First world war/Gallery: Tribute to 19 who didn’t know they would have to be so brave

A newspaper montage of the five members of the Ward family, including a son-in-law, who all saw acti

A newspaper montage of the five members of the Ward family, including a son-in-law, who all saw active service. George Ward is number two, bottom left. - Credit: Archant

On Remembrance weekend, Steven Russell goes full circle and returns to the village that – effectively – inspired our year-long look at The Great War and its consequences for East Anglia

Michael Woods at Layham's war memorial. 'The discovery of photographs, letters, wills, newspaper rep

Michael Woods at Layham's war memorial. 'The discovery of photographs, letters, wills, newspaper reports and so on helped several of the recorded stories become much fuller than I had ever dreamed would be possible when I started out,' he says. - Credit: Archant

It’s impossible not to feel proud when you see how our towns and villages have worked so hard to remember those who fell in the First World War. Dozens of people have devoted hours of their time – motivated by a desire to do their best to honour soldiers and sailors, airmen and civilians, who suffered in the fight against tyranny.

In the summer of 2013 we reported on the efforts in Layham, a village near Hadleigh, to tell the stories of the 19 men commemorated on the war memorial.

It was a quest that had started about 18 months earlier, after parish council chairman Michael Woods attended the remembrance service. He’d listened to the initials and surnames being read out of men who had died for their country and wondered how much nicer it would be to also know their first names and regiments, at least.

For the stories of these men had been largely lost, as families had moved away and relatives died without recording what had been known in the first half of the 20th Century. Michael set out to see what he could discover – treading a well-worn trail: census records, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, appeals in newsletters and through the internet, and all the time trying to add colour and human stories to the dry facts.

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The information available varied from man to man, for several reasons. About 70% of First World War records were lost in bombing raids on London in the 1940s, for instance, and more was known about personnel given awards for gallantry than about soldiers lost in the general mayhem of battle.

Happily, all the effort did elicit information. When Michael and I spoke halfway through last year, he reckoned he’d got most of the details of the five men from the Second World War, but needed more lively and personal insight for about half the 19 Great War figures.

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With an eye on the centenary of the start of the Great War, his goal was to produce an illustrated booklet marking the lives of these souls; something that would stand as “a tribute to men who didn’t know they were going to have to be as brave as they were”.

If copies were lodged with the church, the village’s own little archive and Suffolk Record Office, life should be very much easier for future generations trying to learn about this chapter of our past.

Seventeen months on, Layham War Memorial: The stories behind the names is printed, published by the parish council and ready for Remembrance weekend.

Descendants of nine of the 19 men have been traced and upwards of 40 folk will be attending tomorrow’s service, and laying wreaths. Some will be meeting for the first time. “Stones have certainly been overturned,” admits Michael.

The stories are invariably poignant. Five men from the Ward family, for instance, saw active service, including a son-in-law. Four survived, but agricultural labourer’s son Private George Ward was killed in action. He was 25.

George had worked as a market gardener before volunteering and joining the 7th Battalion of The Suffolk Regiment. After training, he was sent to France in May, 1915... where his battalion saw action in and around the Somme throughout the next year. The Suffolk soldier was killed on July 7, 1916, and buried in a cemetery on the Somme.

A military letter to his mother the following year, which appears to be answering her plea for details, says George was shot in the neck and through the chest. He’d been brought into hospital unconscious on the evening of July 6 and died early the following morning. He’d never regained consciousness.

The Rolfes were even harder hit, with two brothers killed and their nephew also lost. Private Arthur Rolfe was born in 1882. He became an “ordinary agricultural labourer” and later a jobbing gardener, before volunteering for the army and joining the 1st Battalion The Suffolk Regiment. “He had an unusual posting for a Layham man – first to Le Havre in January 1915, then on via Marseilles (October 1915) and Egypt to the Balkans, where he was killed in action on 22 September 1916 during the Salonika Campaign, fighting Bulgarians and Austrians in Greece, aged 35 years,” writes Michael. “He is buried in Struma Military Cemetery, Greece.”

