The Things I have Seen: The Life of Frank Emberton D.C.M.

Introduction
Over the past year or so I have tried to bring back a little of the lives of the fallen soldiers from the locality, in order to show they are not just names on a stone and that they were real people. The names of the fallen are duly supplied by the township memorials in the area: Bridgtown, Cheslyn Hay and Great Wyrley, as well as by specific memorials such as those at the Great Wyrley Methodist Church and Harrison’s Club, also in Great Wyrley.

One problem with this is that the men that fought and survived are often overlooked, after all they had a life didn’t they? Well yes, but many would carry their experiences with them and even into the 1960s I have seen ‘the effects of gassing from the War’ given as a contributing factor on a death certificate. Some places, Great Wyrley (township) and the Harrison’s Club for example, did produce lists or memorials naming those that served in the Great War – although neither did for the Second World War.

A Roll of Honour of those that served from Harrison's Club, Great Wyrley. 2015.

A Roll of Honour of those that served from Harrison’s Club, Great Wyrley. 2015.

In this article I intended to pick a name of a soldier that served at random from the Wyrley gates, however, while at Harrison’s Club I did notice that an F Emberton (who is also on the Wyrley gates) had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and so I thought I would tackle his story; mainly because if I could find out nothing about him I could at least talk about the medal 🙂 .

Frank Emberton: Stafford, Penkridge, India – and a bit of Bridgtown 
Frank Emberton was actually born Francis Emberton on 5 June 1885 and went on to be baptised on the 20 June at St Mary’s Church, Stafford. He was born to parents Francis and Elizabeth; Francis being from Stafford himself and born around 1863, whereas his wife Elizabeth Woolridge was a year younger and from the village of Dunston, which is located between Stafford and Penkridge.

St Mary's Church, Stafford. It was here that Frank was baptised in June 1885. (Mike Tallent)

St Mary’s Church, Stafford. It was here that Frank was baptised in June 1885.
(Mike Tallent)

Francis and Elizabeth had married in 1883 and settled in Stafford. Francis at that time was a 20 year-old baker and was, or until recently had been living in Eastgate Street and likely been working at Arthur Wright’s bakery. Elizabeth had become a domestic servant for the Steele family on Bridge St, Stafford. Richard Steel was an Inland Revenue clerk. Frank appears to be their first child and was followed by Sarah in 1887. The family then moved to Mill St in Penkridge, where their third child, Jessie, was born in 1890. Francis was still a baker at this point and the 5 year-old Frank had just started school – likely St Michael’s on Market Place (now St Michael’s CE First School).

1891 Census for the Embertons in Mill St, Penkridge. (National Archives)

1891 Census for the Embertons in Mill St, Penkridge.
(National Archives)

The following years saw further additions to the family: Charles was born in early 1892, Arthur in early 1894 and Florence (Flossie) in mid-1898. Francis remained a baker in the locality, whereas the now 15 year-old Frank had become a ‘waggoner’ on a farm. Sarah, Frank’s younger sister, had left the family home and moved to work as a domestic servant to the Bassett family, farmers in Acton Trussell.

1901 census

1901 Census for the Embertons, now in Pinfold Lane, Penkridge (National Archives)

It is unclear as to what order things happen next, as Frank’s military service records do not survive. At some stage between 1901 and 1911 the family moved to 102 Watling Street, Bridgtown. This is given as Frank’s address when the report of his medal was printed in the newspapers, but this was not until 1916. In 1911, Francis is still described as a baker, but ‘confectioner’ has been added on by the enumerator. Jessie Emberton was now a 21 year-old domestic servant, but living at home. Both Charles (19) and Arthur (17) were labourers in a brickyard, possibly at the Longhouse Brick and Tile Works just over the other side of Watling St to where they lived. The final member of the household is the 1 year-old Murial Giles. She is in fact the daughter of Sarah Ann, Francis’ eldest daughter. Sarah had left her position in Acton Trussell and moved to South Wales, where in 1907 had married James Giles.

