The 1911 census tells us that 16 year old John May was a bakery barrow boy working for a confectioners. He lived at 46 Foss Road and the premises was shared by the elderly Oliver couple and their 13 year old grandson Charles Moss. Perhaps when he was feeling flush, John sometimes brought back a few treats from the sweetie shop and might have shared a quarter pound of brandy balls with his young pal. A few years later they followed different paths, one joined the army, the other the navy. Both these teenage boys ended with their names on the Summerstown war memorial. ‘J May of the Royal Fusiliers’ is in the booklet produced by Smallwood Road School in 1916 ‘Old Smalls who have died for their Country’. There were 13 of them at that relatively early stage and seven are members of the Summerstown182. Charles and his older brother Henry are among those listed as currently serving. It has been our great privilege in this year of Heritage Lottery Funding to work with this wonderful school.
John’s father William May was born in Newton Abbott, Devon in 1866. He came to London, married Alice from Lambeth in 1888 and they settled in Battersea. In 1901 William was working as a carman and they were at No4 Gwynne Road with four children, William 12, Ethel 8, John 6 and baby Ernest. James Gwynne, an Irish civil engineer acquried land here in 1864 and it was constructed as a single straight road connecting Lombard Road and the High Street. By the early 1900s the area was poor, its inhabitants ‘very rough’. Most houses were home to two or three families, many sub-letting rooms to lodgers to keep the wolf from the door. Bomb damage caused havoc in Gwynne Road and although some housing survived into the 1960s it was severely run-down and eventually condemned, to be replaced by part of the York Road estate. Very sadly Alice died around 1903 and William remarried Elizabeth Adelaide Arnill from Hackney in 1904. From at least 1905 they were in Southfields where Amy was born in 1905 and Edna in 1908. The following year they were in Tooting where Eva was born and in 1911 they alighted at 46 Foss Road, Summerstown. William aged 22 and John 16 were both bakery barrowmen, the latter working for a confectioners. A ninety year old former resident of Hazelhurst Road thought that a shop called Lucky’s, tucked down an alleyway close to Smallwood School may have been the nearest sweetshop to his home.
John May was killed on 15th March 1915 and is one of only 61 burials in La Chapelle-d’Armentieres Communal Cemetery, a small village just outside the much larger town of Armentieres, close to the Belgian border. It is probably best known for ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres’ a bawdy song that was popular during the war. ‘Inky Pinky Parlez-vous’ was still being sung at the back of the bus when I was a schoolboy. Many of those in the cemetery are Royal Fusiliers who were killed that spring. Scanning the casualty list, I noticed that a young 2nd Lieutenant Herbert William Arthur Beausire had died the same day. As an officer, likely to have more factual information about him published, it was possible I might be able to find something that would lead me to a clearer picture of the circumstances of John May’s death.
A quick google took me to the Winchester School website and the very sad fact that his younger brother Charles had also perished in the war, only a month earlier. I couldn’t resist a look at their service records. It was a complicated story, their mother lived in Holland Park, their father in New York. Herbert appeared to have left everything to a girlfriend which probably didn’t go down too well. He had done very well at school and won the Headmaster’s Prize for German in 1910. Charles who was born in Chile also had a local connection. He’d joined the 23rd London Regiment as a private at Clapham Junction on 20th August 1914. A couple of months later he got a commission in the 12th Battalion and it was while serving with them that he was killed on St Valentine’s Day.
1st Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) were in Kinsale when war broke out. They returned to England and John May’s medal card indicates that he arrived in France on the 7th of September 1914. They marched to the Aisne to reinforce the hard-pressed British Expeditionary Force. From November 1914 and for the first half of 1915, the 1st Royal Fusiliers rotated in and out of the trenches in front of the village of La Chapelle D’Armentieres, close to the Franco-Belgian border. It was here that Herbert Beausire was killed by shellfire on 15th March aged 22. The war diary from that period makes for interesting reading as it mentions the famous Christmas truce. ‘Xmas Day froze hard. A kind of natural truce appeared prevalent as there was no sniping etc by enemy.’ Herbert Beausire would surely have seized the opportunity to practice his German. Hostilities recommenced on the afternoon of Boxing Day. A stern note on New Years Day from Brigade Headquarters imparted that ‘The Commander of the Second Army directs that informal undertakings with the enemy are strictly forbidden to take place and he further directs that any officer or man upon found to be responsible for initiation of any such undertakings or for acquiesing in such undertakings proposed by the enemy will be brought before courtmartial’. Things were relatively quiet in the first months of the year, it was cold and wet and there was a lot of digging, interspersed with the occasional ferocious shell burst. By the end of February the battalion were 972 men strong with 30 officers. On the 11th uplifting news came through that the Meerut Divsion had captured Neuve Chapelle. On 13th March the diary noted ‘Fine day, nothing unusual occured, artillery on both sides active. Casualties, 2 privates wounded, one private killed’. The following day Sunday 14th was another fine day, 3 other ranks were wounded. Monday 15th was a fine but dull day ‘Enemy shelled for an hour from 230pm – 2nd Lieutenant Beausire was killed by one of the shells and two other ranks wounded’. He was the only officer killed that month but John May was one of 18 other ranks who perished. On 20th March they were relieved by the Rifle Brigade after 11 days in the trenches.
John May, Herbert Beausire and 59 other identified soldiers rest in La Chapelle-d’Armentieres Communal Cemetery. The village was in British hands from October 1914 until the fall of Armentieres on the 10th April 1918, and it was retaken the following October. During the British occupation it was very close to the front line, and the cemeteries which it contains are those made by fighting units and Field Ambulances in the earliest days of trench warfare.
John May who joined the war effort so early oddly doesn’t get a single mention in the St Mary’s parish magazine over the course of the war indicating that the vicar was only notified of his death when he was collecting the names to be inscribed on the memorial. This made him hard to identify. Curiously, Charles Moss the boy he shared a roof with at 46 Foss Road corresponded with Reverend Robinson, enthusiastically reporting that he had seen action on HMS Arethusa. The 13 year old in the 1911 census who lived upstairs with his grandparents signed up for the Navy in 1913 and served in some of the greatest sea battles of the war. Suffering from tubercolosis he was discharged in June 1917 and died in a hospital in Shoreditch in January 1919, like young William Mace, with no military recognition. We need to do something about that.
UPDATE; We visited John May’s grave at La Chapelle-d’Armentieres Communal Cemetery on 1st August 2017, the day after attending the Passchendaele Centenary Commemoration event at Tyne Cot Cemetery. The evening before we were in the main square in Ypres after the Menin Gate Ceremony. It had been a VIP invitation-only occasion that evening so we watched it on a big screen and stood around afterwards to observe the bands and dignitaries depart. I had my eyes on some Chelsea Pensioners but suddenly another May, Prime Minister Teresa, no less, emerged right in front of us to talk to a woman in the crowd. I’ve no doubt she will write to us soon to say that she is a relative of John May and she’d like a tour of Summerstown.