July 4 2015 Latest news:
Monday, August 11, 2014
Ted Stapleton was one in a million. Genuinely one in 180, because of his bravery under stress. Steven Russell meets three men proud to call him Granddad
He wasn’t a blood relative but for three lads he was their beloved “Granddad”. And he was a hero.
Ipswich postman Ted Stapleton wasn’t one to flaunt his achievements, though. His medals hung on the wall of his house in Newson Street – “left-hand side,” recalls grandson Tony Elliott – but he generally didn’t talk about his experiences on the western front.
Edward Philip Stapleton was honoured three times for bravery. He received the Military Medal in 1918 for gallantry and devotion to duty under fire at Lagnicourt in France.
Major-General TO Marden, Commanding 6 Division, wrote: “Your commanding officer and brigade commander have informed me that you distinguished yourself on the 21 March, 1918. You showed great courage and initiative during a counter attack in going forward with a Lewis gun through an intense barrage to a position for which you gave covering fire during the advance of your company, accounting for at least 100 of the enemy. I have read their report with much pleasure.”
The following month, at Ypres, Ted was honoured again – given a bar to complement his medal – for defending high ground. Then, in the October, he earned a second bar after action at Bohain. He came home to East Anglia, taking on the young children of a widow as if they were his own and returning to work on the land. Later, Ted and his wife moved to Ipswich, where he was a postman, troubled from time to time by the legacy of being gassed in the final days of the war. The smogs we used to get didn’t do his lungs any favours.
Those lads who treasured his friendship – and harbour memories of a sixpenny bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate and a thruppenny bit that generally awaited them on visits to Nana and Granddad – are now all older than Ted when he died in 1960.
They’ve pieced together his wartime story – with the help of historian Dick Rayner – and have made many visits to the old battlefields to walk in the footsteps of their courageous grandfather.
It was on one trip that they met Dick, and over dinner mentioned that Granddad, a soldier with The Norfolk Regiment, had “won the Military Medal three times”. Dick looked a bit quizzical. Not many were honoured three times. Ted was.
More than 115,000 Military Medals were awarded during the 1914-18 war. Over 5,700 bars were also presented, but only 180 second bars.
Dick has done much research for brothers John and Michael Allsop, and their cousin Tony Elliott, putting together detailed itineraries and bringing the past to life. “I can remember Lagnicourt,” says John. “Dick said ‘Turn left here… turn right… and then we need to go along here and look for a track coming in from the right…’
“Dick said ‘Now, there was a line of Lewis guns between here and that barn. That’s where your grandfather was when he won his Military Medal. I can’t tell you exactly where he was…’
“I thought ‘But Dick, you’ve given me so much! I can envisage it, which I couldn’t before; it was just a name.’ That probably sticks in my memory more than anything.”
Ted Stapleton was born on July 6, 1897, and hailed from East Raynham, Norfolk. Mum Emma was a domestic servant. His father wasn’t named on the birth certificate, but was a man called Joseph who subsequently married Emma.
Ted became an agricultural worker on the Marquess Townshend’s estate around Raynham Hall. The teenager enlisted – underage – in Norwich on September 3, 1914. Joining the 9th Battalion The Norfolk Regiment, 13629 Private Stapleton was 17 and a bit, though his age was put down as 19 years and two months! “There was a suggestion that, when he signed up, either the marquess or the estate manager gave him and all the boys a sovereign and said ‘Sew it into your tunic, just in case,’” says John.
Ted’s initial months in the army, for training and suchlike, took him to Colchester, Salisbury, Folkestone and on to Boulogne. In October, 1915, he was involved in the Battle of Loos, the biggest British offensive that year on the western front, as troops tried to help French forces pierce German defences.
Casualties and losses on the British side topped 59,000. It must have been an awful experience for a soldier still a teenager and who had grown up in rural East Anglia. “From odd snippets I’ve picked up, it was probably the most horrific he encountered,” says John.
At the end of January, 1916, Ted had a short spell in hospital and was then transferred to the 8th (Service) Battalion, The Norfolk Regiment.
