The Chilton Family at War: 1914-1945

Moving On: Churchbridge, Bridgtown and Shirebrook

The story of Herbie Higgs (in section two) raised the possibility that he never actually lived in Great Wyrley, despite appearing on the memorial gates; further, he does not in fact appear on the Pelsall memorial where he was living at the time of his death, nor on that at Oldbury where he was born. Herbie shows strikingly that the right to appear on a memorial primarily depends upon having a sponsor at the time that the memorial was conceived, as there was no altruistic body that existed to keep track of soldiers that had moved from town to town and so notify Oldbury that Herbie had died and should be included on the community memorial.

It is impossible to track everyone that lived in Great Wyrley and then left, going on to fall in the conflict; it did, however, feel right that I should find someone to act as representative for all of those that fall into this category, in order to show they are included in this community book at least in spirit. The story of the Chilton family, and it was Harold Chilton, once of Churchbridge, that was initially the focus, stands as that representative not only for Great Wyrley but also for our neighbours in Bridgtown.

Some men are traceable, as their birthplaces (Great Wyrley, Landywood and Churchbridge) appear on their casualty entries on the Soldiers that Died in the Great War database; so through Harold Chilton and his family we remember: Clarence Parsons (on Cheslyn Hay’s memorial), John Bernard Smith and his brother Arnold Smith (on Heath Hayes’ memorial Gates), Joseph Allsopp, William Hicken, Isiah Jones, James Preece, Alfred Russell, Sidney Allen, James Westacott, John Rogers and Jim Marshall amongst others.

Harold Chilton was born to parents Harry and Florence Alice Hood. Harry was born in Wolverhampton in 1868, being christened at St Luke’s in the town on 7 November. He was the second son of in a mining family and within two years the family had moved to the Cannock area. Whatever schooling he had, his war service records would later show that he would not achieve a school certificate. By 1881, according to the census, he and his family were living on Hednesford Road in Cannock.

The next experience in Harry’s life would be military one; on 6 April 1885 he attested into the 1st Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment. Whatever his motivations for joining a regiment that was based at York, he only stayed just over a year before he purchased his discharge on 16 November 1886 (although it appears from their admission and discharge registers, he was a patient at the Chelsea hospital in October 1886). A note in his file from 1933 seems to confirm this, even describing his service conduct as ‘good’, although, when seeking a refund, he had to submit a sworn statement (in front of a Justice of the Peace) to the military in 1917 stating he had ‘actually’ purchased his discharge and the money came from his own funds. Harry returned to the Cannock area and, according to his parish marriage entry, went on to become a miner himself and move to Bridgtown prior to 1891.

Florence was born in Churchbridge and lived there with her parents, between the Robin Hood public house and Gilpin’s works, until Harry came along. 5 April 1891 was a big date for the couple: first, the couple got married at St Mark’s Church in Great Wyrley, and then they appear on the census, which was taken on that day, as husband and wife living with Florence’s father.

Harold was the first born of a family that would become very extensive; he was baptised at St Mark’s on 3 May 1891, a month after the couple wed. He was followed by George Howard, who was baptised at St Mark’s on 16 June 1892 and Hannah, named after Florence’s mother, who was baptised on 26 November 1893. The family then moved up to Bridgtown, possibly to the Longford Road address where they were to be found on the 1901 census. Arthur was the next child to be born, although he was in fact baptised at St Mark’s as well on 26 May 1895. Harry remained a miner through these years.

The family connection with Great Wyrley and Churchbridge eased when the next born, Evelyn Albert, was baptised in Cannock St Luke’s instead of St Mark’s on 26 November 1896, and it was possible that, as Florence was an only child, the need to even visit Great Wyrley ceased when Thomas Hood, Florence’s widowed father, passed away in 1897. Clifford, the next child, was baptised at Cannock on 18 December 1898 and Rowland on 15 April 1900. According to the 1901 census, the family were definitely living on Longford Road (Bridgtown side) at that point and Harry was a coal loader (below ground) in a local colliery. Two more children were to be born while the family were in Bridgtown, although it isn’t clear where they were baptised. Edith was born in mid-1901 and Cyril was born at the end of 1902.

