In 1917, the residents of Mitcham and its surroundings were learning to cope with the impact of “Total War”, the privation, grief and anxiety which overshadowed day to day living.
Since the terrible loss of life on the Somme in 1916 the number of Mitcham casualties had continued to rise. Another eighty names that would later appear on the Mitcham War memorial were added to that list before the beginning of July 1917. Many of those had died during the Arras Offensive in April and May.
After the introduction of conscription in 1916 it was simply a case of when a man would be sent to the front, not if. In the unending demand for manpower, the Mitcham district was emptying of fit men between the ages of 18 and 41. Was there a single street without a household touched by the Great War?
The records of the Surrey Recruitment Register, a rare survival of documents that were supposed to be destroyed at the war’s end, give a picture of the impact on some of Mitcham’s Street’s. The recruits from Church Road number nearly a hundred and come from along its entire length. In Queens Road, the number was 33, in Bath Road 32 and in Fernlea Road in East Mitcham the number of households was 13. There are many more examples.
But even this is an incomplete and partial picture which underestimates the true figures. Not only were the recruit’s home addresses unrecorded in many cases, but these records do not show men who volunteered close to their workplace in Central London and elsewhere. Neither do they show men who had volunteered to join nearby local units such as the 13th East Surrey Battalion in Wandsworth, the 190th Brigade RFA in Wimbledon, or the 23rd (County of London) Battalion based at St. john’s Hill close to Clapham Junction.
Another snapshot from the final year of the War can be found in the Mitcham Electoral Register of 1918 which includes the “Absent Voter List” of servicemen over 21. The same picture emerges of streets with few households where there is not a husband, son or other relative serving in the war.
Fernlea RD 1918 AVL
Fernlea Rd 1918 AVL
The large number of men posted missing during the Somme highlights the strain felt by families during the war years who waited months for official news, not knowing if their loved ones had survived. The palpable relief felt by those who learnt their relatives had become prisoners of war was soon replaced by the worry of responding to regular requests for food parcels – an ever present concern for POWs. There was no certainty when, or if, prisoners might safely return home. Their treatment was at its worse when men were caught up in Germany’s tendency to indulge in tit-for-tat reprisals. Perhaps the most notorious case in Mitcham is that of Harry Carruthers – 470563, Pte Henry Siviour Carruthers,12th County of London Battalion (The Rangers)
Harry’s Mitcham born mother Margaret Siviour had moved to Carlise after marrying, where Harry and his adopted brother Ralph were raised and schooled. He had returned to Mitcham before the war to live with his Aunt and Uncle, Martha and Walter Blackstone, who had no children of their own, at 2 St Marks Villas, St Mark’s Road, Mitcham. Harry was working for the Post Office Savings Bank in Kensington. He volunteered in Central London not long after the outbreak of War and had only been on active service three weeks when “The Rangers” were ordered to advance to close a dangerous gap in the line near Frezenburg to the east of Ypres on the morning of 8th May 1915.
The Rangers – 8th May 1915
In the chaotic and costly action that followed, Harry was slightly wounded in the shoulder and taken prisoner, the then Captain Lewis Farewell Jones was badly wounded, but would later recover. In the afternoon of the same day, further desperate attempts were made to halt the German advance by the 2nd East Surreys and other battalions. My Grandfather’s cousins, brothers Samuel “George” and Rueben Burge, were recent arrivals at the front like Harry. Pitched into a terrifying first combat, George was killed but Rueben was spared.
Harry’s Aunt and Uncle attempted to find news of their nephew via the Red Cross.
He remained a prisoner of war for two years, supposedly at the Friedrichsfled camp. The news of his death from dysentery close to the Russian front (in what is now Latvia) on Good Friday, 6th April 1917, came as a terrible shock. His family had no reason to believe the parcels sent over the previous months had not reached Harry. The truth of Harry Carruther’s pitiful and degraded end was far darker and may only have been partially known to his family in the 1920s.
