Home > Family History > Social History – Alfred Thomas King: Driver, Royal Field Artillery (RFA)

Social History – Alfred Thomas King: Driver, Royal Field Artillery (RFA)

My Grandmother, Ethel J. Kerry tragically lost her first husband, Alfred Thomas King in 1917 during the Great War. He was 32. My father was born in 1920 following Ethel’s later marriage to George Olliffe.

Alfred Thomas King RFA

The Coincidence

For three months in the spring of 1979, I lived in the Foyer de Jeunes Travailleurs in Arras, the Pas de Calais in Northern France. This is just two miles from the small British military cemetery at Ste. Catherine.

I never went there.

Unbeknown to me, grandmother’s first husband, Alfred King is buried there, a casualty of the fighting near the River Scarpe, north of Arras in the June of 1917.  He and I – separated by over 60 years – had lived for a while, in admittedly dramatically different circumstances, just a few miles apart in the same town in northern France. However, I came back to England; he did not.

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My family had kept his medals, a few postcards, a brass box and a photograph of Alfred from this era. Beyond that not much else was known. Maybe they wanted to forget. My father told me a story of Alfred having being killed in a rest area, but otherwise he too knew very little. I became absorbed in all this but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to piece together his story with the help of the National Archive at Kew and other sources via the internet.

Alfred Thomas King was an ordinary British soldier caught up in the terrible conflict of World War One in Flanders; the start of which in 2014 we commemorate in this, the centenary year.

I now know where Alfred King served, where he died (even down to the exact location) and where he is buried. Intriguingly, I also discovered that he had a rather chequered start to his army service and seems to have been in trouble for various misdemeanours.

Dvr Alfred T. King RFA

Alfred King’s Background

Born in Q1 1885 and from Harlesden in London, Alfred Thomas King went to sea on the S.S. Delphie. His three younger brothers (Harold, George and Henry) are listed as living in a Boy’s Home in Bristol, Gloucestershire. (I’d be intrigued to know if this was one of the Muller Homes). An elder brother, William, is recorded as living at 9 Hanley Road, Harlesden. On 29th April 1902, Alfred joined the Militia (3rd The Queen’s) at age 17, signing a 6-year attestation. He completed 49 days drill and went on to the Royal Fusiliers on 12th August.

From his army record, it seems he deserted 2 days later on 14th August. I wonder why? What was the cause? I guess we shall never know. On 16th August, he fraudulently enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery for a term of 12 years; 3 years active service and 9 years on reserve. On 24th September 1902, Alfred is awaiting trial. He does becomes a Driver with the RFA, but then faces four further trials and periods of imprisonment for ‘fresh offences’; in June (14 days), July (57 days), October (20 days) and November 1903 (1 day). His last entry is ‘returned to duty as a driver’ on 21st November 1904.

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There are records of two marriages. The first wedding took place in Q2 1907 in Greenwich to Caroline Harriet Sophia Jenkins. After 4 years and in the 1911 Census, a Daisy Ivy King aged 9 months is also recorded. By then, Alfred is aged 27, living at 57 Chubworthy Street, New Cross, (Deptford/Greenwich) London, and his occupation listed as ‘Stoker’. What happened to that marriage or the baby, I do not know but Alfred went on to marry my Grandmother in Q3 1913 in Essex, just one short year before he went away to the war as a British soldier.

I have not been able to match up all the records to fully get to the bottom of quite all that happened. It must, however, have been the reserve term of his 12 year enlistment that led him to go to war with the BEF in August 1914. Suffice it to say, Alfred served there for almost 3 years, dying in France in June 1917. There is some moving artwork and poems from that era depicting the work of the RFA.

The Ammunition Column (w/c, gouache & chalk on paper)

War Diaries – First Impressions

In order to be able to read the original documents at the National Archives – the war diaries and the trench maps – I registered for a reader’s ticket. I was able to pre-order the appropriate files and then spent a couple of days going through the various boxes and files. Tracking down all the information would take up another blog post, so I will not cover that process here. Suffice it to say that it was an accessible process, the NA staff are very helpful and it’s fortunate in that I live relatively close to Kew.

The WW1 war diaries and the huge trench maps – obviously all original – are thrilling to the touch.

As I opened the boxes, I had this immense sense of excitement and anticipation as to their contents. What would they tell me about my unknown relative? What detail would it add to our limited knowledge of what had happened? Opening the brown boxes, I soon realised that I may be the very first person in 100 years to handle these papers, possibly since the end of the war in 1918. The sense of history was palpable. As a longstanding personal diarist, it underlined clearly to me just how important it is to record events and to write in detail for posterity.

