Saffron Walden 




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Robert Pike

This year, 2016, is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, which began on the first day of July 1916, the blackest day in the history of the British Army. By the end of that day almost 20,000 had fallen, and by November 18th, the official end of the battle when the campaign was abandoned, there were a million dead and wounded on both sides. How can we commemorate such a cataclysm? Only by remembering.
In common with nearly every city, town, village and hamlet nationwide it proved the worst day for casualties for Saffron Walden. On July 1st four men died and countless more were wounded. By November 18th our town had lost a further twenty-five men Here is a chronology of their deaths and some of their stories.

It all began on Saturday July 1st. 1916 at 7.30 a.m. when a steady line of British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and walked slowly towards the German lines casualties mounting at every step

Private Sidney BARKER 1st. Essex Regiment, killed 1st. July 1916, aged 23. Buried at Knightsbridge Cemetery
When the lamps went out all over Europe, Sidney Barker was with the 1st. Essex in Mauritius. He had been a soldier for four years and was the son of Jane and the late Daniel Barker of 4 Upper Square, Castle Street. The battalion was shipped home and spent three months in England at Harwich and Banbury in training. In March 1915 they embarked for the Dardanelles via Alexandria and Mudros, landing at Gallipoli on April 25th. 1915. Sidney was a machine-gunner, but was wounded by a bullet through the left lung and shoulder blade, as well as in the right hand. He was in hospital for five months but on recovery volunteered to go back to the peninsula where he was again wounded this time in the leg.

Hospitalisation in Egypt saw his battalion leave Gallipoli in January 1916. Sidney was fit enough to join them on their return to France in March. He was regarded as a first-rate shot, which led to his selection as a regimental sniper.

1st. July 1916 saw Sidney and the battalion leave their billets at Louvencourt to form up behind the 87th. Brigade which had a frontage of 1000 yards near Beaumont-Hamel. In the distance was the Serre-Grandcourt ridge with Beaumont-Hamel in the valley below. The first battalions of the 87th. Brigade were badly mauled, but were believed to have reached and be fighting in the enemy’s trenches.

At 8.37 a.m. the Essex Regiment on the right was ordered to attack independently from the support or third line trenches. This order was then cancelled and the battalion was told to move up to the front line via a communication trench. The front line was blocked, so they went over from the second line at 10.50 a.m. The ‘fire was hellish.’

How hellish became clear to Sidney’s mother in a letter received from a comrade. ‘Last Saturday morning....Sid was one of the first to go over, he was killed instantly by a bullet...He was my only chum and sniping mate...’ Sid was buried about half a mile behind the front-line at a place where the communication trenches would have started. The local trench was called Knightsbridge. It contains 548 graves and Sid lies in the two rows that contain men of his battalion and from the island of Newfoundland killed on that day.

Also killed together with the 2nd Battalion were-

Private Charles E ANDREWS 2nd. Essex Regiment 1st. July 1916. Buried in Serre Road Cemetery No.2
Private George CORNELL 2nd. Essex Regiment, killed 1st. July 1916, aged 24. Thiepval Memorial

The final soldier from Saffron Walden killed on July 1st. held the Distinguished Conduct Medal,

Corporal James J HALLS, D.C.M. 1st. Rifle Brigade, killed 1st. July 1916, aged 20. Buried in Sucrerie Military Cemetery

As dusk fell on the first day of the greatest battle the world had ever witnessed, the countless dead and dying lay out in no man’s land, few realised that the battle would continue until winter set in. By that time, Saffron Walden’s roll of honour would contain the names of over fifty men who would never return.

Private Francis H BADMAN 7th. Suffolk Regiment aged 27 and Private William DEWBERRY 9th. Essex Regiment aged 21 were both killed on 3rd. July 1916, and are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial
Their names are inscribed with 945 comrades from the Essex Regiment on the Thiepval Memorial which towers 150 feet above the battlefield of the Somme, visible everywhere - its position dictated by the nature of the site and by historical associations. On it are 71,798 names, including fifteen from Saffron Walden.

