First World War centenary: The soldier killed after just five days in the Western Front
- Credit: Vickie Flores/Archant
Rifle fire pierced the air as sergeants Alfred Cleall and Charles Gibbs set upon the oncoming German troops, ammunition fast exchanging from their comrades’ hands to theirs.
The men were in the thick of the First Battle of Ypres, defending the British trenches against an onslaught by their enemy.
Alfred, known as Alf, had only been in the Western Front for five days when a bullet struck his throat.
The 40-year-old’s body was later lost or destroyed amid the bloodshed and his wife and one-year-old daughter were forever denied the chance to say goodbye.
Now Alf’s great-great nephew Alan Simpson, 55, of Ravensbourne Gardens, Clayhall, has shared his story to mark the centenary of the First World War.
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Alf was born in 1873 in Leominster, Herefordshire, but his family settled in Bath after his father died a few years later.
Alf, who had five sisters and four brothers, worked as a printer’s apprentice before joining the Dorset Regiment of the Army in the 1890s, serving in India and then fighting in South Africa during the Second Boer War.
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Alan said: “While in India he was held in a military prison for 84 days, for striking an officer.
“It seems like he had a bit of a temper.”
After the Second Boer War ended in 1902, Alf returned to Bath.
He ran two pubs and a billiard saloon with his brother Wilfred, who had served in the same regiment.
Alf was also a keen sportsman. He played for Bath Rugby Football Club, served as its vice-chairman and enjoyed cricket games.
But he couldn’t stay away from the Army and in 1906 joined the North Somerset Yeomanry, a Territorial Army cavalry unit, where he became a sergeant.
These soldiers’ lives were changed irrevocably when the First World War broke out in August 1914 and they were sent to the Western Front.
Alan said: “Alf was fighting small battles against local tribes in India, but the First World War was a very different experience.
“I wonder if he lied about his age; his death certificate gives his age as 32, not 40.
“Some recruits fighting in the trenches were in their 50s and 60s, it depended on the recruitment officers.
“He obviously enjoyed being a soldier.”
On November 17 1914, Alf was shot during the fighting around Zwarteleen, Belgium. His comrade Charles was wounded while trying to stem the bleeding.
The grief Alf’s wife felt was worsened by the fact that his death was not confirmed for more than a year.
Original reports suggested he was injured or missing.
Alan said: “He was buried a couple of days after the battle by another regiment, who had then gone.
“His grave was lost or destroyed in four more years of fighting at Ypres.”
Alf’s comrades left the trenches after the battle and did not return until the following year.
The soldier is one of 54,400 commemorated on the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres.
Alan, a member of the Ilford Historical Society, visited Zwarteleen on November 17 last year, standing close to where his relative fought and died exactly 100 years before.
He said: “As I had been researching him for years, I started to feel I had got to know him.
“I was looking around and thinking how 100 years ago a raging battle was going on. It is hard to imagine.
“Alf’s story is just one of millions.”