Name recorded on Board of Trade Memorial: F. I. Coburn
Born: 14 October 1890
Date of Death: 4 October 1917
Age at death: 26
Service, Regiment, Corps, etc: Royal Army Service Corps and Norfolk Yeomanry Army Service Corps
Unit, Ship, etc: Supply company
Enlisted: 1914
Rank: Lieutenant
Decorations:  Victory Medal, the British War Medal and the 1914-1915 Star and Mentioned in Dispatches – London Gazette – 21 December 1917
War (and theatre): WW1 (France and Flanders)
Manner of Death: Died on Active Service
Family Details: Son of Isaac William and Emily Osborn Coburn, Grosvenor House, Grosvenor Road, Great Yarmouth
Residence: Grosvenor House, Grosvenor Road, Great Yarmouth
Home Department: Board of Trade – Labour Department (London and South East Division)
Civilian Rank: Labour Exchange Clerk
Cemetery or Memorial: Ste Marie Cemetery, Le Havre (Div.62, I.1.11); Great Yarmouth WW1 War Memorial; Ministry of Labour War Memorial (located at Caxton House, Tothill Street, London) and the Board of Trade War Memorial (now located at 3 Whitehall Place, London)


Frederick Isaac Coburn was born on 14 October 1890 in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. His parents were Isaac William Coburn (1850 – 1921) and Emily Osborn Coburn (1856 – 1940).

He is recorded as living at 4 Gordon Terrace, Great Yarmouth in the 1891, 1901 and 1911 census. In 1901, Frederick is aged just 5 months old and he is living with his parents and an older sister, Emily Elizabeth Coburn, aged 6. His father is listed as a carpenter.

Unfortunately we don’t know anything about his schooling or other family background. We do know from one of the Yarmouth newspapers in 1910 that he was Secretary of the local YMCA gymnasium, so he must have been a fit and energetic young man. We also know that by 1911, Frederick is a young man of 20, working as a surveyors clerk. He subsequently worked as a Labour Exchange Clerk in the Board of Trade’s Labour Exchanges and Unemployment Insurance Branch.

According to his medal index card Frederick served initially as a Private in the Royal Field Artillery and then as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Norfolk Yeomanry Army Service Corps (ASC). The index card also lists him as serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps attached to the Deputy Assistant Director Labour. This army unit was responsible for provisions and supply chains. The Supplement to the London Gazette published on 14 July 1915 records his appointment to the rank of (Temporary) Second Lieutenant.


Sketch of No 2 General Hospital, Le Havre by VAD nurse Molly Evans (Copyright: Morgan Fourman)

Frederick sadly died of appendicitis, a painful abdominal condition caused by either an infection or blockage of the appendix and fatal if not treated quickly. Despite receiving medical attention he died, aged only 26, at the No 2 General Base Hospital, Le Havre in France whilst serving on active service on 4 October 1917 and left a will and probate (dated 12 January 1917) with his personal effects amounting to £179 3s 9d.

Like other Base Hospitals, the one in Le Havre was further back from the main frontline of the trenches and near the coast (for ease of evacuation, if necessary, for longer term treatment in the UK) in a grand seaside palais.  Quite a lot of information is known about the hospital because it is one of the few medical bases where the admission and discharge registers have survived.

Frederick was posthumously awarded the standard service medals – the Victory Medal, the British War Medal and the 1914-1915 Star. This set of campaign medals were popularly called the Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. He was also posthumously Mentioned In Dispatches alongside other servicemen from the Army Service Corps in a special Supplement to the London Gazette of 21 December 1917. This supplement followed on from Douglas Haig’s dispatch of 7 November which submit names deserving special mention. The full text of the mention is as follows:

War Office,
11th December, 1917.
The following Despatch has been received by the Secretary of State for War from Field Marshal
Sir Douglas Haig, K.T., G.C.B., G.C.V.O., K.C.I.E., Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies in France:—
General Headquarters,
7th November, 1917.
SIR, I have the honour to submit a list* of names of those officers, ladies, non-commissioned officers and men serving, or who have served, under my command during the period February 26th to midnight, September 20/21st, 1917, whose distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty I consider deserving of special mention.
I have the honour to be,
Your obedient Servant,
The British Armies in France 

Being Mentioned in Dispatches was a service recognition whereby individual servicemen were named in an official written report by a senior officer or commander-in-chief. In acknowledgement, Frederick, in common with other servicemen serving in the British Armed Forces,  would have his name mentioned in the London Gazette and the individual (or posthumously his relatives) would receive a certificate and be entitled to war an oak leaf device on the appropriate campaign medal or on directly on the coat. A full list of all WW1 despatches is published on the London Gazette website.

Frederick is buried in a Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery (CWGC) at Ste. Marie Cemetery, Le Havre, Seine-Maritime, France (Div 62, Plot 1, Row I, Grave 11). He is also remembered amongst a total of 1,472 men named on the Great Yarmouth WW1 War Memorial, located in St George’s Park in his hometown. This memorial was originally unveiled on 7 January 1922 by the Bishop of Norwich after over £4000 was raised by a local public campaign. He is also remembered on both the Ministry of Labour and Board of Trade War Memorials.


Maybe Frederick I Coburn is amongst this photo of men serving in the Norfolk Yeomanry ASC pictured resting after a meal (Source: Ebay seller Bugeye40)

Sadly Frederick’s family line seems to have died out since his sister died without descendants. It has therefore not yet been possible to identify a photo of Frederick, but maybe a photo will emerge of him in the future and maybe he is one of the young unidentified men included in a group photo of the Norfolk Yeomanry ASC, a unit in which Frederick previously served. Who knows?

(According to information from Ebay the card was sent by someone called Albert to his aunt, a Mrs R Wilkin of Felboys Hall, Felboys, Cromer, Norfolk and was posted from Woodbridge on 31 Oct (year unknown)).

Photo or no photo, I hope that in his final days and hours, Frederick would have received comfort from the nurses stationed at the No 2 General Base Hospital. Rest in peace, Frederick.



Name recorded on Board of Trade Memorial: S. N. Levitt
Born: 6 November 1898
Date of Death: 29 September 1918
Age at death: 19
Service, Regiment, Corps, etc: King’s Royal Rifle Corps
Unit, Ship, etc: 16th Battalion
Rank: Second Lieutenant
Decorations:  British War Medal and Victory Medal
War (and theatre): WW1 (France and Flanders)
Manner of Death: Killed in Action
Family Details: Son of Ernest W and Francs M Levitt, Winslow Villa, Mulgrave, Sutton, Surrey
Home Department: Board of Trade – Establishments Department
Civilian Rank:
Cemetery or Memorial: Unicorn Cemetery, Vend’huile (III.D.4); Sutton War Memorial in Morden Park, Sutton; Sutton Grammar School; Sutton Spiritualist Church (stained glass window memorial); Board of Trade War Memorial (now located at 3 Whitehall Place, London)



Sutton County Schools (Source: Flickr)

“…the premature snuffing out of life’s brief candle is particularly tragic when the flame seemed likely to have burned with special brilliance”. 

Such are the concluding words of a Mr A.E. Jones reflecting on the brief life of Sydney Levitt, whilst writing about the history of Sutton Grammar School during WW1. Sydney Levitt’s story is a tragic one of an immensely talented young man full of promise who went virtually straight from school to the trenches.

