Written and researched by Chris Burge. His website is dedicated to the memory of the 587 individuals named on the Mitcham War Memorial.
This is the story of seven young lads from neighbouring streets in the Fairlight area of Tooting who volunteered to join a Welsh Yeomanry unit in 1915. This was no glamorous adventure, just a hard slog in Gallipoli, Egypt, Palestine and finally on the Western front in France. Nor did it have a happy ending, as at least three of them did not survive the war; John Burke, Arthur Mace and Walter Tappin are all on the memorial in St Mary’s Church, Summerstown. Their story may well be unique in the history of the unit they joined, The Welsh Horse, a unit which itself would cease to exist by early 1917 when it was absorbed into a battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
The Welsh Horse Yeomanry was formed early in August 1914 initially in Cardiff. Its existence was due almost entirely to the energy and passion of one man, Arthur Owen Vaughan, better known as ‘Owen Roscomyl’. He was a charismatic figure who had been a cowboy adventurer in America during the 1880’s. He had served as a soldier in Egypt and the Sudan and in irregular cavalry during the Boer War. A fierce Welsh Nationalist and author, it was his dream to establish a regiment of Welsh Cavalry. Plans were already in place before the outbreak of war, and on the 4th of August 1914 some 160 men enlisted at Cardiff. Official War Office recognition followed but also plans to restrict numbers and a bureaucratic tangle overall saw them designated a territorial unit and command passed to Lord Kensington. In November they left Wales for Diss in Norfolk. They were still a highly regarded unit, the Navy and Army Illustrated Magazine, issue 24, dated 30th January 1915, included a feature on the ‘Welch Horse’, their glowing description accompanied by a number of photographs. ‘The Welch Horse is one of the finest mounted Regiments in Great Britain. I have inspected none better’. They were now part of the East Coast Defence Force. Invasion threats were being taken seriously after what happened on the north east coast at the end of 1914 and in the spring of 1915 several towns in East Anglia were bombed by Zeppelins.
Incredibly, in March that year, at least seven lads from neighbouring streets in the Fairlight area joined The Welsh Horse almost ‘en masse’. Indeed six of them must have literally packed their bags and travelled together to the sleepy market town of Diss on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. Here they stood in line and signed up one after the other as they have consecutive service numbers. Three of them lived in adjoining houses on Pevensey Road (above) – Sidney Carpenter at No52, John Burke at No54, John Soane at No56. Another two were in neighbouring Thurso Street. Charles Bodset at No14 backed onto the other’s houses, Walter Moore was across the road at No17. Walter Tappin lived round the corner at 19 Fountain Road. Arthur Mace from 2 Thurso Street would appear to have been the catalyst for this, joining first on 7th March 1915. A few weeks later the others followed; the six Tooting lads were now: 1120 Carpenter, 1121 Soane, 1122 Tappin, 1123 Burke, 1124 Bosdet and 1125 Moore of the 1/1st Welsh Horse.
The St Mary’s Church parish magazine of May 1915 listed John Burke and his neighbours Sidney Carpenter and John Soane as joining The Welsh Horse. Burke, Tappin and Bodset declared their age as 19 and gave their occupation as porters. Walter Tappin had lived all his life in Tooting, just as his father had. The Mace brothers spent their early years in Kent, John Burke in St Pancras, and Charles Bosdet in Camberwell. The Mace family had come to Tooting in around 1905 as had the Burkes, the Bosdet family closer to 1910. While Walter Tappin and John Burke may have known one another as boys, their friendship with Charles Bosdet must have started later. The nature of their work seems to be one thing the trio had in common.
