Last October, across the Channel on the trail of the Sunday School Three, we were heading for Ypres via the Messines Ridge when we pulled into the small town of Nieuwkerke (Neuve-Eglise), not far from the French border. Its dominated appropriately enough by a newish looking red-brick church. Fighting around here was particularly intense in 1918 and by the end of the First World War the church was in ruins. There was more to come in 1940. The evening sun was sparkling as we searched the small tightly-packed churchyard for Francis Augustus Gregory from Graveney Road. There were a couple of freshly-dug graves and the earth was rich and moist, the texture and colour of chocolate fudge cake. It wasn’t hard to find Frank and we noticed immediately that his grave was huddled up close to six other East Surreys and they all died on the same day. With the excitement of everything else going on and another 40 Summerstown182 names to look for we forgot about following-up on Frank, until the anniversary of his death a few weeks ago. Ginny put together a really useful document for us. She got a mate to knock up a speadsheet with all the Summerstown182 deaths in chronological order. Very useful for getting to know them a little better and learn about the circumstances of their deaths and what they were doing around the time that happened. Hence on February 27th I glanced at Ginny’s list and saw that it was exactly one hundred years to the day since the death of Frank Gregory. Frank was in the East Surrey Regiment, like about 24 of the Summerstown182 and that means the war diaries are easy to access. Usually these documents are squirreled away in the National Archives and although they are currently all being digitised, it can be quite difficult to find the right one. But the East Surrey and West Surrey regimental diaries are all on one very easy-to-use website. Within a few minutes it was possible to read the dispassionate typewritten notes which can reveal so much but very often so little. On this occasion though, the diaries for the 1st Battalion gave a very clear picture of what happened to Frank without mentioning him by name. It certainly explained the cluster of graves. Frank died on 27th February 1915 and exactly a century to the day of his death I clicked on the relevant buttons and found what the 1st Battalion were doing on that date. They were in Nieuwkerke and at about 1pm the Germans began shelling the village triggering an evacuation. ‘Before this order could be completely carried out a shell exploded in a house where some of C company were quartered. The house was completely wrecked burying a number of men. Casualties 5 killed and 7 wounded. Two of the latter dying subsequently from their wounds.’ One soldier, a Private Gould, mentioned as only having joined the draft the previous day, was partially buried and on being released at once assisted in digging out 8 buried men, ‘He then collapsed’. Graveney Road is not strictly Summerstown182 territory, its definitely more connected to Tooting. But its close to Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop and the section of Selkirk Road that looks like it hasn’t changed much in a century. My main association with Graveney Road is through a damson tree at the junction of Khama Road, roughly opposite No127. It overhangs the road and every few years it drips with fruit which its owner appears to have no interest in picking. About two years ago I went armed with a large piece of tupperware and baked a most delicious tart.
Frank’s Dad, Herbert Augustus Gregory was a soldier in the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment and attested in 1887, two years after he married Catherine Crapper in Wandsworth. He wasn’t so keen on army life or the prospect of going to Egypt or Sudan and the records show that he deserted twice. He worked as a marble polisher and general labourer. Frank was born in 1885 in Clapham, one of five boys. In 1901 the famly lived at 117 Culvert Road, Battersea. By 1911 they were at Graveney Road, Tooting and Frank was working in a greengrocer’s in Wimbledon Road. Two sisters had been added to the family. His eldest brother Isaac married in St Mary’s in 1907 and lived in Summerley Street. Another brother, Charles was discharged from the army with spinal problems caused prior to enlistment when the ‘head of a sledgehammer flew off and hit him in the back’. He later married an Alice Cooper and their son, also Charles, a Corporal in the Royal Armoured Corps was killed in Italy in 1943 and is buried in Naples. Another brother Alfred served in the First World War but was discharged in 1916 ‘having made a mis-statement as to age on enlistment’. Frank himself attested at Kingston in November 1912. He was still seventeen and joined the third battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. The young fruit and veg assistant worked for ‘S Green’ greengrocers at 25 Wimbledon Road, next door to the home of Eldred Henden. His commute from 127 Graveney Road would have been a brisk seven or eight minute walk up Garratt Lane. In the 1940 bomb damage photo of the stretch of properties at the Blackshaw Road end of Wimbledon Road you can count down from No31 and see a sign that may possibly indicate where the greengrocers once were. Now its all just a patch of green at the bottom of Chillingford House and at the moment a row of daffodils have sprouted on the grassy bank and nod appreciatively over at St Mary’s Church on the other side of the road, in honour of Frank Gregory and the Summerstown182.