To Granny and Poppa
My name is Alex Deeley. I was born in Lismore, New South Wales, Australia, on 28 July 1988. My mother was born in Australia, my father in England. Each side of my family has a great-uncle who fought and died in the First World War. Both served in the infantry as private soldiers and died in 1917.
By a more surprising coincidence, each of my great-great-uncles died within a short distance of 'Hellfire Corner', the name given to a railway crossing two kilometres east of Ypres on the Menin Road and in 1917 one of the most dangerous places on earth.
The railway has long since been pulled up and the site today is marked by a roundabout. But the bodies of my uncles remain - buried in war cemeteries less than eight kilometres apart.
This story is written for them; lest we forget.
Frank Deeley was my father's father's father's brother. He was born on 18 March 1898, and died near Ypres on 9 April 1917, aged 19. Frank was the second son of Joseph Augustus and Jessie Ellen Deeley, of 15 Kirkdale Road, Leytonstone, Essex. Joseph was born in Birmingham - where the largest concentration of Deeleys is still found today. He moved to London at an early age and became a schoolteacher. Jessie was a daughter of William Statham. The Stathams were of higher social standing than the Deeleys and William's household possessions included a beautiful set of crystal drinking vessels engraved with the initials 'WS', some of which are today held by various members of the Deeley family.
Family legend has it that the name 'Deeley' is derived from 'de Lis' and that Sir Reginald de Lis came to England in 1066 as a knight in the service of Walter de Lacy, a powerful Norman baron. The origin of 'Lis' and its alternative spelling 'Lys' is uncertain, but it is known that the de Lacys took their name from their home castle at Lassy, near Falaise in southern Normandy. Walter was rewarded with a grant of vast estates on the Welsh border, while his brother, Ilbert, was similarly rewarded with lands in Yorkshire, based on Pontefract. Sir Reginald would have held land as a knight-tenant of Walter de Lacy.
The de Lacys founded Ludlow Castle, which became the family's principal stronghold. During the civil wars of Stephen and Matilda in the 1140s the castle was captured by Joce de Dinan, a rival baron whose family probably came from Dinan in Brittany. Gilbert de Lacy, a grandson of Walter, and Sir Arnold de Lis, a grandson of Sir Reginald, became prisoners of Joce, but were allowed freedom of movement within the castle. Sir Arnold formed a relationship with a young lady in the castle, Marion de Bruer, who assisted him and Gilbert to escape.
Later, Marion secretly admitted Arnold back into the castle by lowering a rope down an outer wall. Unbeknown to Marion, Arnold left the rope in place, and whilst occupied in her chamber some of his men climbed the rope and opened the castle gate to de Lacy's soldiers, who slew the garrison and recaptured the castle. On discovering her lover's treachery, Marion killed Arnold with his own sword before throwing herself out of a window, breaking her neck on the rocks below. (Those rocks can still be seen today.)
The tale of Marion and Arnold became part of the 'Fitzwarine Romance', a story that traces the fortunes of the Fitzwarine family of Whittington in north Shropshire from the time of the Norman Conquest. (A member of the family, Fouke Fitzwarine, was a squire of Joce de Dinan.)
After the death of Sir Arnold in the 1140s, the de Lis name disappeared from public records for several hundred years. During that period the family probably lost its knightly status. (Sir Arnold's escapade would, in any case, have been regarded as a serious breach of the accepted code of chivalry.) The bulk of the family eventually moved to Birmingham and the West Midlands (Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire), there to become caught up in the machinations of the industrial revolution. By the time the name re-emerged in written form, it was generally phonetically spelt as 'Deeley', reflecting local pronunciation.
A minor branch of the family retained a higher social status and with it the original written form of their name; although 'De Lys' tended to be used instead of 'de Lis'. Dr Gabriel De Lys, a surgeon of New Street, Birmingham, is recorded as having been a member of the Humane Society of Birmingham in 1803 and a founder of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum in 1812.
