Flanders 1917: L/45229 Driver A.F.V Malins, 23rd July

The six guns of 190th Brigade’s “A” Battery (A/190) were positioned near “Shelly Farm”, Oosthoek, when the men returned from rest on 21 July. Brigade HQ and the R.A.P (regimental aid post) were close by, the ammunition dumps were to the rear, and the wagon lines several miles to the east around Fletre.

The whole area was scarred by two years of fighting and the recent actions at Messines.  A blasted pockmarked landscape criss-crossed by trench works old and new, where any trees had long been reduced to splinter stumps and buildings large or small were just piles of rubble.  The roadways to the rear were supplemented by a recently created supply tramway loop running back to Voormezeele.

Driver Malins had come through the Somme and the recent Messines attack unscathed, now his battery would be in the thick of it again.  He had been with “Wimbledon’s Own” since the very beginning and those early recruit days must have seemed so innocent and far away after more than a year on the Western Front.

The appeal for men to join “Wimbledon’s Own” was little more than two weeks old when Arthur Francis Valentine Malins took the short walk from his family home at 128 Merton Road toward the recruitment offices close to the Broadway.

Regardless of Arthur Malins’ work and life experience, any mention of his father’s long service in the Hussars would have suggested here was a man who could work with horses.  It was late September 1915 when Arthur’s transformation from patriotic citizen into efficient soldier began.  Designated as a “driver”, his training to shoot a rifle, to ride and control a pair of horses in a six horse gun-team, and care for the animals in his charge would all be compressed at break-neck speed into a matter of months before “Wimbledon’s Own” had gone overseas in May 1916.

Perhaps the nineteen year old took it all in his stride, he had been born into an Army family when his father Frank Valentine Malins was serving in Ireland. Frank Malins had been in the 10 Royal Hussars for nearly a decade when he married Annie Sheahan in Limerick in March 1895.  Arthur was born the following year in July 1896. A second son, Edward Hugh, died in infancy in 1897.  By the turn of the century Walter Charles and Sybil Kathleen had been born, and Reginald the youngest in 1903.  It could only be Arthur that had any memory of seeing his father leave for the South African War in 1899.  Over the years Annie and the children had grown accustomed to leading a peripatetic life, following their father from one posting to the next. This wandering came to an end in 1911.  Squadron Sergeant Major Frank Valentine Malins finally retired from the Army on 30th December 1911 at the age of 43, as a decorated veteran of the South African war with an exemplary record, after 25 years service.

In March 1912 Frank Malins took the whole family to Canada sailing from Liverpool bound for Halifax, Novia Scotia.   The promise of a new life never materialised and by the outbreak of the Great War, the Malins family were living in Merton Road, it would remain their home for more than a decade.  It was Arthur’s father who was the first in the family to volunteer.  Frank Malins had sought to perform a useful function in the war and at the age of 46 was sent to France in early February 1915 to act as a quartermaster with the honorary rank of Lieutenant, and was later promoted to Captain.

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In 1917, Arthur’s younger brother “Wally”, Walter Charles Herbert Malins, had been conscripted at Kingston on 12 March, aged 18 years 3 months.  He had been working as a telephone operator.  Perhaps with his father’s influence, Walter Malins had joined the Cavalry.  It was Arthur’s mother Annie and his younger sister Sybil and brother Reg who were left in Wimbledon, hoping for their safe return and a prompt end to the war.

There are no records to say exactly where Arthur Malins was in the 48 hours between 21-23 July 1917.  On the 23rd, Arthur was part of a carrying party working near the dumps, moving back and forth between “A” Battery itself.  When he was hit, assistance was near enough for Arthur to be moved down the casualty chain, a difficult and potentially agonising journey for any casualty.  Arthur succumbed to his wounds that day and was buried close to where the 41st Division Field Ambulances were based near Vierstraat.   When the 190th Brigade’s casualty figures were returned for July,  Arthur Malins had the tragic distinction of being the only fatality in the week before zero hour on 31st July.

Notice of his death was published in the Wimbledon Boro’ News on the third anniversary of the war, 4th August 1917.  Arthur Malins had never returned home since leaving for France in May 1916, as his section Lieutenant wrote:

“I was purely a stroke of bad luck … It was all the more a pity as he was to have gone on leave shortly.”

At the end of the war when the KLEIN-VIERSTRAAT BRITISH CEMETERY we know today was created, Arthur’s family requested these words to be inscribed on Arthur’s headstone:

SLEEP ON BELOVED SON AND BROTHER THOU GAVEST ALL

Arthur Malins was one of the 237 names added to the war memorial erected in Holy Trinity Church, Wimbledon Broadway in 1924 which marked the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War.

Footnote1:  Cutting from  Wimbledon Boro’ News Saturday 4th August 1917

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Footnote2:  Arthur Malins was a distant relative of file maker Geoffrey Malins who worked with John McDowell to create  the cinema sensation “The Battle of the Somme”.  The huge success of the film led to the release of  “The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks” early in 1917.

Flanders 1917: “Wimbledon’s Own” 190th Brigade RFA

Writing after the war Lieut. T. B. Stoakley, late RFA, described the raising of the 190th Brigade as:

Possibly one of Wimbledon’s proudest achievements during the War … one does not know which to admire most – the courage and confidence of the civic heads of Wimbledon in undertaking the task of recruiting over 700 men for the Brigade from this one district, or the patriotism of the men themselves who came forward so readily that within a month the Brigade was at full strength. It was without doubt a wonderful achievement, and one of which Wimbledon is tremendously proud.”

After approval from the War Office was finalised in the last weeks of August 1915, Wimbledon’s Mayor, Alderman William Barry, was able to announce the formation of Wimbledon’s own artillery Brigade and appealed for volunteers.  In anticipation of the hoped for surge of local recruits, arrangements were made to accept men via the assembly hall adjacent to the New Wimbledon Theatre in addition to the Town Hall office that was to begin recruitment on the 6 September 1915.

To find sufficient men for four batteries of artillery and an ammunition column at this stage of the war was an ambitious undertaking which faced competition from near neighbours.  Kingston was the home of the East Surrey Regiment and a major recruitment centre, while next door the Borough of Wandsworth’s drive to create a battalion of infantry, (13th (Wandsworth) Bn, East Surrey Regt.)  was still active.  Wimbledon’s 190th Brigade would be the very last voluntary unit to be raised in 1915 for what everyone knew as “Lord Kitchener’s Army”.

