663 Private Harry Thomas Richard Townsend,
6th Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey).
Died of Wounds in France, 8 July 1916,
Buried at Boulogne Eastern Cemetery.
For the men of 6/The Queen’s, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, was relatively quiet in terms of action, but played out against the background of earth-shattering noise. The battalion had set out at 7a.m. from Bresle bound for Millencourt which they reached two hours later and where they bivouacked until early evening, when they were ordered to the ‘Intermediate Trenches’, north-west of the town of Albert.
What were their thoughts throughout that day, one wonders, for they would certainly have heard the sounds of the attack that resulted in such appalling loss of life for the Allies?
Fifteen minutes after their arrival at those trenches, they were ordered to move “at once” to the Front Line Trenches to relieve the exhausted and depleted men of the 2nd Battalion of The Rifle Brigade. Just before dawn on the morning of the 2nd July (at 4.25a.m.), the battalion’s adjutant meticulously recorded each company’s position using the various names applied to their particular trenches.
He later recorded that day as “quiet” with only four men wounded. For the men of 6/The Queen’s, the following day was to test them sorely. Again the adjutant meticulously records the experience of each of the four companies of the 6th but unfortunately we do not know which company Harry served. However, the adjutant’s summary of ‘what went wrong’ speaks for those who lost their lives and in its own way serves as a permanent rebuke to those whose omissions contributed to the failure of the attack. He wrote:—
The attack failed for the following reasons:—
- The enemy M[achine] G[unner]s whose fire completely swept the ground.
- The enemy wire was insufficiently cut.
- The short time to arrange the attack & not knowing the ground or being able to see the enemy trenches from our parapet, consequently loss of direction.
- The enemy trenches were thick with Germans, so the bombardment cannot have been very successful.
- During the morning after the attack, the enemy shelled the front line with H[igh] E[xplosive] & shrapnel.
No wonder Plumer was to insist on Haig’s allowing him time to prepare thoroughly for the Battle of Broodseinde in the following year, a battle which is recognised as one of the forgotten successes of Passchendaele.
On the day that Harry was wounded, his battalion lost six out of eighteen officers (killed or missing) and four wounded. The casualties within the other ranks amounted to 140 killed or missing, and 154 wounded. Five days later, Harry’s wounds were to prove fatal. He was just 21.
Having read the diaries of nurses such as Kate Luard, I can well appreciate the awfulness of a lingering death from wounds. The images in the BBC drama, The Crimson Field (2014) struck me forcibly at the time—the spotless aprons of the nurses, the unstained decks…the quiet wards—were all in stark contrast to what those who had nursed through that war described in their diaries.
Harry Thomas Richard Townsend (‘young Harry’) was the eldest of the four children of Harry Townsend (1867–1911) and his wife, Jessie Guile (c.1873–1961), both natives of Ham, who had married there, in St Andrew’s Church, in 1894. Their son was named Harry for his father, Thomas for his paternal grandfather, and Richard possibly for his maternal grandfather and/or his paternal great-grandfather.
Harry’s grandparents, Thomas Townsend (c.1832–1909) and his wife Martha Sivyer (1829–1891), both moved from kent to Ham during the 1850s. Thomas had been born in Bromley where his father, Richard, was for many years the Parish Beadle. At the start of that decade Thomas was still living in his family home, with his occupation described as ‘formerly Footman’.
Martha was also a native of Kent, having been born in the village of Goudhurst where her father was a shoemaker. In 1851 she was working as a house servant for Henry Keene, ‘Clerk without cure of souls’, in Tonbridge, but by 1861 she was employed in Ham as a housemaid in the household of Maria Dawkins, a widow who lived off what she described as ‘various private resources’.
Thomas Townsend was Mrs Dawkins’ footman, so he was living and working under the same roof as the housemaid who was to become his wife. Whether this was a workplace romance, or whether their paths had already crossed elsewhere, is not known. Be that as it may, within two years of that census, their marriage was registered in Kingston,. (A search of the entries in the Marriage Register for St Andrew’s Church reveals they were not married in that church.)
The eldest child of this marriage, Thomas Richard, was born in Ham the following year and his baptismal record confirms that his father was still working as a ‘servant’. Their second son, Harry, was born in 1867, and his baptismal record records that his father, Thomas, was trading as a grocer, an occupation which was to support the Townsend family relatively comfortably for the remaining years of his life.
