First World War: History students from Universtiy Campus Suffolk honour 25 war heroes from Shotley

Frank Clarke among the 7th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment

Frank Clarke among the 7th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment - Credit: Archant

One Suffolk village lost 25 men during the First World War ? nearly a quarter of the soldiers and sailors who enlisted. A group of university students didn’t want them to be overlooked. Steven Russell realises they won’t be.

Harriet, Alfred, Ernestjunior and Ernest Abram senior - before death shattered the family

Harriet, Alfred, Ernestjunior and Ernest Abram senior - before death shattered the family - Credit: Archant

“It is surreal to see it in print. I can honestly say it is one of my proudest moments,” says Elizabeth Sandford. She’s cradling a book in which she and five fellow university students have invested time, commitment and passion. They were determined to tell the stories of the 25 men on a village war memorial – to honour the people behind the names – and by goodness they’ve pulled it off. All those hours looking for needles in haystacks in the record office, all the dogged chasing of leads on the internet, and all those suppers that burned as the present gave way to the pursuit of the past, were worthwhile. Officially. For the six have made us think about brave men like Ernest Abram, son of a railway ticket collector. After his mother died in 1889 and his father in 1892, the family was separated. Ernest joined the Royal Navy and care of his five sisters and one brother, aged between three and 11 years in age, transferred to the guardians of the poor law union and then to Dr Barnado’s Homes. Three of the girls, including an eight-year-old, were sent to live in Canada.

Ernest served in the Boer War, married, had two sons, and as a petty officer was based at the Shotley Gate training establishment HMS Ganges in 1911 and 1912. He joined HMS Hawke in 1914 but died that October when the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. He perished alongside Sergeant James Ball, also remembered on the Shotley memorial. Their bodies were never recovered.

The six mature students did the work for a second-year project at University Campus Suffolk, where they’re studying for a degree in history. Wanting to examine the lives of those honoured on one of the county’s memorials, they eventually chose Shotley, near Ipswich. The memorial was an unusual one: a marble and alabaster tablet inside St Mary’s Church.

While there had been comprehensive studies done in the past about the 201 First World War graves in the churchyard (including 13 Germans) and about nearby HMS Ganges (whose hospital had received seriously-injured servicemen), no-one ever seemed to have written about the tablet.

Tragic brothers Frank and Oliver Bear

Tragic brothers Frank and Oliver Bear - Credit: Archant

“It was like a ‘pocket’, wasn’t it? Its own little capsule, just waiting,” says Michele Kenningale.

The tablet had been unveiled on Sunday, November 30, 1919. General Massey Lloyd, colonel of the Suffolk Regiment, said the 25 “all belonged to that great company of brave men who fought for the great cause of freedom and humanity on sea and land, and died that we might live”. The memorial might “bring consolation and comfort to their relatives in the thought that they did not die in vain. Their names liveth for evermore”.

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Quite a lot was known about some of the men; about others, precious little. There was scope to give these one a lasting tribute, including those from three families that each lost two sons.

So the students set out to trace the men’s origins in order to paint clearer pictures of the people behind the names. Their deaths affected parents, wives, sweethearts and children.

The Coulson family; Stanley, May, Peter, Thomas, Mary and Percy, with parents Susannah and James at

The Coulson family; Stanley, May, Peter, Thomas, Mary and Percy, with parents Susannah and James at the back. Sometime after 1916, Stanley joined the 9th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. In September, 1918, his division followed the retreating Germans in France, taking Guyencourt. They suffered heavy casualties. Stanley Coulson, 23, was killed - Credit: Archant

The six weren’t required to publish their work as a book, but it seemed fitting. “We owed it to the community, which had so freely and willingly given of their time and information,” says Karen Toye. “Not to carry it through would have been the wrong thing to do.” Any profits will be donated to the Royal British Legion.

The title Shotley’s Forgotten Men isn’t meant to imply the dead have been forgotten by their descendants or the village – they haven’t – but reflects the fact a major study had never before been done.

The research was rewarding but challenging. “I think for all of us it became more than a module. It has been all-consuming,” admits Elizabeth. It included putting out feelers on ancestry websites and dealing with the emails that came back; combing through census forms and service records – documents for both the Royal and Merchant navies; scouring war diaries and regimental papers.

There were obstacles. One soldier, for instance, had been known by several variations of his names – which didn’t do a lot for continuity – and a couple of names on the memorial are even misspelled!

Ethelbert and Ellen Clarke, parents of Frank and James, who died in The Great War

Ethelbert and Ellen Clarke, parents of Frank and James, who died in The Great War - Credit: Archant

It all called for detective work, patience and tenacity as jigsaw pieces gradually came together. Relatives, some still living on the Shotley peninsula and some as far away as Scotland, helped add detail. Information would flow to and fro, unlocking the next part of the puzzle.

“These things became a conversation,” explains Karen. “You’d get a call one day: ‘I found a map… wondered if you’d be interested.’”

Whenever photographs were tracked down, it made their day. “It’s lovely to eventually see a picture of that person you know so much about,” says Michele. “It feels quite magical.”

Some descendants had a decent grasp of what had happened to their ancestors; for others, stories uncovered proved a revelation. Whenever new information came to light, the students passed it on to families.

The memorial tablet in St Mary's Church, Shotley

The memorial tablet in St Mary's Church, Shotley - Credit: Archant

There was the tragic case of horseman Walter Cresswell, for instance. He’d joined the Machine Gun Corp and in 1916 was injured in France. Walter received a gunshot wound to his head. His pension record says “large piece of bone removed, presentation good, wound healed up and firm but only skin and dura covering brain. Metal cap recommended”. Unfit, he was discharged and awarded a pension of 13s 9d a week for 26 weeks. Walter went home to Shotley and later became a munitions worker at Woolwich, London. The book explains: “Unfortunately, Walter, like many other men who returned home from the war, never fully recovered from the traumatic experiences he witnessed or the wounds he received. On 3 November 1918, aged twenty-six years, Walter Edward Cresswell died of a fractured skull after falling from a window at Woolwich. The Coroner’s Court determined Walter ‘did kill himself during temporary insanity’.”

Walter left all he owned to his widowed mother – £146 and 11 shillings. Eliza had lost both sons in just over a year. Frederick had started work at just 13, a “boy on farm”, and probably enlisted at 18. He was killed in the trenches of Belgium, by shelling, in 1917. Lorraine Goldie says Walter’s modern-day relatives weren’t aware he’d committed suicide. “They just thought he’d died. We had to very delicately decide whether this should be addressed or not. Shellshock and mental illness wasn’t recognised then the way it is now.” Quite late on in the project, far-flung relatives had got in touch, having been sent a piece in the Shotley church magazine. “They were fantastic and wanted it to be known. It was nice to be able to pass on the information. There’s a lot of pressure on you because, when you have this contact with people, you are so desperate to get it right.”

The book might be out, but Geraldine Barker doesn’t think it’s the end. As more people read about the 25, she’s convinced more folk will offer information. “I don’t think it’s going to be going away that quickly.

“And I think we’ve also got to thank our spouses and partners, and children. They’ve all… (‘Suffered?’ laughs Michele) …been involved with it, in some way or other.”

Surely the students will miss the involvement, now the project is complete. Elizabeth smiles. “We’re looking forward to lower phone bills!”

Shotley’s Forgotten Men costs £8.95, including postage, via www.shotleyworldwarone.com. It’s also available from The Tourist Information Office, Ipswich; Shotley Gate Stores; Woodbridge Bookshop, and Walton Books (Saxmundham).