11 November 2018

Aldridge 11 11 2018 - One hundred years on

Residents of Station Road, organisers of The Poppy Project 2018 about to set off to walk Poppy Road

Walking Station Road

Red Lion

Commemoration Crosses

Not forgetting this...

Beginning to assemble

Heading the parade

The Parade

Standard bearers

Fly past from Emirates?

You are welcome to use my photographs but please acknowledge either the blog or me. Thank you

10 November 2018

Another Aldridge Man Who Died During World War One

This handsome looking young man is my Great Uncle Bill. He is another man from Aldridge and from my family, who did not make it home from the killing fields of World War 1.

William (Bill) Plant was born in the late spring of  1895 at 12 Rollingmill Street, Pleck, Walsall and baptised just up the canal towpath at St Andrew's Church, Birchills, Walsall. Mom was Rose, nee Turner an indomitable woman who gave birth to 15  children including my maternal Grandmother, by her husband George Plant. George was the son of Thomas an industrious man who worked hard all his life as poulterer and greengrocer, pub landlord and farmer but who wasn't beyond poaching from the estate of Sir Robert Peel! George was industrious too, well you needed to be with all those children to clothe and feed and his final work was as a haulier in Aldridge.

The family moved to Green Lane, Aldridge whilst William was still toddling and he and his siblings knew the village well. They knew the orchards ripe for apple scrumping, the fields where the best mushrooms could be picked and where to hang around to earn a penny or two for fetching and carrying. The family moved again to a small cottage on the Walsall Road, it's still there, standing behind the cottage right next to the old mile marker just by the junction to Paddock Lane. The house shared a water pump with surrounding cottages in the yard, there was no running water indoors but there was a decent sized range where Rose kept a pot of her famous broth bubbling away. My Dad remembers it all very well.

By 1911 and 15 years old William was earning money as a carter haulier as was his younger brother Frank, just 13. This would have been today's equivalent of a white van man but with a horse and cart, ferrying goods and people about the area as required.

It is not known precisely when William enlisted in the 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment, a regular army battalion but it was done in Walsall and I would suggest it was just prior to WW1 breaking out as he was disembarking in France on 12 August 1914. It appears however, that William became ill not long after arriving in France as there is a report in The Walsall Advertiser on Saturday 10 October 1914 that reads:

"Private William Plant, of Aldridge, has been home from his regiment, the 2nd South Staffs, stricken with fever but has now returned"

The 2nd Battalion were active on the Western Front right from the start and were involved in trench warfare, advances, diversionary tactics and attacks. It must have been a truly horrendous experience for a young man used to life in a village, who perhaps had joined for adventure and experience, to find himself knee deep and more, in mud on a regular basis,  never being dry, vermin at every point and actively fighting on a regular basis, seeing friends and comrades being injured and dying in horrific circumstances. All that noise, blood, guts and gore. He must have witnessed scenes no young man of 18/19 should have to, nor any person of any age should for that matter.

Dawn of 10 March 1915 arrived. William's battalion were to be involved in an attack on the enemy positions just north east of Givenchy. Artillery bombardment began at 7.30 am with the infantry advancing in three columns against the enemy's trenches half an hour later. The war diaries for that day make for distressing reading. The Infantry were mown down in crossfire, with two particular enemy machine gunners taking down many men. Further artillery bombardments took place as did further advances and many acts of bravery were witnessed. The attack continued throughout the day. Three Officers lost their lives, two were wounded and one was listed as missing. For the infantry, 24 lost their lives, 74 were wounded and 33 were listed as missing. William Plant was one of the Infantry that lost his life that day, just 19 years old.

The Walsall Observer reported William's death on 3 April 1915.

"Official intimation has been received by Mr George Plant, haulier of Walsall Road, Aldridge, stating that his son, Private William Plant (19) was killed in action while serving with the 2nd South Staffords during the Givenchy fighting on March 10. He joined the army about four years ago and out in the firing line has been in charge of a machine gun. Two brothers - George (28) and Frank (17) are serving with the Royal Field Artillery."