A change of career
Interested by the alteration in Thomas’s circumstances, I looked for the burial record of Maria Dawkins his employer, and discovered that she was Maria Margaret Colyear-Dawkins, who died in 1865 and who is buried in St Peter’s Churchyard in Petersham. Further research into Maria Dawkins revealed that Thomas and Martha’s employer was baptised in Richmond as Maria Margaret Forbes, and that she was the daughter of General (Gordon) Forbes. This made her the aunt of Isabella Forbes, whose daughter, Ada Tollemache, became Lady Sudeley. (This particular Lord and Lady Sudeley lived at Ormeley Lodge, and were a driving force behind the Parish War Memorial, on which their son, Felix Hanbury-Tracy, is commemorated twice.)
I think it’s possible that Maria’s will included a bequest to her footman, which gave him the means to embark on another career, as a local tradesman.
With Thomas trading successfully as a grocer, the death of their elder son, Thomas Richard, in 1870, shortly before his sixth birthday, meant that it was their second son, young Harry, who was destined to follow Thomas into the grocery business.
In August 1894, young Harry married Jessie the daughter of Richard George Guile (1842–1902), a carpenter, and Mary Ann Russell (1836–1912). Harry and Jessie were to have three sons and a daughter, the eldest of whom was Harry Thomas Richard. Named after his father, grandfathers and his uncle, this child became the soldier commemorated on the Ham War Memorial simply as H.TOWNSEND.
It was common to find a widowed grandparent living with the family. Jessie’s maternal grandfather, Richard Russell, had lived with the Guiles in the New Road house, and for most of Jessie’s married life, her widowed father-in-law, Thomas Townsend, shared the house with the young Townsends.
Three generations of Townsends lived at Park View, on the Petersham Road. It was at Park View that Thomas died in 1909, followed by his son, Harry senior, in 1911 (aged only 43). The census taken earlier that year recorded that Harry senior was not in work and was living off his ‘own means’. He gave his occupation as ‘grocer’s assistant’ and ‘out of work’, perhaps because of illness.
With the loss of her husband in 1909, and the death of her mother the following year, Jessie was left without close family support to bring up her four children, whose ages ranged from 7 to 16. She was herself not yet forty.
Young Harry was, however, already bringing home wages from his work as a gas fitter’s mate, while his younger brother, Frederick, was working as a telegraph messenger. The adoption of trades other than those followed by their parents was typical of Harry’s generation, in both Ham and Petersham.
Young Harry was awarded the 1915 Star, as well as the British and Victory medals. This indicates that he enlisted fairly early in the war, certainly well before conscription was introduced. Having volunteered and then undergone training, he arrived in France on 1 June 1915, thirteen months before his death. Harry was unmarried, so his mother was his sole legatee.
Frederick Alfred Sivyer, Jessie’s second son, died in 1923, at the early age of 26. Harry’s mother lived on until 1961, and was survived by her youngest children, Marcel Guile Townsend (1900–1980) and Jessie Louise Townsend (1904–2004).
Born into a generation in which so many young men lost their lives, young Jessie was fated to be her mother’s companion. In time, they left Ham behind them, and were living in Dawson Road in Kingston at the outbreak of the Second World War. Harry’s sister, Jessie, who had not reached her teens when her brother was killed, lived until her hundredth year.
Marcel, Harry’s younger brother, married Ivy Malin in 1933 and their daughter, Nora Margaret was born the following year. The 1939 Register shows that, soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, Marcel, a fishmonger’s assistant, was living in Mitcham with his in-laws. Realising that his wife and their children had probably been evacuated, I searched for them in the 1939 Register, which revealed that they were in Middleton on Sea, near the beach of that name, to the east of Bognor Regis. At that time Marcel and Ivy’s youngest child, Fay, was just four months’ old.
It is the boy born between those two sisters, who is a reminder that Harry was not forgotten. Marcel and Ivy’s son was given the name of his uncle, and called Harry.
Marcel and Ivy had another daughter, Beryl, born some years after the war. Fay, her husband James, and their children emigrated to the USA in 1977, settling in New Hampshire, where Fay died in 2015. Harry, his wife and their children, as well as Beryl, remained in London.
We are hoping to make contact with Harry’s surviving relatives so that they know that Ham has not forgotten Harry either.
The National Archives, WO 95/1863/1, War Diary of 6th Battalion, The Queen’s, (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, 3 July 1916.
‘General Gordon Forbes’. http://www.worcestershireregiment.com/wr.php?main=inc/c_forbes, accessed 23/8/2017.
The History of Parliament, James Dawkins later Colyear-Dawkins, http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/dawkins-james-1760-1843, accessed 23/8/2017.
Wikipedia, ‘General Gordon Forbes’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Forbes_(British_Army_officer), accessed 23/8/2017.