An HQ was quickly established at the Corporation Depot in Queens Road, Major C. E Stewart was appointed to command the Brigade and a nucleus of officers and NCOs were sent to Wimbledon from the War Office.

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Church (?) Parade – St.Mark’s Place Wimbledon 1915

Who were those early recruits, the volunteers of 1915? A full record no longer exists, but a partial picture can be formed from the small proportion of documents which have survived.

When the recruiting office open on Monday 6th September, among the first volunteers were a 24 year old warehouseman, William Kingston Baker, from Deburgh Road, Wimbledon and two brothers from Goodenough Road, Wimbledon, Bert Reeve a twenty four chief steward and Henry Reeve the nineteen year old chauffeur of Lady Anderson.  Some were eager to volunteer at the earliest opportunity, not waiting for the official start of recruitment.  A nineteen year old fishmonger, Horace Spencer from Croft Road, South Wimbledon, was recorded as attesting on 1st September.  A 41 year old railway worker, Henry Sivyer from Nursery Road Merton, married with two children, is recorded as attesting on 3rd September.  At the upper age limit, Henry Sivyer had previously served in the Rifle Brigade.

All were allocated to “A” Battery, either as gunners or drivers, and given Army service numbers prefixed with “L” for local: L/45047 – William Kingston Baker, L/45048 – Henry Bayford George Reeve, L/45049 – Bert Reeve, L/45083 – Horace Spencer, L/45090 – Henry Sivyer.

On the Friday of the same week, Charles Mount, a 19 year old blacksmith’s mate from Church Road, Mitcham, attested at Wimbledon on 10th September 1915.  On the following Monday, Henry William Woodhouse a 29 year old beer retailer from Hoyle Rd, Tooting, a married man with three children, attested at Wimbledon on 13th September 1915.  Henry Woodhouse could offer previous military experience having spent 11 months in the Middlesex Regt. and over three years in the RAMC as a younger man.  They became: L/45062 – Charles A Mount and L/45140 – Henry William Woodhouse.

Recruitment continued at a brisk pace, exceeding the most optimistic predictions. Toward the end of September volunteers were being assigned to “C” Battery. L/45300, Albert Henry Bentley, from Norfolk Road, Colliers Wood, was a 23 year old electro-gilder. L/45318, Ernest Richard Holman, a 24 year old sawmill labourer, who lived at 17 Nursery Road, Merton, attested on 27th sept. 1915.

Posters, leaflets, meetings and rallies were all used during the recruitment campaign. This 2nd October weekend rally combined with a march accompanied by bands was typical.

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By early October, “Wimbledon’s Own” were finding men for their “D” battery, while by the end of the month other recruits were being assigned to the Brigade’s Ammunition Column.  Among October’s volunteers were:

L/46216, Albert Reid, a 19 year old clerk whose family home was 21 Caxton Road, Wimbledon, who attested on 4 Oct 1915.

L/46235, Joseph Henry Mance, a 38 year old bricklayer from 23 Bath road Mitcham. who attested on 4th Oct at Wimbledon, had a medical on the same day and was approved on 11th Oct.  Joseph Mance was married with seven children.

L/46277, Frederick William Unwin attested on 6th Oct 1915 at Wimbledon.  He was a 19 year old gardener, whose family home was Rose Hill Cottage, Sutton road, Mitcham. (Sutton Road, Mitcham is now Bishopsford Road).

L/46308, Ralph Vernon Huntingford, a 19 year old whose family home was at 7 Vine Cottages Church Road Mitcham.  He had been a “Market Growers Boy” at the age of 14 for the Mizen Bros before working as a lad for the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway since 1914.  First at Mitcham Station, then transferring to Merton Abbey Station in 1915.

As the Brigade was close to reaching its full establishment, adverts appeared in the Surrey press to encourage a final group of volunteers.

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Ad placed in Surrey Press 16th & 23rd Oct 1915

Among those who responded were:

L/ 47139, Thomas(Tomas) Hillier, a 23 year old labourer, from Kings Road Mitcham, who attested on 20 Oct 1915.

L/47167, Arthur Arnold, a 24 years old, attested on 21 Oct 1915, from Hawkes Road Kingston.  He enlisted at Wimbledon but was at examined Kingston (see newspaper ads ).  He worked as a slater & tiler.  He was posted to the Divisional Ammunition Column.

L/47216 William George Cobbett, a 20 year old hairdresser from Earlsfield road, Earlsfield, attested on 25th October and was posted to “D” Battery as a driver

In the early days training and drill had taken place on Wimbledon common, but by the end of November “Wimbledon’s Own” had moved to Waterloo Barracks, Aldershot.  They trained at Long Valley, later firing at the Larkhill Ranges on Salisbury Plain.

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After a review by H.M. the King on Laffan’s Plain, Farnborough , orders to go overseas reached them at the end of April 1916 .  The Brigade entrained at Aldershot for Southampton on Thursday 6th May 1916, embarking on-board the transport “Anglo-Canadian”, an adapted nitrate boat in the South American trade, for Havre.

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“C” Battery – Wimbledon’s Own, courtesy of M.Wake

Two of the early recruits never reached France. L/46277 Frederick William Unwin was found to be underage, he was just 15 years 6 months old and was discharged from the ammunition column on 29 April 1916 .  So too was the young fishmonger Horace Spencer, who had been eager to volunteer the previous September.  He was just 16 years old and was discharged underage on 7 April 1916.  Horace Spencer is thought to have served in the RAMC in the final years of the War (See Surrey Recruitment Register record below).  Frederick William Unwin joined the Navy on his eighteenth birthday on 17th October 1918 for 5 years, joining the Royal Fleet Reserve in 1923.

L/45049 Bert Reeve, who had been promoted first corporal and then Sergeant by the beginning of 1916, was transferred to an “Anti-Aircraft” unit before going to France. Other men would be transferred between batteries within and outside the 190th Brigade in the first few months.  L/47167 Arthur Arnold was sent to the Divisional Ammunition Column soon after arriving in France.

The Brigade’s first real action was on the Somme during September and October 1916 in the Flers area.

