“I Want To Tread Over All The Path My Son Last Trod.” Pilgrims on the British Legion Great Pilgrimage of 1928


“As we stood in that great hall with the names of tens of thousands of those of our comrades who had no known burial place inscribed on its panelled walls I saw near by some of our women-folk with the tears gently rolling down their faces and a brave smile come stealing forth, I wondered whether the sacrifice had been worth it, whether the League of Nations and the Pact to outlaw war would bear fruit or whether our sons and daughters would be plunged into a struggle with which our own great war would fade into insignificance. As the smile came and as later in the ceremony the sun came forth in all its glory so the hope of the former came in full strength, and we marched past our Prince with the consciousness that we had done our best and, come what may, posterity could point no finger of scorn at the present generation.”[1]

In August 1928, some 11,000 pilgrims made the journey from Britain and the Irish Free State, as well as individuals from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, to the former battlefields of France and Flanders as part of the British Legion Great Pilgrimage.

This article records the experiences of eleven of those 11,000 pilgrims, and their impressions of what it was like to take part .

Great Pilgrimage 1928 VCs Birmingham Daily Gazette 4 August 1928

William Hartley Barnes M.S.M., who lived at 20 Grove Lane in Padiham, near Burnley in Lancashire, travelled with “T” Train Party from Yorkshire to take part in the Great Pilgrimage.

Born on 24 November 1884, William was employed as a carpenter when he attested for the Royal Engineers at Burnley on 7 April 1915, being issued with the service number 89430. On the outbreak of the war Barnes was a member of the National Reserve, having previously served with the 5th Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment (Territorial Force). He embarked for Egypt on 14 June and was posted to 71st Field Company, which formed part of 13th (Western) Division. After serving at Suvla, Barnes was appointed a paid Lance-Corporal on 8 December and promoted to 2nd Corporal on 5 February 1916. He went on to serve in Mesopotamia and was promoted to Corporal on 13 May, and advanced to Sergeant on 3 July. He spent one month in India on leave the following year, and was admitted to hospital on 15 October 1918 suffering from malaria. Embarking for home on Boxing Day, Sergeant Barnes was posted to the Royal Engineers Depot at Chatham on 19 February 1919 and was transferred to the Class Z Army Reserve when he was demobilised on 25 March. He was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal on 22 September 1919.

One of three men from Burnley who went on the Pilgrimage in 1928, William was interviewed when he returned by a journalist of The Burnley Express regarding his experiences. For him, the pilgrimage was personal as he went to visit Ploegsteert where his brother, 8393 Sergeant John Barnes, who served with “D” Company of the 1st Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment and had been killed on 7 November 1914 during an attack mounted through Ploegsteert Wood to Le Gheer. After laying a wreath there, William visited a cemetery where many of his brother’s comrades were buried:

“Close by is a cottage known as the “Lancashire Cottage,” which, during the war, was the headquarters of the East Lancashire Regiment. The man who tenanted the cottage during the war is still in occupation, and he told Mr Barnes that he would always remember the lads from Lancashire. If any visited the spot where he lived he would always welcome them.” [2]

William Hartley Barnes M.S.M. died at Burnley in 1978, aged 93.



“We joined the big pilgrimage to France in August. I would not have missed it for anything. It will live in my memory as long as I live. About 11,000 people made the pilgrimage – every class and creed – some of the highest and some of the lowest in the land, all there to visit the battlefields and the graves of their dead. It made one realise the war brought everyone level – all suffered alike.

The organisation was wonderful; special trains were waiting at London, where we all had our different parties, numbered “A” to “W.” Each member wore a badge, with the letter of his party attached. Special boats took the pilgrims to France, where a hot meal was provided on arrival at Calais. I belonged to the overseas party “A”, which was billeted at Amiens, and visited the battlefields from there each day. We visited Beaucourt Hamel, (sic) in the Somme Valley. All along the route were objects of interest – stumps of trees, an old tank, a cemetery, etc. – and on arrival there we found that a section of the Somme is being cared for by Newfoundland. The trenches are left in their war-time condition, the old duck-boards are still down, although now broken and rotting; dug-outs are intact; and the trenches wind in out of each other for miles. The ground around about is strewn with relics of old rifles, shoes, dixies, water-bottles, barbed-wire, etc., and one can see the broken remains of a machine gun, and beside it a helmet, rifle, and water-bottle of the gunner – telling all plainly that he died at his post. A beautiful monument is built there to the Scottish Highlanders, and Lady Haig, who was there as a pilgrim, was visiting it at the same time as we were. We all stood motionless as a Scottish piper, with his bagpipes, struck up a “Scottish Lament.”

We also visited the famous Vimy Ridge, the scene of such fierce fighting. The Germans held the Ridge right up to 1917. It is a long range of hills. One can easily see why the enemy fought so hard for it, as it commands miles of country. The movement of troops for miles around could be seen from the Ridge. It is simply honeycombed with trenches. One can walk through them for miles. Their construction is wonderful; the dug-outs etc., are specially built, and a great under-ground tunnel connects with the front line. Men, munitions, and supplies were all brought into the line in this way. “No Man’s Land,” in between the trenches, is ploughed up by shell-fire. There are holes everywhere, and one can hardly take a step between. We thought the enemy fire was bad enough; but our own fire must have been hell! I remember how we used to shell it for days without a break. A beautiful monument is being built on top of the Ridge, in memory of the Canadians who eventually captured it. A monument, also, is being built on the left of the Ridge to the Frenchmen who took that portion of the line. It is a nice idea – a big column, with a beaconlight always burning at the top which never goes out. It stands as a silent reminder of those sleeping beneath. Thousands and thousands of our men and Frenchmen fell at Vimy.

We went over to Arras, Albert, Poperinghe, etc., and Ypres Salient (where I received my wounds). Ypres Salient is now a cemetery. The cemeteries are beautifully kept; every grave is marked by a white stone, as the wooden crosses at first used rotted very quickly. Every stone is exactly alike, row after row. On many stones are the name and rank of the soldier; but on many others no name appears – just the simple words, “A British Soldier: Known Unto God.” The main gate, built at the entrance to Ypres, is a monument to the boys who were missing and have no known graves. It has 60,000 names on its panels, and on one panel – No. 23 – is devoted to the Australian boys. I found the name of my cousin – Claude Bower. He was reported missing after a big battle at Ypres.

It was at the Menin Gate that the big ceremony was held in honour of our dead. The Prince of Wales, King and Prince of the Belgians, Marshal Foch, Admiral Jellicoe, etc., were present, and 11,000 pilgrims. There was no hitch of any kind. Each party was allotted a place and marched to it. Our party was on the right side of the Gate. It was a most impressive sight. Flags of every Division and country which took part in the war were flying from the ramparts. After the service there was a march past – women first. It was splendid to see them trying to keep in step to the band – old and young women, mothers and widows; many wearing rows of medals. Then came the men; every man with his medals up, swinging along, shoulder to shoulder, as in the old days. The Prince of Wales, King of the Belgians, and all the Royal party stood on a raised dais, on the right of (the) Menin Gate, and the Prince took the salute.

The towns in the war area are now re-built, and a good proportion of the battlefields are cultivated and growing crops. Wild flowers and scarlet poppies are growing on every side. Roads have been re-made, and everything looks prosperous. No mud to be seen anywhere, as you go through the trenches – so different to the grim days of conflict!

The French people turned out in thousands to give us a welcome. They cheered, waved, and gesticulated, and when a little rank of blinded men from “St Dunstan’s” marched by, arm-in-arm, the roar that went up could be heard for miles.”[3]

Born at Armidale, Selby Garfield Bower was aged twenty-three years and seven months and stated that he was employed as a grazier when he attested for the Australian Imperial Force at Sydney on 17 November 1914.  Issued with the service number 1504, he sailed from Australia with the 3rd Reinforcements for the 2nd Battalion on 10 February 1915 and was promoted to Corporal on 11 February.

After training in Egypt he was posted to the 2nd Battalion on the Gallipoli Peninsula, joining the battalion at Anzac Cove on 5 May. Bower was appointed a Lance-Sergeant on 22 June, but on 25 August was admitted to 3rd Australian Field Ambulance suffering from influenza. Evacuated to Mudros, Bower was admitted to No. 1 Australian Casualty Clearing Station before sailing for Malta on 31 August and being sent to St Patrick’s Hospital for treatment. On 10 September he embarked on the H.T. Scotian for England, and on his arrival was admitted to the London War Hospital at Epsom on 18 September. While being treated in hospital at Epsom Lance-Sergeant Bower met Lydia Mary Jones, a nurse at the London War Hospital, and they married in 1916.

Following his discharge from hospital and convalescence at Weymouth, Lance-Sergeant Bower was posted to the 1st Training Battalion A.I.F. at Perham Down on 6 July 1916 and was drafted to France on 31 July. He joined 1st Australian Infantry Base Depot at Etaples on 1 August and was sent back to the 2nd Battalion, rejoining the unit on 10 August at their billets in Pernois. On 12 September, while serving in the front line near Zillebeke, Lance-Sergeant Bower received severe wounds to his left leg and foot, fracturing his fibula and tibia, from a German minenwerfer shell burst. He was admitted to 1st Australian Field Ambulance before being evacuated to No. 17 Casualty Clearing Station at Remy Siding. From there he was sent to Boulogne and was admitted to No. 3 Canadian General Hospital on 18 September before sailing on board the H.M.H.S. St David for England. Bower arrived at the Queen Mary Military Hospital at Whalley on 19 September where he remained until 13 March 1917 when he was transferred to the 3rd Australian Auxillary Hospital at Dartford. On his discharge from hospital, Bower was posted to No. 2 Command Depot A.I.F. at Weymouth on 26 April. Unfit for further service at the front, Bower embarked on board the Hospital Ship A.14 on 21 July, and arrived back in Australia on the H.M.A.T. Euripides on 19 September.  His arrival back home was reported by The Armidale Advertiser on 25 September:

“By Saturday morning’s mail there returned to Armidale Sergt. Selby Bower, a son of Mr Geo. Bower, the well-known Armidale wool-buyer. Three years ago this month the gallant Sergt. answered the call of King and country, being among the first to do so from this district. He returns with a badly injured foot and leg, but with the knowledge of a duty worthily discharged. He was always a popular young fellow, and his wide circle of friends have given him a very hearty welcome home. Sergt. Bower was attached to the 2nd Battalion and saw practically the whole of the Gallipoli campaign up to shortly before the memorable evacuation. He participated in the famous Lone Pine charge, and passed through the whole campaign scathless except for slight illness. Afterwards he went to France, and survived the multitudinous dangers at Pozieres and on the Somme until finally, at Ypres, a 12-inch German minenwerfer shell burst near where he and nine of his comrades were standing. All the rest were killed, the Sergt. alone escaping, though with a sadly damaged foot. This occurred at night time, and the Sergt. had been dodging these little German favours all day. Though at first his recovery was despaired of, six months in hospital made a very big difference, especially the devoted care and attention of one excellent English nurse, who subsequently became Mrs Bower. It was indeed a romantic love affair. Mrs Bower is due in Australia by the next mail boat.

The Sergt.’s leg is some three inches short at present, and he is to undergo an operation at Randwick to have the bones reset and lengthened. Despite his many stirring experiences the young soldier looks exceedingly well, though he cannot walk without crutches. As to the war generally he says there is much yet to be done, and every man possible is needed, chiefly to bring the battalions up to their proper strength and give the boys so long out there a decent rest. He says the German organisation is wonderful, but their soldiers are long-distance fighters only. Never did he have a chance to get into a hand-to-hand contest – they always either ran or threw up their hands.”

Lance-Sergeant Bower was discharged as physically unfit for service, as a consequence of his wounds, on 14 March 1918, and received his war medals at a ceremony held at the Town Hall in Armidale on 3 September 1921.[4] Selby worked as a butcher after the war, but he and Lydia left Armidale in 1923 when he purchased the Coliseum Picture Theatre at Lithgow. They lost everything when the building was destroyed in a fire during the early hours of 31 August 1924.[5]

On 12 May 1928, the Bowers sailed for England on board the S.S. Koln, and during their trip stayed with Lydia’s mother.[6] It was during this visit that Selby went to France and Flanders as part of the British Legion’s Great Pilgrimage.

Mentioned in Selby’s letter was his cousin, 6 Private Claude Bower, who served with “A” Company of the 33rd Battalion, Australian Imperial Force and who is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial. Claude had attested at Armidale on 11 August 1915 and at the time of his enlistment was aged eighteen and employed as a groom. He embarked from Sydney on 4 May 1916 and landed at Southampton on 9 July. Private Bower was drafted to France on 21 November 1916 and was killed on 14 October 1917.

Claude’s brother, 7213 Private William Eric Bower, enlisted for the Australian Imperial Force at Armidale on 31 December 1916. Aged eighteen and seven months, he was employed as a car driver when he attested and left Sydney with the 24th Reinforcement for the 13th Battalion on 7 February 1917. Arriving at Devonport on 11 April, Eric Bower joined the 4th Training Battalion at Codford Camp and was drafted to France on 18 October, being taken onto the strength of the 13th Battalion six days later. Eric was severely wounded in the abdomen on 8 August 1918 and died of his wounds at 11.10 a.m. the following morning after being admitted to No. 61 Casualty Clearing Station. He is buried at Vignacourt British Cemetery: Plot VI, Row A, Grave 13, and the following inscription is carved at the base of his headstone:

In Loving Memory of the Noble Son of Mr & Mrs Bower

Age 19. (R.I.P.)

