WE WILL REMEMBER THEM: Last year, while at an Addiscombe church on Remembrance Day, on hearing the roll call of the fallen, one of the congregation decided to find out more about those named. This is part of what STEPHANIE OFFER discovered
Last Remembrance Sunday, as I listened to the reading out of the names that are engraved on the war memorial at St Mary Magdalene Church on Canning Road, I felt curious about who they were, where they lived, what jobs they did, who their families were, what happened to them.
What each of those surnames truly represents.
So, I typed the first name on the memorial, “Atha, LE” into Ancestry.com, and the project began.
Discovering Croydon in the Great War by Moore and Sayers, which lists (most) of the men from the area who died in the 1914-1918 war made the research many times easier.
Finding so many duplicate records for men with the same name, such as the six different men named Sidney Barrett and 28 called Thomas Bentham gave me a new perspective on the vast scale of the war.
It is striking how much their lives were like those of the current population of the parish: they went to the same schools, shops and parks, and did broadly similar jobs, administrative office work being the most common occupation.
There are 96 names listed on the St Mary Magdalene war memorial, drawn widely from across the parish, sometimes only appearing to be on there because they had a family member living there.
I felt it was important to research the lives of the men on the St Martin’s war memorial, too, as that parish was joined to that of St Mary Magdalene when the church was closed in 1994.
At the time of the World War I, St Martin’s did not have its own parish and there are only 17 men listed on their war memorial, possibly suggesting that they are only drawn from people with a direct link to the church.
The men from St Mary Magdalene, although representing a cross-section of society, appeared to be, on the whole, wealthier than those from St Martin’s, but men from both were better educated than average, 40 per cent of them having had a secondary education and 8 per cent having gone to university, at a time when the rates in the general population were just 5.8 per cent and 0.06 per cent respectively.
Thomas Bentham was the most highly educated that I found, having a BSc from Oxford and MSc from Durham in biology. He served at a military hospital improving the diagnosis of dysentery.
As a result of their education, more men on these memorials than average served as officers. Commissioned Officers (lieutenants, captains and higher ranks) made up 6 per cent of the army during World War I, yet 23 per cent of the men on these memorials were officers, the highest in rank being Major Arthur Letts, who began the war in the ranks as a private.
Of the rest listed on the memorials, 24 per cent served as Non-Commissioned Officers – “NCOs”: lance corporals, corporals, sergeants and the like – while about half were privates.
All the men on the St Martin’s memorial died in France and Flanders, as did the majority of the men on the St Mary Magdalene memorial. But some also fought in the Balkans and Egypt, at Gallipoli, Iraq, Greece, the Persian Gulf, Malta, Jerusalem, Italy and the North Sea. They were predominantly in the Army, although four men were in the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor to the RAF, and several in the Royal Navy.
The first to die was William Streeter, on August 26, 1914, only a week after disembarking in France, and less than a month into the war.
The last to die was Major Letts, who “died of his wounds”, as the phrase of the time would have it, in a military hospital in London on June 5, 1920, 18 months after the war had ended on November 11, 1918.
Most were killed in action, others died of wounds or illness. The average age at death was 25 years, although the youngest man, Walter Chevins, was only 17 when he died.
Two civilians are listed, as they were killed in the Zeppelin bombing raid on Oval Road on October 13, 1915, although a third victim of that raid, a seamstress called Jane Miller, was omitted from the memorial.
The men listed here were very much part of a community and shared many links.
Some had close links with St Mary Magdalene: Thomas Bentham’s father was one of the curates (and later first vicar of St Mildred’s), while Lionel Wild’s father was church warden. Eight had been baptised at the church and six were married there, including Felix Parham, who in 1914 married Beatrice Kear, whose brother, Walter Kear, also appears on the memorial.
Some were neighbours, such as the Doody brothers who lived at 45 Elgin Road, while their school fellow, John Finn, lived across the road at No46. All three were killed in the space of 19 days near the village of Mametz in July 1916.
Others were in the same year at school, or played in the same cricket and rugby teams.
Therefore, mourning was a collective, community grief, as well as an individual grief, reflected in the sheer number of memorials erected. Glimpses emerged of the sorrow of their parents and families. Lionel Playsted’s father wrote to his son’s old headmaster that he “was heart broken” at the news of his son’s death and concluded the letter by writing, “Oh, God, the blow seems cruel, being our only one, but we must look forward to that great day of re-uniting.”
Others, like Thomas Mason and Henry Isaacs, were their parents’ only child. Many other bereaved parents had already lost children, such as Wilfrid Hadfield’s mother and father, whose three daughters had all died in childhood, with Wilfrid leaving them left childless at his death.
The mother of Ernest and Stanley Delvaille, one of six pairs of brothers listed on the two memorials, expressed her sorrow by having a postcard printed with their pictures on, “in loving memory of my darling boys”.
I was particularly moved by the detail in which the parents of Percy Williams listed his academic achievements – down to the very last essay prize.
It is impossible not to rage at times over the grief and loss of potential these memorials represent. “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old”, seems scant comfort. I would far rather they had grown peacefully old, fulfilled their promise, seen their children grow up, and not been “Sacrificed to the folly that war can end war” (as Lt Arthur Conway Young’s parents put on his gravestone, as quoted in Rachel Mann’s book, Fierce Imaginings).
But we cannot change that, all we can do is remember.
For me, therefore, this felt like a positive project, bringing names to life again. Enabling these men to be remembered as flesh and blood people, who lived, worked, played, had dreams, aspirations, married, had children, had courage, loyalty to their comrades, endured the unimaginable.
It is all we can do for them now and I can only hope that I have done them justice.
Read more: How Corporal Luff’s cross became a symbol for all Croydon
Read more: ‘For gallantry’: Croydon hero who died at Passchendaele
Read more: Until the daybreak Mother: Four-fold tragedy of Croydon family
Read Stephanie Offer’s previous article for this website: Croydon’s biggest slave owner was ancestor of the Queen
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