The featured photograph in this story is taken from the Knights-Whittome collection held at Sutton Local Studies Centre. Hundreds of glass plates from David Knights-Whittome’s photographic studio are being restored and new batches of photographs are periodically made available online on Flickr. This photograph is of “A Wright”, who appears to be a footman, and was taken on 1st February 1912. The best candidate for the identity of the subject is Albert Wright, whose story appears here and the identification would not be in doubt were it not for the fact that Albert’s Army medical records say that he had moles in front of his left ear and there are none visible in this photograph when viewed in close-up.
Albert Jesse Wright was born at home at 30 Gladstone Road, Chesham, Buckinghamshire, on 8th February 1895. He was the eldest child of Mark and Agnes Wright.
Mark and Agnes moved from Buckinghamshire to Banstead in the late 1890s, bringing their three young children with them. They lived at 9 Pound Cottages in Pound Road; the cottages are long gone, replaced by flats in the 1950s. On 21st August 1899, Albert and his younger siblings Edith and William were baptised together at the local church, All Saints. Mark and Agnes went on to have at least three more children: Hilda, Horace and Eva.
Mark worked as a labourer when the family lived in Chesham but became a policeman when he moved to Banstead. He was one of 18 police constables (and 6 sergeants) working out of the police station at Banstead, which in those days was on the opposite side of the High Street to the building that was used as Banstead’s police station throughout the 20th century. Banstead seems to have been a favoured last posting for policemen approaching retirement who wanted a quiet life away from the hurly burly of London and it was a big force for a rural area that must have been uneventful except for Derby Day.
After leaving school, Albert went into service and by 1908, aged 13, he was working as a boot boy at Banstead Hall, the dogsbody in a staff consisting of cook, dressmaker, 5 housemaids, kitchen maid, scullery maid, butler and 2 footmen. Banstead Hall was a private boarding school, one of several in the village, which was owned and run by Mrs Ethel Maitland. There were 40 or so pupils, boys aged 8-13 from all over the south of England and a handful from further afield. The Hall gradually declined, like all the big houses did after the war, eventually derelict and demolished. Today the old grounds are mostly covered in housing but one of the two lodges that used to guard the entrances to the Hall’s carriage sweep, South Lodge, has survived, a Victorian incongruity amidst 1980s blocks of flats and 1990s houses.
Albert, 5ft 10in tall, fresh complexion, brown hair and blue eyes, worked his way up to footman (the photograph was taken a week before his 17th birthday and maybe his birthday present was a trip to the photographers; it may also have coincided with his promotion, perhaps he had some photographs taken of himself in his new uniform for his proud family as six glossy prints were made) but in January 1913 Mrs Maitland decided that she needed an older, more experienced man and let him go. He immediately joined the army, signing up for 12 years service with the Royal Field Artillery. He joined 112th Battery at Athlone, Ireland, and soon gained his 3rd Class Certificate of Education, which would allow promotion as far as corporal. “A good hardworking man. Promises well,” wrote his commanding officer.
112th Battery, 24th Artillery Brigade, was stationed in Ireland at the outbreak of war. In the scramble to make ready, they could get few horses and those they could get were in poor condition and untrained and that also applied to the reservists that had been called up as soon as war was declared. Despite this, within a week they were up to numerical strength and spent a few days training their horses while waiting for embarkation orders. They crossed to Wales and travelled by train to Stourbridge, Cambridgeshire, where they camped on the Common and spent two weeks training. For the next four years every open space in middle and southern England seems to have been covered in a forest of white tents and men in khaki.
On 8th September, they arrived at Southampton docks and embarked for the crossing to France. They arrived at St Nazaire, a long way from the action, but even there there were so many men pouring into France that the 24th were kept waiting in harbour for two days before they could disembark. Over the next few days they marched halfway across France, an almost unbelievable distance travelled each day, to arrive at Paars, 75 miles northeast of Paris on 19th September. They spent a couple of weeks resting and training and as the tide of the retreat started to come in they were ordered to dig gun pits. They lost their first man on September 30th.
The next few days saw the British Army on the move at night to conceal their intentions from the Germans and the 24th Artillery Brigade made a series of short night marches back towards Paris before they were shipped north by train to St Omer, near the Channel coast, and then marched eastwards to meet the enemy and block them from capturing the Channel ports.
At St Omer, Albert Wright’s 112th Battery had been detached and assigned to the 12th (Howitzer) Artillery Brigade. They moved east, supporting infantry attacks in the Race to the Sea, in what would be the last mobile phase of the war for nearly 4 years. By 18th October they had come to a halt, billeted at Bois Grenier, near Chapelle d’Armentieres, where they would remain for many months. The line of troops was now unbroken all the way to the sea. The Germans threw their 6th Army at the British, attempting to break through the hastily-dug defences and cut off the Ypres salient to the north. They fought for two weeks, attack and counter-attack, Albert’s battery busy repelling the enemy or covering his comrades’ advance. The Germans made a small gain in Albert’s sector for heavy losses and they decided eventually that the game wasn’t worth the candle and poured their efforts into the 4th Army’s offensive at Ypres.
From early November onwards, the war had lost steam and in the winter of 1914-15 there was only the day-to-day routine of shelling the German trenches or counter-battery fire. It was just as well because six months of fighting had nearly destroyed the professional army and had exhausted ammunition supplies. Guns capable of many rounds per minute were being supplied with only handfuls of shells each day. It did not help that the artillery had gone to war with the wrong kind of shells, too many shrapnel shells, ideal for open warfare but ineffective in cutting barbed wire in trench warfare, and not enough high explosive. The nature and scale of the war had caught everyone napping. In just a few months time the ammunition scandal would bring down the government.
On 4th March 1915, days before Albert’s brigade would take part in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, Albert was acting as a telephone operator in the trenches, relaying his lieutenant’s firing instructions back to the guns when he was shot in the head and killed. He is buried in Ration Farm cemetery in Chapelle d’Armentieres. His headstone inscription, chosen by his mother, is “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun“. He was 20.
Albert is buried at Ration Farm Cemetery, La Chapelle-d’Armentieres, and is commmemorated on the Banstead War Memorial, the Garton War Memorial in All Saints churchyard and on the wooden panels in the Memorial Chapel at All Saints. He is also remembered in the All Saints Book of Men Who Served Overseas.
Albert was commemorated with a memorial service on 4th March 2015, the 100th anniversary of his death, at All Saints Church, Banstead. A bell was tolled 100 times at noon in his memory.