Private John Spencer Richardson,

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Research and text by Tim Richardson, great nephew

John Spencer Richardson, known to his family as Jack, was born on 22nd October 1893 at his uncle’s house, No 119 Waddon New Road, Croydon. He was the second son of John and Ada Lizzie Richardson. When he was two the family returned back to Essex, where the Richardson’s, an old Essex farming family from the Billericay area, originated from and moved into Elliot Farm at Hutton. The family lived there for about eight years then moved to Frith Farm, Laindon Common, near Great Burstead in Essex They lived there until the outbreak of World War 2.  Jack had three brothers and five sisters.

Shortly before the First World War Jack went to Canada to stay and work on a relative’s farm near Regina, Saskatwachen.

On August the 4th 1914 war broke out. Jack’s eldest brother, Guy, already a member of the Territorial Army in the Artists Rifles was commissioned into the 22nd Battalion, The Queens, of the London Regiment. In December 1914 Jack was sworn in as a member of the Canadian Army by [Lieutenant Colonel] Snell at Alexandra School in Regina. He joined the 46th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). His attestation papers survive. He was described as 5 ft 5 inches tall, he had a chest measurement of 36 inches with an expansion of 3 inches. His hair fair, his eyes were grey and complexion fresh. His occupation, a farmer. He had already served in the Canadian Militia and was willing to serve overseas.  His next of kin was his father, John Fenton Richardson of Frith Farm, Laindon Common, Billericay and he was [Church of England].

Basic training was carried out at Valcartier camp before being sent overseas. Canadian troops were already serving on the Western Front and in action. In April 1915 they took part in the second battle of Ypres where the Germans used poisoned gas for the first time in Flanders.  Canadian casualties were high. Jack, by now in England at the training camp at Shorncliffe in Kent, was posted to the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion CEF in July 1915.

He overstayed his embarkation leave visiting his parents at Frith Farm and was reported as ‘Absent without leave’, was punished with 4 days detention and fined 7 days’ pay. On 11th September 1915, he joined the 3rd, at that time they were holding the line in Ploegstreet Wood, known to Tommy as ‘Plug Street’, in Belgium.

During the winter of 1915/16 the 3rd was in and out of the trenches, mainly in the wood. It appears that the 3rd were an aggressive unit. Not long after Jack joined them the enemy in the opposing trenches called out “We are Saxons, who are you”? The Canadians replied with rifle fire.  Again, on Christmas Day the battalion’s war diary notes ‘the Germans tried to make friends but gave up after several were shot’.

Out of the line the 3rd became very good footballers winning many games. The officers played Baseball.

In the line losses were steady. The main causes were snipers and minewerfers. During this period, some form of scandal occurred with three sergeants losing their stripes and a private was sentenced to 90 days Field Punishment No 1.

On 29th January 1916, the battalions were issued with its own cap badge and a fortnight later steel helmets appeared. By the middle of February, the battalion boasted 200 helmets between 800 men.

On March the 1st a company of the 43rd Battalion CEF was attached to the 3rd for training. Jack’s cousin, Philip Woolfit, who had also moved to Canada before the war was in the 43rd. They may have met. Phillip’s younger brother, Donald would later drop an ‘o’ from his surname and became Sir Donald Wolfit the actor knight. Philip would die in November 1916 of a wound, received on the Somme.

Later that month measles broke out in the 3rd and Jack was one of those who caught it.  It affected him enough to earn him a trip back to Blighty. First to the 3rd Western Hospital in Cardiff, then to convalesce at the Canadian convalescent hospital at Bear Wood House, near Wokingham. He was not fit to return to his unit in Belgium until 17th July 1916.

While he was in England a portrait photograph was taken of him. It shows a thoughtful and mature young man, he was 22, very different from the early snaps taken in Canada, fresh into Khaki, standing proudly to attention. Jack had served 6 months as an infantryman at the front.

On Saturday 1st July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began.