I think George was distressed and could not recall the passage of time correctly, as William could not have served for four years, he would have been far too young to have signed up at the tender age of 15.

William had made a will in favour of his parents and they jointly shared the £9 12s 6d he was owed by the Army and paid in July 1915 plus the war gratuity of £5 paid in May 1919. William was awarded the British War Medal and a Victory Medal despite having been dead for over three years when the Armistice came into being.

He is buried at Guards Cemetery Windy Corner Cuinchy. Cuinchy is a village about 7kms east of the town of Bethune and N41 which runs between Bethune and La Basse. About 1km north of the village are crossroads known as Windy Corner. The cemetery is a little west of these crossroads. This is where a house was used as a battalion headquarters and dressing station.

Rose was devastated by the death of William. She remembered him with fondness to her dying day on 10 November 1950,  as my Dad can testify. For several years after William's death she placed memorials in The Walsall Observer on the anniversary of his death. This is the one from March 11 1916:

"In loving memory of my dear son Private William Plant, 2nd South Staffs Regiment, who was killed in action on March 10 1915. Fondly remembered by his Mother."

Fondly remembered by his Mother and never forgotten by those in the family that came after.

9 November 2018

The Last Casualty of The Great War?

James Frost
This young man from Aldridge is James Henry Ernest Frost. He was born in a house on the Birmingham Road in Aldridge in 1898 and baptised at St Mary's, the parish church on 14 August that year.

His parents were Eli Frost and Clara Leah nee Mason. He was one of ten siblings and he and my Father are first cousins. Dad doesn't remember James because he had already died in the slaughter of a generation of young men during WW1 when Dad was born but Dad does remember his Auntie Clara because she lived to a ripe old age of 76. She died in 1953 and is buried in Aldridge Cemetery with various members of her family.

Dad recalls that Clara was a warm, loving and inviting person, full of hugs ready to be given and small treats if she had baked that day and that was most days as Clara made all her own bread. There was always a warm pot of soup or stew sitting on the small range ready for visitors to take their fill along with a slice from her own crusty loaves. Clara's home was small and rural. There was no indoor plumbing of any sort, no running water, no toilet but it was a home filled with love and also tinged with tragedy.

Shortly after James's birth the family moved out of Aldridge for a brief life in Darlaston. Eli, James's father swapped agricultural labouring for life as a engine stoker at a colliery but this appears not to have worked out and the family returned to Aldridge to live in Mill Green, later moving a little closer to the village to Gould Firm Lane. Eli returned to agricultural labouring.

Eli Frost
When war broke out James was not quite 16 years old and his elder brother Eli was just 18.  Eli who had worked in the Brickyard in Aldridge as a tile carrier, took Territorial Force Attestation for the duration of the war on 2 September 1915 in Wolverhampton. He became part of 1/6 Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment and served with the 46th (North Midland) Division. At the time of his enlistment the 46th Division were fighting in the Battle of Loos and it was decimated on 13th October 1915 during an attack on the  Hohenzollern Redoubt. In May 1916 Eli was taken ill with Pyrexia, highly contagious Typhoid (or Enteric) fever and was invalided to the UK in June 1916. He convalesced for 5 months and then returned to France in November 1916. He managed to see the War through almost to the end when he was wounded in action in October 1918. He was then discharged to 'coal mining'. Eli continued to live in Aldridge for the rest of his life until his death in 1969. He married in 1934 and had two sons.

James had seen his elder brother depart for war, return terribly ill and then depart once more. Before his 19th birthday he enlisted in Newcastle Under Lyme and was assigned to the Manchester Regiment as a Private. He served in the 13th Battalion and was away with them in Salonika  from Christmas 1917 until June 1918 when the battalion left Salonika and went directly to France arriving in Abancourt on 11 July 1918. There they were first absorbed into the 17th Battalion at the end of July and then just a few short weeks later, they in turn were absorbed into the 9th Battalion. It was a time of much rearrangement of battalions and regiments at that time in the Great War.

