I have recently acquired a broken trio of medals that purported to have been awarded to the first man who had been killed in the Great War with the 1st Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. Believing these to be of some historical importance, I have undertaken a raft of research to determine the validity of that claim, and I am publishing the results of that here.
It turned out that, in a series of PM's exchanged with an undoubted expert on the Foresters, who frequently posts here on the forum, that the validity of my claim for this man to be considered as the first is already known. That discovery however was only made after my attempts at uncovering the story behind these medals, and I am therefore posting here in an attempt to show the evidence that I have found during the course of my own independent investigations.
I hope anyone with an interest in the Foresters will find this of value, and would appreciate hearing from any members who can point out any inaccuracies in what I have done, or flaws in either my logic or the approach I have taken. I would also very much like to hear from anyone who may have seen this mans 1914 Star!
As can frequently be the case, this journey of discovery begins with a pair of Great War campaign medals. The unique details engraved into the rims of these particular examples being:-
11408 PTE. W. DULAKE. NOTTS & DERBY R.
To be frank, the whole exercise perhaps begins with something of a disappointment, because on checking his Medal Index Card (MIC), we discover that the original recipient had also been entitled to a 1914 Star and clasp which are no longer present to complete the trio. Our interest was however re-kindled by other details that were to be found on this document, namely a note which states “K in A 16.11.14”, and a date for his entry into the theatre of war given as “4.11.14”, thus revealing to us that Private Dulake had lost his life just 12 days after his arrival in France. Incidentally, this same record also adds something to our knowledge of his personal details, by informing us that his first name had been William.
Having made the discovery that he is numbered amongst the fallen, the next logical port of call in our investigations automatically becomes the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website. A second disappointment awaits us here however, because there is actually no casualty listed with particulars that are an exact match for those that we have found on either the medals or the MIC. There is however an entry for an Albert Dulake – Private 11408, Notts & Derby, with a date of death given as 16/11/1914, at the tender age of just 21. With all these other details matching, this simply has to be the same man. Other vital information was also gathered for him from this source, which tells us that he had met his end whilst serving with the 1st Battalion of that regiment, and that he had been buried in Rue-du-Bacquerot No.1 Military Cemetery at Laventie in France. Family details, which will become crucial later on in our investigations, are also present, informing us that he had been the “Son of Rose Fox (formerly Dulake), of 7, Nutley Lane, Reigate, Surrey, and the late George Dulake. Native of Warlingham, Surrey.”
Carrying our journey onward to “Soldiers Died in The Great War” (SDGW), we discover that his entry here confirms much of the detail that we have already found, including the date of his death. A little more information about him can also however be gleaned from this document which shows us that, like his father, he had also been born in Warlingham. He had however taken up residence in Reigate at some point before his enlistment at Guildford. Once again however, we find that this document names him as William rather than Albert.
The next vital sets of clues are ones that could easily have been overlooked, because they were filed under the name of his mother. They come in the form of a partial and very badly burnt service record, which once again describes him throughout as William. Perhaps more importantly, it is this document which details for us exactly how this teenager from Surrey had found his way into the Notts & Derby Regiment. He had previously served as No 5427 in the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of The Queens (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, having attested to them at Guildford on Tuesday 1st February 1910. At the end of his compulsory 6 month training period however, he had been released from any further obligation to soldier with that particular unit by joining the Sherwood Foresters as a Regular. The date given for this is Thursday 4th August in that same year. This could either therefore suggest that the life of a soldier had suited him, or that perhaps there had been few other options available for him to earn a wage. Whilst his initial full time training with the Reserve would have paid him at the same rate as a full time Regular, this income would have been stopped after that first 6 months. From that point onwards he would instead have started to receive a small retainer, been placed onto the reserve list, and returned into civilian life with an obligation to attend annual camps and odd training days throughout the year.
Having picked up these extra details, and become curious to know even more about him, our attention must now focus on the Census returns. Identifying his Service Record has actually helped to make this process easier, because it had also introduced us to 2 of his brothers, Ernest and Thomas. Interestingly, it had also shown us that the latter of these was serving in the Royal Navy during 1910, aboard the pre-Dreadnought Battleship HMS Formidable.
The 1911 Census entry for William shows him at 18 years of age, and serving as a member of the 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, who were at that time located at Crownhill Fort in Devon. More interesting and intimate details about his past are however to be found in both the earlier census documents and on Freebmd. From these sources we discover that his mother, Rose Flint, had married George Dulake towards the end of 1888, and that they had gone on to have several children together. Our subject’s father had been a Farm Labourer and Carter who had tragically died at just 32 years of age, in the early months of 1900. Rose had however then gone on to remarry a widower in 1902 with the surname of Fox, a man with whom we are already familiar because he appears as her next door neighbour on Chapel Road in Tadworth during the Census for 1901.