Great Pilgrimage 1928 Vimy Ridge

Another Australian who went to France on the Great Pilgrimage was Arthur John Williams, who was a member of the Geelong Branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia. Formerly 3615 Private A. J. Williams, 3rd Pioneer Battalion, Australian Imperial Force (8th Reinforcements), he wrote to his friends at Geelong and recounted where he had visited while in France and Belgium:

“Dear Brownie and comrades at Geelong,

I promised to write and tell you something of the British Legion Pilgrimage to the battlefields of France, so here goes.

Saturday, August 4th, was a very wet day in London and promised anything but fine for our trip. At Victoria Station I met two members of the Geelong branch, E. A. Alsop and W. J. F. Butterworth. They were very well and asked to be remembered in me letter to all “digger” cobbers in Geelong. They also joined the Pilgrimage as did many Australians from all parts of the Commonwealth.

The trip across the Channel was very rough, and hundreds failed to appear at the dinner table. Arriving at Calais we had tea and supper there and entrained for Amiens, arriving there about 2 a.m. Sunday, where we were all sent to our billets (just like old times) and Sunday being a free day we were at liberty to go where we liked so three others and myself got a taxi and visited “Villers Bret,” Corbie, passing through Hamel to Sailly Laurette, then to Cressy and Chipilly where we inspected “Big Bertha” the great gun that fired upon Paris 75 miles away and eventually captured by the Australian Third Division. Then on through Fay and back another route, so we saw a good deal of the country through which we passed in 1918.

There is not a sign of a trench, or a dug-out, (except, of course, where they are preserved) and in their place miles and miles of splendid crops of all sorts; one can hardly credit that the people who cleared away all signs of devastation, and are building up new villages in places where the old ones were destroyed, building is going on everywhere.

Monday we visited Beaumont Hamel, and the Newfoundland Park where fine monuments have been erected, trenches preserved, duckboards and all. The Ulster Cemetery is close by, and in company with several others I also paid a visit. These cemeteries are kept beautifully and made one almost wish that he were one of the “Glorious Dead.”

Tuesday we visited Vimy where the Canadians are building a wonderful monument which I should like to see when finished. The tunnels and trenches are concreted, and lighted with electricity, and should last for all time.

Wednesday we went to Ypres. This, of course, was the crowning day of the whole tour. The people are re-erecting a beautiful city, though there are still evidences of the ruthless destruction, particularly to the great Cloth Hall, part of which is being left in its original condition as a monument. The early morning was damp, but when we got out of the train the rain stopped and the day turned out full of sunshine. The Menin Gate Memorial is a beautiful thing, where are engraved the names of over 35,000 (sic) soldiers who have no known grave. The Prince of Wales and the Crown Prince of Belgium were there among the thousands of people, and the march past of 11,000 pilgrims was a great sight.

On Thursday I visited the cemetery at Sailly Laurette, where I found the graves of four of my old comrades who were killed in the battle of Bray on August 22, 1918. They were buried side by side, and Les Parrott, of Geelong, will remember them well – Lieut. J. McConnell, Sergt. M. H. Lewis, D. G. Bethune, and C. E. Marriott, all of the 3rd Pioneer Battalion. I am sorry that I did not get the names and where buried of some more Geelong boys. There must be hundreds lying at peace in the many cemeteries that I visited.

The whole Pilgrimage was wonderfully organised, and everyone concerned deserves the greatest credit. We arrived in Paris yesterday evening and I have been very busy sight seeing ever since. Paris is a fine city with its crowded streets with the taxis flying around like flies.

To-day I visited the Arch de Triomphe, where the French Unknown Soldier is buried, and also the Perpetual Flame which is most unique. I also visited the Effel (sic) Tower and went to the top from where a wonderful view of Paris and the surrounding landscape for miles can be obtained. The trip is nearing the end, and I hope to get back to London on the 13th.

I hope you have not fallen asleep while reading this – or perhaps you were like Jack Brownlee – had some refreshments half way through. Anyhow I trust that this letter finds all the Geelong boys well, including yourself, and with best wishes from yours in comradeship

A. J. Williams.”[7]


Born on 7 January 1889, Archibald Candler, better known as Archie, attested for the Coldstream Guards at Bury St Edmunds on 15 August 1905, stating his profession as musician. Issued with the regimental number 6301, he was posted to the 2nd Battalion and appointed as a Drummer. In 1908 Candler, who had already earned his first Good Conduct badge, transferred to The Suffolk Regiment and was issued with the regimental number 7715. He served with the 2nd Battalion and was on the Permanent Staff at the Regimental Depot when war was declared, playing regularly for the Depot football team. Drummer Candler rejoined the 2nd Battalion at the Curragh and sailed from Dublin for France, disembarking at Le Havre on 14 August 1914. Promoted to Corporal while on active service, Candler was severely wounded in the leg at Sanctuary Wood on 25 September 1915 and was discharged as physically unfit for service due to his wounds on 25 May 1916 while on the strength of the Regimental Depot. Archie was subsequently issued with a Silver War Badge.

In the years following the war Archie was employed at Robert Boby Ltd. in Bury St Edmunds, where he worked as an engineer’s bookkeeper. He married Olive Ruby Lilian Game in 1922, and also joined the Royal Ancient Order of Buffalos and the British Legion branch in the town.

On his return from the Great Pilgrimage to his home at 40 Guildhall Street in Bury St Edmunds, Candler was interviewed by a journalist of The Bury Free Press and gave his impressions of what he had seen while on the pilgrimage:

“It is marvelous how they have cultivated the land around. There are big shell holes that have never been filled up, and in the middle of the wheat fields you can see these big, cement redoubts, built by the Germans; gun emplacements, and so on, which are so substantial – nearly a yard thick – that they will never be able to shift them. The people there are rebuilding their own houses at night-time, after they have done their day’s work. Some are living in the front and the backs are all blown out. The majority are in our Army huts and corrugated iron built up for shelter till they are in a position to build proper houses. Barbed wire is still about and some of the women tore their stockings and skirts on it.”[8]

Among the places Archie visited was Vimy Ridge:

“We went all round the ridge and through the trenches, and here and there dud shells were sticking up, and there were a few rifles lying about. In the evening we were entertained to an open-air concert, with bands. We visited some of the cafes, and in a body like that, of 450, there was not a man the worse for drink. The way it was conducted and the way the people behaved themselves was splendid.”[9]

Archie also saw the names of comrades from the 2nd Suffolks commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, and brought back two souvenir ashtrays, one from Hill 60 with bullets for legs, and another of the Menin Gate.

Archie was elected as Chairman of the Bury St Edmunds branch of the British Legion in 1935 and on 26 October 1955 was presented with his gold badge, to mark his twenty years of service in the role.[10]

Archie Candler died at his home at 40 Guildhall Street on 4 April 1960.


“To put it into a few words, I have never had such a four days in all my life. Everything was done that could be done, both by the headquarters organisation and the municipal authorities, and the solemnity of the occasion was the dominant note. The Mayors of the different places extended both hands of welcome and friendship, and public buildings were thrown open to us. There was a magnificent reception wherever we went. At Armentieres we laid a wreath on the War Memorial. Our visit to Vimy Ridge impressed us all. There were still signs of the war to remind us of what those sleeping in the cemeteries and their comrades went through. At Ypres the great service of remembrance was most touching. Many of the war-stricken villages have made wonderful recoveries, but the people in them still remember Tommy for what he was in the war and opened their doors in welcome.”[11]

Born on 8 February 1873, Captain Arthur George Cleale, of the Chelmsford Branch of the British Legion, had been in business as a cycle agent and ironmonger prior to the Great War, and was later as a garage proprietor. During the war he had served with the 1/2nd Battalion, The Essex Volunteer Regiment and “C” Company, 2nd Volunteer Battalion, The Essex Regiment, being commissioned as a Temporary Lieutenant on 7 September 1916, and a Temporary Captain on 10 March 1917.[12] As well as being involved in the activities of the Chelmsford Branch of the British Legion, Captain Cleale served as Chairman of the Chelmsford Volunteers’ Association and as a Director of the West Essex Permanent Building Society.

Arthur Cleale died at St John’s Hospital at Chelmsford on 5 July 1957.

Great Pilgrimage 1928 Vimy Ridge Mother

Born at Canterbury on 16 July 1877, Ellen Fowler trained as a nurse at St Mary’s Hospital in London between 1892 and 1895. During the Great War she served as a Staff Nurse with the Territorial Force Nursing Service, and registered with the General Nursing Council of England and Wales on 21 April 1922. At the time of the Great Pilgrimage in 1928 Nurse Fowler was residing at Salisbury House, on the Whitstable Road in the St Thomas’ Hill district of Canterbury. In an article that she wrote for The British Journal of Nursing later that year, she recalled her visit to Vimy Ridge:

“On August 7th we all went to Vimy, picking up our luncheon again at the station. We walked to the Ridge, Lady Haig with us. We sat down there for a while, afterwards going on to Grange Trench, where the German and Canadian trenches met; they have now been concreted and a new road is being constructed for conveying material for building the great National Memorial; even now the work done impresses one.

I noticed a poor old mother toiling up the Ridge, and went and asked her if I should try to get her a seat in a char-a-banc for it was very hot and there was about a mile further to go, also many young people, who could have walked, took up the seats; but she pathetically replied, “I want to tread over all the path my son last trod.”[13]

Ellen Fowler died in 1945.


Mrs Mary Ann O’Connor (left), who lived at 31 Acorn Street in the Netherthorpe district of Sheffield, was a member of “T” Party of the British Legion Great Pilgrimage in August 1928. She wore the medals issued to three of her sons who had died during the Great War:

10389 Lance-Corporal John Francis O’Connor, who was killed on 18 November 1914 while serving with the 2nd Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry). He is commemorated on Panel 47 of the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial.

14296 Driver Michael O’Connor, who served with 112th Battery, XXIV Brigade, Royal Field Artillery and died of wounds on 20 July 1915. He is buried at Hop Store Cemetery: Plot I, Row C, Grave 24.

201267 Private Thomas O’Connor, who was killed in Italy on 15 June 1918 while serving with the 9th (Service) Battalion, The York and Lancaster Regiment. He is buried Granezza British Cemetery: Plot I, Row D, Grave 1.

All three of Mrs O’Connor’s sons were also commemorated on the Roll of Honour inside St Vincent’s Catholic Church on Solly Street in Sheffield.

Mrs O’Connor carried the Sheffield Branch Standard during the ceremony held at the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, in place of ex-Sergeant Bernard Birch, who was ill and could not attend the Pilgrimage.[14]

Mary, who was born in County Mayo on 9 July 1867, later lived at 28 Moorfield Flats in Shalesmoor and died in 1945, aged 78.


Mrs Flora Sharpe, who lived at 77 Queen’s Road in Bury St Edmunds, also took part in the Pilgrimage. She had the opportunity to visit the grave of her husband, 3/9607 Company Sergeant-Major Charles Sharpe, who had served with the 7th (Service) Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment and died of wounds on 20 October 1915 after being admitted to the West Riding Casualty Clearing Station at Lillers.[15]

C.S.M. Sharpe had served for 23 years with The Suffolk Regiment, enlisting at Aldershot in 1888, seen service in South Africa with the 1st Battalion and 8th Battalion, Mounted Infantry (he was Mentioned in Despatches) and was awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal in 1907. He was discharged in 1911 and worked went to work in Bury St Edmunds. He joined the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion shortly after the outbreak of the war and landed in France with the 7th Suffolks on 30 May 1915. C.S.M. Sharpe was mortally wounded during the fighting for the Quarries near Hulluch on 13 October 1915, and he is buried at Lillers Communal Cemetery: Plot IV, Row D, Grave 10.

Flora was interviewed by a journalist from The Bury Free Press following her return from the Great Pilgrimage, and said:

“I have come back with more content now that I have seen my husband’s grave, and if it is any comfort to other mothers that I have seen the graves of their sons – it would be to me – they can rest assured that every cemetery I saw is well kept and it is like entering a pretty English garden.”[16]

Flora Sharpe died at Bury St Edmunds in 1962, aged 83.


Great Pilgrimage 1928 Worthing Widow Photo

Mrs Gertrude Bowley, who lived at 6 Warwick Place in Worthing, was one of the widows who took part in the British Legion Great Pilgrimage in August 1928. Her late husband, M2/269520 Private Frank Bowley, who worked as a milk carrier before the war, had served with 594th Mechanical Transport Company, Army Service Corps, attached to X Corps Heavy Artillery. He had died of wounds after being admitted to 105th Field Ambulance R.A.M.C. on 28 July 1918, aged 34, and is buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery: Plot XXVIII, Row G, Grave 18A. Two photographs taken by Mrs Bowley, one in the preserved trenches on Vimy Ridge and another taken beneath the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, were reproduced in The Worthing Gazette on 15 August 1928.