Gradually James and his fellow comrades moved east. On the morning of 11th of November 1918, James found himself at the entrance to a wood on the outskirts of a tiny village in Belgium called Sivry. It was the easternmost point reached by the British Army during WW1. It was here that James was hit by a burst of shells from the enemy and mortally wounded. How and why James found himself there is explained a little by the research of Mr Bernard Counen who is a local historian in Belgium and has worked tirelessly on this story. It appears that James was ill and was left by the 9th Battalion Manchester Regiment with the villagers of Sivry to be cared for by the locals.

The War Diary seems to support this as the battalion was on the move. The entry for the 11th November reads:

"Bn HQ moved to A24 c. 26. and at 10.10 hours, received an order that hostilities would cease at 11.00 hours, this order only reached the coys a few minutes before that hour. Enemy artillery remained active to the last and No 54854 Pte J Frost of 'A' Coy was fatally wounded by a shell less than ten minutes before the armistice commenced."

The villagers of Sivry buried James in their communal cemetery and there he has remained ever since, the only serviceman to be buried there. His grave was adopted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but it has remained tended and cared for by the villagers of Sivry who have adopted him as one of their own. Tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday commemorations will take place and a new memorial for James will be unveiled.
The grave of Pte JHE Frost Sivry Communal Cemetery

Grave of Pte JHE Frost Service Number 54854 Sivry Communal Cemetery

The inscription on the grave, requested by James's father reads:


Was James the last soldier to die before the Armistice? Was he the last casualty?

 He was certainly one of the last to be fatally wounded, just a few minutes before the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. 

The wonderful Sue Satterthwaite of Aldridge Great War Project and The Poppy Road Project  approached the CWGC and asked them to consider the possibility and they did engage their historians to investigate however the historians said,  "they appreciate your suggestion that Private James Henry E Frost, 54854, 9th Bn. Manchester Regiment should be considered as the last casualty of the First World War.  Regrettably however the report in the War Diary does not provide conclusive evidence of this - it indicates he was fatally wounded but there is no verification of the fact when the death took place." This is disappointing but I'm not taking that as a final answer as I hope Mr Counen may have more information.

James was just 20 years old when he died. Had he heard that the War was almost over? Did he know that the Armistice was about to take place? In a way I hope he had not because it is unimaginable the thoughts that may have crossed his mind as he lay dying. So close to returning home to his warm and loving Mother, the hope of a better life after the war. He was still so very young with his whole life to look forward to. This was all snatched away from him in the last few minutes before the guns lay silent for the first time in over four years and the war was officially over.

Although we received an invitation to attend the ceremonies in Sivry this weekend, we were unable to make appropriate arrangements to go at such short notice. I will however, be making the journey to Sivry to honour this member of my family and to take a little of Aldridge in some form, to lay upon the grave of James.

I give thanks to the village of Sivry and all those who keep the memory of James alive. I thank them for tending his grave and I thank them for the honour they bestow upon him this coming weekend. He truly is not forgotten.

On Sunday please spare a thought for James Frost, an Aldridge man who possibly was the last casualty of World War 1. Thank you.

8 November 2018

Unknown Soldiers

In July 2015 I was lucky enough to be able to visit the battlefields of The Somme for the second time in my life. I wrote this blog a few months later and am republishing it now as the eve of the 100th anniversary of The Armistice approaches,  as my tribute to all those unknown servicemen and women, those whose names cannot be matched to a body, those who,lie in graves that have no name upon the headstone.

The final resting place of Frank Keys
 August 1977. Donna Summer was No 1 in the charts with 'I Feel Love' soon to be ousted by a plethora of Elvis songs due to his death on the toilet in Graceland. The only death that mattered to me during that month was that of my beloved Grandfather at the age of 69. I was 15 and although death had touched my life prior to my Grandfather's passing, it hadn't absolutely crushed my soul as this one did.

This blog is not about my Grandfather though. It is about what went before in the history of my family and what followed. For two weeks following his death I stayed with my bereaved Grandmother, sleeping next to her in my Grandfather's bed, on hand to deal with the tea making and a myriad of other things including keeping her company and holding her hand. Those two weeks along with a week that my Mother spent with me following the birth of my son in 1994, are held as the most precious of times.