Private William F BOUCH 9th. Royal Fusiliers, killed 7th. July 1916, aged 21. Buried in Ovillers Military Cemetery

The next casualty was an officer. Statistics state that 27% of officers died, as against 12% ordinary soldiers, but officers were more easily identifiable so the figures for battle-wound casualties may be more reliable - 47% for officers and 56% for other ranks.

Lieutenant Donald F G JOHNSON, 2nd. Manchester Regiment, died of wounds 15th. July 1916. aged 26. Buried in Bouzincourt Communal Cemetery Extension
Donald Johnson was commissioned in the same regiment as Wilfred Owen, but they had more than that in common, they were both poets. Sadly, they did not meet as Owen did not arrive in France until December 1916.

Donald was born in Saffron Walden in 1890, the youngest son of the town’s Congregational minister Reverend Richard and Mrs Eliza Bennett Johnson of 40 Church Street. He went away to school at Caterham, then became a teacher before going up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1911. He wrote poetry before the war and won the Chancellor’s Medal for English Verse in 1914 for a poem entitled, ‘The Southern Pole.’ More significantly, he became a Roman Catholic.

At the end of 1914, he intended to pursue a study of Chaucer on a research scholarship, but on the outbreak of war and living in Cambridge he abandoned this idea and as he had been a member of the Officer Training Corps at university, applied for a temporary commission in the army on December 8th. 1914. He hoped to join the same unit as his brother, but this was not to be. On December 4th. 1915 Donald was posted to the 2nd. Manchester Regiment. He went to France on December 7th. 1915, joining his battalion at Etaples. Promotion followed with his being gazetted a temporary lieutenant in April 1916, with effect from the previous February.

In July 1916 the battalion assembled in Authuille Wood before attacking the heavily-defended Leipzig Salient which they took and held. After withdrawal from here on 8th-10th. July they were in action on the western side of Ovillers Post where some ground was gained. The regimental history notes that Sausage and Mash Valleys were, ‘…littered with the bodies of dead and wounded from the attack which failed...The place was a heap of ruins, and the Boche had a position round the ruins of the church in the shape of a horseshoe’ They then returned to Bouzincourt until the 14th. when they attacked Ovillers again.

On July 15th. a trench had to be held by a bombing party at all costs and the Germans prevented from advancing. Donald without hesitation undertook the task, but bade farewell to his friends, fully certain that he would not return. The party came under heavy fire and twenty-five casualties were sustained forcing them to retire. Donald was one of those casualties.

He was taken to the dressing-station in Bouzincourt where he died from his wounds. In the cemetery where he lies, the inscription on his headstone says, simply, but poignantly, ‘Dearly loved son,’ and it is the only headstone that has the words, ‘Of Saffron Walden’ on it.
What poetic talent was snuffed out that day we can only surmise from one slim volume of verse published posthumously in 1919. In the preface the Master of Emmanuel College declares, ‘... he was not a good exam candidate though his teachers were sure he had the root of the matter in him. Literature to him was a part of life, not knowledge to be pursued for gain.’

Some were written at the Front, some at home, showing evidence that the small French villages which so delighted him, reminded him of the countryside around Saffron Walden. But there is also the recurring sense of the shortness of life and the waste, as well as the presentiment of death in ‘Resurgit’, ‘Les Pauvres Morts’ and his sonnet ‘Spring 1915’ which is indeed prophetic:

‘Next year these shall renew their youth, but thou
No more may’st look upon the bursting flowers
Nor daze thy senses with the breaths of Spring:
Silent thou’llt lie throughout the endless hours.’

A few days before Donald’s death, his parents received a letter from him, swiftly followed by the telegram informing them of his death. This was not the only telegram to come to their home in Church Street. In July 1915, Donald’s sister had died in Calcutta. He wRote a poem, ‘H.M.J’ to her memory, and in 1917, just nine months later, Donald’s brother Owen fell at Arras. Their epitaph shall be in Donald’s ‘Justitia Victrix’ -

‘Their glorious names shall be adored:
Great was their love and great their worth;
Their fame shall purify the earth,
And honour be their dear reward.’
Private Stanley G WILSON 1st/5th. Gloucestershire Regiment, killed 21st. July 1916, aged 21. Commemorated on Thiepval Memorial

Private Victor SEARLE 20th. Infantry Battalion, AIF, killed 26th. July 1916, aged 26. Commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial
On the crest of a hill with a panoramic view towards the city of Amiens and the valley of the Somme stands the memorial where you will find Victor’s name, one of 10,797 Australians, two who hailed from Saffron Walden and who proudly wore the famous slouch-hat of their adopted homeland.

