Lance Corporal Fred Giles – Died 28th December 1914

Frederick John Giles was born to John and Mercy Ann Giles in New Headington, Oxfordshire, on 6th April 1875. He was one of at least 10 children and, like his older siblings, he was baptised at St Andrew’s in Headington.

The family lived in a row of shabby cottages that used to stand in what is now Wilberforce Street, New Headington. John Giles was a bricklayer’s labourer at the time of Fred’s birth but Headington was famous for its quarries, the stone from which was used to build several notable Oxford University buildings, and he later became a mason’s labourer.

Fred grew up to become a labourer like his dad and may have played truant or left early from school to help his father as John was fined 5 shillings (and costs) under the Elementary Education Act in December 1886. The terms of the Act made it compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 10 to attend school and it became illegal for employers to take on children under the age of 13 who had not yet reached the locally-specified standard of education.

John died from heart disease at New Headington in February 1891. The family were hit hard and Fred’s 14 year-old sister, Emily, was arrested for begging on the Banbury Road just three weeks later. She was remanded to gaol for several days.

Later that year, aged 16 and 8 months, Fred was working for a London-based employer (perhaps at the quarries) and living in Edgeway Road, New Marston, Oxfordshire, when he added a year to his age in order to join the 4th Battalion of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry Regiment on 14th December. His medical records describe him as 5ft 6in tall, weighing just 116lbs, with a fresh complexion, hazel eyes and brown hair, “physically equivalent to” 18 years-old, with no distinguishing marks.

The 4th Battalion of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry was a Militia unit and the men were part-time soldiers who could be called out for home defence and domestic crises. They were paid a retainer (which Fred may have sorely needed at the time) and received soldiers’ pay for their time when training, usually on a 2-week annual training camp. Many of the men went on to join the regular army and could claim a bonus for doing so.

Fred drilled for 9 days following enlistment and was recalled for a few days in August 1891 (probably for their yearly training camp) before deciding to join the regulars. He attested with the South Wales Borderers, signing up for seven years with the colours (in the Army full-time), followed by five years in the reserves, on 10th February 1892. He’d grown a quarter-inch, put on a couple of pounds and was still working as a labourer at the time he enlisted.

At the end of the year, the 1st South Wales Borderers sailed for Egypt, where they would be based for the next 2 years. Fred earned his first good conduct badge (and the extra penny per day that went with it) in Egypt in February 1894 and he underwent Mounted Infantry training in June. Mounted Infantry (regular infantry soldiers that would ride horses or camels but dismount to fight) was still quite a new concept in the British Army but it had proven its value in the Sudan and would prove it again in the Boer War. There were no dedicated M.I. units at that time but selected men from many infantry regiments were trained and would take up their M.I. duties within dedicated sections in their battalions if required to.

The Borderers, known as the Bengal Tigers, were stationed in Gibraltar between 1895 and 1897 and Fred was promoted to lance corporal in February 1896. The military provided a basic education for their men, many of whom had received little schooling. Fred’s childhood education may well have been incomplete but he made the most of his opportunity and completed his 3rd Class Certificate of Education (candidates had to read aloud, write from straightforward dictation passages, perform basic arithmetic and reduction of money) in September 1896, swiftly followed by his 2nd Class Certificate (more writing, dictation from a more challenging work, complete examples of regimental accounting, and carry out arithmetic using proportions and interest, fractions and averages) in December of that year. Those examination passes meant that he would be eligible for promotion up to the rank of sergeant.

Fred served in India from November 1897, with another good conduct badge (and another penny per day) awarded in February 1898. His time with the colours was due to be completed in 1899 but he extended his service and he was promoted to corporal in June 1900. He didn’t hold onto his hard-earned stripes for long: he was arrested for drunkenness on 1st April 1901 and was reduced to the ranks, losing one of his daily good conduct pennies as well as his corporal’s pay.

He was posted to the 2nd Battalion on 18th March 1902 and sailed to South Africa to join his new unit at Klerksdorp, where he soon regained his extra penny pay. The 2nd South Wales Borderers had fought throughout the Boer War’s conventional campaign and had latterly been part of the Army of Occupation in the Transvaal.

In March 1902, the guerilla war was coming to an end. Chains of 7-man circular blockhouses, sited at 1000-yard intervals and linked by barbed wire fences, had been built across the veld to frustrate the guerillas and restrict their movement. One of those chains ran alongside the railway and passed through Klerksdorp, part of a network that roughly encircled 19,000 square miles of land around Johannesburg. The South Wales Borderers had been in Klerksdorp for some time, garrisoning the blockhouses or marching with the columns sent to sweep the countryside for guerilla bands. Fred may have joined the Borderers’ M.I. section but he had arrived too late to play a meaningful part in the war’s endgame.

