The photo on the left is Frederick George Davis, a Banstead WW1 casualty. Fred attended Sutton Grammar School and is on their memorial. The right-hand photo is Fred’s brother, Leonard Arthur Davis, who became a sergeant in the Royal Field Artillery and served in France. He survived the war.
Both boys were baptised at All Saints, Banstead, Fred on 29th August 1894 and Leonard on 4th November 1897. As a young boy, Fred was in the church choir with another Banstead casualty, Jack Bailey. Fred was probably educated at Banstead Village School (the School’s admissions register has not survived) and won a scholarship to the Sutton County Grammar School in the May 1904 examinations. The scholarship covered three years’ tuition fees, books, a daily lunch and railway fares. Fred attended the School between 1905 and 1911, leaving aged 16.
The family had been living in the older part of the village but by 1910 they had moved up to Jeypore, a detached villa which is now number 56, Ferndale Road. Ferndale, Diceland and Lyme Regis Road were mostly new houses built since the 1890s and building was still going on when the Davises arrived. These were smart new houses for tradesmen, gardeners, asylum workers, policemen and the emerging commuter class, built in a variety of styles by several different builders and intriguingly named by their new owners. The Davises had moved a few houses away from the Brighton Road end to Alton (number 38) by 1913 and then around the corner to Dalra Doon (also known as “Dehra Doon”, named for Dehradun in India, the house was renamed to “Lorna Doone” in 1927 and is now number 10) in Lyme Regis Road, by 1915.
Fred was a member of the Banstead Cricket Club and played for the 2nd XI against Redhill ‘A’ on the eve of war, Bank Holiday Monday 3rd August 1914. Fred batted at number seven and was bowled for a duck. Two of his teammates that day, Aubrey Balchin and Archie Tonge, would also fall in the war.
Fred had probably embarked upon a clerical career when he attested with the 15th County of London Battalion, the Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles, on 31st August 1914 (or very soon afterwards). The Civil Service Rifles were one of the London Regiment’s many Territorial battalions and were born in the 19th century out of a tradition of voluntary militias raised from the men of financial and governmental institutions, a forerunner of the infamous “pal’s battalions” of the New Army. The Civil Service Rifles was a good “club” for networking in peacetime, with the men drawn from the clerical classes and the Battalion officered by senior Civil Servants and City men. Uniforms were usually worn at the least excuse, Civil Service bigwigs received private coaching in advance so as to not embarrass themselves in the drill hall and privates, indignant at not being able to wear swords like the officers, eventually won the right to wear them – although only while off-duty. A benefit for the riflemen was that they received double pay whilst on active service as they would continue to draw their government pay and also pay from the Army (at one point it had looked like they would have to survive on only their Army pay, luckily for them they were well placed to have a word in the ear of the Prime Minister before breakfast the day after that particular bombshell and a crisis was averted).
When war was declared, one battalion became three. The existing soldiers of the 15th became the 1/15th and the 2/15th and 3/15th were created to handle the training of the new volunteers flooding in, Fred among them. The 2/15th were based locally during the first weeks of 1915, billeted in Dorking to train, tramp up and down Leith Hill to improve their fitness, patrol the countryside and dig entrenchments at Reigate. Fred was probably one of those who got up at 4a.m. and marched the ten miles without breakfast to Epsom Downs for the review of 20,000 troops of the 2/2nd London Division by Lord Kitchener, who was keen to show off his New Army of volunteers to French dignitaries. The soldiers waited in the freezing snow for hours but the inspection itself lasted just a few minutes, long enough to impress the French and short enough that they wouldn’t notice that only 100 of the 20,000 soldiers actually had rifles.
Drafts of men were periodically sent to join the 1/15th at Watford, Fred would be in one of those at some point, and in March, he and the 1/15th battalion left for France. They disembarked at Le Havre on 18th March and were disappointed to see no sign of the war and no welcoming crowds of pretty French girls. Some days later they were reviewed by Field-Marshal Sir John French who pronounced that “the men are splendid” which immediately made its way onto the next batch of Civil Service recruiting posters. They loved their sports and true to form it was not long before they held their first sports competition of the war (where Lance-Corporal Cocky Oliver won the obstacle race). They moved up to Bethune, which was enthusiastically pronounced “top hole” and towards the fighting.
