Ralph, Ralph Who? Letters from the Western Front to Darlaston, 1915.

Introduction.
As an archivist, every now and then a collection comes along that peaks my curiosity perhaps a little more than others; this story is about one of those collections, or more accurately two of them.

It started back in October 2013 when the Centre received an email from a Mr R Smith of Spring Hill, Tennessee, USA. He had a letter in his possession and wanted to give it a good home. Duely, a letter arrived at the Walsall Local History Centre that was postmarked ‘America’. Inside were two letters in a single envelope; they had been sent in April 1915 from a solder, ‘Ralph’, to the proprietors of the Herbert’s Park Tavern in Factory St, Darlaston.’Ralph’ was clearly unidentifiable from the letters, but they do give some clues about his identity and clearly show what he thought of the War: his vivid account of the machine-gunning of stretcher-bearers chilled me. Then in October 2014 a couple of unconnected WWI postcards appeared, or so I thought. These were donated by a Mrs Richards from Bilston. The name ‘Ralph’ and the handwriting seemed familiar. I had already listed the first collection, but could this wierd coincidence add anything further to our knowledge? Remember to click on photos to enlarge them.

Letter from America
So what does our letter from America tell us? The envelope supplied the first clues. The date stamp is for two days after the letters were written (21 April 1915), showing the letters belonged to that particular envelope. The handwriting on both the letters and the envelope is consistent. The top of the letter is marked ‘on active service’ and the date stamp is from the ‘Field Post Office’, so confirming this. A name, JH Little, is written to one side, ruled off from the addressee. I cannot trace this name. Finally, the envelope is addressed to Mr JW Yardley, which maybe seen as a little formal.

The envelope that contained the two letter, addressed to the Herbert's Park Tavern. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The envelope that contained the two letters, addressed to the JW Yardley, Herbert’s Park Tavern.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The Herberts Park Tavern of the letters was situated on the corner of Factory St and Forge Rd, Darlaston. It was in what was an inhabited ‘island’ centred on the Herbert’s Park Colliery, Herberts Park Works and the Victoria Iron Works. All of these seemed disused by the time the letters were written. The pub is still there, but has been rebuilt and extended at the back and wouldn’t be recognisable to Ralph. Gone too are most of the houses and factories, just the ghosts of the streets of 1914 survive.

The 'island' that was centred on Forge Rd and Factory St, Darlaston. 1901. Walsall Local History Centre)

The ‘island’ that was centred on Forge Rd and Factory St, Darlaston. 1901.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Job Yardley is an interesting character. He was born in Darlaston in May 1853, the son of a latch-maker who was widowed soon after Job was born. At 17 he is a ‘servant’ to a butcher on Wednesbury High St. In 1878 he emigrated to the USA, where he married and had a couple of children. His first wife must have died as he married Julia, a native of Norway, in Milwaukee, in 1895. By 1900 he is describing himself as a site engineer on the US census. He and Julia have at least one child, Nancy, in the USA. Sometime after her birth in 1901 they return to England. We know from the 1911 census that a second child was born, but it had died. It isn’t clear if the children from the first marriage returned with their father. By 1911 they family were installed at the Herbert’s Park Tavern, with the 25 year-old Lizzie Webb as a domestic servant.

1911 cesus for the Yarley's at Herbert's Park Tavern (National Archives)

1911 cesus for the Yarley’s at Herbert’s Park Tavern
(National Archives)

The letters are each written on 4-sides of roughly A6 size paper. Before I turn to the contents, I want to look at what they say about him. The first thing is that they are written in France in April 1915, but he has clearly been there a lot longer as he mourns the fact that most of those he came out with are now dead. To be in France at this early date would suggest that he is either a regular soldier, called-up reservist or territorial. The tone of his letters, when he talks of the War, are very martial and patriotic; again this may suggest that he has fought before and if so, he isn’t a teenage lad but in his twenties at least. The letters do indicated a decent level of education, through their spelling and handwriting.

The letters are addressed to Mr and Mrs Yardley, Nancy (who was 13 at this point) and Lizzie (29). While the use of Mr and Mrs seems a little formal, he does describe them as ‘my dearest friends’ and they clearly sent him parcels. Ralph has little problem in juxtaposing domestic and military issues, even though Nancy was 13. It is possible that Ralph was ‘sweet’ on Lizzie as they may be of similar age, but the letters are not affectionate towards her. I simply get the feeling that he was a regular at the pub before he went to war.

