Written by Linda Oliver, archivist of the Surrey Federation of WIs, using SHC ref 7610/2/1 (minute book).
Bletchingley WI was formed at a meeting in the village hall on 20 March 1917 and from the beginning, gardening was an important activity. At that first meeting Miss Bosanquet was asked to organise members to assist any Bletchingley women who needed help in the cultivation of their gardens. Over the next year she reported regularly on the work that was being done; sadly the minutes of the branch are very brief and no detail is given. The Annual Report for 1918 records that the WI’s allotment garden had been successful and that Miss Bosanquet and Mrs Ashley had also looked after the garden of Glenfield House.
In April 1917 a small sub-committee was formed to discuss the question of a Welfare Committee for the village, but no further mention of this idea occurs.
At the May meeting, Miss Hilliard gave a talk on War Savings and a Waste Paper collection was inaugurated, with sorting to be done at Church House, with local schoolboys being made responsible for house-to-house collections. The Annual Report for 1917-1918 records that £1-5s-1 ½d was raised by these collections for the District Nurses’ Fund.
In July 1917 Mrs Edwards Webb, a Surrey County Council Lecturer, gave a lecture and demonstration of fruit and vegetable bottling and jam making. She returned in May and July 1918 to give further demonstrations of fruit canning and pulping. The Annual Report for 1918 records the purchase of a fruit canner to assist in the preservation of the gooseberries and currants from the Glenfield House garden, but generally the fruit crop was poor that year and the canner was underused.
At the beginning of 1918 the District Council asked the WI Committee to consider the question of a communal kitchen. Mrs Wood was requested to discover if a suitable place could be found and the Committee was to make further enquiries from established National Kitchens. Subsequently they decided to canvass the village to discover how much support would be given to such a project. The canvassing was to be done by the War-Loan Collectors. Two parish councillors, Mr Tobilt[?] and Mr Ashdown, would attend the meeting to receive the reports and discuss the matter. It was found that public feeling was slightly in favour of the National Kitchen but no suitable place had been found. The Committee decided to write to the Parish Council expressing the willingness of the WI to manage the kitchen if a suitable place was found. Thereafter no mention is made in the minutes, but the minutes for 1919 are missing or may never have been taken as the WI had an uncertain few months.
(Glenfield House is/was at 29 High Street. Map in Bletchingley Village and Parish by Peter Gray (SHC Ref 7185/11/6) shows it between Melrose Cottage and The Cobbles, south side of the High Street facing the Old Market Place: ‘Glenfield House is the most imposing house on the High Street, dates from early 18th C, part of the Clayton estate’.)
James was the son of Francis and Ellen Beckenham (née Coomber), the youngest of seven children, and born on 18 May 1897 at Woodmansterne, Surrey.
James enlisted at Coulsdon in Surrey as Rifleman R/38097 of the 7th Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps, although the records show that he was previously Private T4/142645 with the Army Service Corps. As the 1914/15 Star is not listed on the Medal Roll Index with his medal entitlement, he must have not gone abroad until at least 1916. He died in action on Monday 20 August 1917, aged 20.
Extracts from the War Diary of the 7th Kings Royal Rifle Corps
16th Aug 1917 – In TRENCHES – following upon an unsuccessful attack by other divisions on INVERNESS & GLENCORSE woods, the Bn moved into Brigade reserve at ZILLBEKE BUND and on the following day (17th) took over trenches N of MENIN road in J13 and J14 sheet 28.
Dispositions – 2 ½ Coys in front line and immediate support, Bn HQ and 1 ½ Coys in part of a tunnel built under the MENIN road by the Germans from HOODGE to INVERNESS copse. 7th R.B. on our right, 42nd J.B. on our left. Divisions relieved 18th and 56th.
The line was in a very bad state after the recent heavy fighting, the approaches were very difficult and the whole area very much shelled. There was no infantry action during this tour and attention was concentrated on improving trenches. Casualties – 3 O R killed, 23 O R wounded.
20th August 1917 – at DICKEBUSCH – Bn was relieved by 6th D.C.L.I. and moved to camp at DICKEBUSCH, expecting to remain there about 4 days. Owing however to the course of operations we had a series of moves at very short notice, moving on 22nd to CHATEAU SEGARD, back again to DICKEBUSCH the next day (23rd), and the following morning (24th) on a sudden order due to a successful German counter attack we were sent to ECOLE YPRES in motor lorries, and finally after a good deal of uncertainty, we took over the same line and came under the orders of the 43rd J.B. The situation was much the same as when we left, and we still held the important ridge which the Germans were anxious to get back owing to it’s great command of the country behind our lines.
James was posthumously awarded the British War and Victory Medals.
He is another Beckingham/Beckenham commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial at Zonnebeke, West-Vlaanderen, on panel 115 to 119 and 162A and 163A.
His parents lived at Chamberlain’s Cottage, Chipstead Valley Road, Coulsdon, Surrey at the time of James’s death.
Claude Penrose was born in De Soto County, Florida, USA, on 10 August 1893 to Irish parents from Kinsale, Ireland. His father Henry (‘Harry’) was a civil engineer and his mother Mary was a writer. In 1895 the family travelled to Ireland, landing at Queenstown on 5 April that year. Family sources state that in March 1897 the Penrose family moved from Ireland to Vine House, Frimley Green, Surrey, and in September 1900 to a house named Nadrid in Frimley Green (the family named the house themselves, because it was named after one in which Harry Penrose’s maternal grandfather, Henry Davies O’Callaghan, had lived at East Muskerry, County Cork, Ireland). The 1901 census shows the family still living in Frimley. Claude’s education befitted him for military life. He was admitted to the United Services College, Windsor, in 1905 and later boarded there before moving on to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, London, in 1911. At school he wrote poetry and won a prize for painting. According to the 1911 census, his parents were then living at Deepcut Bungalow, Guildford Road, Frimley Green. Claude was gazetted to the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1913. In November 1914, he was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force. He quickly rose through the ranks and apart from occasional home leave remained in France until he was killed in 1918. In March 1915 he was involved in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle and was subsequently mentioned in despatches. The following year, he fought in the Battle of the Somme and wrote his impression of the early hours of 1 July 1916, the opening day of the battle, in a poem called ‘On The Somme’ (see below). In September 1916, after the attack on Combles, he was awarded the Military Cross. In 1917, he was promoted to Acting Captain and then to Acting Major and given command of the 245th Siege Battery. Claude kept a pocket diary between 1 and 30 July 1918. In recognition of his actions during the British retreat of 21-24 March 1918, he was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross. Claude was due to have home leave on 3 August 1918, but on 31 July, his command post near St Omer was hit by an 8-inch shell. After freeing himself from the debris, Claude rescued his subaltern, but had been seriously injured himself. Four hours later he collapsed and was taken to the 2nd Canadian Casualty Clearing Station. On 1 August 1918, he died from his injuries.
