at the bottom of the headstone, the epitaph "Until we meet. Your little son Mervyn"

Ernest Attwater (14 January 1888 – 22/23 March 1918†) and his brothers, Isaac James and Frank Norman

The war diary of 245 Machine Gun Company, one of 50 Division’s divisional machine gun companies (just being merged into 50 Machine Gun Battalion) records:

Brie, 7pm, Heavily shelled – moved transport & personnel further south towards Berny – men in trench system.

Received note from Lt Rees at Brie Bridge that 2/Lt Attwater had been killed – they were being heavily shelled but expected relief at dawn.

Other sources, probably all drawing on the initial official report sent back actually give his date of death as 22 March (this date appears in his service file and on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission details), but this report seems quite clear, and several sketch maps in the war diary are also consistent about the locations the company’s various sections were in at different times. However, such was the confusion of this period following the launch of the Kaiserschlacht</em? (Kaiser's Battle, or German Spring Offensive) early on 21 March, that many war dairies had to be reconstructed after the fact.

Ernest was the youngest of 8 siblings, and 1 half sibling. Alfred Attwater senior had married Frances Bowley (nee Smith) in the fourth quarter of 1870 in the Horsham registration district. Frances was a widow with a young child (Charles William Bowley). She had married her first husband, Charles Bowley, in 1862 in the Worthing registration district. Charles William was born in 1866. Charles senior died in 1868 aged just 36.

The 1871 census shows the family living in New Street, Horsham, having been joined just days before by the first child of Ernest and Frances, Alfred John, listed on the census return as 6 days old, indicating that he was born on 28 March. From the census we also learn that Alfred senior was born in Horsham around 1849 and was a smith, wile Frances was the same age (so apparently considerably younger than Bowley, although later censuses indicate she was 5 years older than Alfred so would have been 27 in 1871) and from Arundel. The family were still there in 1881, although Alfred John was actually staying with his grandparents, John and Rebecca Attwater at Holmbush Farm House, Lower Beeding, Horsham. With him there was brother George Frederick Attwater, born 1876. In New Street with Alfred senior and Frances were Ellen (born 1873), Isaac James (born 1878) and and Lewis (or Louis), 9 months old.

By 1885 the family had moved to Church Street, Cuckfield. They made their mark on the house: in 2002 a cache of shoes and other material from the era the family lived in Cuckfield was found under floorboards in the attic. The cache is now displayed in Cuckfield Museum. The 1891 census found the whole family in Church Street. Rebecca Catherine had been born in 1882 in Horsham, while Frank Norman was born in 1885 in Cuckfield, and Ernest followed on 14 January 1888.

Subsequent obituaries tell us that Louis began ringing in Cuckfield around 1895 and that all six brothers rang (presumably not including Charles William Bowley), although the two eldest eventually moved abroad. Alfred John would eventually move to Australia, George Frederick’s emigration has not been traced. The older brothers were by now beginning to go their own ways. Alfred John married Ellen Louisa Upton in 1894 in the Steyning registration district. He seems to have joined the army, specifically the 14th Hussars. He cannot be traced in the 1901 census, but Ellen and three children are living with her parents in Haywards Heath. It seems quite likely he was already serving at this point, during which the Boer War was under way, certainly the 1911 census shows that two of their younger children were born in South Africa. By 1911 they were back in Sussex, but by 1916 they were in Australia. Alfred John joined the Australian Imperial Force, stating on his enlistment form that he had 13 years service with 14th Hussars. He returned to Europe and saw service in France before being discharged with emphysema and bronchitis. Like Ernest he was a machine gunner.

Louis had followed their father as a smith, he briefly moved to Hastings, and then to London in about 1898. By the 1901 census, Isaac was also in London, living with his new wife, Edith Sarah (nee Pilgrim), at 23 Sandringham Road, East Ham (reference RG13 1595 46 30 242). His service record shows they had married S Paul’s, Canonbury on 20 January 1901 (consistent with registration in Islington RD in 1st quarter 1901) – this probably suggests he had actually been in London for some time before this. He was working as a pastry cook.

