Bringing the war memorial to life – Stalbridge
Hilary Townsend looks at some of the stories behind the names on Stalbridge's war memorial
Published in June ’14In 1906 a boy named Edwin Curtis was born at the Stalbridge Arms where his father was innkeeper and tenant of a small farm on the Stalbridge estate. Edwin’s ordered, eventful childhood in Stalbridge impressed him deeply and when in his sixties in a foreign land by the Indian Ocean he recorded his memories. He recalled as a chorister and bell ringer the muffled peal that was rung as the old year died, then a full peal for the new. He remembered seeing his first car and flying machine in Stalbridge, haymaking, harvest, cider making, harvest suppers and festivals, the annual fair in the field where Stalbridge Close is now, wild flowers everywhere and the heart-stopping beauty of the blue tinged distant landscape.
Following a chemistry degree at Imperial College, teaching, ordination into the Church of England and missionary work in Mauritius, he became Bishop of Mauritius and finally Archbishop of the Indian Ocean from 1973–76. Archbishop Curtis readily admitted that the years winnowed out sadness but his eye-witness account of the effect of the First World War in Stalbridge is poignant.
From 1914 he attended the Church of England Elementary School at the top of Church Hill (now a private house). In the self-contained little town of Stalbridge with its shared labours, pleasures, friendships and gossip, people did not realize that the old world was ending. Eddie, passing Hughie Parsons’ newspaper shop in the High Street with placards proclaiming `England at War with Germany’, found the uniforms and recruiting meetings exciting.
He witnessed scenes of departure at Stalbridge station when someone on the platform sang `Goodbyeee’ and `Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and khaki-clad figures, little more than boys, boarded the train. The crowd of mothers, wives and sweethearts on the platform tried to be brave. Then the guard blew his whistle and the train drew on towards Bournemouth. On other days, long hospital trains puffed slowly through the fields, the Red Cross standing out on the sides of the carriages. Later, men were seen in the town with crutches and sticks and wearing the blue uniform of the wounded.
At Evensong in church on Sundays the old Rector, Mr Seaman, always said prayers for peace and for those far away, and the service closed with the hymn for Absent Friends. At one such service the Rector had to announce the death in a shelling of a young man who had been admitted into the men’s row of the choir not long before. He had been a lively, high-spirited lad and a regular communicant; Eddie, from his place as a choirboy, saw the tears on the old man’s face.
In September 1918 Stalbridge Estate was sold, enabling many local tenants to buy their properties and, on 11 November, the Great War ended its years of waste, anxiety and grief. The intense comradeship among the men who returned led to a British Legion branch being founded in Stalbridge soon after the end of the war. It began to meet in a wooden former Army hut beyond the Ring but by 1932 a permanent red brick building was erected in Barrow Hill where the Legion flourishes still.
The war ended in November 1918 and appeals were made for money for a war memorial to be erected in the churchyard. George Prideaux, owner of the milk factory in Gold Street, become Secretary and Treasurer and, by 1924 – at a cost of £268 7s 5d – a handsome memorial in Ham Hill stone, surrounded by yew and laurel trees and with a bronze tablet recording the 27 names of the fallen, was in place.
A solemn, packed ceremony every year reminded the survivors of the boys they once played with and their families of what they had lost. A child, watching in the 1930s, remembers the silence and solemnity and how Last Post and Reveille, played on his trumpet by Charlie Jeans, seemed to envelope the entire Blackmore Vale below. She only realised as she watched the parade through Stalbridge that some men were still very lame from their wounds and that the fishmonger had a wooden leg.
World War 2 brought three more names to the War Memorial.
When a retired policeman named Wally Ricketts came to live in Stalbridge he started to wonder about those names. What work did they do? Where did they serve? Where did they die and where were they buried (if indeed they were)?
Wally made determined efforts to find out and, by the time of his death in 2001, he had compiled a small booklet about them. A few years later Tim Lee, a retired naval officer living in the former boys’ school, followed up Wally’s work including his correspondence with the Curator of the Dorset Yeomanry Records. He also appealed for information to local descendants of the fallen.
Many of them – Jeans, Lambert, Hann, Hedditch, Ryall, Gawler, Davidge and Drew – had traditional Stalbridge names; Tim, along with a small team whose help he had enlisted, have been fascinated by the stories they uncovered. Thanks to the History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914–1919, medal record cards, and thanks also to the internet, many details of their service and cemeteries have been added to Wally’s original draft. Not all of the soldiers enlisted in the 5th or 6th Battalion of the Dorset Regiment or indeed the 1st Dorset Yeomanry (Queen’s Own). One, Ivor Hopkins, enlisted in the Gordon Highlanders and was killed in France, aged 18, a few months before the war ended.
Three Stalbridge men, Sergeant Howard Brown and Privates Claude Davidge and William Wiles, all from the Dorset (Queens Own) Yeomanry, were killed on the same day: 26 February, 1916. They had taken part in the Cavalry Charge of Agagir (Agagia) against a joint force of Turks and Senussi tribesmen, about 12 miles south-east of Sidi el Barrani, said to be the last cavalry charge by the British Army, although there is some dispute over this. They are buried in the cemetery in Alexandria.
Two men, Ernest Ashford and Tom Brown, who had enlisted together and joined the navy, were killed when their Battleship HMS Bulwark suddenly exploded in Sheerness Harbour on 26 November, 1914 with very heavy loss of life.
Three others were killed within a month of each other on the Somme in 1916. They were Edwin Lambert (died 23 August), Ernest Hedditch (l7 September) and Percy Gatehouse (26 September). These three have no known grave and are among the 72,194 casualties commemorated on the Lutyens-designed Thiepval Memorial. They were all in different regiments and, interestingly, Ernest Hedditch had joined the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, a regiment billeted extensively in Stalbridge at the start of the World War 2.
Three Stalbridge men were killed on the Somme in the month of March, 1918. They were Benjamin Galpin on 21 March and Harry Drew and William Lanning on 27 March. They have no known graves and are all among the 14,656 casualties commemorated on the Pozieres Memorial, Somme, France.
One of the younger casualties was Felix John (Jack) Cox, only son of a well-known Stalbridge draper at Manchester House in the High Street. He had joined the Somerset Light Infantry and was killed in action in November 1917. Palestine at the outbreak of World War 1 was part of the Turkish Empire and it was not until 21 November, 1917 that the Egyptian Expeditionary Force penetrated an area west of Jerusalem. Very severe fighting followed and Jack Cox was killed outside Jerusalem on 23 November. His grave is in the Jerusalem War Cemetery, Israel.
Finding these details has been a fascinating exercise. The collected material forms the basis of a Book of Remembrance, which is placed in St Mary’s Church for two weeks either side of Remembrance Sunday, and is kept in Stalbridge Library for the remainder of the year. Every man whose name is on the memorial is included in the book with, where known or available, details of the circumstances of death, family backgrounds and photographs of their graves or memorials.
In time for Armistice Sunday, 2010, notice board versions of the material so far available were displayed in the porch of the Parish Church and led to a rewarding amount of interest and new information, including some good photographs of the enlisted men in uniform. Last year an updated display was put up in the very recently completed Hub@Stalbridge in time for Remembrance Day, where it attracted the attention of young and old.
It inspired older members of the parish to remember siblings and contemporaries of the fallen who remained in Stalbridge, and these detailed accounts provided a source of great pride for many of their descendants living here. This is just and fair, for in their lives they were real people, part of the fabric of old Stalbridge and now, nearly one hundred years after their death, they are not only names on a fine war memorial but their lives and war service are still well remembered. ◗