After the war had ended, Claude’s mother organised the publication of a book of his poems and art work. Entitled Poems, with a biographical preface, it was published by Harrison & Sons in 1919. In the preface of the book, she stated:
‘When he passed out of the world, as a result of wounds from a German shell, he was attended by a Canadian doctor at a Canadian Casualty Clearing Station; when he entered it, he was attended by a Canadian doctor who had gone down to Florida for the sake of its wonderful climate, and cared for during the first days of his life by a German woman, who was the only nurse the Avon Park settlement afforded’.
Claude Penrose in 1917 (Image from ‘Poems’, by Mary Penrose, courtesy of Jo Killmister)
Claude Penrose aged 24 (Image from ‘Poems’, by Mary Penrose, courtesy of Jo Killmister)
Record and citation of Claude Penrose’s MC (TNA, WO 389/19 and WO 389/7)
Claude’s reflection on the beginning of the Somme campaign:
‘On The Somme’ by Claude Quayle Lewis Penrose MC
Who heard the thunder of the great guns firing?
Who watched the line where the great shells roared?
Who drove the foemen back, and followed his retiring
When we threw him out of Pommiers, to the glory of the Lord?
Englishmen and Scotsmen, in the grey fog of morning
Watched the dim, black clouds that reeked, and strove to break the gloom;
And Irishmen that stood with them, impatient for the warning,
When the thundering around them would cease and give them room
Room to move forward as the grey mist lifted,
Quietly and swiftly – the white steel bare;
Happy, swift and quiet, as the fog still drifted,
They moved along the tortured slope and met the foemen there.
Stalwart men and wonderful, brave beyond believing –
Little time to mourn for friends that dropped without a word!
(Wait until the work is done, and then give way to grieving) –
So they hummed the latest rag-time to the glory of the Lord.
All across the No Man’s Land, and through the ruined wiring,
Each officer that led them, with a walking-cane for sword,
Cared not a button though the foeman went on firing
While they dribbled over footballs to the glory of the Lord.
And when they brought their captives back, hungry and downhearted,
They called him “Fritz” and slapped their backs, and, all with one accord
They shared with them what food they’d left from when the long day started
And gave them smokes and bully to the glory of the Lord.
Claude may have inherited his skill with words from his mother, Mary Elizabeth Penrose (nee Lewis), a novelist. She was born in Kinsale, Ireland in 1860 and was educated at Rochelle School, Cork, and Trinity College, Dublin, where she read German and English literature. She contributed fiction to magazines such as ‘Temple Bar’ and ‘The Windsor Magazine’ and also wrote novels (as Mrs H.H. Penrose), including Denis Trench (1911), Charles the Great: A Very Light Comedy (1912), The Brat: A Trifle (1913), Burnt Flax (1914) and Something Impossible (1914).
Claude Penrose’s watercolour of Knoll Farm, Zillebeke, October 1917 (from Mary Penrose, ‘Poems’)
This reappraisal was written by David Baker, who for many years felt that Sayer had not been given full credit for the actions of 21 March 1918.
This article shows how a largely unknown two-hour stand had consequences which, because 21 March 1918 was a pivotal day, may have influenced the outcome of WWI. It explains not only how the stand itself came to be forgotten, but also why the consequences, although appreciated at the time, were later ignored.
John William Sayer went to France in 1916 as a machine gunner in the Queen’s Royal West Surreys and in 1917 was promoted to Lance Corporal. At about 10.00am on 21 March 1918, as the long-awaited advance associated with the German spring offensive began, he single-handedly seized and defended a strategic position at Shepherds Copse close to the Hindenberg line north-east of Le Verguier. His bravery citation describes how, ‘for two hours on his own initiative and without assistance, he held the flank of a small isolated outpost and beat off a succession of attacks, inflicting heavy losses’. He was wounded, losing a leg. He died four weeks later in German captivity, aged 39, leaving a widow and six children, and is buried in Le Cateau.
The spring offensive, which very nearly won WW1 for Imperial Germany, had opened at 4.40am. Martin Middlebrook in The Kaiser’s Battle estimated that by midnight on the 21st the dead and wounded totals were nearly 40,000 German and about 17,500 British. Another 21,000 British soldiers had been captured, making this one of the highest single day’s casualty tolls of any war. Middlebrook concludes ‘21 March 1918 was the beginning of the end of the First World War’. The offensive had been intended to land a knock-out blow, but the maximum advance before the campaign’s abandonment 16 days later was about 40 miles. Compared to the gains of the previous four years this was substantial, but not nearly enough to achieve the aim of driving the British back to the North Sea.
German armaments and men far outnumbered British resources; and no one who experienced the ferocity of the onslaught ever forgot it. Winston Churchill described the five hour salvo along the 50 mile British front which preceded the German advance, as ‘the most tremendous cannonade I shall ever hear’. It was said the guns could be heard 200 miles away in London.
John Sayer’s deed was witnessed by his platoon commander Lieutenant Claude Lorraine Piesse who, with Colonel Hugh Chevalier Peirs of the 8th Battalion of the Queen’s Royal West Surreys, recommended him for a Victoria Cross.
Piesse’s report of the incident, now in the Surrey History Centre, describes Sayer ‘defending against all attacks of the very much stronger enemy by bayonet and rifle with almost incredible bravery’. Due to thick mist fighting was often hand-to-hand, and only at noon with the fog clearing and Sayer badly wounded were the Germans able to capture his position. Piesse says ‘Although for two hours he was continually exposed to enemy machine gun fire and bombs, he used his own rifle as coolly as if at the butts‘.He concludes ‘Sayer showed the utmost contempt for danger and the enemy and inspired everyone by his conduct’.