Louis was lodging at 53 Bramford Road, Wandsworth, with the Hayward family, Robert and Louise (both 34) and their son Stanley, 7. Robert was a carman. Also lodging there was Isaac Rose, 38, a house painter. Louis is described as a farrier. Frank and Ernest were still in Church Street, Cuckfield with their parents, Frank is now described as a plumber and decorator, Ernest simply as juvenile (he was still only 13). Ernest certainly attended Cuckfield National School, the headmaster (of 25 years standing), William Herrington certifying on Ernest’s application for commissioning that Ernest had achieved a good standard of education. Presumably some of the older brothers may also have attended the school, as well as being at school in Horsham. Unusually the National School had merged with the town’s ancient grammar school during the course of the nineteenth century. Ernest was also a member of the church choir, as well as being a ringer, and played for the football and cricket clubs, barely a week goes by without his or Frank’s names being mentioned in match reports in the local paper.

Isaac and Edith’s first child, Edith Louisa was born in Forest Gate on 1 December 1902 (registered West Ham, 1st quarter 1902); a second daughter, Nellie Hilda, in Victoria Park on 30 May 1905 (registered Hackney, 3rd quarter 1905); and their third, Elsie Gladys, in Norbiton on 13 November 1908 (registered Kingston, 4th quarter 1908). (Dates of birth from service record, places from 1911 census return). Meanwhile, Louis married Alice Edith Barrington in the Wandsworth registration district, the marriage was registered in the 2nd quarter 1904. By 1911, Isaac and Edith were living at 25 Rattray Road, Brixton. He was still working as a pastry cook . Louis and Alice were at 43 Elmsleigh Road, East Hill, Wandsworth (this road no longer exists, a 1908 London map shows it in the area now covered by the dual carriageway section of Trinity Road as it approaches the roundabout at the southern approach to Wandsworth Bridge). They hadn’t had any children, and had Percy Fletcher, 61, house painter, boarding with them. Louis’s occupation is still shown as farrier, and the original census return shows that he was employed by a candle manufacturer. The largest in the area was Price’s at the Belmont Works, Battersea, but there were also Tucker’s in Putney High Street (principally supplying Roman Catholic churches, though this was bought out by Price’s in 1908 – http://www.prices-candles.co.uk/history/historydetail.asp), there was also a night light manufacturers, Edwards C W & Co on York Road, Wandsworth, according to the 1908 Post Office directory.

Frank and Ernest were still in Cuckfield with their now widowed mother (the death of an Alfred Attwater aged 52, was registered in Cuckfield 3rd Quarter 1901 2b 95). Frank was a builders’ decorator and Ernest a builder’s carpenter.

Louis was by this time probably already ringing at Streatham, but he also seems to have been involved at ringing at All Saints, Fulham. One of the earliest issues of the Ringing World, for 19 May 1911 records his ringing in a peal of Stedman Cinques on handbells in the belfry there on 7 May, his first peal on 12, he was ringing 1-2. Several of the other ringers were well-known in the Surrey Association. The Fulham peal book shows earlier ringing there too, including a peal Kent Treble Bob Royal on 11 December 1909 to which Louis rang the 6th. He also rang the treble to Stedman Caters on 6 August 1910; the fourth to Double Norwich Court Major on 18 November 1911 and various others. Perhaps his most famous ringing at this time was a peal of Grandsire Caters on handbells at Crystal Palace on 16 August 1911 to which he rang 7-8. This was deemed significant enough to be explicitly mentioned in his obituary, and was the 100th peal by the All Saints’ band. Both Isaac and Louis were ringing in a quarter peal of Kent Treble Bob Major at Immanuel Streatham on 3 July 1911 to mark the coronation of George V. Louis also rang in a London County Association half-muffled peal of Stedman Triples at St George the Martyr, Southwark on 13 October 1911.

