Monthly Archives: Aug 2017

Flanders 1917: Last day in Hell – 24930, Pte. J.GARRATT 5th August 1917

Dawn on 5th August 1917 heralded the third full day in the trenches near Klein Zillebeke for the 9th East Surreys.  Trenches that were little better than a water logged hole in the ground full of slime with rain soaked sandbags that disintegrated when touched.  All around was the detritus of war.

The shelling had destroyed everything. As far as you could see it was like an ocean of thick brown porridge” – 2nd Lt. R.C. Sherriff, wounded 2nd August.

An aerial photograph taken high over the devastated landscape at Klein Zillebeke on August 7, 1917, shows few distinguishable features.


Aerial reconnaissance 28.I36 [Klein Zillebeke] August 7, 1917


War Diary Sketch Map

The film maker D.W. Griffth visited the area near “Shrewsbury Forest” several weeks later when conditions had much improved and the front had moved on, leaving the wreckage behind.  The pillbox he filmed was made of the same concrete as the fifty pieces embedded in R.C. Sherriff when he was wounded.  The “Forest” had long since been reduced to match wood.

At Klein Zillebeke, the incessant shelling of the 9th East Surreys had already claimed the lives of two Mitcham Men, Ethelbert Griffiths and John Hopkins, but Joseph Garratt from Colliers Wood was still out there and it was about to become a very bad day …

Joseph Garratt’s family home was at 59 Denison Road, Colliers Wood.  At the outbreak of war it was just another ordinary Outer London street of four and five room homes where the families were mostly in steady work.  Compositor, baker, court attendant, LCC tram conductor, engineer’s fitter, carpet layer, glass cutter, pork butcher and carpenter were among the resident’s occupations.  The Edwardian homes were recently built on land that had surrounded Byegrove House, attracting families from Battersea, Camberwell, Tooting, Clapham, Vauxhall, Twickenham and Brixton.

Joseph had spent his early life in Clerkenwell, where he was born in 1897.  He lived in Laystall Street , a narrow cobble paved space in the heart of the teeming Capital, close to Gray’s Inn, the Smithfield’s markets and the Mount Pleasant Postal Sorting Office. Joseph’s parents, Alfred and Ellen, were originally from Birmingham, and his father had worked as a “brass finisher” all his adult life.  Bowen’s “Phoenix Foundry” was on their doorstep.


Laystall Road 1905 & Today


Phoenix Foundry – Brass and Bell Founders.


Joseph was the last of five siblings to attend the school in Laystall Street, sent to the infants at the age of three in 1900.  Dating from 1876, “Laystall Street School” is still in use today.  There is no record of Joseph moving to the older “Boys” part of the school and his father last appears on the electoral roll at 16, Laystall Street in 1906.  The family had moved to Denison Road by 1911, with a fifteen year gap between their youngest child Joseph and their first son Alfred, it was only Joseph and his older sister Alice who lived with their sixty year old parents Alfred and Ellen Garratt.

Alfred and his son Joseph had no need to rely on local work.  You could take a short walk over Waterfall Bridge to the tram stop at the junction of Blackshaw and Longley Roads where the LCC service ran as far as the Embankment.  The London United Trams ran in the other direction along Colliers Wood High Street towards Wimbledon to Kingston and Hampton Court.


LCC/LUT Tram interchange at Junction of Blackshaw and Longley Road

In 1913, another travel option came to Colliers Wood when the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) opened a brand new motorbus garage in the High Street opposite the Merton Abbey Works.  The LGOC’s B-type motor-bus would provide some of the most iconic images of the Great War, ferrying troops to the front in 1914.


Merton Bus Garage circa 1920



As the war dragged on with its insatiable appetite for man-power, the LGOC first employed female bus conductors in February 1916, with women gradually replacing men in their workshops and other behind the scenes roles.

There had already been a number of casualties from Denison Rd at Ypres and Loos in 1915 by the time Lord Derby’s Group Scheme came into being late that year.  It was the Government’s last attempt to encourage volunteer recruitment before passing the Military service Act early in 1916 and the introduction of conscription on 2nd March 1916.

The Derby Scheme was originally meant to close by the end of 1915, but it became necessary to resurrect the Group Scheme in January 1916 to plug the recruitment gap and posters advertising this were circulated.