Born on 2 August 1884, Gertrude Bowley never remarried and died at Worthing in 1969, two months before her 85th birthday.


72352 Private Augustus Stanley Bearman served with the 15th (Service) Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) (Nottingham), and had died on 27 February 1918. Born at Bocking in 1885, he was the eldest son of Harry and Ellen Bearman, who lived on Market Place in Braintree, and married to Clara Stone at St Matthew’s Church in West Kensington on 11 September 1911. Their son, Bargrave Stanley Bearman, was born on 18 March 1913 and was baptised at Holy Trinity Church in Upper Tooting on 27 April. Augustus lived with his family at 70 Boundaries Road in Balham.

Augustus was employed as a drapers’ assistant when he attested for the Royal Flying Corps at Battersea on 8 December 1915, having previously been rejected for service by another Recruiting Office for showing symptoms of heart disease. Issued with the service number 38956, Private Bearman was drafted to France on 27 August 1916 and posted to No. 13 Balloon Company R.F.C. On 7 May 1917 he was awarded seven days’ Field Punishment No. 2 for “neglect of duty.” On 1 September he was drafted to the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division Infantry Base Depot to be trained as an infantryman, and on 24 September was transferred to The Sherwood Foresters, being posted to the 15th (Service) Battalion.

Private Bearman was killed as a result of an accidental explosion while unload Stokes Mortar bombs from a G.S. Wagon while working at the 35th Division Salvage Depot at Kempton Park Camp, south of St Julien. The Salvage Officer of 35th Division later wrote to Private Bearman’s father:

“The men of the Salvage Corps join with me in offering our deepest sympathy to you. It must be some consolation to you to know that Pt. Bearman died in faithful exercise of his duty, and gave his life for his country. We had learned to appreciate his soldierly qualities.”[17]

News of his death at the front was reported in The Essex Newsman on 9 March:

“On Thursday Mr Harry Bearman, Market Place, Braintree, received official intimation that his eldest son, Augustus Stanley Bearman, 32, formerly R.F.C., latterly Notts and Derby Regt., was killed in action by an explosion in France on Monday. Before the war the deceased was engaged in the drapery business of Messrs. Harper Bros. at Balham. He was married and leaves a widow and little son. He was one of the choristers at St Peter’s, Bocking, when that church was opened, and sang there for several years. He was educated at Braintree College House School under Dr Amott, and was well-known and esteemed. Mr and Mrs Bearman have two other sons serving in the Army.”

Following the explosion, Private Bearman’s body was placed in a Nissen Hut at Kempton Park Camp before being buried at No Man’s Cot Cemetery, where his grave can be found at Row B, Grave 29.

On 18 May No. 6 Infantry Record Office at Lichfield sent Clara her late husband’s personal effects consisting of letters, photographs, cards, photo case, his mirror, wallet and pocket book. Probate was granted to his widow on 24 July, his effects being valued at £451 9s. 2d., and she was also awarded a weekly Widow’s Pension of 20/5d, effective from 16 September 1918.

On 5 December 1920, and memorial tablet was unveiled at St Peter’s Church in Bocking by Mrs Hills, the wife of the churchwarden, to his memorial. The inscription reads:

“To the glory of God, and in memory of Augustus Stanley Bearman, late of the Sherwood Foresters, beloved husband of Clara Bearman, and eldest son of Harry and Ellen Bearman, of this town, killed in action in France (sic), February 27, 1918, aged 32 years. Many years a chorister of this church. His life for his country, his soul to God.”[18]

Mrs Clara Bearman had the opportunity to visit her husband’s grave while on the Great Pilgrimage, which was reported by The Essex Newsman on 18 August 1928:

“WAR GRAVE FOUND. – A party of 30 from Braintree took part in the British Legion pilgrimage to the battlefield scenes in France, among them being the widow and brother of the late Mr A. S. Bearman, who fell in action, and to whom there is a memorial tablet in St Peter’s Church. The pilgrims were able to locate the grave, upon which they found the inscription of which they had been previously notified.”

The last sentence of the inscription that had been included on his memorial tablet at Bocking was also carved at the base of his headstone.

Clara never remarried and later lived at Bagshot in Surrey. She died in 1973 while a resident in the Home of Compassion Nursing Home at 58 High Street in Thames Ditton, aged 88, and was buried in the churchyard of St Peter’s in West Molesey on 5 October.

Arthur Oswald Brown, a member of the Biggleswade Branch of the British Legion, was one of the 11,000 pilgrims who went to France and Belgium on the Great Pilgrimage in August 1928. Born at Langford in on 28 February 1881, Arthur had been employed as a coach painter and, although he had attested under the Derby Scheme did not see service overseas. He later became the licensee of The Lion Inn on Caldecote Road in Biggleswade.

Arthur sailed for France with “B” Train Party and on arriving at Amiens complained that he was suffering from pains in his stomach. A French doctor was called, and it was determined that Mr Brown was suffering from colic. Told to rest, Arthur did not take part in the excursions of Beaucourt and Vimy Ridge, but was determined to be present at Ypres on 8 August for the service at the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial. This he did, and he also took part in the march- past of the British Legion pilgrims that followed.

On returning to London Arthur went to visit his daughter at Highbury and he was taken ill at her house. Admitted to Middlesex Hospital on 10 August, it was discovered that he was suffering from acute appendicitis and was operated on immediately. A further operation took place the following day but Arthur died that same evening, 11 August, at the age of 47. His funeral took place at Biggleswade on 16 August.[19]

Great Pilgrimage 1928 Birmingham Pilgrims

“In the past week on this pilgrimage I have rubbed shoulders with members of the Legion from all parts of the country, men broken in limb and health but not in spirit for the defence of what they believed to be the right, men who have missed death and disaster miraculously, and thank God for it; men who have touched the border-line of eternity and, in their own phrase, “got away with it.”[20]


[1] An extract from an article written by “A Pilgrim” from Thame in Oxfordshire who was a member of “B” Train Party of the British Legion Great Pilgrimage to France and Flanders in 1928, describing the ceremony held at the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial on 8 August. The full article was published in The Thame Gazette on 21 August 1928.

[2] Burnley Express, 15 August 1928.

[3] Selby Bower wrote his letter to Mr H. E. Williams, of Armidale, New South Wales, and it was reproduced in The Armidale Chronicle on 12 January 1929.

[4] Armidale Chronicle, 27 August 1921.

[5] Armidale Chronicle, 9 June 1923, Sydney Sun, 1 September 1924 & Armidale Express, 9 September 1924.

[6] Armidale Chronicle, 18 April 1928.

[7] Geelong Advertiser (Victoria), 23 October 1928.

[8] Bury Free Press, 11 August 1928.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bury Free Press, 28 October 1955.

[11] Essex Newsman, 11 August 1928.

[12] London Gazette, 3 July 1917, 1 October 1917 & 8 December 1917.

[13] “Impressions of the British Legion Pilgrimage to France,” The British Journal of Nursing, Vol. 76 September 1928, p. 237.

[14] Sheffield Independent, 6 August 1928.

[15] Bury Free Press, 30 October 1915.

[16] Bury Free Press, 11 August 1928.

[17] Essex Newsman, 23 March 1918.

[18] Essex Newsman, 11 December 1920.

[19] Biggleswade Chronicle, 17 August 1928.

[20] An extract from an account of the British Legion Great Pilgrimage of August 1928, written by Charles James Mullett, who was a journalist working for The Thanet Advertiser and was representing the Ramsgate Branch of the British Legion. The full article was published in The Thanet Advertiser on 10 August 1928.


Old Comrades Remember

137th brigade riqueval bridge

Birmingham Daily Gazette – 28 September 1935:



“SIR, – There are at least four dates which will ever stand out in the memories of all who had the honour of serving in the 1/5th, 2/5th, 3/5th Battalions of the South Staffordshire Regiment – the date of going overseas, 4 March; Hohenzollern Redoubt, 13 October; Gommecourt, 1 July; St Quentin Canal, 29 September. The last-named anniversary is now due and to all my old comrades I wish “Many happy returns.”

Whatever recollections these and other dates recall, there will always arise the thought of: “I wonder what’s happened to old So-and-So; I’d like to meet him again!

Three years ago, due to the generosity of one of our comrades, a reunion dinner of three battalions was held in Walsall. It was a great success, and this has increased with two succeeding ones. The committee are most anxious to get more names on their list, so that the definitive date, etc., of the next reunion (about 4 March) can be notified to all.

Just a postcard, with name and address and battalion, sent to H. J. Drew, 14, Dorothy-street, Walsall – that all it needs. I want to emphasise that it is an all-ranks evening. Even if a man thinks his address is already known, send it in again. If he knows any other fellows, put their names on his card. It is so easy to say “I’ll do that tomorrow.” Do it now, please, and so ensure a real big reunion night.

Many thanks, Mr Editor, for an allowance of your valuable space. I would like to meet “old So-and-So” again! – Yours, etc.,

A. E. Machin (Major).

Barr Common, Walsall.”

Alan Edward Machin was born on 5 September 1893 and was the eldest son of Edward James Machin, a bridle cutter and fancy leather goods manufacturer, who lived at Maybank, 19 Foden Road in Walsall. An old boy of Queen Mary’s Grammar School, Alan Machin was employed at his father’s firm when he attested for the “Non-Manual Section” of the 5th South Staffords, being issued with the regimental number 8864. He embarked for France with “C” Company of the 1/5th South Staffords in March 1915 and was promoted to the rank of Corporal and appointed Lance-Sergeant before being commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant (on probation) in the 3/5th Battalion on 12 February 1916. Machin was posted back to France on 9 May 1916 and rejoined the 1/5th South Staffords a week later. He was wounded on 1 July 1916 during the assault at Gommecourt and was evacuated to England two days later, being sent to a hospital in Manchester for further treatment. Second-Lieutenant Machin was confirmed in his rank on 16 December 1916. After being discharged from hospital, Machin served with the 5th (Reserve) Battalion returned to France on 20 July 1917 rejoining the 1/5th Battalion on 29 July. Alan Machin was wounded twice more, on 30 March 1918 and on 29 September 1918 during the crossing of the St Quentin Canal at Bellenglise, having been appointed an Acting Captain and serving as Adjutant. He was also Mentioned in Despatches, the award being announced in The London Gazette on 9 July 1919. Alan Machin retired in February 1919 and lived at 93 Persehouse Street in Walsall on his return home.

Machin resumed work at his family’s leather goods works in Walsall, and was commissioned as a Temporary Captain with the 5th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment (Defence Force) on 9 April 1921, remaining with the battalion when the Territorial Army was re-formed. He was promoted to the rank of Major on 19 July 1924 and was Second-in-Command of the 5th South Staffords until returning to the Reserve of Officers the following year. Alan Machin also served as chairman of the Aldridge Branch of the British Legion and in 1939 was residing with his wife Gladys and son Ivatt at 14 Barr Common Road near Aldridge.

During the Second World War Machin served as a Group Commander in the Local Defence Volunteers and the Home Guard, his area including units raised at Streetly, Aldridge, Rushall, Pelsall, Wednesbury and Darlaston.

Alan Edward Machin died at his home at 1 Little Hardwick Road in Aldridge on 30 September 1982, shortly after his 89th birthday and the day after the 64th anniversary of the storming of the St Quentin Canal at Bellenglise, during which operation he had been wounded.

A Russian with The South Staffords: 39532 Private Afanacia Topako, 1/5th Battalion (Territorial Force)

39532 Private Afanacia Tapako attested for The South Staffordshire Regiment at Fresnoy-le-Grand on 6 February 1919. Born at Vladivostok on 12 May 1898, Afanacia (his surname is spelled as Topako in some records)  had previously served in the Imperial Russian Navy during 1915 and 1916, but at the time of his attestation gave his trade as an engineer, residing at the Sailor’s Home on Golding Street in Hull. He became a British subject on his enlistment.

Serving with the 1/5th Battalion, Tapako was appointed Lance-Corporal and promoted to Corporal on the day of his enlistment, and became a Lance-Sergeant three days later, before moving with the battalion to Cologne on occupation duties. Lance-Sergeant Tapako was posted to the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion on 24 June 1919, and then to the Depot at Whittington Barracks on 29 July 1919, where he was reverted to the rank of Corporal for misconduct, before being posted to the 2nd Battalion on 27 October. He was appointed an unpaid Lance-Sergeant on 28 February 1920, being paid on 20 March before being reverted to Corporal for a second time on 6 April. Tapako was tried by District Court-Martial on 22 April for drunkenness and was reduced to the rank of Private, before being discharged on 2 June 1920 as his services were no longer required.

Afanacia gave his address on discharge as 37 Meeting Street in Wednesbury and in September 1921 he married Getrude Sylvia Wall. By 1939 Afanacia and his family lived at 119 Bryce Road in Brierley Hill, and he was employed as a cupola man at a local foundry. 

Afanacia Tapako died in June 1962, his death being registered at Rowley Regis.