1911 Census for the Embertons' now living at 102 Watling St - however, Frank is not with them. (National Archives)

1911 Census for the Embertons’ now living at 102 Watling St – however, Frank is not with them.
(National Archives)

So, where is Frank in 1911? Frank may have lived in Bridgtown for a short while, equally he may have had his head turned when growing-up by reports coming back from the Boer War in South Africa, for on 7 February 1906 he enlisted into the North Staffordshire Regiment. We know that Frank was in the 1st Battalion during WWI, but it seems likely that he was in fact in the 2nd Battalion when he attested.

The 1st Battalion had served in India from 1897 until 1903, at which point the 2nd Battalion had been moved from service in South Africa to join them. A large number of the 1st Battalion were moved to the 2nd Battalion, with what remained returning to England and then onto service in Ireland in 1912. We don’t know when Frank went to India, but we know from the census of 1911 that he was there then, so he must have been stationed with the 2nd Battalion. Frank was based at Peshawar, the British headquarters in the volatile and vulnerable North-West Frontier district (think Carry On Up the Kyber 🙂  – indeed, the 2nd Battalion remained there throughout the First World War.

Frank Emberton and the 1st North Staffs  in India, 1911. (National Archives)

Frank Emberton and the 2nd North Staffs in India, 1911.
(National Archives)

While we have little idea of Frank’s role in India; he was not awarded the India General Service Medal and did not attend the Delhi Durbar as a representative of the Regiment in December 1911, which was in effect the coronation of George V as Emperor of India. What we do know is that after seven years of service he left India, and it appears the British Army, on 28 February 1913.

Frank may have left the regulars but he would be placed ‘on reserve’. He sailed home and must have headed to his father’s house at 102 Watling St, Bridgtown (as stated, the address was used by the newspapers). Whether he settled into civilian life we cannot say, but it seems likely that he did  – we don’t know if he got a job, but within the next 18 months he would meet local lass, Gertrude Parsons.

Gertrude had been born into a coal-mining family in 1890, indeed they lived next door to the Royal Oak pub in 1891. She would leave Great Wyrley for a while, for in 1911 she is found working as domestic servant to a dentist and his wife in Handsworth. I reckon she is back in Great Wyrley sometime before August 1914, as otherwise I wondered just how she would have met Frank – as Frank was about to be called back to the colours.

War, Medals and Marriage: August 1914- June 1916 
Although his War record does not survive, we can track Frank’s movements through two sources; the History of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, The North Staffordshire Regiment 1914 – 1923 (Hughes & Harber Ltd, unattributed, 1932) and an entry in the Walsall & District Roll of Honour, which was compiled and printed by 1920 and contains some biographical detail on him. The Roll of Honour stated that as the political situation spiralled into one of total war, Frank Emberton was called-up ‘on reserve’.

So, Emberton was back in the North Staffordshire Regiment. The 2nd Battalion remained in India, so Frank was placed with the 1st Battalion. They had been recalled from Ireland and by 17 August they were in Cambridge. The Battalion moved to Newmarket on 31 August and remained there for a week or so. By this stage Emberton had joined them, as the war diary states that the time they spent at the camp was used for route marches and getting the ‘reservists’ back to fitness.

On 8 September, Emberton boarded the SS Lake Michigan; it would not be until 12 September before they disembarked at St Nazaire in Brittany.  A two-day train journey then followed, with Emberton enjoying all the comforts of a horse-truck; however, this was luxury compared to the five-day march in continual rain which followed. After all of this, Emberton would find himself at the River Aisne just as the Allies had halted the German advance and the mobile war was passing into one of trenches and stasis.

S Lake Michigan, a Canadian ship used for troop transport. Emberton sailed on her - she was sunk in 1918.  (Ron Miller)

SS Lake Michigan, a Canadian ship used for troop transport. Emberton sailed on her – she was sunk in 1918.
(Ronald Miller)

In early October the 1st Battalion were moved north where on the 13 October they took part in an assault on the Bailleul Ridge, during which they captured Outtersteene. It was a chaotic time, in which the Battalion was actually fired on by the French – killing a man. They continued to advance eastward, going past Armentieres and arriving near Premesques on 20 October. Here the Germans counter-attacked, shelling the area and launching a frontal assault. The North Staffs and the rest of the Brigade held on.

