SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Life at the front in World War I was often brief, bloody and brutal. DAVID MORGAN uncovers some of the last pieces of correspondence from one of the soldiers inscribed on Croydon Minster’s Roll of Honour
A few years ago, an Australian couple made a pilgrimage to Croydon. Ruth Emery and her husband, Lee, travelled to see Ruth’s grandfather’s hometown.
First, they searched out the location of No4 Sylverdale Road, near Wandle Park, which was where her grandfather, John Thomas Nelson Allen, was born on March 31 1892 to Alice Lee and Charles Richard Allen, and where he lived as he was growing up.
They also made a visit to Croydon Minster, or the Parish Church as John Allen would have known it. John had many links with that church. His parents Alice and Richard had walked the few hundred yards to Croydon Parish Church with their baby boy when John was christened there on May 15 that year.
It would have been a lively as well as a loving home, as Alice and Richard had four boys, Richard, Charles and Albert as well as John.
As a lad, John attended the Parish Church School and when his education finished, he became a baker. John was married in the Parish Church, too. On January 8, 1916, he wed Beatrice Grace Nightingale.
Ruth and her husband spent time inside the church, looking at the Roll of Honour, because John’s name was on that list. He was one of the millions who did not survive the Great War.
John Allen, who was known as Jack, enlisted into the Royal West Kent Regiment on February 4 1917, where he became a private in the 7th Battalion (Service). After training, he was sent to the Western Front near Ypres.
Allen’s time at the front, like so many of his brothers in arms, was brief, bloody and brutal.
While he was running a message from the trenches, he was hit by shrapnel from a bursting shell and died immediately. The date was July 17 1917. Jack Allen was 25 years old.
Allen’s story is possibly made even more tragic as, 11 days before his death, his wife had given birth to a son, who they named John Richard Allen.
While at the front, Private Allen had been told about the birth of his son and had written a note to his wife. He had managed to buy an embroidered silk postcard and send it off to Croydon. This is keepsake is treasured by the family today.
Souvenir postcards were commonly sent home, but were quite fragile. Because of this, they were often sent back from the front in an envelope with no message written on them, with words scribbled on a scrap of paper or the envelope itself.
There were just six words jotted down on the back of John Allen’s card, together with the date.
“To my darling wife and baby. July 1917”
Allen wrote to his wife again, on July 15, with the dateline of “BEF France”. Three years into this war, they were still referring to themselves as the “British Expeditionary Force”.
Just a few lines to say that I am quite well and glad to hear you and the baby are alright. I had a letter from Dick yesterday and he said he had not heard from me so when mum writes to him she can tell him I wrote a fortnight ago and am writing again now so I expect he did not receive it. I hope by this time you have received silk cards that was the best I could do. I have two more and will send them first chance.
I will close now with fondest love from your loving husband
This may have been the last letter that Allen wrote. Two days later he was killed.
This last letter, too, has survived and is now a treasured family keepsake.
After the war, Beat Allen emigrated to Australia with her little boy. She settled down and in 1921 married her late husband’s brother, Richard (referred to as “Dick” in that last letter). He had already gone out to Australia before the war and settled in Melbourne. Like his brother, he became a baker.
Dick Allen had signed up to join the Australian Army in February 1916. He was a Sergeant Cook with the 7th Battalion Australian Imperial Force and actually met up with his brother while in Flanders.
Dick Allen’s service record showed that he was given leave to visit England on August 28 1917, returning to his unit on September 10.
Jack Allen’s body was never recovered, as a consequence of the heacy fighting at the front, and so he was listed as having no known grave. Today, he is one of more than 50,000 soldiers who are remembered on the panels of the Menin Gate at Ypres.
Thanks to Ruth and Lee’s pilgrimage and detective work, the story of another Great War victim from Croydon can be told and his name remembered.
- David Morgan 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 8688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
Other recent articles by David Morgan:
- Lady Mary’s Restoration tunes and her ghostly legacies
- Goodwyn’s list that takes us back through to Tudor times
- Tudor sculptor’s Minster memorials stand the test of time
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
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