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  • Writer's pictureSadie

Fletton and the Great War 1916 A Sombre Year

As you read newspaper reports of the events of 1916 you cannot escape the sombre mood. The optimism of an early end to hostilities had evaporated and the devastating loss of life on the battlefields of the Somme left little hope for the future.

Fletton received an unending stream of news, of loss of life, of injury, of those men who were missing.

Newspaper reports

Those men who died in the Great War are rightly honoured by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

It is more difficult to trace those men who served and were wounded. Although wounds often healed the effects could last for many years, even a lifetime. Throughout 1916 letters home, recorded in the pages of the local newspaper, are today a vital record of the cost of war.

Private Edward F. Mumford, 7th Northamptonshire Regiment, of New Fletton sent word home that he had now arrived at Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, Millbank. Edward had been injured at Loos and then taken prisoner. He had lost a leg and one foot was crushed. For the full story see blog 22.

Lance Corporal Herbert J Thurley, Hunts Cyclists Battalion, posted to the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry wrote home to his parents John Thomas and Eliza Thurley. (You can read more about the Thurley family in blogs 13, 14 and 16) He said that he had been wounded by shrapnel in the left knee. He was now recovering in Yeatman military hospital Sherbourne, Dorset. Herbert was discharged due to wounds in 1918. Herbert was not the only son that John and Eliza had serving in the Great War. Herbert’s younger brother Percy Arthur was a private in the Machine Gun Corp, after serving in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Percy would die as a prisoner of war in 1918. John and Eliza had another son who also served. John Thomas junior also joined the Hunts Cyclists, most likely with Herbert, and was also posted to the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

A rather miraculous story concerning Private Robert Wilcox, 1st Northamptonshire Regiment, son of Mr Richard Wilcox of 48 Queen’s Road was reported in September. In 1914, in the First Battle of Ypres, Robert had been wounded in the head. At that time he lost both his ability to speak and to walk unaided due to shell shock. On the 14th September he was making his way downstairs when he fell. The shock of the fall immediately brought his speech back. It was said that his first words were of an ‘explosive nature’. His wife was equally surprised. When she heard him speak again, she almost fainted. The penance for the recovery of his speech was a black eye which he said was worth it. Robert had been the recipient of a wheelchair to aid his mobility. With the support of the Gas Workers Union, he had successfully applied for a grant from the Kitchener Memorial Fund. The wheelchair had been presented to him at the Guildhall by the Mayor on 11th August.

We met Second Lieutenant Jack Crowden in blog 22 when he had been injured. Now a year later he had been injured again. He had been wounded and gassed and was sent home for six weeks leave. Coincidentally the official notice of Jack being a casualty had appeared in the newspaper on 9th September in both years.

Another man Private John Lane, Northamptonshire Regiment, of Queens Road, had also been injured for a second time. His first injury had occurred at the Battle of Loos and his second on 3rd September at Delville Wood. John was recovering in Southsea, Portsmouth. Also see blog 22.

Lieutenant Fred Cureton Corbett, Royal Naval Division of 17 Tower Street, Fletton Avenue, saw service in the Dardanelles and France and had now been invalided out of service. His return must have been a great relief for his Bessie.

Although reports in newspapers must also be treated with utmost caution.

It was reported that Sergeant Rowlatt, Grenadier Guards, son of Mr and Mrs Rowlatt of Orchard Street, New Fletton, had won the Military Cross for work he had done in April and had subsequently been recommended for the D.C.M. This report is rather unusual as a Sergeant could not be awarded an M.C. and conversely an officer could not win a D.C.M it was for other ranks only. In addition, there is nobody with the name of Rowlatt in the medal rolls for the Grenadier Guards.

Medals awarded

Throughout the war many medals and honours were awarded.

There were five campaign medals made available to individuals who saw service in the Great War. A maximum of three of these were issued to the ranks, but officers, or their next of kin had to apply for their medals. Medals were impressed with the name of the recipient and usually included some or all of the following: service number, rank, first name or initial, surname and military unit (Regiment or Corps). This was either on the rim of the medal or in the case of a star, on the reverse.

In addition to the five campaign medals a badge was available to officers and men who had been honourably discharged or had retired as a result of sickness or wounds from war service.

Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, Mutt and Jeff

Pip, Squeak and Wilfred are the affectionate names given to four of the Great War campaign medals — The 1914 Star or 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal respectively. By convention all three medals are worn together and in the same order from left to right when viewed from the front.