The Battalion remained in the Armentieres region, in-and-out of the line. They spent late October and the first half of November in crumbling, mud filled trenches at Rue Du Bois. They were shelled heavily and faced at least two assaults – the corpses left creating a ‘terrific’ stench. Somehow, prophetically, when pulled from the line in mid-November, they were billeted in the lunatic asylum in Armentieres. They returned to the same trenches, now unsympathetically nicknamed ‘Dead Man’s Alley’, in mid-December.

This turn in the trenches for Emberton would be marked by an event that has reached mythical status in the minds of many, especially a century later. I talk of the Christmas truce – which happened sporadically and organically along the whole line. In Rue Du Bois, the Saxons faced the North Staffs over No Man’s Land. We know Emberton was definitely there, as his later citation places him within ‘A’ Company of the 1st Battalion and ‘A and ‘C’ Companies were in the trench that night. The following is paraphrased or quoted from the Battalion history:

‘C’ Company’s Sergeant Major reported to the Company Commander that ‘the Germans are sitting on their parapets lighting candles and singing hymns’, so he decided to consult with the officer in charge of ‘A’ Company, who was more senior. On his way he was called into No Man’s Land by a German soldier, who had ‘once been a waiter in Brighton’; he then found himself with a group of German officers and ‘the suggestion was made that Christmas Day might be observed as a day of rest… although neither side could answer for their artillery’. He sought out ‘A’ Company and reported to its Commander. ‘A’ Company’s Commander agreed and both sides also buried their dead. The soldiers posed for photographs and fraternised. The truce ended when a tin-can was thrown into ‘A’ Company’s trench by the Saxons stating that their Colonel had told them to renew hostilities and for the British to keep their heads down! A few shots were fired into the air, but the unofficial truce continued for a while longer.

An image from the Christmas truce, 1914. Emberton and the 1st North Staffords were involved (www.imgkid.com)

An image from the Christmas truce, 1914. Emberton and the 1st North Staffords were involved
(www.imgkid.com)

The new year would start in comparative quiet, that is until March 1915. As a part of the Neuve Chapelle offensive the Battalion were requested to take L’Epinette on 12 March; they did so and held onto it, but fortunately for Emberton ‘A’ Company was held in reserve.  In June the Battalion moved further north, to the east of Ypres; they played supporting roles in the assault on Bellewarde Farm and with the recapture of Hooge in August 1915. Hooge had been lost a few days before, when Germans used flame-throwers for the first time.  The Battalion remained in the Hooge area for a while, clearing the dead: ‘Hooge was a nightmare… the sight of their own dead sickens men… at Hooge the British dead lay very thick up the slopes with black faces and contorted bodies… a sight not easily forgotten.’

The Hooge mine crater, blown on 19 July 1915. Littered with corpses that Emberton had to bury. (Dr Trenkler)

The Hooge mine crater, blown on 19 July 1915. Littered with corpses that Emberton had to bury.
(Dr Trenkler)

In October the Brigade, now a part of the 24 Division, found themselves in the region of Zillebeke and Hill 60. The stay was short but the Battalion history does recount that a particular German used to throw grenades into the ‘A’ Company trenches with the droll cry of ‘give that to your Sergeant-Major’. The Battalion remained in the Ypres Salient, rotating around the front-line trenches, with periods of so-called rest. From 22 November through to January 1916 the Battalion was at rest at Zouafques, doing ‘training and sports’.

January saw the Battalion back at the now dilapidated trenches at Hooge, before moving into even worse trenches at Railway Wood – the water and mud being thigh-high. 14 February saw five men from ‘A’ Company killed and 15 wounded when a dug-out received a direct shell-hit; Emberton must have thought, not for the first time, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. By this time, with all the casualties the Battalion had taken over the first 18 months of the War, Emberton had been promoted to Lance-Corporal – he certainly had been by the April, when he found himself at Wulverghem near Messines.

The gas attack that took place at Wulverghem on 30 April had been expected for some days. The Germans used a mix of chlorine and phosgene, delivered from cylinders. The Battalion were in a small salient and ‘were thus in a position to receive the full blast of the threatened gas attack’. Before 1 am on the the day, Emberton led a patrol into No Man’s Land where he clearly met with the gas or the soldiers releasing it. He gave his position away by calling to his men to go back, but stayed himself to be sure of the situation (I assume to protect their retreat). He then left.