Frank and Ernest both still seem to have been in Cuckfield until at least 7 November when they rang in a peal of Grandsire Triples there to mark the 69th birthday of F Hounsell (who was also ringing), it is also described as being to mark Frank’s birthday, and he conducted it. Then, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1911 we see all four brothers ringing together, firstly for a quarter peal of Oxford Bob Triples at St Leonard’s, conducted by Louis, and then on Christmas Day at Immanuel at touch of 504 changes of Stedman Triples, the longest in the method for Frank and Ernest. Isaac and Louis also rang in a quarter peal of Stedman at St Leonard’s on 2 January 1912. Both Frank and Ernest maintained their Sussex connections as well, continuing to ring there from time to time.Frank returned to Cuckfield in November 1912 to mark F Hounsell’s 70th birthday (Frank conducted the peal). In January 1913 both Ernest and Frank rang in a peal at Bolney, Sussex, conducted by Ernest. They were also venturing around London with Ernest and Isaac ringing a peal at Southgate in June 1913. Another of the ringers in this peal was recorded as J Attwater, possibly a typo for L Attwater. On 27 October 1913 Ernest and Frank rang in a peal at Immanuel Streatham, in a band consisting entirely of employees of the tower captain and conductor, John Stenton Daniels, who ran a building and decorating firm.

Ernest’s cricket career was also developing, with matches for various Surrey sides in 1913 and 1914, one of these Surrey Young Amateurs v Surrey Young Professionals was reported in The Times Wednesday, 20 August 1913; pg. 11; Issue 40295; col A. The last two of these matches were in August 1914, after the outbreak of war.A few weeks earlier, on 25 July, he had also played in a ringing related cricket match at Mitcham, between sides representing the two premier ringing societies, the College Youths and Royal Cumberlands. He took 2-19 in a low scoring match, the College youths being all out for 31, and the Cumberlands winning with 33/9. The Ringing World of 31 July carries a report of the match, and the evening festivities which followed (during which Louis was one of the ringers in a touch of Stedman Triples on handbells, another Streatham ringer killed in the war, William Charles Lee qv also took part in the concert), the report also includes a photo of the two teams, with Ernest right in the middle, looking very relaxed in his whites. It is possible that the brothers feature in the other photo which shows spectators at the match, but no names are given. The report in The Times states “Streatham” by his name, it seems plausible that this was his club, but no confirmation has yet been found.

A young man in cricket whites

Ernest Attwater before playing for the College Youths team against the Cumberland Youths on 18 July 1914.

On 9 September 1914 Ernest attested at Haywards Heath, just a short distance from Cuckfield (though it appears he underwent a first medical examination on 5 September). On his attestation form he gives his permanent address as 41 Elmsleigh Road, Wandsworth (Louis’s address at the 1911 census); and his occupation as “Carpenter and Pro Cricketer” (on his later application for a commission he states “Foreman carpenter and pro cricketer”). He also reveals that he had previously served for three years in the Territorial Force with 4th Battalion Royal Sussex, leaving due to “leaving the county” (the clerk’s hand has added the more official “termination of engagement”).

According to the Kelly’s directory for 1911, A Company, 4th Bn, Royal Sussex was based in the drill hall on the Market Square in Haywards Heath. As his next of kin he lists his mother, then living at 5 Albany Villas, Cuckfield. He is described as being 5’10” tall, weighed 135lbs and had a 38” chest, brown eyes, auburn hair and a fresh complexion. Local newspaper reports show that Frank records have not survived it’s impossible to be sure, but as the brothers seem was also a Territorial prior to the move to London (in fact at this time he outranked his younger brother, with a report of a shooting match listing Frank as a lance corporal and Ernest as a private, though both were on the organising committee).

Ernest attested for General Service, rather than trying to rejoin his old territorial unit. By the end of the day he was in Chichester, and by the following day he was on the books of the Royal Sussex,
it was probably then he was given his number, 3305. By 12 September he was officially posted to the brand new 9th (Service) Battalion, one of the units of Kitchener’s Army. Shortly before he joined up, all four brothers rang a handbell quarter peal (conducted by Louis) at 240 Coldharbour Lane, Isaac’s home. This was reported in the 11 September issue of Ringing World, along with a quarter peal of Double Norwich Court Major at St Leonard’s with Frank and Louis (conducting again) among the band. With Ernest’s previous military experience (on the basis of most of the Kitchener units, this would have been quite rare), and his civilian experience as a foreman, it’s no great surprise that on 17 October he was promoted Lance Corporal (technically this was actually an appointment, rather than a rank, but his record does use the term promoted). On 25 March 1915 he received his second stripe with promotion to Corporal, and his third with promotion to Serjeant on 15 June. Frank must have joined up at similar time as the Ringing World of 30 October 1914 lists Ernest as being in 9thBn Royal Sussex at Shoreham, and Frank with 3rd (reserve) Bn at Dover. Ernest is also apparently mentioned as having joined up (with 7th Bn!) on 8 September 1914 (before his official attestation) in the Mid Sussex Times, with Frank mentioned on 20 October with 3rd Bn, and much later on 28 December 1915 with 10th (Reserve) Battalion. Isaac’s baking experience was put to use in the Army Service Corps.

