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.
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.
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.
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.
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.