We attended the Battle of the Somme Centenary event at Thiepval in France on 1st July. Reverend Roger Ryan asked me to tell the congregation of St Mary’s Church in Summerstown something about it on Sunday 10th July.
Over the last two and a half years, we have immersed ourselves in stories of the young men whose names have been in the back of the church for nearly 100 years. Three of them were sixteen years old when they died. The oldest we believe was 54 year old George Nathaniel Daniel from Hazelhurst Road. We have identified where they lived, told stories on the streets outside their homes, in some cases visited their graves. We have researched their family background and military service and in many cases been able to contact their families and descendants. We have in a sense brought them to life.
But they are only some of millions and the enormity of this was brought home to us the day we went to the Somme Commemoration. It wasn’t the red uniforms, the military grandeur or the presence of royalty or political elite – it was the simple stories of everyday lives, tainted forever, that had the tears rolling down our cheeks. Stories told in a beautiful setting, the green rolling French countryside, with birds singing and poppies blowing in the wind. The soldiers who fought at the Somme were largely the volunteers from everyday life who joined the previous year, Kitchener’s Army, the pals battalions from northern towns or groups who worked in the same trade or profession. Painters, labourers, shop assistants, stockbrokers, clerks, railwaymen, footballers, cardboard box factory workers. Ordinary people, from ordinary backgrounds, thrown into an extraordinary situation.
Among them, too young to yet have a trade or profession was Sidney Lewis a 13 year old machine gunner who went into a place called Delville Wood in the middle of July alongside 3,153 South Africans – at the end of six days fighting, only 755 of them were still standing. The dead outnumbered the wounded by four to one. ‘Delville Wood had disintegrated into a shattered wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep.’ It became known as ‘The Devil’s Wood’ and is the site of the South African National War Memorial.
19 year old Sidney Seager from Thurso Street lost three brothers, they are on our war memorial – Albert, Edward and Ernest. His leg dangling by a thread, Sidney was carried out of a shell hole and back to his trench by a young Lieutenant from Newport Pagnell called Francis Taylor. As he was about to set Sidney down, he was shot in the stomach and killed. Sidney spent almost a year in hospital, survived the war, married and raised a family and lived to the age of 75. His widowed mother Winifred was spared another funeral.
In that same battle of Pozieres, 23,000 Australians became casualties over a six week period. In the words of Australian official historian Charles Bean, the Pozières ridge ‘Is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.’ Dying with them was the captain of the St Mary’s Cricket team, 23 year old William Ibbott from Huntspill Street. His brother Frank, whose goal-scoring exploits for the football team pepper the pages of the pre-war parish magazine, was horribly injured but survived the war. Horatio Nelson Smith was sixteen years old and lived at 53 Hazelhurst Road. He died in the terrible fighting at the village of Guillemont alongside Protestant and Catholic Irish soldiers on 9th September. Overlooking the section of the cemetery where he is buried are two tall poplar trees, which seem to echo the two tower blocks which now stand on the site of his home, now the site of the Hazelhurst Estate.
A week later Arthur Clarke from Franche Court Road and George Collier from Headworth Street, now submerged by the Burtop Estate, were killed the day that the stronghold of High Wood was finally taken from the Germans. In the four days that it took the 47th Division to capture High Wood, they suffered 4,500 casualties. Their Commander was dismissed for wastage of men. He was later knighted. A conservative estimate suggests that High Wood holds the remains of some 8,000 German and British soldiers who were killed in action there. Even today there are parts of the wood which contain live ammunition and signs give dire warning of the consequences of entering.
Frederick Sizmur Buckland was one of ten children who lived in the house next door to Roger’s vicarage at 44 Wimbledon Road. The son of Bertie, a gold and silver embosser who played an active role in the life of this church for over ten years. Frederick manned one of the 18 pounder guns that was supposed to blast the German trenches and make things easy for the advancing infantry in the week leading up to the attack of 1st July. He was killed in September at Bazentin Ridge. When we visited the cemetery at Mametz where he is buried last year, we found some shells in the field next to it. Perhaps even one that he may have fired.