Sometime over the next year or so the family relocated to 51 Prospect Drive, Shirebrook, Derbyshire, where Harry had secured a job as a miner. We know they were there by October 1904 as their next child, Ethel, was baptised then. Harry seems to have enjoyed a beer; the Derbyshire Courier carrying the evidence of his fines in the Police Court for misdemeanours in 1907. Perhaps his famous hour came in 1909, when he, along with three others, was accused of obstructing a policeman during the course of his duty. The incident took place on 24 April, but was played out to the merriment of the Chesterfield Police Court on 8 May.

The charge related to fight that occurred outside the Station Hotel in Shirebrook after closing-time. Harry was not one of the pugilists, but a crowd of over 200 people allegedly gathered to watch them; Constable Mayfield, who tried to quell the disturbance, found himself jostled (having his helmet knocked off) and was prevented from breaking up the fight by Chilton, who ‘put his arms around’ the policeman to contain him. Despite Harry’s defence counsel trying valiantly to turn this action into a joke, Harry was fined a few quid.

According to the 1911 census the couple had had fourteen children and, perhaps unusually for the period, all had survived. Those children born in Shirebrook were: Alec (1906), Horace (1908), Norman (1909), Raymond (1911) and Harry, who became the fifteenth child (1912). Sadly, Norman would be the first and only infant loss the family suffered that same year. The census shows that both Harold and George had joined their father down the pit, while Arthur and Albert had become cotton spinners, though both would later become a miners at Shirebrook Colliery

Harry Chilton returned to active service, and to the East Yorkshire Regiment, on 26 September 1914. He spent some time with the 3rd Battalion, presumably for re-training, and possibly acting as a part of the Humber garrison, before being transferred to the 1st Battalion and landing in France on 20 January 1915. Harry likely arrived as one of a draft of 80 men, stated in the Battalion war diary, on 26 January; at this time the Regiment was based around Houplines (Armentiers). It rained and it rained although fairly quiet in truth, with German snipers and occasional shelling being the main problem and still accounting for casualties. At the end of April the Battalion would move a few miles to Le Touquet, then in early May to Le Bizet; their service here would ensure they were not involved in both Neuve Chapelle and the Second Battle of Ypres.

Harry would spend around four months on the western front in this stint, as somehow he received burns to his right buttock and was sent back to England on 14 May 1915. We know he was in England as he was re-assigned to the 3rd Battalion, but we know little of where he was, or where he was treated, apart from the fact he went ‘absent’ from 1 June to 8 June and forfeited eight days pay.

On 7 October he was transferred to the 8th Battalion and returned to the western front. His new Battalion were based around Armentiers as well. Christmas was spent in Reninghelst, with the Battalion in and out of the line. It was in general still a quiet sector, but the heavy bombardment that caused ‘a number of casualties’ on 23 March 1916 and the blowing of several mines under the German line that caused ‘many casualties’ on 27 March shows that what was quiet was subjective. In May the Battalion were in the same general area (on the Belgium/France border, however, the experience around Berthen in the May and June was more severe than earlier.

The Battalion moved to the Somme, where it would engage in the battle on 14 July. A preliminary patrol found that the German line was ‘strongly held’, but at 11.50 am ‘orders came through that the position was to be taken at once at all costs’; it was, but at the cost of half of the battalion in casualties.

What part Harry played in this is not clear, nor is it clear when he found out about his sons’ experiences of the Somme, but the likelihood is that he either missed the battle or it exacerbated his condition – as on 18 July he was back at depot in England suffering from myalgia (muscle pains, a problem in itself or a symptom of another issue). He was transferred to the Training Battalion for a few weeks before being discharged completely. Returning to Shirebrook, he was granted a pension in 1917; and along with his 1915 Star, Victory and War medal, he was awarded the silver war badge in 1920.

Arthur, Harry and Florence’s third son, and the first to be born in Bridgtown, was the first of the boys to be killed. Prior to enlisting, his obituary in the Derbyshire Courier stated Arthur was employed as a collier at the Shirebrook Colliery; it went on to say: ‘a well-disposed and popular youth he was at the time of his enlistment a scholar of the Shirebrook Congregational Church Sunday School’.

Arthur’s war service record does not survive. He likely enlisted within the first few months of the war (around end of September, when his father and eldest brothers joined). It is possible that Arthur had once been in a Territorial Force outfit and had re-joined the colours, after all he reached France on 18 March 1915; further, he attested into, or was later transferred to, the 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters (Nottingham & Derbyshire Regiment) and did not serve with one of the Service Battalions (often called Pals Battalions) that were being raised as the conflict started.

