6 December 2012

The Hammers Stretcher Bearers

Some of the bravest among the brave in the first world war were the stretcher bearers.

By the time the West Ham Battalion arrived in France (December, 1915), Norman William Bellinger was regarded by everyone as a very good soldier and had been appointed Lance Corporal. He was also placed in charge of the medics under the direct command of Dr Alan Holthusen, the Medical Officer.

Holthusen was a locally born GP surgeon with a practise in Wanstead and his younger brother Len was also in the Hammers, living in Forest Gate and serving as the Signals Officer (and the current battalion snooker champion).

Norman Bellinger was 28 when he enlisted at the Hammers recruiting office in East Ham early in January 1915. He was one of those listed on the front page appeal for volunteers in the Stratford Express. Married on Christmas Day in 1909 to Lillian, and living with their young daughter at 33 Howard Road in Barking, Norman worked in a local india rubber factory as a labourer. He was short, yet very strong.

By April 27th 1916, the Hammers were in and around the modern-day town of Grenay in northern France. The German's launched one of the everyday hazards of trench life - mortar bombs, silent in flight and deadly on impact. During the attack, 38 year old Pte Joe Cooper was gravely injured. First on the scene was Norman Bellinger, who began wrapping Joe up in bandages. The two men then came under further mortar fire, which hit Norman himself in three places and no doubt made Joe's situation a whole lot worse.

Gilbert Rogers, 1919

With further brave assistance from the other stretcher bearers, the two wounded men were brought in. Norman had made every effort to save the badly injured Cooper despite bleeding heavily from his own wounds. Sadly, Joe didn't survive and wouldn't return to his native Limehouse. Today he's buried in the Loos British cemetery.

Norman recovered enough to continue exhibiting incredible bravery. Less than a fortnight later he dashed out, still patched up, to assist L/Cpl Jimmy Dutton from Plaistow who had been hit in a very similar attack. Norman picked him up and carried him back but he was already dead. For this action, he was one of the earliest men in the war to be awarded the Military Medal.

On June 1st, when the Germans blew three huge mines right on the Hammers front, Norman was one of the stretcher bearers picking up shattered men from the moonscape battlefield while under artillery fire. The wounded were all taken to Dr Holthusen's aid tent which that night practically became the Advanced dressing Station for the whole Brigade during the German attack.

Holthusen treated over 90 men from three different Regiments that night but they couldn't be moved out to the proper care they urgently required as the shelling on their positions was "intense". By the morning, as the shelling lessened, Norman Bellinger was transferring them on to lorries and off to hospital.

At the end of July, the West Ham Battalion were on the Somme and engaged in blocking the almost suicidal counter-attacks being made by the Germans against Deville Wood. 'The Devil's Wood', as it was known by the Tommys, was a desperately hellish place to be. Many Hammers were killed over their few days in the frontline, not many have known graves. Those that do were brought in by Norman and his stretcher bearers. Norman was seen to be tireless. He didn't care about sleeping, he didn't care about eating. He simply cared about getting those men off that horrendous battlefield. We'll never know how many men he saved or who today have a known grave thanks to him and others, but Norman's actions were enough for him to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Gilbert Rogers

When Colonel Papillon had his breakdown from shell shock at the end of the Somme Summer of 1916, it was Bellinger who personally led him home and back to his wife at Catsfield Place in Sussex. Norman then had an extended leave to recover himself before he transferred over to the Labour Corps. By Armistace Day, Norman Bellinger was classed as 50% disabled from his wounds and went home to Barking, in a new house at 28 Shaftesbury Road. He died in early 1963 having lived to be 76 years old.

Another of the Hammers stretcher bearers was Charlie Gladding. He was one of a number of men who lived in Tidal Basin, under the shadows of the world renowned Thames Ironworks. A large group of men from these streets joined the West Ham Battalion and among them was 22 year old Charlie who lived with his new teenage wife in Alice Street.