But the Shepherds Copse stand is virtually unknown. This is only partly because John Sayer’s VC citation wasn’t published until 15 months after the event (and, as became clear, only told half the story). And only partly because by 1919 compassion fatigue meant that people had become tired of reading about heroes.
Sayer is also missing from the majority of VC battle literature and most WW1 books, notably his own regimental history. The accounts that appeared in the 1920s contain errors, including an incorrect date for his VC deed. His file at the Imperial War Museum contains only two half-sheets of paper, one of which still perpetuates the clerical mistake that he won his VC on 31 March.
Those who seek further information about Shepherds Copse or indeed search for any reference to Sayer in the obvious source, his regiment’s official record of the period, do so in vain. The History of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment in the Great War by Colonel Harold Wylly, published in 1925, contains no mention of him, or of Shepherds Copse. There were actually two Great War VCs in the West Surreys’ Battalions, but only Sayer is ignored. In contrast, Wylly, a professional writer, devotes several pages to describing the deed of their second VC. Possible explanations are considered later. For more understandable reasons Sayer is also absent from his Battalion’s war diary. But the result is that while other VCs are recalled on memorials, street signs or cigarette cards, Sayer is forgotten and the significance of his place in WW1 history remains unknown.
His invisibility isn’t helped by the lack of any record of his service career, which in fact included a previous act of exceptional bravery in August 1917; or by the fact that his family has never allowed public display of his VC medal.
So because he isn’t in the reference sources used by later authors and has no UK memorial; and because the mistake in dates divorced him from the action in which he featured; John Sayer is in limbo, an unknown VC, usually overlooked. But in spite of this neglect fresh facts about his involvement in the tide-turning events of 21 March were waiting to be uncovered after nearly nine decades.
The ‘new’ sources are various notes made by Claude Piesse himself and a 1918 letter to him from Hugh Peirs. Piesse’s habit of recording his conversations with Peirs verbatim helps. Although many of these documents are in London (in the Imperial War Museum and in King’s College) others are still with Piesse’s family.
Another useful source on the battle itself is the diary of Captain Charles Lodge Patch, the 8th Battalion’s senior medical officer. This too is in the IWM. Patch went on to publish two vivid descriptions of his experiences on the 21 March: one for his old school magazine and the other in an obituary of Colonel Peirs in 1943.
Robert Ward, a WW1 researcher and great-nephew of one of Sayer’s comrades, found that Piesse had visited the military historian Basil Liddell Hart at his home in 1951 to discuss aspects of March 1918. Piesse had told Liddell Hart that he had kept many papers from WW1. This posed the question of whether these might still exist and could provide additional information. But the only clue to the papers whereabouts was Piesse’s 1951 address in a suburb of Perth in Australia.
An internet search uncovered a website for a school in that suburb. The Piesse name is not uncommon in Western Australia and the school actually had a Piesse on their staff, although this proved a false trail. More positively a request to the school’s principal seeking help led to contact with a parent who undertook to trace Claude Piesse’s descendants.
Using impressive detective work the parent discovered what had happened to Claude Piesse’s family in the 50 years since they had lived in the Perth area. Although the original Piesse home had long since vanished, she located and talked to Piesse’s sole descendant, his daughter, now living in retirement in a small town several hundred kilometres distant. Most exciting, Piesse’s daughter, who already knew about John Sayer from her father, had kept most of his papers. A phone conversation with her suggested her father’s letters and journals were well worth visiting Western Australia to read.
Piesse’s daughter had dozens of fascinating memories of her father and his English friends, including Hugh Peirs. And Claude Piesse himself was clearly an interesting character. Although born in London, where his father had founded a well-known Bond Street perfumery business, he had settled in Australia in 1899, managing a remote station. He already had family connections there, an uncle having been Colonial Secretary for Western Australia.
Highly educated and a linguist, when WW1 started he was rejected as too old for the Australian Army. So in 1915 he returned temporarily to England to serve in the Queen’s. His Australian independence and curiosity (he frequently questions the ‘establishment’ view) makes him an ideal reporter. He also had a particular interest in the Arts, and was a life-long friend of the laureate John Masefield and Eric Kennington, whom he first met as a war artist. A 1918 Kennington painting of the Le Verguier front line, which may depict Sayer, is now in Perth art gallery.
Piesse’s papers included various eye-witness descriptions of the war in France expanded from his contemporary diaries. Then towards the end of his long life Piesse had prepared a fresh account of his experiences on 21 March (the IWM has a copy) as a memorial to the men of his platoon who had died.
In fact a total of about seventy Queen’s soldiers, including perhaps twenty at Shepherds Copse, were killed during the fighting for Le Verguier. Only a dozen of the seventy have known graves. But casualties in the village itself would doubtless have been substantially higher without the postponement of the main attack on the 21st followed by the smooth withdrawal on the 22nd, during which not a man was lost. Both are described in detail below.
Among Piesse’s papers there was one key document of particular relevance to Sayer. This was a two page letter written to Piesse in his German prison camp on 27 August 1918 by Hugh Peirs, who was still commanding the 8th Battalion in France. Piesse had described Peirs to Liddell Hart as ‘quite the cleverest and finest officer of any rank with whom I came into contact during my years of service’; a view echoed by Patch both in his own diaries and in Peirs obituary.
The Peirs letter is a response to one, now lost, sent by Piesse to a fellow officer named Burnham describing what had happened in the front line outposts, about a mile north-east of the Battalion’s main position, on the morning of the German advance. Piesse’s command at Shepherds Copse in fact included three separate posts connected by trenches. These were initially defended by twenty-two men, although men from other positions (the fog made it impossible for Piesse to record exactly how many) joined during the fighting.
Due to an earth mound which limited the eastward view the Shepherds Copse trench complex was not ideal for defence, even without the fog. Piesse notes the defenders had no grenades, only limited rifle ammunition and no palatable drinking water (supplies having been stored in kerosene drums).
The position which Sayer had seized at the junction of two communication trenches, although open to enfilades, provided the only effective sight on the advancing enemy. Fluctuating visibility meant fighting was sometimes at close quarters and Piesse describes how, in repulsing repeated attacks along the trench, Sayer single-handedly killed six attackers with his bayonet while dropping others with his rifle. As he was being taken away at noon Piesse, although semi-conscious, counted nine bodies he believed had been killed by Sayer, almost certainly an underestimate of the actual total. For most of the two hours Sayer endured a continuous hail of machine gun fire and grenades in a manner Piesse found near miraculous: ‘it was a wonder to me every minute that he did not fall’.
