War across the Channel, but oh so close to home

Off they went to war: the farmworkers, errand boy, baker, footman, butcher’s apprentice and their equally-brave neighbours... all from one tiny Suffolk village. Ninety-odd years later, one man is telling their stories. STEVE RUSSELL reports

THE Great War is all a bit abstract for most of us – tragic, certainly, but so far back in time. Yet it shaped the towns and villages we know today. Not so much physically; but war took away sons. It stole young men who would have returned to their homeland to work, marry and raise children. The conflict altered the rhythm of life within communities and forever changed their heartbeats. Look at some places in west Suffolk: Haverhill lost 144 men, Kedington 18, Withersfield 15, Great Wratting seven and Barnardiston four.

Nearby Little Wratting lost six of those who put on a uniform.

Men from the village just outside Haverhill, on the road to Bury St Edmunds, served in most of the significant campaigns of the 1914-18 war: at places such as Arras, the Ypres Salient, Fromelles and Flers. Some were involved in the early mobile battles of 1914 that stopped the initial German advance; one fought at Gallipoli and another on the largely-forgotten Salonika Front (Greece/Macedonia).

“Nineteen per cent of the village’s population had served in the military... the remainder, both men and women, had given practical support to the men in the forces, nurtured the children and kept the farms and factories going,” says John Buckell. “They too were heroes and heroines, of another sort.”

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John’s produced a little book called Little Wratting and the Great War that sheds light on nearly 40 men who left that quiet corner of East Anglia to fight tyranny – “an attempt to resurrect the all but forgotten stories of the men and women of one small Suffolk village”.

The project was prompted by the former Newmarket schoolboy’s desire to discover more about maternal grandfather Leonard Turner, born and bred in Little Wratting, who returned in peacetime to work, marry and start a family. “When I retired a few years ago I found I had the time to do some research and put some flesh on the bones of his story.”

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What John didn’t expect was that this quest, which started out as a family inquiry, would seamlessly extend to many of Leonard’s contemporaries.

“The stories that emerged were remarkable and very diverse,” he explains. “Most were young but one man, a husband and father, enlisted at the age of 42. Nearly half the men were volunteers and were awarded the 1914 or 1915 Star” – for those who saw service in a theatre of war – “while others had claimed exemption from conscription and gone before the local Appeals Tribunal. There was even a career soldier who had served in the Sudan in 1898.”

Little Wratting’s First World War soldiers served as infantrymen, riflemen, hussars, Army Service Corps drivers, as an artilleryman, a Grenadier Guard, a machine-gunner and a member of the Yeomanry. Fifteen were born between 1896 and 1900, making the oldest of them just 22 by the end of hostilities.

John’s research drew on sources such as service records, medal index cards, regimental diaries and casualty records, and articles in The South-West Suffolk Echo.

As well as shedding light on their war experiences, records offered fascinating social insights. Among the villagers who served were nine farmworkers, five horsekeepers, a stockman and a farm bailiff, a weigher of metals, a checker, errand boy, mat maker, drayman, cooper, horse driver, baker, footman, factory hand, butcher’s apprentice and a housepainter. Three men were regular soldiers.

The Little Wratting contingent were mostly small fellows by today’s standards. Ten of the 14 men whose heights John is aware of were 5ft 6ins or under. A notable exception at 5f 11ins was Eli Moore. The two lightest men were each under nine stone.

In 1901 the population was 164, with most employed men in agriculture and related industries. Most women were housewives or adult daughters helping their mothers at home. Those in work had jobs such as weavers, tailors, finishers and glove-makers.

It wasn’t only the fighting abroad that brought heartbreak. “Tragedy was sometimes the lot of the survivors,” writes John. “One man returned from the war a widower because his wife had died in the 1918 ’flu outbreak. Another lost his mother and brother within days to ’flu while he was away on active service; and not all who returned lived to old age.” Thomas Turner, meanwhile, was on active service when he learned six-year-old daughter Nellie Rose was dead.

Everyone in that rural corner of Suffolk must at some stage have suffered the loss of a family member, friend or neighbour, says John, whose book is subtitled The Story of One Village in the War to End All Wars.

“In such a small community as Little Wratting, with a population of less than 200, every death must have been keenly felt. The widowed mother who signed the receipt for her dead son’s effects . . . still moves us after 90 years. After the war, the memorial in the church became the symbol of a collective grief, as it did in every community in the land.

“That is why I wanted to record the story of that generation of Little Wratting people. The story of their village mirrors that of every village and town in the country. The names remain on the memorial for all to see but they do not reveal the stories behind the names, nor that of their comrades who survived, no less brave but luckier perhaps than they, nor the stories of those left behind at home, who fought and suffered in a different way. All their stories deserve to be told.”

n Little Wratting and the Great War, which has just over 80 pages, costs �5.99 and can be bought from John Buckell, 69 Cavendish Drive, Northampton, NN3 3HL, adding �1.20 for postage. Copies might also be available from the Tourist Information Centre and Moyes Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, and Hendersons in Haverhill.

They paid the ultimate price

WILLIAM Preston, a private in the Norfolk Regiment, was the first Little Wratting soldier claimed by the Great War – in January, 1916. He was Charles and Ellen Preston’s only son. The 21-year-old had been one of the first to volunteer, enlisting during the first week of the conflict.

