First World War/Gallery: Family reunites in Felixstowe to remember their ancestors war efforts

British troops negotiate a trench as they go forward in support of an attack on the village of Morva

British troops negotiate a trench as they go forward in support of an attack on the village of Morval during the Battle of the Somme. Samuel Knightss great-grandson, James, was badly hurt during the fighting. - Credit: PA

Many families have war stories that span the range of emotions, if you dig deep enough. Steven Russell hears about one clan whose collective experiences feature bravery, loss, lucky escapes, a tragically-short marriage and a man who broke the rules.

Agricultural labourer Samuel Knights, born near Felixstowe in 1789 and used to a gentle rural life, couldn’t have imagined that much of Europe would be tearing itself apart barely 60 years after his death.

Many descendants would pull on a uniform, travel far from Suffolk and risk their skins for their country. Many came back and built new lives, like the tailor who’d been to Mesopotamia. Some weren’t so lucky.

A couple of weeks ago, nearly 60 modern descendants of Samuel Knights congregated at Kirton – the village where he was born. On display were 18 “histories” of family members – all but one of them relating to the First World War period. Here, thanks to the efforts of those who looked through records and chased leads to piece together those stories, we can honour some of those men and women from 100 years ago.

“It’s amazing to realise just how many of my ancestors and their relatives fought in the war or had to watch as their loved ones went off to defend their homeland,” admits Violette Valentine. Samuel’s grandson George was her great-great-grandfather.

“How their hearts must have been filled with joy at their safe return or receiving news from them. I found it amazing how many siblings, cousins and second cousins fought side by side. All these stories show just how much families from places such as rural Suffolk, as elsewhere, were affected by The Great War, either by being involved on or near the battlefield, or by having to take care of life at home after so many men were sent abroad. The injuries some returned with were horrific, but their resilience and strength shone through, with many making full recoveries and leading successful lives post-war.”Among them was one of Samuel’s great-grandsons, James Knights, who was dogged by misfortune virtually as soon as he set foot on the battlefield. He’d lived in Lower Street, Trimley St Martin, near Felixstowe. James, with The Suffolk Regiment, was deployed in the July of 1916. Not long after, he was injured during the Battle of the Somme. The soldier suffered gunshot wounds to his face, arm and eye. In August he was brought back to England from Boulogne on the hospital ship Stad Antwerpen and taken to hospital in Epping. “Grenade burns” were also among his injuries.

James returned to the 7th Battalion in March, 1917, but just a month later was again hurt ? this time more severely. He spent 261 days in hospital in Edinburgh. Despite these injuries, it seems he made a complete recovery. Little is known about his life in peace-time, though records suggest he died in 1949, with his death registered at Ipswich.

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Wallace Middleton was another of Samuel’s great-grandsons. Born in 1892, he was working as a master farmer and stock rearer when he received notice to enlist and lived with his parents at Well Cottage, Kirton.

Aged 23, Wallace became part of No 7 TF Artillery School, where the following spring he was a driver. On March 14, 1917, he left for France.

Late in the September Wallace suffered a severe bomb wound to his left arm and was admitted to No 1 Australian General Hospital at the Champs De Courses race track in Rouen. From there, he was sent to Hammersmith General Hospital. By January, 1918, Wallace was well enough to be transferred to a camp at Catterick, but the extent of his injuries meant he could not stay in the military. He was discharged in September, a year after being hurt.

He might have suffered life-changing injuries but Wallace still found love ? with Edith Whittle ? and in 1923 they married in Lincoln.

The story of Charles Knights is different! He was born in Trimley St Martin and began a 12-year spell with the Royal Navy in 1901. Charles was a stoker on HMS Pomone and was awarded the Africa General Service Medal for his time in Somaliland from 1902 to 1904. Records suggest he served in Africa again, aboard HMS Pembroke in 1905 and HMS Antrim in 1909. The 1911 census has him down as a stoker on HMS Bacchante.

It wasn’t without its ups and downs, though ? Charles was punished by periods of detention for unauthorised absences. Nevertheless, he served until 1913. Of course, trouble was brewing on the world stage. A few days before the end of 1914 he signed up as a gunner with the Royal Artillery Territorial force.

Charles was posted to No 4 Company Essex and Suffolk Regiment at Fort Landguard at Felixstowe, close to his family home in Trimley St Martin.

However, that March he deserted. Police at Felixstowe and Scotland Yard were informed. He was still missing in April, when a court of inquiry sat to investigate the gunner’s absence and his kit deficiencies. A list was made and a £3-2s-8d bill for kit drawn up.

