Common People

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe longest day of the year and the weekend before the start of another Wimbledon. After the night of the twilight walk, this was undoubtedly the second most gorgeous evening of the summer. It found me on Wimbledon Common, accidentally stumbling across the old war memorial stone, deep in the heart of this great expanse, somewhere between the Windmill and the Fox and Grapes. ‘TO THE MEMORY OF ALL RANKS OF THE RESERVE BATTALION OF THE KING’S ROYAL RIFLE CORPS. WHO TRAINED HERE AND AFTERWARDS GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR KING AND COUNTRY. 1916 – 1918’. A block of stone about three foot high, it is emblazoned with a maltese cross on which are inscribed the names of some far-off places. Presumably where the regiment performed heroic deeds; Kandahar, Ladysmith, Quebec and Martinique, to name a few. I’ve clocked it a few times on elderflower or blackberry gathering missions but I’d never really taken much notice of what was written on it. But of course now everything is different. The King’s Royal Rifle Corps struck a chord because just a few days earlier, Christine, who has been helping with researching some of the names on the St Mary’s war memorial, drew my attention back to the Passingham brothers. Cecil Passingham served with this regiment and is one of the Summerstown182, but mystifyingly an older brother, William Alfred, also in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and killed in the First World War is not. A third brother, John Bruce Passingham of the 7th Battalion, East Kent Regiment, was killed on the 24th March 1918 in the German Spring Offensive. He is also not included on the St Mary’s war memorial. Wimbledon Common has long had an association with men bearing arms. The National Rifle Association set themselves up here in 1860 under the enthusiastic patronage of Queen Victoria. Too many stray bullets forced them to re-locate to Bisley. It was a popular place for military parades and drilling and in 1891 no lesser person than Kaiser Wilhelm inspected a gathering of 22,000 troops here. In the 1911 census the Passinghams were at 41 Summerstown. William James Passingham was a cycle maker originally from Tunbridge Wells and his wife Mary Maud worked as a dressmaker. There were six children, four boys and two girls. William and Cecil were the oldest. Before coming to Summerstown they had been living in Stockwell and Brixton, which was where the two older boys were born. At 41 Summerstown, they lived half-way down the road, very close to the families of William Norris and Thomas Carrigan. The above photo shows a cart outside No47, so the Passingham home was just a few houses to the left. William, then 18 was now working as a stock keeper for a silk merchants. Cecil Edward Passingham, a year younger, was a grocer’s porter. He joined the 1st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and was killed on 10th March 1915. Cecil was twenty years old and his name is on the Le Touret memorial, near Bethune in northern France. Alongside him on here are his Summerstown neighbours from the other side of Garratt Lane, William Mace and George Boast.

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His battalion was ordered to attack German positions at Givenchy on this date. It was a diversionary assault to stop German reinforcements being moved north to Neuve Chapelle but ended up costing the lives of 141 men from the battalion including Cecil. Killed in action, he has no known grave. William, who was with the 4th Battalion died precisely one week before the end of the war on 4th November 1918. He was 27 and is buried at Preux-au-Bois Communal Cemetery. The village of Preux-au-Bois was captured on the 4th November, 1918, after a severe struggle, by units of the 18th Division and involved extensive use of tanks. John Bruce Passingham was 19 years old and in the 7th Battlion, East Kent Regiment. His date of death, 24th March 1918 indicates that he lost his life in the German Spring Offensive. In the July 1915 parish magazine, Reverend Robinson mentions William Passingham. ‘About three weeks ago William Passingham of the Rifle Brigade had a wonderful escape in the trenches. A Jack Johnson burst in the trench where he was, and all the men in it except himself were killed. The stretcher-bearers found him later and carried him back to the Field Hospital. After a rest of two weeks he was able to fight again. A younger brother writes that he has been nine days in the trenches without a rest away.’ This younger brother can surely only have been Cecil and by the time this was published he would have been dead, though its very likely that he would have been ‘missing’ and his death not yet confirmed. It is very odd that William, known by name wasn’t included on the war memorial but Cecil who wasn’t was. William’s CWGC record of 1918 indicates that the family had moved to 38 Headington Road, not far from Earlsfield Station. Its just possible that the parents of these lads, having moved further way from the church and no doubt consumed with grief, simply lost contact with the parish and never notified the vicar that two other Passinghams were lost. The tragic death of William, so close to the armistice would have been particularly hard to take. As for Jack Johnson, he was an American boxer, world heavyweight champion, no less. His name was the nickname of the heavy duty German shell which on impact, burst in a cloud of thick black smoke.

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