Archibald Gervase Tonge was born on 14th November 1885 and was baptised at All Saints’ on 31st January 1886, the first baptism of that year. His parents, James and Betsy Ann, kept a combined grocers shop and sub-post office in the High Street by the Woolpack.
Long before there had been a post office in Banstead, mail was received by the landlord of the Woolpack and so John Cooper’s grocers shop next door seemed a natural choice for a post office when the volume of mail began to grow in Victorian times. James Selsby, a nephew of John Cooper’s wife, took over the shop and later passed it on to his nephew, James Tonge. James had started working at the shop as a grocer’s assistant years earlier and then joined the Post Office as a clerk and telegraphist. He was postmaster for a decade following his uncle’s retirement and then concentrated on running the grocery while Betsy Ann became postmistress.
The Tonge’s children all went into the family business in one way or another: Margaret, Sophia and James all became telegraphists, youngest son Willie managed the grocers shop after his father’s death in 1908 and Archie became a transfer clerk, responsible for overseeing the transfer of mail between trains, on the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway. By 1916, Archie was working in the Registration Department and earning 51 shillings and sixpence a week, good money at the time, but he continued to live at home, renting a ground floor room from his mother for 10 shillings per week.
Archie played cricket at Banstead Cricket Club, playing the occasional match for the 2nd XI, batting with the tail-enders. His younger brother, Willie, sometimes acted as scorer and was also an occasional player. Archie’s first recorded match was in 1903 and the last known is in 1911, his only recorded appearance for the 1st XI.
The peak of voluntary enlistment came early on in the war, in August and September 1914, and the number of volunteers fell dramatically after that. The Derby Scheme was introduced in 1915 in order to increase the number of recruits. Men who were eligible for service were visited by canvassers and asked whether or not they were willing to join the Army. If the canvasser managed to persuade the man to attest then he visited a recruiting office and could choose whether to join immediately or defer his service until it was deemed absolutely necessary. If he chose deferred service then he was given a day’s pay and an armband to wear showing that he had pledged to serve his country if called. These men were promised that they would only be mobilised if their whole age group was called up. Conscription was looming and it was a last chance to volunteer. Archie attested under the Derby Scheme in November 1915, choosing to defer his service, and was posted to the Army Reserve. He was called up on 17th March 1916 along with the rest of his age group.
Archie, quite a short man at 5ft 3in tall, joined the 14th (County of London) Battalion (London Scottish) of the London Regiment. The London Scottish were (and still are) a Territorial unit and wore kilts of Hodden Grey. When war broke out, their battalion filled up rapidly with Londoners of Scottish descent and a waiting list had to be opened to which a joining fee was charged. A second battalion was formed in September 1914 and then a third, reserve, battalion in November.
Archie trained with the 3rd Battalion at East Sheen for a fortnight before being posted to 2nd Battalion. The 2nd Battalion had been training at home since their formation early in the war (including a spell in Dorking during which they took part in Lord Kitchener’s famous inspection in the snow on Epsom Downs) and sending drafts of men to the 1st Battalion in France on a regular basis. They had moved to No.9 Camp at Sutton Veney, on Salisbury Plain, in January 1916 for six months training before deployment to France. Here they were instructed in musketry, bombing, bayonet fighting, machine-gunning, trench mortars and the relief, attack and defence of trenches using a large mocked-up trench network and took part in field exercises with the rest of 179th Brigade and 60th (2/2nd London) Division, a division of London Territorials. Archie joined them in early April and served in ‘D’ Company.
They had just moved to a new camp, at Longbridge Deverill, when ‘C’ Company and one platoon of ‘A’ were sent to Ireland in the wake of the Easter Rising. There they patrolled the countryside and searched for arms caches around Tralee but soon returned to England to rejoin the rest of the Battalion as their departure for France was imminent. After inspection by His Majesty the King, they took embarkation leave, a last chance to see their families. They sailed from Southampton aboard La Marguerite, “a paddle steamer of modest dimensions and incredible dirtiness”, arriving at Le Havre on 22nd June.
Soon after arrival, they got stuck into fetching and carrying tasks for 185th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. On 6th July, they moved into the trenches for the first time, slogging along Territorial Trench, a flooded, muddy, communications trench that led to a section of the line at Neuville-St Vaast, north of Arras, that was known as The Labyrinth. They were inducted into trench life by the 1/7th (Deeside) Gordon Highlanders, many of them only in their teens but already veterans of life on the frontline with an infectious fearlessness and contempt for their enemy.