Before considering Peirs’ letter, there is other evidence about both the strategic importance of Shepherds Copse and the delayed advance on Le Verguier.
First, the dominant position of Shepherds Copse at a bend on the road which runs along the valley from Le Verguier to Villeret, on the south-west side of the old 1918 Front Line, is still apparent today. The map used by the 8th Battalion, annotated at the time of the March offensive and now in the National Archives, indicates that the main thrust of the German advance on Le Verguier came through this valley, having to negotiate Shepherds Copse on the way.
Second, although shelling of Le Verguier had commenced before the attacks on the outposts, the German assault proper on the village did not start until 3.00pm. The only explanation we have for the lateness of the assault, and the one that Peirs later accepted, is the morning’s hold-up at Shepherds Copse, which was unknown to the defenders in Le Verguier at the time.
The fog’s persistence and the delayed attack had provided time for defensive regrouping, so that by noon men from abandoned outposts had moved to strong points in the village. By contrast the units on either side of the 8th Battalion (a battalion of the 66th Division on the left and the 3rd Rifle Brigade on the right) had been pushed back earlier, so that Le Verguier then stood, as Peirs later told Piesse, ‘at the point of a narrow peninsula extending into enemy territory’.
There is more about the situation in the village in Patch’s diary. During the morning the very thick fog disoriented everyone. Patch’s main medical aidpost was in a quarry a few hundred yards north of the village, but he became lost in the fog trying to reach it from Battalion HQ and, because he had inadvertently swallowed some gas, had difficulty getting back. Communication with Piesse’s platoon had been lost very early. Shepherds Copse was therefore assumed to be in enemy hands as, according to escaped survivors, were the other outposts.
A captured German officer who spoke French and who had been injured by a Mills grenade was questioned by Patch as he dressed his wounds. The officer told him that their plan had been to take the village within two hours as a first step towards eventually pushing the British back to the coast. The village standing on high ground and containing numerous strong points was in fact eminently defendable in clear weather providing sufficient men were available to staff the forts. So the German timetable presumably depended on completing the attack under fog cover, which the Shepherds Copse hold-up had frustrated.
Patch, Piesse and Peirs all believed that the German advance had been aided by, and almost certainly planned to take advantage of, the predictable morning fog at that time of year. The British command apparently lacked any specific retaliatory strategy. During an earlier discussion with a Divisional artillery officer Piesse had asked about fighting in fog.He had been told ‘we have no orders’.
Colonel Peirs, who according to the Battalion diary reached Le Verguier at 7.00pm on the 21st from Bernes, spent the night directing the village’s defence.But he withdrew early on the 22nd aware that by so doing he was disobeying orders. Piesse observes that a similar instruction to fight to the last was the reason that three-quarters of his own platoon were killed. Piesse records that a Red Cross stretcher-bearer had told him that his platoon had never surrendered since no one still alive, including Sayer, Piesse himself, and a handful of others, was standing and able to give the order when the position was finally overrun.
Peirs told Piesse in London after the war that he had received a telephone call from Brigade HQ during the night of 21st instructing him to hold his position. But he went on to say ‘as I had still over 300 men left they would be of much better use in the line than in a German prison or dead, so I decided to disobey orders and retire’. Few today would query Peirs’ logic, or the foolishness of the order. The morning withdrawal on the 22nd was aided by a repeat of the thick fog which had helped the Germans on the previous day. Peirs described how they could hear the Germans talking on either flank as they retreated, with no loss of life, through a narrow corridor. His judgment and leadership here were exemplary.
Returning now to Peirs’ August 1918 letter discovered in Australia, its gist is summarised in the opening paragraph: ‘Burnham has shown me the very wonderful letter you wrote him, which I think is the finest letter I ever read. This is the first inkling l have got of what occurred in the front line on the day in question and I (am) sorry that we have not been able to do full justice to the conduct of those who played their part so well and enabled us behind to hold out so long and the Battalion to be specifically mentioned’.
Until reading Piesse’s account of events at Shepherds Copse Peirs had apparently lacked an explanation for the delay in the assault on Le Verguier. The postponed attack had allowed the Battalion to maintain its position for longer than any other unit on the entire British front, which had led to commendation in the Commander-in-Chief’s dispatches.Peirs wants to assemble evidence for an award recognising the delaying action and he asks Piesse to send further details of Sayer’s and two of his comrades’ specific roles, with corroboration.
So thanks to German leniency in allowing uncensored correspondence between an enemy officer and a prisoner; and Piesse’s foresight in retaining a revealing letter; for the first time we have a measure of the importance of Sayer’s action.
The existence of the Shepherds Copse stand had previously been unknown and its impact had therefore been uncalculated. Because communications with the outpost had been severed early the action isn’t included in the Battalion’s contemporary war diaries. And, as already remarked, it’s also missing from the much later official regimental history. Piesse had described the history in a note to Liddell Hart as ‘not worth reading except one considers it a fairy tale’.
But, above all, the letter anticipates and explains Peirs later very strong support for the VC nomination. Although when Peirs wrote he was still awaiting full confirmation of Sayer’s role, his letter indicates he believed the Shepherds Copse stand was the major reason for the delay in the German attack, which had preserved so many lives and enabled the 24 hour resistance.
So it’s curious that neither of these facts is included in Sayer’s VC citation of June 1919, quoted at the start of this article. It’s particularly bizarre that the delaying action and its life-saving consequences aren’t mentioned even though in August 1918 Peirs had apparently intended to recommend an award for Sayer recognising these dual effects. Could there be a reason for his change of heart?
The explanation appears to be that by the time Sayer’s citation came to be written all credit for the delay had already been given to someone else: Peirs himself. He was awarded a second bar to his DSO in September 1918. His citation reads ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in defence of a village, when he fought until surrounded, and then made his way back under cover of a fog. It was entirely due to his great courage and fine leadership that the enemy offensive was delayed for nearly two days‘.
Leaving aside the fact that the 24 hours had been stretched to two days, one might assume that the comprehensiveness of Peirs’ citation precluded giving Sayer any credit for Le Verguier’s lengthy resistance. Theoretically Peirs’ award should not have influenced Sayer’s 1919 citation (as in principle new evidence can replace previous assumptions) but it undoubtedly created complications.
