by Peter Reder
The memorial board in St Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, records the names of 175 local men who fell in the First World War and a further 29 names are inscribed on a plaque in St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church, Mortlake. In an attempt to discover more about these men’s war experiences and personal lives, about one third could not be accurately identified from the available military, commemorative or genealogical data bases. However, these same sources generated the names of many more Mortlake or East Sheen residents who had been casualties of the war and, in all, information was found about 242 men who were from Mortlake/East Sheen families or who themselves had lived there. A memorial book summarising what is known about each man has been placed in the parish church.
Theatres of War
The vast majority of the men had enlisted with British Regiments and fought and died on the Western Front, particularly on the Somme and at Passchendaele. Others had been posted to Italy (John Blackburn, George Haddock, Edwin Shields, Francis Simmons), to Gallipoli and the Middle East (George Armitage, Henry Blacklidge, George Bond, Robert Brett, Albert Cole, William George, Harold Mills, Francis Roche, Charles Silver, William Whiting), to India (Percy Brill, Charles Heath) or to Africa (Hugh Cathie, Walter Cook). Alfred Bowring and Arthur Sayers were Royal Naval Volunteer Reservists but found themselves fighting on the Somme. William Arthur, Gordon Fazan and George Smith had emigrated before the war and returned to Europe with the Canadian Infantry.
James Geraghty, Horace Hood, William Nason, Dick Read, William Richards, Reginald Stevens, Edward White and Edgar Wood were lost at sea serving with the Royal Navy while Arthur Adkins, William Arthur, Frederick Biscoe, Sidney Croxford, Albert Geering, Leslie Geeson, Vernon Morgan, Walter Nixon and Ronald Wiggins had joined the Royal Flying Corps or its successor, the Royal Air Force.
With the onset of war in August 1914, the minimum age for voluntary enlistment was set at eighteen years and for service overseas at nineteen. Exceptions could be for those in Boy Service, boy drummers, buglers, trumpeters and pipers and those with special technical abilities serving in the Royal Engineers. However, officers were eligible for posting overseas when aged eighteen. The lower age limit for recruitment into the Royal Navy was fourteen and for active service sixteen. Conscription was introduced in March 1916 for those above the age of eighteen and below forty one but, between April and August 1918, the crisis of the German offensive led to the age parameters for overseas posting to be widened to eighteen years six months and fifty one years.
The oldest of the Mortlake/East Sheen casualties were Harry Browne, killed in April 1918 at the age of forty nine, and John Gilderson, who had enlisted in 1914 and died of wounds as a prisoner of war in November 1917, aged forty eight.
The lower age limits were often ignored by recruiting sergeants and by young volunteers keen to reach the front. Thirty five of those commemorated here died when still teenagers: twenty two aged nineteen, nine aged eighteen, three aged seventeen and one only sixteen years of age. The 16-year-old was William Nason, Boy 1st Class in the Royal Navy, killed at the Battle of Jutland. Francis Ludlow was posted to France in November 1915 when aged sixteen and killed in action seven months later, still only seventeen. Reginald Dickins, also aged seventeen, was killed in action in May 1915 two months after arriving in France and Charles Francis died near Arras in June 1916 aged seventeen. Charles Moore was posted to France as a 17-year-old in November 1914 and was killed aged eighteen.
The young men’s service records reveal how ready they were to exaggerate their age in order to join up. George Hadden enlisted when only just turned fifteen, declaring himself to be “18 years and 56 days” and was still only eighteen years old when he died of pleurisy, having seen more than two years of fighting. Seventeen year old Arthur Norman added two years to his age when he enlisted but was killed on the Somme before reaching his nineteenth birthday. Thomas Fisher also declared himself to be “19” when in truth was only seventeen, while Charles Silver, then only aged eighteen, claimed to be exactly “19” when he attested. William Parsons was born on 15th July 1899 and so had just turned sixteen when he presented himself to the recruitment board in August 1915 claiming to be “19”. He managed to join the East Surrey Regiment and was posted to the British Expeditionary Forces in June 1916. Somehow, his commanding officer discovered his true age and two months later he was relegated to the army reserve list. William’s response was to re-enlist, this time with the Royal Fusiliers, and it was with them that he died of wounds nine weeks before the war’s end, still only aged nineteen.
