East End Soldiers Of World War One
In the week of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, I have compiled these biographies of just a handful of the thousands of those from the East End who served in the conflict. These photographs are selected from those gathered by Tower Hamlets Community Housing for their exhibition which runs until 29th August at 285 Commercial Rd.
George Gristey was born in Hackney on 13th March 1890. At the time of his death his mother, Laura, lived in Cranbrook Rd, Green St, Bethnal Green. George served as a Private in the East Surrey Regiment and was was killed in action in Belgium on 23rd June 1915 and buried at Woods Cemetery, south-east of Ypres in West Flanders.
Arthur Outram was born on 20th September 1890 in London St, Ratcliff and died in Belgium on 10th October 1917 while serving as a Sergeant with the Second Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. Like many of his comrades, he has no known grave, but is commemorated on panel eighty-two of the Tyne Cot Memorial in the Tyne Cot Cemetery (the largest British war cemetery) south-west of Passchendaele, and his name is also upon the memorial at St Anne’s, Limehouse. He married Ellen Callaghan at St Matthew’s, Limehouse, on 26th November 1916 and they had one son, also called Arthur, who was less than a month old when his father was killed.
Issy Smith VC (pictured on the left) was born as Ishroulch Shmeilowitz in Alexandria, Egypt, on September 1890, the son of French citizens Moses and Eva Shmeilowitz, who were of Russian origin. Issy arrived in the East End aged eleven, as a stowaway, and attended Berner St School, Commercial Rd, before working as a delivery man locally. He joined the British Army in 1904 and was present at the Delhi Durbar of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911.
The citation for Issy Smith’s Victoria Cross reads “No. 168 Acting Corporal Issy Smith, 1st Battalion, The Manchester Regiment. For most conspicuous bravery on 26th April, 1915, near Ypres, when he left his Company on his own initiative and went well forward towards the enemy’s position to assist a severely-wounded man, whom he carried a distance of two hundred and fifty yards into safety, whilst exposed the whole time to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire. Subsequently Corporal Smith displayed great gallantry, when the casualties were very heavy, in voluntarily assisting to bring in many more wounded men throughout the day, and attending to them with the greatest devotion to duty regardless of personal risk.”
In recognition of his Victoria Cross, he was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre and Russian Cross of St. George. He died on 11th September 1940.
Henry Sumner was born on 27th April 1875 in Dingle Lane, Poplar. Henry was a professional soldier - a Corporal in the Tenth County of London Regiment who served in the Boer War and the First World War, when he became a guard at the German Prisoner-of-War camp at Alexandra Palace. He married Margaret Fenn (1882-1958) at St Saviour’s, Poplar, on 7th October 1904 and they had eight children. He died at the Queen’s Hospital for Military Personnel in Chislehurst, Kent, in 1924.
Joseph Klein (1888-1974) lived in Gold St, Mile End Old Town, and he never spoke of the conflict in which he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal in World War I – It is believed he threw them all in the Thames.
Richard Williams was born as William Waghorn on 4th April 1875 in Old Brewery, Hayes, Kent. He worked in Kent as a labourer and moved to the East End to work on the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel. He married Margaret Constable (1888-1966) on 28th June 1913 in the Registry Office in Mile End Old Town and they had twelve children and lived all their married life in Stepney. Richard enlisted for World War I but his lungs were damaged in the conflict, causing him to suffer from poor health until he died in Stepney in 1947.
Poet and artist, Isaac Rosenberg, who died in action at the Somme in 1918 at the age of twenty-seven, lived at 47 Cable St between 1897 and 1900 where he attended St Paul’s School, St George’s-in-the-East. In 1900, the family moved over to Stepney so Isaac could attend Baker St School and receive a Jewish education.
Isaac loathed war and hated the idea of killing but, while unemployed, he learned that his mother would be able to claim a separation allowance, so he enlisted. He was assigned to the Twelfth Suffolk Regiment, a Bantam Battalion formed of men less than five foot and three inches in height, but in the spring of 1916 he was transferred to the Eleventh Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment and in June of that year he was sent to France.
