“He went out to hold service on the battlefield, and found all the wounded killed”

The striking figure of an army chaplain who had studied with the rector of Sulhamstead prior to taking Holy Orders is remembered.

There must still be many in the parish who remember Mr Eli Cobham, a pupil at the Rectory. They will recall his great height, 6 feet 2 inches, and his capabilities in the cricket and football field. It was with great sorrow that we heard of his death last year, in German East Africa. Many incidents of a short but adventurous life were given in the “Greater Britain Messenger”, from which we take some of the following facts.

After much hesitation concerning his own unworthiness, he was ordained to a curacy at All saints, Fishponds. In this post he accepted no stipend. Canon Welchman says that there were few who knew his liberality [generosity]. The lectern was his anonymous gift, and the inscription he chose was “His dominion shall be from sea to sea”. He was afterwards vicar of All Saints, Fishponds.

From here he went to America, and worked his way back as a trimmer in the stoke-hold of a steamer, so as to get experience of what the men had to do and endure. Strong as he was, he found the labour almost beyond his powers.

In 1913 he resigned his living to work in East Africa, where he had 16 centres for service, in some of which he could only hold a service once or twice a year. He enlisted directly the war broke out, and used what time he had from soldiering to act as a Chaplain. He relates how he went out to hold service on the battlefield, and found all the wounded killed. Details of his death are not known, but the bare announcement states that on September 19th, 1917, the Rev. Elijah Cobham died from “wounds received while carrying in the wounded, somewhere in German East Africa”. He was a man of deep spirituality, and when discussing even trifling details, his invariable remark was “Let’s pray about it first”.

Sulhamstead parish magazine, April 1918 (D/EX725/4)

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A marvellous piece of electrical work consisting entirely of lemons

Percy Spencer was having difficulty getting his commission organised. He wrote to Florence with the latest news – and a story from the Somme.

May 1, 1917

My dear WF

Isn’t it perfect weather!

And that’s just about all that’s perfect hereaway.

Thank you for all your frequent letters: they’re so refreshing. Your last about [censored] is too delightful. I sometimes quote extracts from your letters to the Mess, so you see you’re helping to cheer more than one lonely soldier. Your jokes are always hugely appreciated.

Tonight I am going to a town some miles back to drive with the original officers and sergeants of my old Battalion. I thought it was very kind of them to remember me as I have had so little to do with them.

And tomorrow I have to go and see a still greater brass hat about my commission. I have an idea that there is no intention to hurry my affairs, the reason being, of course, that my experience & weight here are difficult to replace. However sooner or later I expect I shall be an officer or an angel – I have had thoughts of becoming the latter quite frequently of late.

Rene Hunt tells me that [Percy’s brother] Horace is going to apply for a commission.

Before I forget it I must tell you a story of the Somme battle last year.

Our Headquarters were in some ruins off a very narrow and deep lane. On one side of the lane was a series of small splinter proof dugouts; on the other side a battery of guns. One of the splinter proofs just opposite a gun was occupied by “Baby” Huish, the Surrey cricketer (a splendid raconteur). “Baby” tells me that one morning, annoyed by a fellow walking about on his roof and throwing off portions of its brick and sandbag cover, he crawled out and asked the man what he thought he was doing. The man, ignoring him, continued to clear material from his roof and then turning towards the gun hailed the gunner in his gun pit. “How’s that, Bill, can you clear ‘er na?” Voice from gun pit – “Yes, that’ll be all right if we don’t ‘ave to drop below eighteen ‘undered”. Exit Baby to safer quarters.

A sad thing has happened to us. The rum issue has ceased, leaving us with a stock of lemons and a supply of all spice, cloves and cinnamon, no more rubbers of bridge and rum punch nightcaps. Jerome K Jerome’s “Told after supper” is nothing to our experiences in punch brewing – we can all make one pretty well, but there are some – well, I’m reckoned an expert.

