Dead Man’s Penny

De LaSomme
George2nd Middlesexon the promGeorge Hope

Curious about the defining moment of my Grandad’s First World War experience, it was about ten years ago that we went to the Somme. We stood at the Ulster Tower and gazed down at Thiepval Wood and over the Ancre valley, trying to imagine what it was like for him on 1st July 1916. He had joined the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers and was in the 108th Infantry Brigade Machine Gun Company, part of the 36th ‘Ulster’ Division of the British Army. At 730am on a sunny morning, the whistles blew and great waves of men went forward. One and a half million shells had softened up the German defences and the soldiers were instructed to walk slowly forward. We all know what happened next. There were 57,470 casualties. The bloodiest day. In the midst of it all, in the attack on the village of Hamel, he was wounded and shipped back to Blighty. Here he was coaxed back to health by Christine Lilian Bloomfield, a nurse from Hove. She was the woman who became my Grandmother and is where we get our long legs from. Looking at all the headstones in the valley made me realise that it was really just the flimsiest piece of chance that allowed him to survive and subsequent generations including myself to follow. I worked out that there are seventeen of us who owe our existence to him making it through that day. The toss of a coin landed on the other side for twenty year old George Edward Hope from Summerstown. No future generations for him. George was born in Battersea in 1893, the son of a railway worker. He joined the Royal Field Artillery in 1909 in Chichester. He gave his age as 18 but census records suggest he was two years younger. His short service record contains a half page of scribbled notes which give the impression that the teenage tommy was a less-than-perfect soldier. Lines written in red ink indicate two convictions for desertion at Coventry and Deepcut. A stern note dictates that ‘all former service is forfeited on conviction of desertion’. When George was finally discharged for misconduct on 18th July 1911, his record states that despite a two year army career, his total service amounted to 46 days. It wouldn’t have looked good on his CV. The census of that year showed he was living with his parents and sister Louise at 20 Summerstown, the family having previously resided at No35. He was working as a labourer but it is indicated on the form that he was a discharged soldier.


Yet another serviceman from this extraordinary thoroughfare whose present pitiful countenance is so hard to reconcile with the vibrant and bustling central artery of Summerstown that it must have been one hundred years ago. The above photo shows the road after the Wandle floods of June 1914. George’s home would have been somewhere on the extreme right of the picture. Only five doors down from The Corner Pin, on the dog-track side of the road, next door to John Barbary and not far from William Baker’s house. Just across the road lived Thomas Milton and William Nicholls. Despite his bad-boy reputation the army was never going to turn away George Hope in 1915. Its unclear when he joined the 2nd battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, but come 1st July 1916, they were part of the Eighth Division, destined to attack German defences at Ovillers-la-Boiselle from an area known as Mash Valley. The photo on the above postcard shows a pensive group of men from 2nd Middlesex, apparently taken on 1st July 1916. They are in their overcoats suggesting that it was early morning. Very close by, minutes before the attack at ‘Zero Hour’ 730am, 90,000 pounds of explosives laid beneath the German lines were detonated creating the massive Lochnagar Crater. The sound of the explosion was heard and felt in London. As the Middlesex and Devonshire soldiers made their way across 750 yards of no-man’s land, German machine-gun fire swept across them from three sides, cutting them down. The 2nd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment suffered over 600 casualties and by the end of the day, all but 50 of them were killed, wounded or missing. Their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Sandys had expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of the attack. The subsequent carnage so distressed him, that a few months later he shot himself in the Cavendish Hotel. He is buried in Brompton Cemetery. The National Army Museum has the service tunic of another Middlesex officer, a Captain George Johnson. The missing right arm of this grim relic demonstates how the medics tore away his uniform to treat his wounds. They did a good job because he lived on until his nineties. The immense Thiepval Memorial to the Missing commemorates the names of 72,000 men who died on the Somme and have no known grave, George Hope was one of them and  there are eleven other Summerstown182 men alongside him. The next-of-kin of any soldier killed in the First World War received a bronze Memorial Plaque or ‘dead man’s penny’. A few weeks ago on Remembrance Sunday I was shown Willlam Clay’s. Not long ago we noticed that George Hope’s Plaque was on sale on e-Bay, in its original cardboard envelope with the King’s letter. ‘I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War’. Apparently uncleaned and interfered with, sadly it appears to have passed from his family. Whilst there were seventeen of us to preserve my Grandfather’s memory and pass down his stories there was unfortunately no one following George Edward Hope.


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