The front line was not what was expected. From the official battalion history, written by the officers who had served in the war:
“There is no doubt that this first visit to the front line was productive of a sense of disappointment. War had, till then, been regarded as a glorious thing, a thing of bugles and flashing bayonets, of courage in hand-to-hand encounters, and above all, of excitement. But this first experience showed it to be a thing of drab monotony, of dull routine, of the avoidance of being killed, of an invisible enemy.”
They first saw real action at Festubert in May, another attempt to take the Aubers Ridge but the first to try and do it piecemeal by biting incremental chunks of territory from the Germans rather than trying to reach the main objective in one giant leap. They were on the fringes of the battle in marshy trenches, holding the line, scouting and patrolling, fetching and carrying supplies and burying bodies, some in such bad condition that they necessitated wearing gas masks and all the while losing men to enemy shellfire. The dead were stacked up in some places to form barricades. The men crawled over bodies in the dark. They were relieved to leave the “land of mud, blood and stench” at the end of “the merry month of May”.
The Battalion moved to a quieter section of the line at Grenay, in the mining country around Loos, and a comparably dull spell suffering the predations of flies that “crawled under our clothes, down our backs, between our eyelids and into our mouth and ears… we were now not only doing our bit but being well bitten in the process.” The first home leave to England began to be granted. Sports events were organised. Concerts were held. Trench life still went on though and the relief of returning from the front line to billets comes through in one man’s letter from July:
“Hurrah! Hurrah!! Hurray!!! I’m clean! clean! clean! Also lice free! Oh, it is simply great!
Yesterday was a good day’s work. I cleaned up everything I had, equipment and kit, and with wild glee flung myself into washing all my underclothes, socks and handkerchiefs, and drying them, for it was a washing day to gladden Mother’s heart. And to crown all, a starko (naked wash) behind the yellow stack – free, unfettered and with an unlimited supply of water. One of God’s most wonderful creations. How we worshipped it body and soul. Oh, the glory of it! To be clean again is great! Great!!! We sang and danced and ran and jumped and shouted and flung our glad laughter to the blue skies, and were thankful withal. Oh, Earth and Sky, and Wind and Trees, and Green Grass and Strength of Man, Glory!”
Even in a quiet sector there were still hostilities and casualties. It is interesting to compare the diary entries for 16th June 1915 for the 1/15th battalion in France:
“Subjected to a great deal of heavy artillery fire…”
with the entry for the 2/15th battalion in England:
“A Board of Inquiry was held into the loss of Official Bicycle No.84023.”
Sadly, the outcome of the inquiry is not recorded and the fate of Bicycle No.84023 remains unknown.
They moved into reserve for three weeks in August, away from the line and enjoyed some R&R with football and cricket matches against the London Field Ambulance and the Post Office Rifles.
Fred had by now become a batman to one of the officers and would have been responsible for his officer’s clothing, kit and weapons, preparing and serving his meals and acting as a bodyguard.
They were sent back into the previously quiet line at Maroc at the end of August where “now Hell is let loose” as the Germans unleashed a new weapon, a mortar-fired aerial torpedo, with a more powerful blast and a longer range than anything previously encountered, long enough to reach battalion headquarters, and which caused considerable damage. The British artillery were trained on the smoke from the mortars in order to keep them quiet, and largely succeeded in doing so, but they weren’t able to put them out of action entirely.
On the morning of 2nd September 1915, the Germans fired aerial torpedoes and heavy artillery in reply to British shellfire. Fred Davis was killed. He was 21. He is buried in Maroc cemetery and his headstone inscription, chosen by his father, reads: “He Did his Duty”.
Fred is commemorated on the Banstead War Memorial, the Garton War Memorial in All Saints churchyard, on the wooden panels in the Memorial Chapel at All Saints, on the Banstead Cricket Club Roll of Honour and on the Old Suttonians War Memorial at Sutton Grammar School. He is also remembered in the All Saints Book of Men Who Served Overseas.