This is a story of two Chertsey men born less than two years apart, with family homes in Bridge Road, and fathers who ran local foundries. The Great War would claim both of their lives, but they would be remembered in different ways. One was a soldier, the other a conscientious objector.
Private Edward James Lees is one of 3,704 service personnel buried at the Amara War Cemetery in what is now Iraq. He is named on the Chertsey Town War Memorial unveiled in Windsor Street in 1921 and in the Memorial Chapel in St Peter’s Church opened in 1922. In the chapel, there is also a window dedicated to Edward Lees. Frank Lloyd Parton is buried in the Parish of Egham.
Frank Parton was born on 22 May 1893, the only child of William and Elizabeth Parton. William was Managing Director at the Herring & Son Ltd. iron foundry in Gogmore Lane. Sometime between 1901 and 1911, the family moved from Egham to Tewkesbury Lodge in Bridge Road, Chertsey.
Edward Lees was the only son of William and Ruth Lees. Born on 30 March 1895, Edward had an older sister Minnie and a younger sister Edith. The family lived at ‘Riverdale’, a 10-room house in Bridge Road. William Lees ran the Bridge Foundry where, by 1911, Minnie was working as a clerk in her father’s office and Edward was a moulder.
In January 1912, Edward Lees enlisted in the Chertsey Company of Territorials attached to the 6th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment. Like other Chertsey men seeking adventure, Edward overstated his age*. He added a year and said he was 17 years 10 months. In the autumn of 1914, having received anti-typhoid inoculations, Edward was on a boat bound for India. Two months later, he was promoted to Lance Corporal.
Edward Lees opted to give up his stripe in June 1915 when he answered the call for volunteers to leave India and go to Mesopotamia, a land mass which covered present-day Iraq, and parts of Iran, Kuwait, Syria, and Turkey. Private Lees was attached to the 2nd Battalion, Norfolk Regiment which joined a force of British and Indian soldiers under the command of General Charles Townshend. They were to become embroiled in an occasionally disastrous campaign against the Ottoman Turks which might explain why this theatre of the Great War is often overlooked in Britain.
After some initial advances, Townshend’s forces were besieged by the Turks in the town of Kut-al-Amara, 100 miles south of Baghdad. Conditions within the town were appalling and many of the men suffered from disease and malnutrition. The siege lasted 147 days before the garrison of 11,800 surrendered on 29 April 1916. Edward Lees was dangerously ill with fever and beriberi so was released under a prisoner exchange arrangement between the British and Turkish authorities. Many of the soldiers who remained in captivity were to die on the notorious ‘death march’ north towards what is now Turkey.
Edward’s’ parents were officially notified that their son had been sent back to India but later discovered he was taken off the boat and remained in Mesopotamia because he had dysentery. In the morning post on 28 June 1916, they received a letter from an army chaplain dated 22 May which said:
He is a very thin, poor boy, but he does not suffer greatly, and the feeling of getting better is one of those merciful kindnesses of Providence at such a time. He has been doing well for weeks and may be on the road to recovery while you are reading these words of mine.
The chaplain’s optimism, whether genuine at the time of writing or intended to save the family from worry, proved misplaced. In the evening post of the same day Mr and Mrs Lees received confirmation from the War Office that Edward had died at Amara on 12 June 1916. He was 21. On 30 June the Surrey Herald reported his service record and death in a lengthy column and printed a portrait photograph of him in uniform.
The last time the Lees family heard from Edward was a Christmas card posted almost seven months earlier on 18 November 1915. Printed on the card was a popular poem ‘Greetings from Mesopotamia’.
As Edward Lees headed for Mesopotamia in July 1915, Frank Parton was joining the Friends Ambulance Unit, a civilian volunteer ambulance service established by a group of Quakers the year before. He stated that he had two and a half years’ experience working in engineering shops. He had also qualified as a barrister but had not been called to the Bar. Frank served with the unit in France until February 1916 when he left because he thought the work was more military than civil. He also refused an employment offer from his father at Herring & Son because the firm was involved with munitions work.