The WW1 war diaries are archived in heavy brown card document boxes with original war office stickers on the edges. Inside each box, carefully stored, are the brown paper files containing the individual war diaries, often with rust marks marking the spine. Each month of the war is collated within a separate paper folder. These files contain the original handwritten documents – all written in pencil – with each place name printed in CAPS, Sometimes the papers are annotated in blue official pencil. The header sheets are invariably written in ink; beautifully handwritten and frequently printed in block letters. I discovered some fascinating appendices, many marked ‘secret’ and typed (often) with a blue ribbon on original typing paper. It’s almost worth ordering these boxes from the archive simply to experience this frisson!

National Archives WO 95

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The Western Front trench maps are quite simply huge documents – in size, scale and number – and printed in various versions. I was interested in Map 51B NW and so ordered that particular folder. It came packed full of many, many maps of this one area in Northern France. Before I had arrived at Kew, I knew exactly the area on which to concentrate my search. This proved just as well as there were so many sheets to look through. The documents ranged from large maps on heavy card to smaller maps printed on flimsy paper. Many maps had been written on in coloured ink and some were annotated for a specific campaign battle. The trench lines depicted were colossal; like a sweeping and impenetrable spider’s web. The cartographic effort that went into the fighting on the Western Front was quite simply enormous.

Maps - Arras - Red trenches 2

Maps - WW1 portfolio

Maps - Trench Maps numbering

The BEF: in at the start

Alfred Thomas King was a Driver in the Royal Field Artillery (of the 32nd Brigade, 4th Division, Ammunition Column). The most numerous arm of the artillery, the horse-drawn RFA was responsible for the medium calibre guns and howitzers deployed close to the front line and were reasonably mobile. Albert deployed with the BEF at the outset, leaving for France in August 1914, at the outbreak of the war.

I found the actual record of the day the brigade left for France from barracks in London. The numbers are staggering and note how many horses the brigade took with them to the front.

DAC War Diary 22 Aug 1914

Extracts from War Diaries 1914

32nd Brigade, 4th Divisional Ammunition Column

Source: WO 95 / 1468 – Closed until 1965 

August 22  

Eight trains conveyed IV Div. Am. from Park Royal Station to Southampton

15 Officers, 557 other ranks, 728 horses, 110 four wheel vehicles, 6 two wheel vehicles and 6 bicycles

August 23

Embarked on S.S. Rowanmore – delayed by fog off IOW – on to Le Havre,

Then Rouen – Amiens – St Quentin – Route Nationale 44 – Ham – Noyen – Emeville

The Great War (1914-1918)

‘The experience of the Somme caused the Germans to reconsider their strategy on the Western Front. They constructed a formidably strong defensive position many miles in the rear, and withdrew to it in early 1917. The British called the part that they faced the Hindenburg Line. A large French offensive, supported by a British attack at Arras, withered against the new German defence and many French units had had enough. Many of them mutinied. From this moment in May 1917 the British army had no choice but to take the lead role while the French stood on the defensive. The main British effort of the year was the costly and depressing Third Ypres, while at Cambrai a significant new tactical approach pointed the way to ultimate victory. The Great War was finally to end in November 1918’.

Extracts from War Diaries 1917

32nd Brigade, 4th Divisional Ammunition Column

Source: WO 95 / 1468 – Closed until 1965 

March 1917

Bray-sur-Somme, Vaux-sur-Somme, Coissy, Talmas, Aubrometz

April

Laressset, then to a previously occupied camp at Maroeuil (Sheet 51C, F27, C42)

April 10

Marched to a new camp in a snowstorm, 3 kms NW of ARRAS on the ARRAS – SOUCHEZ road

June 2

Came under control of 9th Division Artillery at noon.

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The weather on the Western Front in June 1917 was ‘fine and warm’.  This period of the war was known as the Arras offensive and ran from early April to Mid-June. In mid-May, a particular action on the River Scarpe had been fought leading up to the attacks on the Hindenburg Line. Driver King would have been part of this offensive.

Following a bombing attack by the German air force, Alfred died of his wounds in a Main Dressing Station (MDS) run by 104th Field Ambulance on 4th June 1917, aged 32 years, He’d come the whole way through the war, only to be killed some way behind the lines. The date was particularly noted by my father, as it was later on the same date in 1941, that the German architect of WW1, ‘Kaiser Bill’ died in Holland!

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Extracts from War Diaries 1917

32nd Brigade, 4th Divisional Ammunition Column

Source: WO 95 / 1468 – Closed until 1965

June 3

At 11-12pm an enemy bomb exploded on the ARRAS-SOUCHEZ road at G8 b8b (Ref Map France 51B 1/40,000) causing the following casualties: 2 dead, 10 wounded including 36857 Dvr. A. King.

