Buffalo Soldier

T G EarlBath ChronicleendDecemberSavy Wood mapChasing ‘T G Earl’, one of the more elusive names on our war memorial has been quite a job. But what a privilege to have been involved in the hunt to find something out about Thomas George Earl ‘A very gallant Welshman’. Dorothy established his double gallantry medal-winning feat almost a year ago and although he appeared to be living in Bath we soon worked out his Battersea origins. He may be one of 1,174 names on the main Bath First World War memorial but its taken a long time for us to be reasonably sure that he is one of the 182 names on the St Mary’s Church memorial in Summerstown. Since then a bevy of genealogical brains from Preston to Sevenoaks, from Rogers Road, Tooting to The British Library have mulled over his career. He might possibly have lived for a period in Ravensbury Road but it is the residence of his brother Henry at 11 Summerstown that makes us think he’s our man. Henry Earl, a laundry carman married Lucy Barbary, the sister of another of the Summerstown182, John Barbary in March 1906 and was still living in the road at No7 in 1929. Both addresses would have been just across the road from The Corner Pin. Very much the hub of Summerstown life at that time, the deeds of the Bath Buffalo would have been well known. His presence on the St Mary’s war memorial is another example perhaps of someone putting up a case for a relative whose own connection with the area may have been vague. One thing for sure though, Thomas Earl was a courageous soldier with one of the best documented millitary careers of any of the Summerstown182, being awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal and then a bar. ‘For gallantry in the field in the face of the enemy’ this is one of the army’s highest awards for bravery, widely considered second only to the Victoria Cross in prestige. He had already been a serving soldier for twelve years before the First World War, with action in India, the Zulu rebellion and the Boer conflict in South Africa. Born in 1877, he was one of eight surviving children of Eli and Ellen Earl. The family home of at least twenty years was 28 Warsill Street, south of Battersea Park Road but now lost beneath the sprawling Doddington Estate. A sister Emily married a music hall printer called John Bertram Cleaver and moved to Bath. In 1911 they were living at 18 Bridewell Lane, the address given as the home of Thomas Earl when his exploits gained him some newspaper coverage in the Bath Chronicle. He first appeared in October 28th 1916 with a full account of his bravery at Richebourg on May 9th 1915. A week later his photograph was in a prominent position on page nine, one of twelve local men whose heroism was considered worthy of a pen picture. One of them, a Private Scudamore, had been wounded 24 times. This is only the second case we have seen of an image of a member of the Summerstown182 being recorded in the press. However this is not the only public reference to him – through Twitter I got in touch with Michael Day at The British Library who uncovered an item about Thomas Earl in the journal of the ‘Orders and Medals Research Society’. An article which was published in 1994 by Robert Mansell is entitled ‘A very gallant Welshman’. The author believes that Thomas Earl is one of only two soldiers in the Welsh Regiment to have been awarded the DCM twice. Initially a seaman, Thomas George Earl joined the Welsh Regiment, 41st and 69th Foot in March 1894. In 1896 he saw service in India and six years later fought in the Boer War. He was discharged in March 1906 and remained in South Africa, serving in the Zulu ‘Bhampatha’ rebellion as Trooper Earl of the Natal Carbineers, for which he would have received the Natal Medal. This conflict would have seen spears and shields made of cow-hide pitched against rifles and cannons, with predictable results. The Bhampatha rebellion is now widely viewed as the first real black resistance against colonial oppression and the moment when the seeds of black consciousness were sown. At some point Thomas Earl returned to the UK and by August 1914 he was married and living in Barry Dock, South Wales. Thomas entered France on 3rd December 1914 with the 2nd Battalion of the Welsh Regiment. On 9th May 1915 at Richebourg L’Avoue, Corporal Thomas Earl performed his first great act of bravery which saw him awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Under heavy fire he went out on five separate occasions to retrieve five wounded men, ultimately being wounded himself. As if that wasn’t enough, the citation goes on to mention how ‘On 2nd August at Vermelles, Corporal Earl accompanied by another man, left our parapet and crawled through the grass to within thirty yards of a sap occupied by the enemy. While taking observations, a party of the enemy approached to within ten yards, and when one raised himself above the grass Corporal Earl shot him, the remainder of the enemy lying flat in the grass; after waiting a short time, both men crawled back and regained our parapet. The reconnaissance was carried out with great judgment and bravery, and valuable information was gained’. The 28th October 1916 edition of the Bath Chronicle also mentions how Sergeant Earl was decorated by his former Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Schofield in front of his colleagues in Cardiff. It is also noted how he had become a member of the Royal Antedeluvian Order of Buffaloes, an organisation not unlike the Freemasons. Reverend John Robinson was himself a Buffalo and that kinship with a fellow Buff may again have influenced him in deciding about Thomas Earl’s inclusion on the war memorial. The addition of a Bar to this decoration was announced in the London Gazette on 28th March 1918. ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as a Battalion Scout Sergeant and observer during three days operations. He obtained connection with the right and centre companies both by day and night, when all other guides failed. During an attack he led a ration party to the rear company through heavy shelling and though suffering several casualties, arrived at his destination with the rations’. This happened at a stage of the war when the German Spring offensive briefly gave them the upper hand but in August 1918 the tide turned and by mid-September the allies were ready to mount an attack on the Hindenburg Line at St Quentin. This was an area that had been fought over a year previously and a battered map in an old family album shows where my Great Uncle Alan of the Inniskilling Fusiliers was wounded at a place called Savy Wood in April 1917. Wilfred Owen was also wounded in the same battle and would write about it. In September 1918 Fresnoy-le-Petit was one of the surrounding villages which had to be recaptured before the Germans could be driven out of St Quentin. After a number of false starts with heavy casualties inflicted by determined resistance, on the morning of 24th September, Thomas Earl and the 2nd Welsh joined 1st Glosters and the South Wales Borderers in a renewed attack on Fresnoy-le-Petit. The fighting was particularly intense at a place called Les Trois Sauvages Farm where many German soldiers trying to surrender were shot by their own side. Ninety percent of British casualties were picked off by snipers from this strong-point. By 1030pm it was finally taken but at some stage that day, Thomas George Earl lost his life. The gallant welshman from Battersea who had defended the Empire on three continents, saved those five lives, got through with the vital rations, crawled on his belly surrounded by Germans to provide crucial information and did goodness knows what else that no one was around to see, was killed just six weeks before the end of the war. He is one of only 67 identified casualties buried in the small Marteville Communal Cemetery at Attilly, just a few miles west of St Quentin, not far from where the Buffalo Soldier fought his final battle.


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