Ernest Attwater joins up

On 10 September 1914 Ernest Attwater’s attestation papers were formally approved by a major in the Royal Sussex Regiment. He had been medically examined at Haywards Heath (where he had been a member of the local Territorial Force company for three years prior to his move to London from Cuckfield) as early as 5 September, and had then completed the attestation papers at Chichester on 9 September. He was posted to 9th Battalion, one of the newly raised battalions of Kitchener’s New Army. He became Private 3305, but with his prior TF experience it’s no great surprise that he was promoted lance corporal as early as 12 October (NCOs were in short supply). He stated his age as 25 years, 220 days, and gave his occupation as carpenter and pro cricketer (he was on Surrey’s ground staff at the Oval).

It’s possible his brother Frank Norman joined up at the same time, but as he ended up in 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion, it’s not absolutely clear (and his papers do not survive). Certainly both brothers were serving by 30 October when The Ringing World reported that Frank Norman was at Dover with 3rd Battalion, and Ernest was at Shoreham with 9th Battalion.

This would have been a blow for both Streatham towers, Immanuel an St Leonard, as with their other brothers, Louis and Isaac James, the Attwaters had become leading ringers in the area.

Army-Navy peal 1914: Archibald Percy Randolph Gibbs (1888-26 August 1914†)

This is the fifth 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 Frederick James Souter. Logically this article should have come seventh, as that was the bell rung in the original peal by its subject, but there is a good reason for it to be published on 26 August 2014.

Archibald Percy Randolph Gibbs (1888 – 26 August 1914†). Served c1909-1914.

Archibald Percy Randolph Gibbs was born in Great Comberton, Worcestershire in 1888. He was the seventh of eight children of Ambrose John Gibbs and Julia Gibbs. He seems to have generally been known as Percy. His father was a carpenter and joiner, his mother a laundress. Two of his older brothers were also ringers, Ernest and Claude. Ernest began ringing around 1903, ringing his first quarter peal on 22 August 1903 (Plain Bob and Grandsire Doubles) on the treble. The three brothers rang for various other local occasions over the next few years. They scored their first peal on 26 January 1907 (they had hoped to ring on 12 January to mark Ernest’s birthday, but illness prevented this). This was the first peal on the bells at Great Comberton, and was in various minor methods. They’d had a previous attempt on 18 August 1906 which came to grief after 4300 changes. In the successful peal, Percy was again on the treble, with Claude on the second, H Salisbury on the third, Ernest the fourth, F Viles the fifth and J H White (conductor) on the sixth. At Easter 1908 they made a trip to Worcester to ring Grandsire Triples as St Helen’s on Easter Monday.

Some time later that year or in 1909, Percy took himself off to Cardiff and enlisted in the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment). Why he chose that regiment is not known, nor why he went to Cardiff to enlist. It appears one of the sons of the former rector of Great Comberton, Revd Nathaniel Shelmerdine, served as an officer in the York and Lancaster Regiment, perhaps he had actually intended to join them? He was initially posted to the 2nd Battalion on Jersey, but in September was sent to join the 1st Battalion in Lucknow, India. He managed to fit in some farewell ringing at Great Hampton (Kent Minor) before leaving, this was conducted by Ernest. At the 1911 census he was with the battalion in Havelock Barracks, Dilkushia, Lucknow. The battalion was posted home to Dover in December 1912.

In Dover Percy took the chance to start ringing again. He was elected to the Kent County Association on 2 April 1913 prior to a peal of Grandsire Triples at Dover. He rang six further peals before the war, including the armed forces peal.

With the outbreak of war, the King’s Own had to guard various key points around Dover, and also any German shipping brought into the harbour. On mobilisation, the battalion formed part of 4th Division, which was initially retained at home in case of German invasion, and spent some time around Norwich and then Neasden. They finally set off for France on 21 August, just as the BEF was first making contact with the Germans.

They landed at Boulogne late on 22 August, and were rapidly taken by train to Bertry, east of Cambrai, arriving at 10am on 23 August. They subsequently moved to Haucourt. They were now seeing men from other divisions in retreat following the Battle of Mons, which came as a huge shock. On 26 August came the great stand at Le Cateau. It was during this action (which also involved the 2nd Essex with Souter) that the King’s Own were cut to pieces. At the roll call following the action it was found 5 officers were killed, 6 wounded (2 of those POW), 1 missing, and 431 other ranks, killed, wounded and missing. Percy was among the latter. Red Cross records show his family made enquiries after Percy was declared missing on 26 August 1914, the results of these suggest he had been wounded in the thigh and treated in “Blanche de Castille” hospital in Cambrai. This may have been a temporary facility set up in a school or convent. However he actually died, no record of his burial was made, so he is commemorated on the La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial with others from the first days of the war whose grave is unknown. References for details in this post can be found in his profile on the Lives of the First World War website, and some details are from the Kent County Association of Change Ringers’ roll of honour for the First World War.

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.