Sydney was born in October 1898 in Gravesend, Kent. His parents were Ernest W Levitt (1866 – ?) and France M Levitt (nee Broad) (1875 – 1936). He had one surviving brother Edgar Frank Levitt (1900 – 1981).

In the 1901 census, Sydney is recorded with his family at 8 High Street South, Dunstable, Bedfordshire. Sydney’s father is working as a Tobacconist, running his own business. The family are also living with Sydney’s grandfather John Levitt, a retired carpenter. By the 1911 census, the Levitt family, including Sydney are living in Sutton, Surrey and they are recorded as visitors to the family of Arthur William Cross (a gardener). By this time, Sydney’s father is now working as a butler in domestic service.

Despite his father’s change of job, Sydney was able to attend the selective local all-boys school, Sutton County Grammar School which when the school initially opened in 1899 charged fees of £2 10s per term. Sydney was talented enough to win a scholarship to the school. Approximately a quarter of boys attending the school had their fees paid by Surrey County Scholarships.

To have an idea of Sydney’s life at school in the 1910s, an interesting insight is provided in the Brief History of Sutton Grammar School, which records that “Games were not compulsory and only about 50% took part. Detention was held every day from 4.15 until 5:00pm….In 1909 the headmaster issued the advice to the youngest two years that they should go to bed for a few hours in the afternoon of prize giving in order to stay awake until the end.”

Sydney was one of the 50% of pupils who did sports, at which he excelled. A group photo of him survives dating back to 1914 showing members of the Sutton County School swimming team having won the Surrey Secondary Schools Swimming Association Senior Challenge Cup.

We also know from an article in the Retrospect magazine (Issue 11) that Sydney was actively involved in the school Combined Cadet Force (CCF). The magazine includes an article about CCF at Sutton Grammar. Sydney is specifically referred to as one of the leading participants in the unit. For instance, in a November 1916 edition of the school magazine – the “Suttonian” – a description is provided of the Surrey Cadet Battalion’s field day held near Chilworth in July 1916: “Operations were commenced at one o’clock and consisted of an attack on an ammunition convoy broken down at the crossroads…the Sutton Corps, participating in the main attack, advanced slowly under the admirable leadership of Sgt Maj S.N. Levitt, driving the opposition force before them.”

The article continues with a further history of the cadet force, which was founded by the Governors, with Old Boys asked to provide the boys uniform. A pivotal part in the CCF was played by Sydney. As the article continues to explain: “That first cadet leader was Sydney Neville Levitt, a young man whose imprint is found all over the school’s activities in 1915 and 1916, his last two years at the school. He was, it appears the classic all-rounder. A well regarded centre-forward player in the school’s First XI football team (owing his success to his ‘dash and perseverance’), he also captained the cricket team, was a member of the winning school swimming squad, a prefer of course, editor of the ‘Suttonian’ in 1915 and a regular contributor to school debates which then formed a large part of the school’s life”. 

After leaving school in 1916, he joined  the Board of Trade’s Establishments Department and also the Army Training Reserve (Regimental No TR/10/26128) in 1917.  The Training Reserve was set up on 1 September 1916 to cope with the huge numbers of men conscripted into the army.  Reserve forces meant different things depending on the exact location and context. In Sydney’s case he was part of the home force. He was then commissioned as an officer in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps and served as a Second Lieutenant. He served in 16th (Service) Battalion (Church Lads Brigade) which was originally formed in Denham, Buckinghamshire with current and former members of the Church Lads Brigade. More details of the history of the brigade can be found in a book by Jean Morris and in this factsheet.

Sydney died on 29 September 1918, as a result of leading a group of soldiers at Ossis who were trying to out-flank a machine-gun. His battalion ware under heavy attack with thick gas separating the soldiers of the company. Sydney tired to find his way through this fog.

His death is reported in the “Suttonian” of the time which reports: “‘He was found next day shot through the heart, far in advance of what was believed to be the furthest point reached in the attack, and quite close to an enemy position’. A fellow officer wrote of him, ‘No matter what the danger of discomfort were, he always had a smile and a joke. The men of his platoon would follow him anywhere, as was proved on several occasions.’ ” 


Sutton Grammar School War Memorial

Sydney is buried in a Commonwealth War Grave at the Unicorn Cemetery, Vend’huile, France. He is also remembered on the Sutton War Memorial in Manor Park, Carshalton Road, Sutton (which includes the names of 522 young men). His name is also on the Sutton Grammar School Memorial, as well as the Board of Trade War Memorial located at 3 Whitehall Place.


Frances Levitt (Source: Sutton Spiritualist Church)

Sydney is also remembered on a stained glass window at the Sutton Spiritualist Church, which was dedicated to his  and the memory of two other people by his mother Frances Levitt and some other church families. Frances was one of the founders and first President of the Sutton Spiritualist Church. She was part of a consortium of four people who bought for £350 the land  on which the church was built and where it still stands in St Barnabus Road, Sutton.


Sutton Spiritualist Church

The window comprises five panels showing St Ethelbert, Mary Magdalene, St Clare and St Francis of Assissi. It also includes a brass plaque on a wooden frame which declares that “The Stained Glass windows are given in loving memory of Muriel Daisy Casperd, Beatrice Irene Fisher and Sydney Neville Levitt”. (NOTE: Sadly, we do not know the story behind why the window was also dedicated to Muriel (who died in 1931) and Beatrice – hopefully the church or other family history historians will be able to investigate their story.)


Stained Glass Window (Source: Sutton Spiritualist Church)

According to the website of Sutton Spiritualist Church, the window was bought for £25 from a scrap dealer based in Haywards Heath, whilst the church was being built in the 1930s. It was originally thought to have come from a demolished convent and was found to perfectly fit the necessary space. The church website indicates that the church president in 1937, Mr J.A. Baker, was “told by Spirit not to buy a window for the planned space it the wall as “THEY” would find one suitable; so he waited until this one was offered for sale. When it was measured in the dealers yard, it was found to be identical in size to the space reserved for it in the wall”.

Speaking of spiritualism, according to Marq English in his book ‘Paranormal Surrey’ it might be the case that Sydney prophesied his own death. Whether we believe that or not, the lines of this poem found written by Sydney and found after his death are very moving and indicate his talent and thoughtful all rounder whose death was a sad loss to his local community and family.

Abschied Vom Leben, 
The wound burns; my quivering lips are pale; 
My heart is night to burst beneath the strain, 
Now I await the end of Life’s short reign, 
And breathe ‘They Will Be Done’. Nought can avail. 
For now the shadows of Death do e’en assail
Mine eyes, where golden piece had once domain. 
Yet courage, heart” The fond ideals we gain
On earth must live with us beyond Death’s pale,
And what I held as sacred here below
That which set youthful ardour all aglow,
The pride of freedom and the charm of love,
I see their forms seraphic up above, 
And as my body sinks down into Night,
They bear my spirit upwards to the Light. 