The 8th Battalion’s reputation in response to the 1918 spring offensive had become well-established without acknowledging Sayer. Their success had been applauded in British newspapers, notably The Times of 26 March which had praised them under the headline ‘West Surreys Fight to Last Man’; they had been mentioned by General Haig; and their CO had been decorated for resistance ‘entirely due to his great courage’. Announcement of the effects of Sayer’s action would mean reapportioning credit, unsettling this cumulatively built reputation.
Therefore if Peirs was to obtain Sayer his award, which apparently met some opposition, the safer approach would be to limit any description of events to those Piesse had observed; not to extend it to the consequences the rest of the Battalion had experienced. Moreover arguing that his own recent citation lacked accuracy would, at the least, have caused a respected officer like Peirs embarrassment. But in the event it appears that evidence about the effects of the Shepherds Copse stand wasn’t actually required as support for Sayer’s VC nomination. So, almost inevitably, it failed to become part of Great War history.
When it came to writing the regiment’s official story six years later (and a final opportunity to do Sayer justice) there are two possible explanations for his exclusion. Perhaps Wylly was ignorant of the VC award because his research was perfunctory. The 8th Battalion had by then been disbanded and assuming their war diary, which omits the Shepherds Copse stand, was Wylly’s sole source of information, this theory seems plausible. On the other hand most Royal West Surrey officers must have known about Sayer’s VC which had been reported in the national press and in at least three books by the time Wylly wrote. And a careful reading of his relevant chapter shows that Wyllie did consult other sources besides the diary.
So Sayer’s absence remains a mystery. But whatever the reason one can understand Piesse’s ‘fairy tale’ gibe and can only guess what other omissions the history may contain. And indeed on this evidence whether any other regimental history by Wylly (he wrote several) can be trusted. Piesse suspected that Wylly believed that the deeds of volunteer soldiers simply weren’t worth chronicling: ‘if ours had been a regular battalion the writer would have been more generous’.
The hint that the VC recommendation met resistance is in a letter from Piesse to Sayer in March 1919. Neither Piesse, nor Sayer’s widow, then knew that he had died eleven months previously. The letter says Peirs is doing all he can but may not succeed. But a month later Piesse recorded that the VC nomination had not been turned down, but returned to Peirs by GHQ for removal of ‘some paragraphs in which exceptions were taken’. Copies of the earlier nomination were destroyed; so we can only wonder whether any of the censored paragraphs may have mentioned Sayer’s role in delaying the assault on Le Verguier.
Sayer’s nomination will also have received particularly lengthy scrutiny because it related to an award for an action which had culminated in his capture. Bravery medals weren’t given in these cases, although exceptionally a VC could override the rule.
The fact remains: had Sayer’s citation acknowledged any of the consequences of his action which we now know had been recognised by Peirs; and had the regimental history been written with genuine objectivity; Sayer might have been remembered today as some thing more than a soldier who ‘beat off a succession of attacks’.
He might at least have been linked to the preserving of a number of his comrades lives and freedom, and credited as such by later commentators. As it is his isolation from the events he influenced continues. Even a recent and carefully researched book on WW1 battles, which describes Le Verguier’s defence at length using regimental records, not surprisingly overlooks him completely.
Piesse had told Liddell Hart that conversations with German soldiers and civilians as a prisoner had convinced him that the slide in German morale which cost them the war dated from 21 March, when things went wrong from the outset. German objectives for the spring offensive were over-ambitious, but the now forgotten 24 hour delay in taking Le Verguier was obviously a key factor making the 21st a pivotal date. Therefore men like Sayer deserve credit for hastening the Allied victory. Denial of this credit, as well as denial of the other consequences of his actions, is an unnecessary stain on his memory.
In summary therefore the Peirs letter, and the other research which led to its discovery, redefines the contribution that John Sayer’s sacrifice made towards winning this devastating war. His action should therefore now be considered as an act of bravery which achieved something beyond the solely inspirational.
The object of this study is to investigate the effects of the Great War on the education of the children attending the school at Perry Hill, Worplesdon, based on the log-book of the school (held by Surrey History Centre, ref. CC42/1/3), an appraisal of the locality at this period, the 1911 UK national census returns and the other sources noted below. (Unless otherwise noted, all quotations within this piece are from CC43/1/3.)
The 1913 edition of Kelly’s Directory (The Post Office Directory of Surrey, ed. F.F. Kelly MA FRS [London, 1913]) describes Worplesdon as a large parish with light sandy soil, with wheat as the chief crop. There were deposits of clay forming several commons from the poorly-drained soils. To the south were Stoke-next-Guildford and the northern outskirts of Guildford. In 1904 part of Stoke was added to Worplesdon parish. To the north the landscape of Worplesdon merges with that of its neighbours: Pirbright, Mayford and Old Woking.
The railway line between Woking and Guildford traverses the eastern boundary of the parish through open country across Hockley Lands and Whitmoor Common. Worplesdon station is situated near to the northern boundary of the parish, closer to Mayford and the south of Woking than Worplesdon. It was not associated with any settlement, although there was a coal yard.
The 1911 census recorded the population of the civil parish at 2,278, clustered around the hamlets of Perry Hill and Wood Street or scatted throughout the parish, usually associated with farms or larger properties. The addresses entered by some of the residents on their census returns evidence a lack of original identity to Worplesdon – just ‘Whitmoor Common’ or ‘Perry Hill’ appear whilst, occasionally, neighbouring settlements such as Pirbright, Stoke or Guildford are mentioned. It was not until the 1930s that Worplesdon saw the first residential estate development, at Fairlands Farm.
A perusal of the 1911 census records shows among the Worplesdon respondents a variety of occupations similar to those found in many villages: bakers, innkeepers, blacksmiths, a miller, a wheelwright, plus those employed in rural activities: farmers and their labourers, cowmen, bailiffs and so on. There are some engaged in market gardening and brick-making. Most were born locally, the exceptions being those inclined to specialisations, such as the blacksmith, bailiffs or innkeepers. The records of the younger heads of households usually include at least a few children of school age.
A scattering of residents had occupations that indicated employment well away from Worplesdon, for example a senior civil servant, an insurance inspector and a restaurateur. Generally, these heads of households were born out of the area, are older and list fewer children of school age. Others claiming professional occupations are pensioners or retired on ‘own means’; some occupying the larger properties are clearly missing from the census leaving at home their retinue of servants, housekeepers and chauffeurs.