In 179th Brigade’s sector, two battalions held the front line, each with three companies in the line and one in support, another battalion in support and the Brigade’s fourth battalion at rest as Brigade reserve in bad billets in the village of Bray. There was much work to be done digging new dug-outs and improving the wire
They did not fight in the Battle of the Somme (they would later be trained to go into action there but were not deployed) although they could hear the constant rumble of guns far to the south. The fighting on the Somme had left few troops to hold the line elsewhere; neither side was strong enough to make any meaningful attack at Neuville-St Vaast so it was a relatively quiet sector where “one tour of duty much resembled another” although the peace could never be taken for granted and so each tour was still filled with “ceaseless vigilance and unending work”. They were long tours too, due to the manpower shortage, and usually lasted a fortnight (although not all of that was in the firing line as some time was spent in the support line) rather than the standard 10 days. Apart from occasional mine explosions, the chief danger for both sides was from trench mortars; the Scottish’s Stokes mortar section responded immediately to any German barrage with one of their own in an effort to keep them in check.
The line here ran almost due north-south. No Man’s Land, a maze of old wire and disused trenches, was typically 250-300 yards in width. Mining activity was at its highest where No Man’s Land was at its narrowest and at these points the ground was pockmarked with large craters. Saps from both lines snaked out to the craters, each side attempting to possess them. The German firing line curved around the lips of several craters. The main British line, Doublemont, was deep, well revetted and much traversed; the company HQs were sited here. A semicircle of trenches, Paris Redoubt, bulged outwards to form a salient, with an outpost line running northwards on one side, while a patchwork of saps and crater lips formed another firing line on the southern side.
On 4th September, Archie’s ‘D’ Company were in the line on the left (north) when the Germans detonated a mine under the Claudot Sap. Captain Tinlin ordered his men forward to hold the near lip of the new crater and held the Germans at bay, denying them possession of the far lip for as long as they could. 4 men were killed and 18 wounded. Later in the month, the Germans brought up heavier mortars, which threw 100lb shells, and began to pound the Paris Redoubt into oblivion; the lighter Stokes mortars of the British were powerless to stop them. Several days of rain brought an end to the barrage but caused more damage than the mortar in the end as the waterlogged sides of the trenches collapsed.
A raid was mounted on the German trenches on the night of 30th September and carried out with “gallantry and determination”. The 47 men taking part blackened their faces and wore football jerseys and bombing shields and were organised into four parties: two to block the German trench on the left and right, one to provide cover from No Man’s Land and a fourth, the “Body Snatchers” who would take prisoners and investigate dug-outs for useful intelligence. The operation was supported by artillery throughout. No dug-outs were found but 5 prisoners were captured and several other Germans were killed. Four men were decorated for their actions during the raid but nine were killed, wounded or missing.
When they returned to the trenches a week later, they found that the line south of the Paris Redoubt had practically been obliterated and was still bombarding the area with heavy shells. The decision was taken to only hold a series of outposts on the lips of the craters rather than a continuous line. After four days and nights of constant bombardment, the line had completely ceased to exist. They left the line via Territorial Trench on the morning of the 13th, heading for a short rest at Bray.
They were back in the line a week later. Unknown to the Scottish, it was to be an unexpectedly short 4-day tour and their last on the Western Front. In November, they would train for action on the Somme but were then transferred to Salonica, on the Balkan Front. In that final week in France, seven men were killed and twelve wounded. Archie was among the fallen, killed in action on 20th October, most likely the victim of a sniper or a trench mortar. He was 30 years old.
Archie is buried in Maroeuil British Cemetery. His headstone inscription, chosen by his mother, reads: “Jesus said Lo, I am with you always even unto the end of the world.” He is commemorated on the Banstead War Memorial, on the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway War Memorial at Victoria Station, on the Banstead Cricket Club Roll of Honour, on the London Scottish War Memorial in their Regimental Headquarters in Horseferry Road, on the Tonge family grave, on the Garton Memorial in All Saints’ churchyard, on the memorial panels in the Lady Chapel at All Saints’ and in the All Saints’ Book of Men Who Served Overseas.
Archie was commemorated at All Saints’, Banstead, on the 100th anniversary of his death, 20th October 2016. The churchyard flag was flown at half mast and a service of remembrance was held during which a bell was tolled 100 times by representatives from Banstead Cricket Club and the Royal Mail.