Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for February, 2019

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)

Biography:

GKTFisher

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.

AshdownParkHotel

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.

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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
Decorations:
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)

Biography:

WalterRobinson

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.

Somme-map

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.

 

 

Read Full Post »

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

Biography:

JMcTRennie

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.

NorthcoteSchoolWarMemorial

War Memorial at Northcote Primary School, Liverpool

MemorialCommunityChurchPlaistow-bells

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.

 

 

Read Full Post »

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
Enlisted:
Rank: Lieutenant
Decorations:
War (and theatre): WW1
Manner of Death: Accidentally killed
Family Details: Husband of Ada Mary Wildman (nee Fletcher), 60 Berlin Road, Catford, London SE6
Residence:
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)

Biography:

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”.

Pulham-gas-plant

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.

Read Full Post »