Kelly’s mentions three council schools: Perry Hill (mixed and infants) to the north of the parish, with a combined attendance of 165; in the south-western part of the parish Wood Street (mixed), attendance 112; and to the south-east Burpham (junior and infants), attendance 31. This study is based on the log-book of Perry Hill mixed (that excludes the infant department), located within the settlement clustered around the church of St Mary, close to the main road between Guildford and Bagshot (now the A322). According to Kelly’s the school was erected in 1861 and enlarged in 1897-98 for 232 children in both departments. It is not clear what, if any, was the catchment area for Perry Hill School; a history of Wood Street mentions that their school’s catchment ‘roughly’ included Perry Hill (N. Smith [ed.], Woodstreet: the Growth of a Village [Wood Street Village History Society, Guildford, 1988], p. 44). It might be that access was more important than distance when some children needed to cross commons to attend a school.
The Perry Hill school log-book records the day-to-day pattern of life in a rural school from the early 1900s including the time of the Great War and beyond. In September 1912 the headteacher of the mixed department at Perry Hill, Earnest J. Webber, recorded: ‘school roll 155, accommodation 120’. The log-book was compiled by the headteacher, therefore it reflects matters and events that Webber deemed of merit at the time. He was the incumbent throughout the period from 1902 until his retirement at the end of 1924. He was most particular in noting the attendance, especially where it was reduced by illness or inclement weather. For instance, on February 24 1916 only 58 out of 125 were present owing to falling snow – classes were abandoned in the afternoon – and ‘July 4th 1917 60/146 – very wet. School abandoned’.
Webber mentions with regularity two factors that hindered the progress of the school during his tenure: overcrowding and staffing. In January 1910 he noted that the accommodation was for 120 only, whereas there were 125 pupils and a school roll of 140; in August: ‘It is disheartening to find that nothing has been done to improve the accommodation. The want of lobby room and & hat pegs is also felt more than ever’. Nothing changed. By September 1917 there were 136 present from a roll of 142: ‘Much difficulty is felt owing to the crowded conditions’. Nothing improved. April 7 1919: ‘Present: 148/154 main room overfull’.
Staffing was a continuing difficulty. In March 1905 Webber’s staff comprised two uncertified mistresses, one uncertified teacher and one pupil-teacher, all female. Throughout, teachers left, replacements came and went, and were not always replaced immediately. This required the re-arrangement of classes. When the school roll was 140 in September 1914, Webber lamented: ‘The want of more teaching staff is being felt increasing & is wearing down the HT’s [headteacher’s] strength in a very trying manner’. By October 13 1914 there were only two teachers left, plus the head, for 139 pupils; one teacher managed 51 pupils and while Webber took 69. On January 25 1915 there were only Webber and one other staff teaching 132 children in 7 standards: ‘… 22 above the recognised accommodation & and there is not enough seating room’.
Later in 1915 events must have been even more trying for him:
September 1 – a Miss Hogg ‘in attendance with no previous training or experience whatsoever’.
September 2 – ‘Miss Hogg absent – sick’; she returned the next day.
November 8 – ‘school working with difficulty – as Miss Hogg cannot efficiently manage Std [Standard] 3 & 4’.
In January 1916 Miss Hogg transferred to another school and was replaced.
Difficulties were recorded regularly. May 1916: ‘It is very trying work to manage so large a class in a room where another class is also working & with the general management of the school to arrange for’. On January 31 1918: ‘HT [headteacher] ill part of day & only Mrs Harwood in attendance‘ and March 25 1918: ‘The results of the examination show the absence of a regular & continuous teacher for Standards 3 & 4’.
By our standards attendance could be erratic. From time to time pupils missed classes, usually because of childhood illnesses. In 1911, for instance: on January 30 there were 88 pupils present out of 121 owing to measles and by February 6 there were only 67 pupils present and the school was closed for two weeks. On reopening, 78 returned but 9 were still infected, so the school was closed for another week. On March 6 one of the teachers was away with the infection. The pupil roll did not reach its usual level until March 20. Again, between June 26 and 10 July, cases of German measles, mumps and whooping cough were reported. For a fuller account of childhood illness see Health in Guildford’s Schools in World War I.
Patriotism was a national feature of this period, perhaps a consequence of the South African Wars at the end of the previous decades. It is evident from the reports of other schools in Surrey (Guildford, Abinger Hammer) that it was fostered within the schools. Generally, Empire Day (24 May) was celebrated with talks, attending parades and holidays. Typically, in 1909 Perry Hill had lessons on the significance of the Day followed by half holiday. For Trafalgar Day in October 1916, a session was held about the British Navy.
1914 was a very routine year. There is no mention of the war in the school’s log-book until 30 October when Webber went to Southampton to see off his son to India. Then a police constable called on November 5 to notify ‘that the schools may be wanted for military purposes’ – nothing came of this. It was not until October 1915 that it is recorded that the ‘Children somewhat excited by Zeppelin air raid last night on Guildford neighbourhood’. At the end of the month Mr Hibbard enlisted in the wireless department of the Air Service (he returned in May 1919). Thus, the direct effect of the war was not apparent immediately, although there was a strong military presence in the area – The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment’s headquarters were nearby at Stoughton, Guildford. The army’s principal base was at Aldershot, about nine miles (13km) to the west, with camps and extensive training grounds in the heathlands to the north and west.
A most poignant entry appears on 21 February 1916:
‘I learn with pain that a former pupil Bertram Ellis, who had joined the King’s forces, was killed by a shell in the trenches in France on the 7th Feb’.
There are 36 fallen listed on the memorials in St Mary’s and St Alban’s churches, Worplesdon, including Bertram and Ernest Ellis. The recruitment of men from the village will have impacted on this farming community but the effects are not mentioned in the log-book entries. There is a reference to the Ellis family (not necessarily Ernest’s branch) at Brooke Farm in Worplesdon 2000: The Tale of Four Villages (ed. A. & I. McShee, Worplesdon Parish Council, 2000, p. 63) which mentions the call-up of a John William Ellis in 1916, when his wife and three young children had to leave their tied cottage. The Surrey Advertiser, August 2 1916, reported two cases of Worplesdon farmers being fined for keeping their sons at home owing to the shortage of labour. The only mentions in the school log-book of pupils excused from attendance for agricultural work are in October and November 1916.
