Year 9 History - World War One Service Records
History comprises the actions of individuals, which, together with context and the actions of others creates the events of the past. It is tempting to view WW1 as one homogenous story – something that can be listed in one sentence in the world’s chronology along with accompanying dates. In their History lessons Year 9 have been learning to analyse multiple aspects of WW1, including the varied contributions, backgrounds and skills of people on an individual level.In order to achieve this they undertook some original research using soldiers’ War Service Records, which are stored at the National Archives and published via the Ancestry website. Work by two Archive Interns over the summer had identified all of the boys from Alleyn’s who fought in the war and from this list various boys’ War Service Records were identified. These were given to Year 9 in their History classes. The pupils thought about how archive sources are created and how to use those sources for research, before studying the records of individual Alleyn’s soldiers and extracting key information about the soldiers from the Service Records. This work formed the basis of the biographies which are presented elsewhere on this site under the ‘Explore Individual Stories’ tab.
My World War One Ghost Soldier by Bea in Year 9
Every day on my way to school, I pass a house on Beauval Road, where Alleyn’s Old Boy, William Baker lived a hundred years ago. It looks like any other Edwardian construction: terraced, two storeyed, London stock brick, not dissimilar to my own home. We had been studying the First World War in History and given the centenary I became interested in those names on the Board outside the Great Hall commemorating those Alleyn’s boys who had died: Richard Grieve, Joseph Smith, Paul and Richard Williams, the names go on and on. Had William passed my house, as I pass his every morning? Did Richard run along Townley Road in a bid to get to school before that bell rang at 8.30? When I was given a photocopy of the 1911 Census Forms accompanied with William Baker’s World War One Service Records, a snapshot in some way of the past, my ‘Ghost Soldier’ became very real.
William Aubrey Maltby Baker was born in 1895 and was 19 years old when the First World War broke out. He lived, prior to signing up, with his parents and 12-year old brother at 15 Beauval Road. Like so many other Alleyn’s boys, he enlisted in the Army Reserves at a Recruitment Office in Camberwell. By 1916, he was fully mobilised and posted to the 4th East Kent Regiment frequently referred to as The Buffs. A slight lad, he was 5ft 1 inches tall and weighed just 98Ibs. Allegedly, a British Infantryman carried approximately 67lbs of equipment. It beggars belief that this young boy would be carrying half his weight on his back as he went over the top.
Having been sent to the Western Front, in 1917 he suffered lacerations to his hand and his injury was serious enough to have him sent home to a war hospital in Croydon. At the beginning of 1918, however, he was deemed well enough to return to the Front and was posted to the Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment). During the four years of fighting, 60,000 men served in the Regiment whilst 6,866 officers and other ranks lost their lives, with many thousands more wounded. Indeed, during the Battle of Loos in September 1915, the 8th (Service) Battalion lost all but one of its officers, and 550 men.
At the beginning of 1918, Private William Baker was sent to the Italian Front and a couple of months later, he was shipped back to France. It was March 1918 and the German Army had launched a large-scale offensive against the Allies. During the initial days of the First Battles of the Somme (not to be confused with the British and French offensive in 1916), 177,739 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in action. I don’t like to think about what William must have seen and experienced, it makes me cry. William’s mother, Lilian, listed in his records as his next of kin, received the telegram reporting that her son was ‘MIA’, two days after commencement of these hostilities. I can only imagine the heartbreak she must have felt at receiving such news. But thankfully, the story doesn’t end in Picardy because five months later, according to William’s Active Service record, and no doubt much to the relief of those at home, he is found in a German Prisoner of War camp in Dulmen.
Of the many PoW camps in Germany, Dulmen was said to be a ‘good’ one and William’s treatment may well have been more humane here than in others. That said, as a private and because of the shortage of a German workforce, he would have been expected to work long hours in a factory or on a farm. Despite attempts at camp hygiene in the form of fumigation huts, he would also have had to live in the lice-ridden clothes in which he was captured. Indeed, until William’s whereabouts were confirmed, he would not have been able to receive those invaluable Red Cross parcels from home containing clothing and food and so would have had to make do with the meagre camp rations. Richard Van Emden notes that no matter what camp the men were assigned to ‘camp food meant little more than starvation rations. Typically, each man would receive a mug of ersatz coffee made from burnt barley or acorns, and a thin slice of black bread, adulterated with sawdust. At lunch he might have soup of varying quality, but generally it was little more than the water in which guards had boiled their own meals, with odd pieces of vegetable floating around.’
As the monumental year of 1918 drew to a close, William was repatriated and on Christmas Eve 1918, he returned home to Beauval Road in Dulwich, no doubt to great warmth and celebration. I see my ‘Ghost Soldier’ sometimes standing outside his house with that weighty bag at his feet, a Woodbine perhaps dangling from his mouth. Clichéd, I know, but that’s how I see him. He tips me a wink and smiles - a 23-year old lad who experienced too much in such a short time but a survivor, all the same, of the killing fields of Northern France.