At about the same time, the Deeleys were establishing themselves in trade and manufacture. In 1818 Deeley and Wakeman, of Suffolk Street, Birmingham, were recorded as 'ivory horn and tortoiseshell comb and lanthorn leaf manufacturers'. In 1831 a Deeley was recorded as a subscriber to the Blue Coats School. In 1877 a Deeley was recorded as a member of the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. About the same time Thomas Deeley was recorded as a tarpaulin maker at Guild Pits.
By the end of the 19th Century the names 'de Lis' and 'De Lys' appear to have almost entirely disappeared. No-one of either name is recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as compared with 52 Deeleys recorded as having died in the two World Wars, of whom 48 were male combatants. Only one of those Deeleys had officer rank: a Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. The largest proportion served with Midlands regiments: five in the Worcestershire Regiment; four in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, two in the South Staffordshire Regiment and one in the North Staffordshire Regiment. All except one (from the South Staffordshire Regiment) of those twelve died in the First World War. There were also two Deeleys from Australia, one from Canada and one from South Africa. Three served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and two in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (both in the Second World War).
Of the 38 Deeleys recorded as having died in the First World War, 14 came from the Midlands, 21 from other parts of the British Isles, and one each from South Africa, Australia and Canada (the parents of this last Deeley came from Birmingham, as did my great-great-grandfather, the father of Frank). All except two of the 14 Midlands Deeleys served in the infantry and all except one (a corporal) had the rank of private or its equivalent. Five served in the Worcestershire Regiment, four in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and one each in the North Staffordshire Regiment, South Staffordshire Regiment, Kings Royal Rifle Corps, Royal Engineers and Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.
Fifteen Deeleys died in the Ypres Salient, of whom at least seven have no known grave. Six are commemorated by the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres (now Ieper) and one by the Tyne Cot Memorial near Zonnebeke on the slopes of Passchendaele Ridge. The Menin Gate Memorial stands on British soil (the land having been ceded to the United Kingdom by the Belgium government) and is dedicated to the 'missing', recording the names of 54,896 officers and men of the British imperial forces who died in the Ypres Salient and have no known grave. Tyne Cot is the largest British cemetery within the Salient. It contains almost 12,000 graves and commemorates a further 34,984 lost without trace. The remaining eight Deeleys, memorialised in cemeteries, may be assumed to have marked graves, as does Uncle Frank (although this may not apply to all cases).
Saddest of all, perhaps, was the fate of William Henry and Catherine Deeley of 4 Haymarket, Piccadilly Circus, London, who lost two sons at the Western Front. The elder, simply recorded as 'J Deeley', was lost without trace on 31 October 1914, aged 23. He is one of the Deeleys commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial. His younger brother, Frederick Thomas Deeley, was also lost without trace - on 19 September 1916, aged 20. His name is commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial, Somme.
Another sad tale is that of Thomas and Emily Deeley of 295 Heeley Road, Selly Oak, Birmingham, whose son Albert James was lost without trace on 9 May 1917, aged 19. His name is commemorated at the Arras Memorial in France, together with those of almost 35,000 other casualties of the British Empire who have no known grave. Albert had a younger brother, George. George was too young to serve in the First World War, but served as a corporal in the Royal Air Force during the first part of the Second World War. He died on 13 August 1940, aged 37, leaving behind a widow, Louise Deeley, also of Selly Oak, Birmingham. George is assumed to have died in England. He was cremated at the Birmingham Municipal Crematorium, where his name is commemorated on Column 1.
Two of the 38 Deeleys recorded as having died in the First World War served with the London Regiment. One was my great-great-uncle Frank, who served as a private with the 15th Battalion, the Prince of Wales' Own Civil Service Rifles; part of the 47th (London) Division at the time of his death. Frank Deeley is recorded as having died on Monday 9 April 1917, aged 19. He is buried in a marked grave in Enclosure No. 4 (Plot 1, Row I, grave 39) at Bedford House Cemetery near Zillebeke, 2.5 kilometres south-east of Ieper (formerly Ypres). The location of the grave (in Plot 1) indicates that it is almost certainly part of the original 'comrades cemetery' and that Frank died close to his final resting place.
Bedford House Cemetery is located within the grounds of what used to be the Chateau Rosendal, known as Bedford or Woodcote House by the British. The house was situated in a small wooded park. Neither the house nor the park ever fell into enemy hands, although both were gradually destroyed by shell-fire.