“I Could Write More, But Am Fed Up Writing About My Adventures”: S/3643 Private Isaac Cliffe – 1st Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders


The eldest son of Moses and Maria Cliffe, Isaac Cliffe was born at Sheffield on 23 November 1893 and was employed as a cabinet maker when he attested for The Gordon Highlanders at Sheffield on 2 September 1914. He was drafted to the front on 3 January 1915.

Private Cliffe received a gunshot wound to the left shoulder on 17 March 1915 while in the front line at La Clytte and was admitted to No. 8 Field Ambulance, before being moved to No. 8 Casualty Clearing Station at Bailleul. From there, he was transferred to No. 14 General Hospital at Wimereux on 18 March. On being released from hospital, Cliffe was sent to No. 1 Convalescent Camp on 21 March before being posted to the base details at Le Havre on 31 March. He transferred to No. 3 Infantry Base Depot at Rouen on 8 April and rejoined the 1st Gordons on 11 April. Granted leave on 20 November 1915, Cliffe returned to his unit on 28 November. He was deprived seven days’ pay on 8 February 1916, although the nature of his offence is not recorded. Cliffe was wounded for a second time on 2 March, during the attack mounted by 3rd Division to retake The Bluff on 2 March 1916. The 1st Gordons lost 245 killed, wounded and missing, but the position was recaptured and over 250 German prisoners taken, for the loss of 1.622 British casualties. Sent to No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station, suffering from wounds to his leg and ankle, he was admitted to No. 26 General Hospital at Etaples on 3 March, from where he wrote to his parents, who lived at 52 Division Street:

“Just a few lines to let you know I am getting on quite nicely. Hope to hear the same of you. We are having some very nice weather out here lately. The hospital I am in is a very nice place, and is situated on the coast of France. We can see the sea from our ward windows quite well. I suppose you would like to know how I got wounded? Well, it is not a bad yarn!

About 3 p.m. on March 1 we left our billets for the trenches and had tea on the road two hours later. The trenches were reached about 9 o’clock. It was very quiet all night, with the exception of a few trench mortars, which our boys kept putting over. Four hours after midnight we crept out on the front of our trenches waiting for our officers to give the word. This came about 4.30. We advanced to within 10 yards of the enemy’s lines before being spotted. Then the fun began! It was as if Hell had been let loose. What with the guns, machine guns, rifles, bombs and trench mortars. It was an awful row. On the boys advanced, and barbed wire did not stop them. They all went forward like Britishers always do, fearing no foe.

We managed to reach the German trenches with few casualties. Then the order came to “jump into the trenches.” I dropped into the trench at the side of one of the lance-corporals. Then the Germans let us have a few rounds, along with some bombs, just to let us know a war was going on! We potted back at them for a while, and then I had to look around me. The “lance-jack” was by my side, but slightly wounded.

You can imagine things were a bit desperate. One fit man and one wounded, and the Germans kept firing away at us and throwing over a few bombs. However, we were well under cover and kept on hoping for the best. I can assure you we both said a prayer under our breath. We heard our bombers at work and our hopes revived, but these were later shattered to the ground.

We were both determined to make a fight of it, when into the dug-out dropped and unarmed German, with his head covered in bandages. His first words to us in broken English were “Don’t shoot comrades, mercy comrades.” We could see tears in his eyes and he was trembling like a leaf. He said to us, “You come, officer talk English.” We gave him a drink of coffee out of one of our bottles and followed him to another dug-out. Out of this place walked a German officer. His first words, in good English, were, “Your mate hit?” I replied, “Yes.” He then pulled out his field bandage and commenced to dress my mate’s wounds. I looked at him in astonishment. Meanwhile the Germans in the trench had all gathered round to see what was going on, some of them crying “Comrades.”

Then the officer looked at our numerals and appeared to be very much surprised to see that we were Gordons. He said “I will see to you in a while,” and so we sat tight and listened to the screaming shells which were being put over by both sides at a great rate. Then up came one of our bombers. He cried a few words in German to a sentry on look-out, who replied with a shot from his rifle. Our bombers then threw a bomb, which dropped near to my feet. Then he went back.

Meanwhile the bomb burst and a large piece of shrapnel hit me on the left ankle. It gave me an awful shock. Then out stepped the German officer. He came towards me, saying to a couple of his men who were near, “Search the man.” This they did without hesitation. The sentry cried out, “Him no throw bombs.” The officer later – about 6.30 – came to me and said “You throw a signal to your men, telling them to come over and take us all prisoners.” I started shouting to the boys to come and take them over, but they could not hear me.

I then waved some white mufflers the Germans haded me to signal with, but this made no impression. The officer then said, “You go over and fetch your men.” So over I went and fetched a few of the boys. We made for the German lines again, and there the Germans stood with their hands up, waiting to be taken over. We took them over, and the remainder of our chaps set to work to build a parapet, whilst I made for the dressing station. I could write more, but am fed up writing about my adventures.”[1]

On being discharged from hospital, Cliffe was sent to No. 6 Convalescent Depot on 15 April, before being posted to No. 3 Infantry Base Depot on 30 May. He returned to the 1st Gordons on 15 June.

Gordon Highlanders 1916 

Private Cliffe was wounded for a third time on 18 August 1916 while fighting on the Somme, when the 1st Gordons advanced from trenches in front of Maltz Horn Farm to succeeding in taking the sunken Hardencourt Road for the loss of 261 killed, wounded and missing. Admitted to No. 8 General Hospital at Rouen with a gunshot wound to his right thigh, he was transferred to No. 18 Convalescent Depot before being sent to No. 6 General Hospital for further treatment. Cliffe was evacuated to England on board H.M.H.S. Western Australia on 7 September and admitted to Berrington War Hospital at Shrewsbury on three days later. He remained there until discharged on 30 September.

Cliffe was drafted back to France on 4 February 1917 and sent to No. 18 Infantry Base Depot, from where he was admitted to hospital shortly after his arrival with an infection to his left leg. Later diagnosed as impertigo, Cliffe was treated at No. 24 General Hospital before being sent home on board the Hospital Ship Antwerpen on 12 April.  He was admitted to 3rd Northern General Hospital at Sheffield and remained there until 13 August 1917. Drafted back to France on 10 November, Private Cliffe was posted No. 18 Infantry Base Depot before being drafted to the 1/6th (Banff and Donside) Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders, joining the battalion on 21 November. Wounded two days later, suffering a gunshot wound to the neck during the fighting at Bourlon Wood, Cliffe was evacuated to No. 21 Casualty Clearing Station before being sent to No. 18 General Hospital at Dannes Camiers  on 24 November. He was sent back to England on board the Hospital Ship Ville-de-Liege on 2 December and admitted to 1st Northern General Hospital at Newcastle-upon-Tyne the following day. Cliffe was discharged from hospital on 18 January 1918 and posted to the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders.

He was transferred to the 39th (Service) Battalion of The Royal Fusiliers at Plymouth on 4 March 1918 and was issued with the regimental number J/2473, the prefix denoting that his battalion was one of those that had been formed in January 1918 from Jewish volunteers for service in Palestine. Cliffe was posted to the 42nd (Reserve) Battalion the following day, and remained at Plymouth, being transferred to the Base Details for the Jewish Battalions on 27 July. Private Cliffe was found to be absent without leave at 11.30 a.m. on 21 August 1918 and was arrested by military police at Temple Meads Station the next day. He was charged and on being found guilty was deprived of 20 days’ pay, which was later amended to him forfeiting five days’ pay. He was also absent from parade on 15 November 1918 and received seven days’ confinement to barracks as punishment.

Private Cliffe transferred to the Class Z Army Reserve on his demobilisation on 5 June 1919, his conduct being described as Very Good. Isaac gave his home address as 181 Devonshire Street in Sheffield, and twenty years later he still resided there with his widowed mother Maria, recorded in the 1939 Register as working as a market vendor.


[1] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 28 March 1916.

A Ceylonese Volunteer on the Somme: 9563 Corporal (Acting Sergeant) Dionysius Bartholemew Seneviratne, 13th (Service) Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment)

Beaucourt November 1916

23 November 1916:

“Just a line to let you know that I am in hospital with chronic bronchitis due to exposure in the trenches. I was slightly wounded last month, but I was well enough to join my chums when they went over the top a few days ago. On the 13th (sic) our battalion went over the top at dawn. We got to their front line trenches with about 20 casualties, and we captured about two hundred Germans. This, however, was just the beginning. Our main objective was a village about a mile in front of us, so we moved without delay. We took their second line of trenches too without trouble. Up to then we had lost nearly fifty men.

Then came the real thing. They had a very strong defence in their third line of trenches, and it was simply swarming with Germans –men belonging to the Kaiser’s famous “Prussian Guard.” Their machine guns played havoc with us. It was the most terrible sight I had ever seen. Two of my greatest chums fell by my side, shot through the heart, and another bullet made a tidy hole on the side of my steel helmet. In spite of all this we rushed on, mad with anger, at the sight of our comrades falling. We reached the top of their parapet at last, and these Germans were of better stuff than their comrades. They stood to us, or rather what was left of us, with rifle and bayonet. This was where I found out the secret of England’s glory. We were outnumbered three to one, but our chaps fought like heroes. The corporal of my section, a tall, strong Irishman, killed three of them with his bayonet in about as many seconds. My life was saved by my skill with the bayonet. This was where I learnt the value of the lessons in bayonet fighting I had received while in training. After five minutes hand-to-hand fighting the Germans knew that though numbers were on their side, skill was on ours; so they dropped their rifles and up went their hands with the usual “Mercy Comrade.” We were the victors. My best pals had fought and given their life cheerfully. We were left to hold on to what we had gained over two thousand yards in two days, and we held on to the captured trenches for five days like grim death, although the Germans shelled the place like fury.

We were reinforced that night, and the following morning we proceeded towards the village, which was our objective. At every trench we came to the Germans surrendered as they had been taught a terrible lesson the previous day. At last we reached our goal, but it was only to find the place untenable owing to the cold, and to add to this we had a fall of snow and all of us were drenched to the skin with no shelter except the little holes we had dug, which were full of water by the snow melting. At last we were relieved, and then we dragged our weary selves back, about twenty of us nearly half dead with chronic bronchitis and rheumatic fever; so we were despatched to hospital in stretchers. I am much better now, and when I am quite fit I shall go back to do my duty once more.

By the way, who do you think is Colonel of our Hospital – Sir Allan Perry,[1] our late P.C.M.O. He heard of my being here, and came to see me several times. He has been kindness itself, and he told me he would write to you.”[2]

9563 Corporal (Acting Sergeant) Dionysius Bartholemew Seneviratne, a Sinhalese volunteer from Colombo serving with the 13th (Service) Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), wrote the letter to his brother describing his experiences during the fighting at Beaucourt between 13 and 19 November 1916. His battalion, which formed part of 111th Brigade of 37th Division, was tasked with attacking Beaucourt Trench at 6 o’clock on the morning of 14 November.

The operation was described in the Battalion War Diary:

“The battn. formed up for attack in four lines of half companies – No. 3 Coy. under 2nd Lt. HARDING on the left, No. 4 Coy. under Capt. KELLY on the right – supported respectively by No.s 1 Coy. under Capt. LANDER & No. 2 Coy. under Capt. SPENCER. The 13th Rifle Br. were to attack on the left & the 13th K.R.R.C. on the right. At 6 a.m. a creeping barrage opened 150 yds. in front of our line – unfortunately the battn. moved off too soon & a certain number of casualties were caused by our own barrage. However, this was re-adjusted by withdrawing about 50 yds. During the rest of the advance to the objective, this battn. was considerably harassed by machine gun fire from BEAUCOURT village & from positions on the south of the river.[3] Very little resistance was met with at the objective, the Germans readily surrendered at BEAUCOURT, but on our left flank there was a strong point about Q.12.c.8.7. which resisted with great determination. Had the 13th Rifle BR. come up on our left there would have been little difficulty here, but as it was, they did not, until very much later in the day – when they were ordered to establish touch with 51st Divn. on our left. When the first objective was taken, the 13 K.R.R.C. were on our right & the 13th R. BR. in rear of us. No. 4 Coy. was pushed out to hold an advanced position in front of the line. According to the original orders, the advance should have proceeded to the RED LINE at Muck Trench to RAILWAY trench Q.6.d.7.8. – R.7.a.4.7. This advance was not immediately continued until the battn. was being re-organised, also there was considerable difficulty dealing with the German strong post on our left. During the night of 14/15, stong patrols were sent out to find MUCK trench, & endeavoured to get touch with 51st Divn., who were supposed to be in MUNICH trench Q.6.c.5.4. Neither the trench or the 51st Divn. could be located, so the battn. stayed in the line captured.”[4]

The 13th Royal Fusiliers were relieved from on 19 November, having lost nine Officers wounded, 50 Other Ranks reported killed and 180 wounded.

Dionysius Seneviratne was serving with the Ceylon Light Infantry at the outbreak of the war and, at his own expense, sailed to England to join the British Army. Although his service record does not survive, it is recorded on the Roll for the British War Medal and Victory Medal that he also served with the 18th (Service) Battalion (1st Public Schools), 17th (Service) Battalion (Empire), and 1st Battalion of The Royal Fusiliers, before being transferred to The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) and issued with the regimental number G/30632.

