Third Battle of Ypres centenary: Remembering Romford and Rainham soldiers killed in campaign
- Credit: Archant
“I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele).”
Words which must have recalled dark memories for veterans who fought in the West Flanders village, referenced by Siegfried Sassoon in his poem Memorial Tablet.
Passchendaele was the scene of two battles in the latter months of the 1917 Third Battle of Ypres, and the suffering of soldiers knew no bounds in the mud which became the graves of so many.
Heavy rain and the destruction of drainage systems by artillery bombardments enabled the fatal conditions.
“It was a pretty awful set of battles,” said historian Jim Bolton, who has for many years researched the names on Romford War Memorial and the St Edward the Confessor Church memorial. “Particularly in the later months, October, November, when the battles were actually fought for Passchendaele, and they were fighting in the mud.
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“Horses would fall and drown, the men would drown if they were wounded in the mud, there was no chance of rescue.”
The Third Battle of Ypres – which began 100 years ago, on July 31, part of the First World War – ended on November 10, 1917, with more than half a million soldiers killed or wounded in total.
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Although not a success, the action paved the way for the Allies’ 1918 campaigns, and eventual victory.
“The battle was just to wear the Germans down,” added Jim. “In order to do that, you have to expect to lose a great many men, and this is what Douglas Haig [British Expeditionary Force commander] rightly or wrongly understood.
“The German army wasn’t defeated at Passchendaele, but it was beginning to suffer from a very severe manpower shortage.”
Below you can read the stories of Havering soldiers who did not return from the campaign. The Romford biographies have been collected by Jim, while the Rainham entries have been researched by Sean Connolly, from the Rainham War Memorial Project.
Jim is appealing for residents to come forward if they have photographs of any of the Romford soldiers. You can contact him via the Recorder, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 020 8477 3988.
Pte James Eric Harrington, 25
Paper factory machinist and newsboy James Eric Harrington, 25, lived at 64 Eastern Road with his parents; railway ticket collector Albert, and his wife Jane.
Known as Eric, James attended Mawney Road School, and was older brother to Grace and Albert.
He first served in the Army Service Corps and then either volunteered for, or was transferred to, the Machine Gun Corps.
On September 26, 1917 James’s division (the 23rd) went into action at Polygon Wood during the Third Battle of Ypres.
Pte Harrington had been at the front for only two and a half months before he was listed as missing and later killed in action.
Two letters printed in The Romford Times, November 14, 1917, report his death. One was from his commanding officer and recorded his coolness under fire, and that he was in charge of a machine gun team (six to eight men) when he was killed.
The second letter came from one of his comrades, Pte Charles Walmsley: “Enclosed please find the letter and p[ostal] o[rder] addressed to your son Eric. I took the liberty of distributing the cigarettes among the boys of the section to which he belonged.
“I regret to inform you of the loss of your son, but hope you will find consolation in the fact his end would have been sudden and painless, and that he died a hero’s death by the side of his gun. He is buried where he fell, and a cross is erected to his memory.
“All the boys of the section join in sending our sympathies to you, for your son was a great favourite with all the men, and all feel the loss keenly.”
Eric was the second of Mr and Mrs Harrington’s sons to serve in the army. His younger brother Albert had enlisted in the 23rd (Service) Battalion (1st Sportsmans), The Royal Fusiliers at the age of 16 while the battalion was at Grey Towers, Hornchurch, and was underage when he was wounded in action on the Somme. On August 18, 1916 The Romford Times reported that he, Albert, was in hospital at Portsmouth.
The Such brothers
Pte Edward Sidney Such, 19
Edward Such was born in Billericay, Essex, in the spring of 1898 and was 18 when he joined the army on April 16, 1916, probably as a conscript.
He was the son of bricklayer Henry Such and his wife Charlotte, who were living at 50 Hamilton Road in 1911, when the census was taken.
The eldest three of their children, John, 16, Florence, 14, and Edward, 12, were born in Ingrave, Essex, and the three younger children, Wilfred, 11, Leonard, eight, and Spencer, were born in Hornchurch.