He was killed early on the morning of 1st April 1918 during the German spring offensive. His body was not immediately found but, in 1926, the remains of eleven soldiers of the KORL were discovered and buried together in Northumberland Cemetery, Fampoux. Although his body could not be identified, he was known to be among them. His remains were later reinterred at Bailleul Road East Cemetery, St. Laurent-Blangy, near Arras where his headstone reads ‘Buried near this spot.’ Beneath his name, dates and regiment, are engraved the Star of David and the words “Artist and Poet.”
His ‘Poems from the Trenches” are recognised as some of the most outstanding verse written during the War.
Samuel Adelson who resided with his aunt at 8 Gosset Street, Brick Lane was in the Thirty-Eighth Battalion, Royal Fusilliers, and fought in Palestine in 1918. He was born in Nemajunai, Trakai, Lithuania in 1896 to David Adelson and Zlota Gordon Adelson. After the war, in 1920 Samuel emigrated to America where he died in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1925.
Charles Hunt was born in 1888 in Mile End and served as a Private in the Twelfth (Prince of Wales’ Royal) Lancers. The Lancers arrived in France on 18th August 1914 and only ten days later, fought a battle against a regiment of German Dragoons at Moy. Charles was awarded the 1914 Star and Victory medals but, just eleven days after arriving in France and at only twenty-six years of age, he died of his wounds – Charles’ grave is in Bavay, a small cemetery that was behind German lines for most of the war.
George Outram was born on 17th March 1870 in Dunstan Rd, Mile End, the son of Arthur Outram (1826-1904) and Martha Jane Harden (1841-1877). He married Margaret (Mag) Charlotte Constable (1871-1932) on Christmas Day 1889 at St Paul’s Church, Bow Common, which stood on the site of the modern St Paul’s with St Luke’s Church, at the junction of Burdett Rd and St Paul’s Way. After service in the Merchant Navy, George became a lighterman, and he and Mag had ten children. The picture shows George in an army uniform, taken during the World War I, when he took barges across to France. Although not enlisted in the army, he wore a uniform so that if captured by the Germans he would not be shot as a spy. He died in Mile End Hospital in April 1938, aged sixty-eight.
Henry Maffia and Elizabeth Maffia with their son John, taken in 1915. Henry was wounded twice in Flanders and gassed on the last day of the War, dying on 16th March 1920 from the effects of the gas. Liberal MP for Bethnal Green, Sir Percy Holman, fought until 1928 to obtain a War Widows’ Pension for Elizabeth Maffia.
Robert Tolliday (front row first left) lived in Peabody Buildings, Shadwell. He served in the Twelfth Lancers until 12th May 1917 when the Lancers became the Fifth SMG and he stayed with them until the end of the War. He was one of the last who charged into the German lines on horseback with no weapon beyond a wooden lance and when a bomb exploded beneath his horse, Old Tom, it kept on running with its entrails streaming until it collapsed.
George Joseph Dubock was descended from a Huguenot family that arrived in the East End in 1706. He was born on 5th December 1878 in 109 Eastfield St, Limehouse, and his family moved shortly after to Mile End Old Town. George worked as a Dock Labourer and a Road Sweeper/Scavenger for the Council. Serving as Private #14373 in the Sixth Dorset Regiment, George was a victim of a gas attack and suffered post-traumatic stress after the War. Later, George became a Master Cabinet Maker and ended his days working in Newbury, restoring old furniture until he died in 1951.
Cards sent home from the Front by George Joseph Dubock
Alfred William Blanford was born in Poplar in 1894 and lived in Whitethorn St, Bow. At eighteen, in April 1912, he married Florence Jenkins and, in the December of the same year, they had their first child – also called Alfred. In February 2014, Alfred & Florence’s second son, Fredrick, was born and their third child, Edith, in December 1916.
Alfred joined the Army before his twentieth birthday and, in December 1914, by the time of Fredrick’s birth, he was in training in Aldershot. He served as a Driver in the Royal Field Artillery and was killed in action in May 1916, before the birth of his daughter Edith.
