Family history story provided by John Molyneux
For years I have been trying to find out more about my father-in-law’s involvement in World War l. He was Hermann Mardus and was born in 1888, in Robsart Street, Brixton. Brixton is in Lambeth, which was then in Surrey.
Although he was born in Surrey, his parents were from Germany. They came to England in the 19th century, were married here, before settling in Brixton. At the outbreak of war he was 25 years, unmarried, and living with his twice-widowed mother at their barber shop in Acton, west London.
The war against Germany was announced as ‘the war to end all wars’ and that it would be ‘over by Christmas’. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that, although he was British by birth, Hermann was not amongst the many who eagerly signed-up, as he could well be fighting against his cousins, nephews and uncles, i.e. fighting against his own relatives who were born, and still living in Germany.
With the introduction of the Military Service Act, in 1916, he was finally drafted into the Army and became Private 28757 in the 4th Infantry Labour Company of the Middlesex Regiment. After a few weeks of basic training , at Pease Pottage in Sussex, he was shipped over to France, landing there in April, 1917.
Being of German parentage, these British soldiers were known as ‘enemy aliens’ by the British Government, and were not issued with any form of firearm. Severe conditions were imposed on these so called ‘enemy aliens’, such as not being permitted within ten miles of the front line, or in areas where there might be sensitive information. They were required to obtain a pass to go off camp, even to visit the local village pub. These conditions, imposed by the government, not the Army, meant they were invariably treated far worse than members of their own Regimental Labour Corps.
Anti-German feeling was great, with many shops run by Britons of German descent suffering attacks. Hermann’s mother ran a hairdresser’s shop in Acton and was widowed (for the second time) in June 1914. The shop was about to be attacked when a neighbouring shopkeeper pointed our to the mob that the owner of the shop was a widow and that her son had joined the Army, was in France fighting on the side of the British. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and the shop was spared. Even after the war, anti-German feeling was so strong that Hermann changed his surname, by deed poll, to an anglicised version of his stepfather’s surname.
He survived the war, but would not speak about it, other than to say that he had been treated so badly.
All Army units were obliged to maintain a war diary whilst they were on active service. As much as 70% of these diaries were destroyed by enemy action during World War Two, but as the treatment of these ‘enemy alien’ soldiers was so bad, it is highly probable that they were never written in the first place. Certainly, none have ever come to light. Despite many searches having been made, there is no record of where he served, not what duties he carried out.
For his services to Great Britain, he was awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal, commonly known as ‘Squeak’ and ‘Wilfred’. His only other trophy of war is his dog-tag.