He worked closely with Norman Bellinger in rescuing those lads mown down on the battlefield, but by the end of Summer 1916 after their tour on the Somme, Charlie Gladding's spirit broke. Like so many men, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Sent home to his wife, he eventually recovered, and was then posted to the Labour Corps, serving overseas in Salonika. Sadly, it was here that he caught pneumonia in September 1918, just a few months before the end of the war, and died.

Sadly, I've not yet found a photo of these brave men. But I cant help admiring Norman Bellinger's bravery, as Joe Cooper was my Gt-Grandfather...

4 December 2012

Dinner Up West

Frank Keeble was an original Officer in the West Ham Battalion. Although he came from the countryside of Essex his mum had been born in the Borough and his grandad was an Alderman.

He won the Military Cross on the Hammers first trench raid in July 1916 where he not only broke his leg but was wounded by shrapnel in three places. He was sent to hospital in Reading for three weeks and then moved into the Atherton Road home of another volunteer in the Hammers, Lt Reg Norman. Reg was a fruit and veg salesman in Stratford market and his dad ran a very large and successful produce distribution.

By September, Frank Keeble was ready to return to the West Ham Battalion but before he did he met up on the 17th with an old pal and fellow Hammer from the early days in Stratford, Reggie Howell. They went 'up West' together and headed for the Trocadero restaurant in Piccadilly. Reggie would have told Frank just what had been happening over the Somme Summer and how the Hammers had been hit with high casualties. Hopefully the news didn't ruin the meal too much.

Here's what they had - Frank and Reggie both signed the menu for posterity

menu courtesy of the Keeble Family

German Heritage Volunteers

One of the West Ham Battalion officers, Ernest Sherman (who came from Whitechapel and won his Military Cross at Oppy, April 1917) was German heritage, but he wasn't the only one.

There are a distinct number of German surnames in the Hammers, but this shouldn't be surprising - the 1911 Census records that about 2% of the Borough of West Ham was 'foreign born'.

Most of the lads were British born but of German parents or grand parents and they included the Medical Officer, Dr Alan Holthusen. He had his GP surgery in Sebert Road, Forest Gate and another in Wanstead. His younger brother Len was also serving in the Hammers, as the Signals Officer.

Alan Holthusen

The West Ham Battalion tailor was Ernie Kurtz, born in Bow but living in Forest Gate, son of a tailor and married to a seamstress.

Ernie Kurtz

Other German surnames on the Muster Roll of 'Originals' include Lang, Luck, Giess (two brothers who enlisted together), Vogt, Teitjen (who knocked a few years off his age and was severely shattered mentally by the Somme Summer of 1916), Tettmar, Hauser, Izzat, Francker, Englefield, Vaus, Zimmer, Schuler, Therin (two more brothers who enlisted together) and Kunkel (who was wounded by a sniper).

Cyril Blattman is interesting as he was living just a few doors down from Mr Flatan's photography shop in Ley Street, Ilford when he enlisted. Although Cyril's surname sounds German, it was actually from his grandfather Jean Blattman - who was born in Matherne in the Alsace region of France and first appears in London on the 1851 Census!

3 December 2012

The Weekly Shopping

Here's a Mess Bill belonging to 2/Lt Frank Keeble, from a snowy February 1916 when the West Ham Battalion were billeted behind the freezing lines at Les Choquaux.

It gives a small insight into the requirements of the B Company Officers in the trenches of the Western Front.

 (courtesy Keeble Family)

What Became of UC-5?

As the West Ham Battalion sailed to France on November 17th, 1915, their ship SS Princess Victoria was soon delayed in her journey to allow the hospital ship (HS) Anglia to enter port.

Commanded by Captain Lionel J Manning, the HS Anglia was returning from France full of evacuated wounded. In a sudden flash she struck a mine, laid earlier that morning by the German submarine UC-5. Captain Manning was blown from the bridge to the deck below in the explosion but regained his senses long enough to order the lowering of lifeboats. The Anglia began to sink, bow first, and extremely quickly taking one hundred and twenty-nine lives with her. Ships and boats made frantic efforts to assist in the rescue. One ship was sunk by yet another mine, although without any further loss of life.