Arthur disembarked on 18 March. The 1st Battalion had just fought at Neuve Chapelle and sustained heavy casualties (around 450 killed, missing and wounded) – so it may have been at this point Arthur was moved to the 1st Battalion, being one of the draft of 116 men that joined them on 19 March, or 193 on 22 March, at Pont Du Hem to the north of Neuve Chapelle. On 21 April, Arthur and the Battalion received a few words from Sir John French, commander of the British forces; then, on 9 May, the Battalion took part in the Battle of Aubers Ridge, a failure that would start a public scandal over shell shortages, and cost the Battalion around 350 casualties.

The Battalion spent the next months in and out of the line. The front line generally exposed them to infrequent shelling and sniper fire, while out of the line they were subjected to training and working parties. On 26 September they took part in a diversionary attack to support the Battle of Loos (part of the third Battle of Artois, combined with the French). Interestingly, on 1 October ‘A’ Company buried a German officer found in front of their front line and erected a cross – gallantry was not yet fully dead it seems.

In March 1916, after a freezing February, the Battalion moved further south – to the Bethune region. The Battalion football team dispatched the 2nd Northamptonshire Regiment 11-0 in a match, while a platoon in D Company won the inter-platoon competition. On 18 March, Sir Douglas Haig – the new commander of British forces – inspected the Battalion.

On 5 July the Battalion was at La Boisselle on the Somme, it had been ordered at short notice to assault the German lines as a part of the wider campaign. It was beaten back with around 250 casualties. Arthur was one of the wounded, but he was to pass away on 7 July. When his death was reported in the local press in the September it was also mentioned he had been awarded the Military Medal for acts of bravery; his un-named sister was presented with the medal on 27 April 1917. The family later received his 1915 Star, Victory and War medals

Harold’s story is next. He was a miner, presumably at Shirebrook Colliery, until he attested into the 7th Service Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment, probably when it was formed in September 1914 (as his number is 13747 – that of George, who attested into the same Battalion at the end of September, was 13761). As a part of one of the first volunteer battalions, and having completed what was considered to initially be enough general training in camp, Harold was shipped over to France at the end of July 1915; the Battalion were moved to Locre, just over the Belgian border, near to Ypres and by September were in and out of the line at Bienvillers.

The Battalion would undergo further training when out of the direct war zone, and learn on the job while in it. Generally, shelling, mortar rounds, rifle grenades and machine gun bursts were what whistled over to acclimatise the men to their new surroundings, taking a small but continual toll; as new soldiers, no attack was planned for them to participate in during 1915, but they did take part in trench raids and patrols. It would be a year before they would experience full battle.

On 6 July 1916 the Battalion were transferred to the 21st Division and moved south to the Somme region. On 14 July it was lined up on the far side of Mametz Wood, facing Bezantin le Petite Wood (two German trenches being named Villa Trench and Aston Trench). A 30-minute bombardment was followed by an assault at 3.25 am. The front line fell, with some difficulties, and the second line fell quickly after. Advancement was at times swift, in fact they caught up their own creeping barrage; all the infantry objectives were achieved although High Wood was lost through a missed opportunity.

The action cost 18 officers and 535 men killed and wounded. Harold was declared wounded and missing and first reports in the local newspapers in the September carried this message – the same editions that covered Arthur’s death. So, for a short period the Chiltons lived in hope; it didn’t last. His body was never recovered and he features on the Thiepval memorial. His 1915 Star, British and Victory medals were sent to his parents.

George was the second born, a native of Churchbridge, and a miner in Shirebrook. According to what of his war service records survive, he attested on 28 September 1914 into the Leicestershire Regiment – and his medal award roll for his 1915 Star confirmed he was also in the 7th Battalion, too. As such, his life mirrored that of his brother until he was on sentry duty on 26 October 1915 when the war diary states: ‘Machine guns fired again at same point as last night. Enemy replied with wizz-bangs though not quite so quickly as yesterday… 1 NCO killed 1 Other wounded’.

That ‘Other’ would be George; his injury would affect him deeply. One ‘wizz-bang’ left shrapnel wounds in George’s left cheek and right thigh. He was immediately moved to the 24 General Hospital at the British camp at Etaples, then to hospital at Chester, followed by Liverpool. He regained fitness while at the camps on Cannock Chase, returning to France on 18 May 1916 – the trouble was the shrapnel was still in the thigh. Within in two months, just prior to the Somme campaign, he was in hospital in Etaples; clearly in discomfort, the shrapnel was removed and his femoral artery tied.