Full Name: G. K. T. Fisher
Born: 4 August 1879
Date of Death: 3 September 1917
Age at death: 38
Service, Regiment, Corps, etc: Norfolk Regiment
Unit, Ship, etc: 4th Battalion
Enlisted: 1914
Rank: Captain
Decorations: Mentioned in Dispatches – London Gazette – 28th January 1916, page 1199 and Military Cross awarded 15 March 1916
War (and theatre): WW1 (Egypt and Palestine)
Manner of Death: Killed in action
Family Details: Husband of Janet Fisher, 23 Launceston Place, London
Residence: Burgh House, Norfolk; Ashdown Park, Forest Row, East Sussex
Home Department: Board of Trade – Labour Department (London and South East Division)
Civilian Rank: Labour Exchange Clerk
Cemetery or Memorial: Gaza War Cemetery (Plot XXIV. Row A. Grave 12); Harrow School Roll of Honour;  Hartford, Colemans Hatch and Holy Trinity Forest Row War Memorials located in Ashdown Forest area of East Sussex; Fleggburgh St Margaret and Billockby War Memorial, Norfolk; Ministry of Labour War Memorial (located at Caxton House, Tothill Street, London) and the Board of Trade War Memorial (now located at 3 Whitehall Place, London)



Captain G K T Fisher (Photo taken from Findagrave website added by laurinlaurin espie)

George Kenneth Thompson Fisher was born on 4 August 1879 in Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire, England. He came from a prestigious family being the eldest son of the Rt Rev George Carnac Fisher (1844 – 9 April 1921), who held the positions of Bishop of Southampton (1896 – 1898), Bishop of Ipswich (1899 – 1906) and Bishop of Islington and was also previously Hon. Canon of Norwich and his wife Mary Penelope Gwendoline Thompson (the daughter of Thomas Charles Thompson, a former MP for Durham City whose country estate was at Ashdown Park in Sussex).

In the 1881 census he is recorded living at The Vicarage, Salthouse Road, Barrow, where his father was the local vicar. In 1891 he was recorded as staying at The Granville, Ramsgate, Kent. At this time, this was a hotel designed by Edward Welby Pugin (the son of the architect Augustus Pugin). The hotel was famous for its 25 different types of baths.  In 1901 he is living at Burgh House, Burgh St Margaret (also known as Fleggburgh), Norfolk. Then in the 1911 census he was residing at 108 Ebury Street, London, SW1.

His wife was Janet Katherine Mary Anson (a sister of Sir Denis Anson, 4th Baronet, who is remembered for sadly drowning in The Thames in 1914 aged 26 due to high spirits and high jinx with friends). Captain Fisher and Janet were married on 23 August 1914 at St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, London by special licence of his father. They had two sons – Sir Anthony George Fisher (1915 – 1988), an entrepreneur and founder of several thinktanks such as the Atlas Foundation and Basil Mark Fisher (8 October 1914 – 15 August 1940).  Captain Fisher presumably met his wife in social circles in the Forest Row/Ashdown Park area of Sussex, since his father was previously a Vicar at Forest Row in 1874.


Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club, Forest Row, East Sussex

Captain Fisher inherited Ashdown Park in 1908. This was originally the home of his wife’s father (Thomas Charles Thompson MP) who acquired the estate in 1867 located at Forest Row in East Sussex.  Thomas Thompson subsequently had the main mansion house rebuilt. This updated building survives to this day – an impressive neo-Gothic Victorian design The estate (which also incorporates a chapel and side wings built by the Order of the Sister of Notre Dame in the 1920s) is now the Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club, a four star, luxurious country club. There is a memorial book at Ashdown Park which records the signature of Captain Fisher’s widow, Janet, whose address is given as Burgh House, Fleggburgh, but formerly as Ashdown Park.

Captain Fisher was a former pupil at Cheam School and then subsequently Harrow School from 1893 to 1897. He was a university graduate of New College, Oxford where he studied Art under three famous Royal Academy artists – George Adolphus Storey (1834-1919), Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) and Sir Arnesby Brown (1866-1955). After graduating, he travelled to the Middle East and the Balkans before taking up a position in the Board of Trade’s Labour Department as a Labour Exchange Clerk.

Prior to the war, in 1909 he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 4th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. In 1912 he also became one of the Sheriffs for the county of Durham. before taking up a position in the Board of Trade’s Labour Department as a Labour Exchange Clerk.

At the start of WW1, he was commissioned as an officer in his existing Regiment and Battalion, which was a natural choice given his connection to Norfolk. He sailed on 29 July 1915 with the Battalion from Liverpool to Gallipoli and was involved in the landing at Suvla Bay (8 to 15 August 1915). The military action as Suvla was intended as a means to break the deadlock at Gallipoli but it ended up being totally mismanaged and the leadership of the British commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stopford is considered an example of incompetence and indecision.

He was awarded the Military Cross (as published in the London Gazette dated 15th March 1916) and Mentioned in Dispatches in the London Gazette published on 9 September 1916:

“For conspicuous gallantry in action. He led the first line in the attack with great
dash, and, though wounded, stuck to his duty and continued to do fine work until midnight, when he was ordered back with a message. He was then sent to hospital.”

As result he was ultimately invalided home back to the UK due to dysentery. This was a common illness seen in the military in WW1 caused by either dirty contaminated water or due to flies contaminating food and by inadequate hygiene. If left untreated, soldiers were faced with the risk of secondary infections such as liver abcesses and chronic pain and possibly death.

Fortunately Captain Fisher recovered to take up a staff appointment and then a role in the Ministry of Munitions, before rejoining his Regiment and sailing back to Egypt on 18 March 1917.

He died in Gaza on 3 September 1917 as result of his wounds. As detailed in the Battalion War Diary, the circumstances of his death were that he was out on patrol on the night of 2 September. He was ahead of the rest of the patrol and was fatally wounded by a bomb thrown by a Turkish sniper. Despite being taken back to the lines by the patrol, who died shorty afterwards within an hour of being injured. He is buried in the Gaza War Cemetery, which is located four miles south of Gaza.

Those who knew him wrote many fine tributes to him, as follows:

  • His Colonel wrote – “Ever since I took over the command of the Battalion he had been one of my chief supporters. . . . I can’t tell you what a help he was to me. I cannot replace him either as an Officer or companion.”
  • The Chaplain wrote – “We could ill afford to lose such a fine character. He was a great favourite and beloved by all who knew him. He was always the same, cheerful and good-humoured. I may say that I have lost a true friend.”
  • Sir George Barnes, K.C.B., Member of the Indian Council, wrote – “He will be a real loss to the Board of Trade, for, starting at the very bottom, he had steadily won his way upwards by his industry and by his force of character… All the advancement he got he won for himself, and it is no easy thing to win advancement from the bottom in Government employ.”

Captain Fisher is remembered in eight separate locations. He is buried in the Gaza War Cemetery (Plot XXIV. Row A. Grave 12). In the UK, he is remembered on local War Memorials located at Hartfield and Coleman’s Hatch, and Holy Trinity Church, Forest Row, all located in the Ashdown Forest area of East Sussex (and close to Ashdown Park) and also on the Fleggburgh St Margaret and Billockby War Memorial (located in the village near to his Norfolk home of Burgh House, not far from Great Yarmouth). The memorial in Fleggburgh, which is in the form of a memorial cross was unveiled by Captain Fisher’s wife on 10 December 1922. He is also named on the Harrow School Roll of Honour as well as two Civil Service War Memorials – the Ministry of Labour War Memorial and the Board of Trade War Memorial.

