There are three Tibbenhams on the First World War memorial in St Mary’s Church. Identifying the ‘H Tibbenham’ has caused us more than a few headaches. Surely it had to be a brother of Spencer and Eric from Thurso Street. The finger initially pointed at Horace. We then made contact with family in Australia who confirmed it most certainly wasn’t Horace who passed away in 1958. Not long after that we found out about a cousin Herbert, killed at Arras, whose connections were very much based in the Tibbenham family Suffolk homelands. A quick google shows there are still plenty of them in this area so hopefully one of them will read this. All three Tibbenhams died in 1917 in different battles; Spencer at Messines, Herbert at Arras, Eric at Cambrai. The Bignell family in Melbourne descended from Ethel (Annie) Tibbenham very kindly supplied us with photos of Spencer and Eric and now its time to have a closer look at their cousin. His name is on the Arras Memorial, St Peter and St Paul Church in Hoxne in Suffolk and St Mary’s Church in Summerstown.
Herbert’s father, Pleys Robert Tibbenham seems to have spent all his life in East Anglia. A farmer, born in Weybread in Suffolk in 1862, he died in the same county, in Hartismere in 1948. William Tibbenham and his wife Maryann had ten children and Pleys was the second oldest of eight brothers. The connection with Summerstown in south London appears to be the eldest, William who worked as a draper, a trade his son Spencer followed him into. He went to London in the 1870s and eventually settled at 12 Thurso Street, Tooting. He died there in 1936.
Back in Suffolk, Pleys married Rosa Alice Buckingham in Depwade, Norfolk in 1895. He was 33 so he’d left it quite late by the standards of the day. The following year their first child, Mary Doris was born. She died in 1988 at the age of 92. Herbert was born on 2nd September 1897 in the village of Brockdish in Norfolk. Right on the Suffolk border on the River Waveney and apparently a great spot for a wild swim. There were two more girls, Ruth was born in 1899 and Kathleen in 1907. Both also lived to a ripe old age, Ruth died in Chichester in 1996 aged 97 and Kathleen passed away in Norwich in 1993 at the age of 86.
In 1901 the family lived at New Farm, Sotterley Road, Ellough in Suffolk. Used to looking at old maps of Earlsfield and Summerstown, when they were mostly fields and farmland and contrasting to today, by comparison, very little seems to have changed in Ellough. They seemed to move address quite frequently, perhaps depending on what work Pleys could find and were subsequently in Dickleburgh and Syleham, dipping in and out of the neighbouring counties. By the 1911 census they were back in Suffolk, at Hoxne. Herbert was fourteen, Ruth aged twelve and Kathleen three. Mary was elsewhere that day, she later moved to London and was married in Wandsworth in 1930. Pleys was now according to the records a farm manager working for his brother. Brockdish, Syleham, Weybread and Hoxne are all still tiny settlements just a few miles to the east of Diss in the River Waveney valley. It all sounds very lovely and I can feel this surely calls for a ‘Tibbenham Suffolk Sunset’ Guided Walk.
What Herbert was up to in the pre-war years is a mystery. Did he move to London? Perhaps he stayed with his uncle in Tooting. His cousin Spencer emigrated to Gloucester, New South Wales, Australia in 1912 so there would have been a spare bed at Thurso Street. Though given the size of the Tibbenham family it was more likely to be part of one. All we know for sure is that he joined the army in 1915. Herbert’s service records have survived to give a few clues about the course of his war. It appears that he had a medical at Holborn on 20th November 1915 . He was not long past his eighteenth birthday but he declared he was nineteen and working as a warehouseman. At five foot eight and a quarter inches he was taller than average, though still a good few inches smaller than his cousin Spencer. On another section he gives a very comprehensive list of dependents. His parents are listed and his three sisters. The family all appear to be living in Syleham, but Doris is now in Stockwell, just a few stops up the Northern Line from Tooting. Also listed are eight uncles including William in Thurso Street. Its odd given his large extended family that Herbert’s name ended up on the St Mary’s Church memorial. Its just possible that as well as his uncle’s family his sister Doris had some sway.
He officially joined 19th Battalion of Kings Royal Rifle Corps on 27th November 1915. On 23rd August 1916 Herbert embarked for France at Southampton and landed at Le Havre. Now with 16th KRRC on 7th September he was in the field and the field in question was the Somme. On 10th September he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. 16th (Church Lads Brigade) Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps was raised at Denham, Buckinghamshire in September 1914 by Field-Marshal Lord Grenfell. Losses were extensive at the Somme in the fighting at High Wood and Herbert’s transfer was perhaps simply because they required additional manpower rather than his being a good christian soldier.
