How Corporal Luff’s cross became a symbol for all Croydon

The Queen’s Screen in Croydon Minster is a striking tribute to the men of one WWI army unit that was based nearby. DAVID MORGAN traces the war record of one hero who is remembered in his village, is buried in France and has his battlefield cross in Croydon 

We will remember them: the memorial arch in the Minster for the West Surreys

The ornate wooden arch through which you pass as you enter Croydon Minster is a memorial to the soldiers of the 2nd and 4th Battalions The Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment who never returned from their battles in the Great War.

On the right, a carving of a private stands on eternal lookout. On the left an officer, standing, planning, anxious for the return of his men.

On the wall in the south porch are wooden battens with all the names of the fallen from those two battalions inscribed upon them. Albert Ernest Luff’s name is there.

His wooden battlefield cross, rescued from France after the end of World War I and brought back to England, is the centrepiece of this memorial.

The treasured cross still has the original metal strip with Luff’s name stamped on it, together with the date of his death: September 6, 1918.

Luff’s cross: retrieved from the battlefield, it has a special place in the Minster

Dying so close to the war’s end that November meant that Albert’s wooden cross was not damaged by further fighting and it was able to be brought back to the regiment’s base, here in Croydon.

Like the symbolic nature of the national memorial at the tomb of the unkown soldier at Westminster Abbey, so Albert Luff’s cross in Croydon Minster has come to represent the loss of all of them.

The cross, together with the battalion memorial, was presented by the 2/4 Queen’s Old Comrades Association and displayed in Queen’s House (the former army centre, off Roman Way) where it was unveiled by Edward Woods,  the Bishop of Croydon, on March 29, 1931. It was moved into the church from Queen’s House and dedicated by the Vicar of Croydon on July 8, 1951.

Though the Battalion HQ was here, Corporal Luff was not a Croydon man.

Luff’s cross: the metal identification, showing the date when Luff was killed, remains on the cross

The Queen’s Screen acknowledges that the Battalions contained soldiers from across the four countries of the United Kingdom by having the four patron saints standing atop the carving. Luff’s family didn’t live far away though. They came from Brockham, just outside Dorking.

Albert Luff signed up for the West Surreys at the very beginning of the war. He, together with three of his friends, signed on after a recruitment meeting on Brockham Green in August 1914. After a period of training, Albert arrived in France in May 1915.

Four months later he suffered injuries when a trench collapsed and he was buried. He was sent home on leave in the November of that year.

When he returned, his regiment was ordered to Egypt, defending the Suez Canal and part of the Middle Eastern campaign against the German allies, the Ottoman Turks. The West Surreys would be in Egypt for two years.

Albert was wounded twice during his time there. First, in his left thigh in March 1916 and secondly by a bullet in his right leg in the December of that year. Luff recovered from these wounds, and in June 1918, he and his regiment were re-deployed to France.

Hard details: The wartime diary of Luff’s battalion which records the actions they were fighting in early September 1918

It was at that point that he received a medal of proficiency in the use of a Lewis gun, the heavy field machine gun which most infantry units were equipped with at that stage of the war.

In a letter home, dated August 30, 1918, Albert said he had just five days before he was due some leave.

One of his comrades, a Sergeant Tongue, takes up the story on September 4.

He wrote that his platoon was sent out overnight to clear some hostile machine guns. The German guns were on the Kemmel Ridge, while Tongue and his men were using the Kemmel system of defences from Daylight Corner to Lindenhoek Corner as their protection.

Tongue goes on to say that they had to keep very low and at times were within 100 yards of the German guns.

Comrades in arms: the Brockham war memorial which marks the sacrifices of four young friends

The next day, at around midday Luff came to join Sgt Tongue in his portion of the trench. It was then, almost immediately upon his arrival, that he was hit, fatally, by a sniper’s bullet.

Referring to Luff as “Bert”, Tongue said he did his best to dress the wound but thought it was a bad one and that his comrade would not last long.

Under constant risk of deadly enemy fire, movement in daylight, to get Bert to a field hospital for the urgent treatment which might have saved his life, proved impossible. It was not until nightfall that Luff and other wounded members of the platoon could be got away.

Tongue wrote he heard Bert had died the next day, September 6, but he couldn’t say where he was buried, only that it was a long way behind the line. In conclusion, the letter sent to his parents, contained heartfelt condolences for one of the most popular men of their unit.