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L/45140, Henry William Woodhouse, from Tooting, was wounded for the first time on 11th September and spent 98 days recovering in the UK.  L/45318, Ernest Richard Holman was wounded in the right foot on 13th September, the healing process was long and slow, he spent 261 days hospitalised in the UK.  Before Ernest Holman had returned to France in early June 1917, transferring to the RGA, he had suffered the tragic loss of his wife Daisy in March and his 5 year old son George in April.  Both had succumbed to Pulmonary Tuberculosis.

In October 1916, the two Mitcham men, L/45300 Albert Henry Bentley of “C” battery and L/46308 Ralph Vernon Huntingford of “A” battery lost their lives within a twenty-hour period on the 26th and 27th of October.  Both men are commemorated on the giant Thiepval Memorial and on memorials in Mitcham.

Re-organisation in November 1916 meant some of the men from the “Hampsted Howitzer” Brigade joined “Wimbledon’s Own”.  Other losses, transfers and replacements gradually brought men from across the UK into the 190th Brigade.  L/46235 Joseph Henry Mance transferred to the Royal Engineers on February 1917 to work on road construction.  L/46216 Albert Reid transferred to the Divisional Signal Company in June 1917, he would be awarded the DCM in 1918 [footnote:2].  L/45047 William Kingston Baker was transferred to the Divisional Ammunition Column in July 1917 and L/45090 Henry Sivyer would be posted to the UK in August 1917.

When the 190 Brigade returned to their guns on the 21st July, Henry Bayford George Reeve, Charles A Mount, Henry Sivyer, Tomas Hillier and William George Cobbett were among the remaining early recruits within the core of the original “Wimbledon’s Own”.  As were two others from Wimbledon: L/45229 Driver Arthur Malins of “A” Bty and 1230 Cpl. Harry Skeate of “A” Bty.

The positions and actions of the 190th Brigade in the days before zero hour are summarised in the pages of its war diary, together with the orders and maps circulated within the 41st Division. The 190th Brigade were placed in the “OOSTHOEK” group and appeared to have remained at the co-ordinates specified on 21st July.

While “B” battery remained silent, the others fired day and night, while maintaining their dumps of artillery shells.  Retaliation was in the form of gas shells at night and day-time shelling.  This reached a peak in the back areas on the eve of zero hour itself …

 

Footnote 1:  This entry in the Surrey Recruitment Register  appears to match the description of the conscription of Horace Spencer who had been discharged underage in April 1916:

First name(s) H
Last name Spencer
Service number 46649
Age 18 Years 10 Months
Birth year 1899
Occupation Assistant
Attestation year 1917
Attestation date 23 February 1917
Attestation place Wimbledon
Unit or regiment Royal Army Medical Corps
Regiment Royal Army Medical Corps
Height 5ft 2in.
Weight in pounds 112
Chest expansion inches 2
Chest size inches 32
Remarks 59 Palmerston Road Wimbledon

Footnote2:  Albert Reid’s DCM citation

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Flanders 1917: The Artillery Duel Begins

The guns in the Ypres Salient may have never been silent in the last two years, but the opening of the bombardment on the 16th July 1917 brought a new and terrifying crescendo of fire upon the enemy’s positions.  Thousands of guns had been packed into the salient, the combined total of the field artillery’s 18-pdr and 4.5-inch howitzers, plus the medium and heavy guns, numbered a little over 3,000.  Twice that used in the Somme bombardment.  A colossal 4,000,000 shells would be fired in the period between 15th July and 2nd August.  There could be no doubt a ground assault was coming, it was just a case of when.  Newspapers were quick to report the start of a “Great Artillery Duel” in Flanders.

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These first salvos were the culmination of weeks of meticulous planning and exhausting work: building up the rail and roads needed for transportation; creating the dumps of ammunition and water; providing for the horses and wagon lines; digging and reinforcing dug-outs for the men and making pits and platforms for the guns emplacements.  All this was done in the most difficult conditions.  The overwhelming weight of firepower enjoyed by the Germans in 1915, when the men of B.EF. had resisted their onslaught to its great cost, was now more in our favour.  But the advantage of the German positions remained.  Everywhere the build-up and movements of Allied forces were overlooked and observed, Haig himself would write:

On no previous occasion had the whole ground from which we had to attack been so completely exposed to the enemy’s observation.”

It was during the shortened hours of the summer nights that activity was at its greatest, when our troops and working parties came up to front areas before making the long trek back to the relative safety of the rear as dawn broke.

Further newspaper reports reflected the vital importance of dominating the skies above the Ypres Salient:

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In the Fifth Army, field batteries had concentrated about Zillebeke and Verbrandenmolen.  Others were in the Pitijze-St.Jean area and east of Ypres.  Further north, most were to the west of the Yser Canal.

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Segeant J.C. Allnatt, a driver in the Tank Corps, described the scene on one of his forward trips on foot to reconnoitre the route to the enemy positions:

The British were massing the greatest concentration of artillery ever crowded into so small a spot and the guns were literally wheel to wheel.  Everybody seemed to know when the actual assault was to take place.  It is quite certain that the Germans knew it too.  It seemed that every available inch was occupied by horses, troops or vehicles and we threaded our way through them under the most depressing and difficult conditions.”

He added:

We, like all other troops, were bombed most nights and shelled in the day time.  So great was the concentration on our side, that wherever a shell burst, it was bound to do damage.”

Some 1,500 German guns were ranged against their opponents, able to fire concentrically into the Salient.  Despite the over-optimistic reports of the results of our own counter-battery fire, German artillery was able to inflict great damage.  Those on the Gheluvelt plain were particularly effective.  One group of Australian gunners arriving from the Somme just after the 16th July were allocated to gun-pits in the Zillebeke area.  The impact of enemy fire on the 1st Australian Division’s batteries was described by a British artillery officer at the time:

“We were next to the Anzacs, splendid fellows. I remember looking back-we knew where they were, of course, south of Zillebeke Lake, and we were just north-and seeing the Boche fairly pounding it in there; and all the time the Anzac guns kept on firing away, and we wondered how they could do it-how on earth they weren’t blown to blazes. Right in the thick of it you would see them firing every time. Then we moved up and we came alongside some of them again further up, and I was telling one of them what we saw and how splendid we thought it was; and he said: “Do you know, we were looking across at you chaps north of the lake and thinking just the same thing about them!””

But this fire was only maintained at the cost of rising casualties.  The official casualty figures for the Fifth Army during the three weeks 6th-13th, 13th-20th, 20th-27th were 2,275, 5,930,  and 7,354, respectively.

