2014 will mark one hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War. A conflict that I came face to face with quite recently. Not in a clipped and cared-for cemetery, embracing war graves of the fallen, but on a book-stall at a car boot sale held near Castle Combe in Wiltshire.
It was a pocket-sized copy of ‘The Book of Common Prayer‘ and – inside its cover and alongside ‘A Soldier’s Prayer‘ – was the name ‘Private Leonard Davis, Coldstream Guards No 12410.’ In different ink beneath was written ‘Caterham, Surrey, September 7th, 1914.’ Where this soldier had joined his regiment.
It is weird but l have finally got around to satisfying my curiosity about Private Davis by linking on-line with http://www.forces-war-records.co.uk today – Sunday, September 7th 2013. It is 99 years to the day that Private Leonard Williams enlisted!
Did he survive the war to end all wars? Well he was not killed in action. Nor was he sent home from the Front with an obvious war wound. It appears Private Davis was given an honourable discharge in 1917 and a Silver War Badge – issued to all service personnel forced to retire from action through wounds or sickness. In Leonard’s case his discharge was put down on his record as ‘valvular disease-heart’.
No valve replacements on offer in those days so l have no idea how long Leonard lived after he left the trenches and came home to hopefully welcome the end of that terrible war in 1918.
Leonard was a member of the Coldstream Guards. During the First World War the Regiment gained 36 Battle Honours and 7 Victoria Crosses, losing 3,860 during the course of the terrible conflict.
Leonard left the Army on November 9th 1917. His Silver War Badge – sometimes known as the Discharge Badge, Wound Badge or Services Rendered Badge, was first issued in September 1916, along with an official certificate of entitlement.
The sterling silver lapel badge was intended to be worn on civilian clothes. It had been the practice of some women to present white feathers to apparently able-bodied young men who were not wearing the King’s uniform. The badge was a shield against shame and was to be worn on the right breast while in civilian dress. It was forbidden to wear the badge on a military uniform.
Like many service personnel of World War One, Leonard was also entitled to the Victory Medal, also called the Inter Allied Victory Medal. This medal was awarded to all who received the 1914 Star or 1914-15 Star and, with certain exceptions, to those who received the British War Medal. It was never awarded alone. These three medals were sometimes irreverently referred to as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.
Eligibility for this award consisted of having been mobilised, fighting, having served in any of the theatres of operations, or at sea, between midnight 4th/5th August, 1914 and midnight, 11th/12th November, 1918. Women who served in any of the various military organisations in a theatre of operations were also eligible.
Back to Leonard’s little Book of Common Prayer. I know around nine million copies of the Bible were distributed amongst the forces during the Great War. There have been many stories about the books stopping bullets and even one about the auction of a Bible with a pressed ‘Flanders’ Poppy’ between its covers.
Leonard’s little book did contain a pressing of its own. Between pages 126 and 127 a dried bay leaf has left its ‘shadow’ like those of the innocents blasted to atoms in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
‘Oh God, They soldiers’ great Reward, Their Portion, Crown and faithful Lord,
From all transgressions set us free
Who sing thy Martyr’s victory.’
My thanks to Forces War Records and their on-line website from where l have quoted information about war medals.
It would be amazing if anyone was able to tell me more about Leonard Davis and how this little book belonging to him came to be lying on a stall table at a Castle Combe car boot sale.
It would also be nice to hear from anyone else with momentos or stories to tell about the Great War and those involved from this area.