Younger brother William (Willie) was born in 1884. He was also an agricultural labourer, then a horseman on a farm. Willie joined the West Suffolk Militia ? designated the 3rd Battalion The Suffolk Regiment ? in 1902.

“Members of the militia were essentially reservists and could be called upon when necessary,” explains Michael. “They took part in regular training exercises at such places as Colchester Garrison and Landguard Fort, Felixstowe. Willie served 202 days in Dublin between March and September, 1902.

“A photograph shows this young man, just 5ft tall, whilst serving in Ireland. His Good Conduct (discharge) Certificate states clearly that he served exactly six years, his engagement being terminated on 19 January 1908.”

Willie married Ethel Skinner a few weeks before Christmas, 1913. Daughter Joan would arrive in the summer of 1915.

“A man with six years’ part-time experience is likely to have been an attractive target for re-recruitment at the outbreak of war,” points out Michael. “It is no surprise that he is next found, back in the army, now serving with ‘B’ company of the 8th Battalion Suffolk Regiment in France.

“The date of his re-enlistment is not known but his daughter has an embroidered card, typical of those available in France, received on her first birthday, strongly suggesting that he was in France by that date.

“The official history of the Suffolk Regiment tells us that the 8th Battalion arrived in the neighbourhood of Arras at the end of April 1917.”

The soldiers took part in the Third Battle of Scarpe. William died on May 29, 1917. He was 33 and is remembered on the Arras Memorial, which commemorates 34,796 British and Commonwealth casualties with no known grave.

“It seems clear that, as William was buried in the field and he is remembered on the Arras Memorial, Pas de Calais, France, that his body was one of those lost in the heavy traffic of conflict moving backwards and forwards over the same ground.”

Details came in a letter to Ethel from a comrade called J A Grimwade, who wrote: “No doubt you will wonder who can be writing to you, but I scarcely know what to say as it is very bad news I have to tell you, although I take it that you have already been acquainted on the matter of your late husband’s death which I am sorry to say took place last week.” He added: “I may say that he didn’t suffer in the least as his death was instantaneous.”

A further letter, from Capt the Rev Cecil Weets, chaplain to the battalion, said: “He was out with a working party that night and was killed by a shell – wounded in the chest and died instantaneously.

“He is buried by the trench where he fell, and a cross marks his tomb. He is missed by his comrades who held him in high regard. My deepest sympathy is with you in this sorrow. May God comfort you and may time heal these wounds, and the memory of a noble life and death be a living consolation to you. He has given his all for his country and who can do more?”

William’s family posted an announcement in a newspaper in late June. It included the verse:

“Cold is the clay oe’r his beautiful head;

But sweet is the rest of the innocent dead.

The love which we bore him shall live in each breast,

‘Til we meet him again in the realm of the blest”.

From his sorrowing Wife and little Daughter.

Much is planned in Layham tomorrow, after a research “journey” Michael describes as “rich and interesting”. Wreaths are being laid, and the families of the men will be presented with a copy of the book.

That’s not the extent of it.

Michael and an art teacher from the local high school managed to get a grant to run an art workshop last weekend for young people. They showed the Great War film War Horse on Saturday. The Michael Morpurgo story is about a horse bought by the army for service in France and the efforts of young Albert, his former owner, to get him home safely. Sunday was aimed at helping youngsters understand the war, by making wooden crosses bearing a name from the memorial and personalised in some way. Those who’d like to will be able to present the crosses during tomorrow’s service.

Michael’s pleased how things have turned out. “The discovery of photographs, letters, wills, newspaper reports and so on helped several of the recorded stories become much fuller than I had ever dreamed would be possible. Even in the final weeks new information appeared... and a ‘second edition’ is possible. The project has changed my knowledge and understanding and I guess I now have an above average interest in that period of history.

“Now – I have promised my sister that time will be found to draw together the stories behind our family names and put all that into print for our families!

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