And there, frustratingly, the story comes to a halt. No records have been found to explain the desertion or to suggest what happened to Charles ? a man clearly able and brave but with troubles. He wasn’t the only member of this extended clan to go to sea. William Sparrow, another great-grandson of Samuel, was born in 1884. Having served in the navy, he in 1916 joined the Reserve Royal Navy. He was living at the Bristol Arms, Shotley, near Ipswich ? run by brother John.

William served aboard HMS Satellite and HMS Hermione. He was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal. After being demobilised in 1919 he continued to receive prize money for his work clearing mines.

It would have helped, for, on the domestic front, he married Florence Coleman in 1924. They had at least three children ? named on William’s probate return when he died in 1962.

For others, life wouldn’t extend into a third decade of the 20th Century.

One was Cecil Middleton, born in 1895. He joined the 4th Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment, and could well have been part of the British Expeditionary Force that crossed the Channel in 1914.

The battalion certainly saw action. It fought at the Battle of Neuve Chappelle in 1915, and at Ypres. The Battle of the Somme began in July, 1916. On August 15, Cecil died, though the exact circumstances are not known. He had married only that year, in Woodbridge, to Eliza Runnicles.

Frederick Chittock was born in Trimley in 1881. He married Ethel Barnes in 1907. By 1916 he had moved to London and enlisted in the 25th County of London Cyclist Battalion.

He transferred to the 1/7th (City of London) Rifle Volunteers. Barely a week into January, 1917, the 1/7th Battalion moved up to relieve the 22nd Londons at a place called Hill 60. It was a spoil heap 230m long and 46m high, made from the diggings of a cutting for the Ypres to Comines railway.

Two days later, on the 10th, enemy artillery began shelling. Two men were killed on the 11th. The following day saw heavy shelling and two more deaths: Private Chittock one of them.

Frederick was buried at Railway Dugouts Burial Ground, Belgium. The four soldiers were laid to rest side by side in death as they had stood in life.

Frederick Scott was a great-grandson of Samuel Knights. He was born in 1887 in Trimley St Martin and became a private with the 3rd (King’s Own) Hussars, serving in Africa.

The 3rd Hussars landed at Rouen, France, on August 16, 1914, and later that year featured at The Battle of Messines, which took place from October 12 to November 2, 1914.

Frederick was wounded, and died of his injuries on October 25. His medal card shows his rank as Lance Corporal of the Horse. He is buried at Quesnoy-Sur-Deule Communal Cemetery, his grave identified by the Hussars’ emblem of a horse.

Albert Chittock would just make it into that third decade of the 1900s. He was 22 and a barman at the Queen’s Head in St Matthew’s Street, Ipswich, as The Great War built momentum.

Albert joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915, but appears to have served only 17 days. He rejoined the military in 1917, in the Royal Field Artillery. His service was cut short by tuberculosis. Medical reports suggest his condition improved, but any progress was only a brief respite and Albert died in the late summer of 1920.

He wasn’t the only descendant of Samuel to suffer poor health.

Great-grandson Sidney Pawsey was born in 1895 and joined up after working as a tailor and living with his mother in Bramford Road, Ipswich.

His military service began in December, 1915. Sidney joined the 3rd Battalion The Suffolk Regiment early the following year but in June was transferred to the 3/24th London Regiment. The battalion left Southampton for Le Havre a week later. Before the month was out, the poor soldier was suffering bladder trouble caused by damp conditions and exposure. By July he had rheumatic fever and was sent to England, where he was laid up for five months.

In August, 1917, he arrived in Basra. The months that followed saw him suffering… diarrhoea. He was taken to India by hospital ship and in 1918 sent back to England with anaemia.

Poor Sid was admitted to hospital in Bristol, and in 1919 granted eight shillings and thruppence, for 26 weeks, because of his health problems.

Finally: good news! In 1922 he married Florence in Ipswich. Daughter Constance was born the following year. Sidney lived until the end of 1957.

“Members of my wider family have done an astonishing job finding out all these details and documenting them for future generations,” says Violette ? “certainly a brave group of individuals to whom I feel a debt of gratitude for their efforts.

“I’m left feeling enormously proud of all my relatives who put their lives at risk ? and in some cases lost their lives ? for a cause they believed in.

“After learning all this, and having our family gathering at Kirton, Remembrance Sunday will be all the more poignant this year.”

For more East Anglian war stories, visit our commemorative First World War page here

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