The 1914 Star was awarded to those who served in France or Belgium from the start of the war to 22nd November 1914. It was mainly awarded to the Old Contemptibles, and was nicknamed, originally, the Mons Star. This medal was instituted in 1917. In 1919 a clasp was added to the 1914 Star, for those who had served under fire or within range of mobile enemy artillery in the same period.

Pip was also the 1914/15 star. Instituted in 1918, it was awarded to those who had served in a theatre of war up to the 31 December 1915. If you received the 1914 Star, you were not entitled to the 1914/15 Star.

Those who served in a theatre of war only from 1 January 1916 to the end of hostilities received the British War and Victory Medals (Squeak and Wilfred, or when worn as a pair, Mutt and Jeff). All holders of the 1914 Star or the 1914/15 Star automatically received the British War and Victory Medals.

A Territorial Force War Medal could also be issued under very strict criteria. There was, in addition, the Mercantile Marine Medal.

When all the Great War medals were issued in the 1920s it coincided with a popular comic strip published by the Daily Mirror newspaper. It was written by Bertram J. Lamb (Uncle Dick) and drawn by the cartoonist Austin Bowen Payne (A.B. Payne). Pip was the dog, Squeak the penguin and Wilfred the young rabbit. It is believed that A. B. Payne's batman during the war had been nicknamed ‘Pip-squeak’ and this is where the idea for the names of the dog and penguin came from. For some reason the three names of the characters became associated with the three campaign medals being issued at that time to many thousands of returning servicemen, and they stuck.

Home to England

Despite the war raging men continued to die of a variety of other conditions. Private Herbert Anthony, 1st Northamptonshire Regiment, the third son of Mr and Mrs William Anthony died on 23rd February 1916 at 22 Victoria Place, Old Fletton.

Only a couple of months earlier, on 6th December 1915, he had received the devastating news that he had cancer of the stomach and that it was untreatable. Herbert was discharged from Chatham Hospital on the 14th December 1915 and was transferred to Strood Hospital. His hospital notes state that Herbert was ‘much emaciated…he suffers from vomiting after eating food’, his papers also state that ‘the condition must terminate fatally’.

Herbert was offered an operation to alleviate the symptoms, according to his doctor this ‘was not un-reasonably refused’. Herbert was designated militarily unfit by two serving doctors and he signed his discharge papers on the 21st January 1916, formally leaving the army on 5th February 1916.

It may seem a bit harsh, discharging a man with terminal cancer. However, the discharge meant that Herbert could be treated in a civilian hospital and by his family at home, a much better bargain than the austerity of a military hospital in your final days. His discharge papers stated ‘no’ when asked if his infirmity was caused by enemy action. This answer meant that Herbert would never have a war grave, even if he had served for 9 years and on the firing line for 2 months.

Herbert was buried in Broadway Cemetery, Peterborough, in a civilian grave. He is not mentioned in Soldiers Died in the Great War nor by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the definitive lists of fatalities in the conflict. But he is remembered on the memorial in St Margaret’s, Fletton.

Two local men also died of pneumonia.

Gunner George Spencer Secker, 2nd/4th East Anglian R.F.A. 2nd/1st Northants Battery, of 55 Orchard Street died on 20th April of double pneumonia. He was buried on Tuesday 25th April at Peterborough cemetery and the service was conducted by Reverend N.J. Roper of Woodston. Before enlisting George had worked with the G.E.R and he had been admitted to the hospital at Thetford on 13th April. George was buried with full military honours.

Private Albert Walter Cooke, attached to the Sherwood Foresters had only been in the army for 9 weeks when he died in Louth Red Cross hospital. Although his mother lived at 1 Reform Street, he was taken to the house of his sister and brother-in-law at 85 Queens Walk and buried in Fletton cemetery on 13th May. At the funeral, 12 men of the guard at Walton formed a Guard of Honour.

Apologies made by newspaper

On 2nd March 1916 the Military Services Act came into force. This Act brought in conscription. Conscription meant that every man between the ages of 18 and 41 could be called up for service unless they were exempt, under certain criteria. This included married men and widows with children. The Act was extended in May 1916 to include married men and in 1918 the upper age limit was increased to 51.

To gain exemption men had to apply to the local Military Service Tribunal. Many men applied for exemption. In the first four months of the tribunals, to the end of June 1916, 750,000 men had applied for exemption.

On Saturday 8th July a large column appeared in the local newspaper headed ‘Military Service Act, The following men have failed to comply with the requirements of the Military Service Act and are absentees.’ The newspaper then revealed the names and addresses of 34 local men with an invitation for members of the public to provide information regarding their current whereabouts. The editor appears to have been lax in his duties to check that his information was correct as two local men earned an apology in the paper of the 15th July.