Between the British held Albert and the German held town of Bapaume runs a Roman road. The distance between the two towns is about 10 miles. The battle raged up that road until November. It is estimated that it cost the lives of 3 men for every yard of battlefield.

In August, Australian troops took the offensive and attacked up that road to take the village of Poiziers. The ANZAC’s lost more men here than any other battlefield in WW1. By late August the Canadian Divisions were brought down from Ypres to take over from them. The Canadians were regarded as hard men and it was intended they would launch a new attack in September.

Before moving off two privates from the 3rd were shot for desertion. They were executed separately. The first in front of the assembled battalion. The battalion were not happy with this. The second, more discreetly, at dawn in a quarry.

The journey South was made by train, bus and finally on foot. Arriving at the town of Doullens, then through Puchvilliers past the two Casualty Clearing Stations, vast tented hospital’s No’s 3 and 44. Many of the Canadian soldiers passing them would return over the next few days to be entrusted to their care. Jack would be one of them.

The Front Line had now moved forward since the 1st of July, but the attack had stalled with the ruins of the village of Poiziers and its windmill as its furthest point. To the West of the ruins the devastated landscape was devoid of landmarks. The German strongpoints of Mouquet Farm and Thiepval were still held against British and Australian attacks. Into this the 3rd Battalion moved to relieve the exhausted Australians. In front of them stood the village of Courcellette, again still in enemy hands. It would fall to the Canadians on the 15th September.

Jack and his comrades took over a section of the Front on 3rd September, a Sunday. Headquarters was established in Central Way Trench which occupied a field just north of Poizier’s civilian cemetery on the road leading to Mouquet Farm. There was a little rain and at 72 degrees, quite warm. German artillery commenced to shell the Canadians. At this point trenches were no more than shell holes and did not provide much cover. Over 20 men in the 3rd were hit, Jack was wounded in the head by shrapnel.

It proved difficult to get the injured away, first to the Regimental Aid Post, then down to an Advanced Dressing station. A light horse drawn railway was used here to move the wounded back to safety. Finally, a motor ambulance took them back to the CCS. One of the two at Puchvilliers, 15 miles from the front, the 44th, dealt with head injuries. The chain of medical treatment was a well-oiled and developed machine by now. As the patient arrived he was brought to ‘Triage’. A French word, which meant quite simply three things. Option 1, the patient could be treated and sent on to the larger base hospital near the coast then to England. Option 2, he could be treated and kept at the CCS until he was fit enough to send back as in 1. Option 3, the patient was not expected to survive. They were heavily drugged, made as comfortable as possible and given every care. They were not going back. Jack was one of those, option 3.

He survived until 9th September. Family tradition states that his father reached him before he died, and that he died calling for his mother. He was buried in the cemetery next to the CCS.   The cemetery reflects the fighting around Poiziers and Mouquet Farm with 416 Australian and 214 Canadians buried there who lost their lives in late August to mid-September.

Whether, or not, John Richardson was at his son’s bedside as he slipped away I cannot confirm but after the war John planted a Lavender bush on Jacks grave when it was still marked with a wooden cross. Later when a grave stone replaced it the bush still flourished. John made perfume for a hobby, the Lavender was his most used plant. In 1996 I planted a fresh Lavender on his grave.

On the night of 23rd September, the German Zeppelin L32 was shot down in flames over Essex, crashing to earth by Snails Hall, Billericay. The crew were buried in the St Marys grave yard at Gt Burstead. John Richardson was church warden there. John’s thoughts were not recorded.

Guy Richardson moved to Epsom after the war. During WW2 he was Sheriff of London and commanded the Home Guard in Epsom and Banstead, the 56th Battalion.

On Friday 9th September 2016, my wife, my eldest son and myself visited Jack’s resting place to mark the 100 years to the day that he passed away. We planted a fresh Lavender bush on his grave, carrying on the tradition started by his father nearly one hundred years before.

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