It is noticeable that there are in the log-book few direct references to the war; for example, all the entries at the time of the battle of the Somme, from July 1 1916 onwards, relate to the usual school routines. Otherwise there was little comment about the war apart the occasional day’s leave given to staff attending to family affairs. The exception was 26 September 1916, when one teacher attended a relation suffering from shock following a Zeppelin raid in London, a police sergeant called about a German prisoner who had escaped from Frimley and Thos Gurr[?] called, an ex pupil with the Australian infantry on wounded recuperation – all on the same day.
The logs do show some effects of the war but they are not referenced as such. One of the most notable is the shortage of coal, also recorded at other schools (i.e. Elstead, Maybury). Coal was rationed and the price increased significantly. The following entries illustrate the difficulties:
December 15 1916 ‘[Attendance] 73/137 Very poor fires this morning owing to want of coal’.
January 24 1917 ‘… running out of coals. They were requisitioned on the 10th. 4 pm coals came’.
February 5 1917: 44/128 heavy snow. 34?F at 10 am inside. ‘No children sent home’.
February 7 1917 89/128 26?F at 9 am, 30?F at 10 am, 38?F by 2.30pm. ‘Only 89/129 present’. The low temperatures continued over the following days.
February 16 1917 ‘Coals have become quite exhausted’ – the school was closed for the weekend until some coal was delivered.
March 5 1917, Webber was sick. There was no coal and the school closed until the 7 March.
April 2 1917: the new school year started and 20 new pupils joined from the Infant school. ‘38/148 heavy snow’. The afternoon school was abandoned.
April 3 1917 ‘School resumed. Only cinders… for fires. No coals obtainable.’
Basic foods were rationed in consequence of German submarine attacks on British shipping. There are no references to any shortages in the log-book except a note in the middle of September 1918, when, over several days, some 40 of the children over 11 years were taken out blackberrying. Similar reports appear at other schools across Surrey (e.g. Elstead, Whyteleafe) where the produce was sent to Austin’s jam factory in Kingston (Smith, Woodstreet, p. 48).
At last the news came on November 11 1918 that ‘the Armistice with Germany signed early this morning … School closed to celebrate signing of the armistice. Still only two teachers’. Eventually Webber noted on June 28 1919 ‘Peace signed this day at Versailles (Saturday)’. The national celebrations were held on July 19 1918, which resulted in a note on 23 July: ‘Children somewhat tired & listless after peace rejoicing of the 19th’.
The school observed the morning of Armistice Day 1919 with an explanation of the significance of the occasion. The names of former pupils who had lost their lives in the war were called over, the children saluted the honour of the “Glorious Dead”, held the two minutes’ silence and sung ‘God Save the King’, plus other patriotic activities. Afterwards lessons resumed. Similar sessions were held in 1920 and 1921. In the following years Armistice Day was not mentioned.
Overall, the records covering the years of the Great War show that the normal pattern of school life continued to be disturbed by the usual childhood illnesses and poor weather as pupils progressed through the school. These may be expected. The occasional staff days off to attend to war-related matters, the appearance of a Zeppelin and blackberrying are mentioned in passing. Only the lack of heating can be directly attributed to the effects of the war. There are no reports of any military activity around Worplesdon such as disturbed the schools elsewhere. It was a lack of suitable accommodation and a shortage of staff that tormented Webber throughout his tenure. This situation continued from before and throughout the war and beyond. Even when Mr Hibberd returned in May 1919, after six weeks he accepted a position in Epsom – ‘It is of course very bad for the school’s progress that such repeated changes in the staff have taken place’.
The school closed in 1977 and was converted into houses.
Worplesdon Perry Hill Council School log-book (SHC ref CC42/1/3)
Surrey Advertiser, August 2 1916
The Post Office Directory of Surrey, ed. F.F. Kelly MA FRS (London, 1913)
Smith, N. (ed.), Woodstreet, the Growth of a Village (Wood Street Village History Society, Guildford, 1988)
McShee A. and I (ed.), Worplesdon 2000, The Tale of Four Villages (Undated , Parish Council, Worplesdon)
The steam engine number 333, named Remembrance, was built at the London Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR) works at Brighton in 1922. It bore a bronze plaque that read:
IN GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE
OF THE 532 MEN OF THE
L.B. & S.C. RLY WHO GAVE THEIR
LIVES FOR THEIR COUNTRY
As its name implies, the LBSCR operated an extensive network of lines radiating south from the London termini of Victoria and London Bridge to Brighton, its hub on the south coast of England. Much of the network was in the London suburbs and eastern Surrey, with most of the remainder in Sussex.
Remembrance was the last of seven “L” Class tank engines, which first appeared in April 1914. Designed by Lawson Billinton (1882-1954), they were very stable, fast and powerful engines tasked to handle the heavy passenger trains between London and Brighton. After the lines to Brighton and Eastbourne were electrified, these tank engines were rebuilt in 1934, with tenders added, as Class “N-15X” to work out of Waterloo towards Southampton. The rebuilt Remembrance was renumbered 2333 and retained its memorial plaque.
At the end of 1932, steam locomotives were withdrawn from regular service between London and Brighton. Remembrance was the engine which pulled the last steam ‘Southern Belle’ from Victoria on 31 December that year, departing at 3.05pm.
Remembrance was withdrawn from service at Brighton on 4 April 1956. Its plaque is now held at the National Railway Museum, York.
‘Tolling the Belles of Change with the Dawning of a new Year: the Last Steam Hauled “Southern Belle”‘, Locomotive Journal (Brighton Branch), June 1932, at http://thebrightonbranchofaslef.yolasite.com/tollingthe-belles-of-change.php
Rupert Darnley Anderson was born on the 29 of April 1859 in Liverpool, Lancashire, to Thomas Darnley Anderson, a cotton merchant and land-owner, and Dorothy Anderson. He was the second oldest of six children. The Anderson family were big contributors to the Farnham community, providing the funds to open the Tilford Institute in 1893: a total of around £1000 (£89,840.91 in today’s money) (http://www.tilfordinstitute.co.uk/).
Amy Anderson, born Amy Douglas Knyveton Harland, was born on the 9 December 1867 in Colwich, Lichfield, as the second daughter of reverend Edward Harland, the vicar of Colwich for 38 years.