[Letter 1]  France              19/4/15

Dear Mrs Yardley, Nancy and Lizzie

Dear Nancy kindly accept my sincerest thanks for your kind letter and generous parcel, which I received last night. It is very good of you to comply with my request and send me a few lines, and I am always looking with eagerness to getting yours and daddies [meaning her father?] letters, for they do a long way towards making me forget danger and bringing back many happy recollections. [Page] My dearest friends I am writing this midst the roar of the big guns which are sending the valiant Huns a few souvenirs and as I listen to them whistling and screeching over-head I cannot help but think that when the time does eventually come and I am lucky enough to get home, I shall hardly realise the fact that I am safe in harbour. Dear Nancy, I am so pleased to learn that Bert paid you a visit and that he caused you plenty of amusement, I wish I could have dropped in at the time. [page] With reference to having my photo taken, I cannot definitely promise to, but if such a thing as opportunity comes my way, I promise to do so, and forward you one immediately. Dear Nancy it seems that I am destined to surprises from you, for although I could guess nearly all the parcel contained before I opened it I found to my surprise that I was wrong, for I least of all expected that nice bread, and it proved a luxury. You are to be congratulated on your choice. [Page] My dear friends the weather has opened out at last and the last few days have been splendid with heaps of sun. The troops seem to have taken a new lease of life and although there are only a few here that I came out with me, still everyone is waiting for the next bite at the German sneaks. May the next one be deep enough to show them the proof that when the British bull-dog bites, he leaves a mark that will not heal up so soon. Again thinking of you all for your kind generosity, I conclude with deepest respects. Affectionately yours

Ralph

The final page of Ralph's first letter, talking of when 'the British Bull-dog bites...' (Walsall Local History Centre)

The final page of Ralph’s first letter, talking of when ‘the British Bull-dog bites…’
(Walsall Local History Centre)

[Letter 2] France              19/4/15

My Dear Mr & Mrs Yardley, Nancy and Lizzie

Many thanks for your cheerful and welcome letter, which I received last night Sun: together with your welcome surprise packet {the parcel} Dear Mrs Yardley I am so pleased to learn that you have forwarded my other letter to A. Twas not much that it contained, but maybe they can always find more in it than I do myself, for [Page] to be brief, I do not think anything is worth mentioning without it is something entirely out of the ordinary. Again I must ask you to excuse the absence of interest from my letter as things are normally quiet, worse luck, but hope that I may be able to give you a treat next time. I sincerely hope this will [find] you all in the best of health as it leaves me at present. There is just one incident that I witnessed in the fighting at Nerve Chapelle, which took place about 20 yds from me in the first line fire-trench. [page] During the fight, you have no doubt read in your report that heavy losses occurred on both sides. The bullet-heads actually fled [meaning they fighting stopped] leaving an immense number of wounded and dead. As we were taking a brief  rest, a smoke and biscuit etc; my own battalion stretcher-bearers thought it an appropriate time to do a little good work. Twas mid-day therefore light. The G—S were about 60 yds in front with about 17 machine-guns. Our lads took away the worst cases and the last one they was a German, whom they actually went into the open for. They were allowed to take him away. On returning, there was another case [Page] waiting for them, one of my Company having been hit badly with shrapnel in the spine. They made no sign of concealment at all, thinking that as they had been allowed the privilege of taking their man away, they would also be permitted to do likewise but twas not so. The dirty pigs watched them lift a wounded man onto the stretcher and then just as they turned to march away they turned the machine-guns on them wounding one of them in the leg and of course bringing the stretcher down rather heavily. I believe this man died. “A gallant action”, what think you! I must close now to catch the mail. With deepest respects and thanks I am yours most sincerely

Ralph

Final page of Ralph's first letter, 'when the British Bull-Dog bites...' (Walsall Local History Centre)

Final page of Ralph’s second letter, regarding the machine gun attack on the stretcher bearers
(Walsall Local History Centre)

After a fruitless search on the 1911 and 1901 census for a ‘Ralph’ living near to the Herbert’s Park Tavern, followed by checking the War memorial, the Darlaston Roll-of-Honour and the CWGC War dead for Ralph’s from Darlaston in a desperate bid to track him down, the trail would go cold…

Serendipity: The Darlaston Ephemera
Then, as if by magic, a second collection appeared from a different source – completely unconnected. In October 2014 a few items were gifted to the Centre, four in all. Two were undated (and generic) small Christmas greeting ‘albums’ containing several photographs of the 1st Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment. One of these was clearly from when the Battalion was in Egypt and the dedication was from ‘Ralph… to his brother sister & children with love’. The handwriting looked suspiciously familiar. The other wasn’t dedicated. The two further items are postcards. The first is a generic Christmas card from 1914. The front is of a printed drawing, made by Lady Rawlinson and the Friends of 4th Corps. It shows a soldier in a trench with the ‘1915 sun’ rising. The handwriting on the reverse was again familiar; it has partly been faded, due to handling over the years.