The vast majority of the information above is taken directly from the biography of George’s life recorded by Harrow School as published on their WW1 memorial website (which is also referenced as a source by other places associated with Captain Fisher’s life in Norfolk and in East Sussex). The details of Captain Fisher’s connection with Ashdown Park are detailed by the previous research of the Ashdown Forest Research Group who have previously conducted research into the lives of all the men, including Captain Fisher, commemorated on the Forest Row War Memorial located in East Sussex.

As the Greatwarliveslost website explains so eloquently “the uniformity of the many thousands of headstones in cemeteries has something impersonal about it.  All of these identical grave markers in a way make it hard to fully realize that each headstone and memorial represents a unique person, with his or her own personality, history, social and familial background, every story representing a different tragedy.” Behind each name is a personal and family tragedy which is shared by men from all backgrounds and from all corners of the UK and wider corners of the globe – whether from working class backgrounds or from the more privileged upbringing of Captain Fisher.

What is also incredibly poignant is that despite being described as “the war to end all wars”, little more than twenty years later, sadly one of Captain Fisher’s own sons – Basil Mark Fisher –  died during World War Two. Basil Fisher, like his father, was also a civil servant, working for the Board of Customs and Excise. During WW2 he served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and served as Flying Officer (Pilot) 72382 in 111 Squadron based at Croydon. On 15 August 1940 his plane was shot down in flames. Despite baling out he crashed at Greenwoods Farm, Sidlesham. He was only 23. Basil is buried at St John’s Church Cemetery, Eton (near where he went to school). His older brother, Anthony George Fisher, also served in WW2 but survived.

In the words of Captain Fisher’s gravestone inscription “I make all things new” (Revelation XXI Verse 5). With each new day we learn from the mistakes and enmities of the past and trust that new generations will not have their lives cut short like those of Captain Fisher or his son Basil Mark Fisher. That is why we continue to remember men from all backgrounds and nationalities.





Walter Robinson

Name recorded on Board of Trade Memorial: W. Robinson
Born: About 1889
Date of Death: 29 September 1918
Age at death: 29
Service, Regiment, Corps, etc: West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own)
Unit, Ship, etc: 15th (or 5th) Battalion, attached 16th Battalion Tank Corps
Enlisted: October 1914
Rank: Second Lieutenant
War (and theatre): WW1 (France and Flanders)
Manner of Death: Killed in action
Family Details: Son of William and Lucy Ann Robinson of Haworth, Yorkshire
Residence: 19 Victoria Avenue, Mytholmes, Haworth, Yorkshire
Home Department: Board of Trade – Labour Department (Yorkshire and East Midlands Division)
Civilian Rank:
Cemetery or Memorial: Unicorn Cemetery, Vend’huile, France (IV.C.22); Haworth War Memorial; Ministry of Labour War Memorial (located at Caxton House, Tothill Street, London) and the Board of Trade War Memorial (now located at 3 Whitehall Place, London)



Walter Robinson (Copyright: Keighley News)

When I first started working on researching the Board of Trade War Memorial men, I wasn’t at all sure what to find. Only a very small handful of the men had either photos or an extensive background history published on our group’s original website. I wanted to go beyond the original research and locate more details about those who weren’t as lucky with any remembered stories about them. One of the names that caught my eye was that of Walter Robinson for whom we had no census or even birth details recorded.

All I knew was a small amount of information recorded from the index of All UK, Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919  – these details comprised the facts that Walter served as a Second Lieutenant in the 15th (or 5th Battalion) attached to 16th Battalion Tank Corps of the West Yorkshire Regiment. I also knew he was killed in action on 29 September 1918 and is buried in Unicorn Cemetery, Vend’huile (IV.C.22). I also knew that he worked for the Board of Trade Labour Department in the Yorkshire and East Midlands Division).

Not much to go on given no relatives were listed and his name is fairly common. How then to locate more details about Walter Robinson?

I searched on a few internet forums including the Great War Forum and from here managed to identify that there was a Walter Robinson who served in the Tank Corps who was remembered on a War Memorial in Keighley. From here I contacted volunteer researchers for the Men of Worth project to pass on the details I knew and to confirm if my hunch was right and if ‘my’ Walter came from Haworth.

With this lucky break I now knew Walter was born in about 1892 in Denholme, Yorkshire and I managed to locate him recorded in the censuses of 1891, 1901 and 1911.

In 1891 he is living with his parents – William Robinson and Lucy Ann Robinson and one of seven brothers and sisters in Thornton, Yorkshire. In 1901 the family were living at 5 Back Minnie Street, Haworth. I then found him again listed aged 22 in the 1911 census living at 19 Victoria Avenue, Mytholmes, Haworth, Yorkshire. He is living with some of his other siblings and is working as a railway clerk. Another useful source are probate records and luck was at hand again as Walter Robinson has a probate recording him still at the same Victoria Avenue address. His probate dated 28 May 1919 lists Emily Robinson (spinster) and effects of £389 14s 3d.

Looking again at the Keighley War Memorial it is clear that there is another Robinson named. Further research revealed that one of Walter’s brothers, Clifford Robinson (born in 1897) also died in World War one (he died two years earlier on 16 September 1916 due to an exploding shell). He has no known grave and is named on the Thiepval Memorial.

A further insight of Walter’s life and character came from a brief article in the Keighley Gazette  dated 12 October 1918 published at the time of his death. This reports:

“Second Lieutenant Walter Robinson, of 19, Victoria Avenue, Mytholmes, Haworth, was killed in action on September 29. He joined the forces in October, 1914, before which he was engaged at the Labour Exchange at Doncaster. He went to France with the Green Howards, and soon reached the rank of sergeant. He came home last year to take up a commission, and was gazetted to the West Yorkshire Regiment. Shortly after his return to France he became acting captain. In the early part of this year he volunteered for the Tank Corps, and took up training for the purpose in Dorset. He again went to France in August last, but had only held his new post a month when he was killed. He was a clever and intelligent young officer of considerable promise, and much regret is felt in Haworth at his death. This is especially so at the West Lane Baptist Church and Sunday School, with which he and his family have been actively connected for many years.”

What’s more this article had the added bonus of containing a picture! Thanks to the efforts of Andy Wade and other researchers with a similar interest, finding his photo kickstarted a target of trying to locate as many photos of the 305 Board of Trade men as possible.


Map of the Somme Offensive (August – November 1918)

But to return to Walter’s story. As mentioned in the brief extract from the Keighley News, we know that Walter Robinson was a talented young man. Before the war, he worked his way up from manual work as a woollen doffer (ie someone who removes bobbins or doffs from spinning frames) at a mill to becoming a railway clerk and then to finding employment in one of the Board of Trade’s new Labour Exchanges. As referenced in the Keighley News article, this ambition and leadership ability, also prompted him to rise through the army ranks and seek new opportunities. He initially joined the Yorkshire Regiment (commonly referred to as the Green Howards) before rising to the commissioned officer ranks and posted to the West Yorkshire Regiment as acting Captain (with up to around 200 men under his command). He promptly volunteered for the 16th Battalion Tank Corps and returned in August 1918 to the front line only a month before his death. He died on 29 September 1918 in the first 90 minutes of the Battle of the St Quentin Canal, which was an important battle for a vital supply route of the Riqueval Bridge. The battle which ultimately lasted until 10 October 1918 involved British, Australian, American and French forces whose objective was to break one of the most heavily defended sections of the Hindenburg Line. The battle ultimately resulted in victory for the allies and set the road for the Armistice on 11 November 1918.