Edward’s occupation was given as ‘cucumber grower’ when he joined the army. He stood 5ft 6ins tall, and his chest when expanded measured 34 inches.
Edward’s service record is largely illegible, but if rules were followed, he should not have been sent to the front until he was 19, which would have been in April 1917.
His battalion, the 10th (Service) Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, took part in the First Battle of Passchendaele, which took place on October 12, 1917.
Pte Such was killed during this action. His brother John had been killed a month earlier: see below.
Rifleman John Henry Such, 23
Rifleman Such attested on August 14, 1915 and joined the 18th (Service) Battalion (Arts & Crafts), King’s Royal Rifle Corps, on August 14, 1915.
This battalion was a New Army formation raised at Gidea Park by Major Sir Herbert Raphael on June 4, 1915.
It went into action in the later phases of the Battle of the Somme, and in 1917 took part in the battles of Messines (June 7-14), Pilckem Ridge (July 31-August 2) and Menin Road Ridge (September 20-25).
Rifleman Such was killed on the second day of this last battle. His semi-legible service records, and a letter from his mother, show some time in 1917 he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field.
The Romford Times, November 21, 1917, reveals it was for taking water to wounded soldiers while under fire. The paper also records that Rifleman Such was killed by sniper fire.
Pte George Stanley Wilson, 24
Pte Wilson was born in Rainham in 1893, one of 10 children (of whom six survived) to John and Mary Ann Wilson, of Mary’s Cottages, Bridge Road.
By 1901, the family was living at 8 Blewitts Cottages, and in 1911 the census reveals then 17-year-old George to be a farm labourer.
He married in 1915, with his wife Emma Wiffen later giving birth to a son George, in 1917.
Research suggests Pte Wilson was conscripted, and posted to a training reserve battalion before travelling to France and being transferred into the Northamptonshire Regiment.
Within hours of the Second Battle of Passchendaele coming to an end (the concluding action of the Third Battle of Ypres), George was killed, on November 10, 1917. He has no known grave, but is commemorated at Tyne Cot Memorial, on the Ypres Salient.
Ten months later, George’s brother John died at home from injuries sustained while fighting in France. John is buried at Barking Cemetery.
Cpl William Joseph Branch, 36
Cpl Branch was born on November 11, 1883 at New Brompton, Chatham, Kent, son of carpenter and joiner William Branch and his wife Frances.
William had three younger brothers, George, Alfred and Reginald. He and Alfred were employed in Chatham Dockyard as plumber’s mates, but on November, 16, 1901, William joined the Royal Navy as a Boy, Second Class, for 12 years. His last ship was light cruiser HMS Liverpool, and he was discharged to shore on November 15, 1913.
Ex-Able Seaman Branch must have emigrated to Australia almost immediately on his discharge to join George, who was named as his next-of-kin when he attested for military service at Liverpool, New South Wales, on November 24, 1914.
William was then almost 32 years old. He stood 5ft 7ins high, weighed 11st 4lb and had an expanded chest measurement of 40 inches.
He was sent to Gallipoli in 1915 to take part in the second phase of the Dardanelles campaign, withdrawing to Egypt in January 1916.
But Egypt was not to Cpl Branch’s taste, since on February 26 he was sentenced to 28 days’ detention for mutinous conduct, and on March 3 he was transferred to the newly-raised 45th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, joining the Lewis Gun section on March 24.
He had a short spell in hospital with enteritis, and then on June 2 the 45th Battalion left to join the British Expeditionary Force in France. It fought on the Somme at Pozières (July 26-September 3) and then in the line around Ypres and the Somme Valley.
Cpl Branch later suffered a gunshot wound, and spent some time in hospital in France and England before rejoining his battalion on September 15, 1917.
But on September 27 he was seriously wounded in action, and died the same day.
Cpl Branch was buried first at Ypres Prison and then reburied in 1918 at Ypres Reservoir Cemetery.
The Romford connection comes from his brother Alfred, who in 1911 was boarding with a widow, Amelia Line, at 78 Albert Road.
Alfred survived the war – living in Romford until his death in 1950 – and had William commemorated on the Town Memorial.