Five minutes later the ‘gas alarm’ was sounded, while the Germans also opened-up with trench mortars and artillery. The gas release took place over 3,500 yards. Emberton was one of several awarded honours that day – his was the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Still, irrespective of the deaths the Battalion suffered 112 casualties and the first-aid post was described as ‘a sorry sight… [men] coughing, vomiting and struggling for breath’ – Wilfed Owen’s lines of ‘hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin’ and ‘froth-corrupted lungs’ come to mind.

German postcard from WW1 showing the release of gas via cylinders.  (http://www.worldwar1postcards.com/dunstans.php)

German postcard from the War showing the release of gas via cylinders. (http://www.worldwar1postcards.com/dunstans.php)

Prior to the Crimean War, no state award existed for bravery in the field and so the Victoria Cross and the lesser Distinguished Conduct Medal (DSO for officers) were instituted for rank-and-file soldiers for ‘distinguished, gallant and good conduct in the field’. During WWI, so many DCMs were being awarded that on 25 March 1916 the lesser Military Medal was instituted, being backdated to 1914. Emberton was awarded his DCM in April and two soldiers, the first I could tell from the Battalion, were awarded Military Medals in the same action – so Emberton’s gallantry must have been deemed worth of the DCM and not the lesser MM.

The DCM (unknown)

The DCM is made of silver and carries the recipients details. Those bestowed added DCM after their name
(unknown)

A second gas attack at Wulverghem was launched by the Germans on 17 June, however Frank managed to avoid this one; by a quirk of fate he had secured himself some home-leave and a license from the Bishop of Lichfield and as his Battalion were clearing-up after losing 26 men (including two lieutenants) and 134 wounded, he was marrying Gertrude Parsons at Cannock Registry Office. His respite was to be short lived, he would soon return to the War.

Wounds, Recuperation and Return: June 1916 – March 1919 
Just how long Frank and Gertrude spent together is not clear, so we will see him back in Belgium in July 1916. The ‘new show’, the Battle of the Somme, had kicked off on 1 July, in part to help relieve pressure on the French at Verdun. On 20 July the Brigade left the Ypres area for the Somme, moving via Amiens to the Guillemont area.

The Battalion occupied the front-line trenches on 9 August, with Emberton’s ‘A’ Company being shelled heavily. On 18 August the Brigade attacked Guillemont itself, with the North Staffs acting as support; their active participation was cancelled at the last minute. They were pulled from the line on 25 August – to be told they were going to take over the Delville Wood sector, a place nickname Devil’s Wood after the South Africans had been slaughtered in wresting it from the Germans.

Delville Wood, nicknamed Devil's Wood, in September 1916, when Frank was wounded. (Imperial War Museum)

Delville Wood, nicknamed Devil’s Wood, in September 1916, when Frank was wounded.
(Imperial War Museum)

On 31 August a tour of duty started that Battalion history describes as ‘no one who took part in is likely to forget’. The wood was a feature of huge strategic importance, but it was now an ‘abomination of desolation… and full of corpses in all stages of decomposition’. The Battalion were faced immediately with heavy shelling followed by a full assault. A further barrage followed the following day. The Battalion were finally withdrawn on 6 September, however, whether wounded in the fight by bullet or by shell, Frank Emberton was one of 155 from the Battalion to be wounded that tour. It would be a serious wound and he was awarded a wound stripe – but his front-line service was now over.

We can trace his movements, as they are listed in the Walsall & District Roll of Honour, but we do not have dates or any information on the nature and severity of his injuries. On evacuation from the front, Emberton would end-up at Rouen. Rouen was a Base Hospital (there were several medical facilities there), which was located both on the Seine and the rail network; it afforded easy access to the Channel ports at Le Havre and Dieppe, especially.

British soldiers at a Base Hospital in Rouen (Imperial War Museum)

British soldiers at a Base Hospital in Rouen
(Imperial War Museum)

Frank had clearly scored a ‘Blighty’ and was then evacuated to England. His first port of call was the Bordon Park Hospital, which I assume was located at the permanent military camp of that name in Hampshire. After this, he was moved first to the Stockport Infirmary before being sent to convalescent home in North Wales.