Private Frederick J BOYCE 23rd. Royal Fusiliers, 27th. July 1916, aged 24. Commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial .

As the summer progressed so did the killing. In this same sector two more local men, not in the same regiment were to die. Both were involved in the attack of the 2nd. Division.

Private Frederick HAWES 13th. Essex Regiment, killed 30th. July 1916, aged 21. Buried in Bernafay Wood British Cemetery
The regimental history of the Royal Fusiliers describes this sector as ‘perilous’ and so it proved to be for another soldier who forsook the comfort of a good, secure job to serve his country.

Lance-Corporal Charles John MUNK ‘ C ‘ Company, 17th. Royal Fusiliers, killed 30th. July 1916, aged 22. Commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial

Each day for a week before the opening of the battle, the enemy positions had been bombarded from 6.25 a.m. until 7.45 a.m. The barrage was the greatest inducer of fear in the troops and its effects devastating. One field gun per ten yards and ‘heavies ’ every twenty, could rain hell on earth onto troops crouching in their trenches. Of course, the artilleryman was not invulnerable and fierce battles between opposing batteries were commonplace and catastrophic.

Gunner George H MARTIN 106th. Howitzer Battery, 6th. Australian Field Artillery, AIF, killed August 7th. 1916, aged 28. Buried in Gordon Dump Cemetery,
George Martin’s story comes straight from the pages of the ‘Boys Own Paper.’ Born in Edmonton, he was the eldest son of Mr. E Martin who moved to 8 Springfield Cottages, Thaxted Road. After leaving school in Saffron Walden aged fourteen, George joined the Royal Navy as an able-seaman, serving on H.M.S Impregnable,

When he was twenty, he was invalided out of the Royal Navy with bad teeth and joined the merchant fleet, sailing many times round the globe. While on the S.S. Stork he was shipwrecked in Hudson’s Bay, Canada and had to walk nearly 300 miles over ice and snow to the nearest rail-link. Perhaps this experience decided George on a less adventurous life and for a while he worked in Canada, but the yearning to move on persisted and he rejoined the Merchant Navy, sailing for Sydney, Australia on the Port Jackson.

George then came home to Saffron Walden, before returning to Australia This time he married Muriel and settled down in Magill, South Australia, having two children and working as a driver for the Magill Brick Company in Adelaide. War interrupted this peaceful existence and George volunteered on March 27th. 1915 joining the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) with whom he sailed for the Dardanelles and the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.

Here he caught enteric fever which led to pyrexia and necessitated his removal to West Mudros, where he stayed until the 16th. when he was discharged for base duties, before returning to the trenches at Suvla on the 23rd.

He survived the flies, the heat, the dysentery and the Turks, being eventually evacuated to Alexandria in January 1916. On March 19th. he was sent to France, disembarking at Marseille on March 25th. Here they entrained for Le Havre where the battery stayed for a week, before moving onto Blaringhem and finally on April 10th through Hazebrouck to Armentieres. The 106th. Howitzer Battery was now known as a mobile brigade, its function to rush to where it was needed giving quick support, on July 2nd it was sent straight to the area of Pozieres, on the Somme.
By July 27th, they had taken up position in Sausage Valley, beyond Pozieres, another heavily fortified village on a ridge that had only been captured two days earlier. Here began a week long assault on old German trenches OG1 and 2. The success of this venture resulted in very heavy German bombardments in retaliation. resulting in more Australians being killed in this sector than in any other part of the Somme battlefield. On August 7th. 1916 George became one of these statistics when, an eleven inch (279.4 mm) shell penetrated C gun-pit and buried the gun. It also exploded all the ammunition, some 200 rounds, killing five men, including George, and four more dying from their wounds. The crater made by the explosion of the ammunition was eleven yards in diameter and ten feet deep.

