First World War: Military family unearthtale of bravery shown by three uncles they never knew
- Credit: Archant
The anniversary of the First World War has prompted hundreds of folk to break through the silence of decades and uncover their relatives’ stories.
Steven Russell hears how one family put together the jigsaw pieces, including learning about Walter, who joined the army at 14.
Many people must have felt like Derrick Palmer and his brothers and sister. As children, they sensed The Great War had taken its toll on their family, but they didn’t know how. Details were in short supply; stories left in the shadows.
Later, they managed to inch their way through the fog and get to the heart of these “mysteries”. Now, as we mark the centenary of the First World War, they can look with new admiration at the three uncles they never knew.
Long before the outbreak of hostilities, both sets of grandparents – the Hoods and Palmers – lived within sight of the Great Gipping Street drill hall in Ipswich. “It was in this military building where three of their young boys, Frederick Palmer with his brother Bert, and also Walter Hood, answered the call to fight for king and country,” explains Derrick Palmer, 77, who now lives in Germany.
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He tells the EADT: “We are what you might call a military family. Great-grandfather Thomas Hood in 1861 was with the Royal Horse Artillery, based in the Ipswich Barracks. In 1873 he was posted to Kent, where in 1874 our grandfather Walter Hood was born within the barracks at Sandgate. From those early days our two families have served their country well within the military, in both world wars and the many conflicts since.”
A hundred years ago, the Great Gipping Street drill hall was the headquarters of the 2nd Battalion The Suffolk Regiment and the 3rd East Anglian Howitzer Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.
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“Although we had learnt at an early age that three of our kin had been involved in that horrific war, very little in the way of specific information had been divulged. No doubt the whole subject was extremely painful for our parents and grandparents to talk about.
“While seeking details of their plight in the war we were not surprised to find that both Walter Hood and Fred Palmer had enlisted in the Suffolk Regiment, while Bert Palmer had chosen to serve in the Howitzer Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.”
Grandparents Walter and Ellen Hood, living in Little Gipping Street, had nine children: Walter junior, Elizabeth, Mary, George, Lily (Derrick’s mother, who lived from 1908 to 1984), Herbert, Alice, Stanley and Thomas. “Although we were aware that Uncle Walter had died in the First World War there was never any mention as to how or where this occurred. As we grew older, brief snippets were revealed but not enough to give a clearer picture as to what had happened in his short life.”
During the Second World War, the building in London storing army records had suffered a direct hit, destroying or damaging a vast number of key documents.
Although Walter’s records were damaged – torn and scorched – it was possible to establish that 3758 Private Walter E J Hood enlisted on September 18, 1913, and served with the 3rd Battalion The Suffolk Regiment Territorial Army. He passed the drill assessment test at Great Gipping Street hall.
“It was clear to see from this document that Walter had joined the army at the young age of 14: presumably he had lied about his age,” says Derrick. “Another fragment reveals that in May, 1914, he was discharged, so possibly his true age had come to light.
“It soon became clear that Walter had been persistent in his attempt to join the army because the next document, provided by the Bury St Edmunds (branch of) Suffolk Record Office, contained details of his embarkation to France in 1915.”
Walter, now a lance-corporal, left Southampton on October 27, bound for Rouen. “So between May 1914 and October 1915 he somehow had made his way into the army again, also being promoted to L/CPL but still under age at 16.”
Unfortunately, his re-enlistment papers are missing, perhaps destroyed in that Second World War London bombing. One undamaged document does, though, confirm he was granted eight days’ leave to travel to England in February, 1916 ? “although it is not recorded as such, it would have been compassionate leave for him to attend the funeral of his young brother Stanley”.
After the details about leave came a brief line: “Killed in Action”, on May 14. Walter was just 17. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website showed he was commemorated at Loos Cemetery, France.
“It was important for us to discover what had happened on the ill-fated day of his death and, much to our surprise, the Bury St Edmunds Record Office were able to provide some well-documented evidence,” says Derrick.
The Suffolk Regiment’s Great War diary chronicles day-by-day trench warfare. Here’s an extract from the 1/4th Battalion’s deployment.