With this unsettling welcome to the war for the Hammers, SS Princess Victoria resumed steaming her slow passage as a sea fog began to obscure the English coastline.

SS Princess Victoria

But what became of the submarine UC-5, which had laid the mine?

Incredibly, she was captured a year later and sent to be displayed on the Thames. The noise was incredible as she entered the Pool of London with every ship blowing it's horns in triumphant celebration. Moored at Temple Pier she was visited by many thousands of Londoners.

Finally, by October, she was hoisted up on-board another ship and sailed off to the USA, arriving in New York and ending up in Central Park to become a fund raising display.

18 November 2012

The Ellis Boys - all related?

Here's something for those of you who enjoy doing family research. It's a question I was unable to answer due to time constraints, but perhaps you will be able to solve it.

Five original volunteers to the West Ham Battalion were -

(Service Number and Name)
17661 Albert Benjamin ELLIS
17265 EE ELLIS
17724 James ELLIS
17384 CW ELLIS
21462 F ELLIS

Albert Ellis was killed with another soldier when a grenade exploded accidentally. All the service numbers are low 17's, which means they were amongst the earliest men to enlist in The Hammers. 21462 F Ellis has a service number which indicates that he was a volunteer but also that he arrived in France from the Hammers depot company as a replacement, probably around January 1916.

The men were local to West Ham or to Hackney. This is interesting and opens the door to why I think the men are all related. There was a very large and successful piano manufacturer in the latter half of the 18th century called John Ellis. His main and famous showroom was in Upton Park but his factory was at the Alexandra Works, 130 Shacklewell Lane in Dalston.

I have an idea that perhaps the men were brothers and cousins. Or maybe it's pure coincidence.

Can you solve the mystery?

14 November 2012

Did He Go To France...

This unknown Corporal (although something tells me that it's Charlie Lucas, Military Medal winner at Lock5) is a member of the West Ham Battalion Police.

He can be seen parading the shackles - as used to restrain men, like L/Cpl Crisp who assaulted one of the sentries while in France.

Also on parade is a small dog, familiar enough with the Corporal to sit on his arm, so most likely it belonged to him. Not knowing the man, we cant ever hope to know the dog and whether or not he went to France and became a ratter with the West Ham Battalion. But such things weren't uncommon...

13 November 2012

Not Impossible...

I have often wondered whether this chap in the centre (click to enlarge), from an early 1915 image of the West Ham Battalion Drum & Bugle Band somewhere in the Borough, is Black or Mixed-Race. It is perfectly plausible and it could be argued that in the Docks area of London not in any way unusual or unknown.

It's difficult to tell, as the ways of black and white photography back then in the early days of the technology can cause tones and shadows which are liable to be misinterpreted. But, I don't know why, I simply have a sneaking suspicion that this man is black or mixed-race.

From the same photograph is this interesting scene. Is that a father with his son? Did dad survive? Depending on his age the son may also have been called up by 1918.

The sad thing about WW1 research is that little questions like these will always remain unanswered - unless the relatives do the initial digging...

12 September 2012

18592 L/Cpl H Brown

Henry Arthur Brown was from Barking and grew up at 25 Barking Place.

He was one of the original volunteers to the West Ham Battalion and enlisted at East Ham around late March 1915. I've not been able to discover his job before the war (yet) as there were so many lads named Henry Brown in and around West Ham, Forest Gate, Leyton and Barking on the 1911 census. A very popular name!

Henry entered France with the Hammers, onboard the Princess Victoria, on 17th November, 1915.

With the others he adjusted to life in the trenches of the Western Front.

On the 2nd of July 1916 he wrote home to his mother, "just a few lines in answer to your kind and welcome letter...."