16,000 infantry, mounted infantry, cavalrymen and their horses poured into Klerksdorp in the second and third weeks of March. They had probably left before Fred arrived, on one of the last great drives to round up the bands led by De La Rey, Steyn, Liebenberg and Kemp. They rode through the night, casting a giant net as far as 80 miles before turning and drawing the net in towards a line of blockhouses. Most of the wily guerillas managed to slip through the holes in the net but the new system was fundamentally sound and with better coordination between the several British columns forming the net – and practise – it would be made to work.

Representatives of the governments of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were granted safe conduct to Klerksdorp by the British in order to meet each other and discuss the possibility of peace. They decided that they would negotiate and returned to their states to discuss with their governments.

The war limped on. A band of 2,500-3,000 men under De La Rey soon ran into a large British reconnaissance party and won a final victory. Another drive brought Kemp to battle at Roodewal, one of the last major actions of the war, where he nearly achieved a surprise success with a reckless charge of perhaps 1,000 men across open veld and into massed British rifle fire but had to settle for escaping with minor losses.

The Boer government representatives returned to Klerksdorp in mid-April to negotiate with Lord Kitchener. Peace was concluded in Pretoria at (literally) the eleventh hour, 11:05pm on 31st May 1902, just 55 minutes before the period of grace granted by the British to the Boers ran out.

Fred’s time with the colours had expired and, with hostilities over, he returned home in August 1902. He was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal with 1902 and Transvaal clasps. Fred was transferred to the Reserve in April 1903 and discharged on 9th February 1904 after completing his 12 years’ service.

After his transfer to the Reserve, Fred probably moved back in with his family in Edgeway Road. Parlourmaid Helen Elizabeth Fletcher (born in St Peter Le Bailly, Oxfordshire and nearly 10 years older than Fred) lived two doors down. They soon moved down to London, living together at 80 Bird in Bush Road, Camberwell. Fred found work as a gardener and they were married at Christ Church, Camberwell, on 3rd June 1905.

Fred worked for widow Elizabeth Sutton and her family, who lived in the 20-room mansion known as “Gros mont” at No.46, Palace Road, Streatham. Palace Road was a well-to-do street with many large houses. The newlyweds lived in the stables at No.46.

Fred and Helen had a son, Albert, in December 1906. Albert was born in the British Lying-In Hospital in Endell Street, Covent Garden. The Lying-In Hospital was the oldest maternity hospital in London, having been established as the Lying-In Hospital for Married Women in 1749, but was nearing the end of its time and would close in 1913.

In 1913/14, the Giles family moved from Streatham to Burgh Heath, probably (and certainly later) living at 1 Beall’s Cottages. There were many cottages on the Green by the pond and Beall’s cottages were most likely owned by the local butcher, Charles Beall. Back then the Brighton Road would have been just a single lane in width and the Reigate Road was not much more than a track across the Green.

War broke out in August 1914. Fred was a reservist but was not called up until November. He was working as a gardener, gave his age as 41 years and 7 months (actually he was only 39) and was 5ft. 8in. tall and weighed 154lbs when he attested with the Military Mounted Police Corps at Epsom on 4th November.

The Military Police had been busy all autumn in France guarding prisoners of war, directing traffic, reuniting stragglers with their regiments and bringing some kind of order to the chaotic retreat from Mons. A small unit at the outbreak of war, with only about 750 men, one third of whom were reservists, they were recruited from regular soldiers with at least 5 years service, having a good character and at least one good conduct badge. It rapidly became clear that the Redcaps were understrength and urgent recruitment began in late 1914 with relaxed entry standards. Many civilian policemen swapped blue for khaki (although, at the start of the war, the military police wore blue uniforms with their red caps) and experienced former soldiers re-enlisted as MPs.

The following War Office communique appeared in several newspapers in September 1914:


“                                                          RECRUITING FOR MILITARY POLICE

In connection with the formation of the new Expeditionary Force, the Army Council have decided to increase the strength of the military mounted and foot police, and the following classes of ex-soldiers are invited to re-enlist in this corps:

(1) Ex-military mounted police and ex-non-commissioned officers of mounted branches of the Army or mounted infantry, not being over 50 years of age, for service with the military mounted police. Thirty-three sergeants and 192 rank and file are required.

(2) Ex-military foot police, not over 50 years of age, for service with the military foot police at home.

Applicants should apply in writing to the Officer in Command Records, Military Police Corps, Aldershot”

Edinburgh Evening News 5th September 1914

Those numbers represented a massive expansion for the Military Mounted Police as they had just over a hundred men at the outbreak of the war but they were still a vast underestimate of how many men were required: by the end of the war, the Mounted Military Police consisted of over 3,500 men and there were 25,000 men in the Military Police as a whole.