German artillery fire at Ypres thrashed the roads, bivouac camps, and battery positions for miles back.  Extensive use of a new “mustard gas” (Yellow Cross) was made by the enemy.  Not a true gas, but a vapour mist of oily droplets when dispersed which penetrated clothing and clung to surfaces forming a persistent contaminant. Exposure produced painful inflammation of the eyes and vomiting, followed by reddening of the skin and blistering.  In the worst cases victims developed grave or fatal broncho-pneumonia.  Blindness brought on by severe conjunctivitis was, in the most cases, mercifully temporary, but psychologically damaging (On the night of the 12th/13th the town of Ypres was deluged with the new gas, causing 2,014 casualties mostly in the 15th Division, the majority had recovered within seven days).

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Mustard Gas Casualties

Part of the British bombardment included gas shells, while the Royal Engineer’s Special Brigades made use of their Liven’s Projectors and gas filled mortar rounds. Mitcham born Walter Gray, who served in no.2 coy, 5th Bn. of the Royal Engineers Special Brigade, had been at Messines and was now at Ypres.

So far the weather had been mostly dry, but the years of constant shelling had already blocked or diverted streams and damaged the natural drainage of the low lying wet-land in the Ypres Salient.  The intense bombardment was about to totally destroy the drainage system, with every shell-hole filling with water, even before any rain fell.

Of special interest to the residents of Wimbledon, Merton and Mitcham were the fortunes of the 190th Brigade, Royal Field artillery – “Wimbledon’s Own”.  They had been part of the 41st Division since first going to France in May 1916.  As part of the Second Army, the 41st Division had remained in the area they had occupied after Messine, deployed to the south west of Ypres on the boundary with the Fifth Army in the vicinity of the Ypres-Comines Canal.

 

As a consequence of the system of rotations and relief the 190th Brigade had been at rest on 16th July, not returning to their guns until the 21st July.

 

Coming Next ….  The 190th Brigade, RFA – “Wimbledon’s Own”.

 

Flanders 1917: Haig’s Earthquake Blow – Success at Messines

Haig had planned to clear the enemy from the Messine-Wyrschaete Ridge before the main offensive could begin at Ypres.  The Battle of Messines, which took place between 7th and 14th June 1917, was one of the genuine successes of the Great War. Naturally, newspaper headlines heralded this a great victory as early as 9th June, for once with some justification.

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The news would dominate the papers throughout the country for many days.

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The Royal Flying Corps had fought to dominate the skies over the battlefield preventing German aircraft observing our artillery while providing much needed direction of our own counter-battery fire and general reconnaissance.  There had been extensive mining in this sector over the previous two years with many long and deep tunnels dug by British, Canadian and Australian tunnelling companies.  As the final artillery barrage was briefly silent in the minutes before the infantry assault at zero hour, 3.10 a.m. on 7 June 1917, nineteen huge mines at Messines were fired within the space of 20 seconds, shattering the German lines.  The sound of the blast was considered to be the loudest man-made noise in history.

Suddenly at dawn, as a signal for all of our guns to open fire, there rose out of the dark ridge of Messines and “Whitesheet” and that ill-famed Hill 60, enormous volumes of scarlet flame […] throwing up high towers of earth and smoke all lighted by the flame, spilling over into fountains of fierce colour, so that many of our soldiers waiting for the assault were thrown to the ground. The German troops were stunned, dazed and horror-stricken if they were not killed outright. Many of them lay dead in the great craters opened by the mines.”  — Sir Philip Gibbs

The assaulting infantry had still to deal with fortified strong-points, the “pillboxes”, and machine-gun nests.  For many it would be their first terrifying experience of going over the top. The 41st Division’s attack was at the northern extreme, and in its 123rd Brigade were the 11th Battalion, Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) and the 2nd Football Battalion, 23rd Middlesex.  They were to assault a sunken and fortified road called the “Damm Strasse” an objective on the blue line (see square 9 on trench map).

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For 2782, Pte. Charles Henry Coles, 23rd  Middlesex., from Mitcham, this was a baptism of fire, he had first arrived in France at the end of 1916.  Another who had gone to France around the same time was G/10081, Pte. Victor Edgar Fagence, 11th Queens, from Pyford, Surrey.  Victor Fagence was interviewed by the Imperial war Museum in 1974, the audio tapes of his recollections of operations in front of the Messines Ridge, and later at 3rd Ypres, extend over several reels and can be heard here

By the end of the Battle the 41st Division were in the St.Eloi sector and close to the Ypres-Comines Canal.  It would be their starting point in the Third Battle of Ypres.

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Three Mitcham men lost their lives during the Battle of Messine:

76744, Pte. Walter Hampton Siviour, RAMC 33rd Field Ambulance, was killed in action on 8th June 1917.

21925, Pte. Henry Walter Carter, 8th Queens (Royal West Surrey), died of wounds at No.10 Casualty Clearing Station, Remy Sidings, on 14th June 1917.

225098, Pte. Charles William Henry Dillistone, 1st London (Royal Fusiliers) attached to 12th Royal Fusiliers, was killed in action on 14th June 1917.

Mitcham born Walter Siviour is one of those men who do not appear in the Surrey Recruitment Registers as he volunteered in Central London on 1st November 1915.  The 28 year old grocer’s assistant had lived at 6, Church Rd., Mitcham.  Walter married Ellen Quinby in the Summer of 1914, daughter Rose was born in Oct. 1914 and Gwendoline in the spring of 1916.  Walter was not posted to France until 14th November 1916 where he joined the 33rd Field Ambulance.  On the 8th June the 33rd FA was attached to the 11th Division and its stretcher bearers were used between the various regimental aid posts (RAP) and both advanced and main dressing stations (ADS,MDS) operated by the 33rd, 34th and 35th Field Ambulances in the Wytschaete area.

There is no documentary evidence to show where or how Walter Siviour died, and with no known grave his name was added to the Menin Gate Memorial.  Walter Siviour‘s name appears on the St.Mark’s Chuch Memorial and the main Civic Memorial.