For some reason, Joseph Garratt choose to volunteer under the Derby Scheme on its final day, 1st March 1916.  He could have waited to be conscripted, but instead he presented himself at the Wimbledon recruiting office giving his age as 20 years 9 months and replying “porter” when asked his trade or calling.  Joseph passed his medical but it was noted he was not a robust individual, at just 5ft in height and a slender 100lbs it was remarked “appears abt 18”.  Born on 13th June 1897, Joseph was indeed only 18 years 9 months.  Yet he would have been given his arm band and told to wait for his group to be called-up.  A month would pass before Joseph returned to the recruiting office in April 1916, this time for reasons unknown Joseph was placed on reserve.  Another five months would pass before he was called-up and was posted to 3rd (Reserve) Bn East Surrey Regiment.  Basic training complete, Joseph joined the 9th Bn in France on 11th January 1917 as 24930, Pte. Garratt, J.  They were near Hulloch, when Joseph experienced his first shocking lesson in the realities of trench warfare

Eight months on the Western Front may have toughened Joseph Garratt but the situation at Klein Zillebeke was the stuff of nightmares.  There was a heavy mist on the morning of the 5th August and the advanced outposts established at Jordan trench came under attack three times between 6am and 8am .


The war diary contains an appendix which gives a detailed account of a desperate fight as they attempted to keep the lewis gun in action and the supply of bombs was exhausted.  Compelled to withdraw, the main war dairy notes:

but it is feared that 14 of our men were left behind either killed or wounded”

Later that morning around 9.30am in what seems an avoidable and useless death, the Commanding Officer, accompanied by 2nd Lieut. L. H. Webb, came up to make a personal reconnaissance. While observing over the parapet, Lieut.-Colonel de la Fontaine was shot through the head by a German sniper, dying soon afterwards.  He had been a popular C.O. with an Army career that stretched back to 1893.  After five days in hell, the misery of the 9th Battalion at Klein Zillebeke came to end when they were relieved on 7th August 1917,

Fourteen is the exact number of men recorded as killed in action that day in the CWGC register, all names which appear on the Menin Gate memorial to the missing.  It is a list that includes the names of 24930, Pte. Garratt, J from Colliers Wood and 30654, Pte. Lambert, P. from Morden.


The Garratt family ensured Joseph’s name appeared on the Civic Memorial on Lower Green, Mitcham and the framed  roll of honour board at Christ Church, Mitcham. Members of the family remained in Denison Road into the 1930s.


Christ Church, Colliers Wood © Copyright Peter Trimming




Flanders 1917: The end of a journey – 24912, Pte. J. HOPKINS, 4th August 1917

The suffering of the 9th Bn. East Surrey as they held part of the Brigade Front at Jehovah Trench, and further forward, had only just begun on 2nd August 1917.  They were to hold this position for five days.  Companies were rotated between front, support and reserve position during the nights of 3rd/4th and 4th/5th as the enemy’s heavy shelling continued at dawn and dusk.  There was no let up in the summer rain and conditions were appalling.  Not until the final two days did the sun make any appearance.  The War Diary’s record of the men’s reaction seems hardly credible:

“Great credit is due to almost every individual man in the battalion for the energetic way in which he worked. No matter whether they carried rations, water, wounded or anything else they stuck to their jobs in the terrible conditions, and always won through with a smile.”

The list of casualties speaks itself, with yet another Mitcham Man among the dead – 24912, PTE HOPKINS, J.

Little is known of John Hopkins’ early life other than he was born in Lambeth around 1884.  His marriage to Elizabeth Harriet Wales in 1914 is the first tangible evidence that links him to Mitcham.

Before their marriage, the 1911 census return shows Elizabeth Harriet Wales living at 5a Seaton Road Mitcham with her two sons: Thomas aged 8, born in Marden, Kent and Job aged 5, born in Mitcham.  Thirty four year old Elizabeth Wales was a single mother who somehow managed to support her two young children working as a flower seller. The three of them shared one room in a small 5 room terraced property. William Jelly, a farm labourer born in Battersea, his wife Sarah and their two young daughters had two rooms. The remaining two rooms were home to Ben Coates, a greengrocer who described his place of birth as “Kent in Van”, his partner Janthe (?) Collison and their two young daughters.

Elizabeth Wales had spent her early childhood in Battersea.  Born on 26 Nov 1876, she had lived in Currie Street, one of a small triangle of streets hemmed in by the railway and the Thames shore line and overshadowed by the Gas Works where her father worked as a stoker. Charles Booth’s poverty maps described the area as among the poorest in London. After her mother Phoebe died in 1889, nothing more is known of Elizabeth until 1911.


Currie Street, St.George, Battersea.

More than twenty years after her childhood in Battersea, Elizabeth found herself living once more in the shadow of a Gas Works, with all its noise and stinks. Seaton Road was home to some of the poorer families in Mitcham.

