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Mystery wooden chest revealed my father’s WW1 roles

PUBLISHED: 15:00 31 January 2014 | UPDATED: 15:00 31 January 2014

First World War memory feature.
Bill Edwards from Gorleston with a box of his fathers war memorabilia, medals and pipe.

Picture: James Bass

First World War memory feature. Bill Edwards from Gorleston with a box of his fathers war memorabilia, medals and pipe. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2014

Throughout his childhood, teenage years and into adulthood, Bill Edwards would glimpse with curiosity at the large wooden chest in his parents’ home.

But he and his siblings had been told firmly by his father never to open it to see what was inside – and they didn’t.

But when his father, Edward Edwards, died at the age of 73 the box was opened, and the family discovered a treasure of documents recounting the Great Yarmouth man’s army service during the First World War, and his transfer to the Royal Navy Reserve two years into the conflict.

The box was full of papers, documents, campaign medals, photos, plus two cut-throat razors, clay pipes and other personal items; guarded and never spoken about - and neither was the 1914-18 war.

Bill, of Gorleston, now aged 89, said: “The box was in the house. We weren’t allowed to go near it in the living room where we lived in Trafalgar Road.

“We were surprised when we found out what was in it.”

Bill knew his father had been a herring drifter skipper but he had never talked about what he had done during the 1914-18 war – dubbed afterwards as The Great War because of the massive loss of life - the war to end all wars.

The wooden chest though revealed the secrets kept hidden – and Bill doesn’t know if his mother had ever known the full story.

Edward Edwards, who was born in 1883 at a house in Albert Terrace, Cobholm Island, had actually been in the army for several years before the outbreak of the war.

He had enlisted in 1902 – for the militia, as it was known, the Norfolk Regiment.

His occupation was given as labourer and he was 18 years and five months old, living at 58 Trafalgar Road West in Yarmouth, when he signed up on February 23, 1902.

His army records show he spent 25 days training, was 5ft 5ins tall ‘with a fresh complexion’, had blue eyes, brown hair and a boot size 8. He was also tattooed.

A certificate shows he was with the mounted infantry.

Edward was later transferred to the Reserve and in 1908 asked for permission to go to sea. Whether he did or not is unknown – but he may have as his later service included time listed with the Royal Navy Reserve.

Records, however, show he returned to the army and was mobilised at Norwich in August 1914.

He and his fellow soldiers were immediately sent to Holywood in Belfast where they became part of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France on August 14, 1914 landing at Le Havre and making their way up the coast into Belgium.

A contemporary account of the day reads: “The Brigade numbered 127 officers, 3958 men, 258 horses, and 74 vehicles…

“Great waving of handkerchiefs and cheering as we warped slowly out of Belfast docks at 3pm and moved slowly down the channel. (The Doings of the Fifteenth Infantry Brigade, by its Commander Brigadier-General Count Gleichen, August 1914-March 1915)

It was this force which took part in the first hostilities against the Germans at the Battle of Mons, when the British were forced to retreat and suffered heavy casualties.

Edward was taken ill and spent nearly a month in hospital being transferred back to England in October that year, aboard the SS Carisbrooke Castle.

He recovered and found himself back in France a year later – again as part of the Expeditionary Force, fighting with the Norfolks until February 1916 when his request to “go to sea” seemed to have been finally approved by his army masters.

Edward had suffered several bouts of a recurring illness throughout the whole of his army service but in March 1916 gained his skipper’s and mate’s certificates and his war service changed. And it was in the Royal Navy Reserve that he was to see out the First World War – and survive its horrors.

He went on to become 
an active and skilled member, appointed skipper of a vessel in July 1917, 
and then a temporary skipper in December the same year.

He is listed in the 
Royal Navy’s records of skippers – and going 
from skipper to temporary could have meant he 
went on to a larger ship with a larger crew.

He remained with the RNR until 1919 before going to sea as a drifter skipper which is where he ended his career.

He was a gardener when he died at the age of 73 while mowing the grass of a lawn.

To his son Bill, discovering his father’s service had been a revelation, and a proud one at that.

He followed in his dad’s footsteps when he was called up for the army at the age of 18 in 1943 and spent two years in Iraq with the Royal Ordnance Corps making sure vehicles coming through Basra went on to Persia (Iran) and to the Russian front.

Following demob Bob worked for Great Yarmouth Council from 1947 to 1987 as a pest controller.

“I was known as Billy the Rat!” he chuckled, puffing on his dad’s pipe while recalling his rat catching days with a succession of faithful Jack Russell terriers. And for 18 months of his days with the council he became the borough’s first dog warden until retirement.

A widower, Bill lost his wife three years ago. Today he has one son, five daughters, nine grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.

And that old wooden chest continues to have pride of place in his home.

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