There are no winners in war, only stories of lives lost and chaos wreaked that are too numerous to count. But in WWI people were proud to sign up to do their bit. They were fighting for King and Country, and besides, the fighting was expected to be all done by Christmas. In Milton Keynes, one young man’s story is a poignant reminder of the tragedies faced, as Sammy Jones explains…
On June 22, 1899, Edward and Mary French welcomed a son, Albert Edward Mortlock French. He was born in Stantonbury, and spent his early life in New Bradwell.
By the time of the 1911 census Albert was living at 60 Young Street in Wolverton with his father, sister May, and younger brothers William and George.
Sadly, Albert’s mother, who married Edward when she was 23 years old, had passed away at some point between the two censuses, and Aunt Jane had taken over as the housekeeper following Mary’s passing.
At school, Albert was a member of the Church Lads’ Brigade where he played the bugle, and he worked for a chemist in the town.
On July 4 1913, aged 14, he started work at Wolverton Railway Works as an apprentice fitter in The ‘Bogie’ Shop. The Works was a dominant employer in the area, and Albert’s father also earned his wages there, as a drilling machinist.
Less than a year later, Albert was moved to the Fitting Shop. He was paid 5/- or 25 pence per week.
But change was coming; that same August, many young men from Wolverton left their positions at the Works to sign up to fight in the Great War.
There was a sense of urgency about it; many were afraid if they didn’t get involved quickly they would miss out – it was believed that the conflict would be over by Christmas.
Only 40% of the six million British Army Service Records survived the bombing attacks on London that followed during WWII, and thankfully Albert’s are among them.
Because of those records, we know he enlisted with the British Army on October 18, 1915 at St Pancras in London.
All recruits were cautioned they would be punished for any false declaration made on the Attestation Form, but regardless, Albert ‘aged himself’ in order to be accepted – he stated that he was 19 years old and working as a labourer. In reality, Albert was a boy of just 16.
He was a slight lad too; weighing less than seven and a half stone.
His brother George remembered that despite the slight frame, Albert was ‘tall and dark haired, looking older than he really was. He was a chap that had to shave pretty quick, so when he went to join the Army, of course there was no questions about his age…”
Albert began his Army life training with the 18th Battalion of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps in Essex, and he wrote home frequently.
“You need have no fear about my looking after myself and behaving myself May, because I only go out about three nights a week, and then usually by myself,” he wrote to his sister,
“I either walk round the town or go to the Y.M.C.A. at Romford, where there are all kinds of games and concerts.
When I stop in camp I either go in our own Y.M.C.A. and read books or war news, or sew buttons on, or have a chat with another decent fellow out of our room on military affairs. So you see I behave myself alright. I have one jolly good wash, wash my hair every day, and clean my teeth every day, and bathing parade once per week. We have to sleep on one straw mattress, pillow, three blankets, and waterproof sheet. They keep you warm, but if you wake up about 1.00 a.m. you feel slightly cold. If we go in billets at Andover I expect our beds will be better than they are now…”
Make no mistake though, the training was hard work – for man and beast alike.
“We all have troubles and trials, but with a little pluck, and grit, you win through all right,” he said, “We went on a 16 mile route march yesterday with packs, ammunition, bayonets, rifles in fact we had everything. Four miles of this march was over a boggy plain, up to our knees (without exaggeration) in sand, mud and water. Two horses which sank in the mud up to their heads had to be hauled out with ropes. Before we got back the fellows weren’t half carrying on…”
In another letter he shared his feelings for a Wolverton girl called Violet Cox who he had ‘rather taken a liking to’ during a visit home, and he wrote of his hope that she would write to him.
He also talked of staying in the Army beyond the war, despite it not quite meeting with his expectations: “It’s not such an easy a job as you at first think, but now I’m in, I’m going to stick it, whatever happens, for the duration of the war, at any rate, and for a good while after if I feel like it. I’m out to make a man of myself, don’t-cher know. Of course, I’m only a boy yet.”
In May 1916, Albert’s battalion was ready to make tracks to France, and as was customary, he wrote down his will.
