Red Cross POW records and a mystery solved

One of the many digitisation projects sparked by the centenary has been carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross. They have digitised the Prisoner of War records from their archives which were released (80% complete) on 4 August. The site can be found at

The release of these records has allowed me to clear up one of the outstanding identifications from the roll. Listed under Dorking was a W Hills, recorded as being a Private in the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). From census records the only plausible candidate seemed to be the William James Hills living at Chalkpit Cottages in 1911, but I had not been able to find any military information. The roll also indicates he had been a prisoner, so the Red Cross records were an obvious avenue to explore.

A little experimentation showed that the records tend to be grouped under a single variant, so Hills appeared with those named Hill. At first it seemed I would continue to draw a blank. None of the records for the Queen’s matched, but I noticed that some men were actually in Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment), so eventually I looked at the section for those too, reasoning that the confusion might work both ways.

There I found a record card for William Hills. Using the reference numbers recorded on the original card, this links to 3 other records. These confirmed he was William J Hills, and giving a home address matching the 1911 census, the birthplace of Burpham, Arundel also matched. But he is shown as belonging to West Kents rather than West Surreys

So in fact it was the roll of honour which was incorrect and had muddled the West Surreys and West Kents. With his regimental number from the card (initially wrongly recorded as 14619, but an amendment on the card indicated it should be 17619) I also found a matching medal index card, but sadly (but unsurprisingly) no service record. However this is quite enough to be sure of the identification.

Destination unknown

At 2pm they received a partial answer as they arrived at Southampton Docks and embarked on SS Braemar Castle along with the Welsh Regiment. They left the wharf at 20:15, still unsure of their final destination. Among those wondering what was in store for them would have been Walter Markey of Burstow. They would arrive at Le Havre at 11:00 on 13 August, where unloading took until 17:30, followed by a march to camp.

Meanwhile, with 1st Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, Walter Hodges did not board a train until 00:30 on 13 August. It took them until 15:00 to reach Southampton, where the battalion embarked on two ships, Martaban and Appam. They arrived at Le Havre on 14 August and similarly moved to a rest camp.

(See WO 95/1280/1 and WO 95/1432/1 for more details.)


On 4 August 1914 regular army units received a one word War Office telegram: “Mobilize” [sic]. Author Richard van Emden tweeted this image of one such telegram as logged by the orderly room of 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards at Tidworth Camp that day.

2nd Battalion, Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), stationed at Bordon Camp in Hampshire would have received something similar, their war diary notes that the mobilisation order was received at 5:30pm. Serving with them was Walter Markey of Burstow. In fact, from 29 July, units had been ordered on to a “precautionary period”, meaning that guards had to be placed on strategic points, and mobilisation preparations were begun. The Surrey History Centre posted this photo of the battalion on parade at Bordon in August 1914 – presumably Markey is somewhere in the ranks.

A military formation drawn up in ranks on a parade ground, a few barrack buildings visible in the background. At the front of the formation are five officers on horseback

1st Battalion, The Queen’s, on parade at Bordon, August 1914 (SHC ref QRWS/2/13/7)

You can read their full story here.

The London Gazette also published a special supplement with the King’s official notice calling up all army reservists and embodying the Territorial Force. This notice would have set Walter Hodges of Benhilton on the way to his regimental depot at Ayr in order to rejoin the Royal Scots Fusiliers. For pre-war Territorials like George Marriner of and George Naish of Kingston it would have caused them to report to their drill halls where their units were moving onto a war footing. Just a few days earlier they would have been anticipating the pleasures of the annual summer camp, but those were largely cancelled as the European situation worsened.

The Royal Navy had actually been mobilised the previous day (an ealier London Gazette supplement contained the notice). In fact, they had already carried out a test mobilisation in July, and many of the men, including Nutfield’s Alfred Bashford, were already back aboard their ships (HMS Good Hope in Bashford’s case). The interesting day-by-day republication of The Daily Telegraph showed how closely this was reported at the time, and the naval mobilisation is one fo the topics most picked out by their archives’ twitter account, which can be seen via the widget below:

For more on the mobilisation process, see today’s Operation War Diary blogpost. The Friends of the Suffolk Regiment are also tweeting the mobilisation process as undertaken by 2nd Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, beginning with this tweet:

Also, this blog post, and following ones described the mobilisation of 1st West Kents.

