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WW1 Centenary: Walsham recalls its unusually high death toll

James Turner with the Waldsham le Willows WW1 display in the porch of St Mary the Virgin Church ANL-140722-170541001

James Turner with the Waldsham le Willows WW1 display in the porch of St Mary the Virgin Church ANL-140722-170541001

The smiling men in the photograph could be off on a village trip to the seaside until you notice the sign on one of the buses behind them.

It says ‘Walsham to Berlin’ because this is Walsham le Willows first batch of volunteers off to Bury St Edmunds to join the army.

Many would never come back and village historian James Turner points out some in the front row who returned badly injured.

The picture is on the first panel of a display in St Mary the Virgin Church’s porch, complied by the village’s history group, telling the stories of all 36 men on the war memorial outside, plus nine Walsham-born men who had moved away and five dead from a waifs and strays home in the village.

Many villages are having similar displays, but what makes Walsham’s poignant is how unlucky village was.

James says about 130 men from a 1,200 population served in WW1, which is almost 14 per cent. Nationally the death rate was 12.5 per cent of the six million who served, but Walsham lost a shocking 27.7 per cent.

The first to die was Cyril Firman, who was with the 2nd Btn Suffolk Regiment at Le Catteau on August 26, 1914, when, in delaying the German advance, it lost about a third of its men.

Cyril was posted missing, so his family had to wait a year for his death to be confirmed, but some waited even longer.

Capt Harold Bennett of Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles was at home when war broke out so went to Egypt to join them for the trip to northern France. He went missing on November 13, 1914 but his death was not confirmed until July 1917.

Not all were army: the second death was Frederick Sharman. He was chief stoker aboard HMS Aboukir so had no chance of getting out when she was hit by a U-boat’s torpedo on September 22, 1914.

Sharman’s name is on the Chatham Naval Memorial in Kent because he has no known grave. He is not alone in that. James said: “About three are on the Thiepval Memorial and another three on the Menin Gate with no known graves.”

But two are in the village graveyard because they were brought back to the UK for treatment and died here in 1918. They are Privates William Oxborrow and Sydney Cracknell.

The final display panel records the sad story of Llewllyn Clamp who joined up in August 1914 and fought in France and Salonica. Having survived the war, he accidentally set himself alight starting a fire in February 1919.

He was recovering until a change of doctors at the hospital meant his bandages were not changed so his wounds became septic. He died on March 29 and was the last of Walsham’s Great War dead.

A centenary service will be held at St Mary’s on August 4.

If your village is planning a display or event for the centenary, please let John Henderson know at john.henderson@buryfreepress.co.uk so we can publicise it on August 1.

 

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