At night we lay side by side in twin beds and Nan talked whilst I listened and I learned so much. She talked of her childhood lived in the mean streets of Aston, regaling stories of her sisters and her Mother, of school, of games, of being the Spearmint Queen, of how she met my Grandfather, courting, the Monkey Run in Aston, working at Dunlop and other places too. She also talked about her Father. She had no memories of him for he died when she was a mere 18 months old on the killing fields of The Somme. I've written about him before. Frank Keys was an ordinary man who lived in extraordinary times and he was missed by my Grandmother for all of her life.

Grave with the remains of six unknown soldiers
Those two weeks spent with Nan were in retrospect a wonderful gift, for she ignited a spark that, coupled with stories my Grandfather told me throughout my childhood, grew into a life long passion for family history. We first visited her Father Frank's grave in France in 1990 and I have wanted to return for a very long time. I got that opportunity whilst on holiday in France in July.

Our first day on The Somme was dull with a soft mist of rain that eased only briefly during the day. Despite the rain it was 28C, so being outside was similar to being immersed in a warm bath throughout day.

 First stop was Serre Road No 2 Cemetery where 7,127 soldiers are buried of which, only 2,183 have been identified. It is Frank's final resting place although it was not his first. Frank like so many, was originally in death, an unknown soldier. First interred at High Wood his remains were exhumed on 15th June 1928. The remains were examined, Frank's identity disc was gone as was his hair but he still wore his uniform and boots and had certain pieces of equipment with him. He also had an identifying button and was wearing his wedding ring. Frank is recorded as being 5'7" tall and of his teeth, all were in good condition apart from the 4 upper and 1 lower that had been extracted in life. Frank's death certificate states that he died of wounds and I have spent many hours wondering what those wounds were and if he lingered in pain, hoping that he didn't. I think the answer to this lies in the exhumation report; Frank's lower back was broken.

His wedding ring was returned to his regiment, The South Staffords. What happened to that ring that had lain for 12 years on Frank's body? Frank's widow Ellen died in January 1928, my Grandmother was a mere 13 years old and now an orphan. I am sure that she never knew of it.

None of that information had been available to me the first time I visited Frank's grave so this time, there was even more poignancy than the first time and more questions in my head that can never be answered.

The cemetery is huge, gradually rising from the road on a gentle slope but it is not impersonal. Beautifully kept as all CWGC cemeteries are, it is arranged in such a way so that you do not get the full impact of just how many soldiers rest there until you stand in one of the upper corners and look down towards the entrance. I caught my breath as I imagined those 7,127 soldiers all standing facing the entrance and away from me, as if on parade, uniforms neat and spotless, boots shining. In my imagination they stood silently, their faces unknown but known from the hundreds of photographs and silent films that survive from their time. A tear slipped down my cheek and mingled with the soft rain falling from the sky.

We stood in front of Frank's grave and then Aiden left me to spend some time alone with him. I told him of all the major events in my life since I had last stood there some 25 years before, including the death of my dearest Grandmother,his daughter and of a new generation, my children. I promised once again that he would never be forgotten and that I would return again.

Late morning saw us travel the few miles to the memorial at Thiepval. Thiepval is the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world. At 45 meters tall it can be seen for miles around. A focal point. This visit was personal too, not for me but for Aiden. I will leave him to tell the full story of Herbert Goulding, his Great Grandfather but he seems to have been an amazing man from what we have discovered of him.

Herbert's name is one of the 72,205 names of Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies have never been found or identified. The unknown soldiers. In addition to the commemoration of the unknown there are also 600 graves at Thiepval, 300 from the Commonwealth and 300 French soldiers. They lie together in perpetuity.