A short time ago when moving into the line, the Signalling Officer noticed an ammunition box. “What’s that?” he asked. “Oh, that”, replied an innocent telegraphist, “is a test box Sapper Newport is making”. “Is it, I should like to see that”, said the officer, and opening the box all eager to examine the boy’s clever work (and he is clever) discovered a marvellous piece of electrical work consisting entirely of lemons!

But, alas, those days are over – over for good I hope.

Well, dear girl, goodbye.

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/30-32)

A very gallant officer and gentleman, recklessly brave and a fine example of cool courage

The Old Boys of Reading School were distinguishing themselves at the Front.

O.R. NEWS.

Killed in Action.

2nd Lieut. Norman A. Howell, King’s Shropshire Light infantry. On December 23rd.

He is the second son of Mr. W. Roland Howell, architect, of this town. Born at Reading in April 1897, he was educated at Reading School and St. Laurence College, Ramsgate, and had been about a year in his father’s office before joining the Army in November, 1915. His cadet training at school and college enabled him to get his commission. He was posted to the King’s Shropshire’s, was ordered to the front at the end of June last, and has been in the thick of the Somme fighting for six months. Lieut. Norman Howell came home on his first leave on December 6th and returned on the 16th. Within a week he had made the great sacrifice.

His Commanding Officer wrote to Mr. Howell on December 24th:

“I deeply regret to report the death of your son, who was serving in my Battalion. Whilst going up to the front line trenches in charge of a party last night an enemy sniper shot him through the head, killing him instantly. This morning his body was buried by the Chaplain near where he fell, with military honours, officers and men attending.

“I had trench mortars and rifle grenades on the sniper’s post, patrols had reported 8 to 10 Huns there, none there now! On behalf of his comrades, officers, N.C.O.’s and men, I wish to convey to you our profound sympathy . He was loved and respected by all of us, and we mourn the loss of a very gallant officer and gentleman. To all of us he was known as recklessly brave and a fine example of cool courage, devoted to his duties, which he discharged most cheerfully under the most trying conditions.”

“I placed him in charge of the Lewis Gun detachment, on which he had set his heart and soul. He belonged to my own Headquarters’ mess, and I took particular interest in him. A cross has been put up on the grave near Les Boeufs.”

It will be remembered that in October, 1915, Mr. Howell’s elder son, 2nd Lieut. Roland Basil Howell, was reported “wounded and missing.” Nothing has since been heard of him, and any hopes of his being alive hangs on the very slenderest thread. On the 16th of last month the War Office wrote saying that they were now forced to believe he was killed.

Lieut. Basil Howell was born in October, 1895, and received his commission in the 4th North Staffordshire’s three months after the war started. He was attached to the Northumberland Fusiliers (the Fighting Fifth), and went to the front in May, 1915.

Reports received from the front show that on the night of October 1st-2nd, 1915, the battalion to which Lieut. Howell was attached were in severe action. After all the officers of the company had been killed he gallantly led a bombing party to attack a German trench, but was never seen again.

Every possible enquiry was made through the War Office, the American Embassy, the Red Cross, and the wounded men who returned to England. Many references were made by the latter to the respect and love they had for the brave young officer. Like his brother he was educated at Reading School and St Laurence College, and had started his training to follow in his father’s profession. For many years he was an enthusiastic scout, and took a big share in starting the South Reading Troop.

Lieut. Cedric Charles Okey Taylor, East Kent Regiment, attached to Trench Mortar Battery, only son of Mrs. Taylor, 39, Weltje Road, Ravenscroft Park, W., and of the late Mr. Charles Warmsley Taylor, of Reading. Further details are now to hand of Lieut. Taylor’s death.

He died for King and country on December 3rd, 1916, in his 22nd year. Young in years but old in endurance, he was in constant action for 15 months at Ypres in 1915 and on the Somme in 1916. He is laid to rest in the cemetery, at Faubourg d’Amiens, Arras.

