Coppermill Lane was once the main thoroughfare from Summerstown into Wimbledon. What a pleasant stroll it was, go past the watercress beds, then cross the Wandle at a bridge, though be warned, traffic entering Wimbledon had to pay a toll for the privilege. You would pay to avoid it now. Buried between the two stadiums (only one still standing), where Vinnie Jones and Mick the Miller once set the pulses racing, the area is a shambolic clutter of used car dealerships, a horrific throbbing electricity sub-station, abandoned vehicles and neglect of the highest order. Making the journey here every day about a hundred years ago from his home at 33 Summerstown was Thomas Willliam Carrigan. He was one of nine children of William Carrigan, a Dublin-born ‘leather-grounder’. In 1911 his 18 year old son had the same trade which he plied at Mr Chuter’s Chamois Leather Works in Coppermill Lane. The cluster of terraced houses that still stand incongrously in the midst of all this industrial overspill were built by Mr Chuter. But just a few years later came the war and less than a week after its outbreak on 10th August 1914 Thomas Carrigan joined the 5th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. His service records show that he was now living at 11 Wimbledon Road. The original houses in this strip opposite the church were demolished in the late sixties and the address is currently home to a fried chicken outlet. Thomas saw six months service in India before joining the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in May 1915. A very big indication of the fate that befell him appears in the April 1918 edition of the St Mary’s parish magazine. Reverend John Robinson states plainly ‘We regret to hear that Thomas William Carrigan of the East Surrey Regiment, attached to the 2nd Norfolk, who was taken prisoner at Kut, has died in hospital at Ismdt’. This was on 3rd January 1917. He must have been referring to Izmit which is about 70 miles east of Istanbul. Thomas is buried in Haidar Pasha cemetery, just outside the city where there is a small white tablet memorial with his name on it. The tiny snippet of information in the church magazine allows us to build a very big picture of what happened to him. The ‘Siege of Kut’ was a tragedy that soon became largely forgotten in the wake of much greater carnage closer to home, but it is still noted as one of the most humiliating defeats in the history of the British army. Kut-al-Amara is in modern-day Iraq. The area was then known as Mesopotamia and echoing more recent times, the key was defending oil interests, on this occasion against the Turkish empire. Establishing a strong presence in the region was also seen as vital in the aftermath of the Gallipoli debacle. A force under General Charles Townshend had been victorious at Basra and thought they could now push on and capture Baghdad. But things didn’t go to plan and they became isolated and trapped in the city of Kut on a great bend in the River Tigris. The siege began on 7th December 1915 and lasted 147 days. There were about 3,000 British soldiers now trapped in the city but the vast majority of Townshend’s garrison were Indian. They held out through a freezing winter in appalling conditions but over the next five months food supplies dwindled and disease was rife. Supplies were dropped by aeroplane, amazingly including millstones so the vegetarian Indian soldiers could grind flour and make chapatis. Three separate relief attempts were mounted which it is estimated cost 23,000 lives, such was the damage to British prestige and the determination to seek redress. At one stage the Turks were offered £2million in gold to guarantee the safe passage of the besieged garrison. This was refused. Having finally run out of food and supplies and wracked with disease, the city surrendered on 29th April 1916. Things worked out fine for General Townshend and the officer class but for Thomas Carrigan and 9,000 other captured soldiers, already malnourished and disease-ridden, the torment was only just beginning. A war poet called Geoffrey Elton who was a junior officer at Kut saw the rank-and-file being herded away ‘None of them fit to march five miles… full of dysentery, beri-beri, scurvy, malaria and enteritis; they had no doctors, no medical stores and no transport; the hot weather, just beginning, would have meant much sickness and many deaths, even among troops who were fit, well-cared for and well supplied.’ What followed next was a nine hundred mile forced route-march on foot, back across the Syrian desert to Istanbul, beginning with a humiliating parade through Baghdad. There are many stories of torture, ill-treatment and brutality along the way and shockingly a third of the prisoners never saw their homes again. Of the 2,500 British soldiers who started the march, only 837 survived it and the following years in captivity. We know Thomas died in Izmit so he very nearly made it all the way. What we can never imagine is what he suffered on that march or during the 147 days preceding it.
A local Earlsfield man who has lived in Turkey has been so moved by some of the stories about the Summerstown182 and particularly Thomas Carrigan, that on a trip there at the end of the month, he intends to visit his grave and place some flowers. It would be fitting to find out a little more about this soldier and make contact with some relatives or family so they know about this interest. We think there may be family called Plumridge still living in south west London, descended from Thomas’ sister Alice. If anyone knows of them, we would be grateful if they were made aware of this tribute to their ancestor, one of the Summerstown182, who died so far away from home.