Frederick George Balcombe (1876-1958)

Born in 1876, Frederick George Balcombe, was the son of John and Jane Balcombe, both natives of Bletchingley whose marriage was registered in 1872. At times the surname is given as Balcomb, and it appears this was also Jane’s maiden name. It appears John was probably married before, the birth of a son John Christopher had been registered in the 3rd quarter 1870. At the 1881 census, John, Jane, John Christopher, Frederick and 8 month old Clara Florence were living at Dormers, Bletchingley. John was a labourer in the local quarry (described as stone pits).

By 1891, the family had moved to Stychens (still in Bletchingley). John Christopher had now moved out. John (39) was still a “quarryman stone”, Jane was now 37. Frederick, just 14, was general labourer. Clara was a 10-year-old scholar, two younger sisters had now joined the family, Alice Mary (birth registered 4th quarter 1884), and Lilian Jane (birth registered 3rd quarter 1889). It was probably also about this time that Frederick started ringing. He rang his first quarter peal (the third to Grandsire Triples) on Christmas Day 1894, “Jno Balcomb”, presumably his father John, was ringing the treble. He rang another on 13 February 1897, again the third to Grandsire Triples. On Easter Monday 1898 (16 April) Frederick was named among the newly elected members of the Surrey Association, at a quarterly meeting at Betchworth. He rang his first peal on 12 November 1898, once again ringing the third to Grandsire Triples, another Bletchingley ringer on the roll, William Mayne was also ringing. He rang another on 25 November 1899, again with William Mayne, and also George F Hoad (Reigate) and Thomas Coppard (Bletchingley).

Frederick George Balcomber married Kate House at St Mary’s Bletchingley on 11 December 1899. On 21 July 1900 a Surrey Association held a meeting at Bletchingley, the notices published beforehand indicate that those wanting tea at the meeting should send their names to “Mr Fred Balcombe”, Stychens Cottages, Bletchingley – suggesting he was acting as tower secretary at Bletchingley. At the 1901 census he and Kate were living at 9 Stychens, Bletchingley. He was now 24 and working as a house painter – 5 out of the 11 ringers who went to war from Bletchingley had this as their occupation. No other records have been found for him until the 1911 census, when he and Kate were still at Stychens, and he was still a house painter. Now living with them was Reginald Cooper (5), described as an adopted son, born in Fulham.

On 30 April Frederick rang the 6th to a quarter peal of Grandsire Triples at Godstone. J Balcombe (his father John, still ringing?) rang the treble, also ringing were L Goodwin, G Potter (both Bletchingley) and W T Beeson jr (Godstone), all listed on the roll of honour. There was also a visitor in the quarter, Corpl W Cockings. No details as to his unit are stated, but the most likely candidate appears to be William Cockings of the Bedfordshire Regiment, originally from Turvey.

The Surrey Recruitment Registers show that F G Balcombe, a painter aged 40 years and 3 months attested at Guildford on 31 July 1917. He was described as being 5’6″, weighed 210lbs and had a 42″ chest with 2″ expansion. On enlistment he joined the 26th Training Reserve Battalion. Given his age it is perhaps unsurprising that the next surviving record relates to his discharge. He was discharged on 14 December 1918 due to sickness – he had not served overseas. At the time of his discharge he was a sapper in the Inland Waterways and Docks section of the Royal Engineers. There is no further information as to his role, but given his civilian occupation, it seems reasonably likely he would have been painting the boats used by the Royal Engineers.