An apology was issued to Mr W. H. Mitcham of 140 Fletton Avenue. He had been given an exemption at the City Tribunal as he farmed 334 acres and owned 300 head of stock in March.

Hunts cyclist Horace William Maywood, of 47 Orchard Street also received an apology. He had been training in Richmond Park for the last 3 months with ‘C’ Company, 25th Reserve Battalion, London Regiment.

The Battle of the Somme

The event which dominated 1916 was the Battle of the Somme, which took place between 1st July and 18th November. The battle saw the British Expeditionary Force join with the French Army to mount a joint offensive against the German Army. By the time fighting paused in the autumn the forces had suffered over a million casualties. This made it one of the bloodiest battles ever recorded. The British and French advanced seven miles, at the point of deepest penetration, on a front sixteen miles wide. The British sustained 419,654 casualties, the French 202,567, and the Germans 465,181. This meant that for every centimetre gained two men were lost.

News came back to Fletton from Private Arthur Stallebrass, 6th Bn Northamptonshire Regiment, son of architect Mr. J. G. Stallebrass. Arthur was the well-known organist at St. Margaret’s church in Fletton. He had received a nasty injury but had been moved to a hospital in Hove, Brighton. He wrote to his parents ‘I am back in England…with all my limbs’. Arthur wrote a little about what conditions had been like.

‘We were in the thick of the fighting close to Fricourt, in the Somme district, and went out of the trenches on Saturday (my birthday). Every company and platoon had a certain objective to reach during the advance and they had to be carried at all costs. Our objective was a redoubt about 1,500 yards away from our lines. We knew how long it was to take us to get our positions, and we held the place, and everything went on all right through the night.

Almost three o’clock in the morning they started shelling us; I was on post duty at the time, when a shell burst and knocked me over, and everybody else within any distance of it. There were five of us together, and I was the only one left. We are in a school, and are being well looked after. The wound is on my right side, it just misses my ribs and liver, and goes straight through my body, and is about six inches long.’

News also came from Private Moorcroft, Kings Own Royal Lancaster Regiment of Silver Street. He had been wounded in the hand and was recovering in West Didsbury Hospital, Manchester. This may have been the same Private Moorcroft that is mentioned in blog 22.

The family of Sergeant Arthur Bradley, 1st Bn Northamptonshire Regiment, of 11 Silver Street also received news. Arthur wrote to his parents saying:

‘I have been slightly knocked about in the face by a shell on the 22nd July. I went with four guns in an attack in the big battle, and got through this safe, but I the morning I stopped a shell. It burst right in my face, cutting me about in places, but only slightly. I very nearly lost an eye.’

Arthur’s letter is not at all reassuring, any parent would be left wondering what ‘slightly knocked about’ might look like! Arthur would be awarded the Military Medal for his bravery. He died of wounds after being shot in the back on a training exercise in April 1917.

The effects of the Somme

The effects of the Somme were far-reaching. After the catastrophic losses the army was desperate for soldiers, and the Hunts Cyclist Battalion men were drafted, principally to the Warwickshires. But the Hunts Cyclist Battalions were not a properly formed unit. They had been in uniform for the best part of two years, and it was assumed that they were fully trained. They were not. They were fit and enthusiastic but trained in sections (which were split up) to guard against German raiding parties targeting the east coast. This was a world away from the training needed for what was an industrial war. It’s a tragedy that they would have been taken from a military backwater into fighting units in the largest battle of the war so far, without the skills necessary to survive it. An extract from the war diary of the 14th Battalion Royal Warwickshire’s, written on the 6th August 1916, reveals;

‘a draft of 195 other ranks joins the Battalion. They are all Hunts Cyclists territorials. With but a few exceptions, well set up and physically sound. Have done practically no infantry training in their average service of 19 months. Have fired only 30-40 rounds on a range and have thrown but one live bomb. Have been employed throughout their service on night patrol work along the East Coast’

The 143rd Warwickshire Territorial Brigade war diary was more scathing and noted;

‘The Brigade remained in rest billets, reorganising, training and receiving drafts, the latter all arrived from England with very insufficient and superficial training and many were of poor physique, quite unfit to serve with an infantry battalion in the field’

This was not the Hunts Cyclist Battalion’s fault but the result of an army decision to bolster numbers, with troops not trained for purpose. Locally, it was a disaster.