Seneviratne was a Sergeant with the 10th (Service) Battalion of the Royal West Kents at the time he earned the Military Medal for gallantry during the closing weeks of the war, the award being announced in The London Gazette on 21 November 1919.[5] He also served with the Army of Occupation on the Rhine following the Armistice.

Dionysius Seneviratne returned to Ceylon after the war and was employed with the Civil Service. He was commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant in The Ceylon Light Infantry in 1921, later being promoted to the rank of Major, and was also a member of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Major Dionysius Bartholemew Seneviratne M.M. died in 1936.


[1] The Daily News (Perth, Western Australia), 27 January 1917.

[2] The Honourable Sir Allan Perry M.B., L.S.A., M.R.C.S., D.Ph., M.D., who had been the Principal Civil Medical Officer for Ceylon before the war.

[3] River Ancre.

[4] TNA WO 95/2538/3

[5] TNA WO 372/23/164633

Chum William Ernest James Gage – Leeds Branch, The Old Contemptibles’ Association

Old Contemptibles Association Badge

William Ernest James Gage was aged eighteen when he enlisted for The Rifle Brigade in 1906, and by 1914 was serving at Cork with the 3rd Battalion and held the rank of Serjeant. He disembarked from the S.S. Lake Michigan at St Nazaire on 12 September, and was soon in action on the Aisne. Later appointed Company Quartermaster-Serjeant, Gage was commissioned in 1915 and was wounded during the fighting for Delville Wood the following year.[1] After lengthy treatment in hospital, Gage returned to France and was attached to X Corps School as an instructor. In 1919 Lieutenant Gage volunteered for service in North Russia and was attached to the 46th (Service) Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment). For his services during the campaign he was subsequently Mentioned in Despatches, notification of the award being published in The London Gazette on 3 February 1920. He retired from the Army with the rank of Captain on the General and Special List. William Gage was issued with his 1914 Star on 12 January 1919, and applied for the clasp and roses for the medal on 26 January 1920. He was issued with them on 7 January 1921, by which time he was residing at 24 Harrington Street in Regent’s Park.

After leaving the Army, Gage joined the London and North Eastern Railway Police at King’s Cross Station in 1921 as a Constable, and was promoted to Detective Sergeant in 1925, transferring to Leeds.[2]

In August 1927, while on holiday at Brighton, Gage jumped into the sea at Banjo Groyne and saved a twelve year-old boy from drowning. The rescue had been witness by two people, but when asked his name Gage refused to give it to them. However, when his wallet was found, having been washed up on the beach, his actions were reported in the local press:[3]



“News has come to light of a plucky rescue from drowning at Brighton. Detective Sergeant William Ernest James Gage, of the Leeds Central Railway Police, was sitting on one of the Brighton groynes when a boy aged about twelve fell into deep water, and was in danger of being carried out by the tide which was running strongly.

Gage, stripping off his coat, jumped in, brought the boy to the shore, and escaped unnoticed through the gathering crowd. An American, from a motor car on the promenade, however, noticed that as Gage was scrambling into his jacket after the rescue, he dropped a wallet. Running to the water’s edge the American recovered the wallet from the sea, and finding in it a cutting from “The Yorkshire Evening Post” he forwarded the wallet to that newspaper, there being apparently no definite information about the owner beyond the fact that he lived at Leeds. The newspaper will restore the wallet to Detective Sergeant Gage, whose address is 9, Oswald Avenue, Leeds. Gage is still on holiday at Brighton and was away from the town yesterday.

The American, who did not disclose his identity, sent with the wallet a letter which stated: “If this incident is typical of the British seaside tripper, it has never been my fortune to witness its equal.”[4]

William Gage was subsequently awarded a Certificate by the Royal Humane Society for his actions, and was presented with it at a function held at the Abercorn Rooms in the Liverpool Street Hotel in London, where he was attending the annual dinner of the London and North Eastern Railway Police. In a speech given at the presentation, the Chairman of the L.N.E.R., William Whitelaw, remarked:

“We, who know Sergeant Gage, are not surprised either at his courage or his modesty. Indeed, had it come to our knowledge that he had acted otherwise we should have been inclined to be incredulous.”[5]

On being presented with the framed certificate, Gage was reported to have “expressed his appreciation in the briefest possible terms, and then resumed his seat under the cover of the prolonged applause from the guests and his fellow policemen.”[6]

William Gage was one of the founder members of the Leeds and District Branch of The Old Contemptibles’ Association, which was formed on 12 December 1927, and was elected as Honorary Secretary, and later Branch Chairman. From the initial membership of ten, the branch increased to 281 Chums within two months.[7] Many of the Chums were unemployed and Gage worked tirelessly on their behalf in canvassing local employers to offer jobs to those men, and for donations to assist those in need, supported by regular articles published in The Leeds Mercury.

On 25 August 1929, Gage made a radio appeal on behalf of The Old Contemptibles’ Association, which was broadcast from the B.B.C. studio at Leeds:

“Fifteen years ago today began the retreat from Mons, where the original B.E.F. was, by overwhelming masses of the enemy, dubbed ‘The Contemptible little army.” Tonight, by the courtesy of the B.B.C., I am privileged to speak of the survivors, now known for all time as ‘Old Contemptibles.’

Throughout the retreat they suffered heavy losses, lack of food, water, and sleep; dazed and stunned by continuous onslaughts in sweltering heat – bearded, unwashed, and plagued with vermin. With clothing in rags, they became mere automata incapable of marching; in bloody bandages they staggered along like drunken men – their eyes fixed with a glassy, semi-conscious stare on the feet of comrades in front; barefooted, or with bits of puttees wrapped round swollen and bleeding feet.

Staff work fell to pieces; Regiments became lost, intermixed, or forgotten; acting on their own initiative, everyone was far too exhausted to understand or care much what happened. During the retreat and subsequent advance – Listen! THE FLOWER OF ENGLAND’S MANHOOD PERISHED; THE OLD REGULAR ARMY PRACTICALLY CEASED TO EXIST… AND ENGLAND NEVER KNEW!

This is the first appeal ever broadcast for surviving ‘Old Contemptibles,’ alone; without regard to caste, creed, or politics, we were brought together four years ago, into a Bond of Brotherhood known as ‘The Old Contemptibles Association,’ with Field Marshal Sir George F. Milne (C.I.G.S.) as President. NOT to work on conflicting lines, or in opposition to other organisations, but to maintain that Grand Spirit of the 1914 Army, by doing all we can for our less fortunate Chums.

Many are today out of work; many in consequence are suffering acute distress, dreading the future of homes for which they endured the agonies of the damned – 15 years ago. I appeal tonight as an ordinary member; please help us to help these men.

North Regional Branches exist at Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Blackburn, Wigan, Chorley, Lancaster, Hull, Hartlepools, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and Harrogate. Each in proportion to its strength is grappling with the same problem; the prayer of the sufferers, is for ‘Work before Charity.’

Most are fit, able-bodied, active men; trained disciplinarians, trustworthy to a degree – willing to tackle anything offering a living wage. Others, for various reasons, are fitted for light work only. Among them, we find not a few veterans of the Boer War of 30 years ago – men who were fighting when I was a boy.

My appeal, therefore, is not primarily for donations, but for offers of employment in any capacity, from any direction, please.

We want all the help we can get now.

Precisely what YOU said in 1914, is it not?

Pending arrival of the jobs we seek, financial assistance will be welcomed, for alleviation of numerous distress cases.

The Association’s Chairman has kindly consented to act as Hon. Treasurer and Employment Clearing House; may his post-bag be a heavy one!

Address to:- ‘The Rev. E. H. Carew M.A., No. 4 Marine Crescent, Waterloo, Liverpool.’ Please mark your envelope ‘Wireless Appeal,’ and indicate if your response is for the benefit of any particular branch or area.”[8]

However, the work that Gage did on behalf of his fellow Chums concealed his own personal difficulties.

On 8 May 1932 William left his home on Seaforth Grove in Harehills, telling his wife Katherine that he was going to attend a band concert at Roundhay Park in aid of raising funds for The Old Contemptibles Association. He took with him an attaché case, in which it was reported that he had placed his service revolver, and instead of going to the park he made his way to the Central Railway Station in Leeds. Showing his L.N.E.R. police pass to the guard, he then boarded at train for London at 5.40 p.m. When he did not return home that night, Mrs Gage reported that her husband was missing to Leeds City Police.[9]

A couple of days after his disappearance, Mrs Gage received a letter from William, written while he was staying at a hotel near King’s Cross, informing her that he was going to St Thomas’s Hospital for treatment for his war wounds. However, when she took the letter to the Town Hall, she was informed that his bowler hat, clothing, warrant card and Old Contemptibles’ Association badge were found on the beach near the Banjo Groyne in Brighton. Two letters were also found with the clothing, one addressed to Mrs Gage and a second to the Coroner:

“Sorry to bother you. I hope you will know how I have waited for the tide to come up, but bad legs don’t help to prevent worries do they, sir? It is strange how one spends one’s last moments with Kipling.”[10]

Mrs Gage went to Brighton as a search was mounted to find his body, it being presumed that he had gone into the sea from the beach to drown himself. For several days his fate was uncertain, and the circumstances of his disappearance were widely reported in the press.

On 21 May, having booked himself into a lodging-house on Ebury Road in Pimlico, William Gage took his own life by gassing himself over a fire in his room. At the inquest into his death, held at Westminster Coroner’s Court on 24 May, Mrs Gage gave evidence:

“Mrs Katherine Gage, the widow, told the Coroner (Mr Inglesby Oddic), there had been trouble about money matters.

The Coroner: Had he been spending it on racing? – I don’t know.

Was he giving you what he used to? – No.

You were getting into difficulties? – Not very bad.

Did he get good pay? – Yes.

Mrs Gage said that her husband had been with the railway company for some years. He was highly thought of and had had no trouble there.

She received a long letter from him, the gist of which was that he intended to take his life. He said he was very worried and mentioned that she had been cross with him. She did not think that caused him to go away. She believed he was in some difficulty that she knew nothing about.

She had been asking her husband to try to let her have a little more money, and when she asked him what he had done with his money he would not tell her.

Her husband was buried in a shell hole and gassed during the War. His legs were temporarily paralysed. He was treated at St Thomas’s Hospital about six months, and they cured him.

Mrs Gage said she had been unable to find out what were the debts referred to.”[11]

On considering the evidence put before him, the Coroner returned a verdict of suicide, while of unsound mind.

When news reached Leeds that William Gage had taken his own life, the following tribute was published in the “North Country Gossip” column of The Leeds Mercury:

War Victim.

“No class of the community will be more deeply shocked by the news of the death of Captain W. E. Gage than the war veterans for whom he did so much work. The circumstances of his death are particularly sad – he was really, I suppose, a victim of war strain after all these years.

The pity is that he who did so much in comradeship for other war sufferers could not gain courage from their sympathy in his own time of trouble.

He was a very quiet man, and, as he went about his work for the Old Contemptibles’ Association, spoke little about his own troubles. I knew Capt. Gage for nine years, and he never once mentioned that he had been wounded.”[12]


[1] Leeds Mercury, 11 May 1932 & 23 May 1932.

[2] Yorkshire Post, 25 May 1932.

[3] Yorkshire Evening Post, 25 August 1927 & Leeds Mercury, 26 August 1927.

[4] Yorkshire Post, 26 August 1927.

[5] Yorkshire Evening Post, 17 December 1927.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Leeds Mercury, 2 February 1928 & Yorkshire Post, 23 April 1928.

[8] Leeds Mercury, 26 August 1929.

[9] Yorkshire Post, 11 May 1932 & Leeds Mercury, 12 May 1932.

[10] Nottingham Evening Post, 24 May 1932.

[11] Gloucestershire Echo, 24 May 1932, Leeds Mercury, 25 May 1932 & Yorkshire Post, 25 May 1932.

[12] Leeds Mercury, 23 May 1932.

“Unbeaten, Hale, Hearty and Cheerful”: Second-Lieutenant Christopher Hollins Lucas

1 April 1918:

“As you have doubtlessly noticed, our division (the 19th) has received special commendation for its work in the great battle still raging, and though I, of course, am not permitted to tell you anything about it just now, I can say that we were in the thick of it from the very first day, and once again we have come through with remarkable good luck, and, incidentally, I trust, given old Fritz something to remember us by. It has been, of course, the most wonderful, exciting, and awful experience that has yet befallen me, and the same applied to practically everybody, for it is by far the most stupendous battle ever waged in the world’s history of war. Still, here we are, still unbeaten, hale, hearty, and cheerful, and all the boys going strong. We ourselves had six days of it, solid, on the go in action the whole time, day and night, though I must admit that, despite all, we fed remarkably well in the circumstances.”[1]

Second-Lieutenant Christopher Hollins Lucas served with the 8th (Service) Battalion, The North Staffordshire Regiment, and was killed on 10 April 1918 when his battalion were involved in trying to stem the German advance along the Messines Ridge on the second day of the “Georgette” Offensive.