The seven members of the Surkitt family lived in 3 rooms at 4a Seaton Road, parents John and Alice describe themselves as Street Hawkers.  Widowed Henry Harrington, a labourer in the Gas Works, lived with his four children in two rooms at 4a Seaton Road.  Fred and Sinny Matthews lived with their nine children in four rooms at 6a Seaton Road.  Both parents and two of the children were flower sellers.  Henry and Lemataney Matthews lived in the remaining room with their baby daughter at 6a Seaton Road.  Nelson Smith, a flower seller, and his partner Lucasus Constant lived in one room with their baby child at 3a Seaton Road. Leonard and Britania Dixey(Dixie) with two children lived in two rooms at 3a Seaton Road.  Leonard was another flower hawker.

Among Seaton Road’s other flower sellers and hawkers were Josiah and Lemataney Smith at number 16, Henry and Phoebe Scott together with Alice Powell and sons at 10 Seaton Road, the Dedmans and James at 8 Seaton Rd and Jessie and Emily Smith at 5 Seaton Rd.  The eight members of the James family lived in four rooms at 11 Seaton Road. Irish born head of the family Robert James described his occupation as a “peg maker”, adding “Im me on marster”, the birth places of his six children were various “corners” that the enumerator was obliged to clarify.

It is clear from the surnames and occupations that Elizabeth Wales was living in the midst of families whose roots were tied to Surrey’s travelling community.  If John Hopkins had been from a travelling family himself that might explain the lack of any official documents associated with his name.  Whether or not John Hopkins was the natural father of Elizabeth’s children, they adopted his name after John and Elizabeth were married at the end of 1914.

If the pages of the Surrey Recruitment Registers (SRR) are any guide, then 1915 was the year that saw many of Seaton Road’s men volunteering, with a cluster around the time of the Derby Group Scheme which ran from 15th October 1915 until 1st March 1916.

Although John Hopkins is recorded as enlisting at Kingston, his details are not in  the SRR.  His service number is consistent with men joining the East Surrey Regiment around February and March 1916, but there is nothing to say when he first went to France and Flanders.

24912 Pte. John Hopkins officially became one of the missing on the third anniversary of the Great War, on 4 August 1917.  His wife Elizabeth could never have known of the unspeakable conditions he had fought in near Ypres and was left in limbo for another six months, as her hopes that John had survived faded.  There is no record of anyone contacting the Red Cross to enquire if John had been taken prisoner, perhaps Elizabeth had always known the outcome.


Soldiers’ Effects Entry

When the Mitcham War Memorial was officially unveiled on 21 November 1920, Elizabeth Hopkins had ensured her husband’s name appeared alongside others she knew well: brothers Christopher and Frederick Matthews were her neighbours from Seaton Road.

Three weeks after the unveiling of the memorial her eldest son, eighteen year old Thomas Hopkins, travelled to Kingston to enlist in the Regular Army.  Like his father, Thomas Hopkins joined the East Surrey Regiment.  Elizabeth stayed in Seaton Road, until at the age of fifty four she was re-housed, moving to the modern open environment of Mitcham Garden Village in 1931.  Finally, she had a place worth calling home.  War widow Elizabeth Hopkins remained in Mitcham until the end of her life, passing away in 1946 at the age of 69.

Mitcham Garden Village, Lower Mitcham. circa 1930s

Mitcham Garden Village – Today Copyright 2015 Mitcham Garden Village


Return Tomorrow to read the story of  a last day in hell for Joseph Garratt from Denison Road, Colliers Wood.


Flanders 1917: Friends & Neighbours – 30040, Pte. E.G.GRIFFITHS 2nd August 1917

The impact of the War on friends and neighbours in Merton is perfectly illustrated by the fortunes of the Milledge, Burge, and Griffiths families.  In the summer of 1914, 59 Lyveden Road was the home of my grandfather’s Uncle.  Samuel and Clara Burge had lived there since 1912 and across the railway line in Swain’s Lane during the previous decade.

The Griffiths family moved in next door at 61 Lyveden Road in 1915, John and Rosina were originally from Camberwell, but for the last two years the family lived nearby at 50 Robinson Road.  John and Rosina Milledge had brought their family to 57 Lyveden Road around the same time.  Their roots were in Wimbledon, but they had lived in Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park between 1910 and 1913.

Samuel Burge was a house painter by trade and the seven of his ten children still at home in 1914 were aged between nineteen and nine.  John Griffiths had made a steady living as a bookbinder and the four of his eight children living at Lyveden Road were now aged between 30 and 17.  John Frederick Milledge was another who worked in the building trade and his four children were aged between 19 and 9 at the outbreak of war.