Henry Carter was another recruit from Church Road, Mitcham.  Born in Rotherhithe, his family had moved to Mitcham by 1910.  One of seven siblings, Henry was apprenticed in the print trade.  He had volunteered under the Derby Scheme on 27th January 1916 when he was nominally assigned to the 10th Bn. East Surrey before being posted to the 8th Queens.  At the time of the Messine battle, Henry Carter’s battalion were in the Zillebeke area manning part of the “Observatory Ridge” complex.  They had just moved up at night on 13th June from the “Railway Dug Outs” south-east of Zillebeke when they were heavily shelled and machine gunned when overflown by an enemy aeroplane.  The Queens suffered 12 killed and 29 wounded in the space of three days.

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If this is when Henry Carter had been hit, he had passed down the casualty evacuation chain to the final leg by ambulance train to Remi Sidings where the 10th Casualty Clearing Station was based.  Henry would have been buried under a wooden marker shortly after he succumbed to his wounds on the 14th June 1917.

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When the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery we know today was created, Henry’s mother Annie requested this inscription for her son’s headstone:

“WEEP NOT FOR MY LOVED ONES DEAR I AM NOT DEAD BUT SLEEPING HERE”

Charles Dillistone had come to Mitcham some time between 1905 and 1911 when his family home was at 2 Dorset Villas, a property in Devonshire Road, Colliers Wood. Charles was born and baptised in Stockwell, as were four other of his 5 siblings. The family had lived on the Clapham Road, a busy thoroughfare that runs from Clapham North to Kennington through the centre of Stockwell.  Charles Dillistone attested under the Derby Scheme in late 1915 or early 1916 and was “called-up” on 8th May 1916 when he was still eighteen.  He was working as a “Cinema Operator”, a job possibly suggested and found by his father John Crick Dillistone who worked as a “Publicity Manager for a Film Maker”.  Charles did not go to France until 25th April 1917 where he was shuffled between the East Surreys and the 12th Bn. Royal Fusiliers by 12th May 1917.  Charles had no combat experience prior to the battle of Messine.  On the 7th and 8th June they too were in action at the “Dammstrasse”, until relieved on the night of the 10th.  On the 14th June 1917, the 12th Bn Royal Fusiliers and 8th Buffs were given the task of taking a series of dug-outs north of the railway at “Battle Wood”.  Starting from “Impartial Trench”, the attack took place at 7.30pm.   The leading company came under fierce machine gun fire, a brutal and violent struggle followed with hand to hand fighting.  There were heavy casualties on both sides (A full account can be read here )

Charles Dillistone was posted missing after this action and it would be many months before he was officially presumed to have died on the 14th June 1917.  With no known grave, his name was added to the Menin Gate Memorial.  His name appears on both the Christ Church Roll of Honour and the main Civic Memorial.

The Dillistone family mourned one son, while fearing for another. Charles’ older brother Cecil Douglas Dillistone had been in the 6th Londons since 1915, they fought on the Somme in 1916 and at Ypres in 1917.  Cecil Dillistone was wounded early in 1918 to the extent that he was discharged on 25th April 1918.  Cecil lived a full life after the war, marrying and raising a family in Sutton where he lived for many years.  He passed away in 1965, aged 69.

There was no attempt to rapidly exploit the success at Messine, the detailed and complex preparations for the main offensive remained on course for the 25th July, a little over four weeks away, as the concentration of troops continued.

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The Fifth Army was at the centre of the Ypres Salient with the Second Army to its south and the French and Belgian forces on its northern flank.

The offensive was to be preceded by an intense ten day bombardment, on a scale that dwarfed that of the Somme in 1916. By the 7th July the infantry assault was postponed three days due to delays in the French First Army.  Bad weather delayed the start of the air offensive over the Ypres salient until 11th July.  The enemy’s opposition only declined toward the end of the month after a bitter struggle for air supremacy.  All the while, weather permitting, British aircraft maintained their artillery spotting, air photography, reconnaissance and bombing.

The sound of the thousands of guns packed into the area was about to become a deafening and lethal roar …

 

 

 

Flanders 1917: Why here? Why now? – Events leading to the Third Battle of Ypres

The origins of the summer offensive in Flanders lay in the Allied Conference at Chantilly on 15th November 1916.  The 1917 plan agreed in discussion between Sir General Haig and General Joffre was for a spring offensive by the British in the Somme sector timed to coincide with a French attack in the Asine sector.  After which the main effort would transfer to Flanders with operations being conducted mainly by the British.  These “wearing down” battles would consume German Army reserves at such a rate a break-through was envisaged that would bring a victorious end to the war in 1917.  The War Committee of the British Cabinet was insistent that the plan should include the “expulsion of the enemy from the Belgium Coast” and end their occupation of Ostend and Zeebrugge.  By the time Joffre had agreed on 8th December, Lloyd George had been Prime Minister for two days, having replaced Herbert Asquith on 6th December 1916.

Influential political groups in France, impatient for change and dissatisfied at the prospect of yet another year of costly attritional fighting, began to promote an alternative plan proposed by the French Army Commander, Robert Georges Nivelle, a rising star who had considerable success in the final stages of the Verdun Battle in October and November 1916.

Whatever scepticism Haig had seems to have been dispelled by the persuasive Nivelle, a fluent speaker of English.  With the agreement of the War Committee of the British Cabinet, the tactics of attrition were to be replaced and a new bolder and aggressive plan emerged within a matter of weeks.  The British were to attack at Arras, to capture high ground and divert German reserves, while the French would launch the main offensive on the Chemin des Dames ridge.  The Nivelle Offensive had been born.

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Nivelle believed he had found the solution to the deadlock of trench war with his method of co-ordinating infantry and artillery.  “Victory was certain” was his promise, and his seductive plan was to deliver a decisive break-through within 48 hours.  Such was the wave of optimism, that a “Comité de Guerre” called for the removal of the tired figure of General Joffre, and Nivelle replaced him as the new French C-in-C by the end of 1916.

The battle of Arras took place between 9th April and 16th May 1917.  With the combined efforts of the RFC, artillery, infantry and the use of tanks good progress was made in the first few days.  Vimy Ridge was successfully captured principally by the Canadian Corps on 10th April 1917.

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But the offensive soon turned into another bitter attritional struggle of attacker versus defender.  Some thirty Mitcham men lost their lives at Arras.

Nivelle’s main Offensive was launched on 16th April but it would be halted within a matter of days.  The French troops had been near to euphoric going into battle, such was the confidence and certainty of victory.  In truth, the German Army had already seriously undermined Nivelle’s Plan by its withdrawal to the formidable defences of the Hindenburg Line in the preceding weeks.  Despite warnings of the changed situation and the lax attitude to secrecy, the attack was launched as planned, but it rapidly turned into disaster.  Even the 128 Schneider CA 1 tanks made little difference, and over half were knocked out.  Estimates of French losses vary, the figures from a 1919 study are:

“French casualties from 16–25 April as 118,000 of whom 28,000 were killed, 5,000 died of wounds, 80,000 were wounded, 20,000 of whom were fit to return to their units by 30 April and 5,000 were taken prisoner.”

British Liaision Officer, Major Edward Spears witnessed the columns of wounded “covered in mud and blood” streaming back from the front.  Rain was turning to sleet and snow as Major Spears recalled the look of dejection on the faces of the groups of huddled poilus sheltering from the weather. (Edward Spears was interviewed for the seminal BBC series first broadcast in 1964, the interview is now available in  audio format here.)

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Ewdard Spears – Interviewed for 1964 BBC Great War programme

Nivelle was an anxious and distracted figure as he studied the reports at GHQ. The spell of victory he had cast in recent months was broken.  As the mood and morale of French troops turned sour, widespread indiscipline broke out. Mutinies would ripple through the French Army in the coming months.  French troops were prepared to occupy the front line, even defend it, but they refused to carry out any more suicidal attacks.

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Philippe Pétain at the time of the Great War.

Nivelle’s successor was  General Henri Philippe Pétain who worked tirelessly to restore the morale of the French Army, visiting ninety Divisions in around thirty days, talking endlessly to the poilus, their NCOs and officers about their grievances.  Slowly Pétain was able to restore morale with the promise of regular leave, better food and water, and no more mass frontal assaults.  Pétain would say he was “waiting for the Americans and tanks”.

The French Government made every effort to conceal the facts, and the British seemed unaware of developments in the series for Military Conferences that took place in the first week of May.  Lloyd George had told the Inter-Allied Conference on 4th-5th May that “the enemy must not be left in peace for one moment”, and “we must go on hitting it with all our strength until the Germans ended, as they always do, by cracking”.

Haig needed to modify his plans after the dire results of the Nivelle Offensive which would be conducted in two phases:

  1. the attack on the Messine-Wyrschaete Ridge, about 7th June.
  2. “Northern Operation”, to secure the Belgian Coast, some weeks later

Haig met with Pétain at Amiens on the 18th May, handing him a sketch map of the Flanders Plan.  Pétain proposed six French Division would co-operate with six Belgian Divisions on the front north of Bixschoote.  Haig telegraphed the War Cabinet to inform them of the promised French support.  In the event, the French First Army moved to Flanders on the British left and were placed at Haig’s disposal.

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Haig had planned to drive the Germans from the dominant ridges to the south and east of Ypres, drive toward the railway junction at Roulers and close the German-controlled railway running through Roulers and Thourout.  Operations on the Belgium coast would wrestle Ostend and Zeebrugge from enemy hands, destroying German submarine bases in a drive toward the Dutch border.  Haig mistakenly believed that the German army was on the verge of collapse, and would be broken completely by a major Allied victory.  The opportunity to fulfil the long cherished hope to break out of the Ypres Salient had turned into nothing less than a bid for outright victory in 1917.

When Haig outlined his Flanders plans at Cabinet Committee in London on the 18th, 21st and 22nd of June, Lloyd George responded that he had no idea the intention was for the British to fight and decisively defeat the German Army single handed on the Western Front.  As Haig argued his case for the Flanders plan he said he had no intention of entering into a tremendous offensive involving heavy losses, but to proceed step by step, and not push attacks without a reasonable chance of success.

Admiral Jellicoe remarks about the necessity to clear the Germans out of Zeebrugge if we were to continue the war, persuaded some in the Cabinet to Haig’s viewpoint.  The Prime Minister and two others believed it to be a mistaken and potentially costly project.  Yet they hesitated to overrule Haig.  But the doubts remained …

 

Mitcham 1917: The impact of total war on the home front.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Centenary of Passchendaele – The Third Battle of Ypres, 1917.

This new blog series marks the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres which took place between July and November 1917, when British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African and French forces fought to control the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders.  The battle is commonly referred to by a singe word – “Passchendaele” – the name of the village which lay on a ridge east of Ypres (Ieper).

The Battle opened with an intense artillery bombardment on 16th July and in the following days some 3,000 guns fired a staggering total of over 4 million shells along a 15 mile front in the Ypres Salient.

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Official History of the Great War, France and Belgium 1917. Voll II p 138.

The actual infantry assault followed at zero hour, 03.50 on 31st July. The first few days of the offensive are known as the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, 31st July to 2nd August 1917, when ground on and around the Pilckem Ridge was captured.  But the weather had broken, and the battle would be conducted in some of the worst conditions of the Great War.

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IWM Q5935 – Stretcher bearers struggle in mud  near Boesinghe on 1 August

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Australian War Memorial E01220 – Duckboard track passing through Chateau Wood, Oct. 1917

The official history of the third Battle of Ypres divides the Flanders offensive into several distinct phases:

  • the Battle of Pilkem, 31 July – 2 August 1917
  • the capture of Westhoek, 10 August 1917
  • the Battle of Langemarck, 16 – 18 August 1917
  • the Battle of the Menin Road, 20 – 25 September 1917
  • the Battle of Polygon Wood, 26 September – 3 October 1917
  • the Battle of Broodseinde, 4 October 1917
  • the Battle of Poelcapelle, 9 October 1917
  • the First Battle of Passchendaele, 12 October 1917
  • the Second Battle of Passchendaele, 26 October – 10 November 1917

After many attempts, including what was the worst day in New Zealand history on 12th October, the ground around Passchendaele was finally taken on 10th November 1917 by the Canadian Corps.

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IWM Q42918A  – Before & After Aerial view of Passchendaele Village

The capture of Passchendaele and the ridge effectively ended the Third Battle of Ypres.

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Frank Hurley – National Library of Australia

In the coming days and weeks, the story of some those who lost their lives in the Battle of Passchendaele will be re-told as an act of remembrance.  Their lives, and the part they played in the Third Battle of Ypres, will be placed into context, with aid of contemporary documents, maps, photographs and personal accounts.

