676483 (formerly 397685 and 7167) Alfred Ernest Worsfold
Alfred Ernest Worsfold was born in Cobham, Surrey on 17th May 1876 to Mary and Thomas Worsfold. He had 2 brothers; Thomas and Arthur, and a sister Emily.
He went to school in Cobham. Being interested in horses, on leaving school he became a Carman or Carter which was a common trade of the day involving the movement and delivery of goods by horse drawn cart. He worked for the Combe Estates, collecting and delivering goods from nearby Cobham Station and was based at a site which was in Stoke Road roughly where Wellers Garage was situated before it was replaced by the extant Esso Petrol Station.
Pre-War Army Service
On turning 18 in 1894 he travelled to Aldershot and enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery, 3rd Field Battery, signing an agreement to complete twelve years’ service. He was described then as being 5 feet 8 inches tall, weighing 121lbs with brown eyes and black hair.
On 11th September 1896 he embarked on Britannia Transport No. 1 at Southampton bound for service in India where he was to remain for more than 10 years. During this time he saw active service in the Punjab and Tirah campaigns of 1897-1898 and there is some evidence to say that he may have been posted to China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
In June 1905 he was promoted to Acting Bombardier.
In October 1906 he returned to England and signed on for further service in order to complete 21 years. He was duly posted to 33rd Brigade, 139th Battery. The harsh years in India had incurred many stays in hospital and he was treated for a variety of tropical ailments and debilitating complaints such as dysentery. These eventually had a major impact on his health and he was pronounced unfit for further service abroad. On return perhaps the only minor blemish in his career came about in February 1907 when he was severely reprimanded for overstaying his leave by 22 hours and 40 minutes. For this he was docked a day’s pay.
Otherwise, his conduct was regularly described as “V.G. with nil cases of drunkenness on duty and nil ordinary cases of drunkenness”. Very much a career soldier; he became a Military Policeman and was based initially in Sheffield, then latterly at Bulford and Exeter; over the next 8 years Alfred performed his duty with the utmost alacrity. For reasons unknown, in May 1907 he reverted to the rank of Gunner at his own request.
It was to be a further 5 years before he regained the rank of Bombardier.
First World War
Alfred’s First World War service started 2 days after the outbreak of war, when on the 6th August 1914 he was posted to the 23rd Brigade, embarking for France just two weeks later on 18 August with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). He was to remain there throughout the whole length of the conflict (excepting a couple of short periods of leave) only returning to England on 15th February 1919 whence he was discharged from Service on 17th March 1919.
In his own words he “went through all the bigger engagements including the retirement from Mons”.
His first engagement of the war was at Mons. 23rd Brigade was in 3 division which was part of ll Corps.
During the week starting the 14th August 1914, the force assembled in areas near the town of Mauberg, some 15 miles South of Mons. On the 21st August the force was moved forward to positions along the Mons-Conde Canal, with Alfred’s 23rd Brigade assembling on the southern outskirts of the city itself. On 23rd August the Germans attacked in close “parade ground formation”. They were mown down by rifle, machine-gun and artillery fire, with British riflemen hitting German soldiers at over 1,000 yards. However, this wasn’t to last, as by 3 o’clock that afternoon, due to vastly superior numbers of the attacking force, the position had become untenable. 3 Division was ordered to retire to new positions and later that evening the retreat began in the direction of Le Cateau. At Le Cateau, ll Corps was ordered to stand and fight in order to deliver a stopping blow to the Germans. On the morning of 26th August the Germans attacked again, and again the British inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans until reinforcements in the form of 2 enemy divisions arrived. The British were now vastly outnumbered and, with the flanks beginning to falter, the order to withdraw was given. ll Corps had successfully checked the Germans, allowing l Corps to retreat in order. Between 5th and 9th September the BEF were involved in the battles of the Aisne and Marne, all of which decisively halted the German advance, and in October the BEF was moved north to the Flanders sector which became the British front line for the rest of the war.
Although Alfred had seen action some years before in the Tirah and Punjab, the sheer magnitude and aggression of the Battle of Mons must have been breath-taking. The Royal Artillery won 6 VCs, giving an idea of the ferocity of the battle! Unfortunately it was just the start of a 4-year-long bloody conflict that would see Alfred on or near the front lines for a good part of the duration.
