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 Leonard Garner
Occupation: Assistant Master, West Street Council School, Farnham
Birth Place: Smethwick, Staffordshire
Date of Death: Killed in Action 24th August 1918
Age: 30 years (Born 1888)
Location: Near Bray, France
Rank: Second Lieutenant
Regiment: 11th (County of London) Battalion (Finsbury Rifles) attached 21st Battalion (First Surrey Rifles) London Regiment
Born in 1888, Robert was the son of Walter, a glass cutter and merchant, and Maria. He was the second of three children, with an elder brother and a younger sister. In the 1911 census he is single and describes himself as a student.
In 1913 he married Maud Minnie, nee Woollacott, in Kingston. Her father was a paper agent, a Justice of the Peace, and a local dignitary who sat on several local council and hospital boards. According to the Surrey Comet of 7th September 1918, Robert had been an assistant master at Elm Road Boys’ School before moving onto West Street Council School, Farnham.
Robert’s enlistment record is somewhat confusing. Early in his career, he was at times a member of the Army Service Corps, 16 Training Reserve (essentially a training unit from which recruits were sent to battalions), and in the 6th Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps. He did no overseas service with any of these units.
Robert was made a Second Lieutenant on 24th November 1917 and joined ‘11th Battalion, The London Regiment’. Records indicate that he went to France with this Battalion. It is probable that he went to the 2/11th Battalion which arrived in France in February 1917; the other Battalion, the 1/11th, was then stationed in the Middle East.
Soon after Robert joined, the 2/11th Battalion was disbanded in January 1918 as part of a wider army reorganisation to cover a gap in reinforcements. Officers and men of the Battalion were transferred to other units, predominantly London Regiment battalions, and it is likely that Robert was attached to the 1/21st London Regiment as part of this reorganisation, but this cannot be proved definitively.
In August 1918, the 1/21st London Regiment was operating around Albert, France. Throughout the month they had been in and out of trenches, carrying out work parties, patrols etc., when on the 23rd they moved up to trenches behind the Albert-Bray road. Their objective was German trenches north-east of ‘Happy Valley’, which was a deep curving valley just north of what is now the Bray Vale Cemetery.
Reading the War Diary it appears they captured the trenches on the morning of the 24th August, but a neighbouring battalion failed to capture an enemy strongpoint on their left. This strongpoint inflicted heavy casualties on the 1/12st Battalion until it was finally overcome with the aid of a tank. Three officers were killed and six listed as missing during the 24th – Robert was one of those killed.
Robert’s servant, Rifleman H.G. Wells (No. 651408), D Company, 1/21st County of London Regiment, wrote dated 28th August 1918:
‘Killed Sunday 26th August 1918.
I am very sorry to break the sad news to you, but your husband was killed while we were in action. He gave me your address before we went over; I stuck by him almost to the last. Never thinking that anything would happen. I am afraid this all I can say, and you have my deepest sympathy. He was always very good to me, and we used to get on well together.’
After his death, Robert’s wife pursued an insurance claim with Surrey County Council, who had taken out an insurance policy on behalf of Ernest. As part of this process, local enquiries were made into the circumstances of his family. His wife was described as ‘perfectly responsible and honourable and in my opinion entitled to receive the sum you refer to… Her father is Mr. A. Woollacott who is this year the Chairman of the District Council…’. His wife eventually received £88.
Mr Woollacott was chairman of the local council, and following his death, his fellow councillors passed a resolution to record their sympathy. Mr Woollacott described how Robert’s death had been a heavy blow to the family.
Robert’s body was never recovered, and he is remembered on the Vis-En-Artois Memorial, Pas de Calais, France.
He is entitled to British War Medal and Victory Medal.
Surrey History Centre File CC7/4/4, file 43
Regimental War Diary – 2/11th (County of London) Battalion (Finsbury Rifles)
Regimental War Diary – 1/21st Battalion (First Surrey Rifles) London Regiment
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 https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/regiments-and-corps/training-reserve/
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – https://www.cwgc.org/
Ancestry website – https://www.ancestry.co.uk/