In the absence of Frank's service record (which has yet to come to hand and may, in any case, have been destroyed during World War II), one can only speculate on the manner of his death. At the time there was no recorded battle in process, but the Ypres Salient, in contrast to other sectors on the Western Front, suffered near-continuous hostilities throughout most of the war. It is possible, therefore, that Frank was killed in action or died of wounds. It is also possible that he drowned in mud (as did many during the Third Battle of Ypres later that year) or died from disease or other causes. (I'm unsure of the proportion of British troops that died from illness, but disease accounted for more than half of the 112,432 fatalities suffered by United States personnel during the war.)
Enclosure No. 4 of Bedford House Cemetery was used from June 1916 until February 1918, largely by the 47th (London) Division. It is assumed that those original graves now occupy Plot 1 - in accordance with established custom. After the Armistice the enclosure was enlarged by the concentration of 3,324 graves from other burial grounds and battlefields of the Ypres Salient.
Having an identified grave places Frank in a minority of those who fell in the Ypres Salient. Approximately two-thirds of the graves in Enclosure No. 4 are unidentified. The majority of those who died in the Salient have no known grave - their names being commemorated by either the Menin Gate or cemetery memorials such as the one at Tyne Cot.
Frank's grave has the added distinction of almost certainly occupying its original site as part of a comrades cemetery - the term commonly given to the battlefield cemeteries wherein survivors buried their dead comrades. Many of those thus interred were moved after the Armistice into new cemeteries where the graves were typically laid out in blocks of four rows with ten graves per row. (This was the fate of Uncle Henry.) Sadly, a large proportion of the early cemeteries was subsequently destroyed in the course of battle, thereby adding to the number of fallen with no known grave. Possibly less than 10% of those who fell in the Salient have the distinction of remaining undisturbed in their original identified graves.
Frank had an older brother, Donald Alan Deeley, my great-grandfather, who was born on 3 November 1896. Donald also served as an infantry private in First World War and was lucky to survive physically unscathed. After the war he married Miriam Cardozo and on 18 March 1921, exactly 23 years after the birth of Frank, their first child was born - Alan Frank Sidney Deeley, my grandfather.
In 1942 Alan Deeley married Enid Vale, my grandmother, whose father, George Frederick Vale, served in the Army Service Corps during the First World War and also survived.
Henry Wilkie, my mother's mother's father's brother, was born in August 1891, the son of Heinrich Bernhard Diedrich and Marjory McGillvray Wilkie (née Smith), of 'Alice Villa', Fairfowl Street, Dulwich Hill, Sydney, New South Wales. Heinrich was born with the family name Wilke in 1864 in Holstein, at that time part of Denmark. In 1866 Holstein was annexed by Prussia and Heinrich later emigrated to Australia. In 1912 he became an Australian citizen and in 1914 changed his family name from Wilke to Wilkie.
Had Heinrich not become an Australian citizen, he may have been interned within Australia during the First World War as an enemy alien. Had he not emigrated to Australia, any sons born in Holstein [Heinrich had three sons: Henry (who was baptised Heinrich), Thomas and Frederick] would have served in the German armed forces (Germany having compulsory military service).
As it turned out, Henry Wilkie, who had been a wood machinist, volunteered for service with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on Monday 20 September 1915 at the age of 24 years one month. His enlistment was probably a response to a growing awareness in Australia that neither the Gallipoli campaign nor the allied war effort on the Western Front were going well and that a greater commitment of resources would be required to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion. His medical report of that date includes the following: height - 5 feet 6 inches; weight - 140 pounds; chest measurement - 35½ inches; complexion - fair; eyes - grey; hair - fair; religious denomination - C of E. The word 'good' has been added after the description of eyes. It is unclear whether the addition was intended to refer to Henry's eyes alone or to his health in general.