Lady Rawlinson's 1914 Xmas card, sent by Ralph to his family. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Lady Rawlinson’s 1914 Xmas card, sent by Ralph to his family.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

My Dear Sister, Brother & Family    24 Dec 14

This is a present card from the wife of General Rawlinson and friends. I am sending it to you hoping that it will find you all well and that you will have as good a Xmas as it is possible to have under the circumstances. We have had a small morsel of Xmas pudding sent to us as a taste, but we are very thankful — [illegible] — people for what they are doing for us. Wish Mr Yardley & Mr Foster and family a merry Xmas from me, tell Lily I am sorry I cannot go carol singing with her, as the Germans are in want of a few humming birds [shells]. Good luck to you all in the new year, lets hope I can get back safely, if so we will have another Xmas. Love to all. Your affectionate brother

Ralph

The reverse of the Rawlinson postcard Xmas 1914. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The reverse of the Rawlinson postcard Xmas 1914.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The second card offers more of a clue. The postmark has been erased. The face is that of ‘F Company’, Worcestershire Regiment. We can only assume that this was Ralph’s Company, but at least we know it was his regiment. The message suggests that he is on it, as he asks his sister to pass the ‘snapshot’ onto his mother after she has seen it. Ralph has forgotten his mother’s address.

F Coy 1st Worcestershire Regiment. Is Ralph on this picture? (Walsall Local History Centre)

F Coy 1st Worcestershire Regiment. Is Ralph on this picture?
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The writing on the card is less ostentatious than that of the letters, but it matches the writing on the Christmas album, which is a sort of half-way house between the two styles.

Ralph's postcard to his sister, Mrs L Critch. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Ralph’s postcard to his sister, Mrs L Critch.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The vital clue here of course it that it supplies a name and a relationship. Ralph’s sister is a Mrs L Critch and is living at 5 Forge Rd, Darlaston. Forge Road is one of the roads on which the Herbert’s Park Tavern stands. Critch is an usual surname. In 1911, a John and Lucy Critch were living at 5 Forge Rd, with several children. They had been married 12 years according to the census, so this placed the marriage to 1898/9. The only marriage of a John Critch anywhere in the country with years either side of that period was in West Bromwich and between John and a Lucy Edwards in the mid-months of 1898. This would make Ralph Edwards our man, yet despite Lucy Edwards being from Darlaston there is no Ralph Edwards born in the area at all. Frustrating…

Ralph Edwards’ Military Career
A partial break-through did come and if we accept it, it allows for the tracing of Ralph’s military career despite their being no surviving service or pension record. We cannot be sure of when Ralph joined the 1st Battalion, Worcester Regiment, but he has by 1911. On the census of that year, the 22 year-old Ralph is described as being from Darlaston, Staffs and appears as a Private rank. The census was taken at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Ralph appears on no previous census.

Ralph Edwards, in the Worcs Regimant, 1911. (National Archives)

Ralph Edwards in the Worcestershire Regiment, 1911.
(National Archives)

Taking this as a start date, we can trace his movements through the whereabouts of the Battalion. Everything we learn fits in with the small amount of evidence that we have. At this point I have to mention the superb website of the Worcestershire Regiment: http://www.worcestershireregiment.com/ , from which the following is extracted.

Ralph served on the home front until February 1913, when the Battalion was sent to the Mustapha Barracks in Alexandria, Egypt. He would spend two years in Egypt on exercises, training the Camel Corps and dealing with a minor riot in Alexandria. The Battalion were repatriated on the ‘Deseado’ on 30 September 1914. Intending to dock at Southampton, fear of German submarines forced the ship to Liverpool; the troops disembarked on 16 October. The following day the Battalion headed for camp at Hursley Park, Winchester; they spent a few weeks at the camp before embarking from Southampton on the ‘SS Maidan’ on 5 November, as a part of the 8th Division.