Born in 1894, he’d been a footman in civilian life, and an apprentice. His battalion was in France early in 1916, in the trenches at Givenchy. At about noon one day the Germans shelled the battalion HQ. A direct hit killed one man and severely wounded two others, one of them William.

The following month The South-West Suffolk Echo published a letter from a soldier who was with William when he was injured. Private L Wegg said he and the Suffolk volunteer had become firm friends and had planned to visit each other if they survived the war.

The Germans had started shelling the HQ soon after breakfast and men sheltered in the cellars. Wegg was slightly wounded, and William “was on his way to a cellar a short distance away when he was hit by a bursting shell”. The pair saw each other in the dressing station. William was conscious, asked for water, enquired about his pal’s wounds, and asked the doctor if his own injuries were dangerous.

They were taken away in the same ambulance, the Suffolk man still conscious and complaining of pain in his abdomen and right leg. He promised to write as soon as he could, and they parted when Wegg got out at the hospital. William continued on to the casualty clearing station.

Wegg learned of his friend’s death only when William’s parents wrote to him. The Suffolk soldier was buried at Bethune.

Private Frederick Mayes is the only victim whose remains lie in Little Wratting churchyard.

He was wounded at the Battle of Fromelles in July, 1916, and evacuated to the Metropolitan Hospital, London, where he died in the August. His funeral took place five days later at Little Wratting, with a union flag over the coffin. He’d been born in 1892 at Kedington, the son of a horseman, and became a farm worker.

Cyril Keeble was not from Little Wratting but his parents lived there when he died in 1916, aged 19. He was born in Somersham, near Ipswich, in 1897; by 1911 his father was farming at Bentley. Cyril was killed early in the October on the front at Eaucourt l’Abbaye. He is commemorated on a memorial in France and on one at Bentley.

Victor Chapman joined the Suffolk Regiment in 1915 and died in one of the war’s most significant engagements.

In the spring of 1918 his brigade took up positions near the French town of Albert. In the late afternoon of March 24, German troops approached and the British opened fire with a Lewis gun. The Germans suffered heavy casualties and scattered, though later knocking out the gun.

That night they captured a key bridge over a railway. A British platoon was attacked with grenades and mortars, having to withdraw, but held a new position and stopped the enemy advancing further.

“They had succeeded in halting the German advance, but at a cost of 244 casualties, including 41 killed,” writes John. “One of the dead was Victor Chapman, who was killed by a machine gun bullet sometime between the night of the 26th and the early morning of the 27th.” He was 22.

Albert Murton, a Grenadier Guardsman, was born in 1899, the son of a brewer’s assistant. He was killed at 19 in the spring of 1918, during trench warfare on the western front. “As he was too young to volunteer in the early part of the war, he was probably a conscript.”

That April the British Army had been in retreat before the German spring offensive. On the 25th, Albert’s battalion moved back to the line south of Arras.

On the 27th, the forward posts of Number One Company were severely shelled between noon and 2pm. Six men died and an officer was wounded. “That night the battalion was relieved and went into Brigade Reserve, but too late for Albert, who had been killed in the shelling.” He is buried in France and remembered in the church in Little Wratting, where his parents were married.

Cyril Baker’s mother was at one time the licensee of the Rising Sun pub. He was called up in October 1916, aged 19. Two years later his battalion took part in a dawn attack on the Fresnes-Rouvray line, north-east of Arras. He was one of “very few casualties” during an otherwise successful campaign.

“In April the following year,” says John, “the Army returned to Cyril’s mother, Lottie, some photographs and a religious book that had belonged to her son. She signed a receipt for them and added, poignantly, ‘but letters, money, ring, wallet and several other things – pocket book – have not come, all of which I am certain he had with him at the time”.

Private William Chapman was the last Little Wratting soldier to die: on October 25, 1918 – just 17 days before the Armistice. He was 20. His death came a month to the day after his widowed father remarried. William died of his wounds.

His battalion had passed through Le Cateau, France, on October 23, and at 12.30am relieved troops in the line at Epinette Farm. Later that day they attacked the German forces and William was fatally wounded. The engagement was later named the Battle of the Selle: the last but one offensive in the advance to victory.

A family story

JOHN Buckell was born in 1948, grew up in Ashley and Newmarket, and attended Newmarket Grammar School. He qualified as a teacher in 1970 and met his future wife at college.

“We settled in Northampton, where we taught in primary and middle schools,” he says. “I was head of history in a middle school. Retirement gave me the opportunity to research my grandfather’s military service, and the book grew out of that. My father died in 2008, but my mother still lives in Newmarket and read it with great interest.”

Grace was born in Little Wratting in 1921, the daughter of Leonard and Dorothy Turner. Leonard was born in the village in 1897, the youngest of four children of miller’s carter William Turner. He left school at 13 to become a butcher’s apprentice for Haverhill Co-op.

Leonard later joined the Royal Irish Rifles in France.

John discovered that, late in 1918, Leonard’s mother and older brother died of ’flu. However, the soldier was apparently refused leave to attend the funerals.

Demobilised late in 1919, he became a slaughterman, married and had two daughters, and followed brother-in-law Bill Midson into the licensed trade, succeeding him at The Cock, Castle Camps, in the late 1920s and later becoming licensee of The Plough at Ashley. Leonard died in 1957, a week shy of his 60th birthday.

Daughter Grace – John’s mother – married in 1942. John’s father was stationed with RAF’s No. 99 Squadron at Newmarket.

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