By the end of autumn 1914 the German advance on Paris had been halted and both sides had dug in for the winter, creating a system of opposing trenches separated by waste ground known as 'no man’s land', stretching from the Channel coast to the Swiss border. This was what became known as the Western Front. Until the German breakthrough during their Spring Offensive of March 1918, its subsequent failure and the late summer Advance to Victory of the allies, both sides were bogged down in a war of attrition which lasted almost four years. Warfare settled into a predictable pattern of spring and autumn offensives followed by a lull during the winter months as autumn rains turned the clay soil of the battlefields into dangerous quagmires and making any major attempts at advance futile. This meant that there were far fewer casualties in the winter months when activity on both sides was at a minimum.
For the many Lewes families waiting at home for news of their loved ones the winter months therefore generally brought less bad news. January was a particularly quiet month. January 1915 brought four casualties; January 1916, 1917 and 1918 only one in each year, while January 1919 brought four, as the longer term effects of the conflict started to take their toll on exhausted participants.
The first Lewes casualty of 1915 was Private Frederick James Funnell, aged 21, one of three men of the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment who were killed in January 1915 near the La Basseé Canal. He was posted missing on 2nd January following a counter-attack made by the Battalion on New Year’s Eve to recover an observation and machine gun post which had been overrun by the Germans.
As a result of further action on 25th January 1915 two more Lewes men of the 2nd Battalion lost their lives when they were involved in another counter-attack following a German advance on the British trenches near Givenchy: Private George Albert Miller aged 19, was killed outright, while Private George Clark aged 40, a veteran who had re-enlisted in August 1914, died of gunshot wounds to the chest at No. 4 Casualty Clearing Station, Lillers on 31st January.
Also killed as a result of the fight at La Basseé was Sergeant Norman Victor Floyd, 2nd Battalion Welsh Regiment, who died of wounds at the 2nd General Hospital at Le Havre on 28th January, aged 25. A memorial plaque to him can be seen in St Michael’s Church, Lewes, close to one for his older brother, who was killed in the Boer War. The son of a builder, he had trained as a carpenter before enlisting in the Welsh Regiment in 1908 when his parents split up, his father emigrating to Australia and his mother moving to Devon. As a boy he had sung in St Michael’s church choir and was a keen footballer and an active member of the Commercial Square and Borough Bonfire Society as well as a member of D (Lewes) Company of the 5th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment, the local territorials.
The other three men had also become professional soldiers. Frederick James Funnell and George Clark were born in Lewes. George Miller’s family came from Buxted, but his father, who was a bricklayer, moved to Lewes around 1905 and by 1911 the family was living at 16 Western Road. He was only 19 when he died, having enlisted a year earlier, well before the outbreak of war.
Frederick James Funnell (21) had been born in the Cliffe in 1893, attending South Malling School. By 1911 the family were living in Wellington Street, at the bottom of North Street. His father, James, was a wood sawyer at a local coach building works who made several visits to the Lewes Police Court due to occasional bouts of heavy drinking. Frederick was a porter at the Lewes Co-op grocery stores and played regularly for Lewes Wednesday Football Club on his afternoons off work. He was an active member of D Company 5th Royal Sussex Regiment, like his brother Herbert, who was subsequently killed at Richebourg on 9th May 1915. Frederick had initially enlisted in the 3rd Battalion, but was then transferred to the 2nd Battalion and had arrived in France with them on 23rd November 1914, being killed a little over a month after arriving at the Front.
The oldest of these men, George Clark had been born in Lewes in 1874 and grew up in Spring Gardens, Southover, before serving for 12 years in the Royal Sussex Regiment from 1893 until the completion of his service in 1905. During that time he had served in Punjab on the North-West Frontier and taken part in several campaigns there. Following the outbreak of war he re-enlisted on 14th August 1914, 11 days short of his 40th birthday and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, comprised of regular soldiers. He arrived in France on 29th November 1914, was wounded on 25th December, dying five days later, leaving his wife, Ellen, who he had married in 1908 and who subsequently remarried and emigrated to Canada. Both his parents were dead and other members of his family had moved away, which explains why he is not included on any war memorial in Lewes.
The winter lull in fighting meant that January generally provided a respite from bad news for anxious relatives of Lewes men at the Front. The only casualty of January 1916 was Corporal Charles Walter Ford of the 2/5th Royal Sussex Regiment, aged 49, a veteran of the Boer War who worked as a railway shunter and undertook part time guard duties as a National Reservist on the railway line between Lewes and Beddingham junction.
