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  • Writer's pictureSadie

Fletton and the Great War They weren't home by Christmas!


January 1915. The war was just a few months old.


There was still hope that it would soon be over as the German advance on Paris had been stopped.


Fresh in the minds of the men on the frontline was the 1914 Christmas truce. The Christmas truce had been a short cease in hostilities. It had been a time to bury the dead who lay in no man’s land. It took place against a backdrop of Christmas carols, an exchange of tokens and the sharing of seasonal good wishes.


Of course, the men of Fletton did not know that in May of that year they would experience the horrors of Aubers Ridge, amongst other battlefields.


Back home in Fletton, the reality of the war became increasingly difficult to ignore as news came thick and fast from the frontlines.


Belgium Refugees


On Wednesday 6th January 1915 the Fletton and District Belgium Committee and Collectors entertained 30 refugees in the Fletton Council schools. The proceedings sound wonderful. A sumptuous tea was served, the rooms were decorated with Belgium colours, red, white, and blue. The hosts also adopted these colours for their own attire. Miss Mildred Hawkins played both national anthems on the piano. There was also games, plays, dancing, and songs. The whole occasion was rounded off with tea, coffee, and mince pies.


Lights Go Out


More commonly associated with the Second World War blackouts were also required during the Great War. As early as 12th August 1914 coastal towns were subject to blackouts. On the 1st October 1914 exterior lights in the London area had to be extinguished or dimmed and street lights had to be partially painted out. Although the blackout restrictions were not extended to the rest of the country until February 1916, people were so concerned about Zeppelin attacks that they smashed bright outside lights. Peterborough was lucky that she remained unscathed from attack.


However, the order to blackout was met in some quarters by hostility. Citizens argued, why should they curb their activities whilst the factories blazed out light day and night?


War Bonuses


Before conscription was brought in companies wanted to encourage their employees to stay at work and not join up. Farrows Peas and Canning was no exception. Messrs J Farrow and Co awarded all men over 18 a weekly bonus of 1s and all men under 18, and women, a weekly bonus of 6d. However, this was at the discretion of the company!


Other men were not so lucky.


On Wednesday 9th June all 300 employees of the London Brick Company went on strike. They demanded a bonus to meet the increased cost of living. The setters were the first to down tools demanding an extra penny per thousand bricks. The disaffection soon spread throughout the yard.


Mr Robert Hill, John Cathles Hill’s son, was in the yard that day on his bi-monthly visit. Negotiations ensued and after a day an amicable settlement was agreed, and the men returned to work.


The average wage of a setter was 32 shillings a week and the demand for an extra penny per thousand bricks would have meant an extra 3 shillings per week in their wage packet.


Although the cost of living had increased so too had the cost to produce the bricks. ‘Smudge’ the fuel added to the bricks for firing had increased from 1s 6d to 7s 6d a ton and steam coal from 9s to 16s a ton. A good example of profiteering.


In addition, there had been rumours that No 1 yard was to be closed, resulting in a loss of 70 jobs. Although not confirmed when the men returned to work only a few were required at the yard ‘running the clay down’.


Soldiers Billeted


Many men were billeted in Fletton, Woodston and Stanground. It was reported that the men were ‘pleasant and agreeable’. The headquarters of the battalion was the Manor House in Fletton and that is where their 30 mules were housed. The battalion was 800 strong and the influx of so many men must have made a considerable impact on the local community.


On 6th November a second ‘Solemn Appeal’ appeared in the Peterborough Advertiser. The appeal was for ‘men of military age…to offer themselves to fight for their homes and their country’ at ‘a time of crisis’. It continued by saying that ‘The only proper place for the men…is in the forefront’.


The recruiting committees were having a difficult time encouraging men to enlist. The daily stories of death and destruction encouraged some men but deterred others. The first wave of excitement to enlist and be home by Christmas had waned. Men were now a raw material as the final sentence of the appeal bore out, ‘Help the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in every way you can and see to it that our part of England is known for the completeness with which it meets the national demand’.