The letter paper would have been given to him by the Hammers Padre at the Front, the Reverend Westerdale. He was another original, a local Wesleyan with his church in Stratford Grove.

In the letter Henry also sent his thanks to a relative, Ted, for some nut brownies sent out to the Front for him. It was obviously a favourite, or perhaps just a small reminder of the old ways of peaceful civilian life before the war: "tell him I shall never forget him for it..."

2nd of July, 1916... The West Ham Battalion were in a happy mood at this time, as (overnight) they had just conducted a very successful trench raid on the German lines which had resulted in the awarding of three Military Cross, a Distinguished Conduct Medal and a clutch of the Military Medal for the Hammers. Fifty miles from their positions, the first day of the Somme battles had begun. The artillery barrages could be heard back in Barking but Henry's letter sent the usual reassurances to his family.

Little was he to know that by the end of the month he would be under constant shellfire at Delville Wood, blocking the intense German efforts to recapture the shattered tree-stumps and crumped trenches. Many of the Hammers were sent completely mad by the horrific experience and were shipped home. Still in the trenches Henry wrote more letters and, no doubt, tried not to worry his mum.

By November, he was taking part in the Hammers attack against a position known as "the Quadrilateral". Hung up in the mud and the wire, the West Ham Battalion was decimated by machine gun fire. The sheer volume of killed, wounded and missing was incredible.

His mum would have feared the worst while hoping for the best as dad George opened the telegram delivered a few weeks before Christmas. It was a 'Missing' telegram but eventually another dreaded knock at the door delivered a last sorrow...

Finally, as the shelling stopped two years later and peace once again returned to France and Belgium, Henry's family had one small comfort.

His body had been found on the battlefield and he had at least been given a decent burial, just one of a very few from that terrible night of November 13th.

images are courtesy of Simon Beard, Gt-Gt-Nephew of Henry Brown
to whom I send sincere thanks for sharing this sad memento

25 August 2012

Capt Charles Graham Carson, MC

One of the original officers of the West Ham Battalion was from Congleton in Cheshire. Charles Graham Carson was the son of a local Magistrate and had been studying medicine at Manchester University when the Great War broke out. Like so many he volunteered for service with Lord Kitchener's 'new army' and enlisted as a Private in his local Regiment where he was quickly recognised as being definite 'officer material'.

I've not been able to discover why (and I must admit it really does intrigue me!) but following his officer training, Charles Carson specifically requested the West Ham Battalion as his unit. The Mayor of West Ham signed off his application personally and he joined the Hammers as a 2/Lt on their first parade at St. Lukes Church. He was a very capable soldier and held the respect of his men and fellow Officers, eventually becoming Captain and the Commander of C Company.

In France, the West Ham Battalion were sent to the Somme battlefield in July 1916. It was here they endured a very kinetic few days defending the recently captured Delville Wood. After three weeks of fighting the Germans had been beaten out of this 'devils wood'. Now they wanted it back. Their counter-attack was of nightmarish intensity and at times almost suicidal.

Charles Carson was leading his men of C Company as they held the Front Line, although in reality it was merely a series of shell holes. They endured wave after wave of German infantry attacks, heavy shelling of their positions and a multitude of snipers sneaking about wearing British helmets. At one point, the HQ dugout was 'crumped' with all the senior Officers wounded.

Still the West Ham Battalion grimly held on.

Carson ended this tour of Delville Wood being evacuated out on a stretcher. He had been wounded in the wrist at one point, but stayed at his post and kept C Company together. Finally he took a machine gun bullet to the knee which required evacuation to hospital for recovery.

During this intense period the Hammers resistance was unbelievable and a number of the originals in the battalion were awarded the Military Medal for their bravery. Norman Bellinger was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for the way he organised his stretcher bearers and, along with Captain JD Paterson, Charles Carson was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry in the field.

