He Answered the Call

Alfred John Payne was born on 12 Jul 1899 in Chelsea, London, as the second son and fourth child of William Payne, a butcher, and his wife Annie.  Alfred was baptised three months later in Battersea and, by the time he started school aged 4, he and his family were living at 40 Novello Street, Fulham.  Coincidentally, they were close neighbours of local footballer William Krug, of whom I have written previously, who lived at 33 Novello Street.

William Payne died leaving his widow with five children, so Annie and my great grandfather William Banfield, who was also widowed with five children including my paternal grandmother, combined households and were married in December 1910. By 1911, the two adults and ten children aged between 19 and 2, were living in a tiny four-roomed flat (including the kitchen) in Cassidy Road, Fulham[i].

Your Country Needs You Poster featuring the iconic image of Lord Kitchener[ii]

Following the outbreak of war in late July 1914, Britain was the only major power not to have a mass conscripted army, so Lord Kitchener set about forming a New Army of more than 500,000 volunteers aged between 19 and 38 years of age.  The demand to sign up was so great that, in some places, queues more than a mile long formed outside recruiting offices. 

There were many instances of underage boys (or even overage men) being accepted, either having lied about their age or giving false names, as it was not necessary to produce evidence of age or even of a name to enlist.    Their motives for joining up were varied and often overlapped as many were gripped by patriotic fervour, sought escape from an unhappy home life, or just wanted some adventure.

Alfred, aged just 15, was a junior clerk and keen amateur footballer when he joined that number and attested for the Army on 17th July 1915.  He gave his age as 19 years despite having been cautioned that if he made any false answer to any of the recruiting officer’s questions he would be liable to be punished as provided in the Army Act.   At 5ft 6 ¾in tall, he was above the minimum height requirement of 5ft 3in, but his weight of less than 8st (50kg) and chest expansion of 33in (84cm)[iii] were both below the minimum criteria for acceptance into the Army, so he should have been rejected.  Nevertheless, he was accepted and signed up as a gunner in the 182nd Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery for the duration of the war.  It’s worth noting that recruitment officers were paid two shillings and sixpence for each new army recruit and would often ignore any concerns they had about age. 

 A few days later, the new recruits of Fulham’s 177th and 182nd Brigades paraded through local streets before departing for Aldershot for three months’ general military training.  It was not until November 1915[iv] that they began practice training with the 4.5in (114mm) field howitzers, which were the standard British Empire field (or ‘light’) guns towed into action by a team of six horses.  The guns were designed to be operated by a crew of ten men, including a sergeant in charge; a limber gunner responsible for opening and closing the breech in action and, in normal times, servicing the gun and keeping it clean; a gun layer who aimed the gun; and the rest of the crew acting as ammunition and horse handlers.

Diagram of a 4.5in Field Howitzer[v]

Once their training was complete, the Inspector General of Artillery declared the Fulham Artillery to be “the finest artillerymen in Kitchener’s Army”[vi] and, in February 1916, the 177th and 182nd Brigades were merged and left England on several ships bound for active service in France.  As they crossed the English Channel by boat, the sea was very rough so it must have been an anxious and uncomfortable crossing.[vii]  Alfred was now assigned to “B” Battery of the 177th Brigade RFA (B/177th) which arrived at Berguette Station about 90 minutes after a bomb landed on the station, however his unit travelled on to camp at St Quentin the following day without further incident.[viii]

The 177th Brigade war diaries, held by the National Archives in London, are a wonderful resource as they record the daily activities, location, weather and any losses sustained by the unit, both wounded and killed.  From these diaries we can see that on 30th March 1916 the B/177th left for the firing line close to the villages of Philosophe, Mazingarbe, and Hulluch, near Vermelles in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. 

The artillery’s role was to support the infantry (foot soldiers) by using heavy guns to bomb enemy trenches, knock out artillery batteries (groups of guns) and destroy lines of communication.  They could also be used to break up an infantry attack but, as defensive positions were strengthened, the artillery bombardments became longer and more severe, so new tactics were developed to try to break down enemy lines.  One strategy was the creeping barrage (also called a moving or rolling barrage), which involved the artillery firing shells to land just ahead of the advancing infantry and then moving their range forwards at a pre-planned pace.  To work, the strategy required precise timing by both artillery and the infantry, but failure to stick to this would result in the artillery killing their own soldiers. 