2nd Lieut. W. Marsden Cooper, Worcestershires, only son of Mr. and Mrs. John Cooper, 107, London Street, Reading, aged 19.

Cooper was only 19 years of age and went out to the front in the Worcestershire’s about the middle of December, shortly after completing his course at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He was educated at Reading School, where he gained a Council scholarship in 1909. His School career was unusually distinguished. In 1914 he gained a School Certificate followed the next year by a higher certificate.

In response to his country’s call, he decided to take a commission, and in the entrance examination for the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, held in February, 1916, he came out second on the list, gaining a Prize Cadetship. At Sandhurst his success was no less pronounced than at school, and he gained the position of Sergeant in his cadet unit, the highest position a cadet can obtain, before he left College. Not only did he have considerable intellectual gifts, as his record shows but he was a fine athlete as well. He was an excellent all round cricketer and his natural powers as a bowler would have enabled him to make his mark in really good company. As a Rugby Football player he showed great promise, and before he left school he had the distinction of being captain of football, captain of cricket and captain of the school. Yet he was never elated by success, and perhaps it was more than anything else his modesty which made him so popular with the boys and the masters alike. Those who have watched his career, for the last two years, and marked the way in which his development always seemed to keep pace with his new responsibilities feel a special grief that a young life so full of promise should have been brought thus prematurely to a close.
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“A special grief that a young life so full of promise should have been brought thus prematurely to a close”

A Reading teenager’s burial at the front is described.

Trinity Roll of Honour.

Two more of our “boys” are this month enrolled, one of whom, we are sorry to hear, has already made the supreme sacrifice.

John Bernard Eighteen.
Henry Thomas Eighteen (Killed).


Marsden Cooper.

It is the deepest regret that we have to record the death in action of another of our young men who have gone out from our Church. After a brief two months only at the front, Second Lieutenant Marsden Cooper has fallen in the fight for his country and the right. He was an Officer full of the highest promise, having done well in everything he attempted. Our deep sympathy goes out to Mr. and Mrs. John Cooper in their bereavement.

We print an extract from the Chaplain’s letter to his parents:

“Though he had not been here long he had impressed everyone with his constant cheerfulness and straightforwardness of his character. We laid him to rest in a little Cemetery just behind the firing line late on Saturday evening. There had been some difficulty in preparing the grave owing to a sudden and somewhat violent bombardment, but about 7.45 the news was brought to our dug-out that all was ready and we felt out way out along the communication trench and then over it to the Cemetery.

It was so dark that we could not see that we had arrived at the place until one of the pioneers spoke to us. There were seven or eight of us all told, and as we stood around the open grave we repeated the words, ‘Be thou faithful unto death, and we will give thee the crown of life,’ and ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ and together we thank God that your boy had not counted his life dear unto himself, but had laid it down for King and Country. I may not, of course say where the grave is, but I have forwarded full particulars with map reference to the Authorities. “A small wooden cross with durable inscription has been made by the Battalion Pioneers, and was placed in position on the following day.”

The following is the appreciative testimony of the Headmaster of Reading School:

“The deceased officer was only 19 years of age, and went to the front in the Worcestershire’s about the middle of December, shortly after completing his course at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He was educated at Reading School, where he gained a Council Scholarship in 1909. His School career was unusually distinguished. In 1914 he gained a School Certificate, followed the next year by a Higher Certificate. In response to his country’s call, he decided to take a commission, and in the entrance examination for the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, held in February, 1916, he came out second on the list, gaining a prize Cadetship.

At Sandhurst his success was no less pronounced than at School, and he gained the position of sergeant in his cadet unit the highest position a cadet can obtain before he left the College. Not only had he considerable intellectual gifts, as his record shows, but he was a fine athlete as well. He was an excellent all-round cricketer, and his natural powers as a bowler would have enabled him to make his mark in really good company. As a Rugby football player he showed great promise, and before he left school he had the distinction of being captain of football, captain of cricket, and captain of the School. Yet he was never elated by success, and perhaps it was more than anything his modesty which made him so popular with the boys and masters alike. Those who have watched his career for the last two years, and marked the way in which his development always seemed to keep pace with his new responsibilities, feel a special grief that a young life so full of promise should have been brought thus prematurely to a close.”