Stockport Infirmary (Peter Maleczek)

Stockport Infirmary
(Peter Maleczek)

How long all this had taken is unclear, but one thing we do know is that on 23 February 1917, Emberton was sitting in Harrison’s Club in Landywood – as that is the date that his membership started. Emberton would not get much from his membership, as he would return to the military – so I can only assume that he was on leave at this point. We also know that Frank had recovered sufficiently in other ways, as nine months after this leave, on the 9 November, the couple’s first child, William Frank, was born.

Emberton becomes a member of Harrison's, 23 February 1917. (Staffordshire Record Office)

Emberton becomes a member of Harrison’s, 23 February 1917.
(Staffordshire Record Office)

Frank returned north. He would head to Ripon, which was a military convalescent camp for soldiers that were not fit enough for service but were strong enough to leave the more specialist convalescent homes. Frank would be at Ripon for four months. Two postcards posted on the Wartime Memories Project site by Ray Laverick sum-up the conditions and I particularly like the lines:
‘There’s an isolated, desolate spot, I’d like to mention,
where all you hear is ‘stand at ease’, ‘quick march’, ‘slope arms’ and ‘attention’,
it’s miles from anywhere, by Jove it’s a rum un,
a man lived there for 50 years and never saw a woman’.

Mem Ripon Camp (Ray Laverick)

Postcards with soldier’s thoughts on Ripon Camp
(Ray Laverick)

Freedom from Ripon was achieved by transfer to the 3rd Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment. This Battalion was not on active service abroad, rather it was stationed as a Reserve Battalion and remained in England throughout the War. By October 1916 it was based at Wallsend and formed a part of the Tyne Garrison – this is a loose term, which in effect was the home defence for the north-east coastal area. The final reference in the Roll of Honour has Emberton becoming an instructor at the Whitley Bay; we do not know what he instructed in or when he arrived, but we do know that he served out the duration of the War there and was finally demobbed in March 1919.

Spanish City, which opened in Whitley Bay in 1910 - a familiar sight to Frank Emberton. (unknown)

Spanish City, which opened in Whitley Bay in 1910 – a familiar sight to Frank Emberton.
(unknown)

Life in Civvy Street: March 1919 – April 1932 
Frank returned to the locality as the post-war depression set in. The recession hit the area hard, as coal mining was heavily affected. Tensions were running high, which was acknowledged by Colonel Harrison during his speech at the unveiling of Harrison’s War memorials – possibly witnessed by Emberton. Unemployment remained higher than the pre-War period throughout the 1920s and then grew worse after the Wall Street Crash in 1929, which created a global downturn and hit British industry even harder – Emberton would have seen this all around him.

We know that just after the War that the Emberton family were living at the ‘Huts’ on Rosemary Road, Cheslyn Hay (as shown by the Walsall & District Roll of Honour, published in May 1920). He was to remain there for the rest of his life. Later sources would have his occupation as a ’tile maker’ and a ‘caster’, which if taken in conjunction with his address, would indicate that he was employed in the clay industry, likely at the Rosemary Brick and Tile Works and likely not long after his demobbing.

Houses on Watling St, 1926 - 102 was Frank Emberton's after returning from India. (Historic England)

Houses on Watling St, 1926 – 102 was Frank Emberton’s after returning from India.
(Historic England)

The year after his return, on 23 February, the couple’s second child Ronald Emberton was born. Tragedy was to follow: Harry, the third child, followed in early 1923 but died soon after. The couple went on, despite the difficult economic position as demonstrated by the General Strike of 1926, to have three more children: Marjorie (1924), Phyllis (1929) and Horace (1931). Emberton would remain a member of Harrison’s through the early 1920s – but his membership had lapsed by 1926.

1931/1932 would prove to be a period of unrest nationally, with ‘running battles’ between the Police and economic protesters/unemployed in many major cities – most locally in Birmingham – where the Lucas car works had seen a massive walkout over a new wage system (based on productivity). Hunger marches were not uncommon, but Frank would not see the national march in the September of 1932, as he contracted bronchial pneumonia and died at home on Saturday 16 April. He was buried, after a service at St Paul’s in Bridgtown, in an unmarked, single grave at Great Wyrley Cemetery on Wednesday 20 April.

