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  • Claire Jordan

Most Willing and Always Brave

On 29th July 1899, a hot day in Islington, young bride Frances Stockdale gave her solicitor’s clerk husband Humphrey their first child, a little boy, whom they named after his Dad.

When War came in 1914, the family had moved to St Albans and Humphrey was already proud big brother to little Frances, John (who’d died in infancy), Robert (who hadn’t made it past 4), Charles, Alban Valentine, Mary, Hugh and Alfred.

Humphrey had been a keen member of the Church Lads’ Brigade and was eager, bless him, to join up, but he had only just turned 15 and would have to wait a little while yet.

Meanwhile small brother Freddie arrived in 1916, probably around the time Humphrey was at last allowed into a Training Battalion for those still too young to fight.

As part of the CLB, Humphrey had likely been training as a cadet for years, learning how to keep a uniform smart, to take orders, to march, bivouac, signal and administer first-aid. Humphrey would have taken part in organised War Games days, two sections fighting a mock pitched battle with much excitement and gusto, for an entire day.

Technically, you could not be sent overseas until you turned 19.

Humphrey’s 19th birthday arrived finally on 29th July 1918; he had exactly two months left to live.

On 29th September, his 16th Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps (Church Lads Brigade) was assembled before dawn, ready for the Battle of St Quentin Canal.

The enemy were at last on the backfoot but could not be moved from their strong defensive position along the length of their old Hindenburg Line.

Humphrey’s Brigade were to mount an attack subsidiary to the main one further south and all available tanks and heavy guns would be concentrated in the main attack, leaving the lads ranged along Humphrey’s part of the line short of cover; they would just have to play up, play up and play the game as best they could.

But this was likely Humphrey’s first time in action and it’s very hard to think of.

He had waited so long for his chance to be of service to his country, to do his family and his mates in the Church Lads Brigade proud.

Zero hour was 5.50am.

The Brigade attacked with the 2nd Worcesters and Humphrey went over the top, heart thumping.

All was chaos for some time. “First reports were that attack was doing well,” records the war diary. “Situation very obscure.”

But the Worcesters were held up by an enemy strong point, relentlessly machine-gunning all before it, and two Companies of Humphrey’s Church Lads were sent forward “in an effort to rush this point.

The enemy then put down a heavy smoke barrage, which caused our men to lose their way.

Strenuous efforts were made to gain touch with these two Companies, who were located about 10am.”

By noon, it was clear that the enemy had at last begun to withdraw.

The Battle of St Quentin Canal had actually achieved its goal in forcing the enemy out of his elaborate defensive system which had long seemed unconquerable.

They had fallen back to their Reserve Line several miles behind the Canal and this would mean a fresh effort, a fresh attack, to further drive them out.

But Humphrey would not be part of the next attack on the Reserve Line; his Battle was over.

After the War, his Mum and Dad chose the most marvellous inscription for his headstone:

“Most Willing and Always Brave.”

Humphrey, we can only hope to be half the man you were; you made everyone proud, and you still do.

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