‘It was like wiping out the Fratton End’

The Fratton End
The Fratton End
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Imagine the Fratton End packed to its 4,600 capacity with chanting, singing fans at the start of a midweek, mid-winter Pompey match. Now add another 1,400 seats. Hold that image in your head for a moment.

Suddenly there is a power cut. The floodlights go out and Fratton Park is plunged into utter darkness. It lasts only a couple of minutes before emergency generators kick in.

The lights come on and reveal an empty and silent Fratton End. Every single person has disappeared. Forever.

Spectators on the other three sides of the ground gasp. ‘How could they simply vanish?’.

This is not some flight of fancy, for it did happen, in Portsmouth, almost a century ago.

For 6,000 is the number of servicemen from this city who were killed during the First World War, wiped out between 1914 and 1918 in the war that was supposed to end all wars.

James Daly uses the analogy of the Fratton End to attempt to put it all into context. ‘It’s difficult,’ he says ‘for anyone to try to get their heads around the numbers, but that’s the illustration which means most to me and probably will to most people.’

Historian James adds: ‘It was at least 6,000. There were almost certainly more. We simply can’t imagine it today.’

The 31-year-old history graduate from the University of Portsmouth has spent the past three years researching and writing a compelling book about those from the town – as it then was – who died or were killed while in service with the Royal Navy, Army, Royal Marines and the fledgling Royal Flying Corps.

Despite its title it does not focus solely on the tales of derring-do of those whose stories he has traced, but on the social impact the war had on Portsmouth – a town which was not only the home of the Royal Navy but also one of the biggest army garrisons in Britain.

He says: ‘In many ways the story of Portsmouth’s war losses tells the story of the city itself during those dark days and the years that led up to it.

‘The majority were born and educated in the Victorian era and in so many ways the experiences of those 6,000 men paint a vivid picture of life in Portsmouth.

‘And what a unique picture it is,’ adds James. ‘Nowhere else in Britain had anything like the social conditions that Portsmouth had in 1914.

‘The town’s status as a naval dockyard and a garrison town gave it a character all of its own, from the working class slum neighbourhood of Landport to the officers’ enclave of Thomas Ellis Owen’s Southsea, from the Portsmouth Pals to the sons of local politicians and the son of a brewing magnate, it is an incredibly diverse picture.’

The biggest loss of life in a single day Portsmouth has ever suffered came at the Battle of Jutland which raged in the North Sea on May 31 and June 1, 1916. A total of 6,094 British sailors died – 534 of them Portsmouth men.

On June 2 the Evening News received a blunt and devastating telegram announcing the loss of many Portsmouth-based ships.

James says: ‘Today we can have no idea of the impact that news was to have.

‘Within minutes Commercial Road was crowded with relatives, some so stricken with grief they fainted in the street while others waited for news.’

Portsmouth’s dead came overwhelmingly from the city’s terraced streets – 78 were from Southsea, 49 from Landport and 30 from Buckland. Of the 14 who died from Eastney, eight were Royal Marines.

Families waited in dread for the knock on the door which would bring a War Office telegram. The standard printed form began: ‘It is my painful duty to inform you that a report this day has been received notifying the death of...’

James recounts the story of a Mr and Mrs Wood, of Kimberley Road, Southsea, who received not one but two of those cold missives on the same day. Their two sons, Band Corporal Arthur Wood and his brother Frederick, a musician, were both in the Royal Marines. They died when HMS Queen Mary, a Portsmouth-based and manned ship was sunk at Jutland. All but nine of her 1,275 men were lost.

James says: ‘A reporter at the time wrote that in Portsmouth ‘‘scarcely a family was to be found in which there was not one dead’’.

‘I don’t think anyone realised the impact hundreds of widows created on the same day in the same community would have on morale.

‘Was there another community in Britain which lost so many? I can’t think of another.’

James’s book is the second he has written, the first concentrated on the Second World War. He grew up in Paulsgrove, went to King Richard School and became interested in military history by his paratrooper grandfather’s story. ‘He jumped on the second day at Arnhem, was wounded in action about a mile from the bridge and was captured by the Germans.

‘He hardly ever talked about his experiences. They were pretty unpleasant so I’m not surprised, but it inspired me to start researching his story.

‘I’d always been fascinated by the thousands of names on the First World War memorial tucked away off Guildhall Square and wondered if I could discover some of their individual stories and of those whose names do not appear there.’

For James, who works at the City Museum, two stand out. The first is that of Lieutenant Colonel Dick Worrall, who served not in one army but three.

James says: ‘He wasn’t born in Portsmouth, but at Woolwich in 1890. But he came to Portsmouth as a very young boy when his father was stationed here.

‘He joined the army in Portsmouth at 17 and bore two tattoos – clasped hands on his right wrist and a girl’s head on his left.

‘At some point he left Britain and turns up next in the United States where he joined the army. But when the First World War started he deserted by jumping from a train, made his way to Canada and joined the Canadian Army so he could fight in Europe.’ He did so from 1915 to the war’s end winning the Distinguished Service Order and Bar and the Military Cross and Bar. He died in the ’flu pandemic of 1920.

And then there was Clarence Tanner, one of the thousands of boys who lied about their age to join up. He lived in Fawcett Road, Southsea, and went to the Southern Grammar School between 1911 and 1913.

James says: ‘He volunteered for the 2nd Portsmouth Pals in August 1915 and, presumably because he’d had a good education was quickly promoted to corporal and then sergeant.

‘He was seriously wounded at the Battle of Flers on the Somme on September 15, 1916, and died two days later. He was just 17 and is buried in Dartmoor cemetery in France.

‘His photo shows an extremely boyish-lookng young man and his colleagues must clearly have had suspicions about his true age. It’s not an uncommon story, but illustrates the futility of it all.’

The largest contingent of men from Portsmouth were killed serving with the army – 3,243.

The majority of them, about 2,000, died on the Western Front.

More than 1,700 were serving with the Royal Navy, hundreds of whom died on one day at the Battle of Jutland.

James Daly says: ‘It’s hardly surprising when you remember that the army was in action virtually every day for four years while the Royal Navy was only called on to fight sporadically.’

There were 374 deaths of men from Portsmouth in the Royal Marines and 26 serving with the Merchant Navy.

The youngest servicemen from the town to die were 15. The oldest was 72.

‘There was eventually a public outcry about the number of boys killed serving with the army, but little controversy about the boys killed serving with the navy.

‘This was because the tradition of boy sailors went back hundreds of years, to the days of powder monkeys.’

And the 72-year-old? ‘They brought back old soldiers to train new recruits because of the lack of young men for those roles.

‘So if you died in uniform during the First World War, no matter what the circumstances, you were counted among the war dead.’

James adds: ‘Intriguingly for a war that is often perceived to have taken place solely in France and Belgium, Portsmouth casualties are buried in a remarkable 44 countries, covering nearly every continent.

Two-hundred-and-forty of the Portsmouth dead held some kind of decoration for gallantry – four per cent of the total number of war casualties from the town.

At the outbreak of the First World War there were 742 licensed premises in Portsmouth reflecting the nature of the home of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, and a garrison with a huge army presence.

Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes – Stories Of The Fallen Men And Women by James Daly is published by The History Press at £14.99.