A few of the men were decorated for their actions during the war. William Curry had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and John O’Brien and Charles Read the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The Military Cross had been won by Frank Medworth and the Military Medal by Frederick Briscoe, Harry Forbes, Joseph Kemester and Charles Read (whose award was from Belgium). Horace Hood had won his Distinguished Service Order in 1904 for action in Somaliland and was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order in 1906; he was posthumously appointed Knight Commander of the Order of Bath after his death at the Battle of Jutland
Mortlake and East Sheen families began to hear of their son’s loss from early in the war – for example, Frederick Woodman on 19th September 1914 and William Haddock on 7th October 1914. Albert Guntrip, Stanley Moore and Thomas Quinney were killed on the same day – 1st July 1916, the disastrous first day of the Somme offensive.
The deaths continued up to and even after the war’s end. The Italian Armistice came first, on November 4th 1918, but John Blackburn and Francis Simmons were killed three days earlier. Arthur Barber, Gerald Edwards and Basil Hitchcock were killed five weeks before the November 11th Armistice, Marmaduke Scott-Boss four weeks, Charles Heath ten days and Frederick Jones just seven days. George Myddleton suffered severe gun shot wounds to his shoulder and arm on 9th August 1918 from which he never recovered and he died in a Torquay hospital on 7th March 1919.
A few men were killed within weeks of entering the war zone. Bernard Husk and Alfred Hulbert survived three months at the front and Charles Clarke, Reginald Dickins, Edward Hodder and Gerard Nixon just two months. John Mohr was killed one month after arriving in France and William Haddock and Archie Marsh three weeks. Henry Inman was hospitalised with influenza in February 1916, recovered, but was killed seven days after rejoining his unit.
Not all the men were killed in action or died of wounds sustained in battle. Instead, they succumbed to illness, often brought on or exacerbated by the war conditions they had experienced. Three were the victims of pulmonary tuberculosis – Albert Cole died on board a hospital ship taking him from Cairo to the UK, Henry Manning’s illness progressed to tubercular meningitis in the UK and Robert Kirk had been discharged from the army as no longer physically fit for war service, dying a year later. George Hadden, who died from pleurisy, and James Kent had also been discharged from the army due to their sickness. Henry Blacklidge contracted dysentery in Iraq and Francis Roche typhoid fever in Alexandria. Alexander Bennett’s death was caused by appendicitis, while Frank Christmas was lost to a perforated duodenal ulcer just twelve days after being mobilised.
The influenza pandemic was raging during the final months of the war, with a massive rise in the death rate during October and November 1918 and a further increase in February and March of 1919. Making the inference that deaths at around those times, especially those recorded as ‘bronchopneumonia’, were primarily due to influenza, it is possible that (at least) Percy Brill, Frank Briscoe, Walter Cook, Sidney Croxford, Henry Gossington, Egbert Griffiths, George Haddock, Charles Heath, John Lonergan, Harold Stansby, Harold Tidy and Ronald Wiggins died from influenza. George Haddock nearly survived for the duration of the war: he had enlisted in 1910 and served with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Forces but died of pneumonia in Italy in August 1918. Ronald Wiggins’ death was on Armistice Day.