The month before Frank Parton resigned from the Friends Ambulance Unit, the Military Service Act 1916 was passed which imposed conscription on all single men in Britain between the ages of 18 and 41. Only the medically unfit, clergymen, teachers, and certain classes of industrial worker were automatically exempted but military service tribunals were established to consider other applications. The Chertsey local tribunal only granted Frank Parton an exemption from combatant service, so he appealed for a full exemption. Both the Appeal and Central Tribunals confirmed the order that Frank must re-join the ambulance service.
In April 1916 Frank Parton took his case to the High Court where it was determined that he should not be exempt from all service. This judgment conflicted with the original intention of the Act in that conscientious objectors could be fully exempt. Despite the legislation wording being clarified in a second Military Service Act passed in May 1916, many tribunals continued to rely on the High Court’s Parton judgment which meant that conscientious objectors had to serve in non-combatant roles.
Frank Parton was arrested, taken before Chertsey magistrates, and handed over to the military authorities. At Stoughton Barracks in Guildford, he refused to obey the first order he received which led to a court martial. Frank was given the opportunity to present his views for over an hour but, nonetheless, was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment with hard labour. On the 8 September 1916 the Surrey Herald printed a short gossipy piece which said that on a weekend visit home, Frank Parton looked ‘very fit after his varying experiences’.
After serving his sentence, Frank like many conscientious objectors was employed under a Home Office scheme in road building, agricultural work, and forestry. By 1918, Frank’s mental health was beginning to decline due to the cumulative effects of enforced physical labour, lost legal battles, unwanted press intrusion, and the hostility he probably faced because of his ‘conchie’ beliefs. On 27 July he purchased a bottle of cyanide of potassium from a chemist in Guildford Street, saying it was required to treat some wasps’ nests which were worrying his mother. Just over two weeks later on the evening of 14 August 1918, Frank Parton took a fatal dose at the family home. He was 25.
At the inquest the following day, his father confirmed they did have wasps’ nests at the time and that his son had been depressed recently. Whilst Mr Parton said that he did not agree with his son’s pacifist views, he added:
“I may say that no parents could have had a better son. He was in every way honest, truthful and a man”.
A verdict was returned of suicide while of unsound mind. Frank’s death and the inquest findings were widely reported in the press.
Between May 1916 and November 1918 approximately 20,000 men, for a variety of reasons, refused to be conscripted into the British Army. Many like Frank Parton felt that it was wrong to kill under any circumstances. It has been estimated that more than 1,500 spent time in prison, 13,000 agreed to perform ‘work of national importance’, and over 5,000 joined the army in a non-combatant role. Very few were given full exemption.
In the United Kingdom, Remembrance Day on 11 November and Remembrance Sunday on the second Sunday in November are marked at commemorative ceremonies across the country. On International Conscientious Objectors Day, 15 May, a brief ceremony is held at the Conscientious Objectors’ Commemorative Stone in Tavistock Square, London which was unveiled in 1994.
This blog has sought to provide an account of the lives of Edward James Lees and Frank Lloyd Parton. Their stories have been linked to illustrate how two Chertsey men close in age and from similar backgrounds, and who almost certainly knew each other, chose different paths. For both, their decisions led to their premature deaths, and impacted how they would be commemorated.
Thank you to Paul Snell for suggesting Frank Parton as a subject for this project, to Melissa Atkinson, Special Collections Curator at the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain for assistance with images, to Christine Leach and Canon Tim Hillier for facilitating access to the Memorial Chapel of St Peter’s Church, Chertsey, and to Jim Knight who photographed the Surrey Herald clippings for the Runnymede Remembered Archive.
‘The siege of Kut-al-Amara, 1916‘ by Patrick Crowley – The History Press.
‘Remembering the men who said no: Conscientious objection 1916-1919′ – Peace Research and Education Trust.
*For other blogs featuring Chertsey men who understated their age to join the army, see ‘Herbert Wells – The Chertsey boy soldier interned in the Swiss Alps’ and ‘The Hunt family: Three women, three babies, and four soldiers’.