Herbert unlike Frank was a career soldier. By the time World War 1 erupted he was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was much decorated having spent many years soldiering in Africa including the Sudan and in the Anglo-Boer War. We know that Herbert died on 4th November 1916 virtually at the end of the Somme offensive. We know that he died at Guedecourt and we know that his death must have been 'glorious in war' for he was just a few weeks later, posthumously awarded the Military Cross. He was father to three young children; Ethel, Herbert and Ella and husband to Ethel.

Thiepval was shrouded beneath scaffolding as essential works were undertaken to ensure that the memorial is at its best for the commemorations in 2016 of the centennial of The Somme Battle but it was still an imposing sight. The French Tricolour and the Union flag fluttered above and still the soft warm rain continued to fall. As we walked closer to the memorial the names of some of the unknown became clearer and as we climbed the steps the full impact of what 72.205 names inscribed into Portland Stone actually looks like struck us. Thiepval is a powerful monument. Those columns of names, one after the other, row upon row, wall upon wall, all of them someone's son, father, brother, grandson, nephew, uncle, envelope you, wrapping themselves around you giving a true sense of the enormity of what happened and what was lost; a generation and then the tendrils of events and changes that happen throughout the generations to come because of what happened to these men.

We found Herbert's name. It is an automatic action to reach out and touch the only thing that is left of someone. I left Aiden to his tears and thoughts and he laid his poppy.

Many ask why is this so emotional, to visit a memorial or a grave of someone that is unknown to you but it part of your genetic character? I have no real answer but even in places where neither of us had a relative lying underneath there was still a raw pull against the heart. It's all those soldiers standing there, still whole in your imagination, so young, so full of hope for the future.

We walked around the graves and paid special homage at the grave of an unknown soldier of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

Inside the visitor centre there was more and entirely unexpected emotion to come for both of us. Pam and Ken Linge have been working on a database for The Missing of The Somme for many years and now have biographical  details of over 12,000 of the missing available to view at the centre. Herbert had a full page all to himself and we read newspaper articles reporting comments made by those who had known him in life. All were unanimous in saying what a considerate, kind and thoughtful man Herbert was and how much he would be missed. Beside the computer tables was a panel, created in 2004 containing head and shoulder pictures of 600 of the missing. On the bottom row near the right hand side was a photograph of Herbert. We were amazed and Aiden was overcome. It is not every day that a discovery such as this is made and realisation dawns that thousands of visitors in the centre every year gaze upon Herbert's face. Naturally we purchased the poster.

Later in the afternoon we visited Lochnagar Crater, so named after Lochnagar Street which was a British communication trench. Here in 1916 the enemy lines came within 15 yards of one another. At the end of June 1916 the 179th Tunnelling Company packed 2 explosive charges of 26.8 tons that at 7.28 am on the 1st of July 1916, along with 16 other mines, exploded. The explosion was so loud that it could be heard in Downing Street. The crater is 91 meters in diameter and 21 meters deep. It is immediately apparent that the crater is itself a war grave. It would not have been possible at the time to have recovered all the bodies of those killed on this front line stretch with the myriad of tunnels underneath and indeed men who died so long ago are still being discovered. Private George Nugent went missing in action on 1st July 1916. 82 years later his remains emerged from the chalky soil.

As we stood at the crater looking out across the peaceful and lovely countryside it was hard to remember that this was once hell and is the final resting place of thousands of soldiers, known and unknown. As we drove all around the Somme we were acutely aware of the number of memorials and cemeteries, large and small, so very many. It would take months if not years to visit every single one. We reflected upon how many graves we had seen that day. We thought about 20,000. 20,000 graves in just one day. I tried to imagine 20,000 men standing across the countryside but the number was too large for me to conjure out of my head.

The rain continued to fall and we returned to the car. It is hard not to reflect upon the futility of war, of all wars when you are faced with the reality of the aftermath. Even so I feel humbled by the contribution that mine and Aiden's Great Grandfathers' made and of the ultimate sacrifice they and their families made. The echoes of their lives and deaths are with us still, as are those of all the unknown soldiers, the missing. May they continue to be found.
Thiepval Cemetery

Rupert Brooke

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:

    That there's some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
    Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
    Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

    A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

        Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
    And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

        In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.