During the first day of action in the battle, the British were trying to take a ridge near to Quennemont Farm. However the British Mark V tanks faced heavy artillery fire, anti-tank rifles and mines. (Source: https://www.keighleynews.co.uk/news/16293348.metal-coffin-for-haworth-man-walter/). For instance, four heavy tanks and five medium tanks were destroyed in just 15 minutes by the German field guns.battle-of-st-quentin-canal-prisoners-bringing-in-wounded-and-mark-v-tanks-advancing-near-bellicourt-29-september-1918-iwm

According to the website, “The Long, Long Trail“, the idea of some type of armoured vehicle or “land battleship” was only initially suggested in the British army in the autumn of 1914, by a Lieutenant-Colonel E.D. Swinton, which were followed by the first experimental machines and their first use on the battlefield of the Somme at Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916. The Tank Corps was formed as a separate British army unit a year later on 28 July 1917, in acknowledgement of the specific requirements for tanks in terms of logistics, transport, maintenance and reconnaissance. The Tanks Corps was seen as something of an elite force, so Walter Robinson’s choice to join the unit was a good career move.  The early tanks were however slow and hard to manoeuvre and were open to attack by heavy artillery, machine gun fire and explosives    By 1918, when the Mark V design of British tank was produced and deployed on the battlefields,  the tank was more developed but still not a war winning machine and the Germans had found ways to attack and destroy tanks.

According to the 16th Battalion War Diary for the time, the morning of 29 September 1918 was fine but there was dense fog, making it extremely difficult to see the progress of the battle. The tanks were immediately heavily attacked. Ultimately all tanks were were put out of action and almost 66% of the battalion were lost with 2 officers killed (including Walter Robinson), 16 wounded and 1 missing. Additionally 21 were killed, 31 wounded and 16 were reported missing. (Read more about the capture of the St Quentin Canal on The History Press website).

Walter Robinson is buried in France at the Unicorn Cemetery, Vend’huile (IV.C.22) although his name is wrongly recorded as William Robinson by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Back in England he is remembered in his home town on the Haworth War Memorial as well as in London on the memorials to civil servants on the Ministry of Labour and Board of Trade War Memorials.


Researching Walter Robinson has been very rewarding. From little more than a name to go on, I have been able to put a face and flesh to his bones. Walter’s life and sacrifice has become very real to me.

In the words of the Tank Corps motto, “Through mud and blood to the green fields beyond”, I hope that both Walter Robinson and the many thousands of men and officers of the Tank Corps of WW1 are now at rest and at peace.



James McTaggart Rennie

Name recorded on Board of Trade Memorial: J. McT. Rennie
Born: October 1888
Date of Death: 23 July 1916
Age at death: 27
Service, Regiment, Corps, etc: Loyal North Lancashire Regiment
Unit, Ship, etc: 7th Battalion
Enlisted: 1914 in London
Rank: Sergeant
Decorations: British War Medal and Victory Medal
War (and theatre): WW1
Manner of Death: Killed in action
Family Details: Son of Alexander and Margaret Rennie, 65 Rawcliffe Road, Walton, Liverpool
Residence: Liverpool and Plaistow, London
Home Department: Board of Trade – Mercantile Marine Office Staff
Civilian Rank: Outdoor Officer, Victoria Docks, E
Cemetery or Memorial: Thiepval Memorial (Pier and Face 11A); Board of Trade War Memorial (now located at 3 Whitehall Place, London); Northcote Primary School in Walton, Liverpool; Panel 43 in the Hall of Remembrance, Liverpool Town Hall; War Memorial Bell at Memorial Community Church in Plaistow, East London



James McTaggart Rennie – Copyright: Galloway Gazette

James McTaggart Rennie was born in the autumn of 1888 in the West Derby district of Lancashire. His father was Alexander Rennie, a harbour dock gatekeeper originally from Garlieston and his mother was Margaret Rennie (nee McTaggart) who was born in Gatehouse, Scotland.

In 1891, James is aged 3 and living at 67 Thomaston Street, Kirkdale staying with is mother and uncle and aunt. In 1901 he is recorded as aged 13 living with his parents at 13 Maria Road, Walton on the Hill. By 1911, aged 23, he had moved to West Ham in London and is recorded boarding at a house in 11 Ethel Road, Custom House, London whilst working for the Board of Trade.

Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 and James enlisted a month later in September 1914 with the 7th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. The 7th Battalion was one of General Kitchener’s volunteer service or pals battalions, which were formed following Parliament’s vote on 6 August to increase the size of the army from 450,000 men to 500,000 men. A few days later Kitchener issued an initial call to arms for 100,000 volunteers aged between 19 and 30, at least 1.6m (5’3”) tall and a chest size greater than 86cm (34 inches). Hundreds of thousands of men, like James, answered the call to enlist with around 30,000 enlisting every day by the end of August and 500,000 by mid-September.

The 7th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment trained in December 1914 in Whitchurch and then at Tidworth before travelling over to France on 17 July 1915. The Battalion saw action in the Battle of Loos (25 September – 8 October 1915) and then at the Battle of the Somme where they were involved with the attacks on High Wood (July to September 1916), Battle of Pozieres Ridge (23 July – 3 September 1916).

James was reported missing (and later declared dead) aged 27 on 23 July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. His service record has survived and from this and details from the 7th Battalion’s war diary, we can determine the last action he was involved with.

According to the “Tabernacle Messenger” – a local West Ham church magazine of the time, James was reported missing in the “Great Push” whilst working a machine gun. This short optimistic phrase stems from the words of British Army’s commander in chief, General Douglas Haig, to describe the objectives of the Somme offensive (or Battle of the Somme as it is commonly now referred to), which was launched on 1 July 1916. The aim the Somme offensive as envisaged in military planning terms was deceptively simple –  to divert German attention from Verdun, where the French army had suffered huge losses, with a large-scale British diversionary attack. Haig planned for an eight day preliminary bombardment of the German front line with aim of capturing the German positions and charging with cavalry to break the German line in two. General Haig wrote that he was convinced the offensive would win the war and said “I feel that every step in my plan has been taken with Divine help”.

As we now know with the benefit of historical hindsight, the “Great Push Forward” has been seen collectively as futile with an unimaginable number of deaths – not just on the first day when almost 20000 British men died and 40000 plus were wounded but over the next 141 days of fighting (until 23 November 1916) which resulted in 125,000 alllied casualties and over 400,000 wounded and even bigger German losses and all for a maximum advance of only seven miles at most.

When James McTaggart died, he would probably not have known the wider strategic failings of the allied commanders who were persuaded in the ultimate objectives of the offensive despite the mounting casualties. It is ironic that McTaggart died whilst operating a machine gun, which was then a modern weapon of war and which General Haig, thanks to his traditional military and aristocratic mindset, underestimated. It is alleged that Haig considered “the ability of bullets to stop horses was greatly exaggerated”.