All the wounded were admitted to the 104th Field Ambulance with the exception of Capt. JWJ Knight, who was only slightly wounded and remained with the unit.

June 4   

No 36857 Dvr. A King died in the 104th Field Ambulance shortly after admission.

Capt GH Belas, 2Lt JB Craik and 36857 Dvr. A King buried at 2pm at G14 b95 (Map 51B NW)

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German Air Power

Wikipedia’s entry on the Royal Flying Corps is interesting for this period:

As 1917 dawned the Allied Air Forces felt the effect of the German Air Force’s increasing superiority in both organisation and equipment (if not numbers). The recently formed Jastas, equipped with the Albatros fighter, inflicted very heavy losses on the RFC’s obsolescent aircraft, culminating in Bloody April, the nadir of the RFC’s fortunes in World War I.

To support the Battle of Arras beginning on 9 April 1917, the RFC deployed 25 squadrons, totalling 365 aircraft, a third of which were fighters (scouts). The British lost 245 aircraft with 211 aircrew killed or missing & 108 as prisoners of war. The German Air Services lost just 66 aircraft from all causes.

By the summer of 1917, the introduction of the next generation of technically advanced combat aircraft (such as the SE5, Sopwith Camel and Bristol Fighter) ensured losses fell and damage inflicted on the enemy increased’.

The war diaries of the Field Ambulance corps bears out the German air attack on this date and record the subsequent arrival of the casualties.

Extracts from War Diaries June 1917

104th Field Ambulance / 34th Division

Stamped: Committee for the medical history of the war (7 August 1917)

Source: WO 95 / 2453 – Closed until 1965

1916                                          

Jan 16                    SUTTON VENY, WILTSHIRE

No 104 Field Ambulance marched out of camp just after midnight.

Entrained at AMESBURY – then SOUTHAMPTON – LE HAVRE – ST OMER

 

Summary sheet

Western Front – Battle of Arras 1917

April – attack on Vimy Ridge

May – capture of Siegfried Line

 

Title page marked Confidential

War Diary of 104th Field Ambulance RAMC

By Lieut. Col E. Beverley-Bird RAMC (TF)

From 1st June 1917 to 30th June 1917 (Volume XVII)

1917

May 27  

Fine weather continues …. Proceeded to ARRAS to take over Main Dressing Station (MDS) at HOSPICE DES VIEILLARDS from 52nd Field Ambulance

May 28    

Fine weather continues. Remainder of Unit embussed at 9am at crossroads north of N in BERNEOIL (Sheet Lens 11) and proceeded to ARRAS where they disembussed and marched to HOSPICE DES VIEILLARDS

 June 1  

Fine day. Very hot. Work on cleaning up and preparing HOSPICE DES VIEILLARDS as a MDS continued. Rev Hinchclille C.F. attached for temporary duty.

June 2   

Fine weather continues – very warm. Enemy shelled ARRAS in the morning. None fell near MDS. About 11pm, enemy aeroplanes passed over ARRAS dropping bombs, some of which fell near the MDS. No damage done to MDS.

June 3

Fine warm day. Brilliant sunshine. AM: ADMS 34th Division visited MDS, inspected the work that had been done on the buildings and surroundings. PM: DDMS and DADMS XVII Corps visited MDS.  6pm: attended conference at SDMS office when arrangements for dealing with the wounded during the coming offensive were discussed. A number of hostile aeroplanes came over the town about 10.20pm and dropped a number of bombs. After passing over, they returned and dropped more.

June 4 

Fine day. Very warm. Brilliant sunshine all day. Work on dressing rooms completed. A large hall on the ground floor has been divided into receiving room, dressing room and evacuation room by screening off the middle portion. The whole place has been cleaned and whitewashed and the dressing room is fitted up to deal with 4 stretcher cases and a similar number of sitting cases at one time. Commenced to build stretcher shoot down to car stand. Town again bombed by hostile aeroplanes about 11pm.

June 5  

Fine weather continues. Bearer party left at 8.30am to report to OC ADS (102nd F. Amb) at BLANGY. Bearer party left at 9am to report to OC WWP (103rd F. Amb) at ST NICHOLAS.

104 FA June 1917 Deaths 3

Admissions and evacuations sheet

104 Field Ambulance – for June 1917

Total wounded 589

CCS                        558         (Casualty Clearing Station)

CRDS                     4              (Corps Dressing Station)

Return to Duty 12

Died                      16 (including Dvr. A. T. King) – my italics.