Rupert Anderson was educated at Eton 1873 – 1878 and then Cambridge. In his youth he was an avid footballer, playing with the Old Etonians as well as being a goalie for the English national side, one of only four teenagers at the time to have done so. He made his first and only appearance for the England team, as goalkeeper, in 1879, playing against Wales: the match was hindered by severely snowy conditions, but England won 2 – 1.
On the 3 January 1889, Amy and Rupert married at St Michael’s and All Angels Church in Colwich. For the first year of the marriage, Rupert was hardly home as he was based abroad in Florida as a fruit broker, and had only returned home in order to marry Amy. Thus Amy raised her first child for a year in England alone. However, once their first child was a year old Amy Anderson joined Rupert in Florida in 1890 and they lived there for a while, as shown by the New York Passenger Lists, 1820 – 1957.
On their return to England several years later they lived at Ravenhill, Rugeley, then moving to Squire’s Hill, Tilford, Surrey. The Andersons lived here until the death in 1893 – 94 of Rupert’s mother and then brother, Charles Rupert Anderson (in whose memory the Tilford Institute erected). With his brother’s death Rupert succeeded into the Waverley Abbey Estate and thus the Anderson family moved in.
By 1901, Amy and Rupert were happily living with their five children: one son and four daughters, the oldest of whom was 11 at the time. Rupert was now a retired fruit broker aged 42 and Amy was a housewife.
Amy became the Commandant of Red Cross Detachment No. 56 in Surrey Division before the war. During the war, the family gave up Waverley Abbey the family home to the government for it to become the Waverley Abbey Military Hospital. It opened in September 1914, thus becoming one of the first country houses to be converted into a military hospital. Amy was appointed as Commandant of the hospital, with her daughters becoming nurses: Misses Amy, Elizabeth, Anne and Margaret. Miss Amy went on to work at the Astoria Hospital in Paris in 1916 until the end of the war. Miss Elizabeth was awarded the Royal Red Cross, 2nd class, for her nursing service during the war. The Andersons’ son fought in WW1 becoming Second-Lieutenant Rupert Darnley Switheen Anderson and, by 1934, a Lieutenant-Colonel.
The Anderson family saw more than 1,000 wounded soldiers each year that the military hospital was open, seeing around 5,000 soldiers throughout the entirety of the war. They were visited by royalty in 1916, 1917 and 1918.
Whilst Amy was Commandant of Waverley Abbey, Rupert fought in and survived the war. He served as a Major in the 5th Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment and also in the Royal Air Force during the end of the war. He was awarded an O.B.E. (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in WW1 for his services to the Territorial Army and the Air Force. In January 1918, towards the end of the war, Amy Anderson was also appointed an O.B.E for her help in the upkeep of Waverley Abbey and for her service towards the soldiers that stayed there.
In 1919, when the war had ended, Waverley Abbey Hospital was closed. It had been open for 4 and a half years under the care of the Anderson family and to celebrate, they hosted a farewell dinner for the hospital staff.
Later that year, Rupert conveyed a part of the Waverley estate to Horace Trimmer (SHC reference: 5263/5/17), downscaling due to most of his daughters (and his son) marrying and leaving home. By 1931 Amy and Rupert had downscaled even more, expressing in a letter to Lord Farrer of Abinger that ‘one cannot afford that kind of amusement’ and that they were not ‘justified with a large family’ any more (SHC reference: 2572/1/91).
Throughout his time in Waverley Abbey, Rupert became integral to the Farnham community. He was the President of the Tilford Institute, Chairman of the managers of the Church of England School, Vicar’s warden and he founded Loyal Rupert Anderson Lodge of Oddfellows.
Amy Anderson was also at the forefront of town affairs becoming chairwoman of a committee advocating the use of Farnham castle for the Bishop of the Diocese in 1930 (Surrey Mirror – Friday 4 July 1930, page 8).
On the 2 January 1939 Rupert and Amy celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. Below is a rare photo of Major Anderson (seated bottom right): the picture, from the Surrey Advertiser, Saturday 7 January 1939, shows ‘Major and Mrs Anderson (seated), with Mrs Stroud, Capt. Craig and Dr. Ealand’. The ‘silver fire gilt coffee set’ in the foreground was one of the gifts given to them on their special day, this one gifted ‘by 600 friends in the district’.
Surrey Advertiser, 7 January 1939
Major Rupert Darnley Anderson died on the 23 December 1944, aged 85, from natural causes. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in Tilford churchyard. Mrs Amy Anderson followed on the 25h August 1951, aged 84. They were both beloved by their community and did great service towards their country throughout their lives.
This undated newspaper cutting from an unnamed publication was found in a scrapbook compiled by RC Sherriff, the author of Journey’s End, the famous First World War play. The explosives factory referred to near St Martha’s is the Chilworth Gunpowder Factory. This suggests there was a belief that the bombing was deliberate rather than a tactical response to anti-aircraft fire from near the Chilworth Gunpowder Factory.
Zeppelin raid mentioned in an undated newspaper cutting from the RC Sherriff scrapbook (SHC ref 2332/9/12).
“Another War Secret
Here is another curious little war secret, of which, as far as I know, no mention whatever has, up till now, been made public.
It concerns one of the earlier Zeppelin raids, when one of these huge power-driven gas-bags made an unexpected incursion into the wilds of Surrey.
Here, between Guildford and the pretty little village of Shere, are two isolated, conical hills, known as St. Catherine and St. Martha.
Each is crowned by a small chapel, one of which is partially ruined and the other intact, but both, seen from above, would look almost exactly alike.
A Lucky Miscalculation
The two hills on which these twin edifices stand, too, though separated from one another by some four or five miles of open country, are approximately the same height, and closely resemble each other as regards contour and general appearances.
Now, nestling under the shadow of St. Martha, is a big explosives factory. The neighbourhood of St. Catherine is bare of any such buildings. Yet, by a lucky miscalculation, it was on the latter site that the Zepp commander rained his bombs, instead of proceeding to what was undoubtedly his real objective—namely, St Matha.”
Volunteer researcher Graham Webster submitted several pieces of research to the project during its pilot stage. In this piece, he discusses the camp established in 1914 at Frith Hill, near Frimley, to house enemy aliens.