1917 was a bleak year for Sidmouth service personnel
- Credit: Archant
One hundred years ago, many from Sidmouth were among those who perished on Europe’s battlefields. As we pause to remember them this month, John McCarthy reflects on the men – and women – who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Following the losses suffered by Sidmouth in 1916, which included 12 men killed during the Battle of the Somme and three lost in the naval clash at Jutland, 1917 was an even bleaker year.
The war memorial tablets in Sidmouth Parish Church record the names of 41 individuals with local connections who died in uniform that year.
Of these, three died in the Royal Navy and 37 in the army.
The other was Mary Tindall, of The Marino, Sidmouth, who was a Red Cross volunteer nurse attached to a military hospital in Exeter. She died of illness on September 20.
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Of the Royal Navy fatalities, one died of illness on shore and the other two were lost at sea.
Petty Officer James Agg was one of 843 men lost when HMS Vanguard, a dreadnought class battleship, sank following an explosion at Scapa Flow on July 9.
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This was the biggest accidental loss ever suffered by the Royal Navy in wartime.
Able Seaman Albert Victor Horn died on September 26, along with the rest of the crew, when the drifter Ocean Star (a trawler used for minesweeping) was sunk by a German mine off The Solent.
Most of those who died in the army in 1917 are buried – or commemorated with no known grave – in either France or Belgium.
This includes 11 men with local connections who died during the Battle of Passchendaele, which raged around the town of Ypres in Belgium between July 31 and November 10.
It is not possible to pay proper tribute to all of these men in this short space, but one example paints the grim picture.
Maurice Randall Fishwick was a schoolteacher in Sidmouth who signed up with the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, ultimately serving as sergeant.
In April 1916, 24-year-old Maurice married 20-year-old Alice Mary Youlden, of Sid Road, at Salcombe Regis church.
What happened to him the following year at Passchendaele has been described by Sidmouth author and military historian Jonathan Walker.
“At dawn on October 26, 1917, the 9th Devons were ordered to attack and capture the village of Gheluvelt.
“Maurice and his company would have waited anxiously in their jump-off trenches until zero hour at 5.40am.
“As the British creeping barrage erupted ahead of them, whistles blew along their line and they mounted the scaling ladders and over the top.
“Almost immediately, German machine guns on their right flank enfiladed them.
“Now, in most war films you will see enemy machine-guns chattering away right in front of the advancing infantry, but in fact the most deadly position for a machine-gun team was on a flank, to fire into the attacking columns from the side.
“And the Germans did just that to the 9th Devons at Gheluvelt. Maurice and his comrades struggled across the deep mud and were felled in very large numbers.
“It was impossible to take Gheluvelt in these conditions, and in their worst day’s fighting, the battalion lost 143 killed and 151 wounded.
“At the end of the day, the roll call listed Maurice as missing.”
Maurice has no known grave and is commemorated on the memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot, Belgium.
He is also honoured on the war memorial at Salcombe Regis, as well as Sidmouth’s war memorial tablets.
While the campaigns in France and Flanders dominated, many men from Sidmouth also fought German forces in Africa or Ottoman Turk forces in the near east.
They often fought in atrocious conditions of extreme heat, disease and privation.
The war memorial tablets in Sidmouth church commemorate five such men who died in 1917.
Private Sydney Henry Jewell, 18 years old, served on the East African campaign.
He died on January 13 of Blackwater Fever, a complication of chronic malaria, and is buried in the Nairobi South War Cemetery, Kenya.
2nd Lieutenant Ralph Thomas Boddington, 34, served with the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force and was killed on November 2 in fierce fighting at Gaza.
He is buried at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Gaza City, which is immaculately tended by Palestinian staff.
Private Frederick James Brown served with the 10th Devons, fighting with the British Salonika Force in Greece.
He was killed in action on April 25, aged 26, and has no known grave.
He is honoured on the Doiran Memorial to the Missing, up near the Macedonian border.
Two soldiers deserving special thought on this centenary are Corporal Reginald Arthur Small, aged 23, of West View, Newtown, Sidmouth, and 19-year-old Private Garnett Oldrey, from nearby Mill Street.
Reginald was a gardener before the war.
Garnett’s occupation before he signed up is unclear but we know he left school at 14 to become an errand boy.
Reginald and Garnett both served with the 4th Devons in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). On February 3, 1917, the 4th Devons, along with the 2nd Gurkhas, were ordered to capture entrenched Turkish positions on the Hai Salient.
It is said that the close quarter fighting that day was savage.
Although the attack was successful, and was strategically significant, this came at a heavy cost – the 4th Devons suffered almost 50 per cent casualties.
These included Garnett, who was killed in the battle, and Reginald, who died of wounds two days later.
They were both buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Amara.
In recent times the cemetery at Amara has been extensively desecrated and vandalised, and reportedly parts of it are now being used as a rubbish tip. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has been unable to work in Iraq since 1991 and Amara can be a dangerous place for anyone to visit.
Taking the Great War as a whole, there are six Sidmothians buried in war cemeteries in Iraq – a further one at Amara, two at Bagdad and one at Basra.
All of these cemeteries are in a deplorable state.
Chairman of the Sidmouth branch of the Royal British Legion, Dave O’Connor, speaks for many when he says: “It feels like we’ve abandoned these boys, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.” n