Aged 21 when he died, Second-Lieutenant Lucas had arrived in France on 26 May 1917 and was the son of Christopher and Florence Lillian Lucas, who lived at 28 Cambridge Road in King’s Heath. His death was reported in The Birmingham Daily Post on 23 April 1918:

“Sec. Lieut. C. H. LUCAS, North Staffordshire Regiment, son of Councillor C. Lucas, 28, Cambridge Road, King’s Heath, was killed in action on April 11 whilst leading his men. He was twenty-one years of age, and was educated at Camp Hill Grammar School and Birmingham University, where he joined the University O.T.C., but resigned in December 1916, and became a Sergeant-Instructor to a battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment. In March 1917, he received a commission, and went out to France in May, 1917, and took part with his battalion in all their engagements from that time, including the great battle that commenced on March 21, in reference to which he wrote a letter describing the troops as “unbeaten, hale, hearty and cheerful,” which appeared in the ‘Daily Post’ on April 15.”

The History of the 8th North Staffords, written by J. Crewe and published by Hughes and Harber in 1921, recorded the aftermath of the action in which Lucas had been killed:

“A and B Companies’ fine effort to retake Messines had cost them dear, Captain W. A. Meir and Lieutenant C. Lucas were killed, Lieuts. E. W. Deane, T. Wake, and W. B. Thorley were wounded, and only a very few N.C.O.’s and men were left untouched. To the great sorrow of everyone, Lieut. Wake died the following day, and Lieut. Thorley eleven days later. B Company were thus left without Officers. Captain Meir, and Lieuts. Lucas and Wake had been with it all their time in France, and their deaths were a particularly heavy loss to those who had served under them in their Company. The three were devoted to each other and to the Company they had commanded so gallantly and well.”

Second-Lieutenant Lucas has no known grave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial. His medals were sent to his mother on 13 October 1921, and were sold, together with his memorial plaque, at auction in 1995.


[1] Birmingham Daily Post, 15 April 1918.

“Old Soldiers Never Die…” 6457 Private Walter Siddons Gerrard, 2nd Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters


Walter Siddons Gerrard Old Contemptible

On 6 December 1962 In-Pensioner Walter Siddons Gerrard was photographed at the Royal Hospital at Chelsea enjoying the annual Ceremony of the Cheeses.

Walter Siddons Gerrard was born at New Basford in Nottingham on 8 April 1881, the son of Thomas Siddons Gerrard and Susannah Gerrard. Walter stated that he was aged eighteen years and eight months when he attested as a Regular soldier at Derby on 1 January 1900, on a Short Service Engagement to complete five years with the Colours and seven on the Reserve. He was already serving with the 3rd Militia Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (Derbyshire Regiment) and was employed as a striker. Private Gerrard was posted to the Regimental Depot at Normanton Barracks and was issued with the regimental number 6457. He then joined a Provisional Battalion on 27 March and was drafted to South Africa to join the 1st Battalion on 27 May. He remained there on active service until September 1902, and was later issued with the Queen’s South Africa Medal with clasps for Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Transvaal, as well as the King’s South Africa Medal with clasps for South Africa 1901 and South Africa 1902.

On 8 September 1902, Private Gerrard arrived in Hong Kong with the 1st Battalion, where he was awarded his first Good Conduct Badge on New Years’ Day 1903 and extended his period of engagement to serve eight years with the Colours on 1 April 1904. The 1st Sherwood Foresters moved to Singapore in December 1904, and Gerrard received his second Good Conduct Badge on 1 January 1905. He was permitted to extend his period of engagement to serve for 12 years with the Colours on 13 January 1906 and moved with the 1st Battalion to India on 12 December.  While stationed at Bangalore, Gerrard passed his 3rd Class Certificate in Education on 19 December 1907.

Private Gerrard was posted to the 2nd Battalion in 1909 and returned home, joining them at Fermoy on 26 November. Early the following year, on 28 January 1910, he was transferred to the Regimental Depot at Normanton Barracks to serve on the Permanent Staff of the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion, and on 30 March 1911 re-engaged to complete 21 years with the Colours. Gerrard was appointed Lance-Corporal, to complete the establishment of the 3rd Battalion, on 1 July 1911 but reverted to the rank of Private at his own request on 17 February 1912. He was posted back to the 2nd Battalion at Plymouth on 7 October 1912 and at the outbreak of war in 1914 was stationed at Sheffield.

Gerrard sailed to France with the 2nd Battalion on board the S.S. Georgian from Southampton on 8 September 1914 and disembarked at St Nazaire two days later. He was soon in action fighting on the Aisne. Private Gerrard was taken prisoner on 20 October near Ennetieres, when the 2nd Sherwood Foresters were overwhelmed by a numerically stronger German force after holding their positions for two days under constant attacks. Sixteen Officers and 710 Other Ranks of the 2nd Sherwood Foresters were either killed, wounded or captured.

Private Gerrard remained in captivity until after the Armistice. Two comrades of Private Gerrard, 9697 Private George Hallam, and 10114 Lance-Corporal J. H. Smith, managed to escape in 1917 and an account of their experiences while prisoners of war was published in The Derby Daily Telegraph on 29 June. Included in their account is a reference to a punishment received by Gerrard while in captivity:

“Both men report that they individually were not ill-treated, but saw many cases of gross cruelty. Lance-Corporal Smith gave evidence at the court-martial trial of Private Gerrard, another Sherwood Forester, who was accused of attacking a sentry with a spade. Smith reports that Gerrard was attacked and beaten and cut very badly by two sentries, and that it was quite unprovoked. Gerrard was sentenced to ten years eight months in a fortress, but was kept four months without trial so that his wounds would heal.”

Gerrard returned home on Boxing Day 1918 and was posted onto the strength of the Regimental Depot, joining the Permanent Staff there on 22 February 1919, before rejoining the Permanent Staff of the 3rd Battalion on probation on 1 November. He was discharged, on the termination of his period of engagement, on 31 December 1920 and gave his address at 8 Brook Cottages in Long Eaton. His character and conduct on discharge was described as “exemplary” and he was also awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. Walter received the clasp and roses for his 1914 Star on 16 July 1920. After leaving the Army Walter worked as a general labourer.

In-Pensioner Walter Gerrard died at the Royal Hospital in 1963.

“My Old Pals Are Around Me” – The Old Contemptibles’ Association Pilgrimage to Mons, November 1927

On 20 May 1928, ninety years ago this year, Captain John Patrick Danny died at his home at 68 Gunton Road in Clapton. His premature death was attributed to the poor health that he suffered as a result of his war service, but another factor that may have contributed was the stress and strain he experienced while organising and trying to raise money for Chums of The Old Contemptibles Association to make a pilgrimage to Mons in November 1927.

Captain Danny Old Contemptibles Association

Captain John Patrick Danny R.A. and The Old Contemptibles’ Association

Born at Stepney in 1878, John Danny was employed as a garage foreman when he was mobilised from the Reserve at the outbreak of the war, and as 82558 Sergeant J. P. Danny landed in France with XXXIII Brigade, Royal Field Artillery on 6 November 1914. He was commissioned on 1 November 1915 and was issued with his 1914 Star on 18 October 1919, the clasp and roses were forwarded to him on 18 May 1920.

It was Danny who conceived the idea of creating an association of those who had served with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, and who were holders of the 1914 Star with clasp, and on 25 May 1925 he and six other “Old Contemptibles” met at the Hackney United Services Club at Clapton to discuss the formation of such a group. The first general meeting of The Old Contemptibles Association took place on 28 June, and Captain Danny was elected as treasurer. Members of the new Association were to be known as “Chums,” irrespective of their rank, and only those who were holders of the 1914 Star with the clasp – in reality a bar to be sewn onto the ribbon of the medal – that indicated that individuals had “served under fire or who had operated within range of enemy mobile artillery in France or Belgium during the period between 5 August and 22 November 1914” would be eligible to join. The Association was presented with its first banner by Lady Amherst of Hackney later that year.

In May 1926, The Old Contemptibles Association held its first parade, assembling on the Embankment before laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. The first Grand Council of the Association was formed in July 1926, with Captain Danny being elected as Chairman, and on 6 August the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir George F. Milne, who had been the Commander Royal Artillery of 4th Division in 1914, became the first President.

It was decided to expand the Association in June 1927 other branches began to be formed around the country, the first being at Woolwich. In August the Grand Council of The Old Contemptibles Association decided that the new branches would be issued dispensations to carry their own standards, but unlike the one presented by Lady Amherst these would be mounted on a single pole and the finial would bear the badge of the Association.[1]

Raising Funds

The General Council of The Old Contemptibles Association determined that their embryonic group should make arrangements for a pilgrimage to Mons, the scene of the first clash between the British Expeditionary Force and the German Army in 1914, and also to Brussels. While an itinerary for the pilgrimage was agreed with the Belgian authorities, it was originally hoped to take between 600 and 700 Old Contemptibles to Belgium, but this number was subsequently halved. While those Chums who could pay their fare for the trip would be asked to do so, it was clear that many men were unable to afford to and that they would need financial support if they were to do so. General Milne made a public appeal at the meeting for donations, while Captain Danny clarified why the funds were needed:

“We want to take as many real ‘Old Contemptibles’ as possible. First, we want to consider the Victoria Cross men. There are seven of them, and only a few can pay their own fares. Next will come the blind, and the remainder of available places made possible by contribution will be decided by ballot. We hope to take men from every city in the British Isles.”[2]

The Surrey Mirror of 28 October included an article regarding the appeal:


 “Captain J. P. Danny, chairman of the grand council of the Old Contemptibles’ Association, states that a great number of applications have been received from “Old Contemptibles” who wish to go on a pilgrimage to Mons. The grand council have undertaken to organise a pilgrimage. It is intended that on Armistice Day the “Old Contemptibles” should observe the Great Silence standing on the actual ground of their first engagement, facing as they did in August, 1914. A solemn tribute will be paid to the “Old Contemptibles” who sacrificed their lives, and to those who so nobly carried on the traditions of the old Army. On the Sunday following there will be a drumhead service in the field where the first “Old Contemptible” fell. The grand council feel that if only men who can pay their own fares take part in the pilgrimage it will not be representative of the nation. They, therefore, appeal for funds sufficient to send at least 300, including the earliest V.C.’s, of those who cannot afford the expense. All contributions will be gratefully acknowledged by Capt. Danny at 69, Powerscroft-road, E.5.”

The urgent need for donations was commented on in an editorial piece published in The Western Daily Press of 31 October:

 “It will be a thousand pities if the scheme for a pilgrimage of “Old Contemptibles” to Mons on Armistice Day should fall through for lack of financial support. The Old Contemptibles Association, in the very nature of things, will tend to die out, and there are a good many of the men who are entitled to the distinction of membership who cannot afford the expenses of the fares, and so on. It is estimated that a sum of round about £700 would be required, and surely it ought not to be impossible to raise that amount during the next fortnight.”

From the very start the appeal met with a disappointing response, which was further compounded by the news that The Prince of Wales, who had been was invited to join the Old Contemptibles on their pilgrimage, was unable to attend due to prior commitments.[3] However, the newly-formed Hull Branch of The Old Contemptibles Association received significant support from one benefactor, Major Clifford Harrison Stringer,[4] and an acknowledgement of his contribution was published by The Hull Daily Mail on 3 November:



“Sir, – May I be allowed through the medium of your paper to state that Major C. H. Stringer, an Old Contemptible Officer of the Waterloo Main Collieres, near Leeds, has kindly presented our Association with a cheque for £60, so as to enable some of our members to take part at no cost to themselves in the pilgrimage to Mons on November 11th, 12th and 13th.

Will all our members please try to attend the general meeting on Friday next at 7.45 p.m. sharp to discuss the matter. Thanking you very much in anticipation. – I am, Sir, etc.,


(Acting for the Hon. Sec.).

Raywell Hotel, Cumberland-street,

Hull, November 1st, 1927.”[5]

The donation made by Major Stringer, and the poor response to the appeal made by The Old Contemptibles Association for funds, was also commented on in another letter sent to the Editor of The Hull Daily Mail that was published a week later:

“SIR, – In the “Mail” cross top column this evening was an admission of failure in the attempt to secure funds to cover the expenses of sending 300 “Old Contemptibles” to Mons for Armistice Day and therefore only half the number will be able to make the pilgrimage even those – I believe I am correct in stating – are drawn from the Metropolitan area. Why so ghastly a failure for so worthy a cause? Is it that the nation is losing its tradition of being open-hearted to worthy causes? It is that these men must consider themselves sufficiently well treated by receiving the Almighty’s deliverance? Or is it that the Nation is too poor to allow the tapping of its pockets any further?

Hardly the last mentioned reason, for I have before me a copy of a weekly paper stating that arrangements have already been made for a pilgrimage to France and Flanders next year in which 5,000 men will take part and that this number may be greatly added to. Such being so, why, one is prompted to reiterate, could funds not be found to take 300?

It is pleasing to note that the London party of 150 men will be augmented by a small body from Hull and I feel compelled to add that this has only been made possible through the benevolence of Major Stringer, who, on learning that so far was known no Yorkshiremen were taking part in the pilgrimage, promptly made out a cheque for £60 and this he handed to the Secretary (Mr E. M. Adams) of the Hull and District Contemptibles that they might be represented at Mons entirely at his expense.