No doubt he then enjoyed a peaceful period of clean hospital sheets, hot food, pretty nurses (not in that order) and then an extended leave back home in Cheshire (or to what/whoever it was that had first drawn him to West Ham) which would have included a visit to Buckingham Palace to receive his medal from the King.

Carson returned to the Hammers in France at the end of October 1916 and for the next few weeks prepared his men to attack the German position known as the Quadrilateral ('Die Heidenkopf'). This was a well defended position, and the attack didn't go at all well for the West Ham Battalion on November 13th.

Carson was in command of C Coy, leading the 2nd wave through the mud on the right flank. He and his men bravely managed to take their primary objectives but he was severely wounded in the chest as they advanced and attacked another position.

Somehow (and perhaps it is a clear indication of the way his men felt about him) Carson was taken, just about breathing, back to the Hammers aid post. Dr Holthusen, the Medical Officer, must have glimpsed that slim hope of life remaining and evacuated him to hospital in Rouen.

Charles Graham Carson was a strong man and fought on for a number of days but his wounds were simply too much for his body. Back home in Congleton, his family got the dreaded 'hat-trick' of telegrams within the space of a few days: he was at first 'Missing' in action, then he was found alive but 'Wounded' and then finally he had 'Died of Wounds'...

He was 22 years old and their only son.


His gravestone states 
"Thy will Be Done"

31 May 2012

Pte 18303 Walter Hardcastle

Walter Hardcastle was born in Leyton in 1897, the son of a gasworks lighterman and a dress machinist. By 1911 he was living at 15 Radlix Road. He was an original volunteer in the West Ham Battalion and served with them from initial training over on Wanstead up until final disbandment in early 1918 in France. I have an idea that he was a member of the HQ Company, part of C Company.

(copyright: Jeff Hardcastle)

On disbandment, Walter was transferred to the 10th battalion of the Essex where he went on to display great bravery in the later stages of the war, which was rewarded with not only the Military Medal but he was also honoured by the people of France who awarded him the Croix Du Guerre.

Walter died, aged 63, in 1960.

27 April 2012

Green Street Trench

Here's detail from a rough sketch map of the area around Guillemont, where the Hammers Battalion suffered again, just a few days after their defence of Delville Wood in Summer 1916.

Most of the experienced senior NCO's were already gone... Many of the original Officer's had been wounded in Delville Wood, more than a hundred 'originals' were in hospitol or a known or unknown grave.

Now, at very short notice, the West Ham Battalion were required to take the village of Guillemont. It didn't go well...

The map was hastily drawn by Captain James Murray Round. He had been born in Witham, Essex and would win the Military Cross for his actions on this day (and previously at Delville Wood)

Ten years after the Great War ended, Lieut-Col Papillon DSO, the West Ham Battalion's first commanding officer, renamed one of the farms on his vast Sussex estate to 'Green Street Farm'...

26 April 2012

The Hammers Battalion Memorial

The unveiling by Sir Trevor Brooking and myself of the memorial plaque dedicated to the service and sacrifices made by the local volunteers of the West Ham Battalion took place on Remembrance Sunday, 8th November 2009 at 10.55am at the Boleyn Ground

Sadly, the original King's Colours weren't able to be paraded, but the unveiling still featured at it's core the Last Post played by the very last line of the old Essex Regiment: Men of C (Essex) Company, 1st Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment who also acted as Honour Party.

The Essex Regiment Association (represented by Colonel Brewer), the Royal British Legion, 2nd Newham ('Busby' Troop) Scouts laid wreaths, as well as many descendants of the Hammers Battalion who had found the website.

A fantastic day was had by all in attendance and Our Lad's are no longer forgotten.


Alan the Badgeman has informed me that the sale of the West Ham Battalion 'Poppy' badges raised over £2,000 for the Royal British Legion and that sales at the Essex Regiment Museum have been equally successful. Many thanks to all of you who bought one!

Pte 21021 John Henry Hassell

John Hassell was born in Plaistow and lived there with his wife Annie at 43 willow Grove, just behind Plaistow Underground Station. The family home was later destroyed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz of Ww2 and is now a small community park.