Samuel and Clara Burge belonged to the “Plymouth Brethren” who met at Longley Road Gospel Hall.  Their strong beliefs may have set them apart from other residents of Lyveden Road and would certainly had been opposed to the conduct of the war.  When the Milledge family became their neighbours, Samuel Burge not only had a working life in common with John Frederick Milledge but Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park was known as an area where the “Plymouth Brethren” had flourished.  The fact that the Milledge family had moved from Wimbledon right across London for those few years suggests the neighbours had more in common than just work.


Many “Plymouth Brethren” would become conscientious objectors when compulsion was introduced in 1916.  But despite Samuel and Clara’s beliefs and their children’s upbringing, two of their sons, brothers Samuel and Reuben, rushed to volunteer in 1914 and a third, Charles Henry, would soon follow.  The Burge family were the first to suffer loss when Samuel “George” Burge was killed in Flanders on the 8th May 1915.

Frederick Ernest Milledge was the next to volunteer in mid 1915, and was sent to France by November 1915.  In the same month his brother Frank Leslie Milledge volunteered under the Derby Scheme on 15th November 1915.  He was placed on “Class W Reserve” and remained in the UK for some time.

In the first week of November 1915, John Learwood Griffiths volunteered and was in France by 18 Arpil 1916.  When Ethelbert George Griffiths was conscripted on the 14th October 1916, his family had only just received the worrying news that his brother John was reported missing in action on 7th October 1916.  Within a month, his sister Elsie had contacted the Red Cross hoping John had been taken prisoner, but no further information was forthcoming.

As Christmas 1916 came and went, the New Year’s wish for the Griffiths family was that their son John was still alive, but for the Milledge family news came via the communication all families dread, their son Frederick Milledge, a corporal in the Royal Fusiliers, had been killed in France on the 17th January 1917.   His brother Frank, the only surviving son, was still in the UK, his fate yet to be decided.



Like his father, Ethelbert George Griffiths had worked as a bookbinder before his conscription on reaching his nineteenth birthday in October 1916.  He was posted to the 4th Reserve Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment after passing his medical at the Kingston Barracks.  Ethelbert is likely to have been in France completing his basic training at Etaples by January 1917 and would not join the 9th Bn. East Surrey Regt. until February or March 1917.  Six agonising months had passed since his brother John had been posted missing on the Somme, any vestige of hope for his survival was finally ended in April 1917 when he was officially declared to have died on, or since, the 7th October 1916, while serving with the “Civil Service Rifles”.


Ethelbert Griffiths may never have come across the other Mitcham men serving in his battalion of the East Surreys, a handful among hundreds.  But any one of his “pals” could have been among the long list of casualties meticulously recorded in the War Dairy when the trenches near the Zwarteleen and the Hill 60 crater were incessantly shelled between 23rd and 25th July.  It was a list that included Richard Wheeler’s name.

The men were physically and mentally battered as the Battalion left the trenches, crossed the Yser-Comines Canal and marched on past Voormezeele back to a tented camp near Dickebusch.  They would stay here until 1st August.


Camp near Dickebusch on 9 August 1917 © IWM (Q 5847)

Junior officer, 2nd Lt. M.S Blower attempted to lighten the men’s mood with music by giving a gramophone concert on 28th July, “with which the men were very pleased”.   The Battalion were in reserve on zero hour 31st July, but by the following evening had been ordered back to the front line, back to Zwarteleen!


The Brigade Front now straddled the old German line of Jevhovah Trench and the final moves of the Battalion from Verbrandenmolen across the Yser-Menin Railway and through ruined Zwarteleen toward the front line would test every man.


The War Diary’s matter of fact account belies the terrible conditions and the dangers faced:

Heavy rain had been falling for three days, no communication trench could be used – for they were more than waste deep in water and liquid mud.  Consequently all movement had to take place overland and the dark night and obstacles in the way made progress slow … on arrival at the support line, and further, on the way to the front line, C coy got caught in a heavy rain of shelling from the enemy, suffering something like 20 casualties in killed and wounded

It was here that 2nd Lt R.C. Sherriff was wounded, he never returned to front. Fifty years later, his account of events on the 2nd August 1917 form a stark and disturbing image of the reality of war:

The whole thing became a drawn out nightmare. The shelling had destroyed everything.  As far as you could see it was like an ocean of thick brown porridge. All of this area had been desperately fought over in the earlier Battles of Ypres. Many of the dead had been buried where they fell and the shells were unearthing and tossing up the decayed bodies. It was a warm, humid day and the stench was horrible. In the old German trench we came upon a long line of men, some lolling on the fire step, some sprawled on the ground, some standing upright, leaning against the trench wall. They were British soldiers – all dead or dying. Their medical officer had set up a first-aid station here, and these wounded men had crawled to the trench for his help. But the doctor and his orderlies had been killed by a shell that had wrecked his station, and the wounded could only sit or lie there and die. There was no conceivable hope of carrying them away

An aerial photograph taken a few days later on August 7, 1917 at 5:00 p.m. shows the devastated landscape at Klein Zillebeke:


Aerial reconnaissance 28.I36 [Klein Zillebeke] August 7, 1917

Once more the casualties in all ranks of the 9th East Surreys were carefully recorded in the battalion’s war diary in neat lines, as if on parade.  The name of 30040 PTE GRIFFITHS, E.G. appears alongside men from Fulham, Clapham, Coulsden and others killed that day.  Names that would eventually appear on the Menin Gate.



