First World War: The brave Baker brothers all did their bit - and more

Lionel Baker. 'His disregard for danger was an example to all.'

Lionel Baker. 'His disregard for danger was an example to all.' - Credit: Archant

Tears were never far away when Sarah Ridley and her daughter delved into the lives of their ancestors – brave brothers from west Suffolk who all did their bit, and more. With tales of awful injuries and bravery under fire, it’s no surprise. Steven Russell hears about the fabulous Baker boys

Maurice Baker: a man who never gave up

Maurice Baker: a man who never gave up - Credit: Archant

If there’s one picture that has Sarah Ridley struggling to hold back the tears it’s this one. It shows a team of schoolboys who have won the athletics shield at Woodbridge School in 1913. Among them is Maurice Baker, the son of a Lavenham miller and farmer, who clearly loves his sports.

Arthur Baker. Sarah Ridley's grandfather carried out valuable work on the family farm in Suffolk and

Arthur Baker. Sarah Ridley's grandfather carried out valuable work on the family farm in Suffolk and also joined the Territorial Force - ready to defend England in the event of invasion. - Credit: Archant

Three years later he’ll be dressed not in school uniform but battle-dress; sports fields replaced by the mud of the Western Front.

One summer morning – the first day of the Battle of the Somme – a shell explodes in the air above a group of soldiers poised to go “over the top”. It kills five men outright and fatally injures a sixth. Maurice survives, but his wounds never properly heal and he loses a leg. He’ll never give up on life, but he will never again run like he did as a carefree teenager.

With her 20-year-old son Ben a runner – good enough to represent Cambridge University – Sarah wonders how Maurice coped with the frustration. “The thought of Maurice, this 19-year-old, never being able to run again… It upsets me now.

“I do have tremendous admiration for him. And he never went on about it. He even tried to be a farmer at one point. Can you imagine trying to drive a fairly primitive tractor with one good leg and one wooden?”

Maurice was one of the brothers whose First World War stories have been told by Sarah and daughter Eliza, 14 – helped no end by Sarah’s uncle Lionel, who has kept safe a wealth of family photographs, letters and other material, and put in many hours of his own research.

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The stories are published as a book called Brothers at War – a First World War Family History. “Poignant” really doesn’t do it justice.

“I was often in tears during the research, especially the picture research. Trawling through the Imperial War Museum archive, trying to find very specific photographs, I came across such awful images of the realities of war.

“You just take your hat off to them [the soldiers] for just enduring it,” says Sarah, a freelance book editor. Here, in brief, are the stories of three brothers from Suffolk, thrust into a world not of their making.

France. July 1, 1916. Not quite 7am. The start of the Battle of the Somme, which military leaders hope will break the deadlock of trench warfare.

Former trainee accountant Maurice Baker and his fellow soldiers listen for the whistle that will tell them it’s time to go “over the top” and attack. Then a German shell explodes above them. Five men die instantly.

Maurice and another soldier are injured. (With tears in his eyes, Maurice much later tells his nephew he was so badly hurt that he couldn’t help his stricken comrade, who soon died.) Still in his teens, Maurice manages to drag himself along on his elbows to an aid post. As stretcher-bearers carry him to a dressing station he’s hit again, in the shoulder.

It’s a terrible time. About 20,000 British soldiers are killed and nearly 40,000 injured during the opening day of the fighting.

On July 4, Maurice writes home to Suffolk. He has shrapnel wounds in his leg and foot. “I shan’t be able to walk for some time… & in spite of everything not doing so bad…” he tells parents John and Ada. “You need not worry at all about me. I’m going on alright.”

He’s wrong. His wounds are infected.

Two days later, Maurice writes with “a little bad news for you. I have lost my right leg. It is amputated below the knee. I expect I shall find it a bit awkward with a cork leg at first”.

A month on and he’s back in Britain – in a Glasgow hospital, as all the London ones are overflowing with casualties from the Somme. (“I didn’t half swear when I found I was going to Scotland,” he tells his parents in another letter.)

In the autumn he’s transferred to Brettenham Park, between Lavenham and Stowmarket. The big house is being used as a Red Cross hospital and Maurice waits for his stump to heal. It doesn’t.

In the summer of 1917 he is discharged from the army – “no longer physically fit for war service”. Worse, in the December, doctors in London have to amputate his leg as far as the upper thigh.

Maurice is eventually fitted with a wooden leg. He goes home to Lavenham to regain his strength.

The spring of 1915 must have seemed an age away. That was when he enlisted. He told his niece he’d been influenced by the famous Lord Kitchener recruitment poster – the one with the pointing finger.

Maurice later goes back to London to study as an accountant, and works at an agricultural college. He tries farming before working in a local business. He is in his 60s when he marries, and dies in 1997 – at the age of 100. “Despite everything,” says Sarah, “he was one of the lucky ones, as he himself acknowledged. Around 400 young men left for war from Lavenham. Seventy-six of them have their names engraved on the war memorial in the parish church”.

She explains: “If he hadn’t had a supportive family home to return to, his life could have been so different. I’ve heard some people talk about old relatives” – missing limbs because of the war – “who lived out the rest of their lives in institutions as their families could not afford/were not able to adapt their houses to look after them, and they could not get jobs to support themselves.

“Which isn’t to underestimate Maurice’s resilience in getting on with his life – working at different jobs until he found one he liked, and even getting married to a lovely American widow when he was 65.”

Sarah grew up in the Sproughton area, near Ipswich. She remembers Maurice visiting in his specially-adapted car – a cheerful and amusing man despite a pronounced limp that hinted of his past.

“He loved the sea. My aunt Jane, his niece, remembers huge family gatherings at Frinton. Somehow or other he would get changed and – presumably with his crutches – get to the sea, swim away and have a fantastic time.

“He didn’t let much stop him.”