Private Gilbert Arthur Fry

Gilbert Arthur Fry

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Gilbert was born in Yetminster in North West Dorset June 1899, the eldest child and only son of John and Mildred Fry. His father John, was first a clerk for – and later the manager of – Blandford and Webb a Corn, Seed and Coal Wholesaler in Sturminster Newton. The corn Blandford and Webb sold was mainly for animal feed, and at the time Dairy farming was far more prevalent in Dorset than now. John Fry would thus have been quite well known locally and was prosperous enough to employ a Domestic Servant. John and Mildred went on to have another five children, all girls.

Being born in 1899 makes Gilbert one of the youngest men on the school War Memorial.  He is probably likely to have been at Blandford Secondary school sometime between 1909 and 1914 and was part of the quarter of the pupils who travelled into school from outside Blandford.  Previously he had been at Sturminster Newton Boys’ School. His eldest sister, Dot (b. 1900) was educated at ‘Miss Bell’s’ Private School in a house in Sturminster, whilst his next two sisters went to the Church Primary School. Florrie (b 1902) and Win (b 1903) walked to school across the fields and often picked fruit from the hedgerow to eat on the way. With no fruit to pick in winter they chose ‘Horse Beans’ – a type of wild Broad Bean to eat.

Florrie was only 6 when she choked on a bean and died in January 1908. She was brought home dead by a passer-by – a teacher from another school. At the funeral her coffin was carried by her friends from school.

The two youngest sisters were Maude (b 1906) and Mildred Florence born the year after Florrie (Florence Mildred) died. Mildred was born blind and as was quite common at the time went away to a residential school for blind children from the age of 6.

When the 1911 census was taken, Gilbert was aged 11. The family lived in Fiddleford in the house next door to what is now the Fiddleford Inn. Gilbert and his eldest three sisters had been born in Yetminster, the youngest two were born in Fiddleford. In 1912 the family moved to Sturminster Newton where they stayed until at least the mid 1920’s. The house was newly built and Maude still remembered many years later how proud they were to say that their house had a purpose built bathroom! Maude later went to Blandford Secondary School after Gilbert had left.

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John Fry was a Quaker and Mildred was Church of England so the family reached the compromise that they would attend the Wesleyan Chapel instead. Indeed, on Gilberts Attestation forms when he first joined the Army under ‘religion’ he is marked as ‘Wes’ for Wesleyan.

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Gilbert left school at the age of 15 and following the path taken by Alfred and later Kenneth Cherry, he went to work in London as a Boy Clerk in the Post Office Savings Bank in West Kensington aged 15 just as war was declared in 1914.

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Posts as Boy Clerks were highly prized and, as we have seen from the Cherry brothers’ experience, were won after a tough competitive exam. There is no reason to doubt that Gilbert sat a similarly searching exam. Whilst the Cherrys’ appointments were published in the London Gazette in peacetime, given that war had been declared and there were now more pressing official announcements to make, Gilbert did not receive the same public recognition.

The Post Office Savings Bank occupied a huge building housing some 4,000 staff complete with its own Post Office to handle the ton or so of mail it sent out each day. About a 1,000 of the staff were women who worked in separate departments from their male colleagues so as not to encourage wasteful flirting between the sexes (it was ‘normal’ for a woman to give up her job once she married and so these would have been almost entirely single young women.)

Gilbert lived as a lodger in Glentham Road in Barnes just south of the Thames which meant that work was a 20-minute bus ride away then as now served by the No 9 route. It can be assumed that makeup of the staff at the Savings Bank was changed by the large number who left to join the Army in 1914. This was where Gilbert worked for the next three years.

By January 1916 it had become obvious that relying on volunteers to join the Army simply was not providing soldiers in the numbers needed for the war being fought on an increasing and unprecedentedly massive scale.  The Asquith Government passed the Military Service Act which finally introduced conscription. The Act came into force on the 2nd March 1916 and as can be seen from Gilbert’s Army ‘Statement of Service’ he was deemed to have been enlisted from that day.

We know a lot about Gilbert’s Army service as, unlike the majority of Other Ranks’ in the First World War, his records were not destroyed by a fire during WW2. Gilbert took the bus south from Barnes towards Kingston upon Thames to be attested at the depot of the East Surrey Regiment. He was posted to the 14th Battalion (London Scottish) The London Regiment. This is also helpful as the London Scottish HQ (they currently form one Company of the present London Regiment of the Army Reserve) hold records of their own which mention Gilbert.

After a medical inspection the previous month, Gilbert was ‘called up’ for actual service on the 7th May 1917 when he was still two months or so away from his 18th birthday. The records show that he was, by modern standards, quite small – being 5’7” tall and weighing just over 8 stone. Although passed as fit for service, Gilbert did have poor eyesight. Attached to his medical history are the results of an Eye test taken in August 1917 which shows that although glasses corrected the deficiency in his sight, without them he would by modern standards be deemed to have ‘low vision’ in one eye and ‘mild loss of vision’ in the other. The modern Regimental Secretary of the (part time) London Scottish who in his other civilian career was an Optician remarked that 100 years later Gilbert would not be allowed to drive without corrected vision.

After initial recruit training in this country, Gilbert went from Folkestone to Boulogne at the end of May 1918. This was about a month after Germany had launched its last, and very nearly successful, offensive of the war in April. As it was Gilbert came to France to fight in the early part of what came to be known as the ‘Last Hundred Days’ when the previously static warfare of the last four years broke out into a mobile push of the German army back to their own frontier. After being processed through the base depot at Le Havre, Gilbert joined no 4 Platoon, A Company, 1 London Scottish; part of 56 (London) Division in the field in mid-June. The battalion at the time was being reinforced from a strength of about 850 to increase to over 1000 by the end of July. During July, the battalion was engaged in training activities just behind the front line in preparation for its part in the advance on the Hindenburg Line. At the beginning of the month the battalion’s total strength was 1,074 all ranks.

Gilbert died on the 31st August at 2/2 London Field Ambulance of wounds received during the attack on Bullecourt sometime between the 26th to the 30th.

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He had been in France for 79 days.

By the 31st the battalion had suffered 320 casualties (13 officers, 307 OR’s) and 2/2 Field Ambulance as a Main Dressing Station had dealt with 3600 casualties in that same week. Their war diary notes that the proportion of injuries from shelling was much less than at any time since 1915. The London Scottish diary notes that most casualties came from Machine Gun and Sniper fire, despite German artillery firing a mix of high explosive and poison gas shells.

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Whilst the whereabouts of Gilbert’s medals are not currently known, the commemorative plaque (commonly known as the widows’ penny) issued in 1919 is still held by his family.

Gilbert is commemorated on the following War Memorials:

  • for the London Scottish at their Headquarters in Westminster;
  • at the Blandford School to where the original Memorial Gates at Blandford Secondary School were moved when Blandford Grammar School closed;
  • at Blythe House in West Kensington on the Memorial to the men of the Post Office Savings Bank who died (now the repository for the Science, V&A and British Museums);
  • and at St Mary’s Church in Sturminster Newton.

Gilbert is buried in the middle of the very back row away from the road in Bucquoy Road Cemetery, Ficheux south of Arras. He was 19.

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