After the war he does not appear to have rung any further peals or quarter peals – in fact there is no definite proof of any further ringing. However, electoral rolls mean we can trace his movements in general. In autumn 1919 he and Kate were still at Stychens, and the same again up until at least 1923. In 1924 they were registered at Hill Top, Caterham. By 1934 they had moved to The Garage, Old Quarry Hall, Bletchingley (there were also a Leonard and Annie Elizabeth Balcombe at Old Quarry Hall Cottage, but it is not clear if they were related at all). They were still there at the outbreak of war in 1939. From 1938 Bletchingley’s bells were out of action until 1948 after death watch beetle was found in the oak beams of the bell frame (restoration was presumably slowed by the war). By 1945 Frederick and Kate were living at 236 Wapses Lodge, Caterham. Fred died on 12 October 1958, and was buried in the churchyard at Bletchingley on 16 October. The burial records show his address at death as 236 Croydon Road, Caterham (given the identical street number, possibly this is actually the same address as 1945).

Balcombe is the first man where the main details of his life can be found in Lives of the First World War rather than in this blog. His profile can be found here

The centenary begins in earnest

Tomorrow (28 June) is the anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo which would prove to be the spark that would ignite into a worldwide war.  Though various commemorative events have already occurred, and the BBC has also already begun it’s related programming, this is the date which quick the commemorations into high gear.

28 June sees various events in Sarajevo itself, including a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic which will be broadcast around Europe.  Also the BBC will be running a “live” blog, reporting on the day as it happened, but with analysis from their current team of correspondents.  All at A special Foreign Office twitter account (@WW1FO) will also begin a series of tweets based on the information originally received from British Embassies around Europe in 1914.

There’s also a full day conference at The National Archives, looking at the diplomatic situation in the lead up to the war, and thereafter.  Various other organisations have their own events going on too.

Lives goes live, and other updates

I’ve mentioned the Lives of the First World War project in a few previous posts. The site has now been generally available (though by no means finished in terms of functionality) for a few weeks. I was invited to write a guest post about how I’ll be using the project to record information related to Halfmuffled, and I also looked at how important I think the site will be. As a first step towards integration, I’ve created a “Community” for the Surrey ringers.

In addition, a few new or updated sources which may be useful have come online. Although Ancestry have had the surviving First World War army service records for many years, FindMyPast have now released their version (which is also incorporated into Lives). They’ve taken a very comprehensive approach to indexing the material, even pulling out brief mentions in other’s records – wartime economy measures meant that entries were often recorded on the back of scrap paper, which had often been used previously. This can include things like casualty lists, and sometimes the mention of a name on one of these, incorporated into the record of someone else entirely can now be the only surviving mention. They’ve also treated WO 363 and WO 364, the burnt and unburnt records 9the second of these series are referred to as the pension records by Ancestry), as a single record set, so both are searched at the same time, and with exactly the same options available. Paul Nixon has put together some useful tips on searching these records. This may reveal additional information I hadn’t previously managed to find.

Other new material has been released by Surrey History Centre, indexes of Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment Prisoners of War 1918 and East Surrey Regiment 1st Battalion. Their material digitised in partnership with Ancestry has also been updated, such as the registers of births, marriages and deaths I’ve referred to previously on this blog.

Operation War Diary is also proceeding apace, along with further releases of digitised war diaries from The National Archives. Volunteers are now also being sought to help with physically resorting diaries for the next phase of digitisation work. This requires spending a minimum of one day a fortnight at The National Archives building in Kew. The first data from Operation War Diary has also now been released, it is described here, with a link to the data pages. This material will also be incorporated into Lives in due course.

This should all help keep me busily researching!

Army-Navy peal 1914: Frederick James Souter (1892-3 June 1953)

This is the fourth in the series on the eight ringers who rang the first peal by an armed forces band, it follows on from the previous article on Alfred Arthur Playle.

Frederick James Souter (1892-3 June 1953). Served c1913-c1934.