Harry Carruthers had been a pawn in a politically motivated decision when Germany had made calculated reprisals for the Allies employing German prisoners as labour near the front in 1916. A group of British POWS were moved hundreds of miles across Germany to an occupied area near the Russian Front in May 1916. In four retaliation camps, conditions were deliberately harsh and accommodation abysmal. There was little food, no food parcels, and the severe cold weather and long hours of exhausting work in an area close to the Russian front inevitably took its toll. Company Sergeant Major. A. Gibb of the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders bore witness to events as recorded in an official document WO 161/100/557 which remained closed for 90 years.
It was 1924 when Harry Carruthers and others who had died in terrible circumstances were finally given a dignified burial in a ceremony in Latvia.
For the families who had already suffered loss, there was the constant anxiety for the brothers, cousins, nephews and uncles still serving in the Great War. The Elgood family of 7 Briscoe Road, Collier’s Wood, would loose a third son Alfred in 1917, their remaining son, William, would survive the War.
Samuel “George” Burge had married in the year before the War and left a widow and baby child he had named after his brother Rueben. His widow Alice “Louie” (nee Sallis) had worked at Pain’s Firework Factory along with her sister Margaret before the war. Margaret was another widow with with a young child, her husband Charles Bone had been killed in 1914. Their brother Alfred Sallis had been in the Army since 1915. Drawn together, sisters Margaret and Louie shared a home in Fountain Road during the War, it’s likely that they still worked for Pain.
Nor were Mitcham’s influential families spared the grief and anxiety felt by ordinary families. The seemingly omni-present Robert Masters Chart, a surveyor by profession. held several public appointments: District Councillor, County Alderman and later the first Mayor of Mitcham. R.M.Chart, also a director of the amalgamated Wandsworth and Mitcham Gas Companies, had four sons who fought in the Great War. 1917 would bring personal lose to the Chart family and another son would be permanently invalided in 1918. In the Bidder and Devenish families, who were related by marriage, Major Harold Francis Bidder DSO was serving on the Western Front when his cousin Lieutenant George Weston Devenish RFA & RFC was killed in action at Le Catelet on 6 June 1917. shot down in aerial combat. His brother Lieutenant Henry Purcell Devenish would serve with the East Surrey Regiment in 1918.
William Simpson, Mitcham’s “Lord of the Manor” and once the owner of “The Canons”, had lost one son, William Herbert Mostyn Simpson, near the end of 1914, another, Philip Witham Simpson, served with the East Surrey Regiment, Northants and 9th Warwicks. George Farewell Jones, a solicitor, who was at one time President of the Mitcham Cricket Club, chaired the Mitcham Military Tribunal and later Mitcham Urban District Council. He had lost his son Major Lewis Farewell Jones on the first day of the Somme, another son was serving in the Royal Navy, and his daughter Miss Katharine Farewell Jones was a VAD nurse.
Many of Mitcham’s women served with the Red Cross during the War (see here for a list of British Red Cross Mitcham Residents in WW1) and the Holborn Military Hospital was in the heart of Mitcham.
The impact of the war on Mitcham’s commerce and business, and the hardship caused to individuals can be seen in the proceedings of the Mitcham Military Tribunal, chaired by George Farewell Jones. Official records were destroyed, but the selected proceedings reported in the local press show the difficulties faced by local tradesmen, shopkeepers and business owners large and small as key workers were called up and those with needy dependents, the ill and infirm, were left asking who would provide for them.
Men, and often their employers, appealed against conscription on the basis of conditions laid out in the Military Service Act of 1916 and its later extensions.
Mitcham’s varnish manufacturers made various appeals for managers, clerical staff and key individuals such colour grinders. Most were given short exemptions of three months. Varnish maker Joseph Latham, whose son Stanley had been killed in the Somme on 14/11/1916, appealed in March 1917 on behalf of his elder son, and factory foreman, William. It was a case that was not settled until it had reached the County Appeal Tribunal when William Herbert Latham was granted a rare total exemption.
Market Gardeners, who relied heavily on manual labour which had already been seriously depleted, featured in many appeals. In March 1917, Messrs. F. & G. Mizen appealed for one of their fit married labourers arguing that:
“Owing to the shortage of labour it would seriously handicap them at the present time, if the man were called to the army. It is in the national interest, that he should remain where he is.”
He was given three a month exemption.
