The village of Lea seems to have most of the things you would want from a village – a pub, a primary school, a church and playing fields. A community which runs sports and organises village activities. A legacy of its past.
The church was closed, lock up tight when I ventured into this little churchyard; a church tucked between the pub and busy bungalows. But as I wandered, peering forth, some signs of its war faithful survive in this village.
The parish church of St Giles in Lea is a striking church. Out back, the official war dead reside.
One of those is 13033 Private F. Wheeler, Essex Regiment 15th July 1916 aged 19 years.
Private Francis Wheeler was the son of Edwin and Dorothy Wheeler of the village of Lea. Known as Frank, he was just 19 years of age serving with the 2nd Battalion Essex Regiment when he died on the 15th July 1916.
His father was an agricultural labourer in Lea and Francis worked from an early age labouring like his father.
Born in 1897, he was buried where he was baptised – in Lea Church. He served from July 1915 when he went to the Western Front in France. He died in Hampshire so it seems likely that he died at Netley War Hospital in Hampshire. Notes in his records state that he died as a consequence of inflammation of the middle ear. In more modern terms, it could have been an infection, meningitis or shock caused by explosions.
On the 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the 2nd Essex were in the Serre region on the Somme. It may have been this action that led to his death.
The other war casualty at Lea is 26395 Private H. Law 2nd Reserve Regiment of Cavalry 27th August 1915.
Private Harry Law was the middle son of three brothers, An agricultural labourer, the brother of a police constable and the son of a journeyman butcher. He was born at Charlton not far from Lea, but lived in Lea before the war.
Born in 1890, he died on the 27th August 1915. He had enlisted in Shorncliffe, Kent and that is where he died. His cause of death at present is unknown.
The 2nd Reserve Regiment of Cavalry was formed in August 1914 at Aldershot and trained men for the 2nd Dragoon Guards, 6th Dragoons, Essex Yeomanry and the Lothians and Border Horse. The reasons why he ended up in the Reserve Casualty in the war are also at present unknown.
But those were the returned; their bodies lie in the grounds where they were born. This blog is a reminder of those who did not return; the unreturned army. And one of those is also here at Lea in Wiltshire.
John Edward Slade died in 1913, he was 70 years of age. Buried at St Giles Church at Lea, his handsome grave is a legacy to his family. His eldest son who died in 1893, his wife Ellen who died in 1929 and then your eyes narrow on the fading writing on the very bottom of the stone.
It is a memorandum, a reminder, a familial duty to remember his youngest son, Arthur. Arthur Slade who died in the Great War.
Also of Arthur Youngest son of the above Who died in France Oct 26th 1917 Aged 30 years
You would never know. Just from standing there in front of this weather-worn stone. Reading the simple phrases from a family to a lost son, lost brother. You just would never know.
But Arthur Slade died a Private in the 9th Battalion Devonshire Regiment. He died on October 26th 1917. He died somewhere in that mud-filled hell hole that some may know as Passchendaele. A singularly horrible part of the Great War. He died on that day, never to be seen again. He died with no known grave.
So this name, this memorial on his father’s grave, his mother’s grave, his brother’s grave is the only grave they ever knew.
His name is immortalised on the memorial at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium along with 35,000 British and New Zealand servicemen who died between August 1917 and November 1918 whose bodies were never identified after the war. The area around Tyne Cot was the scene of great action during the Great War specifically in the Third Battle of Ypres otherwise known as Passchendaele which lasted between July and November 1917.
Passchendaele was the most diabolical happening of war; of mud, of rain, of blood and bodies; of animals and men stranded in sinking mud; of drowning, in mud; of fighting man and earth whilst you heard so much. Arthur Slade died here.
Arthur Slade served as 31360 Private Arthur Slade of the 9th Battalion Devonshire Regiment. He enlisted in Devizes in central Wiltshire and originally served with the 4th Battalion Wiltshire Regiment as service number 203711, before joining the 9th Devonshires; probably to make up numbers.
On the 26th October 1917, the day that Arthur died, the 9th Devonshires, along with their twin service battalion the 8th Devonshires, was involved in a bloody and unsuccessful attack on Gheluvelt on the Menin Road. Both battalions suffered heavy, heavy casualties. Amongst their officers, only three survived.
It was widely believed that the 26th October 1917 was the worst day in military history for the 8th and 9th Devonshires. Worse than all other parts of the Great War they had been a part of, including Battle of Loos, first day of the Battle of the Somme, Mametz, High Wood, Bazentin, Delville Wood, Ancre and the initial phases of the Third Battle of Ypres. The heavy casualties were one thing, but they were crippled by the mud. The rifles which they did have became unworkable due to being mud-soaked, they were held in the sinking mud in shell holes as explosives rained down, and they were pinned back by enfilade machine gunfire. All whilst the German forces were in dry concrete pill boxes.
There are 179 out of 223 servicemen of the 8th and 9th Devonshires who were killed on the 26th October 1917 and whose remains were never identified, their names appearing on the Tyne Cot Memorial.
The casualty figures in terms of deaths for the Devonshires that day included:
3 Captains 4 Lieutenants 4 Second Lieutenants 7 Sergeants 2 Lance-Sergeants 10 Corporals 2 Lance-Corporals and 177 Privates – 79 from 8th Battalion, 98 from 9th Battalion.
From one day, one attack.
Arthur’s death was presumed on the 26th October 1917. He was never seen again. They never found his body, never found identifiable remains. He was one of the 98 Privates from the 9th who died that day and one of the 179 whose body was never found. But Arthur Slade was one of them. Remember his name. For he represents them all.
Whilst their achievements on that day lacked any clarity, in time the Devonshires would be given credit for determination and belligerence to carry on attacking and drawing German fire when others may have fallen back earlier. To their credit they tried, but their cost was great indeed.
His family never forgot him; his name etched into a gravestone after his mother died in 1929. With no mention of war, just of France and a date. But it was Arthur, who died in Belgium, on one of the darkest of days, a Private missing in action. A man who went over the top to attack in the mud, the mud of Passchendaele and was never seen again.
Rest easy Arthur Slade. Rest easy.
These are the men who never returned from the Great War whose memorials lie at Lea in Wiltshire:
Private Francis Wheeler
DoB 1897 DoD 15th July 1916 Lea, Wiltshire age 19
13033 2nd Battalion Essex Regiment
Buried: Lea churchyard, Wiltshire
Private Harry Law
DoB 1890 Charlton, Wiltshire DoD 27th August 1915 Shorncliffe, Kent age
26395 2nd Reserve Regiment of Cavalry
Buried: Lea churchyard, Wiltshire
Private Arthur Slade
DoB DoD Ypres Salient October 26th 1917
9th Battalion Devonshire Regiment
Commemorated: Tyne Cot Memorial, Ypres, Belgium