9th Royal Sussex were given their baptism of fire at Loos in late 1915. Ernest qualified as a machine gunner in February 1916 and in May 1916 he applied for a commission. He served in the early part of the Battle of the Somme, but was then posted back to the UK for officer training in September 1916. He was commissioned in January 1917. Soon after he married Alice Ethel Hulls of Arundel. She was the daughter of Richard William Hulls a butcher and local councillor in Arundel. Ernest then seems to have been involved in training new machine gun companies in the UK before being posted back to France on 15 July 1917 with 245 Machine Gun Company, newly assigned as 50 (Northumbrian) Division’s divisional machine gun company. They were soon thrown into the Second Battle of Passchendaele.

Ernest was granted leave to the UK in November 1911, by which time Alice must already have been heavily pregnant. The birth of Mervyn Richard Attwater was registered in East Preston registration district (which covered Arundel) in the 1st quarter 1918.

On 21 March the German offensive began, 50 Division were soon falling back, despite putting up stiff resistance, and on 23 March were defending the river crossings at Brie. After the bridges were blown, it was found some of the rearguard were still on the wrong side of the river, but managed to cross back on the remains of the bridges. Several tanks had to be destroyed though, even with the bridges intact they were not wide enough for tanks. The war diary contains detailed maps of the company’s dispositions that day, and their subsequent movements. It was not until the night of 24/25 March that elements of the company reached the village of Foucaucourt a few miles west of where Ernest was killed, yet it is in the village cemetery there that he is buried. CWGC record indicate it was the Germans who buried him having capture the village on 26 March – did the company manage to carry his body that far on the their transport before having to leave him there?

Alice remarried after the war to Algernon Light and they had several children together. As a result Mervyn was brought up by his maternal grandparents and lost touch with the Attwater side of the family. She did arrange the family inscription on Ernest’s grave, the heart-wrenching “Your little son Mervyn, until we meet”. Mervyn would become a highly decorated RAF pilot during the Second World War, serving with Pathfinder Force in Bomber Command and receiving the DSO, DFC and a mention in despatches. He died in 2006. One of his sons had a long army career.

Of the other Attwater brothers, Louis also died relatively young, just short of 48, in 1928. However Isaac and Frank were longer lived. Frank returned to Cuckfield and married Mabel Chinnery whose brother was also a Cuckfield ringer killed in the war, sadly she died only a few years later. Isaac was still ringing into his 80s in north London. Between the wars he spent a few years as a bell ringing instructor at Kent School in the US (and also running the school bakery).

I’ve grouped together the Lives profiles of the brothers who served into a community.

Ernest is commemorated on several memorials in Cuckfield, the main Arundel war memorial (a photo of the unveiling shows this stood in sight of his father-in-laws shop), the Surrey Association roll of honour, the Sussex Association roll of honour, the Central Council roll of honour, and the Surrey County Cricket Club roll of honour at The Oval. A memorial peal was rung by the College Youths at Cuckfield on 17 March 2018, and another peal attempt will take place on 24 March.

At a meeting about restarting the Cuckfield cricket club after the war in Febraury 1919 mention was made of members killed in the war, particularly Attwater. The Revd RHC Mertens (from a prominent local family, often included in the same match reports as Ernest for both cricket and football before the war) stated, ‘his fine sporting character, “Junior” he proceeded, was in the truest sense of the word, a Christian, a gentleman and a sportsman.’

Enfield also has some interesting material relating to Isaac, a peal rung for his golden wedding in 1951 and one following his death which includes a photo from 1949.

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2 thoughts on “Ernest Attwater (14 January 1888 – 22/23 March 1918†) and his brothers, Isaac James and Frank Norman

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