03 October 2016

Forgotten Heroes of the Great War

Introduction – Judy Middleton 2016

copyright © D. Gedye
2nd Lieutenant Arthur Gates
 was a school teacher before the war.
The names on war memorials cannot contain the full impact the war had on servicemen and their families. But it is even worse if a name does not even appear on the relevant war memorial.

This could happen for a variety of reasons including the authorities not being made aware of a name that ought to have been included. There was also an arbitrary cut-off point of 31 August 1921 and if an injured soldier died after that date, he was not considered as a war casualty. The Imperial War Graves Commission undertook the upkeep of all graves of imperial forces killed in action or who died in accidents or of wounds from 4 August 1914 to the date just mentioned.

At Portslade there were two examples of men who returned from war apparently unscathed but who died suddenly in 1925, no doubt their constitution having been undermined by their war experiences. These two men were both teachers at St Nicolas School, Portslade.

2nd Lieutenant Arthur Gates had been teaching at the school since 1908 and Gladys Austen joined the staff in 1912; the couple married in 1921. But Gates was unsettled after he was demobbed and they moved to Cologne for a spell before returning to Portslade where Gates began teaching at St Andrew’s School, Portslade. There were three children of the marriage but the third child did not arrive until three months after Arthur died suddenly of pneumonia on 25 November 1925. Mrs Gates was obliged to return to full-time teaching to provide for her family.

The second Portslade man was Mr R. Winters who joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves. He returned to his teaching post at St Nicolas School in 1919. He particularly enjoyed taking his class on nature rambles over the Downs. But like Gates he too died suddenly in 1925.

Meanwhile, the indefatigable J.W. Lister, Chief Librarian of Hove, was busily collecting details of all Hove personnel involved in the Great War. This resulted in an invaluable archive consisting of six boxes of war records and five bound volumes of photographs. The brass tablets in the vestibule of Hove Library contain over 600 names of the fallen.

 copyright © J.Middleton
The brass tablets record over 600 names of the fallen

Although Private Albert Edward Wheeler’s name is recorded on the brass tablet war memorial, the names of his two brothers were not. They were Thomas Victor Wheeler and Claude Fogo Wheeler. If it had not been for Mr Lister’s enquiries to the family, we should not have known the unhappy fate of the latter at all.

The Wheeler Brothers

Thomas Victor Wheeler – Christine le Blanc
 copyright © J.Middleton
8 St Leonard’s Avenue, Hove, 
where the Wheeler’s lived.

Thomas Victor Wheeler was born in London in 1881. He was a mineral water salesman until he enlisted in 1914. His parents were Joseph George Wheeler and Mary Ann Wheeler (née Trotman). According to his 1922 obituary Joseph was ‘proud to speak of his old campaigning days with the Inniskillin Dragoons.’ It is not known when they moved to Hove but it was probably around the time of the outbreak of the Great War because the name appears in the Directory for 1915 at 8 St Leonard’s Avenue.

Thomas Wheeler’s personal military files were destroyed during the London blitz in September 1940 but the following details have been obtained from the Machine Gun Corps Database as well as records held by Christine Le Blanc, his grand-daughter.

Thomas originally enlisted as number 1171 in the 17th (Service) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, which was raised on 12 December 1914 as a ‘Pals’ Battalion’ and was later nicknamed the ‘Football Battalion’. This was because at its core were a group of professional footballers including the entire team of Clapton (later Leyton) Orient.

(It is interesting to note that two footballers from Brighton & Hove Albion were in the same battalion; they were Charlie Dexter and Bob Whiting and they both died, the latter in action and the former because of the effects of gassing).
  copyright © C. Le Blanc
Thomas Victor Wheeler wearing the uniform
 of the Machine Gun Corps 1914/1915.

At the end of December 1915 any man who had experience with machine guns was transferred to the newly formed Machine Gun Corps. Thomas, together with seven other men from the battalion, was transferred most probably in February or March 1916 but the official transfer was recorded in November 1916. Thomas became number 25775 in the 6th Company Machine Gun Corps. The company numbered around 160 men and their weapons were Vickers machine guns.

Thomas was present at the Battle of Delville Wood, which was part of the Battle of the Somme, as well as other battles from July to November 1916.

