First World War centenary: Havering Museum volunteer shares great-grandfather’s story
- Credit: Archant
The soldiers killed in the dehumanising trench warfare of the First World War epitomise the human cost of the conflict.
But out of the six million men mobilised in the UK, 700,000 lost their lives – leaving thousands more to carry the burden of the unspeakable horrors they witnessed.
William “Bill” Matty was one of the survivors but, like so many others, he was not left unscathed – physically or mentally.
His great-granddaughter Chloe Branwhite, head of collections at Havering Museum, has shared his story as the country continues to mark the war’s centenary.
The 24-year-old said: “Bill was born in 1885 in a poor area of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire.
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“His dad John was a postman, fisherman and labourer – he was doing anything to get by.
“Bill lost his parents young and it must have affected him quite a lot.”
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With his job prospects limited, Bill, one of 10 children, joined the British Army in 1905, enlisting with the Gloucestershire Regiment.
By 1913 he had moved to Havering and married wife Rose, with whom he eventually had four surviving children, settling at a cottage in Elizabeth Row, Havering-atte-Bower.
As an existing soldier, Bill was one of the first to be called up when war broke out.
He was mobilised on August 5 1914, the day after Britain declared war on Germany, and his regiment became part of the British Expeditionary Force.
Just months into his service, in October, Bill suffered a head wound and was sent back to Britain, staying in Camberwell Hospital, London, for a month before returning to the Western Front.
The soldier, based in and around Ypres during the conflict, was promoted to lance corporal in April 1915, but this was short-lived as he was demoted in September for going absent without leave.
He was lucky to escape the fate of the soldiers shot for going awol or deserting.
Chloe said: “One of his brothers who had also joined the Army, Jack, was killed.
“But this didn’t match the dates of Bill going awol. He probably just went off to get drunk for a couple of days.”
At the end of the war, Bill stayed on as part of the Occupation of the Rhineland, in Germany, finally returning to Havering-atte-Bower in 1921.
During his time in Ypres, he fell victim to the perilous poison gas and this affected his health for the rest of his life.
Chloe believes he may have been gassed during the Battle of Loos in 1915.
This was the first time Britain used gas and some of it wafted back onto the Army’s own lines.
Too ill to resume his job as a groom for Lord O’Hagan, who resided at Pyrgo Park, it looked like Bill and his family were to fall into poverty.
But the nobleman came to their rescue and tasked Bill with sweeping leaves off his driveway.
The former soldier died in 1932, aged 47.
Chloe said: “He died young, probably because of the injuries he sustained.
“It has been fascinating learning more about a man that I have grown up knowing about, but never met.”