My grandfather on my Mother’s side was Albert Stocker, the eldest of four brothers born in Battersea in the 1880s and 1890s. His youngest brother was Arthur.
By the time the First World War broke out at the end of July 1914, Albert was already a corporal in the Territorial Army but his three brothers were in civilian jobs. One by one they joined up. Arthur, aged 18 or 19, volunteered in September 1914.
Seaforth Highlanders and Machine Gun Corps
The Stockers’ grandmother on their mother’s side was a Scot. So Arthur applied to join the Seaforth Highlanders, an infantry regiment from the West Highlands of Scotland. He was accepted.
Arthur started his Army service as “other ranks”. But in November 1915 he was promoted to Second Lieutenant, the most junior rank of commissioned officer.
In October 1915 the Machine Gun Corps was formed. At some point Arthur got himself seconded from the Seaforths to the new Corps. I am told that he was in the 118th Machine Gun Company, which was part of the 39th Division of the Machine Gun Corps. As a Second Lieutenant, Arthur would have commanded a unit of four machine guns: either Vickers heavy machine guns or Lewis light machine guns.
Battle of Passchendaele
By July 1917 the 118th Machine Gun Company was attached to the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Hamilton Reed. The 15th Division was part of the British Fifth Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Hubert Gough. Arthur’s company was on the British front line a few miles southeast of Ypres in Belgium.
Arthur’s Company took part in the British and Allied advance on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele, Tuesday 31 July 1917. In the morning the advance went well, but in the afternoon unseasonal heavy rain turned the ground to mud and stopped the Allied advance. German troops took the advantage and started to force the Allies back. On Arthur’s sector of the front the retreat was in danger of breaking into disorder, which would have increased the risk of casualties.
Arthur took the initiative, took control of a machine gun and gave covering fire for the retreating infantry. This enabled troops to rally and retire in better order, thus stemming both the German advance and the rate of Allied casualties. For his action Arthur was decorated with the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre.
In September 1917 Arthur was promoted to temporary Lieutenant. Some time thereafter Arthur’s promotion was made permanent, and then he was promoted to acting Captain. I cannot find either of these promotions in The London Gazette. But the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records him as a Captain when he died.
All four Stocker brothers survived until the November 1918 Armistice. Two months later Arthur was still stationed in Flanders, but thinking about what he would do when he was demobilised, when he caught the Spanish ‘flu that had broken out a year earlier and had spread as a global epidemic.
Arthur was admitted to an Australian military hospital in Belgium. Eldest brother Albert, who I think was still stationed at Ypres in Belgium, sent a telegram to the hospital commander asking for news. The telegram that came in reply stated that Arthur had already died, on 24 January 1919.
The First World War is estimated to have killed 39 million people, nearly one million of whom were from the UK. The Spanish ‘flu pandemic is estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 million around the World, making it even more lethal than the war.
Because Arthur was still on active service, the UK War Department honoured him the same as any serviceman who died as a result of military action. He is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves section of the town cemetery in Halle, Belgium. He was 23 years old.
I have a number of Arthur’s memorabilia, including his medals. The UK government issued every bereaved family a beautifully worded commemorative scroll, a bronze disc in a Bakelite frame, and a note from HM King George V. As his scroll says:
“Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten.”