Pte John Pasfield, 17
John Pasfield was the second son of labourer William Pasfield and his wife Mary, of George Street, who respectively hailed from Oxfordshire and Highgate.
John was 11 in 1911, and still at school. He was underage when he enlisted and should not have been serving in France.
When he joined the 2nd Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment is not known, but the medal roll shows he did not go to the Western Front before January 1, 1916.
Pte Pasfield’s battalion had been in France since November 1914. In 1917 it was involved in the actions on Vimy Ridge and at Messines, and then in the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, the opening engagement of Third Ypres.
Pte Pasfield was killed on the opening day of this action, on July 31, 1917. His brother William, an ‘Old Contemptible’ who held the 1914 (Mons) Star, died of wounds sustained during the Battle of Albert, August 1918.
Pte Frederick James Mansfield, 28
Rainham lad Frederick was born in 1890, the youngest of seven children to George and Ellen Mansfield of 1 Roseberry Cottages, Cowper Road.
Ellen died in 1898, but the remaining family resided at the address for three more decades, with their occupations ranging from baker and tea agent to general labourer and dress maker. Frederick was a railway porter, possibly in Rainham.
It seems ahead of the war he joined a reservist unit, which would also explain his posting into a regular army unit before journeying to France in 1915.
Frederick’s battalion was the 1st Battalion (Prince Albert’s) Somerset Light Infantry, and during his time in France it fought in battles including Albert, Le Transloy (both part of the Somme Offensive), and Scarpe (Arras). During the Third Battle of Ypres, the battalion served at Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcappelle and Passchendaele.
Frederick died on October 22, 1917, and is buried at Mont Huon Military Cemetery (Le Treport).
Pte Edward John Barber, c44
Edward is the oldest among the soldiers profiled here, having been born in the 1870s, in the parish of St Margaret of Antioch, Toppesfield, Essex.
How and when he came to Romford is not known, but in 1901 he married field worker Minnie Staff, from Collier Row.
By 1911, Edward and Minnie were living at 79 London Road, Romford. Edward (who called himself John), was then 38 and the couple had five children: Minnie, nine, John, eight, Doris, six, Percy, four, and George, one.
Edward was probably conscripted some time in 1916 or early 1917 and, given his age, was drafted first to the 21st Infantry Labour Company, attached to the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, and then transferred to the 129th Company, The Labour Corps.
Men in the Labour Corps worked just behind the front line and Pte Barber was killed on September 8, 1917.
Cpl James Walter Parker, 25
James was born in Rainham in 1892, one of four children to James and Alice Parker of 1 Little Coal Harbour Lane.
By 1901, the family was in Gravesend, Kent, and by 1911 had moved to Northfleet, where 19-year-old James was employed as a tramway conductor.
It is thought he enlisted with the Royal West Kent Regiment in 1915, and was transferred to the 19th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment
(2nd Public Works Pioneers), most likely in France, and as a result of his promotion to corporal.
During the advance towards Passchendaele, James was one of the ‘Pioneers’, working alongside or in front of infantrymen to ensure roads were maintained, trenches were dug and fortifications built.
It was an extremely dangerous job carried out by extremely brave men, many of whom would be killed.
James Parker was one of them, killed in action on June 24, 1917. He is buried at Dickebusch New Military Cemetery Extension.
Bombardier Harold Hall, 23
Brother to Winifred and Reginald, and son of John and Kate Hall, Harold was born in Wolverton, Buckinghamshire, but had moved with his family to Romford by 1911. At this time his father was running a grocer’s shop, at 124 and 126 Victoria Road.
Harold left aged 14 to join the army as a trumpeter. His first unit was 18 Brigade, Royal Artillery, which in 1914 was attached to the 3rd (Lahore) Division of the Indian Army.
The medal roll shows Hall began his First World War service in France and Flanders on September 27, 1914.
On October 31, 1915 his division was sent to Mesopotamia, but ‘Old Contemptible’ Hall may not have gone with them, transferring instead to 104 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.
Bombardier Hall was killed in action shortly before the Third Ypres Offensive began (July 31, 1917). He had returned to France from 10 days’ home leave only three weeks before.