Albert continued to put pen to paper to May too, and he did strike up a firm exchange with Violet, telling his sister,“I’ve had about a dozen letters from Violet altogether, and you can guess I’ve sent her about 13.”
As time progressed, it was clear from his writings that things weren’t as cheery for Wolverton’s teenager as they had once been. The shine had gone, and the bleak reality of the situation had set in.
“I haven’t half been busy the last week, up till today Sunday. The worst of it is they don’t give us enough grub to do it on. We spend most of our money on coffee, ginger beer and chocolate. We still get our 3/6 a week as yet, but that does not go very far. I shan’t stop in the army after the war, it’s not good enough,” he said.
Parts of his letter had been censored too, although he did speak of the task ahead:
“We shall be popping away at the Germans pretty shortly, and as long as I don’t get popped it will be alright, I guess…”
The letters were mailed home often, keeping the family up to speed with his news from the frontline: “We are quartered in ‘Musty Villa’, which is the name given to our dugout. We have to do our grub up securely or half of it disappears to the rats and mice. But they aren’t half so lousy as some people make out they are….The shells do not make so much row as I thought they would. They make a whirling tearing noise and scream slightly. They make a big hole and plenty of smoke when they burst, and bits fly about 50 yards.’
On June 4, 1916 Albert wrote to his father: ‘I am still alive and kicking, and in the best of health, and getting on quite all right….I can tell you it isn’t like home at all here, rather dull. I don’t bother about the shells and snipers’ bullets very much. Still, if you keep cheery you are all right. The war will have to end sometime won’t it?”
On June 6, 1916 May wrote to Albert: “Dad and the boys send their love, you will soon be sweet 17 and never been kissed on the 22nd of this month…”
But Albert never was ‘sweet 17’. Just a week before his birthday, Albert lost his life.
Instead of another warm, loving letter from their son and brother, his family received a letter from the regiment, informing them that Albert had died in the trenches near Ploegsteert in Belgium.
‘I regret to have to report the death of your son C7259 Rfn. A. French, who was killed by machine gun fire, whilst with a working party June 15th 1916. He was a very good soldier, although so young, and a willing worker, who made many friends in the company,’ said Captain Pennell.
Albert had been sandbagging a trench when he took four machine gun bullets to the chest. In a flash, this amiable boy and all of the promise for his future had been silenced forever.
That November, Albert’s father was fortunate to receive the few personal effects that belonged to Albert at the time of his death; a disc, a leather wallet with letters, photos and a card, a purse, a few coins and three pencils.
Albert wasn’t the only boy to lose his life in the trenches as he fought for his country, but his story is perhaps one of the most enduring.
That his story can even be told is thanks to a chance discovery of the letters Albert had written to his family, which were bundled among the belongings of Albert’s sister May, following her death in 1975.
At the time, Roger Kitchen was starting a collection of old embossed books, and he paid a few pounds for a cardboard box and its contents. At the bottom of that box, buried beneath some encyclopedias were the correspondences between Albert and his family.
“My life was completely changed by the accidental find of those letters,” said Roger, who showed them to Roy Nevitt, then director of drama at Stantonbury Campus. Roy crafted the letters into a play, Your Loving Albert and this began a collaboration which resulted in Roy and Roger researching, creating and producing more local musical documentary plays, that later led to them founding The Living Archive in Milton Keynes.
“I could never have dreamed what that chance discovery would lead to,” said Roger, “So many people have been moved and inspired by Albert’s story. I’m so glad I saw their value and didn’t throw them away!”
The correspondences between the family have since been the source of not just of a play, but also of a 1980 Radio 4 documentary, ‘He Shouldn’t Have Been There Should He?’
His story has also been told in two books.
Albert rests in Hyde Park Corner Cemetery in Ploegsteert, Belgium, which has since been twinned with Wolverton, and his poignant story is passed from generation to another in Milton Keynes.
At the MK Rose a pillar is dedicated to his memory, and every June 15 a service is held there to remember our soldier boy who, like millions more, never returned home to their families.
With thanks to Living Archive and Heritage MK
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This feature was written by Milton Keynes Museum. Find out more about forthcoming events and see our opening times at: www.mkmuseum.org.uk