WE WILL REMEMBER THEM: Ahead of Remembrance Sunday next week, DAVID MORGAN delves into the archives of Croydon Minster for the latest story of a casualty of World War I
Percy Kent grew up in Croydon, went to a local school and was employed in the town, too. But he was to die in a corner of a foreign field.
Percy Kent was born just up the road, in Cheam, on September 26 1884. His parents moved to 25 Duppas Hill Lane while Percy was a child. He was educated at the Parish Church School – what’s known today as the Minster School. Finishing his formal education in 1896, when just 12 years old, he joined the Post Office, working out of the sorting depot in East Croydon. Percy would work there for almost 20 years.
In 1908, Percy Kent married Lily Botting. Their son, Raymond, was born in 1910 and a year later the young family moved to a terraced house, at 42 Rymer Road, in Addiscombe. Percy was almost 30 when war broke out in August 1914. He continued his work as a postman and didn’t volunteer for the army until July 18, 1916, when he joined the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment. He was given the service number of G/18080. He was placed in the 7th Battalion.
It was on July 1, 1916, that the British and French allies on the Western Front began their offensive that would become known as the Battle of the Somme. It would last nearly six months, during which time nearly 1million combatants, nearly half of them British, would be killed.
It was into this deadly and dire environment that Private Percy Kent would have arrived on the front line after a brief period of basic training.
It was not all muck and bullets, though. In September 1917, with his battalion based just north of Saint Omer in northern France, they held a sports day: there was cricket, football, a cross-country race, boxing and assault-at-arms, a programme that could include fencing, boxing, wrestling and ball punching.
Lorries were made available to take the soldiers for a day at the seaside and some volunteers were allowed to go to the local farms to assist with the harvest. The whole battalion also visited the 5th Army Musketry Camp, to sharpen their shooting skills.
By March 1918, Percy Kent’s battalion would have been around full strength, at 750 men and other ranks and 40 officers. They were stationed in north-eastern France near the Saint Quentin Canal.
On the morning of March 23 they were close to the small town of Tergnier. At six o’clock that morning, before first light, some French troops were supposed to launch a counter-attack to retake the town from the Germans. There was thick fog and some troops became disoriented and disorganised. The counter-attack quickly floundered.
One of the West Surrey officers, B Company’s Lieutenant Hay, had been sent forward to reconnoitre the jumping-off positions for the French. In the foggy confusion, he crossed into enemy-held territory and was taken prisoner by the Germans.
Through the fog, large numbers of enemy soldiers were seen on the left flank of the allies’ position, and the French and British were forced to fall back.
The officer commanding was Lieutentant-Colonel Christopher Bushell, who quickly realised the danger of the situation.
Gathering together the soldiers of C Company, Bushell went forward and rallied the French troops to try and seize the lost ground. In the face of very heavy machine-gun fire, Bushell himself received a serious wound to his head. The records show that “he visited all parts of the line, exhorting troops to remain where they were, until he was removed to the dressing station in a fainting condition”.
For this act of conspicuous bravery, Colonel Bushell was awarded the Victoria Cross.
His citation states, “He refused even to have his wound attended to until he had placed the whole line in a sound position and formed a defensive flank to meet a turning movement by the enemy. He then went to Brigade Headquarters and reported the situation, had his wound dressed and returned to the firing line, which had come back a short distance.
“He visited every portion of the line, both English and Allied, in face of terrific machine-gun and rifle fire, exhorting the troops to remain where they were and to kill the enemy. In spite of the wounds, this gallant officer refused to go to the rear, and eventually had to be removed to the dressing station in a fainting condition.
“To the magnificent example of energy, devotion and courage shown by their Commanding Officer is attributed the fine spirit displayed and the keen fight put up by his battalion, not only on the day in question, but on each succeeding day of the withdrawal.”
The VC was presented to the colonel’s widow by King George V at Buckingham Palace in 1919. Colonel Bushell had been killed in action in August 1918.
The official history of the Royal West Surreys for the action at Tergnier in March 1918 outlines that the enemy had entered Hallet Wood and were advancing in large numbers down the Tergnier-Rouez road. It states that no officers and only one or two men from B and D Company escaped this attack, together with only one officer and two men from A company.
Private Percy Kent was one of the soldiers who didn’t manage to get away. He was posted as missing in action, presumed dead. He was 33 years old. There was no special medal for Private Kent, or for most of the hundreds of other British and French infantry who dies that day.
It was a desperate day of fighting. The Royal West Surreys, together with the French troops, eventually managed to create a defensive trench running through Frieres Wood, which was held throughout the day. A further French battalion came through the defensive line later to try to regain the lost ground but they, too, were beaten back by intense enemy machine gun fire. With such an intense battle raging in the area, Percy Kent’s body was never recovered.
He is one of more than 14,700 casualties remembered on the Pozieres Memorial.
Built in the Somme Department of France close to one of the major theatres of the Great War, it was the place where thousands of soldiers who had no known grave could be remembered and mourned. The memorial was unveiled in 1930, and Percy Kent is listed as being the son of Mr and Mrs George William Kent and the husband of the late Mrs Lily Kent. His name appears on panel 14 and 15.
Lily Kent continued to live in Croydon after her husband’s death. Life was hard for wartime widows, at a time when there was no social security system. Families paid a heavy price for their loved ones’ sacrifice. Lily had to cope with the demands of her family alone. She died in 1924.
Percy Kent is remembered on the Croydon Postal Workers Memorial plaque, which is now kept at the Postal Museum in London. His name, towards the bottom of the first column, was just one in a list of almost 250 employees who lost their lives in World War I.
- Click here for details of this week’s civic ceremonies on Remembrance Day and the service at Croydon Minster on Nov 13
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Read more: The brothers in arms who lost their lives at Ypres and Gallipoli
Read more: The tale of a Croydon private’s life, and death, on the Somme
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.
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
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