The other way that lives were lost was through accidents. Three airmen – Reginald Adkins, William Arthur and Leslie Geeson – died in air crashes unrelated to combat which, most probably, occurred during pilot training exercises. Two seamen were lost in accidents – William Richards when a depth charge prematurely exploded and Edward White when an internal explosion destroyed his ship. Harold Mills is recorded as dying in a sandstorm in Iraq while the collapse of a trench in Turkey buried Charles Silver and his body was never recovered. John Moss was killed in a railway crash in northern France as he was returning to the UK for his first period of leave. The most bizarre of accidents befell Albert Williamson: a Lance-Sergeant was demonstrating how a Lewis gun worked and fed it with a live round instead of the required blank bullets. The round exploded when the bolt was pressed, killing two of the observing men. The demonstrator was court-marshalled and sentenced to nine months imprisonment for manslaughter.
Most of these men are buried close to where they fell, in the Commonwealth War Graves of Flanders and northern France. However, eighty-nine of the soldiers have no known grave and are commemorated on the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot, Cambrai, Thiepval, Loos, Arras, Helles and other war memorials close to the battlefields. In addition, the bodies of seven of the seamen were not recovered for burial and their names are inscribed on naval memorials at Chatham or Portsmouth. John Gilderson and James Reynolds died as prisoners of war and were buried in Germany.
A number of the men died in the UK and lie in this country. In most cases, the cause of death was illness rather than the direct result of enemy action (Reginald Adkins and William Arthur are buried in Hampshire, Alexander Bennett in Brighton, Frank Christmas in Birmingham, Francis Newton in Yorkshire, William Richards in Pembrokeshire, Harold Tidy in Greenwich, Walter Waters in Marlborough and Ronald Wiggins in Brookwood, Surrey.)
Fourteen graves are closer to home. Mortlake Old Cemetery in South Worple Way is the final resting place of Frederick Cooper, Sidney Croxford, Edward Sunning, Albert Geering, Henry Gossington, George Hadden, George Samuels and Harold Stansby, while East Sheen Cemetery contains the war graves of Leslie Geeson, Egbert Griffiths, Henry Manning and George Myddleton. The grave of Albert Hards is in Barnes Old Cemetery and of Robert Kirk in Putney Lower Common Cemetery.
The majority of the men were from labouring families and themselves earned their living as labourers, in the local brewery, market gardens or building trade. The other common means of employment was as a clerk but there were also some unusual professions. Henry Blacklidge was a professional cricketer (left-handed batsman and left-arm fast bowler) who had played five seasons with Surrey CCC and was in the process of qualifying for Hampshire when the war broke out. Francis Roche spent five years as a priest to the Mortlake congregation before becoming a chaplain to the forces early in the war. When Gordon Fazan enlisted in the Canadian Infantry, he described himself as a rancher. Alban Eden was a mental nurse, Sydney Elliot a scenic artist, George Parker a modeler in clay and Percy Brill and Myler Falla schoolteachers.
Fourteen of the men were, or seemed intent to be, career soldiers, having enlisted prior to the onset of war – William Haddock before 1901, Henry Sillence prior to his marriage in 1906, Ernest Snazle in 1907, John Constable in 1909 at the age of seventeen and James Haddock, brother of William, in 1910 as a nineteen-year old. Gerard Nixon, William Pharro, Albert Samuels, Sydney Shapley, John Sullivan, Frederick Williams had all entered armed service by 1911, followed by Richard Myers in 1913. James Geraghty was serving in the Royal Navy by 1901 and the boy who would become Rear-Admiral Horace Hood had joined in 1882 at the age of twelve.
Errol Martin France was born in 1889 in Paddington as Errol Martin Schachter. His father was Eugene Schacter, a city merchant. At some point, probably on naturalisation, the father changed his name to James France but the irony is, in the light of his son’s fate, that he was a German, born in Berlin.
