Being the Great War story of my maternal grandfather Charles Reuben – “Charlie” – Clements (CRC), a Private in the 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s) Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers (the City of London Regiment).
Before the Great War
Charles Reuben Clements was born at home in Hammersmith in Middlesex on January 12th, 1896, the son of Charles Ernest Clements, a carman and contractor, and his wife Jessie Clements, nee Percy, a part-time music teacher. Home was 109 Yeldham Road, a small end-of-terrace Victorian house at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac off Fulham Palace Road, with a large yard attached, where it is believed that Charles Senior kept his horses and horse-drawn vehicles. Charles Junior received his education at Latymer School in Hammersmith. However, he was forced to leave school early, aged seventeen, in 1913, after his father died suddenly, aged only forty-two, in order to enter the workplace – as an assistant in a gentlemen’s shop – to help provide an income for his family.
At this time, his family consisted of him; his widowed mother, familiarly known to him as “Ma”; and his two younger sisters, Jessie Winifred (“Jess”), who had been born in 1901, and Lilian Edith (“Lily”), born in 1904. His elder brother John Edwin, who had been born in 1893, had died in 1894; and his younger brother, John Percy, who had been born in 1900, in 1901.
CRC was evidently a conscientious man, with a strong work-ethic. He never gambled, although he did “do the Pools”, which he considered to be a game of skill rather than chance. And, after an unfortunate early experience at a friend’s coming-of-age party, he never drank. He had a dry sense of humour. When my mother wrote to inform him of my – premature – birth in 1958, he wrote back that he was “delighted of course to hear that Robert Wynn is progressing so well” and “flattered at first to hear he resembled myself but on reading … that he was short of … hair and putting on weight am rather in doubt”. In his free time, he enjoyed a range of sporting pursuits.
The Great War
CRC voluntarily enlisted in the 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s) Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers on May 30th, 1915, and was given the regimental number 3526.
It is evident from his surviving “Medical History” (Army Form B178), in the National Archives, dated June 4th, 1915, that he lied about his age when he volunteered, claiming to be twenty-two when he was actually only nineteen – possibly because he looked about sixteen. Also, that he was only 5’6” tall, and only weighed 9st4lbs.
After enlistment, CRC was sent to Hare Hall Camp in Romford in Essex, where the 24th Battalion had just set up its base, for training. He emerged from training as a Private soldier and 1st Class Signaller. As a Signaller, one of his responsibilities on the battle-front would be to relay communications. In the Great War, this was generally done by using field telephone networks, rather than by the hitherto conventional means of signalling with flags (using Semaphore), or with lamps or mirrors, or with a Heliograph (using Morse Code). It would involve the laying and constant repairing of miles of telephone cable in and around front-line trenches, often under fire. And it would be dangerous work. In April, 1917, the then Signals Officer for the 24th Battalion, Second Lieutenant Cyril Francis Stafford, would suffer a mortal wound while supervising the laying of telephone cables near Vimy Ridge while under heavy shell-fire. Private Frank Richards of the Royal Welch Fusiliers wrote, “Signallers who went into attacks with their companies had to muck in with the scrapping until the objective was taken and then if they were still on their feet were generally converted into runners [tasked with delivering messages by hand]. A runner’s job was very dangerous: he might have to travel over ground from where the enemy had just been driven and which now was being heavily shelled. In shell holes here and there might be some of the enemy who had been missed by the mopping-up party or who had been shamming dead; they would pop up and start sniping at him. I remember one show we were in … where extra runners had been detailed off for the day, losing fifteen out of twenty”.
CRC went on to serve with the 24th Battalion on the Western Front for three years, fighting in the Battles of the Somme in, 1916; in the Battles of Arras and Cambrai in 1917; and in the First and Battles of the Somme, and the Battle of Havrincourt, the first of the Battles of the Hindenburg Line, in 1918. At one point during the First Battles of the Somme, 1918, specifically on March 23rd, 1918, he would have been very close to where his future brother-in-law, my paternal grandfather, Able-Bodied Seaman Francis Wynn Jones (FWJ) of the Anson Battalion of 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, was captured by the advancing Germans, somewhere between Havrincourt and Bertincourt, on the Flesquieres-Havrincourt Salient.
