First World War: The Essex policemen who went to war... and never came back
- Credit: Archant
Alfred Welham was the first Essex policeman killed in the First World War and, by coincidence, part of the Suffolk Regiment’s brave stand that delayed the German advance in the first month of the conflict.
Born in Lavenham in 1890, he’d gone to the Sudbury recruiting office after leaving school and joined the Suffolks. After serving in Malta and Egypt he left the army and – on July 14, 1914 – joined Essex Constabulary as Police Constable 511.
Alfred had barely completed his month’s training when he was recalled to the army following the outbreak of war. He rejoined as Private 7265, 2nd Battalion Suffolk Regiment. Within days, they’d moved to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.
Having invaded Belgium, the German army was heading for Paris. In the fourth week of August, Alfred’s battalion fought the enemy… at a cost.
The Essex Police Memorial Trust says the brevity of war diaries doesn’t really give a true picture of the hell into which the British troops descended. Of the battalion’s 1,000 or so men, 720 were killed, injured or reported missing.
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The charity carries details on its website, where it pays tribute to Essex police officers killed during The Great War. In Alfred’s case, the early morning of August 26, 1914, saw his battalion at a crossroads on a long, straight Roman road in northern France and “the senior officer present was informed by Lord Douglas Malise Graham, ADC (aide) to the Divisional Commander, ‘You are going to fight it out here.’”
The battalion did its best to dig in, quickly. “It has been acknowledged that the Suffolks in particular, who lay immediately to the west of Le Cateau, ‘were badly placed for a general action: there was much dead ground on every side; the field of fire was for the most part limited’
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“The situation was not of the commanders’ choosing and they were reminded that there was to be no thought of retirement,” the memorial trust explains.
“At 6am the enemy was sighted and the Suffolks opened fire; shortly afterwards the German guns opened fire. It was evident that their artillery was far superior to that of the British. By 10am the Germans had begun their advance but were checked by the good work of a machine-gun section. German aeroplanes dropped smoke bombs of various colours as a signal to their artillery and the hostile fire increased to a pitch of tremendous severity.
“By 11am German machine-guns had been positioned on the Le Cateau-Cambrai road and were able to enfilade 2nd Battalion [sweep it with gunfire] making their position critical. The end came about 2.45pm when, with an overwhelming force, the Germans advanced on the Suffolks – who were now short of ammunition – from the front, the right flank and right rear. They were overwhelmed.” The soldiers had been bombarded for nine hours but had fought to the last.
“Alfred Welham was one of the gallant Suffolks killed during the action on August 26, 1914. Just two weeks earlier he had been wearing his police uniform in the comparative safety of Essex.
“His involvement in the Great War had lasted three days. He was twenty-four years old and was the first of the Essex policemen to be killed in the war. His body, if ever recovered, was not identified and he is commemorated on the La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre Memorial.”
The trust says that in 1927 General Horace Smith-Dorrien, who had commanded the British troops at Le Cateau, wrote: “Someone, certainly not I, ordered that on no account were the Suffolks to retire. Such an order was enough for the Suffolks. For nine hours they fought with desperate losses, their C.O., Lieut-Colonel Brett, being killed comparatively early in the day; but no thought of retirement entered their heads, for had they not been told to fight to the last?
“I was not surprised when I heard of their grand behaviour, for I had had previous experience of this magnificent regiment, especially in the Boer war, but it was never my intention that any troops should have been called on to fight to the last.” He added: “It was the blow to the Germans delivered on the field of Le Cateau which upset their plans and prevented their descent on Paris. The Suffolks were one of the units which made that blow possible. I thank them, and the whole nation should be grateful to them.”
Alfred Welham was one of 33 Essex police officers who made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War. Most were in their early 20s. Fifteen have no known grave.
We’re reminded of them by a “History Notebook” penned by Jim Dickinson. History Notebooks are free publications issued every now and again by Essex Police Museum that look back at aspects of policing in the county. At least 14 of the men were married and seven had at least one child. Some of those children were never seen by their father. Ernest Wedlock – aged 41 and the oldest police officer to volunteer to fight – had 10 children but did not want to be considered a coward, reports Jim. “He had said ‘There are some white feathers about [a symbol of cowardice, given out by those urging men to join up] and I’m off.’”