Several other facts also emerge from these sources, the most important of which being that all of these early documents consistently refer to William as Albert! We might be tempted to think that Rose’s children had possibly not had an easy time with their new step-father, and perhaps that this had lain behind her son’s decision to leave home and join the forces at a young age under a changed name. The evidence however would strongly seem to suggest otherwise, because the first name of Rose’s new husband was also William. Surely Albert would have picked a different name to have enlisted under if there had actually been any enmity between them?
As fascinating perhaps as the intimate details of century old family relationships may be, our main interest in Albert actually concerns his military career, and his being accorded his rightful place in the history of the 1st Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. Simply put, the evidence that will be outlined in the following pages proves conclusively that he was actually the first man who served with that Battalion to have been killed in the Great War. Despite the complexity of the process needed to prove that he should be accorded what must be amongst the saddest of distinctions, the evidence discovered during these investigations will however also overturn an accepted and previously published view on this subject which has actually prevailed for over a century since his death.
Although it is still unclear exactly when he made the move from the 2nd Battalion into the 1st, irrefutable evidence fortunately still exists to show that this must have been the case. In particular, this can be found in the use of his 11408 service number, which remains a constant throughout all the primary military sources that both relate to him and have survived to be consulted today.
The first man to fall with the Regiment would actually have been a member of the 2nd Battalion. They had been in Sheffield on the day that war was declared, and were therefore readily available to be despatched to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Their arrival into that theatre of war on 11th September actually predated that of the 1st Battalion by almost 2 full months because, on 4th August, that unit had actually been serving in India. Drawn back to England to form a part of the 24th Brigade, along with battalions from various other regiments who had also been serving in the Raj, the 1st Battalion did not arrive back in Britain until 2nd October, and their Brigade did not actually sail to France as part of the newly formed 8th Division until early November 1914.
To begin to establish Dulake’s place in history, it is first of all necessary to see what the reputable sources have to say concerning the identity of the first man of the 1st Battalion to have lost his life, and at first glance, his name appears to be way too far down that list. Using data gathered from both the CWGC and SDGW however, we can start to establish the early wartime losses of the battalion by date of death, together with noting the official “cause of death” that was ascribed to each man:-
11542 Walter Jones Kirkee Memorial 13/08/1914 DIED
11884 Harold Boulton Kirkee Memorial 13/08/1914 DIED
10170 George Seaman Plymouth Cemetery 05/10/1914 DIED
9714 Thomas Duckmanton New Irish Farm 20/10/1914 KIA
12291 Henry Hare New Irish Farm 30/10/1914 DOW
11408 Albert Dulake Rue-du-Bacquerot 16/11/1914 KIA
Immediately this is completed, we find that the first three names can be excluded from our research, simply because two of them had died in India and one in England. Having lost their lives before the battalion had landed in France, they are all additionally shown in SDGW as “Died”, the causes of their deaths therefore not having been attributed to any action which had involved the enemy.
At this stage however, we are also presented with a mystery because, whilst the two remaining men ahead of Dulake in the list do have graves in France, they have also been given dates of death before the 1st Battalion actually arrived on the Continent. Fortunately however there are other sources that can be consulted to clear up these apparent discrepancies. On examining both the Medal Roll entries and MIC for 9714 Duckmanton, we find that all of these documents consistently show that he had actually served with 2nd Battalion. That fact actually being noted on his MIC in 3 different places!
Consulting these same sources for 12291 Hare initially gives a slightly more confusing picture, because one of the Medal Rolls erroneously identifies him as being a member of 12th Battalion. This however is clearly incorrect, as that battalion were only been formed on 1st October 1914, thereby making it highly unlikely that any of their men would have been in France on the date that he had died. Fortunately, his MIC proves to be a more reliable source, giving his disembarkation date as 24th September, and confirming the second Medal Roll entry that we have for him which also states that, like Duckmanton, he had in fact served with 2nd Battalion.
Suddenly Albert Dulake comes to the head of our list, but given the host of discrepancies that we have already found, together with the conflicting evidence concerning his name, the onus now falls on us to prove conclusively that he was the first man of the 1st Battalion to have been killed during the Great War. As noted from the very start however, his date of death has already been corroborated by CWGC, SDGW, and his MIC. Frustratingly, there is no mention of his death in the few remaining pages of his service record. The only evidence that can be found here is entirely circumstantial, and comes in the form a fragment from a receipt slip signed by his mother, under her remarried surname of Fox. This however does in itself represent something that is not likely to have existed at all if he had survived the war.
