A visit to Knowstone played a key role in revealing the tragedy of four young men connected to my family who died in the Great War. One was killed while fighting with the Australian Army on the Western Front in the Great War. Two died in France – in 1914 and 1917. Another died of wounds in hospital while being held as a prisoner of war in Syria. Their stories are told here.
My mum had stayed there as a young woman – at the Masons Arms. The old bakery and store in the village used to be run by Ben Roberts, a cousin of mine who fought in the Great War. Knowstone was a place I had never visited until I was a young man in the 1970s.
When I walked into the parish church, I looked for family names on the Great War memorial. None seemed familiar or linked in any way to me. I took a note of the 11 men listed on the memorial, promising myself to research them when I had the time.
More than 40 years later, I found a connection with four of those men – John and William Henry Marshall, Frank Berry and Derrick Thomas Singerton.
I unearthed stories of immense courage, lucky escapes from death, how a great adventure in the New World ended in tragedy – and a dramatic attempt to save one of the men going to war.
John Marshall was killed in action at Givenchy in France in the Great War – just 14 days after arriving on the Western Front. A private in the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, he was 22 when he died on December 22, 1914.
John lost his life on the final day of the four-day Battle of Givenchy in France. He was involved in an attack on German forces which began in freezing rain in the early hours of December 19. About 4,000 British and Allied troops were killed or wounded in the battle, with 800 British troops taken prisoner.
John’s brother, Thomas and his first cousin, William Henry Marshall – both born and raised in Knowstone – emigrated to Australia shortly before the war, hoping for excitement and new beginnings in a vast and fast developing country.
When war broke out, they both signed up for service overseas, joining the 24th Battalion of the Australian Army within days of each other. They ended up on the Western Front. And only one would survive.
Thomas, a lance-corporal, was shot in the left foot in France on August 23, 1916. He was transferred to England for hospital treatment and recovered from his wound at the Australian recuperation camp at Chickerell in Dorset.
While based at the camp, he married Dulcie Camilla Roberts – the great niece of my great-great grandfather, John Roberts (1829-1919) – at Poughill Parish Church in December 1916. He did not return to the front line and set up home in Poughill with Dulcie, working as a poultry farmer and rabbit trapper.
William, a lance-corporal, fought in Gallipoli and Egypt before joining the British Expeditionary Force in France. He spent a month in hospital with septic sores to his legs in November 1916 and was shot in the left arm in May 1917.
Admitted to a military hospital in Rouen, he was sent to England for treatment at the Grove Park Hospital in Richmond. Later transferred to an auxiliary hospital in Harefield. William recuperated at Weymouth before heading back to France on June 16, 1917.
After suffering an accidental bayonet wound to his right foot, he re-joined the 24th Battalion in Belgium in September that year. Just six days later – on October 4, 1917 – at the age of 24, he was killed in action.
Frank Berry was killed in the Battle of Cambrai in France on November 25, 1917. He was 25 and a private in the 17th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment when he lost his life in fierce fighting in a heavily bomb-damaged Bourlon Wood in the tank-led offensive.
His death was announced in The Western Times on December 21, 1917. ‘Quite a gloom was cast over this parish by the news of the death of Private Frank Berry, who joined up in May 1916 and went to France the following September,’ reported the newspaper. ‘A letter was received by the vicar from his officer stating he was killed in action in Bourlon Wood. He was highly esteemed by officers and men.’
Twenty months earlier, Frank was at the centre of a controversial and unsuccessful attempt by his father, Thomas Berry to save him from going to war.
On April 5, 1916, Thomas appealed to the Northern Panel of the Devon Appeal Tribunal against a local tribunal’s refusal to exempt Frank, a horseman, from service.
The tribunal was told that Thomas had three sons and farmed at West Bowden Farm, Knowstone. He had recently taken on another nearby farm, Luckett and in all farmed 430 acres.
Thomas was asked by a military representative on the appeal tribunal – a Captain Vosper – if one of his three sons would like to serve King and country. ‘No, they don’t want to go’, Thomas replied.
When asked why they had attested for military service, he said they were advised to, placing themselves in the Army reserve.
Thomas denied taking on a second farm to keep his sons out of military service. The owner of the land had, he said, pressed him to take it on.
The appeal tribunal chairman asked him: ‘Were you not a little rash to take Luckett, having so little labour at your disposal?’
Thomas told him: ‘Well, I thought I could have done it. I did not think it was going to come to this. And my son might get married.’
It was put to him that he ‘didn’t bother about the war at all – that didn’t enter into your calculation?’ Thomas said: ‘No, I was looking to see if I could make a bit, and to help the boys on.’
Captain Vosper hit out, saying that Thomas’s sons had ‘made no attempt to do anything for their country’.
The tribunal granted exemption for Frank to September 30, 1916. But Frank joined up in May that year and had been in France for more than a year when he was killed. His body was never recovered.
Derrick Thomas Singerton died of wounds in hospital in Syria in the Great War – while being held as a prisoner of war in Damascus.
Derrick, aged 20, was a private in the 16th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment when he died on January 17, 1918.
His death was first reported seven months later in The Western Times on August 24, 1918, The Weekly Casualty War List three days later, and in The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette on August 30, 1918.
Derrick was wounded and captured on December 3, 1917 when the 16th Devons attacked the remote hilltop village of Beit ur al-Foka near Jerusalem.
More than 80 of their officers and men were killed in the attack. Almost 140 others were wounded, with some taken prisoner on what would be the battalion’s darkest day in the Great War.
Eight men connected to my family fought together in that battle.
John Marshall is remembered on the Le Touret Memorial, near Bethune, which commemorates more than 13,000 British soldiers who were killed between October 1914 and September 1915 and had no known grave.
William Henry Marshall is remembered at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. The largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world, it is the last resting place for more than 11,900 servicemen of the First World War.
Frank Berry is remembered on the Cambrai Memorial in France. He was a nephew of William Berry (1866-1936), who married Helena Slader (1869-1949), my great-grandmother, in 1913 in Rackenford.
Derrick Thomas Singerton was buried at Damascus Commonwealth War Cemetery. He was the only child of William John Singerton (1869-1951) – who was landlord of the Masons Arms in Knowstone between 1908 and 1941 – and Dinah Arscott (1870-1938). Dinah was the granddaughter of John Arscott (1807-1879), my great-great grandfather.
John Marshall’s younger brother, also called William Henry Marshall, died in the Second World War while serving as a captain in the Royal Indian Engineers. He died on November 13, 1944, aged 44 and was buried in Rawalpindi War Cemetery in Pakistan.
The 11 men named on Knowstone War Memorial.
The grave of Lance-Corporal William Henry Marshall at Tyne Cot Cemetery. Photo supplied by Blueheaven.