On this day in 1914, my grandfather George Welch and his younger brother Fred went to their local recruitment station in Chichester and joined the army. Both were under age. The story goes that they had tried the day before, but when the recruiting officer asked them their dates of birth, George – always a scrupulously honest man – told the truth. The officer sighed and told them to try again tomorrow. Both took the hint and returned next day much the wiser and a couple of years older.
Both were in the Southdown Battalions of the Royal Sussex regiment. Back then, it was still usual practice to place men from the same towns and villages together in the same battalions, so they would serve alongside their family, friends and neighbours. It seemed to make sense; it meant the new recruits already had a bond and a familiarity with each other, so could cohere more rapidly as a unit. The First World War changed that policy. Whole battalions were wiped out, robbing entire communities of their men.
Fred had this photo taken before he went to war. It shows him in his smart new uniform, but with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and his cap pushed back, displaying all the cockiness of a man – or, rather, a boy – who as yet had no fear of war,
Little is known of their experiences during the next few years, but in 1917 – exactly a century ago – a window opens. During July and August George and Fred are at Ypres. Their superior officers have all been killed or incapacitated, and George – by now a corporal – finds himself in charge of both the men and the trench map, a copy of which I still have.
The fighting is bitter, and over the next 70 hours actions occur that result in George being awarded the DCM. The citation speaks of ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in establishing and holding advance posts in a village [St Julien] and afterwards in rendering assistance under fire to a number of badly wounded men.’ It is also recorded that he carried his battalion Colonel back to safety after he had collapsed from exhaustion.
On 26 September 1917, however, their luck ran out. During fierce fighting in an area of the front codenamed ‘Tower Hamlets’ George was wounded and Fred killed. George was sent to England to recover, and while there had his DCM pinned to his chest, ultimately surviving the war. But Fred never saw home again.
I am thinking of them today – both the grandfather I knew, who never spoke about those days, and the great uncle I never got to meet, preserved only in this picture.