Within days he had lost two brothers, which must have hit him hard emotionally. He now walked with a limp and was transferred to the 298 Labour Corps. He was then assessed in August 1917 and was ultimately to be discharged in 17 November. It is worth noting that when assessed the doctor felt that George was struggling with the emotional side: ‘I think with a change of mental attitude he could soon walk much better’. Mental health was in its infancy, the war would do much to push it on, but George would see no benefit. He returned to Shirebrook Colliery; on 5 April 1918 he became another death attributable to war neurosis, when took his own life.

(Evelyn) Albert would get to see his life out; and it would be an interesting one. By August 1915, Albert was also working as a miner – most likely at Shirebrook Colliery. His father and three eldest brothers had all joined the services in 1914 and, other than his father receiving a burn on the backside, all were safe. On 16 August, aged 19 years and 19 days, the flat-footed lad attested at Mansfield into the Royal Artillery as a driver – no doubt using his horse skills learned in the mines. By 18 August he was in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

He was transferred to a Reserve Brigade in Brighton, where, like many soldiers, he fell-foul of missing the odd parade and overstaying a pass. It is noticeable that Albert’s first overstay was around the time that brother George was wounded in October 1915; whereas the boredom of camp manifested itself in another overstay in January and trying to throw a sickie (lying to an NCO) in February. Then, as with many soldiers, such actions disappeared when active service came calling: in March 1916 Albert was sent to Egypt, becoming a part of the 59th Artillery Brigade, 11th Division. He would remain with this division, although move round within it.

The Division would soon be redeployed to France – on 20 July, going straight onto the Somme to support the campaign that his two brothers had died in. The 11th Division would be present at Flers-Courcelette (first tank battle) and Thiepval in September 1916. In early 1917, the Division supported operations on the River Ancre, while later in the year they were in the Ypres Salient taking part in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) – including the Battle of Broodseinde, Haig’s hallowed victory.

1918 saw the German offensives from March to July that pushed the British back. By April, the Michael and Georgette offensives had caused Haig to write his famous ‘backs to the wall’ order. Albert had a fairly quiet area with the 58th Artillery Brigade, however, he was wounded – presumably gassed – by one of the shells sent over on a semi-regular basis. He returned to England, and the East Leeds Hospital, for a month before slowly returning to duty – made even slower but the odd overstaying of his pass. He saw the war out it France, partaking in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line and the Battle of Sambre.

After de-mobbing in 1920, you would have thought his military career was over – and it was of sorts. Albert was to become a part of the merchant navy, serving on the Port Brisbane cargo ship that headed from Liverpool to New York in August 1940 and then again, on 21 November, when she was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean. Some were saved from the sea by the Australian Navy, but 65 sailors were picked up by the German cruiser Pinguin. They were on-board for two weeks before transferring to an oil tanker for two months. A small cup of soup with some bread was most of their daily allowance.

Disembarking in occupied Bordeaux, the prisoners were then removed into Germany where they spent time in a couple of camps around Bremen. The main camp was overcrowded and vegetable soup remained the staple fare. His account, in the Derbyshire Times, was printed ion 6 August 1943. He described the camp, with its 9ft fence and machine gun posts, however, there was a propaganda ring to some of it. Albert was to finally be repatriated as a non-combatant in June 1943; moving first to Lisbon, then to Gibraltar, then to Liverpool on the Samaria (Cunard ship), arriving in July.

Two of the younger Chiltons need to be mentioned not over the Great War, but the Second World War. While Roland served, we know Harry junior, born in 1912, went into the Sherwood Foresters and served most likely in the North Africa campaign before Sicily and then into Italy. He was captured around October 1943 and sent to Germany, although his Prisoner of War record states Konin Zaganski in Poland. He was later freed unharmed, passing away in 1975.

Alec (according to the Derbyshire Times, 29 March 1941) would spend a full term in the Sherwood Foresters Territorial Force; he would also be a member of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, later becoming a first-aid instructor as a part of his signalman duties on the railway. Sadly, the excellent and versatile musician fell from the signal box at Lower Finningley Station; he was initially paralysed from the neck down, but died a few days later. He is buried at Shirebrook.

While the Chiltons stepped out of Churchbridge and Bridgtown history before the war they are not lost to us now, although this article is all too brief: Harry Chilton died in 1960, Florence in 1950 and the unsinkable Albert in 1986. Photographs were from the Derby Courier, 26 June 1915.