Henry George Crooney, also known as Harry, was born in Poplar in 1897 and served in the Royal Artillery from 1914-1918. Lying about his age, Henry enlisted in the Army before he was legally eligible. He joined the Royal Artillery because of his experience with horses, having worked since a child with his father who ran horses and carts from the docks.
Henry’s grand-daughter, Cheryl Loughnane, recalls the wartime stories Henry would tell – including his hatred of bully beef and of the time he stole a pig from a French farm.
After the war, Henry married Annie and worked as a haulier. When he retired, he could not stop driving around the East End and became a volunteer for ‘Meals on Wheels,’ delivering dinners to pensioners.
Alfred James Barwell was a Private in the Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment). He lived with his parents, Alfred & Alice Barwell, at 27 Museum Buildings, Chester St, Bethnal Green. Aged just nineteen, Alfred was killed in action on 21st March 1918. His is listed on the Pozieres Memorial (Panel Ref 58 and 59) in the Somme.
James Polston, Rifleman 5059 in the Eighteenth Battallion London Regiment – London Irish Rifles. James was born on 20th September 1884, the eldest son of James & Elizabeth Polston who lived at Warner Place, Bethnal Green, and Lauriston Rd in Bow. He was killed in action on 8th December 1916 and is commemorated at the Railway Dugouts Burial Ground in Flanders.
(Photo of Water Tull courtesy of Doug Banks)
Second Lieutenant Walter Tull was the first black British Army Infantry Officer. The son of a joiner, Walter was born in Folkestone on 28th April 1888. His father, the son of a slave, had arrived from Barbados in 1876. In 1895, when Walter was seven, his mother died and his father remarried only to die two years later. The stepmother was unable to cope with all six children and so Walter and his brother Edward were sent to a Methodist -run orphanage in Bethnal Green.
Walter was a keen footballer and played for a team in Clapton. In 1908, his talents were discovered by a scout from Tottenham Hotspur and the club decided to sign the promising young footballer. He played for Tottenham until 1910, when he was transferred for a large fee to Northampton Town. Walter became the first black outfield player to play professional football in Britain.
When World War I broke out, Walter abandoned his football career to join the Seventeenth (First Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment and, during his military training, he was promoted three times. In November 1914, as Lance Sergeant, he was sent to Les Ciseaux but, in May 1915, he was sent home with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Returning to France in September 1916, Walter fought in the Battle of the Somme between October and November. His courage and abilities encouraged his superior officers to recommend him as an Officer and, on 26th December, 1916, Walter went back to England to train as an Officer.
There were military laws forbidding ‘any negro or person of colour’ being commissioned as an Officer. Despite this, Walter was promoted to Lieutenant in 1917 and became the first ever black Officer in the British Army, and the first black Officer to lead white men into battle.
Walter was sent to the Italian Front where he twice led his Company across the River Piave on a raid and both times brought all of his troops back safely. He was mentioned in Despatches for his ‘gallantry and coolness’ under fire by his commanding officer and he was recommended for the Military Cross, but never received it.
After their time in Italy, Walter’s Battalion was transferred to the Somme and, on 25th March 1918, he was killed by machine gun fire while trying to help his men withdraw.
Walter was such a popular man that several of his men risked their own lives in an attempt to retrieve his body under heavy fire, but they were unsuccessful due to the enemy soldiers’ advance. His body was never found and he is one of the many thousands from World War I who has no known grave.
(Story & photo of John Arthur Tribe courtesy of East London Advertiser)
John Arthur Tribe was part of a large, close-knit family from Kirby St, Poplar. John lied about his age and joined the Army in 1911, serving in the Fourth Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, at first in India and then at the Battle of Loos in 1915, where he was killed in action. John is commemorated at the Loos Memorial but has no known grave.
The Working Lads Institute (now the Whitechapel Mission) founded by Rev Thomas Jackson, was the first shelter in London to offer refuge to black soldiers during World War One
The exhibition runs until 29th August on weekdays from 9:30 – 4:30pm at Tower Hamlets Community Housing, 285 Commercial Rd, E1 2PS
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