Had the London movement been supported by men of Major Stringer’s type, few, if any, disappointments would have been met. The response to the Metropolitan Fund makes one wonder if it really is a land fit for heroes to live in. – I am, Sir, etc.,


Hull, 7th November, 1927.”[6]

On the eve of the departure of the Old Contemptibles to Belgium, it was clear that the appeal to the public for donations had failed, and that there was a significant financial shortfall that would need to be recovered from another source. Captain Danny remarked that:

“The response to our appeal has been most disappointing. No one seems to care. At present we have collected exactly £174 2s. 6d., practically all in small amounts of 2s. 6d. and 5s. Another £500 is required.”[7]

The deficit, which amounted to over £400, was covered personally by Captain Danny who remortgaged his home at 68 Gunton Road in order to ensure that the debt was repaid.[8]


The Pilgrimage: 10 to 12 November 1927

On Thursday 10 November, 212[9] “Old Contemptibles” arrived at Victoria Station in London to take the boat train to Ostend at the start of their pilgrimage. The Dundee Evening Telegraph reported on the assembly of the Chums:

“Victoria Cross men fall in on the right.”

This was the cry that rang out in Victoria Station, London, this morning, and from a large group of men three figures stepped out smartly and took up their places.

“Fall in everybody,” was the next command, and the 212 members of the Old Contemptibles Association – heroes every one – who formed the pilgrimage to Mons, took up their places as if they were on the parade ground.

It was a wonderful spectacle to see them move off. There was no band, by special request. There were blind men, cripples, and every member wore his medals. There was an abundance of distinguished decorations, which told their own tale of valour in the darkest days of the war.”[10]

 The vast majority of the Chums who paraded on the station platform that morning came from in and around London, but Old Contemptibles from other parts of the country had managed to obtain financial support in order to make the journey back to Belgium. Among them were eleven Chums of the Hull Branch of The Old Contemptibles Association who had their expenses covered by the donation made by Major Clifford Harrison Stringer, who also accompanied the party.[11] Five more Chums from Yorkshire were also reported to have made the trip south.[12] Thomas Henry Seager D.C.M., who in 1914 served with the 1st Battalion, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, was also present at Victoria that morning, and his war service was recounted by The Hampshire Telegraph on 11 November:


“Ex-Private (sic) Thomas Seager, 1st King’s Royal Rifles, of Botley, who has accepted the invitation of the “Old Contemptibles” Association to join the Mons Pilgrimage leaving London on November 10, holds a fine record of war service. He had the proud distinction of being one of the first men in the British Army to be decorated on the field with the Distinguished Conduct Medal by H.M. the King when he was in France, and afterwards going before the Prince of Wales to have the medal ribbon pinned upon his tunic. He was twice captured by the enemy but made good his escape. Rifleman Seager was also recommended for the French Medalle Militaire for a brave deed rendered to the Allies, which undoubtedly saved a battery of French artillery, which was secreted in a wood, from capture or destruction by the enemy, but the medal was never awarded. He was five times specially mentioned by his officers for good services. Private Seager, who was born at Alverstoke, and is now employed as a postman in the Botley rural district.”[13]

Three holders of the Victoria Cross formed part of the contingent of Chums: Sid Godley V.C., who had earned his decoration at Nimy on 23 August 1914 with the 4th Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers; Job Drain V.C., who had served with 37th (Howitzer) Battery, Royal Field Artillery and was one of three members of the battery who had been awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions during the Battle of Le Cateau on 26 August 1914; and Spencer John Bent V.C., M.M., who was a Regimental Sergeant-Major when he retired from the Army in 1926 and received his honour for several actions that he had performed between October and November 1914 while serving with the 1st Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment, most notably at Le Gheer on the night of 1/2 November 1914 when he took charge of a platoon though at the time he held the appointment of Drummer.

Also among the party were a few disabled ex-servicemen, including George Bennett A.M., who had served with the 12th (Prince of Wales’s) Royal Lancers in 1914 and was awarded the Albert Medal 2nd Class, for Gallantry in Saving Life on Land, for rescuing a French woman who had been knocked down by a train at Brie on 25 February 1918. During the course of his rescue, Bennett was hit by a train and was severely injured, having to have his left leg amputated below the knee and his right leg above.[14] Two blind Old Contemptibles also accompanied the group. William England, who came from Oxfordshire, had joined the Coldstream Guards on 29 May 1899 and had been severely wounded in the head near Ypres in 1914 while serving with the 3rd Battalion. He had been discharged as physically unfit for service on 1 October 1915 due a cerebral hernia. Another soldier, identified as Macmillan or McMullen in different press reports, was quoted as saying: “I am looking forward to the visit. I shall see everything again although I have lost my sight. I am delighted to know that my old pals are around me.”[15] He added: “Even if we can’t see, we shall be able to imagine what Mons looks like. It’s worth going for. It’ll bring back the old times to us again.”[16]

Standing on the platform at Victoria Station was Captain John Danny, who had been advised against travelling by his doctor. When asked by a reporter why he was not able to go with the Chums on the pilgrimage, Danny replied: “If I go, there will probably be a funeral.”[17]

 After a rough crossing across the English Channel from Dover to Ostend, the Old Contemptibles entrained and arrived at Brussels on the evening of 10 November, where they were received by the British Military Attache, representatives of the British Legion branch in the city and Belgian ex-Servicemen. The Chums were then booked into their accommodation at the Hotel Splendid and some of the party then visited the British Legion Club, where they were entertained for the evening.[18]

Old Contemptibles Mons 1928

On Friday 11 November, the ninth anniversary of the Armistice being signed, the Chums travelled to Mons, where they marched through the town led by their banner, which had been presented to them by Lady Amherst two years previously. One of their number reported on the ceremony that took place at Mons (Bergen) Communal Cemetery:

“From An Old Contemptible.

MONS, Friday.

“There could surely have been no service of greater solemnity or impressiveness than that which took place at Mons Cemetery to-day, when a little company of 225 “Old Contemptibles” stood bareheaded during the silence among comrades and enemies who had gone. The company included three V.C.s, scores of D.C.M.s and men crippled or blinded. The graves in the cemetery were beautifully attended, and on this November day when the clouds overhead were to turn to sleet and snow, roses were still blooming.

The brief ceremony over and the National Anthems of the Allies having been sung, the party marched past the Cross of Sacrifice in the cemetery. Afterwards many a lowered head beside a stone dated 23 August, 1914, testified that a warrior who had come through the fire of war had met a lost comrade. From those gravesides messages were sent to the King, the King of the Belgians, and the Prince of Wales. That to the Prince read:

“Two hundred and twenty-five Old Contemptibles on parade to-day on the historic cobbled streets of Mons, raise the unanimous shout ‘The Prince, our chum, God bless him.’”

The Old Contemptibles’ Association, which has hitherto only permitted one honorary member, the Prince of Wales, has invited the King of the Belgians to accept a similar title, which has also been given to the Mayors of Mons in perpetuity.”[19]

Old Contemptibles Mons 1928 Cemetery

The Old Contemptibles Association paraded in Brussels on 12 November and wreaths were laid on behalf of the Chums and the Lord Mayor of London at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Sir George Graham, the British Ambassador to Belgium, addressed the Chums who then observed two minutes’ silence. A short service then took place, directed by the Reverend Owen Watkins, who was Chaplain to the Association, while a Chum accompanied the hymns playing his accordion. Following their remembrance service, the Old Contemptibles were then entertained by the authorities in Brussels and Belgian ex-Servicemen, before departing for England.[20]

The Chums arrived back at Victoria late on the evening of 12 November, and were addressed by Captain Danny and the Reverend Watkins before being dismissed and travelling back to their homes. For those Old Contemptibles who were fortunate enough to have been on the pilgrimage, their visit would prove unforgettable. Three Chums for Dorset later recalled their experiences to a journalist of The Western Gazette:


“Messrs W. H. Etheridge, J. Drake, and A. T. Collings were members of a party of 225 “Old Contemptibles” who went on a pilgrimage to the Mons battlefield during the week-end. They left Victoria Station at 10 o’clock on Thursday night, and at Dover, where light refreshments were provided, the Mayor wished them a pleasant voyage and a safe return. The crossing to France was rather rough, and had its effects even on some of the “old boys.” The party stayed at the Hotel Splendide in Brussels, and on the evening of their arrival fifty of them were invited to the British Legion Club, and entertained for a few hours.

In a record of them experience the Sherborne “Old Contemptibles” state:-

“On Friday we entrained for Mons, where we were met by some officers and men of the Belgian Army. After a welcome and speeches, we marched, headed by the Trumpet Band to the Town Hall, where the Burgomaster made a speech which revived many memories of the war. We proceeded to the Mons Town War Memorial headed by a Military Band and representatives of the Belgian Legion and municipality. The National Anthems of Belgium, France and England were played, and wreaths were placed on the memorial. At the Cemetery of the British soldiers who fell in the war, a short service tool place round the British memorial, and after a visit to the memorial of the 1st R. Irish Regiment, we returned to Mons Town for a few hours’ grace. It was remarkable how well the graves of the fallen are kept. The motor-‘busses (sic) brought us back to our hotel after a good day of marching on the cobble stones of Belgium.

On Saturday we paraded and marched round the city to the Belgian Unknown Warrior’s Grave, where a ceremony took place, the British Ambassador gave an address, wreaths were laid on the grave by the blind and disabled British soldiers present, and at the Grand Place, Old Brussels Town Hall, we were addressed by the deputy to the famous Burgomaster Max. The afternoon was spent souvenir hunting and viewing the city. On Sunday we again visited Mons for a service round the Belgium (sic) War Memorial, which was conducted by the Rev. Owen S. Watkins, C.M.G., C.B.E., K.H.C., Deputy Chaplain-General to the Forces. The hymns were accompanied by one of the “Old Contemptibles” on a melodian. After a short address by the Chaplain and prayers, we were dismissed for a few hours and returned by train to Boulogne via Lille, Armentieres, Hasbrock (sic), St Omer, to Calais, where we embarked for Folkstone, which was reached at 11.20 p.m. An address was given by Captain J. P. Danny, the founder of the “Old Contemptibles Association,” and also by the Chaplain, and each old contemptible made his own arrangements for getting home.”

The party spent a really enjoyable time and were greatly pleased at the reception given to them.”[21]

Chums of The Old Contemptibles’ Association continued to make regular pilgrimages to Mons up until 1990 when the final visit, organised by the London and South-East Area of the Association, took place.

As for Captain John Patrick Danny, the Chums of The Old Contemptibles’ Association did not forget him.

Captain Danny was buried at Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, which full military honours, on 25 May 1928, and in 1931 a memorial headstone for his grave was unveiled by Field Marshal George Milne, 1st Baron Milne of Salonika and Rubislaw. The band of the 10th (County of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Hackney) (T.A.) played at the service and subsequent march past of the Chums, while Trumpeters of the Royal Artillery Depot at Woolwich sounded the Last Post and Reveille. Chums of The Old Contemptibles Association are known to have made an annual pilgrimage to Captain Danny’s graveside to honour their founder, on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of his death, up to at least 1939.

On 29 August 1948 Lieutenant-General Sir James Ronald Edmonstone Charles K.C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., President of The Old Contemptibles Association, unveiled a plaque fixed to the wall of the Hackney United Services Club at 69 Powerscroft Road, commemorating the formation of the Association. It reads:



Chums of the Founder Branch (Hackney Branch) of The Old Contemptibles’ Association, photographed on 23 May 1964 outside the Hackney United Services Club and the memorial to Captain Danny. 

Newsreel film of the pilgrimage by The Old Contemptibles’ Association to Mons and Brussels in 1927 can be viewed on YouTube via the following links:



[1] Yorkshire Post, 22 May 1928 & The Old Contemptible: The Official Organ of The Old Contemptibles’ Association, No. 434, March 1970, pp. 15-16.

[2] Leeds Mercury, 28 October 1927.

[3] Gloucester Citizen, 29 October 1927.

[4]  Clifford Harrison Stringer (1892-1967) had been a Second-Lieutenant of the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers in 1914 and had disembarked at Le Havre from the S.S. Kingstonian on 18 August. He was sent his 1914 Star on 20 September 1919 and was issued with the clasp and roses for the medal on 1 July 1920.

[5] Chum John Edward Barnby was born at Hull on 1 November 1896 and was employed as a labourer at a colour works before joining The East Yorkshire Regiment in early 1914, his regimental number being 10190. He had been appointed a Lance-Corporal by the time that he was drafted to France to join the 1st Battalion on 2 November. Wounded in March 1915, Barnby was transferred to the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) on 29 November 1916 and issued with the regimental number 30773. He was subsequently transferred to the Machine Gun Corps (Motor Branch), being issued with the service number 191964, and saw active service during the Third Afghan War in 1919. On being demobilised, John returned to Hull and married Cecily Snee in 1921 and was issued with the clasp and roses for his 1914 Star on 1 October of that year. He joined the Hull Branch of The Old Contemptibles Association on its formation in 1926 and was elected Chairman at the first branch meeting held on 12 October.[5] Chum Barnby later served as honorary secretary of the Hull Branch during the 1930s and was also involved with organising reunions of Old Comrades who had served with the 1st Battalion, The East Yorkshire Regiment in 1914. In 1939, John is recorded as living with his family at 40 Temple Street in Hull and was employed as a temporary telephonist. Barnby moved to Birmingham after the Second World War and lived at 24 Guthrie Street in Lozells, and was finally sent his India General Service Medal with clasp for “Afghanistan 1919 N.W.F.” on 17 January 1954. He also joined the Birmingham Branch of The Old Contemptibles Association, and in March 1955 was appointed Area Delegate for the branch before being elected as its Chairman. Chum John Barnby died at Birmingham in 1965.