The Griffiths family at 61 Lyveden were left reeling from the loss of their remaining son.  Three years would pass before the Civic Memorial was erected on Lower Green when the residents of Mitcham gathered to honour their dead and remember the names carved in stone.  In the more private space of Christ Church, the names of brothers John and Ethlebert Griffiths appear together on the framed roll of honour.


Christ Church, Colliers Wood © Copyright Peter Trimming


Return Tomorrow to read the story of  the end of a journey for John Hopkins from Seaton Road, Mithcam

Footnote 1:  The fallen sons

May 8, 1915 – Private Samuel George Burge, 2nd Bn. East Surrey Regiment, is killed in action near Frezenburg.  His body was never found and his name appears alongside thousands of others on the Memorial to the Missing at Ypres, the Menin Gate.

October 7, 1916 – Private John Learwood Griffiths, London Regiment (Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles), is missing in action on the Somme and later presumed dead. His body was never found and his name appears alongside thousands of others on the Memorial to the Missing in Thiepval, France.

Janaury 17, 1917 – Lance Corporal Frederick Ernest Milledge,  13th Bn. Royal Fusiliers, is killed in action near Neuve-Chapelle.  He is buried in Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner, Cuinchy

August 2, 1917 – Private Ethelbert George Griffiths, 9th Bn. East Surrey Regiment, is killed in action near Klein Zillebeke. His body was never found and his name appears alongside thousands of others on the Memorial to the Missing at Ypres, the Menin Gate.

Footnote 2:  Frank Leslie Milledge embarked for France on 11th October 1917.   Wounded late in March 1918, he spent time in Grove Military Hospital , Tooting and in the Special Surgical Hospital at Shepherd’s Bush.  After six month’s of hospital treatment Frank Lewis Milledge was finally discharged due to his wounds on 22nd December 1918 in time to spend Christmas with his family.





Flanders 1917: Five Days In Hell, 2-7 August with the Journey’s End Battalion

Much has been written [1] about playwright and author, Robert Cedric Sherriff, whose most famous play “Journey’s End” was based on his experiences in the Great War.  Sherriff served in France with the 9th Battalion East Surrey Regiment from October 1916 until wounded on 2nd August 1917.  He was invalided back to the UK on 4th August, the third anniversary of the war [2].

Years later Sherriff wrote of his first impressions on meeting the men of his “C” company:

‘They looked the biggest set of ruffians I’d ever set my eyes on. Anyone seeing them without knowing who they were might have thought that Ali Baba’s forty thieves and the pirate crew from Treasure Island had amalgamated to do some deed of super villainy.’

Yet, Sherriff would say they were ‘some of the best men I ever knew’.

In contrast to Sherriff, very little has been written about the men of the 9th East Surreys that he had to leave behind and their experiences over the next few days in the trenches near Klein Zillebeke.  This short series brings together the story of three of those men and their families, all from Merton!

The men’s struggle to survive in the wasteland of war that Sherriff himself described as a ‘drawn-out nightmare’ where ‘shelling had destroyed everything’ epitomises the lines penned by Siegfried Sassoon in 1918 in his poem, memorial tablet:

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell –
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

Their five days of hell was here at Klein Zillebeke 2-7 August 1917.


Aerial reconnaissance 28.I36 [Klein Zillebeke] August 7, 1917


War Diary Sketch Map

Return tomorrow to read the story of friends and family from Lyveden Road, Tooting Junction.

Footnote1:  The Surrey History Centre holds an extensive archive of R.C. Sherriff material, it has held an exhibition and blogged extensively about his life and times, including his “Final Days on the Western Front” .

Footnote2:  2nd Lt. R.C. Sherriff regimental roll entry.



Flanders 1917: 95272, Pte. Robert Handley “G” Bn Tank Corps, 2nd August.