They are the stories of infantrymen, gunners and the new breed of “Tankies”.  They were men who were born, lived and worked in Mitcham, Wimbledon and Merton. Some were early volunteers and others recent conscripts.  The names of some appear among Merton’s many War Memorials, others have been long forgotten.

Coming Next  …   Mitcham 1917: The impact of total war and life on the home front

Memorial unveiled this day in 1920

On this day in 1920, the Mitcham War Memorial was officially unveiled.  Notice of the ceremony appeared in the local press on Friday 12th November 1920.

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published in the Mitcham and Tooting Mercury on 12th November 1920

In events that echo the transformation of the temporary Cenotaph in Central London into the familiar permanent structure, Mitcham’s Civic Memorial had evolved from a temporary memorial placed on the Lower Green for Peace Day, 19th July 1919.

This temporary memorial was an alternative to the nameless memorial that had already been erected in the Parish Church churchyard and had been heavily criticised for its “out of the way” location.  The temporary memorial on the Lower Green had quickly become the focus of Mitcham’s collective commemoration as was noted by H.F. Bidder in his letter to the Finance and General Purposes Committee WAR MEMORIAL, dated 22 July, 1919:

“I suggest that the fact that so many people have now brought offerings of flowers to this particular spot in memory of those they have lost has already given it a specially sacred character which we would wish to preserve.”


Major Harold Francis Bidder DSO had served with distinction in the Great War, having commanded the 2nd Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment in 1915 and later a battalion of the Machine Gun Corps.  He published a memoir in 1919, “Three Cheverons By OREX”, dedicated to the young men who had fallen in the war.  The Bidder family were well known in Mitcham, they had been the owners of Ravensbury Park which had become the Catherine Gladstone Convalescent Home, used as a military hospital during the war, and were closely associated with the conservation of Mitcham Common.  His own cousin Lt. George Weston Devenish was one of the fallen.

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The Bidder Memorial, Mitcham Common, Erected 1896


Major Bidder had proposed:


1. To place a permanent memorial to the fallen on the spot now occupied by the temporary memorial.
2. That this memorial should consist of a simple slab of stone occupying the position of the present structure, with a suitable, inscription.
3. That the flagpole be left up, and a Union Jack kept constantly flying on it to typify the flag of Empire which the dead gave their lives to uphold.
4. That oak posts and chains replace the present posts and ropes, and that the turf inside the square be made good and slightly raised.”

Adding:

“I should be glad to make myself responsible for collecting the necessary funds, which would not be large.
Yours faithfully,
H. F. Bidder.”

The committee, while approving the suggestion: “Resolved That Major Bidder be referred to the Mitcham Common Conservators, from whom consent to his proposals must be obtained.”.  It should be noted that a committee to raise funds had been already been established in February 1919.

Efforts to canvass for the names of Mitcham’s fallen had already started by May 1919:

23rd May 1919 Call for Names

“The War Memorial Committee are desirous of obtaining the names of all Mitchamites who lost their lives in the war, in order that they may be inscribed on the memorial. For this purpose, notices are being distributed among the residents, asking for all the particulars to be filled in on the attached form.  It is necessary to state the full name of the deceased, with address, rank, name of unit, date of death, and place.  The signature and address of the person supplying the information is also to be added, and the completed form is to be sent to the Hon. Secretary, Mr. Stephen Chart, at the Vestry Hall.”

The decision to build the permanent memorial was finalised in November 1919:

7th November 1919 War Memorial Committee Decision
A special meeting of the General Committee of the War Memorial was held at the Vestry Hall on Friday last, 31st ult., at which the following recommendations were submitted by the Design Committee and adopted:-
(1) That the dedicatory inscription to be put on the Memorial should be as follows:- “To the men of Mitcham who, falling, conquered in the Great War, 1914-1918. Their name liveth for evermore.”
(2) That the site for the permanent Memorial shall be that site on the Lower Green at present occupied by the temporary memorial; and
(3) That on completion, the Urban Council should be asked to accept the Memorial from the Committee, and to maintain the same.”

Around the same time, another effort was made to obtain the names of the fallen:

14th November 1919 War Memorial Committee Letter
“To the Editor of “the Mercury.”

Sir,
In response to the canvas made by the above committee, and to the appeal made through the columns of your papers, the committee have received the names of 552 Mitcham men who have laid down their lives for the country in the Great War. The number is larger than was anticipated, but the committee think that it is still probable that some names have not yet been received. It will be a matter of great regret to all if a single name is omitted, and I am therefore asking you to give publicity to this letter. The committee have received the utmost assistance from the clergy of all denominations in this respect, and from the Press, and it is hoped that those of the public who have any information which will help us will respond as soon as possible, as the complete list will be forwarded to the architect during this month.
Yours faithfully,
Stephen Chart,
Hon. Secretary, 
The Vestry Hall, Mitcham November 14.”

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Early photo taken before the addition of sevens names to the bottom of South Face.

Some 5,000 people had gathered for the unveiling ceremony at Lower Green, Mitcham on a cold, but fine, November day.

The details of the ceremony on Sunday 21st November were covered in a lengthy article published in the “Mitcham and Tooting Mercury” on 26th November, 1919.


UNVEILING OF MITCHAM’S WAR MEMORIAL.

The war shrine, situated on the Lower Green, Mitcham, was unveiled last Sunday by Major-General Sir H. E. Watts, K.C.B., C.M.G. (formerly commanding the 7th Division and 19th Corps, B.E.F.). The weather, although very cold, was fine, and about 5,000 people were present at the unveiling.

Alderman R. M. Chart (Chairman of the War Memorial Committee) said that this shrine was to commemorate the self-sacrifice of those who made the supreme sacrifice, and show our undying sorrow felt by those who have lost dear ones in the late war. Two years ago the war terminated, and in February, 1919, a committee was formed for the purpose of raising funds for the war shrine. There was some difficulty as to the most prominent place for the shrine, and on Peace Day, when the temporary memorial was put behind the Vestry Hall, it was proposed that that should be the site for the permanent one. It is also proposed now that a fencing should be placed round the shrine, but with facilities for the public to place flowers on it, which he (Mr. R. M. Chart) was sure they would do from time to time. He also said that every effort had been made to obtain the names of men who had been killed in action or died of wounds, and, at present, there were 557 names inscribed on the shrine, and since then more had come to hand, and would be inscribed in due course. The speaker then said it was his duty and pleasure to introduce Major-General Sir H. E. Watts, K.C.B., C.M.G., who had served his country well in the late war. He was commanding in the first and third Battle of Ypres.

