Remembering Lewisham’s World War One Combatants

This week marks the centenary of Armistice Day and the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of the Great War. No doubt, there was celebration and relief about the end of the bloodshed in Lewisham and elsewhere.

Ultimately victory had come at a high cost; around six million British men were mobilised, with just over 700,000 were killed; that’s around 11.5% of the combatants.

In every community there had been deaths; Lewisham, Lee and Hither Green were no different – almost every street had seen it residents slaughtered, every family had lost a son, a relative or a friend. The German bullets, rockets and grenades were no respecter of social class, officers were slightly more likely to die. The same was no doubt the case for the German conscripts on the end of the British weaponry.

The number of men from Lewisham who lost their lives is uncertain, while many of the records on Commonwealth War Graves website contain a reference to an address (there were 624 in Lewisham, 552 in Catford, 213 in Lee and 440 in Blackheath), the records are sadly incomplete in terms of addresses so probably fail to show the enormity of loss felt in local communities.

What is less clear is what happened to those who came home disabled in body or mind as a result of experiencing things that no one should see. This was a country a generation before the NHS with little understanding of mental health or dealing with even the practicalities of physical disability.  At least 80,000 soldiers suffered from shell shock, now referred to as post traumatic stress disorder. There was often little sympathy for the soldiers who suffered and at least 20,000 were still suffering as the war came to an end.

Dotted around Lewisham are several dozen memorials to those who perished in France, Belgium and elsewhere – many are in churches or other buildings where access is limited; or in graveyards where the number of passers by is small. There are a few memorials though which are out in the open, easy to see, easy to visit and easy to reflect on when passing by, whatever your mode of transport. This post visits three of them, at each ‘stop’ we’ll remember one of the many names chiselled or engraved in the memorial.

St Mildred’s, Lee

The memorial is on the South Circular, just beyond the traffic lights at the junction with Baring Road. It is clearly visible from the road, but surrounded on three sides by dense hedging, it is a surprisingly calm location. It has three faces and two thirds of the way up on the left panel in Leonard Cole, along with his brother, Henry.

Leonard Cole was born Eltham in 1883, he was one of at least eight children born to Edmund and Sarah. In the 1911 census most of the family who were living at 31 Butterfield Street (now Waite Davies Road) in Lee, next door but one to the Butterfield Dairy, where the family hav moved to in 1904. Leonard was working on his brother-in-law’s farm in Harefield, near Uxbridge in Middlesex when the census enumerators called in 1911.

Leonard enlisted in Eltham and was a Gunner who served with A’ Battery of 307 Brigade Royal Field Artillery. He died of wounds less than three weeks before the end of the war on 23 October 1918 and was buried at Awoingt Cemetery near Cambrai, along with 707 other British servicemen. His listed address was Butterfield Street.

St Andrew, Catford

The war memorial is on the western side of the church, on Torridon Road. The top of the left panel has been largely worn away from being out in the open, in the firing line of the prevailing winds, names only just visible.

Julian Baxter is one of those largely eroded names; he was one of at least a dozen children of Alfred and Charlotte Baxter who had lived at 68 Arngask Road in 1911, the family had been at 55 Holbeach a decade earlier, Julian attended the school named after the street.

Julian joined the 12th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, he was killed in action on the 15th April 1918, aged just 20. He has no grave and in addition to the fading memorial in Catford he is remembered at the Tyne Cot Memorial.  While the metal inlay makes Julian’s name just visible, it is still hard to see, but he is certainly not forgotten.

The Lewisham Victoria Cross Memorial

Just to the side of the main Lewisham war memorial, opposite the hospital, is a smaller one, easy to miss from the main road. It is to the recipients of the Victoria Cross who were born in the Borough. For several such as, John Lynn, it was their final act of courage that saw a posthumous award for bravery. The names are remembered in the stones in front of the memorial.

Alan Jerrard was born and briefly lived in Vicars Hill in Ladywell – he had served in the Staffordshire Regiment and then the nascent Royal Air Force. His Victoria Cross was awarded for repeated attacks on an Italian Airfield in the face of overwhelming fire – he destroyed several aircraft before being shot down himself and being taken prisoner – the citation for award was listed in the London Gazette of 1 May 1918.

His story is deliberately last, because, like most of the combatants he returned home, while his home was no longer Lewisham, he returned. He was awarded a Victoria Cross, and is rightly remembered, but there were no doubt hundreds of local men who carried out small acts of courage, that may not have been noticed by officers but will have been remembered by their comrades in arms.

Next time you pass one of Lewisham’s war memorials do stop, do pause for thought, do remember the sacrifices – not just of the men whose names are listed, but think of their families and those who returned having experienced things that no young man should ever see. To quote the words of Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen.’

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

 

 

 

Notes

The census and related data comes from Find My Past; the numbers of local war dead and some of the other information about them comes from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

There have been several other posts in Running Past relating to those who died in World War 1 which may be of interest:

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