The Horseman’s Son


There are three Bakers on the war memorial and while two of them were identified easily enough early on, a ‘W I Baker’ remained a mystery. Then Christine came across a William James Baker and we now believe that he is one of our Summerstown182 and, as has been the case with one or two others, the middle initial is incorrect. William Baker joined the 23rd London Regiment on 20th May 1915, just a few days before their darkest hour at the Battle of Festubert. This was the regiment to which the Sunday School Three belonged, and at only sixteen years old, he was barely out of bible class. William Mace was already dead but William Baker might even have crossed paths in France with James Crozier and Laurence Gibson, who assuming he did go to St Mary’s Sunday School, may very well have once been teaching him the Catechism. Now they were directing him to kill Germans. In the 1911 census, 34 Summerstown was home to the Baker family. About half way down the road, with its back to the watercress beds now so desired by the property developers about to disassemble Wimbledon Stadium. The house was just opposite the Passinghams, Carrigans and Miltons, close to the kink in the road, roughly where the hoarding is behind the white car in the photo. Its not far from what you’d be looking at if you were sat outside the By the Horns micro-brewery, nursing a bottle of Diamond Geezer. In the 1955 photograph it is I believe the house with the bay window, the fifth door from the left. Richard Adams Baker was a farrier and his wife Louisa a laundress, their eldest son, also a Richard was living elsewhere, but the next oldest, William James was twelve years old. They had previously lived in Battersea and William was born in Fulham. The next document Marion found about the family is four years later and sees Richard Senior joining the Amy Service Corps on 29th June 1915 at Woolwich, just a month after his son had signed up. The paperwork indicates that he was ‘specially enlisted as a shoeing smith on five shillings a day’. He had seven years previous service in the Surrey Yeomanry and made and fitted horseshoes, the horse still being the primary mode of transport in the army at that moment in time. Each artillery brigade would have needed four shoeing smiths and his skills ensured him a much higher rate of pay than that received by the average soldier. William Baker would have very likely served with the 23rd London Regiment at Loos, Vimy Ridge, Flers-Courcelette, Messines and St Quentin. There was a General Election in 1918 and the ‘absent voters’ list for that indicates William’s name. However he was most likely already dead when it was compiled. The manner of this is unusual and disturbing. He was reported as missing on 5th April 1918. This was the day that General Erich Ludendorff formally ended ‘Operation Michael’, the great German ‘Spring Offensive’. This resulted in the largest gains of territory on the Western Front by either side since 1914. The Germans advanced almost 40 miles, inflicted some 200,000 casualties and captured 70,000 prisoners, of whom the nineteen year old William James Baker was one. What happened to him next is unclear. He certainly never made it to Germany. War Office correspondence amongst the documentation in his service records, dated June 1919 outlines his fate. ‘A statement has been received from Private W Abbey of 1/23rd Battalion, London Regiment, repatriated Prisoner of War, to the effect that Private W J Baker died in June 1918 as the result of a blow received from a German sentry and was buried outside Peronne, near St Quentin, the grave being marked. The next-of-kin should be informed of this report, and also that Private Baker’s name was included in the list of Prisoners of War who are unaccounted for which was sent to Germany, and that up to the present no information is available other than a report from the main camp at Gustrow that he is dead. In view of this Private Abbey’s report is being accepted for official purposes’. William Baker’s grave was eventually identified as being in the Communal Cemetery at Peronne. Very quickly the German gains of spring 1918 were lost, the Americans became involved in the war and the tide turned. This was not the best of times to be a prisoner. At the Armistice there were only 177 graves at Peronne Communal Cemetery but very quickly it expanded when bodies were brought in from the surrounding battlefields and smaller cemeteries. There are now 1376 graves there. Think on that as you neck on a bottle of Wolfie Smith Ale and as the sun sets over Wimbledon Dog Track, spare a thought for the young soldier from across the road, William James Baker.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s