IT was while going through old newspapers printed during the First World War, researching the names on the war memorial at Lane Head, Willenhall, that I came across the following article in the Walsall Observer, dated August 31, 1918.
"Private Richard Fletcher who has been missing since being in action with the Lincolns in France on the 27th May, has written to his wife at 116 Lichfield Road, New Invention, stating that he is a prisoner of war at Gustrow, Germany. Aged 30 he was formerly employed by Messrs Wilkes, Bloxwich, and joining the colours in February 1917 he went to France the following May with the South Staffords, being transferred later to the Lincolns."
This was the first I knew that a relative had served in the First World War.
My great-uncle Richard Fletcher was born in New Invention, Willenhall, on November 6, 1888, to parents Henry and Eliza Fletcher. On September 27, 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, he married Florence Elizabeth Sands at Holy Trinity Church, Short Heath, Willenhall.
On November 24, 1916, at the age of 27, he attended a local tribunal at 33 Market Place, Willenhall, where he was exempted from being called up for military service for 14 days until December 4, 1916, in order for him to be medically examined. On Form R50, Certificate of Exemption, his occupation is shown as 'carter'.
As mentioned in the news clipping, after his medical he joined the colours in February 1917, going to France with the South Staffordshire Regiment in May of that year under the regimental number 35797. While in France he transferred to the 2nd Lincolnshire Regiment and became 41460 Pte Richard Fletcher.
At the end of April 1918, Sir Douglas Haig agreed to place at Marshal Foch's disposal five British divisions for deployment on the Aisne to take the place of French divisions concentrated behind Amiens, and so began the 2nd Lincolns' journey from Flanders to just east of Rheims in the Romingny region. On May 1 they marched from their camp at Busseboom, Belgium, to billets near Beauvoorde, Belgium. Then on May 2 they marched to camp near Lederzeele, France, where they spent May 3-4 resting, cleaning up and reorganising.
On May 5 they marched to Arques, near St Omer, where they boarded a train at 2.45am on May 6, detraining on May 7 at Savigny, before marching to camp at Lhery. They were now in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France, but I wonder if they had time to sample the local produce!
After spending May 8-11 in camp on specialist training and range practice, they marched on May 12 to the Vaux-Varennes area to camp near Bouvancourt. Having travelled the routes they took and seeing the terrain, it amazes me how they managed to march the distances between each camp especially as they would no doubt have been carrying lots of equipment.
On May 13 they continued their marching and took over from the French 71st Battalion of the Chaisseurs-a-Pied at a camp near Chalons-le-Verguer. They were there until May 21 when they relieved the 1st Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment in the front line trenches near Sapignuel. They stayed in the trenches until May 27 when, at 1am, the enemy opened a heavy bombardment of gas and other shells, which continued until 4am. The enemy broke through the Lincolns' line, resulting in only two officers and about 30 other ranks getting away. The battalion diary for May shows for "other ranks" that six were killed, 53 wounded and 327 missing.
My great-uncle Richard was one of the 327 missing. The letter came to his wife that many families back home dreaded receiving. Dated June 28, from the Infantry Record Office at Lichfield, it notified Florence that a report from the War Office told that 41460 Pte Richard Fletcher had been posted as missing on May 27, 1918. This must have been very upsetting as Richard had sent to Florence one of the official postcards, dated May 26, telling her that he was quite well and had received her letter of May 19.
Two months later Florence learnt that her husband was still alive. On August 24 she received a card from the Gustrow POW camp, which Richard dated July 23, 1918, which read, "Dear Floss, I am quite well, hope you are, this is my permanent address. Your loving husband Richard."
On October 3 Florence received another card from Richard, dated June 2, 1918, which read, "My dear wife, I hope you are well as I am my dear. Just a few lines to say that I am a prisoner of war but treated very fair. Do not worry, will let you know my address as soon as I can. I was taken on the 27th May. From your loving husband Richard." That card would have been sent while in transit to the Gustrow POW camp.
It must have been a few days after receiving her husband's card that Florence received the official letter from the War Office, dated October 3, stating that Richard was a prisoner of war. So, although Richard's wife had known her husband was a POW from August 24, it was not until after October 3 that she received official confirmation from the War Office.
Richard was imprisoned at Gustrow in northern Germany until the end of the war.
In subsequent cards from the POW camp Richard tells his wife that he has not received a letter from her and for her to enquire about sending a parcel, as he would appreciate some soap and a "few fags". He asked in the card sent on September 22 if she had told Mrs Painter in Pooles Lane, New Invention, that her son was all right.
I suppose the postcard that Richard dated January 3, 1919, was the best present his wife could have received. Although it was a German card, the message read, "My dear wife, landed in Scotland proceeding to Ripon for a few days then coming home. Your loving husband, Richard."
Sadly, Richard never saw his first child, Florence May. She was born on June 17, 1917, after Richard had gone to France, and died some seven months later in January 1918.
Were the services of the men who went to war really appreciated? On the soldiers demobilization account for 41460 Pte Fletcher, R., that from his earnings, £1 was deducted because he kept his army great coat.
It is possible that from his time in the army, and especially his time living in a POW camp hut, Richard got used to barrack room life. When the First World War army camp on Cannock Chase was closed and the army huts sold off, Uncle Richard purchased one and with the help of family brought the hut by horse and cart and re-erected it in Pooles Lane. The hut was split in two, Uncle Richard and family living in one half and his sister and her family living in the other. He continued to live there until his death in 1963. The ex-army hut is still lived in today, albeit the outside walls have been covered with white plastic sheeting.
Have you a story of the First World War to share with readers in this centenary year? Please contact dshaw@blackcountry bugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.