For many years, the main source on the history of the battalion has been the book “1st and 2nd Battalions The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire And Derbyshire) Regiment In The Great War” by Col. H.C. Wylly. This source however unequivocally gives the name of the first casualty of 1st Battalion to have been 10393 Private Septimus George Backhouse, and declares the date of his death to have been 17th November. As such however, this does agree with the information that can be found for him in both SDGW and CWGC, with the former of these sources also helpfully confirming that the cause of his death was attributed to him having been “Killed in Action”.
Whilst Wylly obviously used other sources along with the Battalion War Diary in the compilation of his work, it should firstly be remembered that he was writing after the event. Secondly, it would also seem that he actually missed crucial information that is contained within that document. Although the Battalion War Diary does not go so far as to name the individuals who were killed, it was written at a time much nearer to the events that it describes, and was meticulous in its recording of both the number of their fatalities and the dates of their deaths. It is therefore from the detailed casualty returns which appear on the pages of this record that sufficient evidence can be found to cast serious doubt on Wylly’s version of events which starts with:-
“… on the evening of the 15th, “A” and “C” Companies, the Machine Gun Section and 20 men of “D” Company, acting as ammunition carriers under Lieutenant Young, moved out of billets [which were about 1 ½ miles east of Vieille Chapelle] and joining the 2nd Bn. East Lancashire Regiment, accompanied that unit into the trenches. The rest of the battalion marched to new billets at Pont du Hem”
Before more importantly going on to add that:-
“On the 17th the battalion suffered its first casualty in the war, No 10393 Private Backhouse of “C” Company, being killed, while on the following day [18th] the casualties rose to 11, two other ranks being killed, while 8 were wounded and one man was missing”
The Battalion War Diary entry for the 16th November however clearly states:-
“Casualties, Other Ranks, One killed”
Whilst the entry which follows for the 17th then goes on to record:-
“Casualties, Other Ranks, 3 killed [almost certainly alluding to Backhouse and two other men, Pte 9952 Henry Bywater and Pte 10268 William Rhodes, who all share this same date of death and have it confirmed by both CWGC and SDGW] 3 dangerously wounded, 1 severely wounded, 4 slightly wounded, 1 missing”
The diary actually then goes on to confirm these figures even further, by giving running totals for both of these days which it declares to be:-
“4 killed, 3 dangerously wounded, 1 severely wounded 4 slightly wounded and 1 missing”.
Not only therefore are the details concerning the dates different to those shown in Wylly, but the numbers do not tally either!
The most important consideration highlighted by these discrepancies however is that, with Dulake’s date of death having been recorded on 16th, it exactly matches the War Diary entry for that date. In addition, the 3 deaths which occurred on the following day, given by the diary as the 17th, and which would rightly therefore seem to include Backhouse, are also an exact match.
Beyond this, we should perhaps also be mindful that Backhouse is commemorated on the memorial to the missing at Le Touret, whilst Dulake, Bywater and Rhodes have all now lain close together within the same cemetery for over a hundred years. This may possibly even suggest that Backhouse could originally have been the man who was declared as “missing”. Despite that scenario seeming to back the casualty figures given by Wylly, it does not however have any bearing on the reliability of the corroborated dates of death that were accorded to any of these four men.
Additionally, it should be stated that all 4 of these men have their dates of death recorded on their MIC’s but, whilst the document for Backhouse shows the same date of entry into theatre as the other three, it incorrectly describes his fate as “died of wounds 7/11/1914”. This however simply can not be have been the case as, not only was the battalion nowhere near the front line at that time, but nothing is to be found in any of the other sources which would even suggest that they had actually suffered their first casualty on this earlier date. The most likely explanation for this erroneous MIC entry is simply that the “1” which should have preceded the “7” in giving the true date was somehow missed. The cause of his death being attributed to wounds also directly contradicts the information relating to him that we have found in SDGW, and must unfortunately remain a mystery, because both of these sources would originally have been compiled using information taken from his service record which has unfortunately not survived. His cause of death does not however have any relevance in determining the date on which it occurred.
When all of the evidence for each of the 4 men is considered together in this way, it becomes quite clear that it was in fact Albert Dulake, and not Septimus Backhouse, who was the first man of the regiment’s 1st Battalion to have been killed in the Great War.
The other mystery, which has surrounded Dulake from the very beginning of these investigations, has almost certainly also been resolved. The consistency found in the Census details compiled before 1911 and the record of his birth on Freebmd, which all name him as Albert, are further endorsed by the memorial that was erected in his home town of Reigate after the war. This also names him as “Dulake A”, and shows him to be the only man with that surname who was included in the lengthy list of their fallen. When considered along with the consistency of all the surviving military records, which only ever name him as William, it becomes clear that for reasons unknown, he had chosen to enlist under an assumed name. Despite there being a total of seven men killed during the war who share this surname, three of whom had “A” as their first initial, Albert remains the only one amongst them to have had any direct and proven connection to the town of Reigate.