Buckland St Mary’s World War One Servicemen – William Grabham

Private

WILLIAM HENRY GRABHAM

25807 1st/5th Somerset Light Infantry

Died of Wounds 3rd December 1917

Aged 31

Buried Alexandria (Hadra) War Memorial Cemetery

Grave D. 249

Of all the 13 Buckland St Mary men killed in WW1, William Grabham was the only one not to have died on the Western Front; he was wounded and later died in the 1917 fighting for Jerusalem. His name appears on the Roll of Honour that heads The History and Book of Remembrance of the 1st/5th Battalion (Prince Albert’s) Somerset Light Infantry, by Major E S Goodland, MC, and Captain H L Milsom.

William Grabham was a boy of the Blackdown Hills, but born out of the area in South Devon, on 4th January 1888. William’s father Abraham was in the Royal Marine Light Infantry, stationed in Plymouth, so William and his two older and one younger brother were born in East Stonehouse. Their mother Mary too was from Devon. By 1894 they were back in Buckland St Mary, living at Meanwood. William and his older brother Edward started at Buckland school in June 1894; William left in February 1900. In their particulars on the school roll their father is described as ‘Pensioner’, from the Marines.

There’s a small mystery about the family: Abraham was the oldest son, and his father James in 1881 was at Owlhayes, farming 230 acres and employing five men. James’s father before him had farmed on a similar scale in Curland. By 1891 father James was widowed and living in Birchwood, and his younger son James had taken over from him at Owlhayes. Why not Abraham, the oldest son? Did he not want to take over? Was there a family falling-out? No knowing, but when he left the Marines and returned to Buckland he worked as an employed farm labourer. Meantime, I cannot find James junior and family in the 1901 census, but by 1911 they are farming at Church Farm, Otterford.

In 1901 William, aged 14, was working as a Gardener’s apprentice; his older brother Edward, 17, was a Blacksmith’s apprentice. By 1911 William, still living at home, in Little Hill, was a Postman. There is no clue what happened to the family in the intervening 10 years, except that the 1911 Census records for each family the number of children born, and the number who have died; the Grabhams had had eight children, of whom four had died as young children, Arthur at Buckland St Mary in 1904.

Late in 1911 William married Alice Summers of Combe St Nicholas; one of 10 surviving children, she and two of her sisters were working as Toothbrush Drawers (setting the bristles – perhaps badger hair? – in toothbrushes, probably at home); their older sister was an Assistant Schoolmistress, their father a harness maker. All had been born in Combe.

In October 1912 William and Alice, living at Lodge, Buckland St Mary, had a son, Robert John; William was still working as a postman. In December 1914 a daughter, Evelyn May, was born. By now they were living in Combe, and William was working as a Road Labourer.

Without William’s Service Record or any other information, it’s impossible to tell when he joined up. The National Registration Act of 1915 drew up a census of men aged 15-60; by the 15th December 1915 those aged 18-40 had to join up or attest, with the obligation to come forward later. A startlingly large number – two in five – were unsuitable on grounds of health. Finally, conscription for single men was introduced in January 1916, and for married men in May. William’s Medal Roll Card indicates that he didn’t go abroad before 1916.

He joined the 1st/5th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry. At the beginning of the war the 1st/5th were sent to India to take the place of regular battalions there. Drafts from the Battalion were sent to the disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia, but seem not to have included William Grabham. We don’t even know for sure whether he went to India himself. In the Spring of 1917 the Battalion left India to join the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, arriving at Suez on May 6. They joined the 233rd Brigade of the 75th division.

Egypt had been under British control since 1882. When war was declared on Turkey, an ally of Germany, in 1914, Egypt became a crucial staging post from which British and Allied troops were sent to the Dardanelles, Salonika, Mesopotamia, and back to the Western Front. When Turkey threatened the Suez Canal it was felt necessary to gain control of the Palestine coastal strip to protect it securely. (But of course, the main prize, which lay at the heart of Middle East policy, then as now, was oil.) A railway and water pipelines were laid, and unsuccessful attempts were made early in 1917 to take Gaza.