John’s father, Alfred Burke was born in the St Pancras parish in 1870. In December 1889 he married Alice Harris. Two years later in the 1891 census they were living in Kentish Town Road with infant daughter Flossie. Alfred worked as a ‘mineral water traveller’. Over the following decade the family expanded; Alfred was born in 1892, Charles in 1895, Sidney in 1896, John in 1897 and Robert in 1901. They were now living at 99 Arlington Road, St Pancras where John may have come into the world. Two more daughters, Dorothy in 1902 and Rose in 1905 were born in Peckham. The Burkes, with their seven children at this stage, must have decided that a better future lay in ‘the brighter borough’ and 1911 found them in Wandsworth, at 54 Pevensey Road. Alfred now 41 was still a salesman and his eldest son worked as an electrician. 14 year old John was an office boy. Two ‘memorials’ give a clue to his life – he is on the one in the Fairlight Christian Centre, once the location of Fairlight Hall, so he must have been connected to that in some way. Along with his brother Charles, John also appears on the roll of ‘Old Smalls Serving their Country in His Majesty’s Forces’ from Smallwood School. Fairlight Hall opened its doors in 1905 and did extraordinary work for almost eight decades, catering for the social needs of those in the streets around it, many of whom had very little. The below photo was taken in 1914 a year before John Burke joined the army. Its just possible he could be one of the older lads in the photo.
Only Robert Burke, was too young to serve in the early years of the war. One older brother, Charles Maurice Burke had a chequered military career. In the 1911 census he is listed as a private in the Middlesex Regiment based at Hendon. But after John had joined the Welsh Horse in March 1915, Charles Burke volunteered to join the Royal Field Artillery at Lambeth. He signed up on the 10th July 1915 describing himself as a ‘machinist engineer’. Charles was declared a deserter in November after absenting himself from barracks in Aldershot, on 30th October with all his kit. In fact, he had already joined another unit and enlisted again with the Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars on 2nd November 1915. They had been in Gallipoli since August 1915 and moved to Egypt in December. Charles remained in the UK until 11th September 1916 having attended a machine gun course in June 1916. Its possible he may even have crossed paths with young Sidney Lewis when he was at Grantham. He was transferred to the newly formed 17th Mounted Machine Gun Corps at the beginning of 1917 and like his brother John, took part in the campaign in Palestine. After the war, Charles Burke returned to work for the Morgan Crucible Company in New York.
John’s older brother, Alfred Albert Burke had married Florence May Baker in mid 1914 and they were soon expecting their first child. They were living in Smallwood Road, Tooting, literally, round the corner from the Burke family home in Pevensey Road. Alfred would finally join the War after responding to the appeal of the Derby Scheme late in 1915. Alfred attested at Wandsworth on 10th December 1915, and was posted to the Royal Garrison Artillery. Alfred survived the war having been promoted Corporal at some stage. His name appears on the Wandsworth Absent Voter’s List in 1918 at 99 Smallwood Road, Tooting, next door to ‘Smallwood Stores’.
Whatever the reason for joining the Welsh Horse, it must have been something of a culture shock. The nearest they had probably been to a horse was being careful about what they trod in as the dodged the London traffic. Then there were the foreign Welsh accents of men they rubbed shoulders with, many of whom were old soldiers with years of cavalry experience. Just how would the young London boys have fitted in?
In September 1915 they were ordered to ready themselves for foreign service and to hand in their horses. They were bound for Gallipoli and sailed from Liverpool on board SS Olympic (a sister ship of the Titanic) on 23th September 1915. They arrived at Mudros, a port on the Greek island of Lemnos on 8th October. Insult was added to injury when the men of the Welsh Horse discovered they had effectively swapped horses for shovels. They were given the task of digging trenches, saps and mines under the Turkish positions, dangerous and strenuous work. Less than two weeks after arriving at Gallipoli, Arthur Mace became so ill that he had to be evacuated back to England, arriving on 19th Novenmber 1915. He never recovered from TB, and passed away on the 1st October 1918, almost exactly three years after he had landed at Gallipoli.