It is evident that there were areas of considerable affluence in East Sheen where the families enjoyed privileged lives. Horace Hood, whose father was the 4th Viscount Hood, was appointed Companion of the Order of Bath in King George Vs coronation honours list. Robert Lancaster’s father, Sir William Lancaster, had been Mayor of Wandsworth and sponsor of Putney Hospital and Putney School of Art. Hugh Cathie, like his father, had been granted the Freedom of the City of London. The father of Arthur Hovenden was a surgeon and of Marmaduke Scott-Boss lived by private means. Richard Thompson joined his father’s firm of solicitors, having graduated from Cambridge University and William Hobbs’s law degree was from London University. George Armitage was educated at Rugby School and St John’s College, Oxford, while John Palmer had attended King’s College School and gained a degree in dental surgery from Guy’s Hospital.
By contrast, it is possible to infer that other men had less fortunate family backgrounds. Edward Hodder lost his mother when he was aged eleven and his father re-married but died fourteen years later. Edward was living with his step-mother in 1911, although he later named his younger sister as next-of-kin. It is not known what became of Alfred Morley’s parents but the census of 1901 records him as a nine-year-old lodging in Brentford and of 1911 as lodging in Hounslow; he named an aunt as his next-of-kin. Ronald Wiggins was registered as the son of one set of parents in the 1901 census and ten years later as the son of a different, single mother; his probate was granted to ‘another’ son of his 1901 ‘parents’. He served in the Royal Air Force under a totally unconnected name of George Mitchell. William Nason’s father died when he was a year old and George Bass, Anthony Ellis, Walter Grundy and Arthur Hillard had lost their fathers before they were five. Albert Samuels’ mother probably died when he was aged two.
In all, it seems that twenty four mothers had previously lost a husband before they lost a son to the war, while three fathers were already widowers when their son was killed.
Twenty five families lost their only son but for some this was compounded by the previous death of the father, so the widow became doubly bereaved. Charles Clarke’s mother was widowed when Charles was aged ten; twelve years later she lost him, their only son. James Lock’s father died in 1905 and, although five years later James married and left home, he was their only son when he died of wounds in 1918. Frederick Speight was a thirty-year-old, unmarried, only son when he was killed in 1916, twenty five years after his father died. Richard Thompson’s father died eight years before his son was killed on the Somme in 1916 and Richard Strong’s mother was widowed five years before her son died of wounds at Arras. Henry Inman’s father died in 1915, only a few months before only-son Henry was killed in action in Flanders.
Eight families lost more than one son as a result of the war. Alfred Gossington died of wounds at Ypres in 1917 and his elder brother, Henry, died in the UK in 1919 while still on active service. John Palmer was killed in Flanders in April 1918 a year and a half after his elder brother, William, died of wounds sustained on the Somme. George Read was killed in action on the Somme in September 1916, a year before his younger brother, Charles, died of wounds when an enemy aeroplane bombed his battalion in Flanders. Ernest Snazle was killed on the Somme in 1916, and his younger brother, Frederick (who was not a Mortlake/East Sheen resident) at Cambrai a year later. Richard and Harold Stansby died in the UK at different times from unrecorded illnesses. William Whiting was killed in Gallipoli in 1915; his younger brother, Mark, was lost two and a half years later in Flanders. Alfred Wootton died of wounds at the Battle of Arras in May 1917 and his younger brother, Frederick, (who lived in Barnes) probably died of influenza in July 1918. Most tragic of all was the Haddock family: of a probable seven sons, two were killed in the war – William in northern France in October 1914 and Christopher at the Battle of Loos in October 1915 – and a third, George, died of boronchopheumonia while serving in Italy in August 1918. Their mother had been widowed in 1906.
Bereaved Wives and Children
Sixty nine of the men had married and at least thirty seven of them were the fathers of children. Charles Parkes married in 1910 and his fourth child was born just three months before his death on the Somme. The youngest of George Bass’s three children was born about four months before he was killed on the Somme.
Alfred Hulbert married in 1903 and had four children, the youngest of whom was born four weeks before he was killed in France. Even more pitiful was the family of Frank Christmas, who married in 1909, died on 14th January 1917 and their only son was born on 18th August 1917.
