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  • Claire Jordan

The Ally Sloper tattoo

When 33 year old Percy Lee presented himself for service at Worthing two weeks after the declaration of War in August 1914, he stood a respectable 5’ 7½” tall, with blue eyes and light brown hair and he rejoiced in an impressive panoply of tattoos.

According to his papers, he was still working on his left arm, on which there only appeared the image of a bird, but on his right forearm, he had inked a lady, a horseshoe, a rose and – unusually - the cartoon-strip character Ally Sloper, popular at the time, though almost unheard-pf today.

Sloper was a sort of scruffy early version of Del-boy, always coming up with imaginative get-rich-quick schemes which invariably failed, but he was also an eternally optimistic patriot, possessed of very little hair, a huge nose, spindly legs, and a battered stove-pipe hat.

Clearly Percy was rather fond of Ally’s cartoon adventures, fond enough to tattoo Ally's image onto his arm.

Percy had married Alice Kate Ansell on 29th February in the leap year 1908 and they’d made a good life together, although no children would come to join their little family.

Hard not to wonder if the tattoo of the ‘lady’ described as living alongside Ally Sloper on Percy’s arm was in fact the image of Alice, or instead was perhaps inked on before he'd met her - an idealised female – even an earlier amour – who, for his wife’s sake, Percy insisted was of course Alice herself, because after all, he’d always been looking just for her.

They were both from the Arundel area of Sussex, Percy worked all his life on the surrounding farms, and when he went off to War before the end of November 1914 with 2nd Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, he tried still to look after her, allotting 3/6 of his pay to be sent straight to

Alice, along with the separation allowance of 9 shillings.

He’d only been at the Front for a short time before his first big test and his first big hurt, suffering gunshot wounds to his right hand and knee in the desperate defence of a feature known as the Keep at Cuinchy at the frozen end of January 1915.

The Keep was actually simply a brickstack about 16ft high, built just before the War.

The enemy had begun their assault before dawn on the morning of 29th with concentrated shellfire and Minnenwerfer raining down hell upon Percy and his comrades.

This was followed by what must have looked like something out of a medieval siege, the enemy coming on in waves with escalading ladders and hatchets to scale the Keep’s brickwork, Percy and his mates fighting them off with rifle fire and hand grenades from above.

Every time the enemy was repelled, Percy watched as they massed for yet another assault; again and again, they came on.

But Percy and his Sussexes held out, wounded as he was.

His Brigadier General later that day sent a message to the Battalion CO, congratulating his men “on the magnificent defence of the Keep… and the beating off of the German attack.”

Percy’s were Blighty wounds which allowed him to be invalided home to England to recover.

Perhaps then Alice was able to visit him in hospital for their seventh wedding anniversary at the end of February; he must have had some tales to tell her as she sat holding his uninjured left hand at his bedside. Perhaps together they examined the damage to Ally Sloper further up his right arm.

Percy would be out of action, based at the Regimental Depot at Chichester for the next year, before being returned to France the week before their 8th wedding anniversary in February 1916.

This time, he was posted to 7th Battalion of his old Regiment which, five short months later, would be in the thick of it on the Somme.

In reserve on the first terrible day of the Battle, they went into action on 7th July 1916 as part of the attack on Ovillers; the war diary records them climbing up out of the trenches at 8.30am, in the face of heavy machine gunfire and underneath a relentless rain of shrapnel shells. Percy’s Battalion casualties that day were 461, almost half of the men who’d attacked.

Though he must surely have expected the worst, given his experiences at the Keep eighteen months earlier, Percy came through this hideous day unscathed.

We can only imagine Alice’s feelings back home in Sussex around this time, dreading every moment a knock at the door. The massive artillery bombardment laid down before the first day of the Battle could be heard as far away as Hampstead Heath; I’m pretty sure Alice, close to the Channel coast in Sussex, would stand in her garden and listen anxiously to the awful barrelling rumble which told her where Percy was.

The Battalion’s part in the Battle of the Somme was far from over.

They were back at Ovillers in the support trenches before the end of July, and operations around Ration Trench and 6th Avenue would cost them a further 224 men. After a comparative rest in the Arras sector, they were back in the trenches, attacking Bayonet Trench near Flers on 7th October, costing another 182 casualties, and again, the same trench on 18th.

Somehow, patched-up Percy was still standing and the disastrous Battle of the Somme ground finally to a halt in November.

But Alice would not see him again.

At 5.24pm on 10th February 1917, a telegram was sent to Alice at home in Sussex: the Officer Commanding 37th Casualty Clearing Station (then based a few miles west of Arras) reports that No. 55 Pte P. Lee, 7th Royal Sussex is “dangerously ill”.

Six terrible words spelled out the cause: “Gunshot Wounds Chest, Abdomen and Arm.”

Which arm, it does not specify; perhaps Ally Sloper had already been obliterated.

Alice’s Percy died at 8.30pm that night, and was buried at Avesnes-le-Comte.

Alice would finally receive the news which ended all her hopeful dreams on Valentine’s Day, 14th February 1917.

Some time later, she received a package containing his personal effects, which she acknowledged gratefully with this dignified letter of 2nd June.

In her precious parcel were: 1 identity disc, letters and photos, 3 purses, his pipe and tobacco pouch, 3 rings, a matchbox cover, a knife, 2 torches, 1 belt, 1 souvenir book, 1 linen bag and a rosary and crucifix.

Alice was now a childless, 33 year old widow; perhaps there was still time to start over, but she never remarried.

She moved instead to Charing Heath, just outside Ashford, Kent, and became housekeeper for Herbert, the village blacksmith.

When the time had come to choose the words for Percy’s headstone, she'd decided on: Sadly Missed By His Loving Wife.

She died in 1974, in her 90th year, still in Ashford and still sadly missing her brave Percy and his many tattoos.

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