A field of splendid king-size red cabbages adjoins Pont du Hem Cemetery on the long straight road between Estaires and Neuve Chapelle. When we visited Mark Archer and Andrew Meikle in October 2015 they were in their full glory and we couldn’t resist liberating a few leaves from one. It was obviously a particularly bountiful autumn as there were a few handsome mushrooms ripe for plucking, growing in the cemetery itself and whilst it was tempting, we really didn’t want to take a chance. We tucked our find away in the back of the car thinking it would be a nice addition to a salad or a stir-fry. Of course it subsequently got completely forgotten about and over the next few months we wondered what the nasty lingering smell of decay was. Its an unfortunate fact, but our Summerstown182 duo here will forever be associated with rotting red cabbage.
The Archer story spans the length of England, from Cumbria to the south coast. George Valentine Archer was born in Carlisle in 1846, the son of John Archer, a booksellers clerk. In 1851 John and his wife Agnes had uprooted and were living in Hoxton, east London. By 1871 they had moved across the metropolis to 3 Waterloo Place and George and his brother Arthur had both followed their father into the book trade, George as a bookbinder. A few years later he pops up in Sussex where on 27th March 1875, George married Margaret Ford in Brighton. By the time of the 1881 census they were living at 13 Somerset Street, Brighton, Kemptown with two small children, Margaret five and Arthur three. Mark Albert Archer soon followed, christened on 19th February 1882. They were not too far from the Palace Pier though work on that only started in 1891 by which time the family were back in London.
The census of that year indicates that the Archers were now living in the rapidly developing new streets of Summerstown, in the beginning of the process of changing from a rural community to how we know the area today. George was still a bookbinder and finisher and there were four children. They lived at 2 Smallwood Road and a map of around the same time shows a cluster of houses on this road. They were very probably the first ever residents at this address. They would have seen the new Streatham Cemetery being created and opening for business in 1892 and also the emergence of the Fountain Fever Hospital, hastily erected in 1893 following a resurgence of scarlet fever. Soon the area between these would fill with streets and people. Charles Booth would arrive and make his scathing comments; ‘Damp air, unhealthy soil and houses ill-built and uncared for serving as a refuge for the rejected from elsewhere’. Next door on Smallwood Road lived the Brigden family, whose son William Henry then 15 would also be one of the Summerstown182 who lost their life in 1918. Round the corner in Hazelhurst Road were three ‘dealers in horse flesh’.
Possibly to escape the smells eminating from this enterprise, by at least 1898 the Archers had moved across Garratt Lane to 4 Aboyne Road. This house, currently on the market, sits facing the entrance to Garratt Green with a lovely view across the park to Burntwood School, then Springfield Farm. The children were all now adults but unusually all still living at home. Margaret aged 25 was a postal order sorter, Arthur 23 a solicitors clerk and 19 year old Mark a commercial clerk. Their office jobs and shift to the east side of Garratt Lane definitely marked them down as an upwardly mobile family. They were at 4 Aboyne Road until 1910 before moving to a larger house at 83 Burntwood Lane. Oddly enough this stands opposite the other entrance to Garratt Green.
George died aged 65 on 7th March 1911 at Bolingbroke Hospital, just a month before the next census. He would however have lived to see Mark married at St Mary’s Church on 6th August 1910. Aged 28, and now working as a clerk for a tea merchants, he married Emily Blanche Couldrey from Thornton Heath. His address on the certificate is 25 Burmester Road, one of the homes that got a reprieve when the Anglo American Laundry’s expansion plans were thwarted. They may have lived there for a while but the following year it appears they had set up home at 71 Torridge Road in Thornton Heath. In the April 1911 census another Summerstown182 soldier Robert Lake was living at 25 Burmester Road. Margaret Archer continued to live at 83 Burntwood lane, moving to No 159 from 1918 to 1921. This house is just the other side of the zebra crossing in front of Burntwood School. On the Commonwealth War Graves Commission next-of-kin details her address is given as ‘Old Wandsworth Common’. It would appear that Emily never remarried and died in Guildford in 1959.
Mark Archer was initially with the 70th Provisional Battalion (East Surreys) which became the 15th Royal Sussex Regiment. This appears to have been some kind of coastal defence unit, not unlike the Home Guard. Mark was 35 in 1917 so whilst not exactly Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army he wasn’t exactly in the first flush of youth. On 29th August 1917 at the height of the Battle of Passchendaele, it appears he joined the 2nd Battalion of the London Regiment, Royal Fusiliers. He would be killed whilst serving with them on 11th April 1918.
The Battle of the Lys in which Mark Archer died was also known as the Fourth Battle of Ypres or Operation Georgette, the second part of the 1918 German ‘Spring Offensive’ in Flanders. Their objective was the capturing of Ypres, forcing the British forces back to the channel ports and out of the war. On 21st the first phase of the attack between the Oise and the Scarpe was launched with unexpected force and speed.
‘The Royal Fusiliers in The Great War’ by H.C. O’Neill published in 1922 gives a good account of the whereabouts of Mark Archer’s battalion at this time. The 2nd Londons remained in the Ypres area until the Battle of the Lys began. On April 10th they arrived by bus at Vieux Berquin at 630am. That evening they took up positions in support of the troops holding Estaires, and at 4am withdrew, handing over to the 5th Durham Light Infantry, who had evacuated Estaires. At noon on 11th they took over the defences of Doulieu. Within a few hours the village was the centre of fierce fighting with the Germans making rapid headway. The battalion held on until 2am on the 12th, when they were ordered to retire, falling back two miles and becoming heavily attacked in an isolated position at the village of Bleu. Defences which had been held for three and a half years had been swept away. ‘In the fifty-two hours they had spent in the Lys battle area the 2nd Royal Fusiliers had 15 officers and 324 other ranks casualties. They were true to their fate in finding the hottest part in the battlefield’.
Mark Albert Archer is commemorated in Pont du Hem Cemetery, La Gorgue, near Neuve Chapelle. A ‘grave registration report form’ attached to his Commonwealth War Graves Commission record indicates that he was one of three soldiers who were originally buried by the Germans, but whose graves were subsequently lost in further fighting. A ‘Special Kipling Memorial Cross No23’ stands ‘to the memory, of these three British soldiers, who were buried by the enemy in 1918 in Laventie North German Cemetery, but whose graves are now lost’. The last line on it reads ‘Their glory shall not be blotted out’. They are Mark Archer from Summerstown, Herbert Kerr from Ashton-under-Lyne and William Davies from Sunderland. Their headstones stand, side by side. It is dated 31st August 1926. The stone indicates that there were twenty two other similar cases, all their headstones now in a line against the back wall of the cemetery, in front of the cabbages. Also buried in this cemetery is Andrew Meikle, another of the Summerstown182, killed with his brother Thomas at the Somme in 1916. His grave is really not far away from Mark Archer’s headstone, in fact you can get them in the same photo. Although much younger than Mark Archer, Andrew Meikle also lived on Burmester Road.
In the July 1918 issue of the St Mary’s Church parish magazine, the deaths of Albert Ball and Frank Tutty were announced – in the same paragraph notice was given ‘that Lance Corporal Mark Archer of the Royal Fusiliers is reported as wounded and missing. Our sympathy goes out to their relatives’. The sad inscription on his headstone reads ‘Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away’. Just another young promising life snuffed out in a conflict that must now have seemed like it would never end.