There is no record of Tappin, Burke or Bosdet falling sick while at Gallipoli, but it was reckoned that some 75% of all men who served there suffered from what the soldiers called ‘the Gallipoli trots’. After evacuation from Gallipoli the Welsh Horse arrived in Egypt at Christmas 1915 at the sprawling Sidi Bashr base. Any hope of being reunited with their horses was dashed as in early 1916 they were used to dig trenches in the sand as part of strengthening the Suez Canal defences. A casualty form indicates that on 14th June 1916 John Burke was ‘awarded five days forfeiture of pay for hesitating to obey an order’. A re-organisation of the Army in Egypt involved the creation of a new 74th division. The Welsh Horse were now the 25th (Montgomery & Welsh Horse Yeomanry) Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Still together, Tappin, Burke and Bosdet were given new consecutive army numbers and new insignia. Mindful that the 74th Division comprised of dismounted Yeomanry, the division’s commander chose the ‘Broken Spur’ as its badge. The irony was not lost on the men.
The division took part in the Second Battle of Gaza in April 1917, the Battle of Beersheba in October, the Third Battle of Gaza in November and subsequent Battle of Jerusalem. Walter Tappin was killed at the Battle of Tell ’Asur in March 1918. He is buried in Jerusalem War Cemetery. His grave was visited this year by local Summerstown resident Colin Davis who was welcomed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission stonemason, Nader Habash. Walter’s parents requested for his headstone, the words ‘ALTHOUGH FAR AWAY – STILL NOT FORGOTTEN’.
A week before the Battle of Beersheba, on 24th October 1917, John Burke was appointed a Lance Corporal. He was on the sick list repeatedly at the end of 1917 through early 1918, suffering from scabies, impetigo and tonsilitis. The great German Spring Offensive of March 1918 had placed the Western Front in a state of crisis and the 74th Division including John Burke and Charles Bodset were required in France. They withdrew to Egypt, and after a rapid refit embarked at Alexandria on May 2nd, bound for Marseilles. They were given six weeks to acclimatise and receive the all important training required for operations on the Western Front. The Army of 1918 was very different to that of 1914. John Burke was absent again for several weeks during this period, hospitalised with fever in June 1918.
In mid-July the 25th Royal Welsh Fusiliers went into the line at Merville near the Franco-Belgian border. This was John Burke and Charles Bosdet’s first experience of front lines trenches in France. The early days of August were quiet in this sector but as the month progressed there was increasing activity and probing forward movements. Gas shelling resulted in a number of casualties in the second half of August. John Burke has been away from the front, having being granted 14 days leave on the 4th August. It had been over three years since he left his home in Tooting and sadly this was the last time he would see it.
August 1918 had seen a complete reversal of the spring crisis on the Western Front. The Allies had launched their own offensive east of Amiens on 8th and advanced over seven miles on the first day. By the end of August the 74th Division received orders to move south to the old Somme battlefields. John Burke returned from leave to find his battalion is on the move. On the night of 31st August they were at Trigger Wood, south of Fricourt, fighting alongside the 2nd Australian Division. The first days of September saw heavy shelling and on the 5th patrols pushed forward to locate the enemy. The 25th Royal Welsh Fusiliers War Diary coldly recorded: ‘No great opposition encounter enemy shell fire and M.G. fire accounts for 1 OR killed and 10 ORs wounded’. John Burke’s war had ended, just eight days after his return from leave. His name is carved on Panel Six of the Vis-en-Artios Memorial, a few miles east of Arras. We visited there on a dazzling Autumn day in 2015. Charles Bosdet survived the war and is recorded as being discharged on 23rd June 1919. He appears on the 1918 Absent Voters List at 14 Thurso Street, next door to the Tibbenham family.
Part of the Burke family were still at 54 Pevensey Road in 1920, when John’s mother Alice Mary Burke took her W5080 form to the ‘War Pensions Committee’ at Gatton Road Tooting to be countersigned by the committee’s secretary. One of John’s brothers. Alfred Albert Burke, would live in Smallwood Road for many years after the War. Alice remained at 54 Pevensey Road until she passed away, aged 82, in 1953. Her husband Alfred died in 1949 at the age of 79. The houses at the top end of Pevensey Road are largely unchanged, they have a uniform look and stand in line, looking one way towards St Georges Hopsital, the other to Smallwood School. Who could ever pass them and not think of the seven Welsh Horsemen, their journey to Diss and the faraway places it would eventually take them.