He enlisted in the West Ham battalion at Stratford and was a member of D Company and entered France & Flanders as a replacement from the Hammers depot company at a point in early January 1916 (which means he wasn't entitled to the 1915 Star)

John was first wounded in the fighting at Vimy Ridge on the day three huge mines were blown under the German lines and the 17th Middlesex (Footballers) engaged in fierce fighting to hold the craters. The 1st battalion of the Kings Regiment then raided the German trenches and D Coy of the Hammers gave them officially recognised 'valuable assistance'.

A few weeks later and the West Ham Battalion was in action in Delville Wood.

D Coy was giving support to the 2nd battalion of the South Staffs Regiment when they were counter-attacked by Germans. They repulsed these assaults and it was during this period of intense combat that 39 year old John Henry Hassell was again wounded, this time fatally.

We'll never know for sure when or how, as the author of the war diary is unusually limited with information, most likely due to the fact that during this 48hr period the HQ trench and dugouts were demolished by a round of intense and heavy German artillery.

destroyed German trenches, Delville Wood, Sptember 1916

The commanding officer, Lieut-Col Papillon, Lt Len Holthusen the Signals Officer from Forest Gate and the Adjutant 2/Lt Cyril Lyne from Stratford were all buried alive and had to be dug out. None of them quite recovered from this experience.

John Henry Hassell's body was never found.

Overall in the Devil's Wood, the West Ham Battalion lost 39 men killed, 17 were missing, 138 were badly wounded and 20 men were sent mad by the artillery: shell shock...

24 April 2012

Pte 17958 Joe Cooper & 2/Lt Ollett

This gentleman is really the whole inspiration behind this blog and the root of my interest in the West Ham Battalion.

He was born in Rook Street, Limehouse in 1877 and grew up in the very centre of "Hell's Kitchen' at Mary Street. His mother, Kate Cooper was originally Catherine Footman, born 1856/1857 in Limehouse, daughter of Lawrence (age 60) and Johanna Footman (age 44) of St Mary's Street, Poplar. Kate married Thomas William Cooper, a fishmongers salesman of Limehouse, at Stepney in 1877 and soon after Joseph was born.

When Joe married Emily Stormey, aged 21, at Limehouse, his job was as 'carman to a wharfinger'. At some point after the outbreak of the Great War, Joe signed on the line at Stratford and became Private 17958. He was nearly 40 years old with no previous military experience.

Going over to France a day before the rest of the Hammers on the 16th November 1915 with the Advance Party was probably the first time Joe had been abroad. It may even have been the first time he'd been out of London. And here he was with a rifle on his back.

After travelling through France, the West Ham Battalion were in the trenches at Bully Grenay, just by the ' double crassier' at Loos-En-Gohelle, facing the Germans of Lens and Lievin:

Joe is buried in the tranquil British Cemetary at Loos, with a lovely view of the countryside and his headstone is leaning somewhat jauntily to the left.

Before he died he had a few children, one of whom was my nan. She was six years old when he never came back, but she still remembered his battle cry of "Up The Hammers!"

Incredibly, in March 2012, one of Joe's medals came up for sale at Lockdale's, Suffolk's premier militaria auctioneers. They did a fine job, so much so that I wasn't able to afford it and it sold for three or four times the estimate! I had always thought the medals were lost in the Blitz but perhaps it means there's a long-lost cousin out there who now owns a part of Joe. Head over to Lockdale's if you're looking for top quality militaria!

Also killed alongside Joe was Alfred Oscar Ollett, a 21 year old 2/Lt from High Garrett in Essex, shot by a sniper. He was the first West Ham Battalion officer to be killed in action. Today he lies buried in the Bully Grenay cemetery.

There is a small memorial to him at St Mary The Virgin Church in Bocking, Essex placed by his parents Oscar Joseph and Laura Louisa Ollett.