Today Dr Elizabeth Bruton of the Innovating in Combat project (a collaborative project between University of Leeds and the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford; funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) has published a guest post on their blog based on my previous research into Lt J W Russell MC DCM MM, Royal Engineers Signal Service, listed on the Surrey Association Roll as a Dorking ringer. It is a lightly revised and updated version of an article which originally appeared in The Ringing World on 19 October 2012, pp1102–1104, 1106–1107. I’m grateful to Robert Lewis, editor of The Ringing World for his permission for it to be reproduced, including material from original wartime ringing newspapers.
The Innovating in Combat project is examining the usage of telecommunications technology during the war. The fact that Russell was from the Dorking area was particularly interesting to Liz as she is giving a talk on the project to the Dorking and District Radio Society entitled “Waves and Wires: Telegraphy during World War One” on Tuesday 28 January, 19:45, at The Friends Meeting House, Butterhill, Dorking (further details are on the society’s events page).
Russell was born in Mickleham, and subsequently lived in Ewhurst and Abinger. Seeking work as a gardener also took him to Farnham, and to work on what’s now a National Trust property, Standen, in Sussex (near East Grinstead). In due course he’ll get his full page here, which will include full references for some of the things mentioned in passing in the article.
Six men are listed on the roll for Dorking, St Martin. They have proved a particularly difficult bunch to identify, three of them still being rather uncertain. It was only thanks to the reports in the Ringing World at the time that I was able to identify two of them only being confirmed by this means. This was particularly true in the case of the man listed on the original roll as “Lieut J Russel, RE”. There was a Royal Engineers officer with that particular spelling of the surname, and in Surrey at the 1911 census was a man named John Russel, a draughtsman, who seemed a plausible candidate – though he lived some way from Dorking. However, the Ringing World information pointed me in the direction of John William Russell: originally from Ewhurst he had moved around Surrey quite a bit before the war in order to gain experience at a variety of plant nurseries and in the gardens of large houses. He spent several years in Farnham, and then at Standen near East Grinstead (where he was residing in 1911, though the fact he’d added a few years to his age almost threw me off the scent). Finally he settled at Abinger from where the nearest tower was Dorking. He joined up early on and was rapidly promoted to serjeant. He joined the 24th Divisional Signal Company, and his particular signal section was attached to 72 Infantry Brigade (24 Division comprising 71, 72 and 73 Infantry Brigades). The division moved to France at the end of August 1915, and was thrown into the Battle of Loos soon after. In January 1916 he was Mentioned in Despatches in the despatch covering the battle. Later in the year he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (then the second highest award for Other Ranks). In 1917 he was awarded the Military Medal, and soon after was commissioned. In 1918 he received the Military Cross for his actions in keeping communications up so far as possible during the German Spring Offensive. He remained in the army for several years after the war, serving first with the occupation forces in Germany, and then with Southern Command at Portsmouth. His record gives him a strong claim to being the most gallant known ringer: one ringer is known to have received the Victoria Cross; another (a regular Royal Marine officer) was several times Mentioned in Despatches and appointed DSO and CMG, but most of these awards seem to have been for staff work, rather than for gallantry in the field; Russell’s record of a gallantry award for each year in which he served on the Western Front, and being commissioned from the ranks, certainly stand up to comparison with the other two men, though drawing up precise rankings seems rather invidious.