According to his “Casualty Form – Active Service”, CRC was twice treated for “d. C.T. [?disease of Connective Tissue] Foot” – which I take to be “Trench Foot” – in the Winter of 1916/17. The first time was in the field, at No. 47 C.C.S. (Casualty Clearing Station), in Beauval, somewhat to the west of Beaumont-Hamel, on November 27th, 1916. The second time was to the rear, at No. 8 Red X.H. (Red Cross Hospital), in Paris-Plage (Le Touquet), on the coast, near Etaples Camp, on December 27th. CRC was granted two ten-day periods of home leave over the three-year course of his service, the first between January 20th-30th, 1917, and the second between February 12th-22nd, 1918.
CRC was reported in the “Nominal roll of casualties sustained during month of SEPTEMBER 1918” in the “Battalion War Diary” as having been killed on September 10th!
In fact, according to his “Casualty Record – Active Service” (Army Form B103), he had been seriously wounded by shrapnel, or possibly shell fragments, in the left arm (elbow) and leg (thigh, knee and ankle) on 12th. He was carried from the field to the 5th F.A. or Field Ambulance, and from there he was taken – either by an actual ambulance or a horse-drawn cart – to No. 46C.C.S or Casualty Clearing Station at Bac du Sud, near Bailleulval, just south-west of Arras. From No. 46 C.C.S. at Bac du Sud, CRC was transferred to No. 12G.H. or General Hospital in Rouen on September 13th.
And from there he was repatriated to the U.K., on board His Majesty’s Hospital Ship “Formosa”, on 15th. He spent the remaining two months of the war receiving treatment in hospitals in Keighley and Shoreham, and some time after the war convalescing in the Star and Garter Home in Richmond in Surrey. On September 20th, 1918, while he was at Shoreham, an X-Ray was taken of his wounded arm, and, according to his medical records, “a piece of shrapnel was found, localised and measured”, but “the surgeon thought an operation inadvisable + it was left in situ”. A later “Statement As To Disability” noted “metal fragments still in arm”, and occasional “shooting pains”, on account of which he was entitled to a Disability Pension of “5/- Dept Allowance + 3/6d allot weekly”. He had “copped a Blighty one”. His only visible scar was the size and shape of a teardrop, under his eye.
CRC was almost certainly wounded in an operation in the Battle of Havrincourt, the first of the Battles of the Hindenburg Line, which took place on September 12th, 1918. The “Battalion War Diary” contains a narrative of operations. According to this narrative, ‘D’ Company was subjected to “ … a very heavy barrage … and Captain CHESTON posted his men in shell-holes well in advance of the trench line [an old German defensive tactic devised on the Somme in 1916] and saved a good many casualties by doing so as the trenches were very badly knocked about indeed”. ‘C’ Company “ … tumbled up against quite unexpected German opposition in the portion of FAGAN SUPPORT … west of the Canal with several machine guns firing from shell-hole positions in the triangle to the south between it and the Canal [the Canal du Nord, which formed part of the Hindenburg Line]”. And ‘B’ Company “had to fight for every yard of the 700 of trench to be cleared … [and] … did so in a way that speaks for itself of the spirit of the Company and its leaders. … . Twelve Machine Guns (heavy and light) were … taken by the Company, probably many others were over-ran and overlooked”. The 24th Battalion’s total casualties in the action were recorded as “KILLED 8 + WOUNDED 49 + MISSING 1 = 58”. The men recorded as killed were Privates Frederick Child, W. Gowland, C. Hamilton, John Alfred Mayes and Percy Charles Pereira on September 12th, and Lance-Corporal Robert Burns, and Privates George Louis Parris and John Robert Warriner on 13th; and the missing man was Private F. Coley.
After the Great War
After the war, in 1919, CRC returned to work, in Harrods, a luxury department store in Knightsbridge in the fashionable West End of London, which at the time provided employment for large numbers of ex-Servicemen.