Compared to the general perception of ‘heroism’ when falling in conflict there seems something prosaic about Frank’s death at the hands of bronchial pneumonia, yet it was precisely this that killed many gas victims some days after their poisoning in the War. While danger to his life was at its zenith in the War, conversely it was the ‘dust’ from his peacetime job that likely posed more threat. Antibiotics may have helped. Frank may have heard of Fleming’s discovery in 1928, but the first antibacterial was not really produced until, you guessed it, 1932. And so ended an ordinary life.

Epilogue 
Frank would see many things, but not the financial problem that Gertrude was left with. Remember, there was no welfare state and, believe it or not, the workhouses had only ceased operating in 1930 – its ‘public assistance’ function being passed to the local council. However the family sustained itself in this difficult time isn’t clear, but Gertrude remarried in 1937. She and her husband, Albert Horobin, would be living at 84 Watling St in 1949. She died, I believe, in 1978.

Elizabeth, Frank’s mother, I believe died also died in 1932 – just after her son. Francis lived at 102 Watling St until his death in 1938. Of his children, William died in 1984 and Ronald in 1993; I cannot trace a marriage for either. All I can be sure about for Marjorie is that she married Norman Purcell in 1944. Phyllis married a Jack Preece in 1947, and in 1949 they were living with Gertrude on Watling St. The only information on Horace is that he married Doreen Whitehouse in 1953.

UPDATE
I know I only published this story a week ago, but there is already an update. Andrew Thornton, an Honorary Research Fellow in War Studies (Brum University) and prolific WWI blogger, dropped me a note on the Wyrleyblog Facebook page that Frank’s medals were housed at the Staffordshire Regimental Museum – he remembered Frank’s sister depositing them there some 20 years back. I duly contacted Dani, the Museum Curator, who confirmed this and sent me a photo of his medals to add to the blog. A big thank you to them both.

Frank Emberton's DCM, 1914 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal. (Staffordshire Regimental Museum)

Frank Emberton’s DCM, 1914 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.
(Staffordshire Regimental Museum)

In memory of the Emberton family.

In light of recent events I would like to dedicate this article to Charles Kennedy, a real politician of the people and seemingly a thoroughly nice bloke.

My thanks to:
Bridgtown Local History Society
Great Wyrley Parish Council – Debra
Cannock Library
Harrison’s Club
Mike Tallent
National Archives
Ronald Miller
http://www.imgkid.com
Dr Trenkler
http://www.worldwar1postcards.com/dunstans.php
Imperial War Museum
Walsall Local History Centre
Staffordshire Record Office
Peter Maleczek
Ray Laverick
Historic England

Andrew Thornton
Dani the Curator at the Staffordshire Regimental Museum

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Comments
  1. […] The Things I have Seen: The Life of Frank Emberton D.C.M. […]

  2. Brian says:

    Great story and very well researched,amazingly a pal of mine from Cannock Grammar School Bill Emberton (sadly now deceased) came from Bridgetown probably related?

  3. Linda says:

    Another great read .. and lots of similarities with my grandad once again. He too was at Delville wood and was wounded in September 1916. He also went awol a few times, quite often picked up in Whitley bay so I was wondering if you had any more info on that area so i could find out what the attraction was for grandad.

  4. […] The Things I have Seen: The Life of Frank Emberton D.C.M. […]

  5. Toni Collier says:

    I have just read this amazing article. I’m not 100% sure who actually wrote it, but I am Frank Embertons great grandaughter (grandaughter of Phyliis and Jack Preece) . I would really appreciate whoever researched this article to get in touch, as I have been trying to research my family military history and was really touched to read this article!

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Hello, if you can add to his story please do, otherwise i thank you for you comment! I just live in wyrley and have a skill in what i do, what matters is frank, history and you, as you have made my day as you have read it as a family member!

  6. Linda says:

    That must have been amazing for you Toni 🙂

  7. Toni Collier says:

    It was, I have been over to the Staffordshire regimental museum today to see if I can view his medals. Mad I visited Belgium last year to learn about the attacks for which he was awarded his DCM medal.

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