This was an important part of the strategic rail network which serviced Newhaven, a port used by the military for the shipping of army supplies to France, including over 2.5 million tons of ammunition and a further 3 million tons of other military stores.
Although Charles Ford’s name is on the Lewes War Memorial he actually died at his home in Morris Road as a result of the strain on his heart of taking his wife and two daughters to the pantomime in Brighton on 6th January 1916, which, according to the inquest, had exacerbated the effects of a bullet wound sustained in the Boer War resulting in his heart being twice its normal size.
1917 and 1918 also each saw only one wartime casualty. William Duncan, who died on 12th January 1917 aged 27, was a professional soldier who had first enlisted in the Rifle Brigade in 1907. Like so many of his Lewes contemporaries, military service offered security, excitement, travel, a guaranteed pension and a route out of poverty.
He served in Malta, Cyprus, Egypt and Ireland before landing in France with the British Expeditionary Force on 8th September 1918. Exactly three months later he was hit by a bullet in his shoulder and invalided back to England where he was given a temporary discharge and seconded to the London Brighton and South Coast Railway as a munitions worker, engaged at Polegate station on goods trains carrying military supplies.
It was while he was attaching a red light to the rear of a train that he was crushed between the train and the buffers. His death exposed one of the weaknesses in the system for paying pensions to relatives of deceased as the army and the railway company each sought to avoid responsibility – LBSCR arguing he was a serving soldier on secondment, while the army argued he was employed by the railway.
Meanwhile his wife, who was in poor health, and her 10 month old son were left for over 18 months without any financial support. It was only the intervention of a local solicitor and a clearly furious representative of the Incorporated Soldiers and Sailors’ Help Society that eventually brought action, the army finally having to accept its responsibility.
January 1918 brought news of the death of Acting Sergeant Arthur Eldridge aged 23 of the Middlesex Regiment, who was killed in action at Trescault, a few kilometres south-west of Cambrai. The son of a smith at Woolwich Arsenal, he grew up in Kent but married Nellie Wheeler, a Lewes girl living in South Street, in 1917, by whom he had a daughter, born on the day of his death. His name was included on the Lewes War Memorial at her request and on the Erith War Memorial, Kent, his parents’ home. Like many other war widows with young children, Nellie remarried in November 1919 and remained in Lewes until her death in 1953.
January 1919 saw four war-related Lewes deaths, as the longer term effects of the conflict began to emerge. Private Alfred Stapleton aged 49 died of wounds received before the armistice on board the No. 16 Ambulance train between Etaples and Calais on 2nd January. Before the war he had worked for 13 years for Lewes Borough Council as a carter and had originally enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment, but like so many older men called up after military age was raised to 51 in early 1918, he was soon judged unfit for front line service and transferred to the Labour Corps. His son, also Arthur Stapleton, was killed in April 1918 aged only 19. The family lived at 10a New Street, next door to William Duncan’s widow who was at number 10.
Another casualty of wounds was Private Walter Charles Funnell, 3rd Royal West Surrey Regiment aged 41, a wheelwright, who had grown up in South Street and was living with his wife and four year old daughter in Bradford Road when war broke out. After more than three years at the Front during which time he was twice buried in his dugout as a result of shellfire he was sent home to England suffering the effects of gas poisoning, which was the cause of his death on 28th January in Eastbourne Military Hospital.
Of the two other casualties of January 1919, one, Chief Petty Officer Edward Sherlock, was a long serving sailor, having joined the Royal Navy as a 16 year old in 1892. He died of chronic nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys) having spent most of the war on board a submarine supply ship based at Harwich, whilst awaiting his medical discharge at Portsmouth, also on 28th January.
The other was Ellen Blanche Knapton, aged 47, who had served throughout the war as matron of School Hill House Military Hospital, which had opened in October 1914. During its existence the hospital had treated over 800 wounded men, whose light blue uniforms were a common sight around the town. Before the war she was an instructor in the local Red Cross branch, making her an obvious choice as hospital matron, particularly as she had previously worked as a housekeeper, running a household with servants under her.
Highly thought of, she received the Royal Red Cross (2nd Class) in April 1918 for her services to the war effort. She died shortly after the closure of her hospital, worn out by her efforts and a victim of the Spanish influenza epidemic. A photograph of her surrounded by staff and patients in the grounds of School Hill House was included in last November’s Reeves light box trail: Lewes Remembers 1914-1918. She is commemorated in St Anne’s Church, where she had been an active member.