Each British battalion on the Western Front in France had four Lewis Guns

A report of James McTaggart Rennie’s death can be found in a short newspaper snippet from the Galloway Gazette dated 21 July 1917 (and republished on 22 July 2017) which includes the photo of him included on this blog. This reads:

“GUNNER PRESUMED DEAD It is now presumed that Sergeant James Rennie, who had been reported missing on July 23, 1916, was killed on that date. Sergeant Rennie, who served in the Lewis Gun Section of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, was 28-years-old and was the grandson of Captain William Rennie, Garlieston, and Mr James McTaggart, a joiner from Gatehouse. Prior to enlisting in the army, he worked in the Board of Trade offices in London. He joined up in September 1914, a month after war started.”

Read more at: https://www.gallowaygazette.co.uk/lifestyle/teenage-farm-hand-killed-at-the-front-serving-with-black-watch-1-4510382

I can barely imagine the grief of his mother, Margaret Rennie on receiving the fateful telegram announcing his death, especially since at the start of 1916,, Margaret Rennie also lost her brother and James’s uncle Private Robert McTaggart who died on 13 January 1916 of Tuberculosis (TB) at the City Hospital, Toxteth, Liverpool.

We don’t know too much more about James since he died unmarried with no descendants. However, we know from the “Tabernacle Messenger” that he was engaged prior to his death to a woman named Winnie Brown. He was also involved as secretary of the church choir. From these small aspects of his life, he comes across as a decent human being whose life was tragically cut short like so many other of his generation who volunteered.


War Memorial at Northcote Primary School, Liverpool


War Memorial Bells at Memorial Community Church, Plaistow, London

James’ name is commemorated on the Thiepval memorial in France, on the  war memorial at Northcote Primary School in Walton, Liverpool, on Panel 43 of the Liverpool Town Hall War Memorial (which includes a total of 13,000 men from Liverpool who died in WW1) on the Board of Trade WW1 War Memorial and also at the Memorial Community Church in Plaistow, East London where there is a chime of 10 bells inscribed with the names of 197 local men who died in the First World War . His uncle Robert McTaggart (referred to above) is remembered online by the Gatehouse Folk research project and on war memorials in Anwoth.

In conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that was held in November 2018, the Board of Trade War Memorial Research group remembered James McTaggart Rennie’s story as part of the “More than just a name” exhibition, which included lovely artwork made by the pupils of Northcote School in Liverpool.



Name recorded on Board of Trade Memorial: G. W. Wildman
Born: April 1879
Date of Death: 19 April 1917
Age at death: 38
Service, Regiment, Corps, etc: Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve
Unit, Ship, etc: Attached to Royal Naval Air Service
Rank: Lieutenant
War (and theatre): WW1
Manner of Death: Accidentally killed
Family Details: Husband of Ada Mary Wildman (nee Fletcher), 60 Berlin Road, Catford, London SE6
Home Department: Board of Trade – Patent Office
Civilian Rank: Assistant Examiner
Cemetery or Memorial:  Pulham St Mary the Virgin Churchyard, Norfolk (north of church); St Botolph’s Church, London; Patent Office Memorial 1914-1918 now hanging at Concept House, Newport, Wales and the Board of Trade War Memorial (now located at 3 Whitehall Place, London)


George Walker Wildman was one of several Board of Trade men who died in the UK on active service and his story particularly interests me because typically we picture the men involved in WW1 in mud and trench warfare. George’s story is different. He was born in about 1879 in the St Olave district of Southwark in London.

His parents were George Wildman (1851-1917) and Martha Esther Walker (1851-1927). His father is listed in the 1891 census as a warehouseman (outfitter) and then in 1901 as manager of a straw hat factory. He had one sister also named Martha like her mother.

In 1881 and 1891 the family are living in Rotherhithe – first at 147 Abbeyfield Road and then at 13 Rebecca Terrace. In 1901 the family has moved to “Newlands”, Bromley Road, Lewisham.

George married an Ada Mary Fletcher on 15 June 1907 at St Mary the Virgin Church in Somers Town, Camden, England. They are both recorded as married and living at 60 Berlin Road, Catford, London in the 1911 census. George is recorded as being employed by the Civil Service and is now aged 30. He has four daughters – Dora (born 1908), Hilda (born 1908), Margaret Louie (borne 1909) and an unnamed baby girl of 5 weeks (Martha Elfrieda born in 1915) . The family also employed a general domestic servant aged 15 so must have been doing well for themselves.

George was a Royal Naval Volunteer Reservist officer and his war record has survived and is accessible at the National Archives. In these papers, he is recorded as a Temporary Lieutenant from 17 March 1917. He was posted to HMS President. On 25 March he attended a Disciplinary Course at Crystal Palace and on 16 April he was posted to HMS President for Hydrogen Section, Admiralty, for hydrogen duties.

So what was he doing on hydrogen duties and why is he buried at Pulham St Mary in Norfolk so far from the Western Front trenches? The answer is that Pulham was at the cutting edge of new aerial technology and home to one of the UK’s foremost airship stations.

World War One was the first major conflict involving the large-scale use of airpower – think of the Royal Air Force which was officially formed in 1918 and ace fighter pilots – and this included the strategic use of airships. The British military recognised this new technology and established the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). By 1918 it operated from 89 sites for airships, balloons and aircraft, including a base at Pulham St Mary. This was established on farmland just south of the village in 1912 and holds an important place in aviation history. It was from this base that small non-rigid airships flew over the North Sea for observation and patrol purposes. It was also home to Britain’s first airworthy rigid airship and the world’s first permanent airship mooring mast. It was also the main research establishment for airships. After World One, Pulham was used to stored captured German Zeppelin airships. By the end of the war, more than 3000 men worked at the base, although longterm, Britain saw its aerial future in airplanes rather than airships.

Pulham also housed its own plant, which produced the highly inflammable hydrogen gas that filled airships. It was in an explosion at this plant that George was killed on 19 April 1917. The tragedy is reported in Brian J Turpin’s book “Coastal Patrol: Royal Naval Airship Operations During the Great War 1914-1918”  and also Malcolm Fife’s book “British Airship Bases of the Twentieth Century”. According to Turpin’s account, which is more precise, the accident occurred at lunch time when a loud noise was heard. He continues:

“Someone said laughingly: ‘There goes the gas plant’, little thinking that this was what had actually happened – the silicol plant had exploded. In about a minute poor little Milton, one of the gas officers, came staggering into the Mess with his hands to his head. I got him down to my cabin. His ears were full of caustic soda, which was sizzling away in an uncanny fashion I cleared out as much as I could and took him to the sick bay and went, myself, to the gas plant. Nothing could be done there. Lt Wildman and a rating had both been blown through the side of the gas house and were lying 10 and 20 feet respectively from the building; Wildman was dead and the rating badly burned, having been covered with caustic [soda] – he died later after the doctor gave him morphia. Lieutenants Bevington and Pollett and a civilian workman were also burned, the latter badly, but the others not so seriously though Pollett was burned about the face. The injured men were rushed to the large Military Hospital in Norwich. Both Pollett and Wildman had only been with us a couple of days”.


Copyright: Brian J Turpin – “Coastal Patrol: Royal Navy Airship Operations During the Great War 1914-1918”

His funeral took place with full naval honours at St Mary’s Churchyard, Pulham St Mary and is mentioned in the local papers. According to the paper, his oak coffin was covered with a Union Jack and White Ensign and was drawn on a gun carriage, whilst preceded by an escort and a band playing the “Dead March” in “Saul”. This must have been quite a sight to behold. The service was conducted by the vicar Reverend C C Wakefield and one of the hymns sung was “When our heads are bowed with woe” whilst “On the resurrection morning” was sung at the graveside and the “Last Post” sounded. He had quite a send off!