It was not until September that his wife received the news. Today he is buried in Gordon Dump Cemetery, Ovillers-la Boisselle amidst rolling fields and with ninety-one comrades from across the world, some part of C gun-pit team.

Other soldiers born in Saffron Walden had crossed the world to seek their fortune, but many had gone to the corners of the British Isles for the same reason. The onset of war led them to enlist in their local regiments and in the event of their death it can often be found that their names are recorded on more than one war memorial, in this next case where their parents lived, Saffron Walden and where they had established their home, North Yorkshire.

Private Charles Edward KETTERIDGE 12th. West Yorkshire Regiment, killed 18th. August 1916, aged 27. Buried in Guillemont Road Cemetery,
Edward is buried at the heart of the Somme battlefield amongst illustrious company - the Prime Minister’s son, Raymond Asquith killed nearly a month later; Edward Wyndham Tennant, the poet and William Stanhope Forbes, son of a famous artist in addition to 2251 other graves, more than two thirds unknown.

Lance-Corporal Walter William TAYLOR 51st. Infantry Battalion, AIF, killed 3rd. September 1916, aged 21. Commemorated on Villers-Bretonneux Memorial

For the general public at home in 1916 and for some time afterwards, the full details of casualties, of the means, apparatus and manner of death could only be guessed at. Newspaper reports were heavily censored and thoroughly sanitised, soldiers on leave who knew the truth were reluctant to tell, to save people’s sensitivities and because they felt that no one would believe them. So when a man was killed, his officer or a comrade would often write a comforting letter home explaining the circumstances of death, assuring their loved ones that death had been quick, heroic and painless..

Private Albert AUGER 1st/8th. Middlesex Regiment, killed 18th. September 1916, aged 24. Buried in Euston Road Cemetery

As casualties mounted many regiments not involved in the first day of the Somme battle were hastily brought in as the huge casualties. The 2nd. Royal Sussex Regiment was not directly involved in the fighting until late July, but in their first engagement alone there were 116 casualties By the time the next young man from Saffron Walden was to die, his battalion from July 23rd. until September 9th. had had nearly 1000 casualties but still the attacks continued and the legions of ‘ the glorious dead ’ steadily grew.

Sergeant John William BAKER 2nd. Royal Sussex Regiment, killed 27th. September 1916, aged 22. Commemorated on Thiepval Memorial

The Boys British School in Saffron Walden educated many generations of local boys, educated them for life. Little did anyone realise that three years later on November 11th. 1919, the names of 75 former pupils would be unveiled on the scroll of honour painted by a teacher of the school. These 75 boys saw much in their short lives and even more of death in their allotted span.

Private Ernest W WRIGHT 7th. Royal West Surrey Regiment (The Queen’s), killed September 28th. 1916, aged 19. Commemorated on Thiepval Memorial

Few front-line soldiers, if they escaped death, were lucky to survive the war without being wounded, and these wounds which today could often have been easily treated, were often fatal. Wounds to the abdomen were particularly so - a sample of 1000 cases found 510 dying on the battlefield, 460 in the ambulance, twenty-two after the operation. leaving only eight survivors ! The crucial factor was infection. The next telegram received in Sewards End contained the news of the first of three brothers to die, two of whom died from their wounds.

Private Walter G ARCHER 70th. Battalion, Machine Gun Corps (Infantry), died of wounds 2nd. October 1916, aged 24. Buried in Becourt Military Cemetery

Back home in Fulham hospital the following day another soldier died from his wounds. He was the first Derby Scheme man from Saffron Walden to die. After fifteen months of war the casualties had exceeded everyone’s estimates, so men were needed and conscription was openly being talked about. Lord Derby’s Scheme retained an element of individual choice, but all men between the ages of nineteen and forty-two had to register - this was estimated to be between three to five million men. The element of choice was that if passed fit they could enlist immediately in a regiment of their choice with the possibility of applying for a commission, or they could wait to be called-up and be sent where the Army chose. There was a six-week period for people to make up their minds and married men were assured they would not be called up until all single men were in the ranks.