Albert Luff’s grave today is in the Terlincthun British Cemetery Wimille, close to Boulogne. His gravestone carries the words chosen by his parents, “God grant him thine eternal rest”. Many of the British servicemen buried here are ones who had been transferred to the nearby Base Hospitals where they “died of their wounds”.

The three Brockham friends who joined up with Beert on their Surrey village green in August 1914 all lost their lives, too. The names of Frederick Parsons, Charles Harding and Benjamin Boxall are recorded on the local memorial in Brockham. The Great War took a terrible toll on many villages throughout the land.

Bert Luff is remembered in his village, is buried in France, has his battlefield cross in Croydon and is one of the soldiers highlighted by the Dorking Museum in their World War I Exhibition. Thank you for your service, sir.

Read more: Until the daybreak Mother: Four-fold tragedy of Croydon family
Read more: Victorian church painting that leads to a Great War tragedy

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6 Responses to How Corporal Luff’s cross became a symbol for all Croydon

  1. Ian Kierans says:

    103 years and 48 days and still remembered. In 3 weeks we have Remembrance Sunday. Good article again David.

  2. jackgriffin1933 says:

    A very nice piece by David, yet I’m 99% sure that the ‘Queen’s Screen’ is dedicated to the 4th Battalion only, and not the second.

    If that is the case, I wonder if David has misapprehended the battalion numbering system of the day – in perhaps thinking that 2/4th has something to do with 2nd AND 4th.

    When the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment (RWS) was organised from the 2nd Foot in 1881, it had – like most county regiments – two regular battalions. The 1st would usually be based at home, the 2nd would typically be garrisoned in India or South Africa (other colonies, protectorates, dependencies and mandates were available). Sometimes both would be permanently overseas.

    Below these two sat various militia and volunteers which were reconstituted as the Territorial Force in 1908. Thus we got the 4th Battalion (TF), Royal West Surrey – “an exclusively Croydon force”*.

    At the outbreak of war, the 4th RWS was deployed to India (as were many TF battatlions) to release regular battalions for the front in France and Flanders.

    Those left behind, along with remnants of the Guildford-based 5th Battalion, were formed – at Windsor – into a composite second battalion of the 4th Battalion. To differentiate these descendant/ offshoot battalions, the 4th in India was designated the 1st/ 4th, the new second battalion the 2nd/ 4th, then the third, the 3rd/ 4th and, finally, the 4th/ 4th.

    So four battalions of the 4th Battalion, if that makes sense.

    Back to the original point: the 2nd (Regular) Battalion and Bert Luff’s 2nd/ 4th Battalion (TF) were completely separate entities, with only the latter relating to Croydon by being a subsidiary unit of the 4th Bn.

    I think the screen relates to the entirety of the 4th Bn – inc. the 2nd/4th – but not the 2nd.

    Are you still awake?

    The 1st/ 4th stayed in India and Afghan for the duration and the 2nd/ 4th went first to Gallipoli, then Egypt and Palestine before ending up on the Western Front. The 3rd/ 4th was the reserve battalion before being sent into the line in May 1917, while the 4th/ 4th was the depot based in Poplar Walk, responsible for recruitment and also training.

    *Croydon and The Great War. A great book that every Croydon home should have, and original 1920s copies are available on eBay for 20 – 30 quid. A cheaper paperback reprint is also available.

    And if one really wants to dig into this, there is The History of the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment in the Great War, by Col. H. C. Wylly. Again available as a modern reprint on eBay for five to 20 quid.

    • Brilliant. Now, about the East Surreys…

      • jackgriffin1933 says:

        To quote again from Croydon & The Great War (it’s always to hand):

        “On the re-planning of the army … the Second Regiment of Foot, The Queen’s, became the Royal West Surrey Regiment, with headquarters at Guildford and having as its special recruiting district all the south of Surrey, including Croydon. The rest of the county, exclusive of London, was assigned to the East Surrey Regiment, with headquarters at Kingston”.

        As in all things, the less any true Croydonian has to do with Kingston (or Bromley, for that matter), the better.

        Also, the nearest East Surrey battalion to Croydon was Camberwell, so they need not trouble us here!

        PS/ On closer reading of David’s piece, I see that his reference to 2nd and 4th is in relation to the memorial panel, rather than the screen. The same points hold though.

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