George’s grave is located in St Mary’s Churchyard, although according to previous research conducted by the War Memorial Research Group it is no longer easily visible or legible. He is also commemorated at St Botolph’s Church in London, where he was listed as a parishioner and on both the Board of Trade War Memorial at 3 Whitehall Place and on the Patent Office Memorial 1914-1918 which can be found in Concept House, Newport, Wales.

A staff member of the former Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) visited Pulham St Mary churchyard in September 2002 but was sadly unable to identify George Wildman’s grave there, though there were several other Commonwealth War Grave Commission (CWGC) headstones (including other members of the RNVR) in the area north of the church.  It is possible that the headstone was inscribed by his family, rather than the CWGC, and that the text is no longer legible.

Last year, the nation came together to remember 100 years since 11 November 1918 when fighting ceased in Europe at the end of the First World War.  Up and down the UK, communities gathered in their local churches and at local war memorials to remember the dead of WW1 and subsequent wars.  Many, but not all, of these men are named on war memorials—and war memorials don’t always tell the full story.


Lt-Col Henry Roscoe Beddoes in 1918 (Copyright: Stewart Minton-Beddoes)

There is always more to discover, like the life story of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Roscoe Beddoes, who was the great grandfather of the current Chief Editor of The Economist, Zanny Minton-Beddoes. Beddoes died exactly 100 years ago on 15 January 1919 when the passenger ship he was sailing on, the Chaouia, hit a mine, laid by a German U boat, and rapidly sank.

Despite his long and distinguished military career, Beddoes was one of a handful of servicemen whose case for inclusion on the war memorial in memory of former staff of the Board of Trade was rejected by the Board of Trade War Memorial Committee, as detailed in Board of Trade War Memorial records now in the UK’s National Archives.

This Committee, which met to agree on a suitable and fitting memorial to the men previously employed by the Board of Trade and its associate departments, had to make tough choices based on their agreed criteria for inclusion and given the limited funds available for a memorial.  To date we know of at least four men whose names were deliberately not included on the final memorial. This was very much a local choice, since there were no national guidelines for whose names should be named or not on a war memorial. Like so many of the thousands of memorials across the UK, the War Memorial for the Board of Trade was funded by private subscription rather than from national funds. The committee members took their task of recognising their fallen colleagues and comrades with respect and care and based on the information they had to hand at the time.

The Board of Trade War Memorial recognises 305 men who were all deemed to have died as a direct consequence of WW1, mostly in action or of their wounds up to Armistice Day 1918 but also a handful of servicemen who died in the war’s aftermath (including one staff member who died in 1923 as a result of tuberculosis caused by the war). Beddoes’ name was judged not to warrant inclusion in the final list of the Board’s war dead since his death was not thought to be directly due to the war. The committee noted in its deliberations on whether or not to add his name that according to a letter from the War Office, that “Lt. Col. Beddoes was seconded to the Royal Air Force from 18th October 1918 and at the time of his death was on leave and was proceeding to Romania for private purposes. He cannot be considered to have died on active service”.


Beddoes fate in perishing not long after Armistice Day 1918 and before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 and also before 31 August 1921 (when Parliament officially declared the end of the World War One) was shared by many thousands of other servicemen who survived beyond the end of the war, but are not named on war memorials. These unrecorded names are largely forgotten, until relatives or local historians investigate more and make a case for someone’s name to be added to a memorial.

Given the unfortunate timing and manner of Beddoes’ death, the current Department for International Trade War Memorial Research Group was intrigued to know more, with a view to potentially adding his name to the war memorial as a casualty of war.

The group’s research has uncovered that the decision not to include Beddoes’ name on the memorial was rather harsh in the circumstances but also raised some unanswered questions.

So, who was Henry Roscoe Beddoes? Henry was born on 9 October 1865 in Shrewsbury to a distinguished local Shropshire family, who still own the Cheney Longville Castle estate. Beddoes was the youngest of five children of a doctor, William Minton Beddoes (1817–1870) and his wife Laura Seraphina Pugh (1825–1887).


United Services College at Westwood Ho! (Source: http://www.westwardhohistory.co.uk/united-services-college/)

Henry’s father died when he was just 5 years old and, unlike his elder brothers who attended Shrewsbury School, Henry was sent to the United Services College located at Westwood Ho near Bideford in North Devon (which was also attended by the writer Rudyard Kipling and formed the location for Kipling’s stories “Stalky and Co”). The college was founded in 1874 as a private boy’s public school with the intention of preparing them for military service.


Henry, as the youngest son clearly had his future career and life mapped out for him and he went on to attend the Royal Military College at Sandhurst as a gentleman cadet. After graduating, he started his working life as a career soldier, first joining the 7th Hussars, which saw him sent to India in 1886 and thereafter seeing service in Ireland, South Africa, Nigeria and West Africa.


He eventually retired from the army in 1906 and was transferred to a Reserve Battalion —the 4th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Beddoes then turned his attention to a post-army career and was attracted to politics and the civil service. He is known to have stood unsuccessfully on two occasions for Parliament — first in the 1906 election as the Russellite Unionist candidate for Antrim East (when he won 2,145 votes and lost to the Irish Unionist candidate, James McCalmont) and then in January 1910 for St Albans as a Liberal candidate (in a seat ultimately won by the Conservative candidate Hildred Carlile).

In 1911, he was appointed under the Board of Trade Chief of Section to take charge of all Labour Exchange buildings in the UK, hence his connection to the Board of Trade.

By the beginning of WW1, aged 49, Beddoes was one of the older men at the Board of Trade to be called up for service. He was also one of the most senior ranking men, since a Lieutenant-Colonel is in command of units of up to 650 soldiers and responsible for overall military effectiveness.  Given his previous military service he was mobilised with his former reserve Battalion but was soon appointed to command the 1st/4th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment.

Given his social status and Army rank, his death appeared on the front page of The Times, the announcement recording that “on the 15th January, drowned at sea in the loss of the S.S. “Chonia” (sic) by mine explosion near Messina, Lt. Col. Henry Roscoe Beddoes, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, beloved husband of Marie Beddoes, The White House, Fawkham, Kent”.

According to his military file, which is accessible at The National Archives, after careful investigation, and after consultation with the Army and the RAF, neither of whom were particularly helpful in their responses, it was decided that, since Beddoes had reverted to Retired Pay and had ceased to be employed on military duties, his death could not be considered as related to his active service. It was decided not to include his name on either the Board of Trade or the Ministry of Labour War Memorials.

This decision also had implications for his widow, Marianne Pascoe Beddoes, who was left in a relatively sorry state since she was not entitled to a full war widows’ pension as designated by Royal Warrants of 1 August 1917 and 2 July 1920. The Director General of Awards, H L Davies indicated in a letter dated 26 November 1920, and addressed to Mrs Beddoes, that she might still be eligible for a pension at the ordinary rate and that “her case has been transferred to the War Office for consideration”. Ultimately Mrs Beddoes was deprived of a pension since she was assessed as having private means.  We can only imagine the impact this had on her and her young family.