In 1921, he came to own and manage his own gentlemen’s outfitter’s shop at 180 South Ealing Road in Ealing in Middlesex, and to live in the modest rooms above. As befitting for someone in that line of work, he was always very smartly turned out. In 1933, he bought his first car, a “Baby Austin”, and thereafter spent a certain amount of time each year travelling round the south of England selling his wares. Besides his retail business, he also dabbled in property.
CRC also returned to his sporting pursuits.
He played football for the amateur side Ealing Wednesday, so-called because most of the players were independent shopkeepers, and they preferred to play on early closing day, which was Wednesday, rather than on Saturday, so as not to lose their best trading day’s takings.
The team had a particularly successful season in 1923-24, ending up as winners of the Ealing Hospital Cup, the Harrow Charity Shield, the Kingston and District Wednesday League, the Philanthropic Cup, and the Roose Francis Cup, and as runners-up in the Hounslow League and the Middlesex Mid-Week Cup. They also won the London Mid-Week Cup in 1930-31. CRC reportedly also played on an ad hoc basis for the professional side Fulham, who were in the Second Division of the English League, in the early 1920s. However, he always supported, and would have liked to play for, his local team, Brentford, who were in the First Division. Notwithstanding this, he never really seriously thought about becoming a professional footballer, because the pay was poor – difficult to believe as that is today. He did, though, represent the Thames Valley Harriers at long-distance running, and Middlesex at bowls, both, again, on an amateur basis – although he once won a smoker’s cabinet in a bowls competition! He also played tennis to a high standard, including at the prestigious Queen’s Club in West Kensington in London, which, incidentally his father had helped to build in 1886. Here, he played with Fred Perry, who went on to win three Wimbledon Men’s Singles titles, in 1934, 1935 and 1936.
On October 21st, 1921, CRC married Gladys Mabel Millard, familiarly known to him as “Mabs”.
“Mabs’s” mother, Sarah Ann Millard, incidentally, had served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment or V.A.D. nurse on the Home Front during the Great War. In 1934, “Mabs” had a baby daughter, Peggy Anne, my mother. The family would come to enjoy taking in not only sporting events but also sundry other entertainments such as comedy shows or musicals at the Chiswick Empire or the “Q” Theatre (in Kew), or, on special occasions, in the West End. During the Second World War of 1939-45, CRC joined the Middlesex Home Guard (of “Dad’s Army” fame), one of whose duties was to help to man a heavy anti-aircraft gun battery in Gunnersbury Park. According to one family story, which may or may not be entirely true, at the beginning of the Vergeltungswaffen or Vengeance-Weapon campaign directed against London, in June, 1944, he and his comrades, while attempting to shoot down a low-flying V-1 flying bomb or “Doodlebug”, instead inadvertently shot up part of a nearby building!
After the Second World War, in 1954, his daughter Peggy Anne married Emrys Wynn Jones. Then, in 1956, his wife “Mabs” died; and, in 1957, he married his second wife, a divorcee, Alice Elizabeth Ashton, nee Gooding.
CRC remained close throughout his later life to a number of his comrades from the Great War, especially to William “Billy” Bentley, who he regarded as once having saved his life, and who was his best friend; and to Archibald “Archie” Bannister, who was his best man. The old soldiers would all meet up in London every November, on the Friday closest to Remembrance Sunday, and would then all go together to the Cenotaph in Whitehall to attend the National Service of Remembrance. Like so many of his generation, CRC scarcely ever spoke, at least outside this closed circle, of his wartime experiences. However, he did once allude to the suffering of the horses on the Western Front (he had grown up around horses). He never committed to paper any of the thoughts or feelings he might have had about the war. These he took with him to his grave.
CRC died, after a sudden unexplained illness, on April 27th, 1958, aged sixty-two, and was cremated in Mortlake Cemetery on May 2nd. I was only three months old when he died, and, sadly, have nothing to remember him by bar these bare facts about his life, some faded photographs, and replacements for his lost 1914-15 Star, British War and Victory medals (“Pip, Squeak and Wilfred”). I am strangely comforted, though, by the knowledge that he would have had memories of me. My mother told me that she took me with her to see him when he was in what turned out to be his final days, and that he regained consciousness long enough to recognise me, and to lay his hand on my head, before drifting away again, for the final time.