In another newspaper report of March 1917 a “Mr. J. Patterson, fishmonger, of High Street, Tooting” applied for an exemption for the manager of his shop in the High Street, Colliers Wood where he was the sole worker. He was given a three month exemption. This may have been John Patterson’s own brother Charles, whose name appears on the St.Barnabas Church Memorial and Mitcham’s Civic Memorial.
Plumbers, builders, carters, bakers, all appear in the reported cases, as do employees at Palmer’s Singlegate Iron Works, Pains Firework Factory, Mitcham’s Margarine Factory, Mitcham’s Gas Works, Mitcham’s Gas mantle Factory and various Laundries. Many appeals were refused outright and the majority were given short temporary, or conditional, exemptions. Of the small number of cases heard that dealt with “conscientious objectors”, only four were reported to have been given total exemption, over half were refused outright and the remainder were to serve in the Non-Combatant Corps.
Despite the disruption to commerce and business, and the obvious cases of hardship for dependent and infirm relatives, the most men could realistically expect was a short postponement of the inevitable. The Army’s medical grading remained a bone of contention in large number of cases.
The situation worsened in 1917 when the Germans adopted the tactic of unrestricted submarine warfare. All ships supplying Britain were sunk, whether they were British, American or under the flag of any other country. Essential supplies began to run short and by April 1917 Britain was six weeks away from running out of wheat. Prices began to soar, shops often ran out of food and people quickly tired of queuing.
The Food Queue by C.R.W. Nevinson. Unrestricted U-boat warfare led to food shortages and long queues during 1917. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 840)
The government introduced a voluntary rationing scheme, led by the King and Queen, with the main aim of saving wheat by reducing bread consumption. For the better off, this was not too difficult, but it was not so easy if bread was one of your main foods. Sugar was officially controlled by September 1917.
The imperative to “grow your own” and turn “waste land” into allotments was never stronger. In December 1916, the Government had issued an order under the 1914 Defence of the realm Act ( “D.O.R.A”) which was the most socialist measure known in England. It had effectively given powers to Local Government bodies to take possession of idle land and have it cultivated for the benefit of the community. The extensive arrangements made between the Board of Agriculture and the Mitcham Urban District council appear in the minutes of 19th June, 1917 (Volume III 1917 to 1918, pages 51 to 53) and are transcribed here.
In Mitcham, the need for growing potatoes was seen as a means of easing the supply of one part of people’s staple diet. By the end of 1917 the situation had deteriorated to the point that plans were made for general food control and rationing was introduced early in 1918.
To add to all the dislocation of normal life, Mitcham’s residents faced a new a threat from the sky from May 1917. London and the South East was now within reach of Germany’s giant Gotha and other bombers. Mitcham had already been visited by the Zepplin menace on the night of 23rd-24th September 1916 when L31 flew over Croydon, Mitcham and Streatham as it moved south to north across London. Two HE and two incendiary bombs were dropped on Mitcham, the concussion damaged a few houses slightly, but mercifully no one was injured. Nearby Streatham was not so lucky. Forty-one bombs were dropped in rapid succession over Streatham, killing seven and wounding 27. Six were killed in a tramcar which was hit by the fragments of a 300kg HE bomb on Streatham Hill. A full account of the raids can be found here and here.
Air Raid Damage, Estreham Road, Streatham Vale, 1916
Large scale raids by Gotha IV bombers began on May 25 1917, with a second attack on 5 June. The first daylight raid on London, on June 13, killed 162 people, including 18 children in a primary school in Poplar, and injured 432. In this, the deadliest raid of the war, no Gothas were shot down.
Between May and August 1917, eight daylight raids were carried out over England, including three on London. For anyone living or working in London this was a serious threat. It is a little known fact that between May 1917 and May 1918 more than 300,000 people used the tube to shelter from German aeroplane attacks. That was double the number of people that were regularly sheltering in the tube during the height of the London Blitz in September 1940.
The Underworld: Taking cover in a Tube Station during a London air raid© IWM (Art.IWM ART 935)
Whatever hopes and fears Mitcham folk might have had when news of the Flanders offensive finally broke in 1917, for those who could afford the price of a ticket there was a chance to momentarily escape all thoughts of the war at the picture place.