Herbert was killed in what became known as the Second Battle of the Scarpe in the spring of 1917. The focus was on Arras and attacking the German’s Hindenburg Line, a heavily-fortified line of defence on the Western Front which they had built up over the winter months. The 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps battalion war diary indicates the build-up to this as they moved north in the preceeding month. On 1st April they were at Corbie on the Somme and on 3rd April they marched ten miles to Beauval. On the following day they went on another ten miles to Barly and onn 5th they covered a further 12 miles to Mondicourt. After a day of rest they moved on to Souastre and were billeted in huts. Here they were given iron rations and extra ammunition and were warned that only six hours notice would be given about the next move. On 11th there was a heavy fall of snow. On 13th they move to Mercatel and then to Moyenville, north of Croisilles where they made themselves as comfortable as possible in the ruined villlage. Many of the men worked with the Royal Engineers on ‘road fatigue’ duty which on occasion had to be cancelled because of the bad weather.
On 21st April the diary gives its first clue as to what is going on ‘a general attack on HINDENBURG LINE’. On the evening of 22nd they moved into position at Croisilles. The following morning, St George’s Day at 445am the attack began, with the 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps playing a leading role in the 98th Brigade assault. In this action, Herbert Pleys Tibbenham would lose his life. It appeared that the first line of defence that morning was taken fairly easily and 300 prisoners were taken. But German defences were much sterner than anticipated and there was a shortage of bombs and ammunition to breech them. C E Crutchley in his book ‘Machine Gunner 1914-1918’ recalled the scene in the Sensée River valley that day ‘The 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps who were in support, with great gallantry and despite heavy losses repeatedly made their way up and down the valley carrying bombs and ammunition to the Queens’. At 1pm the diary noted ‘retirement took place owing to lack of bombs and failure of tanks to get up’. At 9pm it was ascertained that 1 officer was killed, 9 officers were wounded and missing and there were 260 casualties among the ranks. On the following day the 16th recuperated at St Leger and the Divisional Commander thanked the battalion for their ‘splendid work during the attack’. This events of the day are featured in an episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ The Grandfather of actor Hugh Dennis was involved, by coincidence serving with the Suffolk Regiment.
At this point in the Hindenburg Line, the main defensive advantage the Germans had was their highly fortified Tunnel Trench. An impressive piece of engineering, the tunnel was 30 or 40 feet below ground along its whole length, with staircase access from the upper level every 25 yards. The entire tunnel had electric lighting, and side chambers provided storage space for bunks, food, and ammunition. It was in a major assualt on this, on 20th November that our Great Uncle, Captain Alan Lendrum, then with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was awarded the Military Cross. We visited the area a few years ago and found the fields near Fontaine-les-Croisillies still littered with shells. Some of which might have been directed one hundred years earlier at Alan and Herbert Pleys Tibbenham. Much of the tunnel is still there, apparently intact and out of sight but every so often it caves in to reveal itself.
Back in Tooting, William Tibbenham and his wife Louise had eleven children, a nice split of six boys and five girls. Ethel Annie Tibbenham married a postman from Battersea called Frederick Alfred Arnold in 1910. He was killed in action in 1915. She married again on 26th July 1919 in Wandsworth to Alfred Charles Bignell. Born in Ballarat, Victoria and a resident of Apollo Bay on the Great Ocean Road. He was a farmer who had joined the Australian Infantry in 1914 and served at Gallipoli, Egypt and in France. His address was 171 Tooting High Street on the corner of Sellincourt Road. That’s directly opposite The Trafalgar where the lively Alf would undoubtedly have enjoyed a jar or two.
Mention is made on the certificate that William, Annie’s father was a clerk in the Royal Army Clothing Department. It seems like Annie and Alf headed to Australia soon after and settled in Surrey Hills, Victoria. In May the following year a son William was born. Alf died in 1965 and two years later, Annie then aged 77 wrote to the authorities enquiring about Alf and her brother Spencer’s medals. This letter was preserved in Spencer’s service records, easily accessible online and the address lead me to the Lone Pine Dairy, Balwyn Historical Society and contact with the Bignell family. Curiously, just the day before Annie married her Aussie, sister Ena also tied the knot with an Aussie soldier in Lewes. He was John Paton, a butcher from Allansford, not too far up the road from Apollo Bay. Whether Alf and John knew each other, this happy couple also headed for Melbourne just six days later. Ena lived to be 90 and Annie was 84 when she passed away. Quite why the two sisters didn’t organise joint nuptuals and save on the catering is interesting. Connecting with Balwyn set this project alight a few years ago and we are so pleased to be able to have the photos of Spencer and Eric. Be lovely if we could get one of Herbert as well.
In the meantime, its great to be in contact with Graham of Hoxne Heritage Group and we’ll be sharing our findings on Herbert. A plaque there, inside the St Peter and St Paul Church, commemorates the names of nineteen people from the parish who were killed or missing in the First World War and seven from the Second. We do hope to visit. Meanwhile, back in New South Wales, my cousin and her husband are going to take a trip to Gloucester some time to see if they can find any trace of Spencer. Not too far away from there John will be playing the Bugle at the ANZAC Day service at a place called Krambach on the 25th April. Two days after the centenary of Herbert Pleys Tibbenham’s death.