The following day Henry completed his enlistment attestation, citing his mother as next of kin. [By that time Henry's mother and father had separated. Henry lived with his mother at 'Lucknow', Samuel Street, St Peters, Sydney, while his father occupied the former marital home at 'Alice Villa', Fairfowl Street, Dulwich Hill, Sydney - later moving to 476 Illawarra Road, Marrickville, Sydney.] By 15 October Henry had completed his recruit training with 'C' Company, 10th Depôt Battalion, Holdsworthy. He was then transferred to the 12th Reserve Battalion and subsequently to the 4th Battalion, 13th Reinforcements, prior to embarkation at Sydney on His Majesty's Australian Transport 'A60' ('Aeneas') on Monday 20 December 1915, bound for Egypt.
On Monday 14 February 1916 Henry was transferred to the 2nd Battalion at Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt where the AIF, recently evacuated from Gallipoli, was being doubled and reorganised into I and II Anzac Corps for service on the Western Front. Uncle Henry may have been fortunate in his transfer. The 2nd Battalion had served in Gallipoli and was destined to play a distinguished role during the remainder of the war. Whilst the latter point could be said of most, if not all, Australian units, the 2nd Battalion was typically led by excellent commanders who in turn were part of a command structure that included some of the best officers of the war.
At the time of its embarkation for France in March 1916, I Anzac Corps was commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir W.R. Birdwood and its First Division by Major-General H.B. Walker - both outstanding British officers. Walker was later to have on his staff Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Blamey, destined to become commander-in-chief of Australian Military Forces in World War II and the only Australian ever to be awarded a field-marshal's baton. At that time (March 1916) the senior engineer on the staff of II Anzac Corps was Brigadier-General W.B. Lesslie - a Canadian, who later commanded 1st Brigade.
The 2nd Australian Division began to leave Egypt on 13 March, followed by the 1st Division from 21 March. On Wednesday 22 March Henry was embarked at Alexandria on the 'Invernia', bound for Marseilles, where he disembarked six days later. After only a few hours the Anzacs were entrained for northern France - the authorities not allowing them any rest or recreation in Marseilles, possibly for fear of undisciplined behaviour.
After a brief period behind the lines the two Australian divisions were attached to General Sir Herbert Plumer's Second British Army, taking up position on the right, to the south of Armentières. On 20 April General Walker and his staff took over the divisional headquarters at Sailly - a village about ten kilometres south-west of Armentières and eight kilometres from the front line. A few days later - on 28 April - Uncle Henry was seconded to stores duty at the Royal Engineers' depôt at the neighbouring village of Bac St Maur.
Between then and October of that year Henry's movements are unclear and it is possible he missed all of I Anzac Corps' (comprising the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions) involvement in the battles of Pozières and Mouquet Farm, fought at great cost between 22 July and 26 September 1917. Over 8,000 Australian lives were lost - the majority unidentifiable; as many as in eight months' fighting at Gallipoli. 'Pozières' was awarded as a battle honour and is the site of memorials to the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions.
In October 1916 Henry was sent to a Lewis Machine Gun School in Belgium, rejoining his battalion in February 1917, prior to spending a further 14 days at a similar school in France. At 2100 hours on Sunday 11 March he went absent without leave until 2050 hours the following day. He was subsequently court-marshalled on 17 March at Fricourt; found guilty and sentenced to 20 days of field punishment no. 2. On 19 March the sentence was confirmed by Brigadier-General W.B. Lesslie, by then General Officer Commanding, 1st Australian Infantry Brigade. On 31 May 1920 the proceedings of the court marshal were filed with the Attorney-General's Department in a file numbered 10043.
At the time of Henry's court-martial, the 2nd Battalion was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Milligan - one of Australia's finest infantry commanders, who had come from Australia in MacLaurin's original 1st Brigade. On Monday 9 April 1917 Henry was wounded in action during his battalion's gallant attack on Hermies - one of the 'outpost villages' in front of the Hindenburg Line, the capture of which was deemed a necessary precursor to a major assault on the Line at Bullecourt. The battle cost the 2nd and 3rd Battalions 253 killed. Henry received serious injury to his right arm and hand and was hospitalised at Australian General Hospital No. 1 at Rouen from 11 - 20 April. He rejoined his battalion, via the Australian base depôt at Etaples, on 2 May. The battle of Second Bullecourt was then in progress (until 16 May).
