This story is the result of an investigation of documents held by Surrey History Centre. The file (SHC ref. CC7/4/4, nos. 1-50) contains correspondence and insurance claims on behalf of Surrey County Council Education Department employees who had been killed in action during the Great War. The cases date from 1915 to 1918.
Name: Robert Henry London
Occupation: Assistant master, Westfields Boys’ School, Barnes
Birth Place: Great Yarmouth
Residence: Cheam, London
Date of Death: died of Wounds 7th September 1918
Age: 28 years
Location: south-east of Bapaume, France
Regiment: 65th Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps
Robert was the son of Robert, a shipwright, and Annie London of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. Robert and Annie had three sons and a daughter. Robert was born on 29th March 1890.
By 1911, the census describes Robert as single and a school teacher. He was boarding with the Cox family at 1, Ivy Villas, Church Path Cottages, Cheam, Surrey.
Robert originally enlisted into the 4th London General Hospital (Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Force) on 22nd November 1915. At this stage he was living at The Gables, Cheam. An early medical report may reveal why he joined as a medic rather than as an infantryman. He was categorised as ‘B2’ due to ‘bad teeth and varicose veins in the right leg’. ‘B2’ was defined as ‘Free from serious organic diseases, able to stand service on lines of communication in France, or in garrisons in the tropics’. He simply may not have been fit enough for the infantry, but still bravely served as a medic.
He married Kate Charlotte Humphreys at the parish church in Cheam on 14th February 1917, and went to France just a month later, arriving at Rouen on the 24th of March 1917. Robert appears to have remained at the base in Rouen for some time; Rouen was home for numerous Allied camps and hospitals. During his time at Rouen he received additional pay as a ‘Special Attendant’. He was finally posted to 65th Field Ambulance on 16th November 1917.
65th Field Ambulance was attached to the 21st Division, and was responsible for manning the casualty chain – from the stretcher bearers on the front-line to dressing stations, usually only a few hundred yards behind the line. The 65th had arrived in France in September 1915, and by the time Robert arrived had been involved in the battles of the Somme, Arras, and Passchendaele. Robert joined just before their involvement in the Battle of Cambrai. In 1918, he would be involved in battles along the Somme, Lys, and Aisne as well as the British offensives against the Hindenburg Line from September onwards.
On September 7th, 1918, 65th Field Ambulance was supporting the 21st Division to the south-east of Bapaume, France. On that day, the 65th’s war diary simply records ‘shell hit one of the huts’.
A letter to Robert’s wife from a John Fergue, of 98th Field Company, dated 16th September 1918, provides the details of what happened:
‘Your husband was working at the Advanced Dressing Station and a shell struck of the huts killed two of the men and wounding about ten or eleven. I was working in the rest hut with another medical officer at the time – we did what we could for your husband and sent him down to the Casualty Clearing Station, but I feared at the time that there was very little chance for him and it was reported later to the ambulance that he had died just before reaching the C.C.S. You will be thankful to hear that he suffered very little pain. He was a brave good chap very popular with the officers and men and will be very much missed in the ambulance, he was certainly one of our best men.’
Later R. Reginald Parry (Sergeant-Major) also wrote to Mrs London on 25th September 1918
‘It has not been possible for me to write to you before, and even now the time and circumstances are not very easy, but I must send a few lines as I feel you will be looking for some words from your husband’s comrades… I knew him as a good soldier, faithful and exact in all he did. But sometimes one is privileged to know one’s men as something more than soldiers, and it was my privilege to know him for a cultured, high-minded gentleman. I knew him for a man with a great gift of quiet sympathy and a large understanding of his fellows. In moments when it was possible to break from the trammels of discipline I had many long talks with him, and I always admired the frankness of his spirit and his clear-mindedness. It was a pleasure to have known him, and I regret a good soldier and mourn a good friend. The shell which killed him landed right in a hut filled with men, just at dinner-time. That one unlucky shell killed three married men, one bright lad and wounded six others. All of them good men and true. Everything humanly possible was done for then, but your husband died in a very few minutes after he was sent down to the C.C.S. At first opportunity I shall seek his resting place and assure myself that it is properly marked.
One hesitates to seem to intrude in the innermost of your life, but I must tell you that at the end, before unconsciousness came, his whole thought was of you. He asked that you should be told. I am assured that his whole being was so close to you at that time that he knew no pain.’
Robert is buried in Varennes Military Cemetery.
He is entitled to the British War Medal and Victory Medal.
After his death, Robert’s family pursued an insurance claim with Surrey County Council, who had taken out an insurance policy on behalf of Robert. The family eventually received £85 and 15 shillings.
Surrey History Centre File CC7/4/4, file 45
Regimental War Diary – 65th Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps
British Army WW1 Service Records – Robert Henry London
London Gazette, 24th November 1917 – https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/30397/supplement/12289/data.pdf
The Long, long Trail – The British Army in the Great War 0f 1914-1918 – Field Ambulances in the First World War – https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/soldiers/a-soldiers-life-1914-1918/the-evacuation-chain-for-wounded-and-sick-soldiers/field-ambulances-in-the-first-world-war/
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – https://www.cwgc.org/
Ancestry website – https://www.ancestry.co.uk/