They printed a third and fourth appeal before the end of the year.


News from the Front


News was often slow in coming back from the front line by official channels and men’s families often had to rely on friends for correspondence.


In the second week of February Mrs H Olsen of Fletton finally received the news that she had been fearing for 5 months. Her son Lance Corporal Leonard Olsen, 1st Northamptonshire Regiment, had been killed on 18th September 1914.


In October 1914 Leonard’s brother-in-law Private J Stevenson, had received intelligence from another Fletton man William Cunnington, who himself was killed in November. William had written to his father with the tragic news.


Further details emerged in another letter, from ex-Sgt Campling of the Borough Police Force. He said that ‘Olsen was killed in action on the Aisne, on 18th September’. He went on to explain that Olsen had went out ‘sniping, a dangerous task at the best…he was shot through the head and killed instantly’.


Leonard had been with the Northamptonshire Regiment for two years and was a noted shot.


More cheerful news brought solace to the men’s families and was often reported in the local paper to give a much needed moral boost.


Private Albert Hughes, 1st Northamptonshire Regiment, wrote to his parents in High Street at the beginning of April. He had been in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle and reported a narrow escape as a bullet went through his cap. A fellow Fletton man Arthur Wright also reported himself safe by sending home many cheery letters.


Private G Fox, ‘D’ Company, Northamptonshire Regiment, B. E. F., also sent news home to his parents saying, ‘I am safe up to the present’. He wrote his letter from a house that had been shelled. He went on to say that he came through a village so badly shelled that ‘not a single house was left standing…a sight I shall not forget easily’.


On Wednesday 29th September Mrs Sarah Rimes, of Bread Street, received correspondence from an Army Chaplain. It said, ‘I am sorry to inform you that your son Sidney is wounded’. Typically, perhaps of young men, who didn’t want undue fuss, it went on to say that Sidney ‘wished me to impress…that the injury is not serious. Private Albert (Sidney) Rimes, 7th Northamptonshire Regiment, had been involved in ‘The Big Push’ or The Battle of Loos. For more information about Albert (Sidney) see Blog 21. Albert (Sidney) was eventually evacuated back to England to recover from the wound to his back. Not mentioned in the Chaplain’s letter was the fact that Albert’s brother, Thomas Archie Rimes, 7th Northamptonshire Regiment, was also wounded.


The news gradually arrived of more Fletton men wounded at Loos.


Private William Allebone, 7th Northamptonshire Regiment, of 116 Queen’s Walk, was reported recovering at the base hospital. Before the war William had been a confectioner in Westgate.


Private John Lane, 7Th Northamptonshire Regiment, of 19 Queen’s Road, was recovering in hospital in Birmingham. Before the war John had been employed by Messrs Barford and Perkins.


Also employed by Messrs Barford and Perkins was Private Jack Noon, ‘C’ Company, 7th Northamptonshire Regiment, of Princes Road. He wrote from Stockport that he had been wounded in the leg, was comfortable and well looked after.


Private Lewis Elsom, 1st Northamptonshire Regiment, was recovering from a wound in his leg at the 2nd Canadian Hospital at Le Treport. His wife and 2 children, who lived in Rimes Yard, were relieved when they received his correspondence.


Soldier’s letters home were also a direct source of information of events.


Two letters received by family told vividly of the Battle of Loos and the sinking of HMS Irresistible in the Dardanelles.


Private Percy William Lincoln, 9th Royal Sussex Regiment, wrote of his experience at Loos, ‘it was terrible with the bullets and shrapnel, as we had continual bombardment for four days and nights’. He reflected on the heavy toll of loss of life and injury, ‘All our officers were killed or wounded but we advanced and held position’. He finished with the news that ‘I have lost several of my pals, and a lot of the boys from home were killed’.