July 1 was the first (infamous) day of the Battle of the Somme. A week of shelling had failed to significantly weaken German positions. When British soldiers began to advance on enemy trenches, thousands were mown down.
Britain took 60,000 casualties that day, 20,000 of them dead. Sixty per cent of the officers were killed.
Ted was actually part of a successful advance on the eastern flank, alongside the French, at Montauban and Mametz.
Then, on July 19, he was involved in a vicious encounter at Delville Wood – part of the Somme campaign. After this initial phase, it appeared Ted was involved in supporting the major gains of Regina Trench (a long German trench on the Somme) and Schwaben Redoubt (an enemy stronghold near Thiepval).
He was in the thick of the action during 1917, too. In the May, he was at the capture of Chérisy, near Arras. At the end of July he was transferred to Belgium for the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. Soon, the heaviest rain for 30 years transformed the earth into mud that stopped rifles working properly and even proved too much for tanks. In places it was so deep that troops and horses drowned.
That autumn, Ted was made a corporal. March of 1918 brought the Military Medal at Lagnicourt, as the allies lost the French village, and his claiming of 100-plus German soldiers. “He wasn’t proud of that, I don’t think,” Tony feels.
The following month, troops were transferred to Ypres to stop a German advance on the channel ports. Ted was awarded a bar for helping defend the key high ground of Kemmel Hill.
In the second week of October he earned a second bar for his part in the action at Bohain in France. On the 14th, the end of the war under a month away, he was gassed and taken to hospital in Rouen.
Finally, on February 13, 1919, he was demobbed at Thetford. It seems he went to live with his father at West Raynham and returned to agricultural work.
A widow called Ellen – known as May – moved to the village to be near her family. She’d been left with two small children, a daughter aged two and a bit and a son only five or six days old, when her husband volunteered for war and died on the first troopship sunk on its way to the Dardanelles (a narrow but strategic strait in northwestern Turkey).
Those children would become the parents of Tony (son of Marjorie) and John and Michael (the sons of Robert). Ted and May married in 1921, and Ted later became a poultry farmer.
He gave that up at the start of the Second World War, and he and May uprooted to Ipswich to live with Marjorie and her family in a bungalow near Northgate Grammar School. Later they bought their own house in Newson Street, off Norwich Road. Ted worked as a postman – his later years spent maintaining delivery bicycles – and he retired early because of his health. “He was always wheezing,” Michael recalls.
The couple never had children of their own. “My mother said he had said [to May] ‘You’ve got two children – we’ve got two children – we’re not going to have any more,” says Tony, whose late brother Terry spent a lot of time with their granddad. Their sister, Jen, went on the last battlefield visit to France.
May died on March 21, 1960. The couple were staying at John and Michael’s parents’ home in her final days. The date of March 21 was a theme in Ted’s life, with a number of major events happening on that day.
John, who lives in the Felixstowe area, says: “I was in the kitchen with my mother, and Ted came down and swore. ‘Bloody 21st of March again.’ It’s so poignant.”
Ted died about seven months later. The cause was emphysema, probably linked to the gassing.
What was he like?
“He was genial,” says Tony, who lives near Ipswich. “They lived with us until I was five, and I considered him to be our granddad.”
Michael adds: “I’m the youngest, but I remember him as a lovely old man – and he seemed a very old man. I’m now 64 and he died at 63. I find that inconceivable.
“He was very affectionate and I can remember his bristly chin. We used to visit them in Newson Street. Normally on a Saturday we’d go shopping and then call on them in the afternoon. They had a tiny 1950s telly – you’d get interference on it – but I can remember looking at things on this little telly, and granddad with his arm round me and his bristly chin next to me. Genial is the right word; he was a very giving sort of person. A very lovely man.”
Tony, John and Michael have made perhaps eight trips to the battlefields, visiting all three places where their grandfather’s courage stood out.
John says: “Often Dick would point out a building that used to be a railway station and he’d say ‘Your granddad was there between 11 and 1 o’clock on this particular day.’”
It must have been emotional. Did tears flow?
“I wouldn’t say tears, but certainly a feeling would creep up your back,” says John. “I find it difficult to put into words, but, yes… immensely proud.”