It took the Battalion a couple of weeks to move-up to the front line at ‘Port Arthur’, near Neuve Chapelle. They arrived under heavy fire on 14 November. The Battalion was exposed to shell-fire and frost-bite until mid-December, when they were moved a little further north to Pont Logy and by this stage they had lost half their strength. On the 18 December the 8th Division had launched an attack on the front near Neuve Chapelle, although the 1st Battalion was not involved; it spent the night ‘most uncomfortably in wind and rain among the ruined cottages close behind the line (at St. Vaast)’. They were on the front-line the following day, remaining in the trenches until 22 December. At Pont Logy, Ralph spent an uncomfortable Christmas out of the front-line and sent postcards to his family. The Battalion returned after Christmas to crumbling parapets and trenches filled with water. The New Year was greeted with an exchange of artillery.

On 9 March 1915 the trenches in front of Neuve Chapelle were held by the Battalion in preparation for an attack that commenced on the town at 7.30 am the following day. It was this battle to which Ralph refers to in his letter about the stretcher-bearers. Initial infantry attacks made advances, over-running the German front-line trenches and the village itself; however, a mixture of ineffective bombardment in some areas, misdirected attacks, communication problems and poor intelligence allowed the Germans to counter attack over the next couple of days. The battle drew to a close on 12 March with around 12,000 killed or wounded.

Ralph was in and out of the front-line for the next few months, but on 9 May he got his wish for another ‘bite at the German sneaks’ when a plan was put into operation to attack Aubers Ridge. At dawn, the British artillery opened up with an inaccurate and ineffective bombardment that caused far more losses to our own troops. The delayed offensive ran into immediate trouble as the German defences remained fairly intact. Held up, battalions intermixed and struggled in the crowded trenches under increasing fire. The attack collapsed and Ralph’s Battalion were left in the front line trenches over night, under continual barrage, to repair the defences.

Repairing the trenches wouldn’t be an issue for 11830 Ralph Edwards. Having at some stage been promoted to Lance-Corporal, he was killed during the Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9 May 1915. He is buried at the Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery, Fleurbaix.

Who is Ralph?
As I said earlier, Ralph only appears on the 1911 census. The ‘Soldiers Died in the Great War CD (or UK Soldiers died in the Great War on Ancestry)’ has him being in born and enlisting in Darlaston, yet he doesn’t appear on the War memorial… or does he? The Darlaston War memorial carries the names of two men named Edwards: these are Edward and Edwin. If we add Ralph, we have three soldiers named Edwards that are killed in the War. None of these soldiers has a surviving War record.

I want to start with Edwin. To me, Edwin is a victim of mistaken identity on the ‘Soldiers Died in the Great War CD (or UK Soldiers died in the Great War on Ancestry)’. This has led to a great deal of confusion. The 1911 census shows that Edwin was 30 years-old and married to May Beatrice. The couple had two children and lived at 24 Alma St, Darlaston. Edwin had been born in Wednesbury and was a labourer in a nut and bolt factory.

1911 Census for Edwin Edwards. (Walsall Local History Centre)

1911 Census for Edwin Edwards.
(National Archives)

The Darlaston UDC Roll of Honour also acts as a separation allowance register (money paid to dependents when their husband went off to fight). In the register, an ‘E’ Edwards was described as married, from 24 Alma St, in receipt of 1/6d allowance and importantly as being a Private (062229) in the Army Service Corps. The Roll has his death (Edwin JT Edwards) as being recorded as the 28 September 1918. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists this death as just E Edwards, 92175 7th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, as he has been transferred to an infantry unit by this stage. E Edwards is buried at the Moeuvres Communal Cemetery near Cambrai.

This is where it gets complicated: he has two medal cards, one under E Edwards and one under Edward Edwards. The E Edwards medal card is curiously marked up for a 1915 Star, but no other medals. The card is marked ‘KIA’ (no specified date) and lists Edwards as being 92175 Private 1/2 London Regiment and 96022 Private 7th Battalion Royal Fusiliers. The Star was either returned for adjustment, or never delivered. The card shows he entered the War on 11 June 1915. The second card is for an Edward Edwards and has Victory and British medals. It is also marked ‘KIA’ giving the date as 28 September 1918. This card describes Edwards as being a Private of; 062229, Army Service Corps (Edwin’s number and regiment); 92175, 2 London Regiment and 92175, Royal Fusiliers. Now, you may accuse me of JFK conspiracy theories, but I do think that 96022 on the first medal card is suspiciously like 602229 on the second.

The entry for the UK Soldiers that died in the Great War returns the following (via National Archives/Ancestry.co.uk):

Name: Edward Edwards
Birth Place: Wednesbury
Residence: Darlaston
Death Date: 28 Sep 1918
Death Place: France and Flanders
Enlistment Place: Darlaston
Rank: Private
Regiment: London Regiment
Battalion: 7th Battalion
Regimental Number: 92175
Type of Casualty: Killed in action
Theatre of War: Western European Theatre
Comments: Formerly T/4/062229, A.S.C.

