How a search for a new life ended in wartime death in the Sinai

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM:  One hundred and three years on from the first Remembrance Day, DAVID MORGAN has been researching the archives at Croydon Minster for more records of those lost in what was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’

Howley Road in the Old Town, close by the Minster, like many other Croydon streets, suffered their share of losses during the Great War when news arrived of the death of a family member.

In January 1918, Charles and Susan Broomfield, who lived at No31 Howley Road, received news that their son Charles Broomfield had been killed when his Royal Navy minesweeper was blown up in the English Channel.

In May 1917, Miss Matthews, a few doors up the road at No57, had received a letter about her brother Alfred Matthews.

Her letter read:

“Dear Madam
With reference to the report of the regrettable loss of the late No352 Sergeant A Matthews, 2nd Light Horse Regiment. I am now in receipt of advice which shows that he was killed in action at El Arish, Egypt, on the 9th January 1917 and buried 200 yards from the telegraph pole on the north side of sunken road towards Sheikh Zeweit on the same day, the Rev H K Gordon officiating.
These additional details are furnished by direction, it being the policy of the Department to forward all information received in connection with deaths of members of the Australian Imperial Force.”

Alfred had probably not seen his sister for several years.

Signing up: Alfred Matthews’ attestation papers for the Australian army in August 1914, with his next of kin listed as his sister at Howley Road, Croydon

He was one of the possibly hundreds of Croydon men who emigrated to Australia around the turn of the 20th Century century to seek their fortune on the other side of the world.

Alfred Matthews settled near Rockhampton, in central Queensland, and began a new life as a farmer.

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, Matthews signed up for the Australian Imperial Force. His attestation papers show that he already had significant experience in the army, having served in the British 9th Lancers for nine years.

In 1914, Matthews was 34 years and eight months old. His papers show that he was 5ft 6½in tall and weighed 10st.

After a period of training in Australia, Matthews was shipped out to join the allies’ Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in Alexandria, Egypt. He arrived in May 1915.

The Australians were under the command of generals from the British high command. Since February of that year they had been involved in the Dardanelles campaign at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. This seaborne invasion of what today is Turkey had been proposed by the British Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener – the face on those “Britons Wants You” posters – and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.

Recruitment drive: the face of Victorian army hero Kitchener was used on posters in 1914

The Ottoman Turkish Empire was part of the Central Powers, fighting with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Britain, France and Russia. Ottoman warships had been crossing the Black Sea and raiding ports in Crimea, then part of the Tsar’s Russian Empire.

Kitchener and Churchill wanted to tie down the Ottomans and threaten their capital, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), and protect strategic shipping routes through the Suez Canal. And they decided to use mainly outdated, old warships, and what they considered largely expendable Australian and New Zealand forces to do it, comprised of thousands of emigrants from Britain, including Alfred Matthews.

Matthews’ unit, the 2nd Light Horse, was ferried to Gallipoli. The 2nd Light Horse was light of their horses – the British generals decided they needed the Australian cavalry as infantry.

They landed in what is now notoriously known as Anzac Cove, where the two sides had quickly got bogged down in vicious trench warfare, often in stifling heat.

It was not long before Matthews was wounded. He received a scalp wound on July 18 and was moved to the Tigne Military Hospital in Malta six days later. Here, his wounds were categorised as a “bullet wound to the head and shoulder”.

Deemed fit to return to combat duty, he was returned to the Gallipoli Peninsula on  September 9.

Trench warfare: Australian forces sent to Gallipoli were sacrificed to a poorly planned and badly executed campaign proposed by Churchill

Towards the end of that month, Matthews received a field promotion – meaning temporary – to corporal. There were a lot of field promotions in Gallipoli. By December, Matthews had risen to the rank of acting sergeant.

Matthews’ and his comrades’ wretched time in Gallipoli ended in January 1916, when after suffering high casualties and making no significant gains, the British generals abandoned the campaign and the allied invasion force was withdrawn. The Ottomans had suffered approximately 250,000 casualties, the allies closer to 300,000. The Australians had 7,594 killed and more than 18,000 wounded.

What was left of Matthews’ unit was redeployed to the Middle East.

Nothing appeared on Matthews’ service record card for a whole year.

Then came the fatal event, on January 9, 1917.

Service record: World War I soldiers such as Croydon-born Alfred Matthews had their postings, and wounds, carefully recorded

No details were given about the circumstances of his death. All that was recorded was the place, El Arish in Egypt. El Arish today is the largest city in Sinai, on the Mediterranean Sea some 210 miles northeast of Cairo.

His regiment recorded that originally he was buried 200 yards from the telegraph pole on the north side of the sunken road towards Sheikh Zeweit. His body was later removed to be interred in the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery, on the eastern side of the Suez Canal. Alfred Matthews lies in plot F, grave 154.

The dread note: How Sgt Matthews’ death was recorded, and notified to his next of kin, his sister in Croydon

In a poignant reminder of the fragility of a soldier’s existence in war, his personal effects were recovered after his death and were sent to his sister in Croydon. In the package was his shaving stick and brush, a safety razor, a lanyard and whistle, a leather belt with a damaged wristwatch, a small quantity of Turkish money and his identity disc. There were also three notebooks.

Alfred Matthews left Croydon more than 100 years ago. His new life in Australia didn’t last long. He answered the call to join up. He survived the hell hole that was Gallipoli only to die in the sands of the Sinai.

As well as his sister, there would have been others to mourn him in Howley Road. Another victim of World War I, his journeys in the military providing an example of the global reach of what was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”.

Read more: How ‘chums’ and Contemptibles set standards at the Minster
Read more: The brothers in arms who lost their lives at Ypres and Gallipoli
Read more: Names on Addiscombe war memorial; the real lives sacrificed
Read more: Wartime tragedy that devastated one Croydon family
Read more: The double tragedy in war suffered by a wife and mother
Read more: The tale of a Croydon private’s life, and death, on the Somme

Previous articles by David Morgan:

David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups.

To read his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page

Become a Patron!


About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Church and religions, Croydon Minster, David Morgan, History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply