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: John Gamble Waller
Occupation: Haslemere School
Birth Place: Manchester (Longsight), Lancashire
Date of Death: Killed in Action 11 September 1916
Age: 29 years (born 1 December 1886)
Location: Nasiriyah, Mesopotamia
Regiment: 1/5th Battalion, Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment
Regimental Number: T/1519
John was the son of Herbert and Marian Waller of Brinkley, Southwell, Nottinghamshire. They had eight children of whom seven survived. The 1911 census shows them living with John and two brothers and two sisters. Incredibly, in the census all family members were described as teachers apart from Marian.
On the 12 February 1917, Herbert wrote a letter to the Surrey Education Committee giving details of the family: Herbert B. (38 years old), Flora E. (36), Eva M. (34), Lily (31) was married and farming in Australia, Arthur F. (25) and training to become a teacher at St John’s College, Battersea, and Sid H. (24) a soldier, possibly commissioned.
By the beginning of the war, John had moved to Surrey, and was living at Lomond Villa, West Street, Haslemere. At the time of his death he had been teaching at Haslemere Council School for two years.
The Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser of Saturday, 14 November 1914 listed all Surrey County Council staff that had joined the forces by that date. It lists John as having pre-war service in the ‘5th West Surrey Territorial’, a part-time soldier.
He was ‘mobilised’ (called up) in Bramley, Surrey, on 5 August 1914, joining the 1/5th Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, which was a Territorial Force (T.F.) battalion – part-time soldiers.
It had been formed in 1908 out of the old 2nd Volunteer Battalion formed following a reorganisation of the army. As it was a Territorial unit and therefore established for ‘Home Service’ only, soldiers, including John, had to volunteer for overseas service.
In October 1914, the 1/5th Queen’s embarked at Southampton on board the SS Alaunia for India, arriving in Bombay on the 2 December 1914. It appears the battalion was then dispersed around India carrying out garrison duty until October 1915 when it was warned to be prepared for a move. On 2 December 1915, it sailed from Bombay, and then Basra, Mesopotamia (Iraq) arriving on 7 December.
Here the battalion joined ‘Tigris Force’, comprising regiments newly arrived from Gallipoli and India. In a Territorial Forces Record Officer letter dated 20 September 1916 within John’s Surrey Education Committee file, it describes him as being a member of Expeditionary Force ‘D’ Persian Gulf. This was an army group established in 1914 and responsible for protecting the oil wells in southern Mesopotamia (Iraq).
Tigris Force’s role was to relieve 8,000 British and Indian troops trapped in Kut, 100 miles south of Baghdad. In trying to reach the besieged men, the 1/5th Queen’s supported the relief column, fighting several engagements as it went. The relief failed, and Kut surrendered in April 1916.
The battalion was then based in Nasiriyah, and spent the summer fighting disease and the heat more than the enemy. On 11 September 1916, the Battalion was part of a column that sought to engage a significant number of ‘Arabs’ or ‘Turkish Irregulars’ around the village of As Sahilan.
John was a member of ‘D’ Company which initially supported the 90th Punjabis in the attack. The ‘Arabs’ withdrew, and the village was captured although at the cost of casualties to the battalion, including ‘D’ Company. After engineers had destroyed buildings in the village, the British started to withdraw, but confusion led to a delay and the ‘Arabs’ had time to return. The ‘Arabs’ continued to contest the British withdrawal, and it was not until after two hours of difficult fighting that the Battalion was finally clear.
The Surrey Advertiser of Saturday, 21 October 1916 was the first to report the incident under the banner ‘Mesopotamia Fighting – Casualties to Surrey Territorials’:
‘It was reported last month that on Sept. 11th a British force from Nasiriyah attacked a body of Turkish irregulars who had molested patrols and defeated them. The engagement cost us some casualties, which West Surrey Territorials shared.’
A week later the Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser of Saturday, 28 October 1916, in ‘Surrey & The War, Surrey Territorials in Mesopotamia’, confirmed the casualties:
‘It now appears that in the successful attack by a British force in September, on a body of Turkish Irregulars who had molested our patrols, the West Surrey Territorials took part, and sustained some casualties. Two officers and eight non-commissioned officers and men were killed… the list included 1519 Sergt. J. Waller’.
On 17 September, Captain F.E. Bray wrote to John’s father:
‘You will have heard your son was killed in action on the 11th, and knowing him as I did, I can understand how heavy a blow it must have been to you.
I was near him when he was killed, just as we had begun to work back after covering the party destroying the village which was our objective. I went up to him at once, but he was killed instantaneously by a bullet through his head.
It is just about 4 years since I first knew him, when he was transferred to my company on going to Haslemere, and during the whole time I have never known him to do other than the right thing, and it has always been a pleasure to me to help him get the quick promotion he deserved. But he was much more than merely a good N.C.O. Everyone, officers and men who had anything to do with him, liked him for himself, and I know that I feel I have lost a friend more than a subordinate.’
The officer commanding the 1/5th, Lieutenant Colonel W.L. Hodges also wrote:
‘Last Monday we had to attack an arab [sic] village and destroy it. Your son was right in the thick of the fighting and early on in the action he was struck by a bullet and killed instantaneously. His death is a great loss to us as he was one of our best Sergeants and a type of man will can ill afford to lose. I trust that the thought that he gave his life for his country may be consolation to you in your loss’.
A comrade, Sergeant G.E. Smith, wrote on the 15th
‘I am writing on behalf of the Sergts. Of “D” Company. 1/5th Queens and on my own behalf to offer you our deepest sympathy in the loss sustained in the death of your son Sergt. G. Waller [sic], who, as you have probably already been informed, was killed after an attack on the village of XXX.
He was shot through the head and died almost instantly.
May I suggest that at least you have the consolation (perhaps a poor one in such cases) that he died for his Country and trying to do what he could to further its interests.
Personally my sorrow is of the deepest, for he was in my platoon and I was near him at the time, so that I can testify to his ability, efficiency, and cheerfulness as a soldier and also his staunchness as a mate.’
Another comrade Lance Sergeant Stafford (No. 138) wrote on the 11 September:
‘You will doubtless have heard… of poor Jack’s death in action which occurred this morning, but I feel that I must write to offer you my sincerest sympathy in your sad bereavement. While in India Jack was my closet friend, altho’ the exigencies of the service have not allowed of such close and intimate companionship just lately he was still my best chum. I was not with him when the bullet hit him and cannot give you details of his death but I can assure you he died in the thick of the fighting, and that he died instantaneously.
Last September we spent the holidays together and twas only yesterday that we were recalling some of the splendid times we had… I can only say that I have suffered the loss of the best pal a chap could have had, and both cases the wrenches are very great.’
Finally, A P.H. Crozier, a chaplain with the I.E.F. wrote a quite different type of letter on 18 September:
‘May I convey my deep sympathy with you in your sad bereavement. Your son was amongst those who were to voluntary services (sic). He was killed in action on Sept. 11. He died an Englishman’s death worthy of the traditions of the Regiment to which he belonged he is deeply mourned by those who knew him. He is with a goodly number of men who have laid down their lives in their Country’s cause, and as such he is honoured’.
After his death, John’s family pursued an insurance claim with Surrey County Council, which had taken out an insurance policy on behalf of John. As part of the process, the Council carried out an investigation into the circumstances of the family. In one letter his family is described as ‘all in good positions’ and in no financial need. His father, however, wrote to the council in January 1917 stating that they had raised eight children on limited means, and it had been ‘no easy matter to struggle through’.
The family was eventually awarded £85 12 shillings and sixpence.
John is buried in the Basra War Cemetery, Iraq, and remembered on memorials at the following locations:
He is entitled to the 1914/15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
Surrey History Centre CC7/4/4 File 18
Colonel H.C. Wylly, History of The Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment in The Great War, (1925)
The History of the Hampshire Territorial Force Association and War Records of Units, 1914-1919
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – https://www.cwgc.org/
Ancestry website – https://www.ancestry.co.uk/