23rd Brigade was in action throughout the years 1915 and 1916 particularly in the Battles of Neuve Chappelle, Hooge and later, the blood-bath that was the Somme Offensive. This battle was to become the darkest day in British military history when on the first day of the battle, 1st July 1916, the British fourth Army lost 19,240 men killed. Just to have been involved in this awful episode must have been profoundly life-changing for those participating and one can only wonder, before the days that “Shell Shock” was fully understood or even recognised, how men such as Alfred managed to function in any meaningful way. Although Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, as it is known today, is treated with intensive psychological and practical treatment, Alfred was to remain close to the front lines until the end of 1916 and with no evidence of treatment in his medical records it would seem he managed to function and “pull through” whilst the daily horror that was so evident and all-consuming enveloped him.
At the end of 1916 the Artillery was reorganised. 23rd Brigade left 3 Division and came under the direct command of the Second Army. Alfred’s Battery had suffered badly and after being reformed became part of 281 Field Brigade in 56 Division.
By now Alfred’s age was advancing and at 41, his long and faithful service (now standing at 22 years in the Colours) including long spells in action both in India and on the Western Front was finally recognised!
On 9th November 1916 he was posted to base for discharge. Base for Alfred was a place euphemistically called ‘Cinder City’ at Le Havre on the Channel coast.
Cinder City was basically a section of land that had been reclaimed from coastal marshes by the simple expedient of dumping thousands of tons of ash to bury the swamp. On this land a camp was formed of various huts and tents and was described by a certain lady from a New Zealand entertainment troupe who was there to cheer and distract the lads in the recently built Y.M.C.A. as “a place for men who have ‘done their bit’, but for one reason or another are not fit to go back”. It would seem that these men were put to work unloading munitions and other supplies from the various cargo ships that supplied the life-blood of a fighting army.
Alfred’s stay at Cinder City was however all too short. His discharge was cancelled due to emergency army regulations requiring fully trained soldiers to remain in the service during times of conflict. He was however classed “P.U.”, permanently unfit for active service (probably due to his relatively advanced years). Yet in July 1917 he was posted to 202 (and later 201) Anti-Aircraft Section based at Abancourt where he found himself closer to the front again. It would seem that this predicament was then recognised by the powers that be and by that September he was posted to No 2 Garrison Guards (Base Details) and just a month later transferred to the Labour Corps in the rank of Corporal and posted to 786 company. Fortunately he retained his Royal Artillery rates of pay due to “benefit of service”.
By the turn of 1918 the war was becoming more fluid and preparations for what were to be the final offensives of the conflict became imperative (if not a little chaotic). Thus, due to his artillery experience Alfred was sent on a “spotting” course to St Omer and subsequently found himself re-attached to No 201 Anti-Aircraft Company and sent back to the front! His luck held though. Probably due to the massive and rapid advances made by the Allies at that point in the war, many Anti-Aircraft companies were rendered redundant and at the end of August, a rather baffling, very short term transfer into the Royal Fusiliers, ended in October when Alfred was compulsorily and permanently transferred back into the Labour Corps just in time for the Armistice.
Alfred was transported back to Blighty on 15th February 1919 where, just over a month later on 17th March 1919, soldier 103861 formerly 676438 formerly 397685 formerly 7167 Alfred Ernest Worsfold was discharged from service. He had been with the colours for a total of 24 years 111 days; an extremely long term even for those days.
After The War
Army pensions at this time were rather ungenerous and despite his very long service which was mainly performed overseas (thus attracting larger pension payments), Alfred found it hard to make ends meet. He was paid just £4-1s-3 1/2d per week.
Although Alfred’s behaviour throughout his career had been exemplary and sober, apparently, on his return, he went straight from Cobham station to the Running Mare on a marathon bender! It would seem that he now relished his new found freedom and thereafter was regularly seen at that water hole which incidentally still exists today. On more than one occasion he was picked up by horse and trap from the Running Mare somewhat worse for wear and was unceremoniously dropped at his residence just a few yards down Tilt Road at 6, Arch Cottages, which was where the block of flats called “Tilt View” is now.
