Somme centenary: Seven Kings man shares tale of grandfather, 43, killed on battle’s first day
- Credit: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency
The unfulfilled promise of the “lost generation” is an enduring image of the First World War, with scores of young men lying in pieces on the battlefields of the Western Front and beyond, their hopes, dreams and futures all obliterated by the metal war machine.
But although Britain’s young made up many of the recruits, with “boy soldiers” as young as 12 and 13 among them, the idea that most servicemen were either in their teens or barely out of them is a myth.
Many were, in fact, much older; in 1916, the Military Service Act imposed conscription on all single men aged between 18 and 41 – later extended to married men – and the upper age limit was raised to 51 in the war’s final months.
Long before conscription, Pte Stephen Stannard enlisted, a dedicated soldier at heart, having been in the Army for some time.
It was during the fateful first day of the Battle of the Somme that he was killed aged 43, leaving his three young children without a father.
And the tragedy deepened months later, when the siblings were orphaned by the death of their mother.
The family narrative tells that she died of a broken heart.
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Stephen’s grandson Phil Butcher, 64, of North Road, Seven Kings, has now shared the soldier’s story.
He said: “I think it was always in the family. The family of every British person who died during the First World War was presented with a bronze plaque – a huge coin.
“As a child, I saw it was always there and my mum was like, ‘That’s my father, he died in the First World War’.
“Pretty much all she would say; it was pretty much all she knew.
“The plaque was always there as a reminder.”
Stephen was born in Bermondsey, London, on March 21, 1873, the son of general labourer George Stannard and his wife Susannah.
Part of a working class family, at the age of 37 he married 29-year-old widow Elsie Julia Hanscomb, formerly Atkins.
The wedding was held on March 27, 1910 at the Parish Church of St Thomas, West Ham.
At the time of the wedding, Stephen was a lithographer (printer).
The details of his Army career are not known but, sometime prior to 1914, he served on the North-West Frontier of British India (now part of Pakistan).
When the time came to enlist for the First World War, Stephen signed up in Battersea, fighting with the 7th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment.
Phil said: “His experience probably made him one they wanted; when you look around, there are people that were that age.
“People joined as it was going to be a huge adventure, but the reality struck home when they got there.”
The family are unaware of when exactly Stephen enlisted, or which battles he fought in; all they know is he served at the Somme on July 1, 1916 and was one of the thousands killed.
Phil’s mother Violet was just 15 months old. When her mother died months later, she and her brother and sister – George Stephen and Elsie – were taken in by an uncle and aunt in Stratford.
“They would not see the family separated, having now lost both parents,” said Phil.
Phil’s family has a history with the military – his own father was a company sergeant major in the Second World War and one of his older brothers was killed during Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
Stephen’s son George Stephen served in the Signals Regiment during the Second World War and was part of the first wave of the Normandy landings.
One of six surviving siblings, with a second brother having died, Phil has journeyed to Fricourt British Cemetery – about 5km east of Albert – many times over the years to pay his respects at Stephen’s grave.
The family, including four of Phil’s five granddaughters, are soon to visit once more, to honour Stephen’s memory 100 years on.
Phil said: “It’s emotional, there’s that phrase we say so much; lest we forget.
“July will be a time for remembering them, really doing what we can to try and make their memory live on and remember what they actually did for us as well, in terms of whatever little way we can make this world a safer, happier and more peaceful place, which is what they were fighting for.”
For more personal stories from the battle, see the free 24-page Somme supplement in this week’s Recorder.