This tremendous loss of life from one area was a flaw of the idea of encouraging men to enlist together from villages and workplaces to form ‘Pals’ battalions. When these units were involved in heavy fighting it was inevitable that men would die together. Whole villages, streets and workplaces lost many men overnight. Unfortunately, this lesson was not learnt by the government until after the war.


Able Seaman Arthur Woods, son of Mrs Woods, of Brewster Cottages, spoke of the sinking of HMS Irresistible in the Dardanelles on 18th March 1915. He had been on board the battleship at the time.


He said, ‘We had a narrow escape, and everything happened so quickly’. He spoke about ‘shells falling thickly all round us, many of my mates being killed on the spot’. He continued that 13 men got into a boat ‘I was lucky I was not hurt’ but ‘they kept firing at us’.


In total 12 of the crew were killed on the 18th and 19th March and casualties numbered approximately 135.


Hospitalisation


For some fortunate families the news they received came from hospitals.


The parents of Private B Wilcox, of 48 Queen’s Road, received news that their son was being treated in a hospital on Moss Side, Liverpool. He was recovering from fractured ribs which he received whilst escaping from the Germans after he had been taken prisoner. Private B Wilcox was an Instrumentalist in the Band and played the trombone.


Drummer W W Smith, of the 2nd Bedfordshire Regiment, son of Mrs Charlotte Smith, of 10 Bread Street, had been part of the British Expeditionary Force until he was wounded at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Drummer W W Smith was being treated in a hospital in Kent. He had suffered shrapnel wounds to the face and chest.


Brothers in the same battle were divided. The Battle of Auber’s Ridge claimed the lives of many local men. One of these was Private Harold Robert Burchnell, 2nd Northamptonshire Regiment, of 7 Princes Road. His brother George Burchnell, 1st Northamptonshire Regiment, received a bayonet wound to the leg and was sent to Birmingham Southern General to recover.


Other men injured at Aubers Ridge included:


Lance Corporal F Wright, 2nd Northamptonshire regiment, of High Street. He was badly wounded in the thigh and sent to Brighton hospital. He had been on the attack when he received his wound. He crawled 200 yards back to the trench. In the process four men ran out and assisted him, one of which lost his own life.


George Richardson of Duke Street was wounded and taken to Leicester hospital.


Private Walter Robert Barrick, 1st Northamptonshire Regiment, of Persimmon Terrace, was wounded in the foot and taken to a hospital in France.


Private Percy B Upex, 5th Canadian Infantry, of 13 Princes Road had a poisoned foot and was taken to Leicester Infirmary.


For some families the agonising wait for news began as their sons and husbands were reported missing.


This included Private Jack Anker, 1st Northamptonshire Regiment. Unfortunately, there was no happy outcome for Jack’s family.


And Private James Thomas Woolastone Green, Australian Expeditionary Force, late of the 3rd Northamptonshire Regiment, of 44 Grove Street. For Mrs F Green good news came about her son James as he was safe and well. Her other son, Private George Darlington Green, late of the 3rd Bedfordshire Regiment was also recovering after being wounded in the Dardanelles.


For other men recuperation could continue at home.


Private Percy Moorcroft, 2nd King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), was invalided home with frostbitten toes. ‘Some soldiers’ he said considered frostbite to ‘be worse than 10 bullets’. Percy had gone to the front in January and had spent 7 weeks in the trenches in Ypres. He had been involved in one charge where he was only one of 9 survivors from a strength of 200, but he commented ‘the gallant lads captured the trench’. He also added that there was an abundance of food in the trenches, plenty of tobacco but not enough matches.


A Family Affair


As a mother it must have been agonising waiting for news of sons who were away fighting. As mentioned in Blog 20, 13 Fletton families, remembered on the memorial in St. Margaret’s church, experienced the loss of 2 or more sons.


Some mothers welcomed, at least some, of their sons home again.