The unsuccessful General Murray was replaced in June by General Allenby. Charged by Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, with winning Jerusalem ‘as a Christmas present for the British nation’, he demanded, and got, a large increase in men and munitions. He then proceeded to do as requested – but at a high cost to those serving him.

The Third Battle for Gaza, with some clever tactical work, won both it and Beersheba by early November. Pressure was kept up on the Turks, and they were pursued, with much loss to them of equipment and prisoners, to the foot of the Judean Hills. Less directly involved in the Battle for Gaza, the 1st/5th now became heavily involved in the subsequent fighting. On the 13th their Brigade (the 233rd) captured Tel El Turmus and El Kustineh, then attacked bravely and successfully El Memiyeh and the ridge beyond; besides 6 killed, 41 other ranks were wounded.

Allenby was anxious not to be involved in a potentially damaging battle, from a propaganda viewpoint, for Jerusalem, so aimed to cut off the enemy by capturing the villages to its north; hence the engagements that followed through November, advancing through the steep and difficult Judean Hills. Weather and territory were against the British, still, despite the wet and bitterly cold weather, in their light desert kit. On the 20th the 1st/5th captured Enab; 2 other ranks were killed and 9 wounded.

On the 21st the 233rd Brigade set off over steep, difficult territory for Biddu. They were overlooked by the Turks on the Nebi Samwil ridge, part of the main defence for Jerusalem. This being taken on the 21st, the 1st/5th were ordered to capture El Jib and Bir Nebala. Laden with heavy equipment and struggling over the rocky precipitous ground, just getting along was bad enough, without having to contend with enemy artillery and machine gun fire. As on the Western Front, men were no match for the power of modern guns used in defence. Worse still, the Officer Commanding (from the 1st/4th Wilts) had mistaken the direction, and was heading for the wrong village. Impossible to correct the mistake at this stage:

“So, for the remainder of that long and trying day the tired troops lay out in the open, or behind such cover as they could find, waiting for nightfall.

The stretcher-bearers had worked heroically to try and get the wounded in under cover, but over the steep and uneven country, in full view of the enemy, they had an almost hopeless task … [By nightfall] the wounded … had been lying out all day without any shelter [their] wounds … aggravated by the delay in being treated. … After a bitterly cold night (it was the end of November, some 3,000 feet above sea level and the men wearing khaki-drill shorts and tunics, with no blankets or greatcoats) the troops woke on the 23rd to the knowledge that El Jib was still to be taken.” –The Somerset Light Infantry 1914-1919, Everard Wyrall

Another attempt was made to take El Jib, but it was an impossible task. Not until a much later stage in the fighting was it taken by the 74th division. By the end of the 23rd the 1st/5th Battalion had suffered 221 casualties in two days’ fighting: three officers killed and six wounded, 51 other ranks killed or missing and 161 wounded. They were then withdrawn from the frontline, and took no further part in the direct fighting for Jerusalem.

William was wounded at some point in this fighting, but impossible to say when: it could have been at any time in November, up to the 23rd. He didn’t die till December 3, 10 days or so after that last date. He would probably have been evacuated by train to Alexandria. Very likely it would have been late in the month before news of his death reached his wife. She chose an epitaph for his grave: ‘God takes our loved ones from our homes but never from our hearts’.

Alice didn’t re-marry; she died of TB in 1952 aged 66. She was then living at Underway, and her son Robert, who was with her when she died, at Combe Head. On her death certificate William’s occupation is given as ‘Quarryman’ – slightly odd, given his actual occupation when he died.

William is also commemorated on the Combe St Nicholas War Memorial. In Combe Church is a framed photo, some 18″ x 24″, of the men of the village who died. William’s photo (1st left, 2nd row) is rather faded, but he has a slightly wistful, troubled look. It’s remarkable that this photographic record should exist at all; it must have been compiled from photographs given by the families at the time.