After Second Bullecourt, I Anzac Corps enjoyed an extended rest period behind the lines north of the Somme. Late in July the corps moved north to take part in the Third Battle of Ypres. On Friday 21 September 1917, on the second anniversary of his enlistment, Uncle Henry was killed in action at the age of 26 years one month during the Battle of Menin Road. A hand-written note on his service record appears to state 'buried in vicinity of Beceisere Sh 28 NE J'. Unfortunately the writing is somewhat illegible and its meaning unclear, so that the location of Henry's first burial site and (presumably) death remains uncertain, although it may have been in the vicinity of Becelaere - a village about three kilometres north-east of Gheluvelt, through which the Menin Road passed.
The Battle of Menin Road was a key episode in the Third Battle of Ypres - a necessary precursor to the assault on Passchendaele Ridge, which was eventually taken, after several attempts and great loss of life, by British and Canadian infantry on 6 November 1917. 'Menin Road' was awarded as a battle honour, as were 'Polygon Wood', 'Broodseinde', 'Poelcappelle' and 'Passchendaele' to commemorate subsequent battles of the campaign. All five honours were awarded to the 2nd Battalion, which lost 11 officers and 188 other ranks killed in the Battle of Menin Road alone.
Uncle Henry is buried at the Buttes New British Cemetery (Plot XXIV, Row D, grave 10), part of Polygon Wood, near Zonnebeke, eight kilometres east-north-east of Ypres and about the same distance from the resting place of Uncle Frank. The cemetery was created after the Armistice by the concentration of 2,066 graves (mostly from 1917) from the battlefields of Zonnebeke. 81% of the graves are unidentified.
The cemetery includes the 'Buttes' (more correctly a 'butte'), a long artificial mound about 6 metres high, used for musketry training until 1870, and honeycombed with French and German dugouts. The butte is the site of the Battle Memorial of the 5th Australian Division, which captured it on 26 September 1917. The cemetery covers an area of 15,145 square metres. It is enclosed by a low rubble wall and planted with silver birches, English yews, Lombardy poplars and eucalyptus. A walled avenue of about 35 metres connects with the smaller Polygon Wood Cemetery, which lies on the other side of the Zonnebeke to Westhoek road and has 100 graves.
Henry's personal effects, a wallet, souvenir brooch and debit advice note, were dispatched via the 'Boonah' to his mother, who received them on 2 May 1918. On 2 February 1921 three copies of a photograph of Henry's grave were sent to his mother. They were returned (presumably because Mrs Wilkie had moved - new address unknown) and on 18 March redirected to Heinrich Wilkie (Henry's father) who received and signed for them on 2 April.
Henry's British War Medal was dispatched to his old battalion on 14 October 1921. On 17 December 1921 Heinrich Wilkie received a Memorial Scroll and King's Message. On 24 October 1922 Henry's brother Frederick received a Memorial Plaque on behalf of his father. On 15 February 1923 Heinrich (by then living at 476 Illawarra Road, Marrickville) received his son's Victory Medal.
Today, only the medals and plaque remain in the family's possession.
Henry's service papers appear to indicate that he was entitled to receive the 1914-15 Star, but that it was never issued. The matter is currently being investigated by his family.
Henry had two younger brothers - Thomas and Frederick - neither of whom served in the war. Frederick was my great-grandfather - the father of my mother's mother.
The Ypres Salient
The Ypres Salient refers to part of the Western Front of World War I, centred on the ancient city of Ypres, today named Ieper. In the Middle Ages Ypres became prosperous from the wool trade and in the thirteenth century built its magnificent Cloth Hall and St Martin's Church (which is on the scale of a cathedral). The city was fortified by ramparts and moat.
Germany declared war on France and Belgium on Sunday 3 August 1914. The United Kingdom, ally of France and a guarantor of Belgian neutrality, declared war on Germany with effect from 11:00AM Monday 4 August 1914. By that time Germany had already invaded Belgium. Liége fell three days later; Brussels on 20 August.
