First Ypres

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA highlight of our recent grave-seeking visit to Belgium was a trip to Ypres and the regular nightly Menin Gate ‘Last Post’ Ceremony. We had planned to get to the memorial in plenty of time to seek out the names of nine of the Summerstown182 but somehow we got distracted. The crowds were so thick, the atmosphere crackling with anticipation, we got talking to some people from Walsall, then we got hungry and became waylaid in The Captain Cook. We found William Clay all right and are very pleased that his granddaughter Iris and other members of the Clay family will be joining us this weekend for the Remembrance Sunday service at St Mary’s. But we never got round to locating the name of James Noakes from 605 Garratt Lane. That was a bit remiss because this was his time. The following evening the crowds were even more expansive and a massive security operation kicked in. The Kings and Queens of Belgium and Holland were in attendance and also Angela Merkel. It was the hundredth anniversary of the start of the first major battle of the First World War, what became known as ‘First Ypres’. Just a few days later on 31st October 1914, Private James William Noakes entered the country and not long after on 18th November he lost his life. His time in Flanders lasted just a little over two weeks, possibly the shortest active service of any of the Summerstown182. His regiment were the extremely grandly titled 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards and they have a distinguished history. This was a proper ‘War Horse’ cavalry regiment and they were involved in some of the earliest fighting of the war. One of their number, Corporal Thomas famously fired the first British shot of the war near Mons on 22nd August 1914 and Captain Hornby led the first charge ‘scattering the enemy and sabring several’. But they would suffer terribly in the ensuing fighting as both armies tried to outflank each other and seize the initiative at the heart of what was known as the Ypres Salient. James Noakes arrived as the Germans were launching a ferocious assault to capture the high ground at Polygon Wood and Messines Ridge. He was one of just over 58,000 British casualties in this period, caught up in the last line of defence of the beautiful medieval walled city of Ypres, which not for the first time would be practically razed to the ground. Two other members of the Summerstown182 also perished in the fighting around this time. Frederick Barnes from Keble Street is buried at Poperinghe and Joseph Mitchell from Bendon Valley also has his name engraved  on the Menin Gate. James was born in Kent in 1886. His parents, James Senior and Charlotte were in their forties and had married late. His father was a man of many professions; shoemaker, innkeeper, house painter and market gardener. By the time of the 1911 census, James Noakes was in the Dragoon Guards and ‘living with lots of soldiers’ at Preston Military Barracks, outside Brighton. His parents were resident in Herne Bay but at some stage shortly afterwards they moved to 605 Garratt Lane, five minutes walk from Earlsfield Station. Its possible they moved here to be near their other child, and grand daughter. Charlotte who was two years older than James had married a German pork butcher called Leonard Busch in 1905 and settled at Moffat Road, Tooting. Just a few weeks after his only son was killed, James Noakes Senior passed away aged 73. Records from 1918 indicate that both Charlottes lived together at 605 Garratt Lane but there was no sign of Leonard Busch who might possibly have been interned because of his nationality. In any case he rejoined the family at some point and lived on at the same address until 1962. Now this little stretch of Garratt Lane just a few doors down from the Party Shop is on the ‘up’. Smart little bars and eateries are popping up all around, which would surely have pleased James Noakes Senior who once ran the Alliance Inn hostelry in Peasmarsh. No605 has been empty for a while since an embroidery business there closed. Its currently being developed and has a rather scarey extended black wooden temporary frontage with red flashing lights. Screw up your eyes a bit and use your imagination and it could be a bunker or some kind of military fortification. When I was taking a photo, the builders, one of whom was wearing a poppy, were curious to hear about its inhabitants of one hundred years ago.

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