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Extracts from War Diaries June 1917

103rd Field Ambulance / 34th Division

Stamped: Committee for the medical history of the war (10 July 1917)

Source: WO 95 / 2453 – Closed until 1965

In the Field

June 1                   Bright sunshine and warm

June 2                   Continued bright sunshine

June 3                   Continued bright sunshine

June 4                   Warm, sunny weather continues

June 5                   Continued brilliant sunshine

03 Cemetery 7

ATK’s War Grave

Driver A. T. King is buried in Ste Catherine British Cemetery (Grave Ref No E7) in the Pas de Calais alongside 334 other BEF Old Contemptible casualties. The white CWG stone is engraved enigmatically with some words from the Bible, ‘All seek their own’. His Commonwealth War Graves Commission website record also notes: Husband of Mrs. E. J. Olliffe (formerly King), of 54, Denbigh Rd., Church Rd., Willesden, London.

03 Cemetery 8

03 Cemetery 2

Ste. Catherine is a village in the Department of the Pas-de-Calais, adjoining the city of Arras on the north side. Ste. Catherine British Cemetery is on the left of the road to Therouanne (the Chaussee Brunehaut [D341]), not far beyond the Church, then along a side street. Ste Catherine British Cemetery contains 339 First World War burials and was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield’.

‘From March 1916 to the Armistice, Ste. Catherine was occupied by Commonwealth forces and for much of that time it was within the range of German artillery fire. The cemetery was started in March 1916 and used by the divisions and field ambulances stationed on that side of Arras until the autumn of 1917. The cemetery was enlarged after the Armistice when graves were brought in from the surrounding area.

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Medals and Memorabilia

Driver Alfred Thomas King was awarded the three British WW1 Campaign Medals, affectionately known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. These were the 1914 or Mons Star (Pip), The British War Medal (Squeak) and The Victory Medal (Wilfred). These medals clearly demonstrate that Alfred served in France from the very start of the Great War through until his untimely death there in 1917.

02 Medal 2

02 Medal 7

The August to November 1914 Star Medal (Pip) was awarded only to those who were in action during those dates. Alfred’s details are clearly engraved on the back: 36857, DVR: A.T. KING. R.F.A.  The recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres.

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WW1 War Medal Roll 1

Alfred was also the recipient of 17 year old Princess Mary’s Christmas 1914 Brass gift tin to the troops which remains in the family.

01 Tin

WW1 Postcards

I also have four beautifully embroidered postcards sent by Alfred from France to my Gran. He writes in pencil, in a formal style with a flowery hand. Unsurprisingly, hints of issues in their marriage come through in the text. Family events are alluded to that, frustratingly, I will know nothing about. There’s no one to ask now, so I guess this aspect of his life will always remain a mystery?

Earlier records in the NA point to an earlier marriage (and of a child?), but it’s been hard to match these up conclusively. The thought passes my mind that he may well have preferred army service to marital life, hence the strain clearly present in this correspondence.

Whatever the truth of Alfred’s early years, here is a man who left England to do his duty to his country, and like so many others of his generation, did not return. My own Grandfather also had an army career, but his was in India, sandwiched between the Boer War and the Great War and so he did not see hostile action but lived until the 1960’s. I’m not sure that my Grandmother said much about Alfred to my brothers (all of whom are older than me), but to my knowledge not much else is known of him or of their marriage.

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On the day I finally completed this research, the army’s guns at Longmore Camp in Hampshire (near to where I live) were firing with a deep ‘boom, boom, boom’; a fitting artillery tribute to my Grandmother’s first husband.

 

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  1. Anthony Wilkins
    June 11, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    Eddie

    Caroline King died in 1st quarter 1919 in Greenwich, Daisy married a Percy Monk in 1936 and died in 1990 aged 79 in Surrey South east region

    Ant

  2. Maranatha Christian Bookshop Uxbridge
    June 11, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    Hi Eddie. Facinating account. It had lots of echoes with my own family history. My dad’s uncle was killed at Arras on 31st May 1917. My grandfather began as a sergeant in the Field artillery,was gassed in the trenches at Ypres and joined the 83rd Field ambulance for the rest of the war. I have his pocket war diaries for 1916, 1917 and 1919 (mostly written in pencil). I also have a whole collection of postcards that he sent to his wife in the earlier part of the war, many of them showing the destruction of towns and places where he was. He also seems to have been out in Thessalonica after June 17.You seem to have researched him very thoroughly.

  3. November 9, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    Hi Eddie,

    My grandfather’s brother, Arthur Robert Mostyn Young, was also killed at Arras June 9th 1917. He was oniy 20. My sister and I are thinking of going there on the 100th anniversary , all being well. Very interesting account. Jill

  1. August 10, 2014 at 3:02 pm
  2. August 22, 2014 at 2:29 pm

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