Trinity Congregational Church, Reading: magazine, February 1917 (D/EX1237/1)

The only thing the soldier never seems to do is to ‘rest’

Army chaplain T Guy Rogers describes how he encouraged the soldiers to attend his services in their spare time.

My Dear Friends,
June 15th 1916.

Would it surprise you to hear that your Chaplain has become a Hun! Only temporarily and to oblige, morally or immutably. Do not be shocked nor repudiate him as your representative! It was only at manoeuvres to swell the skeleton army opposed to the British. A well delivered smoke bomb soon put him out of action. He has since returned to his allegiance with a profound respect for the élan of the British Infantry.

This is a glimpse of how we spend our time when we are ‘at rest’- a phrase which makes the soldier smile. Marches, attacks, drill, occupy our attention. Bath parade and ‘foot parade’ and kit parade and gas helmet parade are arranged as pleasant little interludes. The only thing the soldier never seems to do is to ‘rest’ in the loose sense in which it is so often employed of slacking or doing nothing. When the Commanding Officer is done with him, and the Medical Officers’ fever for inoculation is spent, and the Sergeant-Major has ceased from troubling, he organizes himself for cricket and football and rounders.

Finally, he has the Chaplain to reckon with! It is he who comes along smiling and debonair with a haversack slung across his shoulders (concealing beneath his gay exterior a nervousness which is often acute); ‘What about a service, men,’ he says, ‘on the grass under the trees before the cricket and football begin – just twenty minutes. I’ve got hymn sheets with our favourite hymns – what do you say?’ And they come of their own free will – at first slowly, gradually overcoming their inertia, but gathering force and numbers as they get under way and at last singing with heartiness and animation which shows the interruption is not resented.

In the midst of all this happy open air life there suddenly comes an order that we are wanted somewhere. We are all whirled away in motor buses a distance of twenty miles and we are in the midst of stern realities again.

Remember all our brave men recalled thus suddenly to the line.

Your sincere friend,
T. GUY ROGERS.

Reading St John parish magazine, July 1916 (D/P172/28A/24)

Wounded soldier turned tram driver

Henry Stephen Tuttle of Sulhamstead was one of the first local soldiers to return sufficiently disabled to have his post-war career affected.

THE WAR

We are pleased to hear that Henry Stephen Tuttle, who name has figured in our Intercessions amongst the wounded for many Sundays, has now sufficiently recovered to leave his hospital. He has courageously accepted a post as a driver of a London tram. He is not well enough to undertake the walking that is required for a tram conductor. This family has given four brothers to the war.

We hear that a cricket match has been arranged between the soldiers at Sulhamstead Home and those at Englefield and is to be played at Englefield, after this has gone to press, on July 17th.

Sulhamstead parish magazine, August 1915 (D/EX725/3)

We are nothing better than worms – but mustn’t grumble!

Sunday 4 April 1915 was Easter Day. The parishioners of Reading St John (now the Polish Catholic Church) had sent Easter greetings to their young men at the Front. It resulted in a number of letters from the recipients describing their experiences.

Letters from the Front: replies to our Easter letters and cards.

Cards similar to those recently seen on the Church notice boards were sent with covering letters for Easter to some fifty men at the front at the request of their relatives. The following are extracts from some of the replies received by the Vicar:-

A Terrible War.
Here is a much-needed reminder of the seriousness of our task:
‘Two of my men I laid to rest yesterday, just put their heads too far over the parapet; of course killed instantly. It is a terrible business and we are nothing better than worms, dug in and stop there, but hope that happier times are in store and very soon. We all hope and pray for it every day. I don’t think the people at home quite realise what a gigantic task we have; but we mustn’t grumble, but do it.’- GILES AYRES.

