Reflections on World War One: the families who lost many sons
Robert E Pike, World War One Historian
- Credit: Carol Pike
Saffron Walden historian Robert E Pike reflects on the stories behind the names on the town's war memorial.
One of the many tragedies of the Great War was the numbers of the same family that perished, often bringing to an end the family line.
There are many familiar fraternal names on our memorial who lost lost two brothers but then there was the incomprehensible pain of losing three sons, like the Pearsons and the Swans.
However the loss of three sons was surpassed by families who lost four, and even five, a scenario that no parent can comprehend. The Porter family of Debden Road is one such family.
In October 1914 George and Mary Porter received the shocking news that their third eldest son Andy, who lived in Liskeard, Cornwall with his wife and two children, had been killed in action.
Andy had landed at Le Havre on August 24, 1914 with the 2nd Essex as part of 12th Brigade 4th Division.
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His last letter dated October 17, written in the trenches, had ominously contained the phrase that things were “ looking black”. Four days later he was dead.
The stark details of Andy’s death were at 5.15am on October 21 they were called forward from reserve to combat a heavy German attack near Le Gheer and he was never seen again.
A real insight into the comradeship of the trenches is given in a postcard dated the day Andy died, sent by one of their friends and received on November 14. Private F Braybrooke wrote how “ he had lost both his mates, killed on the same day”.
Andy Porter has no known grave and is commemorated on the Pleogsteert Memorial, Belgium. He was 25.
The Porter's second son, Private Henry Sidney James PORTER (32240) 2nd Essex Regiment, was killed in action February 8, 1917, aged 37.
Henry (always known as Harry) was their eldest son, a builder for William Bell and Sons of South Road. He joined the Essex Regiment on October 20, 1916 and was sent to France at the end of December in the same year.
In early February the battalion was around Bouchavesnes. On February 8 three companies with one in support were to advance towards the enemy lines.
Harry was one of a working-party in support, when he was hit by a shell and killed instantly. It is likely that he was hastily buried where he fell.
After the war his body was recovered and reburied in the pleasant, open Fins New British Cemetery, one of 591 recovered in such a way.
The Porter family learnt of Harry’s death in early March. Their grief and fears are difficult to imagine - two sons dead and three more still serving, Joseph in the Northumberland Fusiliers, Bertram in the Royal Fusiliers and Ralph in the Royal Naval Air Service.
The Fates had not finished with them sadly - of the three remaining sons, two were to come home, but only one was to survive.
A further 1917 offensive was ill-conceived and doomed to failure. Known as the Third Battle of the Scarpe, the forces attacked over a front of 16 miles. One historian called the day “ the blackest of the war.”
Lance-Cpl. Joseph John PORTER 44429 25th Northumberland Fusiliers (3rd Tyneside Irish) died of wounds April 29, 1917, aged 34. He is buried in Saffron Walden Town Cemetery, Radwinter Road, Essex, Plot 51 Grave 104.
After school Joseph John Porter had found employment as a carpenter and joiner with the local builder J Custerson, after some time with Bell & Sons. He was married with one child and lived at 7 East Street. He was also known in the district as a half-mile runner.
When war broke out Joseph enlisted in the Essex Regiment as Private 28819. However, after the first day of the Battle of the Somme when they were virtually annihilated, he was transferred to fill the gaps in the Tyneside Irish, a ‘Pals’ battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers.
On April 9, 1917 Joseph and his battalion were part of the 34th Division who formed the left hand side of the mighty punch at the German positions to the north east of Arras. The ultimate objective was the Green Line on the bare crest of Point du Jour Ridge.
The Tyneside Irish were in support, and when the leading battalions were held up by heavy machine-gun fire, they were ordered forward. Confusion reined as Joseph and his comrades found themselves pinned down as well.
The sole cause of this mayhem was a single machine gun that had survived the British barrage. In this cacophony of exploding shell, clouds of dust and flying bullets, Joseph was hit in the stomach. Stretcher-bearers recovered him and he started the long and painful journey back to hospital in England.
Joseph was transferred to hospital in Halifax, where on April 27 his mother and wife arrived at his bedside, but, as with so many wounds, infection had set in and on the Sunday, Joseph died. It is impossible to imagine how harrowing his death must have been to his wife, let alone Joseph’s mother - it was her third son to die. Perhaps some small comfort was gained by her presence at his bedside?
Joseph’s body was brought back to Saffron Walden and buried in the town cemetery. Sadly, it is not blessed with a Commonwealth War Grave Commission white headstone, and is in a sorry state of neglect.
However, it is just possible to decipher the inscription, “Lce-Cpl Joseph John Porter died of wounds received in France 29 April 1917 aged 33. In loving memory of my dear husband (Mary).” Today, Mary lies with her husband, having been a widow for 47 years.
Officially the Battle of Arras ended on May 17, 1917. It lasted 39 days and claimed approximately 159,000 casualties at a daily rate of 4,076; a higher daily rate than the Somme, Passchendaele or the Final Offensive. Casualties included the Porter's youngest son Bertram.
Lance-Corporal Bertram Alfred PORTER (G/1511) 4th Royal Fusiliers, killed in action May 3, 1917. Commemorated on the Arras Memorial to the Missing, France, Bay 3.
Bertram enlisted early in the war, going to France in June 1915. On May 3, 1917 the battalion was on the Arras front, and had been ordered to advance across country towards a sunken road running north-west towards Roeux.
Their second objective was to be the village of Pelves, once Roeux had fallen. Although (with the 8th Battalion) there were only 800 men, their frontage was 1,000 yards, but they advanced unsupported deep into German territory by 5 am. As it was dark they passed over unseen groups of the enemy who shot them in the back. They were enfiladed by machine-gun fire from the village of Roeux, which had not been captured. In this darkness and carnage, the last Porter son, Bertram, disappeared without trace.
The Porter's fifth son, Ralph Porter, was in the Royal Naval Air Service. He was the only one to survive.
In the words of Ford Madox Ford:
They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;
They await the lost that shall never again come by the train
To the embraces of all these women with dead faces;
They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss’
In the dark of the night.....
There is so much pain.
Who, as a parent, can begin to understand the multiple loss of their beloved sons?
I can only grasp tentatively at the thought that, perhaps, there was some comfort to think that one’s sons died together, as they once played together, in sunnier days.