This is clearly an amalgam of the information from the Darlaston Roll of Honour and the separation allowance details, the medal cards and the 1911 census. Edwin was born in Wednesbury, lived in Darlaston, was of private rank, was killed on 28 September 1918 and entered the conflict as 062229 in the ASC. Add to this that the Darlaston War memorial has its Edward as being killed in 1915, not 1918, then I suggest that these two people are the same – only it is Edwin, not Edward.

So what has this to do with Ralph? All will be revealed. Ralph was 22 in 1911 so if we move back into the Edwards’ family history we should pick him up in an earlier census, only we don’t.

If we move back to 1891, which is the first census on which Ralph should appear (at the age of 2), we find the family at 17 Factory St, Darlaston. David and Jane Edwards are in their late 30s, David being a bolt forger. There are several children; Lucy (later Critch) is the eldest at 14, then we have Richard (12), David (10), Jane (8), Daniel (6), Ameila (4), Edward (2) and May (8 months).

The 1901 census finds the family in the same house. An interesting clue is offered as to why Ralph would be writing to the pub, chiefly because it is stated on this census as being next door to their house. Edward is now 12, the same age as Ralph should be. John (9), Albert (7) and Eva (3) have joined the brood. Lucy has left to get married at this point, she would go on to name her own children after all her siblings. It is also interesting to note that Ralph mentions a ‘Bert’ visiting the pub, this could be the Albert mentioned here.

1901 Census for the Edwards family, Factory St, Darlaston. Next door to the Herbert's Park Tavern. (National Archives)

1901 Census for the Edwards family, Factory St, Darlaston. Next door to the Herbert’s Park Tavern.
(National Archives)

By now I was strongly suspecting that Ralph and Edward were one and the same, but I needed to find a link. Edward was baptised, along with his siblings, in the Darlaston Primitive Methodist Chapel (then at Bell St); however, he is only described as Edward and no middle name was used. The link would finally come from the Darlaston Roll of Honour: it has the date of Edward Edwards’ death as 9 May 1915.

Darlaston UDC Roll of Honour giving Edward's date of death as 9 May 1915, the same as Ralph. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Darlaston UDC Roll of Honour giving Edward’s date of death as 9 May 1915, the same as Ralph.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

So, I suggest the search for Ralph is over. He was born Edward Edwards, with Ralph being a middle name that isn’t recorded on his birth certificate or baptism entry. He was a regular soldier as the letter evidence suggests and he once lived next door to the Herbert’s Park Tavern, which is why he writes fondly to those that lived there. There is no need to alter the memorial, it is the correct man on it. I further suggest that Edwin too is correct, the error here lies elsewhere (the second medal card and the UK Soldiers that dies in the Great War) and is mainly bought about by the need to find an Edward Edwards to make sense of the memorial – but we have now found Edward Edwards.

This article is of course in memory of both Ralph and Edwin, but is dedicated to Terry Smitheman, also known as  ‘Mr Darlo’. Do check out his website: Darlaston Remembers https://blockall.wordpress.com/ for a great testimonial to the fallen of the Town in both Wars.

My thanks to:
Walsall Local History Centre
National archives
Terry Smitheman
Ancestry.co.uk

Comments
  1. tonykulik says:

    A cracking blog as usual – thanks

  2. Great post, needed to use both brain cells to even try to understand it. I have posted it on the Darlo fb hope you get some hits.

  3. Richard Smith says:

    To Mr. Ford, I truly thank you for finding Mr. “Ralph Edwards” and I find it very interesting that you traced the family to Milwaukee,Wisconsin. USA since that is where I grew up along with my family and how I came into position of the letters. My Uncle Walter P. Smith had them and I received them after he died. Now how and why he had them is still in question but we know that Job Yardley married Julia in Milwaukee and maybe had family yet in Milwaukee that came in position of the letters and some how passed them on into my family? Another story maybe, but again Thank you for your tireless pursuit into the history of Ralph and I am really happy that I was able to be part of it. Richard Smith, Spring Hill,TN USA.

  4. Brian says:

    Fascinating article as are all the previous ones,I wonder what Ralph meant by ‘valiant Huns’?

  5. Paul Nixon’s very useful service number website http://armyservicenumbers.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/worcestershire-regiment.html?m=1 shows that the man given the regimental number 11042 enlisted 17 February 1908 suggesting tha Ralph joined not much earlier than that

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