In the meantime a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had landed in France and proceeded towards the Belgium front. The campaign got off to a bad start, with major defeats at Mons and Le Cateau on 23 and 26 August. During that time the BEF had little to eat or drink and was forced to march great distances carrying heavy packs and equipment in the oppressive August heat. In the retreat to St Quentin, reached on 27 August, personal weapons and equipment were abandoned by near-delirious soldiers. The general staff departed by train, leaving behind a rabble with little effective discipline or leadership. Two colonels surrendered their battalions with no enemy in sight. (Both were subsequently cashiered.)
The tide of battle was eventually turned at the first Battle of the Marne during the second week in September and the Germans forced back to the River Aisne. By the end of September the Aisne campaign was developing into a stalemate, with the first signs of the impending trench warfare. Both sides then turned their attention to the French Channel Ports and their strategic hinterland - Flanders. The Germans were still besieging Antwerp, which held out until 9 October, and this may have prevented them from immediately establishing themselves in Flanders. Nevertheless, on 7 October a German cavalry division occupied Ypres. They had no infantry to hold the city and therefore left the following day, taking with them 8,000 loaves, 62,000 francs plundered from the treasury and goods from looted shops.
Thereafter, the country surrounding Ypres was progressively occupied by the Germans, although Ypres itself was left alone. The Chateau Rosendal at Zillebeke, 2.5 kilometres south-east of Ypres, was also by-passed by the Germans - possibly because it was protected by moats. The chateau, known as Bedford or Woodcote House by the British, never fell into enemy hands, but the house and trees surrounding it were gradually destroyed by shell-fire. The property became covered in cemeteries and the site of today's Bedford House Cemetery, where Uncle Frank is buried.
On 13 October 1914 the village of Meteren, south of Ypres, was taken by 3 Corps in the first formal British attack of the war. Ypres was occupied by the British the following day. The Germans attempted to retake the city on the 15th, but the British held their ground at the expense of heavy losses. A week later the Germans occupied Zonnebeke and Polygon Wood, but were repulsed by the French and British the following day. Fighting continued to the north, east and west of Ypres for the next four weeks. Neither line was broken and by 20 November both sides had fought to a standstill with terrible casualties; the Germans losing about 135,000 killed or badly wounded, the British about 75,000.
The First Battle of Ypres marked the death of the old British Army (the 'Old Contemptibles') and the start of nearly four years of squalid trench warfare. Nevertheless, several historians (including Sir John Fortescue) regard the First Battle of Ypres as one of the greatest feats of arms in the history of the British Army.
Although Ypres remained in Allied hands throughout the remainder of the war, the Germans commenced shelling it on 22 November, 1914, partially destroying the magnificent Cloth Hall. Thereafter the city was under almost constant bombardment. The entire civilian population was evacuated and the city was eventually destroyed - possibly to a greater extent than any city in the history of warfare. There were two more battles of Ypres, one in 1915, the other in 1917, and by the end of the war the Salient had claimed hundreds of thousands of Allied casualties, including my great-great-uncles Frank and Henry.
Many have claimed that too many lives were unnecessarily sacrificed in the Ypres Salient, particularly during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) after the successes at Polygon Wood and Broodseinde, when the campaign was pursued at terrible cost until mid-November. But in a war of attrition, perseverance prevails. During 1917 calls for peace were made by the Pope, President Woodrow Wilson and the German Reichstag, which in the middle of that year voted by two to one for a 'peace of understanding and reconciliation'. All those moves were rejected by the Allies - particularly by Britain and her dominions, anxious to preserve the integrity of the British Empire.
After the Armistice, Ypres was gradually restored to its pre-war state - the work being completed during the 1960s. Today Ieper (as the city is now called) has regained much of its former medieval charm and grandeur. It is hard to imagine that three generations ago this was hell on earth.
Neither Frank nor Henry was a professional soldier. Frank may have been a conscript, but Henry was definitely a volunteer. No photographs appear to have survived of either. These notes, prepared in the spirit of Remembrance, not of glorification, provide a little background on the circumstances of their deaths and may serve as an additional memorial to their lives - so tragically sacrificed.
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Copyright © Alex Deeley, January, 2000.
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