The birth of Frederick James Souter was registered in the Bosmere registration district, Suffolk, in the third quarter of 1892. He must in fact have been born right at the beginning of June, or maybe later May as at his death on 3 June 1953 he was stated to be 61 years of age. It’s also worth noting that his name was actually registered as James Frederick, but as his father was also James, presumably he was known as Frederick right from the beginning. The family lived in Mendham, Suffolk. The marriage of the elder James Souter and Eliza Prentice had been registered in the Ipswich registration district in the fourth quarter 1891.

The family was already full of bell ringers, with the elder James’ himself along with other Souter’s, Charles, James and William all being ringers in and around Stowmarket (I haven’t quite established the exact family links). They all appear regularly in the columns of Bell News in 1891 and early 1892. Soon after Frederick’s birth, the family moved to Essex. The first record indicating this is ringing at Ardleigh on 9 October 1892 where J Souter is said to be a Little Bentley ringer, late of Stowmarket. However, he then seems to disappear from ringing records for a few years. Charles Henry Souter was born in the Tendring registration district (which included Little Bentley) mid 1894, sadly he died aged 3, in the first quarter 1897. The birth of William Stanley Souter was registered in the third quarter 1896, the 1901 census gives his place of birth as Mistley.

A new ring of bells was dedicated at Mistley on 25 April, cast the previous year to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Presumably James Souter soon started ringing there, but the report of J Souter (presumably Frederick’s father) as a bellringer at Mistley, is of his ringing 720 changes of Kent Treble Bob on 14 January 1900, and the same method on 4 February and 7 February. The band rang the same again on 1 March, in honour of the Relief of Ladysmith the same day, and on that occasion J Souter conducted. On 16 April they rang 720 Oxford Bob Minor. On 4 July, they were ringing Double Court Minor. On 2 December they rang Double Court and Plain Bob minor. According to the later obituary for Frederick Souter, he was taught to ring by his father and uncle aged just 8, but that was supposed to have been at Stowmarket – his age would put this around 1900. On 31 January 1901, James Souter rang Oxford Bob Minor and on 20 March 1901, Double Court and Plain Bob minor. At the time of the 1901 census the family were living at Cross Road, Mistley. James (33) is shown as being a carter on a farm, Eliza (32), James Frederick (8) and William (4). Around the end of July (no precise date is given) “Jas Souter” rang in a 720 of Cambridge Minor at Mistley, claimed to be the first time the method had been rung at Mistley, though it was subsequently pointed out that the method had been rung at the opening of the bells. After this success, no reports of ringing have been found until a peal of various minor methods was rung at Mistley on 13 April 1904, with James Souter on the treble. This was the first peal on the bells at Mistley. The next report that’s been found is for a 720 of Bob Minor on 9 October 1904 at Mistley.

The reports then again dry up for a few years, until on 9 January both Frederick (aged 14), and James, are reported to have rung in a 720 of Cambridge at Mistley, the first by an entirely local band (and the first 720 rung by Frederick at all). Frederick (listed as J F, aged 15) repeated the feat at Great Bromley on 2 March. Frederick was obviously now a keen ringer, as he was ringing Bob Minor at Mistley on 12 March, though the specific reports then dry up until 16 November when father and son rang 720s of Cambridge and Double Norwich at Great Bentley (the ringing having been arranged specially for them). In December, both rang at the dedication of a new ring at Tendring. On 9 February 1908, both rang in a 720 of Oxford Treble Bob at Mistley, and a touch of Cambridge. Frederick also rang a 720 of Plain Bob Minor on 12 March. On 17 June father and son rang in a date touch of 1908 Bob Minor at Mistley, along with some shorter touches. This was repeated six months later on 16 December.

On 10 January 1909 father and son rang in various touches which marked the departure of the Revd Noel H Johnson (probably a curate) who was about to take up missionary work in India. No further reports of ringing have been traced until 24 June 1910 when Frederick and James, along with S Souter (Stanley?, who would now have been about 14) rang 1910 Bob Minor at Manningtree, where the Revd T Kensit Norman (also Rector of Mistley) was being inducted as Vicar.

