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  • Claire Jordan

Sarah's Boys

A post of gratitude and love for these lovely faces.

On her wedding day in the summer of 1895, Liverpudlian mariner’s daughter Sarah Ward was a 33 year old cook who had perhaps resigned herself to not marrying at all.

She’d not, however, reckoned on dashing, moustachioed former soldier Henry Felton, a veteran of 21 years’ service (much of it in Africa, fighting Queen Victoria’s ‘Small Wars’) with the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

He hadn’t found the right girl to marry either when he was soldiering and at the age of fifty, working now as a gentleman’s valet, perhaps he too had made his peace with a bachelor’s existence.

It must have been a sunny wedding day.

Their first son Harry arrived the following year, and Fred was next in 1898.

Two little girls Mabel and Ruth completed the happy little family. Henry had his Army pension and a good job as caretaker at the Gateacre Institute (a school and library, later a working man’s club), where they all lived.

When the Great War came, eldest son Harry (on the left below) was eager to Do His Bit. He too was working as a valet when he enlisted in the first weeks of the War into the King’s Liverpool Regiment, embarking with 4th Battalion at the beginning of March 1915.

He was destined for the Ypres Salient.

Harry and his mates came under shellfire for the first time as they marched on 26th April to reserve positions close to St Jean in the north-east sector of the Salient; two Officers and ten Other Ranks were killed or wounded, just on their way up.

This was Harry’s first real taste of War.

The next day, 27th April 1915 would be his big moment.

At 12 noon, the war diary says, the Battalion formed up for the attack and assaulted the German positions.

A regimental history adds: “The King’s, splendidly led by their Officers, advanced by short rushes, with the enemy pumping lead into them and men falling in heaps.”

One party did manage to get within 200 yards of the German trenches but were held up by uncut barbed wire entanglements.

Casualties that day were around 374 Other Ranks killed, wounded, missing.

Despite all that courage, the attack had failed and 18 year old Harry Felton was Missing.

Back home in Gateacre, teenaged Fred (on the right), his little sisters and his Mum and Dad all waited and hoped for good news that would never come.

The weeks dragged by. With no sign of Harry, his death was officially accepted as having taken place on or since 27th April 1915.

Fred, done with school, was now working as a clerk for the Fire Service and so technically in a reserved occupation, for which Mum Sarah was more grateful than she could express.

But then came the calamitous day late in 1916 when, outside Woolworths, a woman handed 17 year old Fred a white feather.

He went straight to enlist in his Dad’s old Regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Henry had survived the Ashanti Wars in its service; perhaps it would keep his younger son safe.

A year of training followed, and finally, two weeks past his 19th birthday, Fred embarked for France just before Christmas 1917.

So when the Germans launched the gargantuan onslaught of the Kaiserschlacht in the third week of March, little Fred was right in the middle of it, now with 18th Battalion, Welsh Regiment.

It was the enemy’s last desperate roll of the dice, but the lads on the ground could not know that; all they knew was that the Germans had broken through almost everywhere along our front, with overwhelming force.

We were forced everywhere into a fighting retreat, countless unrecorded acts of monumental courage dissolved by shot and shell.

By 9th April, Fred and what was left of his Battalion were making a stand, holding the line, at Estaires, in the Fleurbaix sector with the Portuguese Corps (who’d come into the War on the Allied side in 1916) on their right, and the 13th East Surreys on their left.

At 4.20am, an enemy barrage opened up and rained gas shells mixed with high explosives heavily down onto Fred’s front line, as well as the support lines and all Lewis gun posts. German soldiers followed close behind, rising up in one terrible rolling mass out of their trenches and rushing our positions.

Just before 6am, Fred’s Battalion Commander (Lt-Col Brown) received a message to the effect that the enemy was coming over on the Portuguese front in large numbers. Fred’s position was being outflanked, as well as hit head-on; the Lewis gun posts were surrounded.

“The support line garrison put up a good defence,” Lt-Col Brown recorded in his narrative of the day’s events, “40 dead Germans being counted in front of No.12 Lewis Gun Post and 30 in front of the post on the right.”

Fred’s Battalion Commander tried to reorganise his dwindling resources, but each position he sent his men to reinforce was in turn overrun.

“Officer Commanding right Company reported at 8am that extensive fire was bring put on the support line and at 8.30am that the barrage had lifted and that he was surrounded by the enemy in large numbers but was holding on to the last. There are no survivors of their Company.”

Elements of Fred’s Battalion were being forced back down every trench, their Battalion HQ destroyed by shells.

At 9.40am, the enemy in force had swamped the front line and were swarming beyond it.

By 10am, they were within 100 yards of what was left of Battalion HQ, so Lt-Col Brown took the decision to evacuate its remnants.

They then “fought a rear-guard action on the line of Winter’s Night Post, accounting for many of the enemy, who were within point blank range and at the same time sustaining many casualties, including my Adjutant, Intelligence Officer and Lewis Gun Officer.”

Managing somehow to reach Winter’s Night Post, Lt-Col Brown continues: “I drew 4 boxes of small arms ammunition from… HQ but on endeavouring to return to the front, found it was surrounded by the enemy, who were advancing on Reserve Battalion HQ.

The Garrison at the Post including the 21 Middlesex and 18th Welsh were practically wiped out with shell fire and machine gun fire and only a very few were able to fall back.

My reserve Company… put up a strong resistance, the OC [of the] Company being dangerously wounded. The enemy took them in front, flank and rear and the whole Company is now missing.

Out of the troops holding the line on the night of 8th-9th April, only two Officers, myself and Signalling Officer, and 20 Other Ranks survived.”

And so Fred now was Missing, just like his brother Harry three years earlier.

Impossible to imagine Sarah’s agony back home in Gateacre when the telegram arrived.

She would ask the Red Cross on 2nd August to look for her boy, and again after the Armistice, on 20th November, but no one knew anything. “Negatif envoyé” is how the Red Cross puts it: No Sent.

It seems that with his Battalion and the wider British Expeditionary Force in such agonising disarray, Fred had not actually appeared on any nominal roll since 24th March 1918, three days into the Kaiserschlacht. That’s the Missing date Sarah gave the Red Cross in both enquiries.

But it would soon come to light that he had survived over two more weeks with his Battalion, all the way up to that awful day, 9th April.

For, in January 1919, a Private named William Vaughan who had served with Fred in the 18th Welsh and who had been taken Prisoner at Estaires was released from a German POW Camp and repatriated to England, where he was asked (as was standard) if he had any information about the fate of any fellow soldiers.

Yes, said William, he had seen Fred Felton shot through the head on 9th April. Yes, he was sure.

The news filtered back to Sarah and Henry in Liverpool.

At least now they had an answer, rather than the bottomless void into which Harry had fallen earlier in the War.

Neither of Sarah’s boys has a known grave: Harry is remembered by the CWGC on the Menin Gate and Fred is on the Ploegsteert (Plug Street) Memorial.

But please can we remember them too.

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