As DAVID MORGAN researched his latest article for Inside Croydon on the history of Croydon Minster, he found in the roll of honour of soldiers lost in the First World War one particularly poignant tragedy – Croydon’s very own version of Saving Private Ryan, but without the Hollywood happy ending
The 1998 Hollywood film, Saving Private Ryan, is based on a multiple tragedy that affected an American family during World War II, and the strong efforts made by the military to avoid one family carrying a burden which no one would want to contemplate.
The premise played out in that Oscar-winning Spielberg film was far from unique, however, especially so during the “War To End All Wars”, the First World War. And for the French family of Croydon in 1918, there was no Tom Hanks figure despatched on a special mission of compassion to ensure that not all four boys were lost to the war.
The French family lived at 11, Bourne Street, Croydon, a road on the other side of the dual carriageway from the Minster, up towards Wandle Park.
Here lived Elijah and Mary Ann French. They had four sons: Albert who was born on January 20 1890, Charles Ernest on December 28 1896, Frank Geoffrey on February 20, 1898, and Stephen Thomas, the eldest, who was born August 26 1886. All the boys attended Mitcham Road School.
Stephen, like many young men of the early 20th century, emigrated to Canada to seek a better life. There he settled, married Katherine, was employed as a shipping clerk and lived at 1247 Cannon Street, Hamilton, at the western end of Lake Ontario.
Stephen enlisted in the Canadian infantry in May 1916.
Albert, too, emigrated to Canada, leaving for his new adventures in 1907. He enlisted in the forces on October 9, 1914, at Toronto. This was not his first decision to join the army, though, as his attestation papers show he served two years in the 7th Royal Fusiliers. The dates for this service were not recorded.
He gave his current employment as a labourer. He never married and his pay from the Canadian Army was signed to be sent to his brother Stephen. The brothers must have been close.
Charles grew up, left school and became a bricklayer. As far as can be ascertained he was still living at Bourne Road when he signed up for the 7th Royal West Surrey Regiment on September 5 1914.
Frank became a shop assistant when he left school. He joined the army on August 31, 1916, becoming a private in the 3rd Royal Fusiliers.
Because Albert joined up virtually at the outbreak of World War I, Mr and Mrs French would have been following events in a personal way even though they were used to two of their sons emigrating and being thousands of miles away. The four brothers, though, never all served in the forces at the same time.
This was because Albert was killed at St Eloi on Monday, April 10 1916. The Battle at St Eloi Craters was the first major battle fought by the 2nd Canadian Division. It ended in chaos with no objectives being taken but with 1,373 casualties. Albert is buried at the Ridge Wood Cemetery with the inscription on his memorial stone reading “Until the daybreak Mother”. He was 26 years old when he was killed.
At that time Frank had not yet joined up. Maybe the death of his brother made him decide to go and fight. From September 1916, the remaining three brothers served their home country by fighting in France and in Flanders.
The following April when Charles, now a lance corporal in the 7th Battalion Queens, the Royal West Surreys, was killed at Irles, near Arras. The date given is imprecise: he died between February 24 and 27 1917. He was 20 years old. He is buried at the Adanac Military Cemetery, Miraumont and has exactly the same inscription on his gravestone as his brother Albert: “ Until the daybreak Mother”.
Two months later, in April 1917, Stephen French was killed at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. He was critically wounded and died on April 13. He is buried at the Barlin Community Cemetery Extension. His memorial stone reads “Sleep on dear husband in a soldier’s grave. Safe in God’s keeping now you lie,” the choice of his wife, Katherine. He was 31 when he was killed.
By October 1918, with the war seemingly coming to an end, there was just one surviving French brother, Frank. He was 20 years old and fighting near Cambrai when he was killed. He is buried in the Prospect Hill Cemetery Gouy, near Aisne France. His memorial stone reads “Until the daybreak Mother”.
Even with the greatest empathy, nobody could put themselves into the shoes of Elijah and Mary Ann French.
How could you walk into your parish church to view the names of your four sons, all dead? How could you face the other people in your street? Spare a moment as we approach another anniversary of the end of World War I to reflect on the four-fold tragedy that impacted this, and every other, family in Croydon at that time.
Croydon Minster is open every day, except Thursdays. If you would like a group tour or want to book a school visit, then ring the office on 020 8688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page.
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers bespoke tours for groups or to provide illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
- For David Morgan’s previous columns on the history of Croydon Minster, and its connections to the American Revolution through to the Boer War, click here
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