Two days after zero hour, on the morning of 2nd August 1917, the survivors of G battalion’s Tank Crews were slumped back at the La Lovie camp, exhausted after a day that had taken them to the limits of their physical and mental endurance.  Most were left with a kaleidoscope of momentary images of the battlescape glimpsed through prisms and shutters.  Those with the unenviable job of venturing outside to grapple with the 8-cwt unditching beam, deep in mud and exposed to shell and machine-gun fire, witnessed scenes they’d rather forget.  Some tank men were forced to fight on foot, where survival was a lottery.  The Tanks lay scattered across the battlefield: bogged down, broken, hit by shell fire or abandoned after making it back to the rallying points in ones and twos before dark.

What had Merton’s tank man, Robert Handley, seen and done on that first day?  The eye-witness testimony of Srgt. J.C. Allnatt of 19th Company, and 2 Lt D.G.Browne of 21st Company describes the confusion as the tanks negotiate awful ground, struggling to keep in contact with the infantry, individual tanks become isolated. Vulnerable to shell fire, there are miraculous escapes and terrible ends.

After reaching the lying up point at Frascati by 10.30pm on the night of the 30 July, the crews had little time before moving off again to reach their starting points for zero hour.  Joseph Charles Allnatt the sergeant driver of the “Gravedigger”, Tank G10, gave his vivid account of the hours that followed in an article written in 1958.  His section of tanks moved off in the fearful noise of the shrieking and bursting shells, it wasn’t long before conditions and mechanical problems played a part:

“Tanks were facing in all directions and already some were in trouble …. Each time we went into or passed through a shell hole the muddy water came sluicing into the floor of the tank, making everything into a filthy mess … I then saw the crew of one of the tanks of my Section collecting water from a shell hole with petrol cans. Their tank had a leaking radiator, and I understand that during the day they used 120 cans of water – not a very pleasant thing to have to do under fire… I retraced my way on the far side of the Steinbeek and took up the route from which I had made a diversion. I had still another half-mile to go to get to my final objective – the cemetery ….  There was nothing and nobody in sight. The going was still terrible but I got to the cemetery and went alongside its battered wall. I knew that by this time I must be getting dangerously short of petrol and still had to make my way back to the rallying point at Kitchener’s Wood…. Unfortunately, at this time the other tank – “Glamorgan” I think its name was – standing still firing at the enemy, with all its guns. It was bound to happen, although they were unaware of it, enemy shells were falling all about it. I thought for a moment that I could send some-one to tell them what was happening, but I knew it would probably mean the death of one of my crew. I turned away momentarily, and when I looked back, “Glamorgan” had disappeared … We then began to get it in earnest. Our rate of travel was very slow so we were almost a sitting target. Again and again enemy shells missed us by feet, and at least one lobbed underneath us heaving us up, without doing any damage at all. All the while I steered a zig-zag course … Ever since leaving the Steinbeek and the German counter-attack the crew had given up all thought of further action and were all sound asleep on the muddy floor, with Lewis guns, spare parts and empty cases strewn around them … I heard the voice of the Adjutant.8 He poked his head in and shouted, “Who’s there.” I told him. He said “What on earth are you doing here?” I said, “Our orders are to stand by.” He said, “Well, I order you to abandon tank, and get out as quickly as you can.” Dusk was now falling and we had to cover a distance of about 1½ miles … I found a pit which had formally [sic] been a shell bunker. I flopped down … I had not been asleep more than two or three minutes, when somebody roused me with the news that we were to retire to a place called Rezenburg [sic – this should be Reigersburg] Chateau, and thence we would be conveyed back to camp. “[Extracts of Full acount]

It was dark by this time and after a hurried crossing back across the Yser canal, waiting lorries took the exhausted crews back to La Lovie camp, a slow journey on roads crammed with transport.  Both the “Gravedigger” and the “Glamorgan” were part of 19th Company’s fighting tanks.  Suffering a direct hit, the explosion had snuffed out the lives of eight men of Tank G10 in an instant.  The names of seven of its crew members can be found on the Menin Gate.  Tank commander 2nd Lt. James Walker Lynch is commemorated in St Julien Dressing Station Cemetery, where Special Memorial 1 states “Buried in this cemetery, actual grave unknown”.

2 Lt. D.G.Browne, commander of the female tank G46 “Gina”, re-lived the first day in his book the “Tank in Action”, published in 1920.  He dedicated an entire chapter to the lengthy description of the first day’s fighting.  It contains information which is important evidence of Robert Handley’s possible fate on 2nd August 1917.

