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Extract from DTI News, October 2000:
About a year ago, DTI News carried an exchange of correspondence about the Memorial to Board of Trade staff who had died in the First World War. A Roll of Honour was produced by their colleagues soon after the war but, over the years, it went missing. As a result of the correspondence in DTI News, the Department is to produce a small memorial to replace the missing one.
A Roll of Honour can only be a list of names and can tell us little of the men, their exploits and how they met their death. The story of the war memorial inspired Jill Knight, Head of DTI's Senior Civil Service Development Unit, to find out more about the forgotten men. Here Jill provides a mere taste of what her research has uncovered so far.
During the First World War, more than 2,000 men left the Board of Trade to join the forces. Of these, 305 were killed in action or died as a result of the conflict. After the war, on the initiative of the staff, the names were inscribed on a handsome roll of honour, unveiled in 1923 by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. Some names were duplicated on other memorials such as the Patent Office (now hanging in Concept House) and Ministry of Labour (now in Caxton House) but only the Board's listed all 305.
Paul Hamilton's article about the missing roll of honour ("DTI war dead deserve a memorial" DTI News, November 1999) inspired me to try to find out more about the 305 forgotten men - where they worked, their War service, how they died and perhaps also some personal stories. I would like to thank those relatives, and others connected with the families of those who died, who have so generously contributed to this project. From them, and from the public records, a great deal has been discovered. Some of the men's stories are now very well documented and only a small sample can be mentioned here.
The 305 came from the Board of Trade's offices all over the country. The great majority served in infantry regiments, with 18 in the Royal Navy and a few in other units including six in the Royal Flying Corps or RAF. First to die was naval pensioner John Cobb, aged 32, from the Board's Labour Department, who was mobilized immediately war was declared. Cobb was among 900 who were drowned when HMS Good Hope was sunk with all hands off the coast of Chile in the Battle of Coronel (see story in Part 3).
Leslie Pearce, from the Railway Department, was among many called from their desks in the first days of August 1914 to their pre-war territorial unit, the Civil Service Rifles. After training and brief service in Ireland, Pearce spent a year in France and Salonika before being killed, aged 27, by a Bulgarian sniper. The war story of this thoughtful and observant countryman from Devon emerges from his correspondence. In letters home, he cheerfully describes his duties as quartermaster sergeant, downplays the dangers he faces, and only occasionally lets slip his longing for the English countryside and his plans to marry and start a new life after the war.
Most of the 305 served on the Western Front, but the Board of Trade men were represented in virtually every theatre of the war. They died in France, Flanders, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Italy, India, Germany and in the UK. They took part in many land and naval engagements including Coronel, Ypres, Loos, the Dardanelles, Jutland, the Somme, Arras, Messines, Passchendaele, Cambrai and the Hindenburg line. Forty per cent of them have no known grave.
Among those killed were two sets of brothers from London, Colin and Alan Parker, and Frank and H. G. Libby. It appears that work colleagues enlisted together, then served - and sometimes died - side-by-side. Ted Winterhalder and John Sutehall, young clerks from the Labour Department, enlisted in the 16th Middlesex (Public Schools Battalion) on the same day in 1915. Eighteen months later these two were mown down along with 520 of their battalion as they advanced on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme.
Altogether, 52 of the Board's staff died on the Somme in 1916, including ten on the first day, and another ten in bitter fighting for High Wood on 15 September - one of the worst days in the entire history of the Civil Service Rifles.
Some staff recovered from wounds more than once, only to die later. Charles Ballard of the Mercantile Marine office fought at Guedecourt, was wounded, recovered, won a Military Cross at Arras, then was killed in action at Cambrai. Norman Derwent, clerk to an official receiver, survived the German bombardment at home in Scarborough in 1914, enlisted, had his ear shot off at the front, recovered but eventually died of illness behind the lines. Robert Godsiff of the Labour Department served with Buffs in Gallipoli, then died in a fire at a base in Egypt. And Lawson Smith from the Patent Office was discharged with shell shock after two years, but deteriorated and eventually jumped to his death from the window of mental home.
The average age of staff on death was 25. The youngest, only 16, was killed on the Somme. The oldest were two naval pensioners who went back to sea aged 53. Slightly more than half were officers - about half commissioned and half non-commissioned.
Between them, the 305 won two Distinguished Service Orders, eight Military Crosses (some with Bar), two Distinguished Conduct Medals, three Military Medals, and one Croix de Guerre. Several were mentioned in dispatches. Some of these awards were made posthumously,
Edward Birchall, of the Bristol office, was severely wounded leading his men to capture an enemy trench at Pozieres in July 1916. Two weeks later he received news of his DSO - just before his death on his 32nd birthday.
James Vanner, of the Chief Industrial Commissioner's Office, won a rare combination of DSO, MC and Bar in less than three years on the Western front. He survived the war and lived to receive his medals from the King. Weakened by wounds and the effects of gas, he succumbed to TB just before his 23rd birthday in March 1919. Like Leslie Pearce, he had written home eagerly about his plans for post-war life but also like Leslie, died without the chance to fulfil them.
Charles Bimrose from the West Midlands was killed in the very final stages of the war on the St Quentin canal in France, probably without knowing he had been awarded the MC for gallantry and devotion to duty.
There are many facts and stories still to unearth about these forgotten men. If anyone can contribute, or is interested in helping with what promises to be a long project, please contact Jill Knight.
Click here for Part 2
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