In December 1916 Thomas returned to England on leave and married Maud Ellen Dennis on 20 December 1916 at St Matthew’s Church, Hammersmith, London. Maud was employed as a servant in a house in Argyll Road, London, and Thomas met her quite by chance. It happened that Maud’s employers enjoyed doing their bit for the war effort by entertaining soldiers to tea. At one such ‘strawberry tea’ Maud was carrying a tray down some stone steps when Thomas jumped to his feet to help her. His soldier brother, Albert Edward Wheeler, was also present at this occasion.

  copyright © C. Le Blanc
Marjorie Brend, who painted this picture, was the daughter of the family for whom Maud worked. From left to right, the people are Maud Ellen Dennis (later Wheeler) Thomas Victor Wheeler, unknown maid and Albert Edward Wheeler.

The 6th Machine Gun Corps were involved in many engagements throughout 1916 and 1917. In March 1918 number 6 company was amalgamated and became the 2nd Battalion Machine Gun Corps with around 800 men and 64 guns; further engagements followed.

In April 1918 Maud Wheeler received a telegram from the War Office that confirmed Thomas had been admitted to the Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, suffering from ‘fever uncertain origin mild’.

After the war Thomas returned to London to join Maud and their son Thomas Joseph who was born in 1917. They also had a daughter Ada Maud born in 1920.

But Thomas did not recover from his war service and the family moved to Hove to be with his parents at 8 St Leonard’s Avenue and to benefit from the sea air. It was there that he died on 5 February 1922.

The Brighton Gazette (15 February 1922) had this to say about Thomas Victor Wheeler:

copyright © C. Le Blanc
Thomas Victor Wheeler 
and his brother Albert Edward Wheeler.
‘Friday afternoon saw another of Hove’s war heroes laid to rest. Private T.V. Wheeler … joined the 17th Middlesex Regiment at the commencement of the war, afterwards transferring to the M.G. Corps. He saw much severe fighting in Delville Wood, the Somme etc., besides receiving wounds, sustaining shell shock and being gassed. His sufferings were terminated by death last week … There were many beautiful floral tributes.’

Maud Wheeler was left a young widow with two small children. In fact Ada Wheeler, Thomas’ eldest sister, thought Maud was too young for such a responsibility and that the children should go to an orphanage. This was when Maud decided it was time to leave Hove and return to London to live with her parents. While the children were small Maud led a very hard life, having to take on three jobs in order to make ends meet.

Maud never remarried and always loved Thomas. She kept his memory alive by constantly talking about him and her children and grandchildren all felt he was an important part of their lives.

Maud did not die until 1984, 62 years after Thomas, and she was buried with him in Hove Cemetery with the headstone reading ‘Together at Rest’ and ‘Re-united’

Claude Fogo Wheeler – Judy Middleton and Christine le Blanc

He must have been brought up on stories of his family’s military service and was desperate to join up during the Great War, just like his brothers. But it seems his health was not up to it. The recruiting offices in Hove or Brighton must have turned him down. But whatever the truth of the matter he decided to march to Chichester where the Royal Sussex Regiment was based. Did he embark on the march because of poverty or because he wanted to prove his fitness? At any rate when he made it to Chichester ‘he was rejected from military service’. He must have been utterly dejected when he returned home to 8 St Leonard’s Avenue where he died on 18 January 1917.

Albert Edward Wheeler – Judy Middleton and Christine Le Blanc

 copyright © C. Le Blanc
Albert Edward Wheeler
He was born in 1891. By the time the Great War broke out he was living with his parents at 8 St. Leonard’s Road and worked as a motor driver. Like his brother Thomas, he too joined 17th Middlesex Regiment. He saw a great deal of action on the Western Front, the Somme and Delville Wood where he was severely wounded; that particular battle lasted from 14 July to 15 September 1916. On 19 October 1917 Albert was discharged from the Army as medically unfit and received a full pension. But he did not survive long and died at home 8 St Leonard’s Avenue on 6 November 1917.

He was buried in Hove Cemetery and has a standard white military headstone. As regards maintenance it is unfortunate the grave is tucked away in the south west corner away from the Great War graves but he is near other family members. His name is included on the brass tablets at Hove Library and also in the war memorial at St Leonard’s Church, Aldrington, in whose parish he died; the latter memorial also mentions Delville Wood.

  copyright © J.Middleton
Albert Edward Wheeler’s name is also to be found on the war memorial at St Leonard’s Aldrington.

Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
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