Four of these were Mrs Elizabeth Crowden of Sunneyside, London Road, Mrs Harriet Markley of 13 Milton Road, Mrs Frances Beaumont of St. Margaret’s Road and Mrs Fanny Stewart of 18 Victoria Place.


Mrs Crowden had 3 sons serving.


They were Lieutenant Guy Pascoe Crowden and Lieutenant John (Jack) Cartwright Tryne Crowden, both of the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and Second Lieutenant Reginald Ive Calthrop Crowden. 4th Lincolnshire Regiment.


All the boys were educated at the King’s School, Peterborough. When war broke out Guy was studying for the medical profession, John was in the engineering department of the G. N. R and Reginald was a farming pupil with Mr Horrell in Westwood.


Mrs Elizabeth Crowden received a letter on Tuesday 31st August from her son Guy. He wrote that on the 28th August his brother Jack had been wounded in France. Jack had been in the trenches when a bullet struck him and lodged under his right arm. On the 29th Jack was moved to a base hospital to have the bullet extracted. He was then taken to London to a hospital for officers arriving on Tuesday evening. On receiving a telegram from regimental headquarters Mrs Crowden visited her son on the 1st September. The speed of Jack’s treatment is amazing. From being wounded to receiving a visit from his mother barely 4 days.


During the Second World War Reginald would be the Commanding Officer of the City Battalion of the Peterborough Home Guard.


Mrs Harriet Markley also had 3 sons serving.


They were Private Edward William Markley (sometimes referred to as Charles Edward), 2nd Northamptonshire Regiment. Private Ernest Alexander Markley, and Private Charles Edward Markley, both of the 1st Northamptonshire Regiment. Both Ernest and Charles were wounded on 10th December at Ypres. Ernest had concussion and a broken leg and Charles had shrapnel which penetrated his eye.


Mrs Frances Beaumont had 5 sons serving.


Private William James Beaumont, 5th Northamptonshire Regiment, Gunner Augustus Beaumont, Royal Garrison Artillery, Private Frederick Beaumont, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, Private Albert Beaumont, 1st Huntingdonshire Cyclists and Sapper Walter Beaumont, Royal Engineers. All Frances’ sons retuned at the end of the war.


Mrs Fanny Stewart had 5 sons serving in the armed forces and 1 son in the merchant service.


They were Graham Stewart who served in the merchant service, passing his certificate of competency as 1st Mate in 1906. Archibald Sidney Stewart who enlisted on 21st October 1902. Following his emigration, he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 31st January 1916 in Toronto, Canada. Wallace Stewart who following his emigration to New Zealand enlisted on 17th May 1917. He joined the Wellington Infantry Regiment ‘B’ Company. Allan Jones Stewart who also emigrated to New Zealand. He enlisted on 18th April 1915. And Percy MacGregor Stewart who joined the 1st Hunts Cyclists. Percy was later transferred to the Machine Gun Corps.


Driver Allan Stewart was injured in the Dardanelles. He was recovering in Juna Park Hospital, in Cairo when he wrote home. He said he was recovering from the effects of ‘being knocked down by a shell, also a touch of dysentery’. He went on to say his ‘eyes are injured’. On the way to the hospital, he passed by the wreckage of the Royal Edward and reported that by the ‘numbers of Tommie’s helmets in the water, there must have been a lot drowned’.

Unfortunately, one of Fanny’s sons, John Alexander, did not return. John was killed by an internal explosion on the vessel HMS Bulwark, off Sheerness, on 26th November 1914.


Prisoner of War


Again, we often associate prisoners of war with the Second World War, but prisoners were also taken in the Great War.


It was reported in 1915 that one of the brothers of Private Frank Bradley, of 11 Silver Street, Corporal J W Bradley was taken prisoner of war and was being held in a camp at Doeberitz, Germany.


Doeberitz was a holding camp, mainly recorded for administration purposes. In reality, the men were most likely held elsewhere.


