The following is the gist of a five minute talk which I was asked to deliver last week, at the Petersham and Ham Sea Scouts’ annual Celebration of Scouting.
The handsome Memorial Tablet in this church records the names of the sixteen members of the Petersham Troop of Baden-Powell Scouts who did not return from the Great War. It was originally mounted in All Saints’ Church, which was where, as the news came in, memorial services were held to commemorate those who had died and to comfort those who loved them. Twenty percent of the Scouts from this troop who went to war, did not return. As a population group, that percentage loss was unusually high.
Why might this have been? Well, their Scouting had prepared them to fill some dangerous roles, particularly in signalling, in scouting, in the sense of sneaking up to the enemy lines, and in other skills such as orienteering. Camping in foul weather was excellent preparation for the muddy trenches and I’m sure they were resourceful also at associated skills such as foraging for food, when supply lines were cut, as they often were.
They were outgoing, daring, self-reliant, cheerful young men, used to working as a team, to encouraging each other, and to being disciplined. Their sense of fair play meant that they would speak when others mightn’t. Reading the early history of the troop, it is clear that they shone so brightly that even ones who hadn’t been to public school, were quickly marked for promotion. We know from the letters their families received from the men who served under them, or with them, that they were inspirational. They also took the troop’s motto to heart: Quit you like men; be strong.
They were just like you and they were loved by their friends and families, just as you are. So, in what is known as ‘the Great Silence’ that settled over Europe in the aftermath of war, their loss was hard to bear, not just for their parents, families and friends, but also for those of the Troop who returned, having survived the war.
Two of the fathers who had lost their only sons, perhaps because of that loss, together became the reason why this troop has enjoyed what is said to be the longest unbroken existence of any Scout troop. It is appropriate that we remember them tonight and celebrate the courage that enabled them to continue to support the Troop in spite of the heavy weight of their grief. They were the widower, George Biddulph, a banker, who lived at Douglas House, and Walter Joel, a watchmaker and jeweller, who lived where the Alianti is today, on the corner of King Street and Paved Court. They kept the Troop going throughout the war, and saw it safely through the years that followed. Their sons, Victor Biddulph and Harold Joel, born just two months apart, were best friends. The Scouts whom I met last month may remember that Victor wasn’t a name on his parents’ list but that, due to the timing of his birth, he was “at her express desire” named after the monarch, with whom he shared a birthday. Known to his friends as Roundall, Victor was the first to die. Harold, a keen poet and writer, on hearing the news of his death, recorded in the diary found after his own death, “Today, I heard of poor Roundall’s death, can write no more.” Nine months later, on 7 June 1917, Harold was killed, at the very start of the Battle of Messines, a day on which monstrous casualties were inflicted on both sides.
In the words of another officer, one of his friends,
I saw the dear boy the night before the battle, and he was very, very cheerful and perfectly happy. From a captain of ours I know he started over the top in the most wonderful light-hearted way. He fell in the enemy’s lines when all the hard organisation and worry preceding an attack had been settled by him (with regard to his own company) and it was left only to the men to carry out his instructions, which they most gloriously did. Every man was a hero that night.
The report of his death and his obituary in the Richmond and Twickenham Times filled an entire column, and includes tributes from men who served under him and details of his brilliant school record. He won his first major scholarship at the age of 12, coming first out of 500 candidates in Surrey and went on to matriculate with distinction at the early age of sixteen. These words apply as much to Harold as to the others:
A great influence came into his life when he joined the Petersham Troop of Boy Scouts, in which he quickly became prominent, being one of the first three in Surrey to qualify as a King’s Scout, and the second in England to claim the distinction. He remained a member of the Petersham Troop until he joined the army and did a great deal towards its development as he rose to a position of responsibility.
The Biddulph name lived on in Sea Scouts’ boat, The Biddulph’ In 1940, the Scoutmaster took the boat to Dunkirk to help with the evacuation—without telling his wife, who initially thought she’d been abruptly abandoned. Eileen Allen, Fred Morffew’s granddaughter, told me recently how she and her mother sat four nights with ‘Auntie Mac,’ the Scoutmaster’s wife, as she waited anxiously for news of her husband. The Biddulph did return to Richmond, having played its part in that rescue.
Today you’ve had a glimpse of what Scouting meant to your predecessors a century ago, and why we still commemorate their loss today, while celebrating the role played by the Petersham and Ham Scouts in this community since the troop’s foundation.