Thirteen were, like him, reservists who had served with the military before joining the police, but most were volunteers who had heeded General Kitchener’s clarion call and joined up having sought permission from the chief constable. Most of those reservists were involved in battles that followed the retreat from Mons – Le Cateau, Marne, Aisne. Five were dead by the end of 1914.
Of the 33 officers, 22 had been with Essex Constabulary, two had served with Colchester Borough Police and nine were ex-Southend-on-Sea Borough Constabulary men.
All but two had been on the Western Front and most died there. Between them, they saw action at places such as Ypres, Loos, Messine Ridge, The Somme, Arras and Passendale – places of unimaginable horror, almost a century ago, and now synonymous with massive loss of life.
They were honoured each year on Remembrance Day, when wreaths were laid by representatives of Essex Police. “As time has passed, however, it became apparent that little was known about the men whose names are listed on the respective memorials… or of the circumstances in which those young men had met their death,” says Jim.
Many police documents were lost or destroyed over the years, and links with families evaporated, “and there was no record of any visits being made either to the graves of those who are buried or to the memorials on which the others are commemorated.
“The lack of knowledge raised the question as to whether it was possible to truly remember the officers who had died as individuals when so little was known about them.”
In an attempt to remedy this, research was carried out for Essex Police Memorial Trust. Drawing mainly on local newspaper archives, regimental records and battalion diaries, it allowed accounts to be produced about the lives of each officer. It’s that information we use here to talk about some of the officers who never returned to the county where they served. Men like Percy Battle, killed just two weeks into the war. Men like Charles Freeborn, who died with peace on the horizon.
Percy Battle was born just after Christmas in 1889, at Orford. At 18 he became a private with the Grenadier Guards and then in 1910 joined Essex Constabulary as a constable. He worked at Brentwood and later Chelmsford.
Percy was recalled to the army when war broke out, linking with the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards at Chelsea Barracks. Six battalions of Guards went to France that August with the 150,000-strong British Expeditionary Force.
Much of that month saw British troops trying to stop the German advance from Belgium towards Paris. Germany had the weight of numbers.
On September 1, the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards and the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards were withdrawn to a defensive position in a forest about 50 miles from Paris.
In the middle of the morning they were attacked by German troops and “fierce and confused fighting at close quarters ensued”, according to the battalion war diary.
A group of Irish Guards was forced back through the woods. The soldiers fought on and by 2pm had managed to get to the nearby town of Villers-Cotterêts.
Not all of them, though. The 2nd Battalion Grenadiers lost four officers and 160 other men.
“Percy Battle died on September 4, 1914, and, in the absence of involvement in action on that date, it is probable that he died at a casualty dressing station from wounds sustained during the fighting in Villers-Cotterêts forest on September 1,” suggests the memorial trust.
“He was twenty-four years old and just one month earlier he had been patrolling the streets of Chelmsford.”
Charles Freeborn was born in Kelvedon in 1892 and joined Essex County Constabulary 20 years later, working in Braintree and neighbouring Bocking. In the May of 1915 he went to Chelmsford to volunteer, joining the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers.
He saw his first action in the Battle of Loos that September. He was injured during the fighting, but did not have to return to the UK.
The battalion moved on to Salonika, Greece, and to Bulgaria. There was some military action, but the greatest threat was malaria.
In the autumn of 1918 the soldiers were back in France – between Lille and Paris, pursuing the retreating German forces.
On October 4, troops successfully attacked an enemy position at a copse, but came under heavy machine-gun fire. The 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers was dangerously exposed, losing nine officers and 32 men of other ranks. More than 103 soldiers were hurt.
Charles Freeborn was one of those who fell, just 40 days before the end of the war.
“Apart from his discomfort in the heat and disease-ridden area of Salonika he had only seen action on two occasions during his three and a half years with the Royal Fusiliers,” says the Essex Police Memorial Trust. “In the first, at Loos, he was injured and in the second he was killed.”