In April 2011, our scheduled WFA Yorkshire Branch speaker's car broke down on the way to our meeting and he could not make it to York. Malcolm Johnson, one of our long-standing members, kindly stepped into the breach and gave us an excellent talk, based on his book, Surely We Are Winning?
It tells the story of Walter Parsonage and his family, before and during The Great War. Walter was a prolific letter writer and wrote some 41 letters home and the talk reflected the contents of their correspondence.
The Parsonage family came from the old West Riding of Yorkshire - a small mining village called Kinsley on the road between Wakefield and Hemsworth. The head of the family was Walter Parsonage, who was born in Wakefield in 1883. Walter left school at 12 or 13, and started work at the Bellevue branch of the Wakefield Cooperative Society as a flour-boy. He married Florrie Hampshire in 1909 and settled down at No 4, Ford Street in Kinsley, where they raised three children. The small terraced house was only a short walk from the Co-op where Walter worked and the house is still there today, although the Co-op has disappeared.
Immediately following the declaration of war, the Army's recruiting offices were swamped with eager volunteers wanting to join up and embark on ‘The Great Adventure'. However, Walter Parsonage was not amongst them, and why should he have been? At the age of 31, with a wife and three young children, all under the age of ten - and everybody believing the war would be over by Christmas - there was no sensible reason why he should join up. Very few people would have expected him to do so.
So, how did it come about that Walter ended up in the army? His wife thought that he had volunteered, but it seems that he attested to a willingness to join if and when called up, as part of the National Registration Act. In 1915, Lord Derby suggested that all men between the ages of 18 and 41 be asked to either enlist at once, or attest their willingness to serve when summoned. All those attesting were divided into groups with the 19 year-old single men being placed in the first group and the oldest married men in the last group. Walter would have fallen into one of the last groups.
Eventually, on St George's Day, Monday, 23 April 1917, Walter Parsonage reported for military service at Fulford Barracks, York. After the attestation process he was enlisted into the 3rd Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. Ahead of him lay a period of training as an infantryman before being sent to the front. From the first day that Walter arrived at Fulford Barracks, he began to write letters home, and over the next eight months he wrote a total of forty-one.
Walter was only two days in York, after which he was moved to a training camp at Whitley Bay in Northumberland. Whilst he was training, Walter looked at the countryside, and the sea, and compared it with Kinsley. He began to think how his children would love to run about on the sands, and breathe in the clean air, and it didn't take him long to decide to do something about it, so he arranged a holiday for the whole family there! A couple of weeks later, after five days embarkation leave, The West Yorks went to France, to Etaples (or Etaps as Walter called it). Here they stayed for about two weeks at the huge Army base camp where they underwent intensive training, the last they would get before being sent into the line.
After two weeks at Etaples, it was time to move up the line. The West Yorks draft was to be used to reinforce battalions at the front - but not all the men were going to the West Yorks. Walter was part of a draft of 85 men who were to join another Yorkshire regiment, The 1/5th King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, which was in trenches in the Belgian coastal town of Nieuport.
The Battalion spent two days in support positions before moving into the front line. On 2 August, No 1 Platoon carried out a raid on the German trench opposite (fortunately for Walter, he was in No 4 Platoon). The raiders got into the German trench and the War Diary records that they ‘inflicted losses on the enemy' and that they took no prisoners. During the raid the Company Commander and six of his men were killed, while seven others were wounded and three were missing.
That night Walter was out in No Man's Land repairing the barbed wire in front of the trench.
In late September, Walter was attached to the Assistant Provost Marshal's Company, or as it was better known, the Military Police. The APM was responsible for keeping traffic flowing between the front line and the back areas and, despite being bundled off the road and into a pile of barbed wire by a runaway pack mule, Walter could consider himself a lucky man while serving with the APM. His battalion was to be part of another British attack to try to capture Passchendaele Ridge.
On 12 November Walter wrote that he had ‘Got a bit of a clout... over the right eye and forehead'. Strangely he didn't tell Florrie just how he got it, but he told his sister Lizzie and he suggested that Florrie ask her.
Walter was then selected to undergo training to be a Sanitary Man. This didn't mean that he would spend his days emptying toilets. The battalion's Sanitary Men were under the command of the Medical Officer, and it was their job to keep the men healthy. They spread disinfectant in and around the trenches to prevent diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery, and they were responsible for the supply of clean water. They also tried to ensure, where possible, that the dead were properly buried.
With Christmas fast approaching, Florrie tried to do her bit to cheer up her soldier husband, but she had to admit that, "I couldn't make you any mince pies love, no currants or raisins to be got anywhere. I just managed to get a few for cakes."
This made Walter reflect and arrive at a very profound conclusion, "I suppose the old-fashioned cakes and puddings will not be made as usual this year. It looks a funny thing to waste all our wealth on war and come to such times."
As the fourth war-time Christmas approached, Walter wondered, "Perhaps Jerry will have a bit of a truce on that day, and I'm sure if he doesn't fire at me, I shall not send any back if we are holding the line."
The Battalion moved back to the Passchendaele Ridge on 29 December. The following night, Walter was among a group of men preparing to go into No Man's Land to extend and repair the Battalion's barbed wire defences.
With the huge flow of letters and parcels over Christmas and the New Year, Florrie wouldn't have expected any letters in the first few days of 1918. The children went back to school, and another year of war began. One morning playtime, as the Parsonage children were running around a boy ran up to them and said, "I've come to tell you your dad's not coming home."
Walter's sister Lizzie wrote to the Army to find out what had happened. Walter's Company Commander, 2/Lt James replied, "With a party of other men he was parading to do work in the front line. A shell burst quite close to the party and a fragment of it struck him piercing his steel helmet and severely wounding him in the head. He was rendered unconscious at once and passed away shortly after arrival at the Dressing Station. He would have suffered no pain. He was properly buried in a cemetery and his grave will be cared for and is marked with a cross."
The war continued for another ten months before the Armistice finally stopped the killing. As Europe's victorious nations celebrated the defeat of the enemy, millions of families faced an uncertain future. For Florrie Parsonage, the loss of her husband presented her with challenges that could have possibly overwhelmed her. Whether it was a resilience born of necessity, or an ability that had lain dormant while her husband was alive, Florrie found the strength to tackle all the problems that faced her in the post-war years. She worked, she saved and, by example, she showed her children how to overcome the most difficult of problems. In the post war period, there were many young women like Florrie Parsonage. They struggled on through the Depression of the 1920s and 1930s with its low wages, shortages, and huge unemployment, and one can only guess what they must have thought when, in September 1939, it all began again.
Fortunately for her, Florrie's son was considered unfit for military service so he continued to work as a civilian.
Article contributed by Chris Chambers, WFA Yorkshire Branch.
Photographs and images kindly supplied by Malcolm Johnson.
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