At the time of the census in 1911 the family was at Horseley, Cross Road, Mistley. James and Frederick are both described as horsemen, while William Stanley is listed as a general farm hand. No occupation is given for Eliza, but it is shown that she had been married for 19 years, and had had 3 children, one of whom had died. In September 1911, James, Frederick and, presumably, Stanley rang a date touch of Plain Bob Minor on 9 September, and on 28 September 720 of the same method. In 1912 there was a date touch of Plain Bob Minor again on 24 February, along with some other ringing, and more the following day, all in honour of the birthday of the rector’s wife. On 25 September, James and Frederick rang a 720 of Bob Minor.

Frederick joined the Essex Regiment around March or April 1913 (his service record will still be held by the Ministry of Defence, but analysis of regimental numbers close to his of 10188 suggest this date). He would probably first have trained at the regimental depot at Warley, and was then posted to 2nd Battalion which in 1913 was at Bordon, near Aldershot, but was then transferred to Chatham by 1914. Although no reports of ringing by him have been traced in this period, he must have made himself known to the local ringers, and more importantly those who were also members of the armed forces, as he was selected to join the peal band on 8 January which was the first peal by an all armed forces band, and his first peal at all. His younger brother, William Stanley also joined the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion in about June of 1913 (he was given the number 3/1937, 3/1938 joined on 11 June). It was actually quite common to join the Special Reserve, and then subsequently transfer to the regulars, so it’s possible that Frederick also followed that route, but as he would have been given a new number on becoming a regular, it is impossible to be certain without obtaining his service record.

2nd Battalion remained stationed at Chatham, a quiet posting, but then on 28 June 1914 came the assassination in Sarajevo, and ultimately, Britain’s declaration of war on 4 August. On mobilisation, 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment formed part of 12 Infantry Brigade, 4th Division which was initially retained on home service, in case of German invasion. Stationed first in Norwich, and then on the Norfolk coast at Cromer, they were then moved to Harrow, Middlesex. On 22 August they moved at last to France. This was the very day that British forces first came into contact with those of Germany. They moved up from their landing place at Le Havre, and made contact with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force on 25 August. The BEF had now entered into the Retreat from Mons, and the following day Souter’s battalion was thrown into the holding action at Le Cateau. Of around 40,000 British troops committed to the action during the day, 7,812 would end it killed, wounded, missing or captured. Fortunately, Souter was not one of them so far as we can tell. He remained with the battalion throughout the war, which played its part in most of the major actions of the war. He is known to have had some leave in February 1918 (by which time he was a corporal), and took that chance to return to the bell tower at Great Bromley, along with his father, on 24 February. He ended the war an acting serjeant. So far as is known, he did not receive any major injuries. His brother William was not so lucky. He was presumably called up from the reserve at the outbreak of war. Still only 18, he would not have been eligible to go overseas immediately (the minimum age was 19). As soon as he reached that age, he was posted to 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment, which had landed on the Gallipoli peninsular on 25 April. He arrived on 25 May, unusually arriving as a lance corporal (generally those who had obtained rank at home reverted to private on posting overseas). Five days later he was dead. He is remembered on the Helles Memorial.

The war over, Souter could have left the army with his basic five year service with the colours complete, and served out the remainder of his 12 year enlistment on the reserve. However, he opted to continue serving. 4th Division was broken up in early 1919, and 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment, was posted to Malta, and then in 1920 to occupation duties in Turkey. However, based on the evidence of his personal life, it seems likely that Souter was transferred to 1st Battalion, which after the war went to Kinsale, Ireland, and was involved in trying to put down the Irish War of Independence. Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1st Battalion was posted to Bordon in 1922. Souter married Kate Griggs back in the Tendring registration district in the 2nd quarter 1920. The birth of Lillian K Souter (mother’s maiden name Griggs) was registered in the Tendring registration district in the 4th quarter 1922, followed by Dorothy J Souter registered Romford RD, 3rd quarter 1924, and Robert J Griggs, Colchester RD, 3rd quarter 1926. 1st Battalion had been posted to Colchester in 1925.

