This story is the result of an investigation of documents held by Surrey History Centre. The file (SHC ref. CC7/4/4, nos. 1-50) contains correspondence and insurance claims on behalf of Surrey County Council Education Department employees who had been killed in action during the Great War. The cases date from 1915 to 1918.
Name: Henry Charles Davis
Occupation: Assistant Teacher, Caterham Hill Council School
Birth Place: Caterham, Surrey
Residence: Caterham, Surrey
Date of Death: presumed killed 28th March 1918
Age: 32 years (born 30th November 1880)
Location: near Arras
Regiment: 1/5th (City of London) Battalion (London Rifle Brigade)
Henry was the son of the late Robert and Matilda, nee Lung. They had ten children, eight boys and two girls. Henry’s father, Robert, had various jobs: a ‘kitchen man’, a ‘servant in the asylum’, chef. He appears on the Caterham Asylum wage book (1887-1899) as a ‘kitchen man’.
Henry was born in 1881 and christened at the Caterham Asylum Chapel in February 1882.
In 1901 (census), Henry was boarding at 10 Albert Street, Islington, and describing himself as an assistant teacher.
By 1911, Henry was working as an elementary school teacher in Caterham. In December 1909 he married Florence Westley in her home town of Northampton. In 1911, the couple were living in Hill Cottage, Livingstone Road, Caterham.
By the time of Henry’s death Florence had moved to 14, West Street, Reigate, Surrey. They had one son, Alan, who was three years old in 1918.
Henry’s date of enlistment is not known, but we do know he went to France on 4 December 1916. He joined the 1/5th (City of London) Battalion (London Rifle Brigade) which had been in France since 1915. It had fought at Second Ypres in 1915 and the Somme in 1916, where it lost heavily on the 1 July at Gommecourt. Most recently, in October, it had been involved in fighting around Les Boeufs-Morval where, of 563 men going into action, just 110 men answered the roll afterwards. It was a tough, veteran unit.
In 1917, presumably with Henry now in their ranks, the 1/5th Battalion fought in the battles of Arras, Third Ypres (Passchendaele) and Cambrai, where it continued to suffer horrendous casualties. In January 1918 the battalion was in the area Frévillers to the north of Arras. In February it marched to trenches to the north of Arras, where the War Diary describes it as being somewhere on the ‘Bailleul-Willerval line’. It also notes that the battalion had been working on defences, just in case of German offensives.
From the 21 March 1918, the Germans began a series of offensives along the Western Front in an attempt to win the war before the Americans arrived in strength. The first was against the British 5th Army on the old Somme battlefields, and despite early successes, the offensive was finally halted at Amiens on 5 April.
Towards the end of March, the 1/5th London Regiment was in the Gavrelle sector, just to the east of Arras. On the 25th, it captured a German soldier who warned them that a major offensive by two divisions was imminent. This was to be part of the German offensive called ‘MARS’ to be directed against the British at Arras.
On the 27th, it had to extend its front to cover the withdrawal of British troops moving south to stop the German offensive on the Somme. On the 28 March, at 3 a.m., an intense two-hour bombardment of the battalion preceded an attack by the enemy at 7 a.m. The War Diary notes the Germans attacked ‘with very large forces and immediately broke through the front-line system’. The 1/5th initially held them back, but was forced to withdraw, strongly contesting the ground the whole time.
By the early morning on the 29 March, when the ‘remnants of the battalion’ were relieved, the battalion fighting strength had been reduced from 23 officers and 564 other ranks to 8 officers and about 60 other ranks. It was during this action that Henry died.
After his death, Henry’s family pursued an insurance claim with Surrey County Council, who had taken out an insurance policy on behalf of Henry. As part of the process, the Council carried out an investigation into the circumstances of the family. In correspondence, his wife Florence, now 38, was described as unable to earn through ill health, and as a result she was living with friends.
The insurance pay-out should have been up to £100, but a document from Surrey County Council dated 3 July 1918 indicated that subsequent underpayment of premiums and overpaid salary to Henry meant that the council believed Florence was only owed £31 and 11 shillings.
The overpayment appears to have caused by Henry’s death only being assumed in March 1918, and so Florence continued to receive his pay from the council. She wrote to the Education Committee on the 1 July stating that she could ‘hardly understand’ this position. It may be that Florence won; a later document dated 8 July from the insurance company enclosed a cheque for £104 15 shillings, but the final position of the council is not recorded.
Henry’s body was never recovered, and he is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.
He is entitled to the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
Surrey History Centre File CC7/4/4 file 49
The History of the London Rifle Brigade (5th London Regiment) 1859-1919, (London, Constable & Co., 1921)
Regimental War Diary – 1/5th (City of London) Battalion (London Rifle Brigade)
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – https://www.cwgc.org/
Ancestry website – https://www.ancestry.co.uk/