Also listed in Doeberitz was Private G Palmer, ‘D’ Company, 2nd Suffolk Regiment, and Private J Palmer. Private G Palmer wrote to the Peterborough Advertiser with an appeal, ‘Just a card trusting you will enquire into this matter for us…We should be pleased if the Peterborough Fund would be kind enough to send us a parcel, like other prisoners are receiving’.


Prisoners of War relied on these parcels to provide vital supplies, along with a few treats, to make their incarceration more bearable. Locally, there were appeals to donate money and items to these boxes and women throughout the country would knit and make socks, scarves etc for the soldiers abroad.


Private Edward F Mumford, 7th Northamptonshire Regiment, previously reported missing, now wrote to his wife at 31 George Street, Fletton. The letter must have brought huge relief despite the fact that the news it contained revealed that her husband had lost his right arm and his left foot was smashed. He was now held prisoner in Germany. Edward was moved a lot between different camps (hospitals) but was on the books of Listen. A subsequent letter brought the news that ‘I am improving a little bit, and my arm and foot seem to be going on nicely’. Edward hoped to receive ‘some English books’ to pass the time.


Private Edward F Mumford was reunited with his wife in 1916. It was reported in February that he had returned to England as part of a prisoner exchange and was recovering in a London hospital. Mrs Mumford visited her husband, and he was keen to say that ‘while under the care of the German doctors he received unstinted kindness, and all skill was used in an effort to save his arm. It was only at his own request that the arm was removed. It was at first thought he would lose his foot, but this the doctors saved’. Mrs Mumford confirms that ‘her husband looks well and writes splendidly with his left hand’.


Prisoners of War were also sent to Britain. On the afternoon of Tuesday 20th April 1915 locals gathered in Fair Meadow to watch a train of 900 German and Austrian prisoners of war being taken to a camp at Lancaster. The prisoners, some wearing uniform and some wearing civilian clothes, were given water and tea at the station, and they were said not to look ‘too despondent’ about their situation.


Russian ‘V.C’ for Fletton soldier


Corporal Walter Branker, D. C. M. 2nd Northamptonshire Regiment (gazetted 3/6/1915), of Belmont Terrace, London Road was awarded the Russian Cross of St. George (3rd Class) Walter was awarded the honour for the same action that he was awarded the D. C. M. This was at the battle of Neuve Chapelle. He volunteered to take a despatch under very heavy fire. He received 38 bullet holes in his greatcoat.


Walter was just 25 years old. He had been in the Northamptonshire Regiment for 5 years and before going to France he had served in Egypt. Prior to joining the army, he had been employed at Messrs Barford and Perkins.


Since his brave action he was subsequently a bomb instructor to the 3rd Northamptonshire Regiment in Gillingham.


Tragedy at munitions factory


The war effort throughout the country operated at full stretch. Factories were turned to making munitions.


In Peterborough, the Peter Brotherhoods Works at Walton made munitions. Just before midnight on Friday 27th August, Alfred Towers was crushed to death by a steel plate weighing 30cwt. He was one of 3 men moving the plate into position. The plate was being held on a crane driven by Fletton man Arthur Middleton, of 3 Milton Road. The plate slipped off the crane hook as they pushed it into place. An inquest was held at the Paul Pry where it was concluded that the event had been a tragic accident.


The factory of J. P. Hall and Son in Fletton also produced munitions. On Thursday 9th September a young 16 year old boy, William Hales of Farcet was looking for his tools. They had been hidden by another young lad playing a prank. William was searching for them in a machine when someone started it up. A ‘shaping arm’ came down and struck him on the back of the neck killing him instantly. William was the son of the proprietor of the ‘Black Swan’ in Farcet.


Each year, in September, there is a Heritage Festival held in St. Margaret’s church, Fletton. As part of this festival the lives of many men who served in the Great War have been researched. If a relative of yours served and you have information please get in touch, we would love to hear from you.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved, and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

John McCrae


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

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