Fletton did not escape the death toll of the Somme, 21 Fletton men were lost in that fateful battle.

Ministers maintain their work

Religious ministers in the parish were devoted in their support for their parishioners, even when they were dealing with their own losses. Some were dealing with the loss of sons, husbands and sweethearts, some were hoping for news of loved ones who were recovering from horrendous injuries, and some were waiting for news of the missing.

On Thursday 12th September Reverend G. Heathcote Barker announced to his congregation at the London Road Wesleyan Church that he would have to leave early in order to write letters of condolence to two brother ministers who had lost sons. At the same time his daughter rushed in to deliver the devastating news from the War office that his youngest son, Sergeant Francis Arthur Barker, of the A.S.C. Mechanical Transport, had also been killed.

The Bridge Fair, Fair Meadow

One event that Fletton and Peterborough looked forward to was the October fair on Fair Meadow. 1916 saw the fair celebrate its 477th anniversary but the war had taken its toll. The Advertiser reported;

‘the thoroughfare no longer responded to the continuous tread of the youthful pleasure seekers. The bright eyed youths who once made the city gay with their laughter and merry-making, had gone to the war, and on the battlefields of Europe many have made the supreme sacrifice’

The City Fathers amended the fair in keeping with the mood, the Proclamation was abandoned, the festive luncheon cancelled, and stalls were greatly reduced.

Brave men not forgotten

Throughout the area the Peterborough Women’s Unionist Association did a wonderful job at sending parcels to prisoners of war. On average 30 parcels were despatched every fortnight. The parcels contained all sorts of treats from bread, cakes, tea, and sugar to sardines and butter. Each parcel cost 6s and these were paid for by subscription. In addition, people often brought along gifts to be included. The men were so pleased that the people of ‘dear old England’ had not forgotten them and each one was acknowledged by a letter home.

Even men who had only been in Fletton for a short while left their mark. Corporal George Franklin wrote to his brother Mr R. Franklin, New Road about the death of Second Lieutenant Richard Ernest Duchesne, B Coy 7th Northants, of 4 Glebe Road native of Bournemouth. George wrote that Richard had been on patrol ‘close to the Boches’ barbed wire, when the patrol must have been spotted. A shot rang out and the late Mr. Duchesne fell, shot through the heart’. The patrol managed to get back to the trench with the officer’s body. George spoke of ‘Dicky’ as he was known, ‘he proved himself to be an able officer, pal, and gentleman, and his place will be hard to fill’. Richard was laid to rest in ‘a pretty little cemetery’, in Villiers.

Many men of course returned home injured and disabled. Once their recovery was complete they required work. Mr William Mellows and Mr. Wilson of the Labour Exchange reported at the Red Cross Committee meeting on Saturday 25th November that in the Peterborough area there were 83 such men and 35 had already found employment. Mr. Barford, of Barford and Perkins, commented that he would do anything he could to assist. He already had several men working for him, saying, ‘they are earning good money, and we are pleased to have them’. Lady Exeter acknowledged that although the Red Cross should only ‘focus on the sick and wounded’ in these circumstances ‘a special effort should be made for them’.

Even in 1916 thoughts had begun to turn towards war memorials. In the lobby of the Orchard Street school a memorial was unveiled. It had been designed by the headmaster and built by Mr. Braybrook. The inscription read;

‘Let us always remember in our prayers the old scholars who have gone forth in the service of our King and country’

At the ceremony two of the older girls, who had brothers at the front, placed vases of flowers. The flowers would be continually replaced. On display was also a roll of honour.

A sombre Christmas

As the year drew to a close a certain percentage of soldiers were granted leave for Christmas. On the trains men on leave from the front had priority over all other travellers.

The weather in Peterborough was frosty but not so cold that skating could place on the floodwaters around the city.

Businesses closed on Saturday 23rd December and did not re-open until the following Friday, the 29th. Celebrations were kept ‘in a sober spirit as befitted a time of war’. It was said that entertainment at the local Kinema ‘left nothing to be desired’. The churches were full as, ‘many vacant places in the homes around us, alas, twanged many a heart string anew’.

But those in the hospital enjoyed plentiful food and the wards were brightly decorated. The men were allowed to smoke, and patients had two visitors to tea in the afternoon. There was even a choir. In the workhouse inmates enjoyed plentiful food although yorkshire pudding was replaced by plum pudding.

There was perhaps only one fervent hope that 1917 would bring an end to the war.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? — Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,— The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen

My thanks to Derek Smith and David Gray, without whose research I would not have been able to write this blog.

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