The Mounted Police were attached to infantry and cavalry divisions, 25 policemen per division, and took care of most police duties that required a degree of mobility. Often a single MMP would be attached to a picket or to a straggler post manned by a detail of ordinary soldiers, with the MMP able to use their powers of arrest if required. Many went to France but they were needed everywhere that the Army was.

A huge number of soldiers were being concentrated in the south of England and there was an awful lot of police work to be done in Surrey, where there were many large camps. Reverend Larner, Rector of Busbridge, visited Guildford one Saturday evening in November 1914 and “came home a sad man” from this latter day Sodom and Gomorrah “concerned for the womanhood and girlhood” of his town as a result of witnessing “numbers of drunken soldiers who were behaving in a disgraceful manner.” The pubs were full to overflowing that night, hundreds of men in uniform (many – but not all – behaving respectably) were strolling around town in search of a drink and a girl, and there were few police and MPs around to keep order. Fred’s comrades would have had their hands full.

Fred was made acting lance corporal, the lowest rank in the Military Police but it was enough to give the policemen authority over most of the men in the Army. He wasn’t far from home, as he was billeted at the Railway Hotel in Haslemere, Surrey, and there were several camps nearby.

At 7:45p.m. on Sunday 27th December, a picket of 20 men of the Military Mounted Police and the Royal Scots Fusiliers was slowly marching down the left-hand side of Station Road, Haslemere, in file, two deep. Eric Hides, a motor engineer from nearby Shottermill, was driving along the road – not fast, probably less than the 10 miles an hour that the speed limit allowed, but with his acetylene headlights off and just his oil sidelights burning – and was struggling to see through his misty, rain-spattered windshield. It was a dark night, the men wore dark coats, moved slowly and were difficult to see but they had just passed a streetlamp on the opposite side of the road and should still have been visible. The men of the patrol heard and saw nothing before Hides’ motorcar ploughed into them from behind. Six men were injured, including Fred, who was walking at the back of the group.

Hides slammed on his brakes and his car ended up slewed across the road with a shattered windscreen. The injured men were loaded into the car and he drove them to Haslemere Cottage Hospital. Fred, apparently unscathed except for a slight bruise developing on the back of his head, was up and about when the doctor saw him, insisting that there was nothing wrong with him and that he wanted to go back to the Railway Hotel. The doctor, seeing that he was “a little dazed” kept him in hospital.

By midnight, Fred had fallen unconscious and the doctor was called. He had fractured his skull, probably when his head hit the road, and he had bleeding on the brain. A trepanning operation was performed to relieve the pressure but, at 4a.m. on Monday 28th December 1914, he died. He was 39.

Hides was not obliged to – and, on the advice of his solicitor, he did not – give evidence at the inquest held at Haslemere Council Chamber, but he was present and his solicitor questioned the witnesses. A witness said that the streetlamp shining on the rain-soaked glass would have made it impossible for Hides to see past the end of his bonnet. A jury verdict of accidental death was recorded. Hides appeared before the Guildford County Bench and was remanded on bail on a charge of manslaughter and later committed for trial.

Hides was tried at the Surrey winter assizes in Guildford on 23rd February. The judge, Mr Justice Horridge, attended church before the trial, his carriage escorted by uniformed mounted men of the Surrey Guides, a home defence unit that he had personally inaugurated, the procession headed by the high sherriff, who was dressed in khaki. They met the mayor, aldermen and town cryer at the church. Convalescent soldiers were amongst the congregation for the service, which began with the National Anthem. The judge was then escorted to the court by the Guides.

A Grand Jury of local notables was sworn in. The judge explained the law regarding negligence as it pertained to manslaughter, saying it “must amount to real recklessness to make it criminal negligence.” The question of whether Hides’ headlamps should have been on was discussed but the main point, in the judge’s eyes, seems to have been whether Hides should have raised his windscreen or not. Mr Justice Horridge suggested that the Grand Jury “might think it was a case where the accused ought not to be charged criminally” as he did not think that a jury conviction could be secured on that point alone. The prosecutor declined to proceed with the case and Hides was discharged.

On 2nd January 1915, Fred became the first war casualty to be buried at All Saints’, Banstead. He is commemorated on the panels in All Saints, Banstead, in St Mary’s, Burgh Heath, and in the Burgh Heath War Memorial Hall.

Fred was commemorated on the 100th anniversary of his death, as part of Banstead and Burgh Heath’s WW1 remembrance project. A service was held during which a bell was tolled 100 times at noon.

No photograph of Fred has been found, so if you have one we would love to hear from you!

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