Sunday, December 10, 2006

Ernest Whitcomb - "Frost bites in both feet"

Eighty eight years ago today, on 10th December 1918, Ernest Whitcomb died in Macedonia. He was not from Chailey but as 6271 Private Ernest Whitcomb, he had been a convalescent patient at Hickwells in early 1915. His entry in Nurse Oliver’s album reads:

Pte E Whitcomb
1st Middlesex Regt

Frost Bites in both feet on the
14th Feb at Armentieres

Reg No 6271

He shares this page with entries from SR/1921 Private James William Salmon of the 4th Royal Fusiliers, 2229 Trooper Alfred Rock of the Royal Horse Guards, 22002 Private D Jones of the Army Service Corps and 6155 Private Frank Chivers Dixon of the 1st Wiltshire Regiment.

I have often wondered if Ernest Whitcomb is one of the men pictured above. The man seated second left and the man seated far right appear on a number of photos and I have a hunch, although it won't be proven, that they were amongst the first 12 patients to be admitted.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Debt of Honour Register notes that he was 38 years old at the time of his death on 10th December 1918 and that he was son of J Whitcomb and the husband of S Whitcomb of Solander Street, St George in the East, London. Despite this information however, he has proven to be very difficult to track down on census returns. He should appear on the returns for 1881, 1891 and 1901 but I am not convinced that I have found him on any.

On the 1891 census, a ten year old Ernest Whitcombe, born in St George in The East, is recorded as a scholar at the St George’s in the East Industrial School at Plashet Grove, East Ham, London. The school was opened in 1851 on a 16 acre site at the east of Green lane. It was intended to accommodate 150 boys, 120 girls and 80 infants. The building was demolished in the 1980s.

I believe that Ernest may have been the son of Fred and Annie Whitcomb. Frederick John Whitcomb was born in 1861 in Bermondsey and his wife Annie (who was possibly born as Mary Ann Ince) was born in St George in The East around 1865. The couple appear on the 1891 census living at 105 Cornwall Street, St George in The East with their five children. Their names and ages are recorded as follows: Fred Whitcombe (aged seven), Mary Whitcombe (aged six), Sam Whitcombe (aged four), John Whitcombe (aged two) and Emma H Whitcombe (aged one month). Fred’s occupation is given as general labourer.

By the time the 1901 census was taken the family was still living at St George in the East but had moved to 57 Spencer Street. Frederick, still working as a labourer, is recorded as John; his wife his recorded as Anne and her age given as 39 (she was recorded as being 27 on the 1891 census). Their offspring are all still noted as living at the family home (Mary is recorded as Mary Anne) and there is a fifth child: Charles Whitcombe (aged two). Frederick/John’s mother Jane Whitcombe is the final person noted at the Whitcombe household. She is recorded as a 60 year old widow born in Greenwich. On both census returns, St George in the East is given as the place of birth for all of the Whitcombe children.

According to his medal index card (below), Ernest arrived in France on 3rd February 1915. He notes that he served with the 1st Battalion which formed part of the regular 6th Division. Judging by his Middlesex Regiment number, he originally enlisted in May 1900. Terms of enlistment were generally seven years with colours and five years on the reserve. This would have meant that Ernest would, under normal circumstances, have been discharged from the army in May 1912. That he was not suggest either that he extended his period of engagement or, more likely, that he enlisted for section D Army Reserve which would have given him four more paid years on the reserve when his first period of reserve service ended. Either way, he had certainly not been discharged from the regiment when Britain went to war on 4th August 1914.

Contemporary reports describe the awful conditions in which men found themselves in that first winter on the Western Front. The war diary for the 1st Middlesex describes how the battalion left billets west of Armentieres on 2nd January 1915, and entered the trenches which were “very bad, full of mud and water up to the men’s knees in many places. Raining all day.”

Between the 4th and 7th January, the war diary entries simply read: “still in trenches. Weather terrible - mud and water terrible.” By the 8th the weather was “slightly better” and the men were “Working all day to try and keep the trenches standing. Rain causes dug-outs to fall in and parapets to disappear. Fascines and sandbags all sink into mud.”

By 9th January it was raining hard again and because the trenches were in such an appalling state it was decided to start a breastwork to the rear of their present line. On the 18th, with the breastwork still being constructed, the 1st Middlesex was relieved by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders but were back in the line five days later. On the day that Whitcomb records he reported sick, there are no casualties mentioned but one can well imagine that many soldiers must have reported sick during this time.

Ernest would have spent time in hospital in England before being sent to Chailey to recuperate. Photos from Nurse Oliver’s album and Nurse Blencowe’s album at the time show men with bandaged feet in slippers and it is possible that Ernest Whitcomb is one of these men.

It would appear that after he recovered, Ernest transferred to the 5th (Reserve) Middlesex Regiment and subsequently to the Labour Corps where he was given the number 587639.

As mentioned previously, Ernest died on 10th December 1918 and is buried at Mikra British Cemetery in Kalamaria, Greece; grave/memorial reference 894. According to The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the British Cemetery at Mikra was “opened in April 1917 and remained in use until 1920. The cemetery was greatly enlarged after the Armistice when graves were brought in from a number of burial grounds in the area.”

Ernest’s medal index card at The National Archives indicates that his 1915 Star and British War and Victory Medals were returned by Mr F Whitcomb on 18th March 1923. They were re-issued to Ernest’s widow four days later but again returned as “gone away” on the 28th March. I am assuming that F Whitcomb is John Frederick Whitcomb and that, probably at the time of his enlistment in the army, he was Ernest’s next of kin. The medals would have been returned however because – and again this is an assumption – by the time Ernest was killed he had married and his wife was now his next of kin. Unfortunately there is no record of him on Soldiers Died in The Great War.

As with many of the soldiers commemorated on this site, further research is necessary to provide additional jigsaw pieces to the puzzle.

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