Despite these home postings, Souter does not seem to have found any time for ringing during this time – or at least not for quarter peals and peals (1st battalion moved on to Pembroke Dock in 1929 and Catterick in 1932). The first report of a return to the belfry was a halfmuffled peal of Kent Minor on 12 March 1932 marking the death of his father (registered Tendring RD, 1st quarter 1932). It is described as his first peal of minor. James Souter had been a member of the Mistley ringers for 34 years. Souter presumably left the army about 1934, but remains elusive in ringing reports. At some point he settled in Prittlewell (near Southend), but exactly when is not clear. No more ringing has been traced before the outbreak of the Second World War. This of course largely curtailed ringing until 1943 when the danger of invasion was past, and permission was granted for bells to be rung normally again. During this conflict Souter reportedly trained the Home Guard.

Rather unexpectedly the birth of David M C Souter (mother’s maiden name Griggs) was registered in the 1st quarter 1944, in the Southend RD. I cannot trace another Souter-Griggs marriage, so presumably this was their son, despite the gap of almost 20 years from their previous child! Unfortunately the brief obituary published subsequently makes no mention of his family.

On 19 May 1945 he rang in a peal of Bob Major at Fobbing (near Basildon), and later in the year a quarter peal of Kent Major at Prittlewell on 28 October, followed by Grandsire Triples there on 11 November (despite the date, this does not appear to have been halfmuffled, or explicitly for Armistice Day). He finished the year with a peal of Kent Royal (his first) on 15 December, and a quarter of Bob Major on Christmas Eve at Prittlewell (his surname is given as Sowter in this report). A report of a touch of Grandsire Doubles on 27 January 1945 was stated to include a Frederick Lowler – possibly this was a misreading of Souter.

1946 began with a quarter peal of Grandsire Caters on 6 January at Prittlewell, followed by a peal of the same on 20 January (the 100th peal on the bells). On 23 February a peal of Grandsire Cater, his first (and the first for several other members of the band). The quarter of Grandsire Triples was repeated on 24 March. On 6 April he rang a peal of Bob Royal. On 21 July, a quarter of Kent Major. On 19 October a peal of Kent Royal. Two days later, on 21 October, came a handbell peal (his first) of Bob Minor. This was rung at 73 St Mary’s Road, Prittlewell, presumably either Souter’s home, or that of one of the other two ringers, Edgar Rapley and Frank Lufkin.

1947 proceeded in similar vein, with a peal of Cambridge Major at Stanford-le-Hope (the first in the method on the bells) on 8 March. Then, at Prittlewell on 7 April a record length (9000 changes) of Bob Royal. This marked the bicentenary of the Cumberland Youths, though it was rung for the Essex Association, and the band was mixed, with at least one College Youth among them. An ordinary length peal of Kent Major followed on 15 May, a quarter of Grandsire Caters on 17 August, and a peal of Bob Royal on 8 November. 1948 began with a quarter of Stedman Triples on 18 January but seems to have otherwise seen only a quarter of Grandsire Caters on 7 November, and Bob Royal on 5 December. 1949 began with a quarter peal of Grandsire Caters on 2 January, followed by Kent Royal on 2 May, a peal of Stedman Caters (his first in the principle) on 28 May, a halfmuffled quarter peal of Stedman Caters on 6 November. In 1950 he managed a peal of Stedman Caters on 18 February, Bob Major on 11 May, and a quarter peal of Kent Royal on 28 May.

Sadly about this time his health began to deteriorate, and he disappears form ringing reports, other than his election as a life member of the Essex Association at the AGM on Whit Monday 1952. After three years of illness he died on 3 June 1953, aged 61. His funeral was on 11 June, the bells of Prittlewell being rung halfmuffled by the local band. His obituary describes him as “an enthusiastic ringer and [..] excellent striker”. At the College Youths’ dinner in 1953 he was named as one of the members who had died during the year, but does not actually seem to be included among the online membership lists.