G46 was near Canada and Hampshire Farm as they crossed, moving beyond what had been the German front line:

“Dawn had broken — a miserable grey twilight behind heavy clouds; and the creeping barrage, with its following infantry, was already far up the ridge … We had anticipated difficulties here, but the reality was worse than anything that I, for one, had imagined. The front line was not merely obliterated: it had been scorched and pulverised as if by an earthquake, stamped flat and heaved up again, caught as it fell and blown all ways; and when the four minutes’ blast of destruction moved on, was left dissolved into its elements, heaped in fantastic mounds of mud, or excavated into crumbling pits already half full of water… The great trouble at first was to find our right direction, for all our famous groups of trees were still invisible, and Kitchener’s Wood was veiled completely by the smoke and dust of the barrage. The German trenches which we had studied on the map were blown to pieces and unrecognisable. One could see nothing anywhere, in fact, but a brown waste of mud blasted into ridges and hollows …2

Slow progress made them late to the first objective at Bosche Castle with the trench system in front of Kitchener’s Wood.  They ran in to shellfire and lost their unditching beam as the tank plunged into a shell hole.

“I got my whole crew out to recover it; but to lift on to the roof again 9 cwt. of steel and wood in so unhandy a form was beyond our powers; and the occasion being urgent, I decided to abandon the thing rather than waste time in manoeuvring the tank and fixing the clamps or other tackle… We obtained a more comprehensive view of the outer world during this excursion, but there was little to be seen. The battlefield wore that melancholy and deserted air characteristic of modern war.  Acres of foul slime below, dark and heavy clouds hanging low overhead, odours of gases and corruption, a few tree-stumps, a few bodies lying crumpled in the mud, half a dozen tanks labouring awkwardly in the middle distance, and the shell -bursts shooting upward like vast ephemeral mush-rooms — and that was all. There was hardly a sign of life in all that mournful and chilling landscape.”

It was near Kitchener’s Wood that G46 got bogged down after attempting to negotiate a way pass the network of water filled shell holes.

“The water rushed in through the tracks and sponson doors, covered the floor-boards, and flooded the sump: the fly-wheel thrashed through it for a second or two, sending showers about the interior; and then the tank, not having been constructed for submarine warfare, gave up the struggle. The engine raced with an increased but futile noise, for the wet clutch had ceased to grip, and we did not move. It was nearly six o’clock, and the rain had begun to fall. To take stock of the situation we had to climb out through the manhole in the roof, the water having risen to such a height above the floor that we could not use the sponson doors. Once outside, it was manifest that there was nothing to be done. The lost unditching beam would not have helped us with the clutch half under water.”


2 Lt. D.G.Browne struggled through mud and shell holes on foot in an attempt to reach his section commander Kessel and Lt.Merchant’s tank G45 which had ditched some 500 yards to his rear.  He was told to evacuate his tank, but in accordance with orders to leave two men behind on guard.  A hazardous duty which 2 Lt. D.G.Browne acknowledges:

“But the duty, never popular, was likely to be peculiarly dangerous in the Salient, on account of the persistent shelling to be expected there. Near Mousetrap Farm, a day or two later, four men were killed while guarding a couple of derelict tanks, after which the practice of leaving such guards east of the canal was abandoned … Under these circumstances, much as I disliked the prospect of remaining in here myself, I felt that I could not leave two of my crew alone there; and I determined, therefore, to form one of the guard.”

2nd Lt. D.G.Browne remained with his second driver Swain, the other six men struggled back to the Hill Top Farm HQ only to be ordered back to the tank!  One man was hit on route but with the help of a second made it to a dressing post.  The remaining four eventually reached G46 again around four in the afternoon.  The crew of G46 sat it out through hours of incessant shelling until about mid-day on 1st August. After a useless visit from a salvage officer and in the absence of further orders, Browne and Merchant agreed to leave their tanks that afternoon and return to Frascati.  They headed for the Wieltje-St Julien road, after eventually reaching Frascati they were taken from Reigersberg by lorry back to the La Lovie camp.  It was after eight at night on 1st August 1917.

But what of gunner Robert Handley?  Was he back at La Lovie, or somewhere out there, unlucky to have picked the short straw and been left guarding a tank? Was he in a tank of 19th or 21st company?

There is at least strong evidence to suggest that Robert Handley was in 21st Company. When he volunteered to join the “Heavy Branch”and was officially transferred on 25th Feb 1917 he was part of a small group of ex DCLI men who either due to wounding or sickness had been in the UK in late 1916:

95269 L.W.Baggott
95270 W.J.Gray
95271 A.Dean
95272 R.Handley
95273 H.Hunt
95274 H.Jones
95276 F.W.H Littlejohns
95277 H.A.Taylor
95278 C.Turner
95279 W.C.Trewin
95283 F.G. Burch

Gray, Hunt (real name Barratt), Littlejohns and Burch are all known to have been in 21st Company.

One task that fell to “G” Battalion HQ Staff immediately the facts were known was to create a “Battlegraph”, a chart summarising each tank’s progress and final state after the first day. Two versions exist, one as an appendix to “G” battalion’s War Diary and the other as an appendix to the Tanks Corps’ 1st Brigade War Diary.  The latter having two additions about “direct hits” to tanks, but neither show the direct hits suffered by tanks after 31st July.

