Stevenage poppy fundraisers’ poignant tale of war, loss and remembrance
- Credit: Archant
A bloodbath that became known as the Battle of the Somme was unfolding 100 years ago across the western front in the muddy fields of northern France.
On the first day of the battle – July 1, 1916 – thousands of British and Allied troops walked slowly across no man’s land towards the German lines.
Many of them got caught up in barbed wire that should have been cut to let them pass, and were mercilessly mown down by German machine guns.
More than 20,000 British and French troops were killed on the first day of the battle, but the British commanders did not react, and sent thousands more to their deaths in the following weeks and months.
At the battle’s end in November 1916, more than a million men had lost their lives – and it was only just over two years into the war.
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As part of our remembrance of all those who died in the bloody battle, the Comet has spoken to a relative of a brave British corporal who survived the first day of the Somme – even though his battalion was devastated – and lived through the war to tell the tale.
Richard Mott, who has run the Royal British Legion’s Stevenage Poppy Appeal with his wife Patricia for the past seven years, has painstakingly researched the story of his grandfather, James Pearman, using regimental diaries, family trees, letters and certificates of service.
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Richard remembers visiting his grandfather as a child and how he never spoke about the war, but would sometimes wake up screaming in the middle of the night. Richard from Stevenage recalls being fascinated by the small puncture wound on his grandfather’s chin – the result of a bullet having nicked him.
As he grew older, Richard became more interested in his grandfather’s story and began to dig deeper into his hidden past.
James, who was from Great Bradley in Suffolk, signed up with the Essex Regiment in 1914 at Thetford and, like so many young men of his day, travelled to France full of unbridled optimism and pride in serving his country.
He first tasted combat at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 in the 12th brigade of the fourth division of the second army.
After the battle he rushed home to London because his wife, Louisa Pearman, had lost their first child. But he was soon back on the front line preparing for what would be the biggest offensive in British history – the Somme.
His battalion went over the top at 7.30am somewhere near Beaumont Hamel and crossed German lines.
They made good progress and were able to take their objectives, but were soon pushed back by a scything German counter attack.
They held their position but, by the first evening, just two of the battalions’ 24 officers survived and only 192 of the 606 men who had gone over the top that morning.
Incredibly James survived and his battalion was eventually rotated from the front line to rest.
Although the military records are patchy, he fought on through the winter of 1916, and by July 1917 was preparing for the third front at another horrifying battle, Ypres.
James fought for four days in a quagmire at Ypres before getting caught up in a shell hole with Lieutenant Herbert Keell beside him on October 9.
In one tragic moment, Keell put his head up too high and was shot straight in the forehead. Incredibly the pulverised bullet, which implanted itself in Keell’s skull, fell out as his body slumped forward.
James later said he caught the bullet and kept it in memory of his comrade. Richard has it to this day, along with other mementoes of his grandfather’s service.
After Keell’s death, James was said to have brought back vital information to his own lines while under heavy German fire and was awarded the military medal for this brave act – again Richard still cherishes the medal in his collection.
“He was a great storyteller but he didn’t talk about the horrors he suffered,” said Richard of his grandfather.
“The only thing he ever said to me was we were walking along one day and he asked me if I had ever walked alongside someone who had just disappeared, because that’s how it was in the war, the person beside you would just get shot down.”
Mercifully James didn’t have to fight through the whole war. He was caught up in a gas attack in 1917 and returned home with the wounded.
But Richard says he was never quite the same. He suffered with leg problems from the months spent wading through mud in the trenches, and he had chest problems which plagued him throughout his life before his death from cancer in 1971.
Later discovering a letter addressed to his grandfather from the parents of Lieutenant Keell in 1917, Richard was able to trace Keell’s descendents online, and has since made contact with Keell’s relative by marriage, Angela Marriage. Amazingly they have become friends and exchanged letters.
Recently Angela saved a portrait of Keell which was about to be thrown out, but has now been lovingly restored and given pride of place on the family’s wall. So Richard has now been able to see what the man who died beside his grandfather on that terrible day in 1917, actually looked like.
Wife Patricia too has connections to the Great War. Her great uncle Fred Carey joined up in 1916 and served in the Royal Garrison Artillery before tragically dying from his wounds in November 1917.
Patricia still has his tiny war diary which describes his war service in poignant detail, including after he was wounded and taken to hospital. Tragically after recording he could not sleep because of the pain, the diary abruptly halts.
Fascinated by the stories, for the past 20 years Richard and Patricia have followed in the footsteps their ancestors and have gone on pilgrimages to Belgium to lay poppy crosses at the places where they fought and died including Tyne Cot cemetery where Herbert Keell is buried.
They hope to meet up with Angela to mark the 100th anniversary of Keell’s death.
Their relative’s amazing courage has inspired Richard and Patricia to dedicate seven years to Stevenage Poppy Appeal for which they have helped raise an astonishing £750,000.
If anyone has followed the solemn reminder of those Remembrance Day refrains – ‘We will remember them’ – from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen poem, it is Richard and Patricia.