentified British Soldiers were found in the same area. It is just possible that Richard Wheeler may lie next to Pte. Duck in PERTH CHINA WALL CEMETERY.
When the time came, Richard Wheeler’s name was added to Mitcham’s Civic memorial on Lower Green. His mother Caroline was still living in Mill Green Lane and ensured his name was added to the war memorial erected in All Saints Church. Richard’s widow, Ada, re-married in 1925 and lived on in Mitcham for many years. Richard’s brother William survived the Great War and left Mitcham a few years later.
In August 1924, on the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, the design for a proposed war memorial was published in the gas company magazine, “Wandgas”. It was planned for the Chief office of the WANDSWORTH WIMBLEDON & EPSOM/ DISTRICT GAS CO. at Fairfield Street, Wandsworth.
Richard Wheeler was listed as one of twenty two men from the Mitcham works who had lost their lives in the Great War.