Private Douglas Charles PURSEY 23rd. County of London Regiment, died of wounds 3rd.October 1916, aged 25. Buried in Saffron Walden Town Cemetery
On the Somme near High Wood, Douglas was severely wounded in the left thigh. From the Casualty Clearing Station he was eventually he was taken to the military hospital at Fulham where septic poisoning set in and his leg had to be amputated. His mother was summoned, but he never regained consciousness after the operation and died on October 3rd. at 9 a.m.

Douglas was buried in Saffron Walden.with full-military honours, ‘all honour possible was given to him’ The coffin was draped in the Union Jack and carried on a horse-drawn hearse, accompanied by his friends from the Town and Excelsior bands playing at the head of the procession.
As the Town Band played their doleful marches behind the coffin of Douglas Pursey very few would have believed that just a few days later another band member before the war would also die of wounds in France. The death of this soldier is a prime example of the involvement of one family in the process of war and its tragic effects on them. There were five sons and one son-in-law serving - two of them died.

Private Frank D DAY 26th. Company, Machine Gun Corps (Infantry), died of wounds 13th. October 1916, aged 22. Buried in Becourt Military Cemetery

Despite the carnage and the intensity of the battle waged since July 1st. the British were still attempting to reach their first day objectives, but now another factor came into the equation - rain and mud. Even though the conditions worsened it was to be over another month before the battle was officially over and still the casualties mounted.

Private Albert Thomas KIDMAN 11th. Essex Regiment, died of wounds 14th. October 1916, aged 36. Buried in Etaples Military Cemetery

The enthusiasm, patriotism and need for adventure that the early stages of the war engendered led many men to enlist when through age, circumstances or health they need not have. For whatever reason the shell and the bullet were no respecter of person and the loss to many families of a father was in many ways more poignant, more tragic, more far-reaching than the death of the young, single man.

Private Joseph PEARSON 1st. Essex Regiment, killed 18th. October 1916, aged 42. Commemorated on Thiepval Memorial
Fate had not finished with the Pearson family. Other brothers joined up and in the last days of the war a final telegram dropped through the letter-box at Fairycroft Road with the information that the youngest brother had died from his wounds.
Joseph was the second of three brothers to die and tragically three days later the first of three more brothers and sons was to disappear into the blasted oblivion. Six soldiers in age ranging the exact requirements of the Derby scheme - from 19 to 42 ; serving in five different regiments ; three of whom have no known grave, leaving seven children fatherless and two widows in mourning.

Lance-Corporal William Charles REED (70363) 17th. Sherwood Foresters, (Notts and Derby Regiment), killed 21st. October 1916. Commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial

By now the Great War was over two years old. Many of the original British Expeditionary Force were dead, but there were still men left who had enlisted at the beginning or who were pre-war reservists mobilised at the outbreak who rode their luck. Sadly for many this luck or experience could not guarantee survival and the maxim of ‘every bullet has its billet’ proved true yet again two days after William Reed’s death.
Lance-Corporal Ernest G BACON 2nd. Essex Regiment, killed 23rd. October 1916, aged 29. Commemorated on Thiepval Memorial

November came and despite the huge losses, the lack of real progress made and the deterioration in the weather, still the battle of the Somme rumbled on. Officially, it had only eighteen more days to run, but for Saffron Walden like every city, town, village and hamlet in the country and Empire there was no diminution in the sacrifice. Those eighteen days would claim two more victims and the year of 1916 four more in total.

Private Jesse MALLYON 8th. Suffolk Regiment, killed November 1st. 1916, aged 23. Commemorated on Thiepval Memorial

The last battle of the Somme in 1916 is known as the battle of the Ancre, a small, pretty river nestling in attractive wooded country.” Here died another young and promising son of the town who although only nineteen was a seasoned soldier, the last casualty of the fabled ‘Big Push.’

Able-Seaman William N GUY RNVR 188th. Brigade, Machine-Gun Company, Royal Naval Division, killed 13th. November 1916, aged 19. Commemorated on Thiepval Memorial
Into the Royal Naval Division, in the early stages of the war, enlisted William Guy who lived with his parents, William, a newsagent and stationer and Sadie Louise, at 6 Cross Street. An only son his background had typically been the Boys British School followed, perhaps more unusually by the Grammar School where he excelled at sport.