“Early in 1916 the 1/4th Battalion were dug in by the town of Loos where they were continuously receiving severe fire from the enemy.
“On the night of 13/14th May 1916 a raid was made by two parties from the battalion into the German trenches. Each party consisted of 1 Officer, 1 Sergeant and 9 other ranks, each advancing simultaneously towards the two gaps: three shots were fired from a sniper’s position.
“As the front men reached the parapet the parties were met with a shower of bombs. They were eventually called off by the officers and retired, having lost three killed and seven wounded.
“There is little doubt that these three shots killed our three missing men, who were seen lying close together near the parapet and who were the three leading men.”
Derrick says: “On the next trip to Bury St Edmunds we paid a visit to St Mary’s Church, with a chapel dedicated to the Suffolk Regiment.
“Just inside the church to the left there was a lectern bearing a book of dedication to the regiment’s soldiers that did not return... Turning to the 1/4th Battalion we soon found Walter Hood’s name with relevant details, then carried on searching for other battalion soldiers who had died that day.
“Much to our surprise there were only two other men listed as being killed on that date... The two other soldiers who died that night, possibly very near to Walter, were 2956 L/CPL Albert Sarbutt, 2312 Pte Cyril Amos. The three lads are commemorated together on the same panel in Loos Cemetery.”
Early in June, 1916, an account of Walter’s death on the battlefield was published in the Evening Star ? the EADT’s sister paper ? together with a picture. “Our grandparents provided the photograph, with relevant information, for publishing. However, they also included a snippet of information that we were totally unaware of.
“At the age of twelve Walter had carried out a vain attempt to save a man from drowning at the West End bathing place in Ipswich. Thankfully we have a complete copy of his gallant attempt that was published in 1912, including the coroner’s report.”
And so to the Palmers.
Frederick and Lily Palmer lived in Tanners Lane, Ipswich ? now part of Civic Drive. They had five children: Lily, Frederick, Bertie, Frank and Charles (Derrick’s father; born in 1905, he lived in Ipswich all his 91 years). On leaving school, Frederick junior found work at the Post Office on the Cornhill.
In November, 1914, he joined the Post Office Rifles but soon after transferred to The Suffolk Regiment.
In a book called The Old Dozen, a Century of Photographs there is a picture of 1/4th Battalion men taken soon after their arrival in France. Fred is among them.
Early in 1915 he was transferred to the 1/5th Battalion and in August left Liverpool for Gallipoli.
“It was in this bloodiest of battles that Fred was wounded and later, after being patched up, sent back to carry on fighting,” says Derrick. “He then suffered the effects from a gas attack.
“Sometime in 1916 Frederick was evacuated back to England; his injuries were serious and required hospital treatment. Apart from wounds and the effects of gas he was suffering from shell shock.
“Frederick’s wounds were treated and in due course healed; however, the effects of shell shock never receded. Sadly, he remained, and eventually died, in hospital.”
Brother Bertie worked at ER & F Turner’s Greyfriars Works, Ipswich. In 1912, aged 17, he was attested into the Territorial Army. Derrick says “it is known that our grandparents had made an unsuccessful attempt to get him released”.
He adds: “The 8th Howitzer Brigade was part of 5th Divisional Artillery and on August 26th 1914 the brigade was in the battle of Le Cateau: on 6th September the brigade began the retreat of the Marne.”
In the spring of 1915 came the Second Battle of Ypres, and in the summer the Somme. February, 1916, brought an order to go to Arras to relieve French forces.
“Of the three involved in the war, Uncle Bert was the one who returned home uninjured. However, his experiences throughout those long five years must have left their mark.
“On his return home he worked for William Brown’s timber in Handford Road (Ipswich) until his retirement. Although we got to know him well, he would never talk of those days. One occasion I tried to get him to reveal what it was like in the howitzer brigade. He simply said ‘a bit quiet at times’.”
Derrick says: “We are proud of our three uncles who did their bit in the Great War that supposedly would put an end to all wars. We know they suffered, but, then, did they consider the hurt and pain that surely faced them? We think not.
“Just as millions of other young lads did, our kin went to war with a brave heart.”
For more of East Anglia’s war stories, visit our First World War page