Sixteen of the marriages were made during the course of the war, which meant that the wives soon became young widows and any children were extremely young when their father was killed. Donald Wootton died of wounds on the Somme a year after his marriage and just three months before the war ended. John Constable was killed in action three months after his wedding. Alfred Wootton’s wife married him in December 1914, gave birth to their daughter in August 1916 and was widowed in May 1917. Malcolm Dobney married in August 1915 and their son was born a year later, eight months before Malcolm died of wounds at Arras. Edward Dunning’s son was five months old when his father died from war wounds.
Only about a third of the soldiers’ military service records have survived (their storage warehouse was bombed during the blitz) and they make fascinating reading, especially for the letters they contain and the often poignant stories they represent.
Sidney Alfred Thomas was born in Cambridgeshire and registered as Sidney Alfred Rumbelow, his mother’s maiden name before she later married. In September 1914, as a seventeen-year-old, he exaggerated his age in order to enlist with the East Surrey Regiment. His service record contains a letter from the Colonel to his step-father, dated 8th October 1915:
Some difficulty has been experienced in tracing the present whereabouts of your son, No. 2693 Sidney Alfred Thomas, who enlisted in the 6th Bn East Surrey Regiment on 22nd September 1914 at Kingston, and gave you as his next of kin.
I shall be glad if you will insert replies to the questions shown below, and return this paper to me as quickly as possible …”
In fact, Sidney had deserted from that Regiment and he seems to have subsequently enlisted with, and then deserted from, the Royal Field Artillery and the Northamptonshire Regiment before ending up in the Machine Gun Corps. He had registered each time using the same name but received different service numbers. He was still only nineteen when he was killed in action with the Machine Gun Corps at the Second Battle of Arras in April 1917.
Letters to army authorities from wives and mothers reveal the anguish that they suffered while the men were at the front. Arthur Simpson was posted to France in November 1914 and his service record contains a brief, but frantic, letter from his wife:
“Could you kindly inform me of my husband. I have not heard from him since 5/9/15.”
She was unaware that he had been repatriated to a hospital in Aberdeen with a broken leg after a horse he was riding fell.
William Naylor’s record includes two pleading letters from his parents asking to know where he was buried. His father wrote in 1920:
“Would you kindly oblige by letting me know the exact particulars and place of the grave of the late Private William Henry Naylor. G/12842 The Buffs (East Kent Regiment)”
Two years later, his mother wrote:
“I am writing with reference to my late son Pte William Henry Naylor 12842 6th Battalion The Buffs Killed in Action August 16th 1917 I would like to have the number of his grave or if you could I should at least like to know where abouts his remains are laying other people seem to have had photographs of the grave I should like to know very much indeed if it is possible all you can tell me. I am yours respectfully Annie Naylor”
In fact, his body was never found and he has no known grave; instead, he is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.
Service records usually contain details of the dead soldier’s effects that were returned to next-of-kin. Thomas Fisher’s mother wrote this heart-rending letter to the army authorities:
I thank you for sending me these few things of my son but I should like to get his photos that he had on him for he had several I should prize them more and also the bible or testament which ever you call it and also the disk with a chain on his wrist if you can get them for me I should be very grateful as one of the photos was a group of 4 there was himself his sailor Brother his father and myself so if you would oblige yours truly
Mrs A Fisher”
Finally, John Gilderson died of wounds as a prisoner of war in a hospital in Mainz, Germany. On record is a notification form, neatly and elegantly completed in German script, informing British authorities of his death.
Dr Peter Reder is a retired Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and family therapist. He has lived in Barnes since 1978.
Principal sources used were: ‘Ancestry’ (a subscription genealogy web-site which also includes many military records); the Commonwealth War Graves Commission web-site; and Births, Deaths and Marriages on-line records. Useful reference books included: Ray Westlake’s “Tracing British Battalions on the Somme”; Gerald Gliddon’s “Somme 1916: A Battlefield Companion” and Richard van Emden’s “Boy Soldiers of the Great War”.