Royal Field Artillery team in action during WW1 [ix]

In July 1916, just a few days before Alfred’s 17th birthday, the Fulham Chronicle featured an article under the headline “Fulham’s Artillery – How the men are faring in France”. The newspaper reported, “The partly-trained horsemen who paraded through Fulham before leaving the borough – well as that impressive exhibition was carried out – must not now be confused with the fully trained men who blaze away at the Germans with their 18-pounders. If it is possible to be happy while engaged in such grim work then the Fulham men are happy. Their pride in their guns is one of the things that has made their name. Their coolness under bombardment, the dare-devilry of their signallers when mending wires, and the dash of their drivers when bringing up ammunition are other points which helped to justify this as an A1 brigade. On two days in April the brigade was subject to intense shelling and gas attack. While the gunners took the strain pluckily, it was the drivers who rose to brilliancy on those crucial occasions. This was the first test – the first time that they had to support the men who feed the cannon under heavy fire and gas. But there was no hesitation, and urging their mounts on with triumphant cries they brought up the ammunition that was to show the enemy that he had failed to stop them.”[x]

Despite these jingoistic words, is impossible to imagine the trauma that Alfred and his peers would have experienced during those months.  Unsurprisingly, many of the young men could not cope with the horror and stresses of war.   Many soldiers hoped for a ‘blighty wound’ which would result in them being sent back to England, and some even injured themselves deliberately, especially in the hand or foot, in an effort to end their time on the front line.  Others tried to kill themselves rather than carry on, or simply walked into enemy fire.  A few tried to run away but were treated as cowards or deserters which was a capital offence.  During WW1 306 British and Commonwealth solders were executed, including 16-year-old Herbert Burden, who had lied about his age so he could join the Northumberland Fusiliers. Ten months later, he was court martialled for fleeing after seeing his friends massacred at the battlefield of Bellwarde Ridge. He faced the firing squad aged 17 whilst still officially too young to be in his regiment.[xi]

Although during WW1 Britain led the way for treatment of conflict-related mental illness, due to the stigma, controversy and inflammatory nature of the topic, discussions surrounding mental health and suicide in the British military were limited for much of the 20th century.   Siegfried Sassoon, who was himself treated for shellshock, remains the only recognised war poet to have published on the controversial topic of soldier suicide.

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Suicide in the Trenches by Siegfried Sassoon

Although there may not have been a concerted effort to cover up self-harm or suicide, there were those who could have been motivated, including the military who had little reason to discuss self-harm and suicides as a problem given the state of morale in the trenches, the civilian governments had little reason to discuss these either given the difficulties with conscription later in the war, and the families of the dead had little reason to wish to remember their fallen sons, brothers and fathers as anything less than heroes.

1916 was the year of the most terrible battles of attrition of WW1, resulting in thousands of casualties for both the Allied and German armies on the Western Front.  The 177th Brigade remained near Vermelles where they were subjected to almost daily attack, including lachrymatory (tear gas) and phosgene gas shells, together with high explosive and shrapnel shells, causing many casualties.  Eventually, the Brigade moved south in September 1916 to join the Army for the Battle of Guillemont, part of the Battle of the Somme, then in October they transferred to Kemmel, just a few miles south of Ypres in Belgium[xii]

The war diary entries for 5th and 6th of November are notable as the only comment for each day is “No activity during the day”, although the 7th November saw a raid on enemy trenches with artillery support, the “enemy retaliation was very slight”.  The weather over the next week or so was very misty and almost no activity was recorded. The entry for 18th November 1916 reads, “Very quiet day.  Owing to rain and mist, observation was practically impossible” and, for the first time in six months, things seemed to be calm at last.

Alfred John Payne died on 18th November 1916 and the official records state that he was ‘Killed in Action’.  Quite frankly, that is not possible as there was no action at all that day in his sector, nor during the preceding days.  I wonder if, that following days of inactivity and relative peace, Alfred simply stopped running on adrenaline and lost all hope.  Perhaps his senior officers thought kindly of him and chose not to let his family know of the true circumstances of his death.  We can never know the truth of Alfred’s last day nor what caused his death however, at some point during his time in Europe, his true age had become known to his superiors, who had elected not to send him home.

Alfred John Payne was buried at Godezonne Farm Cemetery, Kemmel, Belgium, in Row “B” Plot 9.  His grieving mother chose for his epitaph four simple words “HE ANSWERED THE CALL”[xiii].

He answered the call: Alfred John Payne, underage soldier of WW1
His headstone at Godezonne Cemetery | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

[i] The National Archives of the UK (TNA) Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911 Series RG14, 1911 via Ancestry.co.uk

[ii] Imperial War Museum © IWM Art.IWM PST 0414

[iii] British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920: The National Archives Microfilm Publication WO363 via Ancestry.co.uk

[iv] Fulham Chronicle 7 Jul 1916 © The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk

[v] Weapons and Warfare last accessed 13 Jul 2022

[vi] Fulham Chronicle 7 Jul 1916 © The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk

[vii] National Archives WO 95/1962/4 177th Brigade RFA War Diaries

[viii] National Archives WO 95/1962/4 177th Brigade RFA War Diaries

[ix] Greatwarforum.org https://www.greatwarforum.org/topic/279939-royal-field-artillery-ww1-help/

[x] Fulham Chronicle 7 Jul 1916 © The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk

[xi] BBC History: Shot at Dawn: Cowards, Traitors or Victims? Last accessed 15 Jul 2022

[xii] National Archives WO 95/1962/4 177th Brigade RFA War Diaries

[xiii] Commonwealth War Graves Records for Alfred John Payne 34753 last accessed 15 Jul 2022