The “Battlegraphs” and contemporary maps allow tank narratives to be constructed. They name individual Tank Commanders, but full crew list, if they ever existed, have been lost.  Neither do they fully corroborate 2nd Lt. D.G.Browne’s recollection that:

“Near Mousetrap Farm, a day or two later, four men were killed while guarding a couple of derelict tanks, after which the practice of leaving such guards east of the canal was abandoned …”

Only one tank is shown to have ditched near Mousetrap Farm, G6 “Grantham” of 19th Company.  The “G” Battalion war diary entry for the 2nd August 1917 is brutally succinct: two abandoned tanks are hit, two 21st Coy men acting as guards are killed.

There are no detailed casualty lists naming individuals, just a summary which appears in an appendix to the Brigade war diary which was part of a report on the 31st July operations.

The only men killed on 31st July were the crew of 19 Company’s Tank “Glamorgan”. The figures include four casualties from 21st Company which must have occurred in the following days.  Were these the four men alluded to by 2nd Lt. D.G.Browne and why does the “G” Battalion War Diary only mention two?

It is the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission that may hold the answer to the discrepancies in “G” Battalion’s records and explain Robert Handley’s fate.  In its new guise as CWGC, the modern register and associated original casualty burial returns reveal the four names officially recorded as having lost their lives on 2nd August 1917:

Rank: Gunner
Service No:70026
Date of Death:02/08/1917 Age:28
Regiment/Service:Tank Corps “G” Bn.
Grave Reference: IV. D. 19. Cemetery: ARTILLERY WOOD CEMETERY
Additional Information: Son of William Henry and Hannah Edwards.

Rank: Gunner Service No:77524
Date of Death:02/08/1917 Age:32
Regiment/Service: Tank Corps “G” Bn.
Grave Reference: IV. D. 18. Cemetery: ARTILLERY WOOD CEMETERY
Additional Information: Son of John and Susan Macculloch, of 11E, London St., Edinburgh. Native of Oban, Argyll.

Rank: Gunner
Service No: 95276
Date of Death: 02/08/1917
Regiment/Service: Tank Corps “G” Bn. Grave Reference: III. K. 25. Cemetery:

Rank: Private
Service No: 95272 Date of Death:02/08/1917Age:23
Regiment/Service: Tank Corps “G” Bn. Panel Reference: Panel 56.
Additional Information: Son of George William and Emma Handley, of 5, Heaton Rd., Mitcham, Surrey.

According to burial return documents dating from 1919, Edwards and McCulloch were originally found together at map location “c.8.c.5.5” in graves marked by crosses which clearly identified them as both members of 21st Company, “G” Battalion, Tanks Corps, and were dated 2/8/17.  Could they have been the two men reported killed in the Battalion War Diary while guarding a tank?  Perhaps, but the location of their original graves bears no relation to the known tank positions at the time and is far from the Mousetrap Farm mentioned by 2nd Lt. D.G.Browne.  Although it is likely they were brought to a safer place to be buried.

Gunner Littlejohns is recorded as dying of wounds at Essex Farm, close to the Yser Canal’s western bank, used by dressing stations at the time.  His family are believed to have received word that he was wounded before he died on the 2nd August 1917.  The Battalion War Diary does state a 6-pdr gunner was wounded during gas shelling at Frascati on the night of 28 July and sent down to the CCS.  If Francis William Henry Littlejohns was the casualty, it is possible he suffered from the delayed effects of mustard gas.  Whatever the truth, there is one puzzling question about Gunner Littlejohns burial return.  Why should his service number be incorrectly stated as that of Robert Handley’s?


The sad conclusion is that the inconsistent and incomplete record keeping of “G” Battalion make it impossible to say with any certainty how and where Robert Handley lost his life.  The question of why Robert Handley’s service number should appear against Gunner Littlejohn’s burial return is likely never to be answered.  The final insult to Robert Handley and the three others who died on 2nd August 1917, is the omission of their names from the “Roll of Honour” which appears as an appendix to the war dairy entitled “A Brief Battle-History of the 7th Battalion”  and dated December 1918.  It is a prototype for the slender 35 page publication of 1919.

Mitcham’s Tank Man, Robert Handley had simply been forgotten.  Ultimately where and how Robert Handley had met his end may have been of little consequence to the Handley family at Heaton Road, Mitcham.  All they knew was a son and brother would never return.  They ensured Robert’s name appears on the Civic Memorial at Lower Green, and on the wooden memorial panel at their local St.Barnabas Church.


© Copyright John Salmon