Battle of Loos 100th anniversary: Havering families share their ancestors’ stories
- Credit: Archant
Exactly 100 years ago, thousands of soldiers perished in the First World War’s Battle of Loos. Beth Wyatt spoke to two families about the losses which defined their ancestors’ heartbroken generation
Nowhere were the devastating ripples of the First World War felt more keenly than in Britain’s towns and villages, eerie silences occupying the void where the faces and voices of fathers, brothers and sons used to sound.
A sniper’s shot to the head, shell blast to the legs or bayonet thrust into the chest tore neighbourhoods and families apart, with some bearing the weight of grief more than most.
This was the fate suffered by Gidea Park resident David Bird’s ancestors, with young men on both sides of his family cruelly snatched from the living.
His uncle Frederick was just 22 when he was killed on the first day of the Battle of Loos, which is being commemorated 100 years on.
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Frederick, born on October 4 1892, was the eldest child of Charles William Bird and his wife Eleanor, of Red Lion Passage, Holborn.
One of seven siblings, sadly only three were to survive into adulthood.
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Frederick had worked with his father at the Gas Light and Coke Company since 1910.
But he was enticed by the call to arms in summer 1914 and signed up for Kitchener’s Army in September, aged 21.
Accepted into the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort’s Own) as a rifleman, he undertook training before being sent to France, on May 18 1915.
The then machine gunner fought at Bois-Grenier, in an aside to the Battle of Loos’ main action.
But he was killed on the first day, September 25.
David, 75, said: “There is no way of knowing how he died, but he was probably shot.
“This could have been the first battle he was involved in – there were always skirmishes, but there had been no major action [since he arrived].
“He was unlucky.”
Frederick was not the only relative David’s family lost that day.
The soldier’s cousin Arthur George Anderson, 20, of the 1/19th London Regiment (St Pancras) was killed during the battle and is commemorated on the Loos Memorial.
Another Arthur, Frederick’s brother, also fought during the war, but survived, while David’s father Charles William was unable to enlist, having suffered ill health since contracting measles as a child.
David’s mother, Charlotte Elizabeth Rowen, lost her brother John George, 22, who was killed during 1917’s Battle of Passchendaele.
Two of her other brothers died prematurely, in the 1920s, after serving, while another, 15-year-old Walter, fought for five months after lying about his age.
David only discovered Frederick’s story when his father showed him a remembrance board at the ruins of the St John the Evangelist Church, in Red Lion Square, bombed during the Second World War.
“He showed me and said my uncle was killed at Loos,” said David. “But he never told me any more about it.
“I imagine my grandmother was heart-broken. She wasn’t a very happy person but then you wouldn’t be, would you.
“It makes you feel very sad really that so many died and you never knew them – you never got to meet them.
“All these young people never came home.”
The powerful image of the “lost generation” is deeply ingrained into our consciousness, but not all of the soldiers of the First World War were young men.
Phyllis Stevens and Pat Harris’ grandfather Private William Baker was in his 40s at the time and would have been exempt from military service, due to being a married man.
Conscription was only introduced in 1916, with changes made in June that year only then decreeing that married men would be eligible to fight.
But the father-of-nine volunteered and died on September 29 1915, likely killed during the Battle of Loos.
The glassblower, from Bow, joined the 4th Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment, against the wishes of his family.
Phyllis, 72, of Romford, said: “He didn’t have to go and Nan didn’t want him to, but he insisted.”
William was killed after being shot by a sniper and his wife Sarah Jane was left to bring up their children alone, while holding down three jobs.
Phyllis and Pat’s mother Rose Elizabeth was just three when he died.
The soldier is commemorated on the Menin Gate, which Phyllis and her husband Denis usually visit annually.
But the details of William’s service are unclear, as his records appear to have been among those lost when the War Office repository in Arnside Street, London, was bombed during the Second World War.
Denis, 74, said: “I have researched his name on everything and it’s just a blank.
“We can’t prove where he was. There’s so much missing.”
The sisters cannot recall Sarah Jane, who died aged 96, ever speaking to them about her late husband.
Phyllis said: “It’s all very sad when you think about it. You feel proud of him and especially when you see them [soldiers] marching.
“I think, what would my granddad have looked like in his uniform?”