On leaving school he worked in London for the Daily Express until in the first month of the war, eager for excitement he joined up in the London Division. With the R.N.D he sailed for the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, one of the first to go. In that ill-fated campaign, William became an experienced soldier, but his letters home also betray his journalistic experience. At the Suvla Bay landings of May 1915 he was wounded and writes of being, ‘…pipped through the ankle by a Turkish bullet ! ”

In addition to this wound he contracted malaria and enteric fever which necessitated evacuation to Egypt and nearly six months in a Cairo hospital. His letters home comment, ‘I received my wound last Thursday week almost as soon as an advance was made to take the hill we have been trying to get for a fortnight. The Turks are very dirty fighters adopting all sorts of underhand tricks. We found one of their snipers painted green and concealed in the foliage of a tree. Don’t ask what happened to the gent ! Most of their officers are German and it is pretty apparent they have to use a little persuasion with the men. In the hands of one German officer we found a short stock with nine leather thongs, nicely knotted ! ’

In November 1915, William came home, returning to France in July 1916 at the commencement of the Big Push. He had been recommended for a commission by Lt. Ivan Heald (a well-known Irish writer of the time destined to die himself with the Hood Battalion a month later) and was about to come home and take it. But Fate intervened and William Guy was never to fulfil his potential.

As part of the Hood Battalion 63rd. Royal Naval Division he was involved in the attack on Beaucourt a very strong defensive position in November 1916. Eight naval battalions and four army battalions were ordered to attack the village some mile and a half away. The trenches were indescribably dirty with no deep dug-outs, no traverses and in some places barely knee-deep. The day of the attack dawned foggy and William’s battalion was on the right of the advance passing through the enemy’s lines at 5 a.m. following the creeping barrage, clearing dug-outs in the railway cutting. Unfortunately, the enemy machine-guns were untouched by the bombardment and at the second line of German trenches William was wounded in the neck and the hand whilst on the parapet.

He was last seen by a comrade making for the English lines holding his neck and with a bandaged hand. For three days his friends searched for him, but all that was found was his pay book, letters and postcards addressed to his parents. He was nineteen years of age and no trace of his body was ever found. The R.N.D suffered 3,500 casualties in the attack on Beaucourt, the heaviest divisional loss of the November attack and the writer, A.P. Herbert who fought there and in Gallipoli, writes in his poem ‘Beaucourt Revisited’ an appropriate epitaph for Able-Seaman William Guy who died a soldier’s death.

And I said ‘ There is still the river, and still the stiff, stark trees: to treasure here our story, but there are only these‘:
But under the white wood crosses the dead men answered low,
‘The new men know not Beaucourt, but we are here - we know'.

On the same day and not more than eight miles away another young man was killed and never seen again. Like William Guy his name is to be found high above the battlefield of the Somme with 945 other men of the Essex Regiment.

Private W Frank START 13th. Essex Regiment, killed 13th. November 1916, aged 22. Commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial

On this centenary it is incumbent on us to remember the sacrifice of these men It is the story of the human suffering it embedded in the fabric of a small East Anglian market-town. For those who lost a loved one, a light had been extinguished, never to be rekindled. Many of those who did return had physical and psychological scars. These could not fade away - they were the legacy of a war that ended only with their deaths or the deaths of those who loved them.

DAWN JULY 1st 1916

Just another summer day with the promise of warmth and blue skies.
The sun already colouring and warming the eastern sky.
The gentle breeze caressing the ancient trees in the nearby wood.
A dawn chorus with a solo blackbird taking centre stage
Bursting his lungs with delight at another dawn,
Peace on earth, another summer’s day in Picardie.
But scratch the surface of this template for the perfect dawn
In subterranean dugouts and a labyrinth of trenches
A myriad of men waiting for their destiny to unfold
Witnessing the birth of their last day on earth
Before an unsuspecting rendezvous with death.
A wisp of smoke; an inaudible murmur; a nervous cough
The crisp click as polished bayonets are fixed.
The prelude to a day after which the old world would vanish;
When a volunteer citizen army would evanesce in glory;
When innocence would die in a storm of machine-gun bullets.

Written at 6.45 a.m. on the Somme on July 1st 2014