Valued Cards.
‘I wish to thank you very much for the good thoughts and wishes of yourself and everyone who remembered us on Easter Day. Thank you very much for the card. I am sending it home to-day so that I shall not lose it.’- A. L. BLAKE.

‘The card you sent me I have hung on to the wall and it shall go where I go. I shall always remember Good Friday, the day I received it.’- D. CAMPBELL.

Neuve Chapelle.
Speaking of the welcome letter just received, the writer adds: ‘Just lately we have been engaged in a big battle at Neuve Chapelle, and it was something awful and also a terrible loss on the German side.’- L.H. CROOK. (more…)

Even the Boy Scouts are helping the war effort

Young men and boys from Reading St John were serving the country at home and abroad:

The War
It is difficult to collect the names of all our young men who have gone to serve their country, either in Lord Kitchener’s Armies or in the Territorials. We should be very glad to have their names, with their rank and regiment, to put up with other lists in the church porches.

Many will be interested to know that our old friend, Mr. Frank Tucker has enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery and Mr. Victor Fowler, who was formerly Assistant C.E.T.S [Church of England Temperance Society] Secretary, has joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. Also that Messrs. H.J. Dadley and W.A.H. Coates, prominent members of S. John’s Cricket Club, have joined the Royal Flying Corps, and that Arthur Goodson, who went out a few years ago to Canada, is now in training at Valcartier Camp with the Canadian contingent.

The Scouts
The Troop is going strong and is keen upon rendering any public service in war time. Several boys have done quite useful work already in various ways.

The war meant even history classes were suddenly topical. Girls at a school in Abingdon were challenged by the question of the necessity of war:

9 October 1914
Debate in the afternoon – “Is War necessary?” The Resolution that War is necessary was carried by large show of hands.

Reading St John parish magazine, October 1914 (D/P172/28A/23, pp. 2 and 4); Abingdon Girls CE School log book (C/EL2/2, p. 78)

A waiting list of hundreds for war work

Before his ill-fated venture to Belgium to work with dogs, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s lawyer had prudently increased his life insurance. After that venture, he tried to get it refunded, assuming Apsley didn’t take on an equally perilous role elsewhere in the war. That was why Apsley described the fiasco in more detail in this letter, in which he also reports on the situation of Edward Atkinson, another member of Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition a few years ago, who had recently returned from medical research in China.

Sept 17, 1914

Dear Farrer

Thank you for your letter. Goodness knows when, if ever, I shall get a job: but I want to get something official, and my medical is a great difficulty (enlistment etc impossible) while most jobs have a waiting list of at least 4 or 5 hundred. At present I am doing all I can to go dispatch riding – and it looks hopeful, except for my eyes, which may finish me.

As for the insurance, I left England Tuesday August 19th & arrived that day in Ostend. Major Richardson & I went out with the Red Cross from Devonshire House (they gave us uniform & passports) but not under the Red Cross: we were to be an independent unit to work dogs to find wounded, paying our own expenses.

The Red Cross Staff arrived in Ostend 2 days after – i.e. on Thursday Aug 21st – by car from Brussels. Communications were then cut by the Germans.

Sir Arthur Keogh, Chief of the Red Cross Staff, told us that there was no possibility of working dogs, and that his strongest advice to us was to return, which we did that day (Thurs Aug 21st).

…I have had a very cheery letter from Atkinson [a former companion in the Antarctic] who is on the St Vincent. They have a band & keep them running round the decks fast – also playing a lot of deck cricket etc bit running out of balls. He and Dr Leiper found the disease in China all right which was a very good bit of work & the Admiralty was very pleased & offered him several alternative jobs.

Yours very sincerely

Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Letter from Apsley Cherry-Garrard to Arthur Farrer, D/EHR/Z8/132