Major-General Sir H. E. Watts, K.C.B., C.M.G., said, after what Mr. Chart had said, there was not much more to say, but there was one incident that he would like to remind them of, and that was the late Earl Kitchener’s appeal of “Your King and Country need you,” at the beginning of the war, in which all men flocked to enlist. “Why !” because they knew that they were going to fight for freedom and endure the hardships of war, which was a fine example of self-sacrifice and unselfishness. All honour was due to them who came forward at the country’s call. The men, women and children were also a great help, for, while we soldiers were fighting, those at home endured many hardships, but without murmuring. He then unveiled the memorial, and the “Last Post” was played by buglers of the East Surrey Regiment.

The hymn, “Nearer my God to Thee,” was sung, and then the invocation and prayers were said by Rev. C. A. Finch, the Vicar of Mitcham, after which Rev. J. F. Cowley, of the Zion Congregational Church, said a few words.

Rev. J. F. Cowley said that, in doing honour to those who laid down their lives for us, there should be no mistake, for if they had not done so, no English home would be intact and safe to-day, but the unspeakable happenings in Belgium would have happened in England, and, perhaps, have been even worse, because it was against England that the Germans were so bitter and revengeful. He said we should thank God and our fallen heroes for such a merciful deliverance, and also think God for such sons, fathers, brothers and sweethearts who so cheerfully laid down their lives to save us from shame and dishonour. They must not forget to honour and thank the mothers who gave the best, they had got; and in the future, when one was in despair, they should just go to the shrine and remember what Englishmen could and did do for their country, because they thought that, if it was worth living for, it was worth dying for. Those present then proceeded to place their floral tributes on the shrine, during which Mr. Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional” was sung.

The Jubilee Lodge, R.A.O.B., sent a wreath in memory of fallen “Buffs.” Other lodges also sent wreaths.

The special constables were present under the command of Inspectors Webb and Freeman. Colonel Bidder, D.S.O., was present, and a detachment of ex-Service men lined up round the inside of the ropes. The music for the hymns was played by the Mitcham and Wimbledon Military Band, conducted by Mr. H. Salter.


Footnote: The history of the Civic Mitcham War Memorial has been traced by the diligent research of the local press and entries in Mitcham UD Council minute books by W. Brice, a volunteer on Mertons’s Carved in Stone Project, who maintains a blog at mitchamhistorynotes.wordpress.com  Transcripts are reproduced here with his kind permission.

Mitcham’s Somme Legacy

This week a hundred years ago the newspaper headlines proclaimed the “Battle of the Ancre” and the capture of Beaumont Hamel as a stunning victory: the “Germans didn’t know what hit them …”, was one quote.  The Telegraph’s reports were typical of the London major dailies.

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Douglas Haig had his much needed positive news to take to the next Allied conference at Chantilly.

While the Ancre and the Somme remained in the press until the end of November, and beyond, it must have been obvious to newspaper readers that the onset of winter had brought large scale military operations to a halt.  Without fanfare, the great Somme Offensive of 1916 had come to an end.  The newspapers would content themselves with articles of a “now the story can be told” nature, reviewing some of the summer’s main events and adding opinion pieces on the damage wrought to the German Army, while continuing to report the minor activities on all fronts.

The year would end with newspaper reports of Douglas Haig’s dispatch taken for the London Gazette, a dry summation of actions on the Somme front that argued the German Army had suffered a defeat.  The Daily Mirror carried the story on December 30, 1916.

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There was little mention of the staggering loss of life suffered on the Somme in Haig’s dispatch, the few casualty figures quoted do not acknowledge the monumental scale of sacrifice.

Fed on a diet of propaganda and patriotic newspaper reports shackled by censorship, the public had flocked in their hundreds of thousands to see Malin and McDowell’s “Battle of the Somme” film in 1916.

It is estimated that twenty million people, nearly half the population of the UK, had watched it at the cinema.  People had thirsted for knowledge of the reality of war, some even hoped for a glimpse of their “Johnny” at the Front.  1916 was the year of ever growing casualty lists, when the British People had learnt to mourn on an unprecedented scale. Simple shrines to honour the fallen soldiers began to appear on street corners up and down the country.

 

Three long years would pass before such collective commemoration found voice in Mitcham with what was at first a temporary memorial on Lower Green, erected on “Peace Day” 19th July 1919.  The decision to create a permanent memorial on the same site was taken in November 1919 and the Civic Memorial was officially unveiled on Sunday 21st November 1920.

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Of the 550 names on the Mitcham War Memorial that have been positively identified, 70 men died during the 141 days of the Somme, 1 died on the eve of the Somme Offensive and 10 died elsewhere during those 141 days.  These numbers can be put into perspective by the fact that in the preceding two years of war, from 4th August 1914 until 1st July 1916, 117 of those named on the memorial had become casualties.  Mitcham’s total war casualty figures had nearly doubled in just 141 days.

The men had come from all corners of Mitcham and every walk of life and stratum of society. They had fought in Regular Army units, Territorial Force units, Service Battalions of Kitchener’s New Army and “Pals” Battalions like the “Post Office Rifles“, “Civil Service Rifles” and “Wimbledon’s Own“, the 190th Brigade RFA.   For every man who lost his life, several others were wounded, many others who had served on the Somme would not survive the war.  Mitcham was left counting the cost of a war that was set to drag on into 1917 with no end in sight.

Mitcham’s Last Somme Casualty

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

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916

Battle of the Ancre. Bringing in an injured man. Hamel, November 1916.© IWM (Q 4538)

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916

Wounded British soldiers having tea and food at a dressing station near Aveluy Wood during the Battle of the Ancre, 13 November 1916.© IWM (Q 4501)

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.

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ABBAYE & SNAG TRENCH – Square 17 d

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.

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Hawthorndene 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.

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Prince of Wales Public House pre-1900 ?

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 ).

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From 1902 Trade Directory

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.

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One page from the casualty list

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.

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From HMSO List of Certified Occupations, 20th November 1916

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.

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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.

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Map location 57c.M.17.d.5.1

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.

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Stanley Latham was laid to rest in WARLENCOURT BRITISH CEMETERY.

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copyright britishwargraves.co.uk

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”.