Due to his love of horses he managed to find a job working for the local council as a dustman, employed gainfully for many years, he became a well-known figure in the Cobham area. Although details are sketchy, he is known to have suffered a broken arm after accidentally falling under a horse and cart. He had also been interested in boxing throughout his career and became an amateur boxing instructor, later tutoring his son amongst many others. He had an allotment which he loved to tend, and no doubt was a peaceful spot to retreat to when contemplating some of the melancholy incidents that had so tragically afflicted his life. He was also known for always having a bucket and spade handy to retrieve any equine by-products that had been deposited on the highway, in order to help him produce healthy greenery!
In 1924 he married Edith May Richardson who was in service at the house in Cedar Road, Cobham named “Suva Cottage” This house was later to be renamed “The Warren” and coincidentally was to become the home of his son Colin (the famous local News Agent) and his wife Mary and their five children, Penny, Paul, Mark, David and Michael. Mary is still in residence today.
Alfred and Edith’s long marriage produced 6 children; the aforementioned Colin, twins Dora and Rose, twin boys, and the youngest, Desmond. In the 1920’s child mortality was still very prevalent, especially in the working classes. In a heart-breaking series of tragedies Arthur and Edith lost four of their children in a relatively short period. It seems that they had succumbed to whooping cough which in the days before anti-biotics could often lead to complications and prove fatal. One can only imagine the scene where due to extreme poverty, Colin recalled one dark night when he watched his father placing the frail little bodies of the twin boys into a wheelbarrow and walked them just down the road to Cobham cemetery where he dug a grave and tenderly interred his offspring next to his father’s final resting place. To heighten the tragedy there seems to be no record of the boys’ names indicating that they passed away before they could even be named.
Despite these tragic setbacks, Alfred and Edith managed to carry on in the only way that the stoic people of the time knew how. They lived a peaceful and happy life thereafter, together with their oldest and youngest children Colin and Desmond.
Colin would often regale his own children with stories of how his father, a “harsh disciplinarian”, would “take his belt to him” But it transpires (from memories of other family members) that Alfred, with his ramrod straight back and military bearing, was actually a very gentle man who loved and nurtured his sons, and this tale was more probably a story that Alfred would tell his sons about his own father.
It is also known that Colin would occasionally be sent to the Running Mare to ‘collect’ his father for dinner, where he became colloquially known as ‘Little Alf’!
Only too soon after “the war to end all wars” receded behind the gathering clouds that where to become the second great conflict within 20 years. On 3rd September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany and World War 2 began in earnest. Colin remembers his father’s reaction to this event when he marched his son down the garden path in Elm Grove Road to the garden shed where he pulled out some sacking from behind a pile of boxes. Unrolling the sacking, he revealed a Lee Enfield rifle that he’d “forgotten” to relinquish in 1919. “If the Germans come to Cobham, this will come in very handy”. It seems that Alfred wasn’t quite ready to stop fighting for a good cause.
Fortunately for us all, the rifle wasn’t used and Colin never saw it again.
Alfred was in retirement by the end of the war and as rationing wasn’t to end until 1954 he spent a great deal of his time tending his vegetables in his beloved allotment.
Colin had joined the RAF in 1943 and trained as a Navigator on Lancasters, finally being discharged in 1948, by which time he had been retrained as a driver/mechanic working with German POWs. Following his demob he returned to Cobham where he and his younger brother, Desmond, became newsagents; Colin at Farrants in the High Street and Desmond at Forbes in Church Street.
Alfred’s sons were by now successful businessmen and his finances were in order, his marriage was happy and he lived his final years in peaceful contentment. However by the early 50’s, his decades of extreme physical activity and harsh living conditions were beginning to manifest themselves by a steady decline in his health. He began to spend more time at home and by 1953 was virtually bed ridden.
On 24th February 1954 Alfred Ernest Worsfold passed away in Cobham Cottage Hospital. He died peacefully in his sleep. He was 77; a not inconsiderable age given his very full and hectic life. He lived long enough though, to witness the birth of the first of what were to become nine grandchildren. He is buried in Cobham Cemetery next to his beloved wife and just a stone’s throw from where he was born and raised.
It is a fitting place, for a man who had given more than a third of his life in service to his country.