The Huntspill Hero

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A tight little parcel of streets sits to the north of the church on the other side of Garratt Lane. Its a peaceful enclave, sheltered from the hustle and bustle of the main road. Bellew Street, Squarey Street and Aboyne Road all run parallel and L-shaped Huntspill Street wraps itself around them like some giant protective arm, leading up to the playing fields of Garratt Green. On the bend of the road, an archway leads to a few more houses in a development called Eden Mews which is on the site of what was in 1914 one of four laundries in this area. From this small oasis of tranquility, came at least 13 of the 182. Five of these were from Huntspill Street, including William Mace, one of the Sunday School Three, resident at No 39. Living at No 15, was William James Nichols. His family had a long association with the road and he was married at St Mary’s church on 30th June 1912. He was twenty one. On 2nd September 1914, less than a month after the outbreak of war, he joined the London Regiment. However, not long afterwards he was pronounced ‘unlikely to make a good soldier’ and was discharged from the army. Whilst many others would have rejoiced at this ‘get-out’ , it says much about this young man’s character, determination and bravery, that he sought another regiment and joined the 2/6th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment.

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He returned to France and was killed on 21st March 1918. As often happened in these conflicts, official notification of his death wasn’t immediate and eight months later the St Mary’s parish magazine noted that he was still ‘missing’. One of his sisters was head parlour maid to Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in the early stages of the war. With the assistance of Lady French, searches were made for William in salt mines in Germany where prisoners of war were put to work. His name is commemorated on the Pozieres Memorial near the Somme. Those remembered on this memorial were killed in what became known as the German ‘Spring Offensive’ (Kaiserschlacht), a great wave of elite flame-throwing stormtroopers which drove the Allied Fifth Army back across the former Somme battlefields and threatened to turn the course of the war. By the end of the first day of this attack, in which the Germans fired 3,000 shells a minute, 21,000 British soldiers had been taken prisoner and William Nichols was dead.

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Two of my Great Uncles were caught up in this ferocious onslaught, one survived, one perished in a field hospital. Much of the information about William Nichols has been provided by Sharon Given. For some time she had been looking for a war memorial on which her own Great Uncle’s name was inscribed. Earlier this week she heard about this project on south west London’s Radio Jackie. She has been in touch with us and is planning to visit St Mary’s church and see the name, ‘W J Nichols’ on the war memorial.

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