Over the past 100 years, a dominant narrative about the Great War has developed in Britain. For understandable reasons, this focuses on the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who, having clambered out of the trenches on the Western Front, lost their lives amid a hail of shelling and machine gun fire. These soldiers were then buried or commemorated in cemeteries in France and Belgium close to where they fell. Although this portrayal is true, it is not a complete representation of the war. Here are the stories of four soldiers from Chertsey who lost their lives but died closer to home.
Of the 129 names from the Great War listed on the Chertsey Town War Memorial, over two-thirds died in France or Belgium. But in the first truly global conflict, five men lost their lives in what is now Turkey, four in Iraq, two in India, and others in Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Italy, and at sea in the Mediterranean. At least 17 of those named on the memorial passed away in Britain, and eight died after the end of hostilities on 11 November 1918.
Just twelve miles from Chertsey is Brookwood Military Cemetery, at 37 acres the largest military cemetery in the country. Brookwood is managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and fits the popular image of British war cemeteries; a mix of memorials and row upon row of headstones set within beautifully maintained grounds. The land was set aside in 1917 to provide a place of burial for those in the armed forces who died in Britain. Laid to rest at Brookwood are 1,601 service personnel from the First World War and 3,476 from the Second World War. In Plot 6 are the headstones of two Chertsey men, James Standing and James Goulter.
James William Standing was born in Chertsey in 1887 to William, a stableman, and Emma. He had four siblings and the family lived in Highfield Road. By 1911, Standing was working in London in service as a groom. His accommodation in Chapel Mews, Grosvenor Place was probably above the stables. In December 1913 he married Annie Searies from Addlestone who had also worked in service in London. By the outbreak of war in 1914, the couple had relocated to Burgess Hill in Sussex where Standing, perhaps recognising that a new form of horsepower was in the ascendency, became a chauffeur.
James Standing enlisted in the 8th Battalion, Tank Corps and in March 1918 was wounded in the right shoulder during a tank battle on the first day of a German offensive. He was listed as missing for almost three months until news reached Chertsey in June that he was in captivity. He was repatriated to England in January 1919 but his health had been broken by months spent as a prisoner of war when he was forced to work in the German coal mines.
Desperately ill with pneumonia and tuberculosis, during his periods of consciousness in hospital, Standing spoke of his time as a prisoner. These experiences were corroborated by others. Each man was expected to move tons of coal every day and on alternate Sundays the quantity was doubled. According to a report in the Surrey Herald on 31 January 1919, ‘When their clogs gave out, they had merely sacking for their feet.’
On one occasion James Standing was too ill to work so he was ordered to stand to attention for four hours. When he sank to the floor exhausted, he was beaten with an iron bar. Private James Standing passed away in Lewisham Military Hospital on 23 January 1919, aged 32. He was survived by his wife Annie. Because of the cruelty he suffered as a prisoner, his death was widely reported in the press.
Buried five rows behind James Standing at Brookwood is James Ernest Goulter. Born in 1878 in Kingston upon Thames, Goulter was brought up in Stepgates, Chertsey. His parents were Thomas, a boat builder and later a licensed victualer, and Mary. He had four older siblings and one younger. The census taken on 1 April 1901 records James Goulter as living back in Kingston as a boarder with the Gibbins family and his occupation as a journeyman butcher. The following month he married Nellie Haynes. By the time of the next census in 1911, Nellie was living in Surbiton with their two children and James Goulter was staying with his brother Albert and family in Grove Road, Chertsey. Both described themselves as married. When James Goulter voluntarily enlisted in May 1915, he stated that he was not married.
James Goulter joined the Royal Army Service Corps, serving in France between September 1915 and December 1916. Little is known of his army career but he later joined the Labour Corps, formed in 1917 and comprising of men not considered healthy enough to serve at the front. Private James Goulter was still in service when he died in Surrey on 4 March 1920. His Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate describes him as the ‘Son of Thomas James and Mary Ann Charlotte Goulter’ and lists his regiment as the Royal Army Service Corps.
At least ten of those named on the Chertsey Town War Memorial were buried in Chertsey. Robert James Major Percey was born in the town in 1890 and was the second son of William and Hannah Percey. As well as an older brother, he had two younger brothers and a sister and the family lived in Drill Hall Road and later at 17 Mead Lane. After his bricklayer father died in 1913, his mother moved to Gogmore Lane. Robert Percey, like James Goulter, was employed as a journeyman butcher. Robert Percey enlisted in the Royal Sussex Regiment in July 1916 and in the same month married Florence Othen in the Parish Church of St Peter’s.
Details of Robert Percey’s short service history are limited and it is possible he did not leave Britain. On 28 March 1917, only eight months after enlisting and marrying, he died at the County of Middlesex War Hospital near St Albans from complications of pleurisy and pneumonia. In the Surrey Herald report of his passing on 6 April, he was described as ‘a strapping young fellow’ and therefore ‘a surprising victim’. His body was given military honours in St Albans before being returned to his hometown by train. The Chertsey Company of Volunteers provided a guard of honour before Private Robert Percey was interred in Chertsey Cemetery. His three brothers were all in the army, serving in Canada and India.
Alfred Ernest Wakeford, born in 1889, was the fifth of Joseph and Mary Wakeford’s nine sons and the family lived at 53 Abbey Road. In the years prior to the war Alfred Wakeford worked as a farm labourer and, in 1913, spent just over three months in Wandsworth Prison after being convicted of larceny by a Chertsey court. During the Great War, six of the Wakeford brothers served, either in the army or the navy. It is likely that they were brought up on tales of soldiering and empire as their labourer father had served under Lord Roberts during the Second Afghan War and taken part in the legendary march from Kabul to Kandahar in 1880.
Alfred Wakeford enlisted in the Royal Horse Artillery and his rank of Driver suggests that he probably drove the teams of horses which pulled the guns. In August 1916 he married Margaret Baldwin in St Peter’s Church, only seven weeks after the wedding of Robert and Florence Percey in the same church. Wakeford was wounded and transferred to the Labour Corps. By early 1918 he was a telephone operator in Ipswich, possibly attached to the Royal Engineers. On the morning of 22 May 1918, Alfred Wakeford was swimming at the Stoke Bathing Place in Ipswich when he had some form of seizure. He was immediately removed from the water and given artificial respiration but was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 29. Driver Alfred Wakeford was buried in Chertsey Cemetery. Two years earlier, his younger brother Frederick had died of pneumonia whilst serving in India with the 6th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment.
The stories of these four men of Chertsey are noteworthy in part because they do not fit with the dominant Great War narrative in Britain which tends to prioritise the ‘glorious’ deaths of the battlefield. Yet, James Standing, James Goulter, Robert Percey, and Alfred Wakeford rightfully took their places alongside the 124 other men and one woman on the Chertsey Town War Memorial. Their parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends would not have suffered any less but at least they had the opportunity to attend a funeral, unlike those whose loved ones lost their lives overseas.
See the graves of James Standing and James Goulter in ‘Two Chertsey soldiers at Brookwood Military Cemetery’
Compare James Standing’s prisoner of war experience with that of Herbert Wells who was captured in 1915, in ‘Roger Wells remembers his father Private Herbert Wells’
Acknowledgements and call for further information
Thank you to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for their assistance with questions and for granting permission to film at Brookwood Military Cemetery. A visit to Brookwood is highly recommended.
Gaps in the stories still need to be filled so please contact us with any information or images relating to the Standing, Goulter, Percey, and Wakeford families.