[6] Hull Daily Mail, 9 November 1927.

[7] Leeds Mercury, 7 November 1927 & Birmingham Daily Gazette, 10 November 1927.

[8] Yorkshire Post, 22 May 1928.

[9] Some reports state that the party numbered 225.

[10] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 10 November 1927.

[11] Hull Daily Mail, 10 November 1927.

[12] Leeds Mercury, 7 November 1927.

[13] Born at Alverstoke, Thomas Henry Seager was aged eighteen years and five months when he attested as a Regular soldier with The King’s Royal Rifle Corps on a Short Service Engagement at Gosport on 14 May 1910. At the time of his enlistment he was employed as a porter and was serving with the 1st Wessex Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (Territorial Force). Issued with the regimental number 9739, Rifleman Seager was posted to the 1st Battalion and passed his 3rd Class Certificate in Education on 26 April 1911. He was awarded his first Good Conduct badge on 14 May 1912 and qualified as a First Class Signaller the same month. At the declaration of war, Rifleman Seager was stationed at Salamanca Barracks in Aldershot and embarked for France, attached to Battalion Headquarters of the 1st K.R.R.C. as a signaller, on 12 August, disembarking at Rouen the following day. On 30 September, while in the line near Beaulne on the Aisne, Seager performed acts of gallantry while acting as a runner for which he subsequently received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The citation for the award was published in The London Gazette on 17 December 1914:

“For conspicuous good work on 30th September in carrying messages under rifle and shell fire, and for good work of a similar nature on several previous occasions.”

Rifleman Seager was wounded in the left shoulder and right wrist during the Battle of Festubert in May 1915, and was evacuated to hospital in England on 25 May, being posted onto the strength of the Rifle Depot on that date. On 28 August he was transferred to the 5th (Special Reserve) Battalion at Sheerness and was appointed an unpaid Lance-Corporal on his arrival. Seager returned home on furlough in November, and this was reported by The Hampshire Telegraph on 19 November:

“Lance-Corporal T. H. Seager, King’s Royal Rifles, the Gosport lad upon whose breast the King pinned the Distinguished Conduct Medal, for bravery at the battle of the Aisne, is now in the signalling branch. He has been spending a few days leave at home this week. At the battle of the Aisne, Seager volunteered to cross three-quarters of a mile of open country, to obtain help for a British force that was being hard pressed in its defence of advanced trenches. He also holds a French medal for gallantry in the first fighting at Ypres, when he was the means of helping to save a French battery of artillery from being cut up by a superior German force.”

Awarded pay for his appointment as Lance-Corporal on 25 April 1916, Seager was transferred to the 2nd (Home Service) Garrison Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment, which was stationed on the Isle of Grain near Sheerness, on 21 June, and was given the regimental number 25814. He was also appointed an Acting Corporal on the date of his transfer.  On 15 January 1917, Thomas married Lilian Mary Hawkins at Brentford. The 2nd (Home Service) Garrison Battalion became the 13th Battalion, Royal Defence Corps on 10 August 1917 and Seager was transferred to the Corps, being issued with the service number 48534.  He was discharged as physically unfit on 26 November 1917 and was permanently excluded for liability to be medically re-examined for further service under the terms of the Military Service (Review of Exemptions) Act of 1917. Thomas returned home to 2 Roundswell Gardens in Southampton with his wife Lillian, and was sent a Silver War Badge and awarded a pension of 30/6d. for four weeks, reduced to 15/-. for 48 weeks, to be reviewed at the end of that period. He received his King’s Certificate of Discharge on 17 October 1918, by which time he and Lillian resided at 6 Sir George’s Road in the Freemantle district of Southampton. Seager was sent his 1914 Star by post on 12 June 1919 and issued with the clasp and roses for the medal on 5 February 1920, and on 21 April was appointed as a postman in Southampton.

Thomas Henry Seager D.C.M. died in 1967.

[14] George William Bennett was born at Bermondsey in 1886 and had attested for the Lancers of the Line on 25 February 1907. Issued with the service number L/114, Bennett was posted to the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers, but was subsequently drafted to the 12th Royal Lancers and served with that regiment in India and South Africa before returning to England in 1913. Private Bennett embarked for France on 16 August 1914. The citation for the award of the Albert Medal was published in The London Gazette on 26 August 1918:

“A woman who was crossing the line in front of a troop train at a railway station in France, to reach a passenger train, was caught by the buffer of the engine. Private Bennett, 12th Lancers, hearing the woman’s screams, and seeing her position, rushed to help her and pulled her into the six-foot way between the two trains. Unfortunately a basket which the woman was carrying was struck by the troop train and knocked Bennett against the passenger train, with the result that he was badly injured and suffered the amputation of both his legs. Had it not been for his presence of mind and courage the woman probably would have been killed.”

As well as being awarded the Albert Medal, which Bennett received from the hands of George V at Buckingham Palace on 18 September 1918, he was also awarded the Médaille d’Honneur pour acte de Courage et de Dévouement, First Class, in Silver Gilt, by the French Government on 4 October 1918. George was discharged as a consequence of his injuries on 16 January 1919 and was issued with a Silver War Badge. He was living at the Disabled Soldiers’ Home on Wattisfield Road in Hackney when he was sent the clasp and roses for his 1914 Star on 12 November 1920. Chum Bennett can be seen prominently on a Pathe newsreel taken during the visit, when he was filmed on crutches going down the steps to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Brussels. Bennett’s medals were sold at auction on 1 March 2017 for £7,500.

[15] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 10 November 1927.

[16] Dundee Courier, 11 November 1927.

[17] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 10 November 1927.

[18] Leeds Mercury, 11 November 1927, Western Morning News, 11 November 1927 & Western Gazette, 18 November 1927.

[19] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 12 November 1927.

[20] Belfast News-Letter, 14 November 1927 & Gloucester Citizen, 14 November 1927.

[21] Western Gazette, 18 November 1927.

Leaving Their Mark

This article is based on my research into two men who served with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 who left their mark in different ways – one by writing on a wall inside one of the bunkers at Essex Farm on the bank of the Ypres-Yser Canal, the other signing his name inside a book given as a gift.


Graffiti inside the concrete Advanced Dressing Station at Essex Farm, taken in 1984 (Courtesy of Ian Everest)

Inside the concrete bunkers that were constructed at Essex Farm, a number of pilgrims signed their names and left messages as they revisited the former battlefields. One of the “vandals” was an Old Contemptible, 7158 Sergeant (Acting Company Sergeant-Major) Charles Robert Foster D.C.M., who landed with 54th Field Company, Royal Engineers, at Zeebrugge on 7 October 1914 as part of the divisional engineers of 7th Division. He visited the bunker on a pilgrimage to the former battlefields eleven years later.

Born at Newry in County Down on 22 June 1881, Charles was the son of a soldier and joined the Royal Engineers in 1901, qualifying as a skilled carpenter. He married Jesse Nash at Canterbury in 1906.

On the night of 24/25 November 1914, Acting C.S.M. Foster took part in an operation to destroy a house that overlooked the British trenches in the Fleurbaix sector and was used by German snipers. The events were briefly recorded in the War Diary of 54th Field Company:

“Lieut. MORRIS, C.S.M. FOSTER and party blew up a house in front of the lines, the demolition was a complete success. The party were congratulated by the G.O.C. 7th Division.”

A report regarding him being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, as well as his own account of the operation, was printed in The Middlesex Chronicle on 27 February 1915:


“Company-Sergt.-Major Charles Robert Foster, of the 54th Field Company, Royal Engineers, brother of Mr H. Foster, of 154, Cromwell-road, Hounslow, is another of our local warriors who has gained special distinction on the battlefield. He has been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal on the recommendation of Field-Marshall Sir John French for a gallant exploit in which he took a prominent part, and which he thus described in a letter he sent home before he was aware of the honour it would bring:-

“About 100 yards from our trenches and 60 yards from the Germans stood a farm in which their snipers used to get and pick off our men by the score; so one night we were ordered to blow it up. A lieutenant and myself and 4 sappers were picked out for the job. It was a very risky job, as the snow was on the ground and we could hardly get any cover. However, we made up the charges in the trenches, then crept out very cautiously to the house (under fire all the time), and fixed up the charge, which was a terrible job as it was pitch dark and we could only feel what we were doing. Any way, we did the thing all right, and as we were coming back we saw a German running away, and found out he had cut our wires. The officer and I had to search all over the place for the cut ends and join them up. We eventually got back to our trenches and blew up the place, made a good job of it, and had no casualties except a bullet hole through the officer’s cap. Just before the house went up we saw a German running into the place, so he went up too.”

In another letter dated February 4th our brave townsman tells of the dangerous work to which the Engineers are put in the trenches:

“The weather is greatly improved lately, and the trenches are drying up fine. I don’t expect it will be long before we get a move on. I have had a few narrow escapes since I have been back. I am employed on the second line of trenches, about 800 yards from the first line, with a hundred French labourers. We very often get a shower of shells over us. One burst within 30 yards of me yesterday; the concussion knocked me down, but I was quite unhurt. I had to knock off work, as it shook me up a bit. Yesterday afternoon the Germans dropped 30 shells into a village near here, and killed a few civilians. Our artillery last night fired 30 rounds each gun in retaliation. Talk about an inferno! We have 50 or 60 guns round about here, so you may guess what it was like. We have had several German aeroplanes over us to-day, so we shall have some shells to-morrow.”

Coy.-Sergt.-Major Foster is one of the sons of Mr T. Foster, who was for many years Army Scripture Reader at Hounslow, and who now resides in Jersey. He has been 14 years in the Royal Engineers; one of his brothers, Sergt.-Maj. Thomas Foster, has served for 22 years in the Royal Artillery; and his youngest brother, Frederick, joined the Northamptonshire Regiment at the outbreak of war.”

The citation for the award was published in The London Gazette on 1 April 1915:

“For gallant conduct on 25th November, 1914, when, in company of an Officer, he succeeded in blowing up a house containing German snipers who were causing many casualties.”

Foster was also Mentioned in Despatches, the award being gazetted on 18 May 1917. He finished the war holding the appointment of Temporary Warrant Officer Class I and in 1920 was stationed in Palestine.

Charles Robert Foster D.C.M. died in Kent in 1973.

In 1972, In-Pensioner John Cusack M.M., an Old Contemptible who had served with the 1st (Royal) Dragoons in 1914, presented a copy of his autobiography, Scarlet Fever, to a member of the Royal Hospital staff as a leaving present. This book is now in my possession.

Among the In-Pensioners who signed the book with him was Francis Quilter, formerly of the 1st Battalion, The East Surrey Regiment.


Born at Battersea (some records state on 11 April 1888), Francis had been educated at the Foundling Hospital at Grays Inn Lane in London and attested for The East Surrey Regiment, aged fourteen, on 12 March 1903. Issued with the regimental number L/7824, Quilter served as a Band Boy with the 1st Battalion, and remained with the Band on converting to adult service at the age of eighteen. He was stationed at Dublin on the outbreak of the war and disembarked at Le Havre with the 1st Battalion on 15 August 1914. Quilter was discharged, on the termination of his period of engagement, on 20 March 1916, but joined the Royal Naval Air Service on 15 June. He stated at his attestation that he was employed as a musician. He was promoted to Aerial Gunlayer Class I on 7 November 1917.

On 1 April 1918, Quilter was transferred to the Royal Air Force as a Private on its formation, being issued with the service number 214936. At the time of his transfer he was serving at Dunkirk and was employed as an Aerial Gunner. He was transferred to Blandford Camp on 19 May, and moved to No.1 (Auxiliary)School of Aerial Gunnery at Hythe on 8 June, where he attended a course to prepare to qualify as an observer. On qualification, Quilter was promoted to Sergeant Mechanic Observer on 17 July and was posted to Stonehenge Aerodrome before being sent back to France on 29 August with 110th Squadron of the Independent Air Force.

Reclassed as a Sergeant Observer on 1 January 1919, Quilter was posted to Uxbridge on extended leave before returning briefly to 10th Squadron, before being transferred to Baldonnel Aerodrome near Dublin on 11 December. He was sent his 1914 Star by post on 22 August 1919 and was issued with the clasp and roses on 3 March 1922.

Quilter was discharged from the Royal Air Force on 27 January 1922 and re-enlisted as a Regular soldier in The East Surrey Regiment at Kingston-upon-Thames the following day, being issued with the regimental number 6135564. He was awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal in Army Order 368 of 1926.

In-Pensioner Francis Quilter died at the Royal Hospital on 13 March 1976.