St Barbe Russell Sladen was born on 1 January 1873, the son of St Barbe Sladen of Heathfield, Reigate, and his wife Emma Camilla Russell of Hartley Wintney. He attended Marlborough College between 1887 and 1890 and subsequently became a partner in the family law firm. In 1902 he married Dorothy Alice Turner, daughter of Col Thomas Turner of Brooklyn, Frimley. An active member of the newly formed Territorial Force, he had attained the rank of Major in the 5th Battalion, the Queen’s, at the outbreak of World War I, by which time he was living at 29 Bramham Gardens, London, SW5.
His diaries and correspondence (SHC ref QRWS/30/SLADEN/-) are a fine source for his military career and experiences in the Great War, particularly the first months of the conflict. They show him to be an intelligent, able officer, with a keen sense of duty, a capacity for hard work and a desire to serve his country to the utmost.
The day after war was declared, in accordance with longstanding mobilisation orders, the 5th Battalion assembled at Guildford. Horses, ‘which had previously been allocated to us unknown to owners’, were collected (the Battalion needed over 50 for transport) and the men were given a medical examination; some failed, generally because of poor teeth. Leaving behind a Depot in Guildford to deal with volunteers seeking to join the unit, the Battalion was transported to Chatham in two trains, arriving at 10pm. Billets were organised in private houses in Strood: the poor inhabitants were ‘full of kindness’. Initially the men guarded the dockyard, railways and bridges as it was feared that ‘German waiters and others’ would attempt to sabotage these vital communications. On 9 August, having been relieved by reserve units, the battalion moved to Maidstone, setting up its HQ in the Girls Grammar School. Sladen worked hard sorting out the transport horses and pack animals. Two water carts provided by Lord Lovelace had to be rejected as they had previously be used to carry liquid manure. It was planned that the two Territorial Battalions of the Queen’s (the 4th and 5th) should exchange personnel, the 4th taking all those who had volunteered for foreign service, the 5th becoming a home service unit. The exchange of men took place on 31 August, by which time the Battalion had moved again, to Canterbury. On 1 September Sladen attended a lecture by Brig Gen Montgomerie who ‘practically admitted that the Russian troops from Archangel were passing through England’. Though Sladen found this ‘encouraging’, it turned out to be a complete fiction. He was unimpressed with many of the recruits coming over from 4th Battalion whom he described as ‘mostly children’ with several no more than 5 feet tall: ‘They will have to be got rid of’.
On 8 September it was decided that the men of 5th Battalion should be asked if they would in fact volunteer for foreign service, which Sladen thought ‘the only honourable course’. Despite the CO giving a speech the following day ‘that ought to damp the ardour even of thrusters’, a majority volunteered and the men who had transferred to the 4th Battalion came back on 15 September. Over the following weeks the 5th Battalion trained, constructed practise trenches and performed night manoeuvres, but on 7 October, Sladen was sent to London to assist with the construction of a defensive line around London, using civilian labour. The line stretched from Reigate to Dartford, following the line of the North Downs and Sladen was made responsible for the section from Otford in Kent to the Thames. 12 civil engineers were assigned to him, but there was a severe shortage of manpower to construct the defences. Sladen got no further than pegging out trenches around Eynsford and Lullingstone, before his application to be relieved of his duties and be allowed to rejoin his Battalion, about to sail for India, was approved. He returned to Canterbury. During a short spell of leave before sailing, he had an interesting encounter with a wounded captain in the Highland Light Infantry who told him that the stories of atrocities committed by the German troops in Belgium were not true. The Germans he had encountered ‘were fine, clean fighters, but he had never seen them fix bayonets against us, though we were doing so continually against them’.
Sladen said goodbye to his wife and daughter. His daughter was very upset, which distressed him: ‘Ever since the war began she has outwardly shown her affection very much, which means a great deal with her as she is far from being a demonstrative child’. On 29 October two trains took the 5th Battalion to Southampton via Redhill and Guildford, where ‘crowds met us’. At 9.30pm the transport ship left for India, arriving a month later on 1 December, after a voyage through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal. It joined the garrison at Lucknow and settled down to an uneventful tour of duty. It seems that Sladen was frustrated and felt he should be doing more for the war effort: he stopped keeping his diary in the summer of 1915, not to resume it until October 1917. He returned to England in October 1915 to take up the command of the 2/5th Battalion in expectation of serving overseas with it.
However in 1917 he discovered that the battalion was in fact to be demobilised and he sought an alternative posting. On 28 October 1917, having arrived in France the previous day, he was attached to 1st Battalion, the Queen’s, then serving in the Ypres sector. Sladen was on the point of accepting an offer from the commanding officer of 1/5th Battalion, still out in India, to resign his command in his favour, when a training ground accident to Lt Col Crofts, CO of 1st Battalion, saw Sladen appointed to command of 1st Battalion. He was immensely proud, as a Territorial officer, to take charge of a regular battalion. However he did not enjoy the honour for long. On 8 March he took temporary command of 19th Infantry Brigade while the Brigadier was on leave and while on a tour of inspection of the front line, was killed by a shell on 12 March 1918, near Passchendaele. He is buried in Ypres Reservoir Cemetery.
Papers of Lt Col St Barbe Russell Sladen held by Surrey History Centre as QRWS/30/SLADEN.
A service file relating to his military career is held by The National Archives under the reference WO374/62844.