On 15 January 1919, she was left a widow with four children ranging in age from 10 months to 11 years old — Edward William Minton Beddoes (born 13 March 1907), Vaughan Roscoe Minton Beddoes (born 30 July 1910), Dorothea Marie Minton Beddoes (born 15 November 1913) and Maude Eithne Minton Beddoes (born 1 March 1918). Mrs Beddoes was to find that she would have to rely on her family and on her two brothers-in-law to support herself and her four children.

This situation just have been very frustrating and disappointing for Mrs Beddoes, especially since her husband Henry Roscoe Beddoes was one of those men who were immediately called up for war service, having being mobilised on 1 August 1914, just a few days before war was declared, and being deployed to France on 1 May 1915. He was sent home injured on 6 July 1915 and was then assigned to the 9th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, rejoining the British Expeditionary Forces in France on 8 October 1916, until he was wounded for a second time on 1 July 1917. After this second period of leave he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers on 1 August 1918 and posted to the 68th Divisional HQ on 19 May 1918, remaining with the Division until December 1918. During this final period of his war service he was attached to an RAF Unit at Reading where despite being 53 years old he qualified as both a pilot and observer, before being recalled to the Ministry of Labour for urgent work.  One of the notes, dated from 1937 from his military file, states however that “after his death there was considerable uncertainty as to his situation on the date, 15.1.19”.

Looking again at the circumstances of Beddoes’ death itself on 15 January 1919, it seems very harsh that his name was not included on the Board of Trade Memorial or that a pension was not granted since the circumstances of Beddoes’ death at sea was not just an unfortunate accident but a direct consequence of war. He drowned on the French passenger ship Chaonia which was travelling with 650 passengers (mainly Greek troops) from Marseilles to Athens when it was struck by a mine 50 miles off the coastline at Messina in Sicily. According to press reports at the time, “the explosion blew the fore part of the vessel into the air, and most of the passengers perished in their bunks” with the ship sinking within only 4 minutes. Barely 184 passengers and crew survived.

An intriguing letter survives, dated 17 January 1919, from the British Consulate based in Messina, just two days after the disaster has survived, written by a Constantine Brown, a fellow passenger of Beddoes on the Chaonia. This letter refers to the disaster, detailing that “on the 16th inst. at 0.15am just before entering the Straits of Messina, while walking with Beddoes on the deck, we heard an explosion on the right side of the boat, and sighted a red flame. All the windows were broken and the lights went out. We understood at once that the boat had struck a mine and hurried to our cabin to take our lifebelts, and then as everybody seemed to have lost their head, to organise something to save the many women and children on board. With the help of my electric pocket lamp I put on my belt and helped Beddoes put on his. Then, feeling that the boat was sinking rapidly I asked him to hurry; he told me to go on back while he was getting his flask with brandy. I went up and saw that the steamer was sinking rapidly; went back at once and shouted to the Colonel to speed up but had no reply”. Such is the last known whereabouts of Beddoes who sadly was not amongst the survivors.

His travelling companion continues to express his wish to try to find Beddoes’ body in order to bury it with the military honours due to his rank. He also mentions in the letter the reasons for their trip which involve an “excellent scheme about banking arrangements with the Chrissovelong Bank; and arrangement for making a kind of Army and Navy Store in Bucharest besides the timber and the negroponte businesses”.

Remarkably the story of Beddoes and the Chaonia voyage is also referenced in a book “America’s Black Sea Fleet: the U.S. Navy amidst the War and Revolution 1919 – 1923” by Robert Shenk which cites the experience of Constantine Brown as a young journalist in post WW1 Europe and describing Beddoes last moments. While broadly similar to Brown’s 1919 letter this new later version of events adds more intrigue and colour to events as follows:

“…he got a place on the old French steamer Chaonia. He boarded it in Marseilles along with several hundred other passengers, most of them Catholic priests or nuns returning to their war-interrupted work as teachers or missionaries in Syria and Lebanon. Brown shared his cabin with a just-retired British colonel who was on his way to represent a London syndicate in the Levant. Though it was winter the weather was calm as the ship entered the Straits of Messina. The two men began flirting with a young Romanian woman, suggesting they could show her the sights in Athens if she could ditch her husband for a few hours. Suddenly there was  loud report, which frightened everybody except the colonel. He announced that the ship had just hit a mine and he calmly helped Brown into a life jacket before heading below to get a whiskey flask. “It will be a good half hour before this old tub goes down”, he predicted. Before the colonel could return, though the ship had begun to founder the Romanian woman had jumped screaming over the stern, and Brown found himself stepping into the sea.”


“The Coming of the Whirlwind 1914-1952” by Constantine Brown 

Further investigation has revealed that Beddoes’ travelling companion was an American journalist, Constantine Brown (1889–1966) who was originally from Romania. He reported on WW1 for the London Times and about the war in Russia, and was in the country at the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, becoming one of the first American journalists to interview Lenin. Later he became Bureau Chief for the Chicago Daily News in Turkey, Paris and London and then Foreign Affairs Editor for the Washington Evening Star. He seems to have been well connected with notable people and events, to the extent that his memoirs, The Coming of the Whirlwind 1914–1952, were published in 1964.  In it he refers to at least one stage of his post-war experiences when he was captured “as a suspected spy by the Serbians”.

Could there therefore be more to the private business trip that Beddoes was making to Romania than meets the eye? Considering that this was at a time of considerable political upheaval, was Beddoes also involved in some espionage-related project? Far-fetched as it might sound, is there more to the story of Beddoes making a personal business trip or was he there for a more official purpose?  Could it be that he was on his way on secret British government business to promote British interests and influence in the Middle East? His voyage was made only six weeks after the British had withdrawn from Damascus to avoid confrontation with the French and at a time that the French were pushing for a mandate with Syria and Lebanon.

Looking again at the letter sent from the British Consulate, Brown addresses this to an unknown man rather than to the family, and says that “I have wired today asking instructions as to what I have to do. I am quite prepared to continue the journey……the question is whether you can find somebody else to take his place and who has the same prestige as he had”. Take his place, doing what? There are many questions still to answer.


Memorial to Lt Col Henry Roscoe Beddoes in Wistanstow Church, Shropshire ((Copyright: Stewart Minton-Beddoes)

Despite missing out on inclusion on the Board of Trade War Memorial, the sacrifice of Henry Roscoe Beddoes is remembered on five other war memorials. He is remembered on the parish church and civic war memorials close to his former home in Fawkham, Kent and also in Wistanstow Church (together with his sword) located near the ancestral home of the Minton Beddoes family at Cheney Longville, Shropshire. He is also named on the Roll of Honour for The Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Royal Military Academy Chapel at Sandhurst. Finally he is also named on the Hollybrook War Memorial located in Southampton. Tellingly, this Memorial was first opened by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1930 to remember almost 1,900 service men and women whose graves are not known. Many of those named, like Beddoes himself, died in ships that were mined or torpedoed.

The question is now 100 years on, whether the time is right to add the name of Henry Roscoe Beddoes and the other three ‘forgotten’ men to the Board of Trade War Memorial and to consider what other more intriguing stories remain to be uncovered about the WW1 generation.

(With thanks to Stewart Minton-Beddoes for his added information about his grandfather and to Margaret Frood for her help in preparing this blog article).