Archie Dutton lived on Hazelhurst Road. His Dad was a bricklayer who probably helped build this church. He joined up on 7th July 1916 and also fought at High Wood. He was killed on 8th October at Warlencourt and last week we visited his grave and placed a photograph given to us by his niece Sheila from Orpington. She has told us about a young lad, just five years old, who is named after him. His Great Great Great nephew.
Between 1st July 1916 and 18th November there were almost one million casualties on the Somme battlefields. 26 of the names on our war memorial died over his period, from almost every street in the area. Two of them, Ernest Pelling from Burmester Road and Henry Foley from Foss Road, in the very last days of the fighting. Another person whose life was affected by the Somme was a German-born baker called Peter Jung whose shop at the bottom of Garratt Lane was regularly ransacked by mobs. Its still there today, the Carphone Warehouse premises opposite Tooting Broadway. Why were his premises attacked? Just because he came from a different country and he had a funny name? Hatred and mistrust, whipped up by hysterical media, preying on fear and uncertainty.
A common theme here is the youth of the soldiers. Apart from the reading of the individual soldier stories at the Thiepval event, it was the final act of the commemoration that moved us most – the placing of wreaths on hundreds of graves by children from schools from around the UK and Ireland. When we try and explain our history – that’s who we need to talk to. We need to tell them of the horrors of war. When we put up a Plaque to tell people about a twelve year old who went to war, its not to glorify him or the barbarity of senseless slaughter – its a warning. A reminder of the terrible horror that can be unleashed when people who face each other across different frontiers, of different colours and creeds, can’t resolve their differences. We can learn so much through history. Why should we be so shocked that a 13 year old was fighting in a terrible war 100 years ago when in Africa today, much younger children are fighting in conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Uganda. Let Sidney’s Plaque be a reminder of that.
We met so many people on our trip, from all over Europe and further afield and we told them about Summerstown and St Mary’s and what we are doing. One of the most memorable was a group of young students from Dusseldorf in Germany who were making a film about the commemoration. They interviewed us and we showed them Sidney’s Plaque and have invited them to attend the unveiling and launch event. In the spirit of reconciliation we extend the hand of friendship.
As some of you may know, we have been fortunate recently to have been awarded Heritage Lottery Funding to advance our project. Its not an easy thing to achieve and we should all take great pride in it. Our task now is to reach out to younger people through involvement in local schools, to begin with, Smallwood Primary and Burntwood. The setting up of a ‘Friends of Summerstown182’ History Group, a Military History Roadshow to be hosted at local libraries and walks, talks, visits to museums. We will listen to older people, hear their stories and record them. We will reach out to the very young.
We want to involve all the community and help people understand a little better the place where they have chosen to make their home. We will continue to focus on the 182 but we will explore the involvement of Indian soldiers, those who came from the Caribbean and other parts of the British Commonwealth. Yesterday in Tooting Market, an elderly Jamaican gentleman told us of his memories of old soldiers from the island, and how they told him their stories of life in the trenches in Europe.
One of our proudest moments so far in doing this project, was when students from Ernest Bevin College told us how engaged they were with the history of this community. We worked with them in the making a film for the BBC School Report programme which featured Summerstown182 soldiers. Some of their parents weren’t born in this country and they don’t have a Grandfather’s medals to show, but they felt a connection with the ‘boys’ who once lived in their streets. They felt a pride and a realisation that something which happened here 100 years ago was relevant to them and the telling of which they could be a part of.
I want to take the opportunity to thank you all for the very many kindnesses and support you have shown myself and Sheila and this Project. From making tea, coming on the Guided Walks, sharing mementoes and old photographs or just a kind word of encouragement. One of you has told me on several occasions how she took great pride to learn the she lived in a house which 100 years ago had been home to a hero. William Warman DCM was a young stretcher bearer from Alston Road who saved many lives. We have just over two years to complete this project and I hope our work continues to flourish and the Church and our wider community benefit from the little bit of attention which has been gained from this project. On Saturday 24th September at 2pm, we will unveil a plaque on the house where Sidney Lewis lived in Garratt Lane. Afterwards we will launch our new Heritage Lottery Funded status in St Mary’s Church. I hope as many of you as possible can join us on that day.