Centenary News reports on the ongoing research into the Carshalton war memorial in Surrey, England

Posted on centenarynews.com on 02 March 2013
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Centenary News volunteer writer Andrew Arnold describes his ongoing research into the Carshalton war memorial.

My research into the men commemorated on Carshalton war memorial in Surrey, England, began with a trip to the pub. 

In early 2008 I found out that my great, great uncle had been killed during the First World War. This led to several months of research and really sparked my interest in the conflict. 

Later that year, a drink at the pub that sits opposite the memorial resulted in a spur of the moment visit to the memorial itself. A couple of the names stood out and I looked up their details on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) database. 

This soon turned into a spreadsheet containing the names on the memorial and my research developed from there as I added more and more information about each man. Nearly five years later I have a website that has had over 2,500 visitors and I am writing a book about the men which is due for publication next year.

Around 2,000 men from Carshalton served during the First World War. Some 243 were killed and are commemorated on the memorial, which was unveiled in 1921. I have pieced together details of the life and death of each man using a variety of sources. These have included birth, marriage, and census records; military service records; battalion war diaries and regimental histories; school and university records; local and national newspapers; and information from family members. 

In the course of my research I have visited the National Archives, Imperial War Museum, and British Library (all located in the British capital, London) in search of records. The staff at the local studies centre at my nearby library have also been most helpful. 

It has been a challenge researching each of the men in depth; records can be incomplete or missing, and there is still one man of whom I can find no record whatsoever. Many British military service records were destroyed during the Second World War, which means that for many of the men information about their military service is sparse. 

The research has been much like completing a jigsaw, piecing together information from all the available records - the problem is that many of the pieces of the jigsaw are missing and are likely to remain so because of the length of time that has elapsed since these men lived. Ultimately this means that the amount of information available for each man varies considerably.

Yet alongside the challenges, my research has also been very rewarding. I have given talks at a local library and to the Surrey branch of the Western Front Association. In addition I have visited the Western Front several times, paying my respects to the Carshalton men at many of the memorials and cemeteries that dot the landscape of the old battlefields around Ypres, Loos and the Somme. 

I have made contact with relatives of many of the men, some as far afield as America and Australia. Without exception they have been willing to share their stories and photographs and are proud of the part their relatives played in the war. Often they did not know their relative was commemorated on the memorial and, in some cases, I have been able to provide them with further information or a photograph myself. 

I even met the son of one of the men listed on the memorial; he had been present when it was unveiled in 1921 and as a boy used to play the Last Post on his bugle at the Remembrance Day commemorations. In 2012 I also had the pleasure of reuniting a local soldier’s ‘death penny’ (a commemorative plaque issued to the families of those that were killed) with his descendants after I was able to track them down using the internet.

The very nature of the research means that many of the stories are very sad. Particularly heartbreaking is the case of the Brooks family, who lost three of their sons in a little over one month in 1918; in total 14 sets of brothers from the town were killed. 

Bertram Townend of the Manchester Regiment was wounded in October 1917 and had to have his leg amputated. He spent a year in hospital, and while waiting to be discharged died during the influenza epidemic, just four days before the war ended. 

Some of the men were killed within days of going overseas; others served for most of the war before losing their lives. Ernest Dale was a veteran of the Boer War who had been wounded during that conflict. He re-enlisted in September 1914 and in a letter home in May 1915 he wrote: ‘We have just got back from one of the biggest fights ever fought, it was something awful, thousands killed and wounded. I can’t make out how any of us got back at all.’ 

He survived several other battles, but was killed less than two months before the Armistice. At 46 he was the oldest casualty from Carshalton who was killed on active service.

The youngest casualty was just 15, and many local boys enlisted underage. The course of the war can really be traced through the names on the memorial. The first day of the Somme campaign on 1 July 1916, for example, saw 19 local men lose their lives, and it is hard to imagine how this would have affected this small, tight-knit community. 

Harty Ayling served with the Border Regiment and was killed on the first day of the Somme; his youngest child had been born just 11 days before he died. Yet among these sad stories are also examples of courage, humour and a conviction to see the job through. 

In late September 2011 the metal plaques from the memorial were stolen for scrap, an act that was particularly appalling as it occurred so close to Remembrance Sunday. While the plaques could not be replaced in time for the commemorations, a local scrap metal merchant very kindly donated the £20,000 required for the replacement stone panels, which were unveiled in February 2012. Unfortunately the theft of plaques from memorials is a crime that has been repeated up and down the UK, but at least it has contributed to the government tightening up the rules around the sale of scrap metal.

Interest in war memorials and the men commemorated on them is no doubt likely to increase during the Centenary. With many resources now available for free online or at local libraries, I would encourage anyone with an interest to take the time to stop and look at their local war memorial and try to find out a bit more about the names inscribed on them. In this way we can ensure that the memory of these men is not forgotten.

Andrew Arnold’s website address is: www.carshaltonwarmemorial.webs.com.

His book, provisionally titled Heroes of the Wrythe: Carshalton’s First World War Roll of Honour, is due to be published by The History Press in October 2014.

Images courtesy of: Andrew Arnold

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