So Near Yet So Far: The Story of Charles Asbrey…

Among the first names on the Peace Gate list of Standish men lost in the First World War is that of Charles F. Asbrey.  Despite the fact his death occurred on 2nd December 1918, almost a month after the Armistice, he was still on active service in France, which is why his name appears alongside those killed in action.  His story seems therefore just like the many stories of lost men from that war – but it could hardly be more different.  Today, the centenary of his death is as good a time as any to tell it.

Charles Ford Asbrey was born in Charnock Richard in April 1879, the son of John Asbrey, a butler from Kettering, and his wife, Jane, from Wavertree.  He was christened at Christ Church, Charnock Richard the following month.  The 1881 census shows the family had moved to Prestwich, presumably due to John’s employment.  Ten years later, the family had moved to Standish and John had become the publican at the Black Horse pub (now the Lychgate Tavern) on Church Street.

After spending his teenage years in Standish, Charles trained as a saddler and harness-maker with a Mr. Gordon and became engaged to Mary Jane (‘Ginny’) Bentham of Broomfield House, Bradley Lane.  Ginny was my great-grandfather Ernie’s youngest sister.

On 6th March 1901, Charles and Ginny were married at St. Wilfrid’s church in Standish with Ernie Bentham one of the two witnesses.  The census of that year, taken a few weeks later, shows the couple visiting the home of a Mr and Mrs Reppin in Leicester, possibly on their honeymoon – or, with the addition of a little more information, perhaps not.

Their first son, James was born on 7th October 1901 in Leicester, suggesting that their marriage, seven months previously, had been a ‘shotgun wedding’, hurriedly arranged to legitimise the coming birth.  The move to another part of the county may have been an attempt to obfuscate the fact that James had been conceived out of wedlock.

Two children followed: Norman in 1903 and Jane in 1905, both in the Manchester area.  It’s unclear what Charles was doing for a living at this point but by 1911, the couple had moved to Spendmore Lane, Coppull and Charles had become the Manager of a Brickmaker’s works.  The 1911 census even shows that young Norman happened to be staying at his grandparents’ house in Blackpool that night.

Bentham Latham wedding 1907
The wedding of Ernie Bentham to Margaret Latham in September 1907.  Mary Jane ‘Ginny’ Asbrey is stood, third from the right, behind her parents, James and Alice Bentham.  It’s unclear who the man is to the left of her but it’s quite possible that it is her husband, Charles Ford Asbrey.  Another casualty of  WWI, Harold Latham, then aged 14, sits on the ground in the centre of the picture.  The two may have fought near each other in the Battle of Messines.

Charles was 35 by the time Britain entered the First World War and would not necessarily have been expected to volunteer for service, initially.  As the war wore on and ever more new recruits were required, remaining men in their late thirties were increasingly expected to join up.  From a distance of over a hundred years, it’s dangerous to draw conclusions about Charles’ motivations for what followed but the facts show an unusual and ultimately tragic sequence of events.

Fast forward to January 3rd 1917, over two years after the outbreak of war.  The previous summer had seen the horrors of the The Somme and almost a year earlier, the campaign at Gallipoli had cost almost 57,000 Allied lives, among them over 11,400 from Australia and New Zealand.  With such mounting losses from a conflict on the other side of the world, the ANZACs had been forced to recruit wave after wave of new personnel.  It was amongst the list of recruits for the 9th reinforcements to the 45th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force that the name ‘Asbrey, Charles Ford’ rather surprisingly appears.

According to army records, Charles had been working as a harness-maker in Mayfield, New South Wales, about 70 miles north of Sydney on Australia’s east coast at the time of his enlistment.  It’s tempting to conclude that he had fled his home country to avoid the war but it’s also possible that he was simply working away to seek his fortune – or that he and Ginny had found a way to separate with minimal dishonour.  The same records show Ginny as listed as living at 31 Hawthorne Road, Blackpool (although another document has that address crossed out and 3 Eaves Street, Blackpool given as an alternative), no doubt to be near her father, James Bentham.  Her mother, Alice, had died in 1913.

Within three weeks, Private Asbrey (service no. 3350) and his 45th Battalion reinforcements left Sydney Harbour aboard HMAT Anchises, bound for Plymouth, arriving back in his homeland on 27th March 1917.  Records show that the battalion was held in reserve, behind the lines near Ypres, during the battle of Bullecourt in April and May, without entering the combat.

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HMAT Anchises, the transport vessel on which Charles left Sydney, bound for Plymouth, en route to the trenches of WWI

In June, the unit saw action in the Battle of Messines in Flanders.  It’s not known if Charles was with the unit by this time but if he was there, he may well have been fighting alongside his brother-in-law’s brother-in-law.  The 25th Signals Company of the Royal Engineers, probably including one Harold Latham, a fellow son of Standish, was also engaged at Messines.  Harold’s sister, Margaret had married Ernest Bentham, Ginny’s elder brother, in 1907.  It’s tantalising to contemplate that the two men, members of the same extended family, representing different Allied armies may even have encountered each other in the trenches in 1917.

After Messines, the action shifted to Passchendaele and both Harold’s and Charles’ units saw action at this most fearsome of battles, between July and November of 1917.  The 45th Battalion was one of a significant number of Australian forces in the various engagements that became known as the third battle of Ypres, together with a strong contingent of Canadians.

The 45th formed part of the 12th Brigade, which itself was a part of the Australian 4th Division and was held in reserve at Polygon Wood in September 1917, an exchange which resulted in 1,700 casualties in the division.

On 12 October, the Charles’ 12th Brigade was assigned to protect the 3rd Division’s flank during the First Battle of Passchendaele, and took part in an effort to capture the Keiberg ridge. Although, elements of the 3rd were able to enter Passchendaele, and the 12th gained their objective, both groups were eventually forced back. The unsuccessful effort cost the 12th Brigade around 1,000 casualties.  The losses were considerable enough for the Australian authorities to at one stage consider breaking up the whole 4th Division to provide reinforcements elsewhere.

Chateauwood
Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade on a duckboard track passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient

Having survived Passchendaele and seen out the end of 1917 with his battalion still in operation, Charles would have spent the winter rotating between front and rest areas around Flanders and northern France, with the severe weather and battle-scarred landscape making trench-foot as dangerous a consideration as the enemy.

In March 1918, Charles’ division was rushed to the Somme region to stem the German Spring Offensive, which had been launched on 21 March and was threatening Amiens. The 12th and 13th Brigades established themselves south of Albert, around the railway embankment and cuttings of the Albert–Amiens railway at Dernancourt, where they joined British troops. The 12th Brigade was positioned forward, taking over from the British 9th (Scottish) Division, while the 13th held a support position around Bresle and Ribemont-sur-Ancre.  On 28 March, during the First Battle of Dernancourt, the 12th brigade helped fight off an attack by the 50th Reserve Division, with 137 Australian casualties.  A week later, on 5 April, the Second Battle of Dernancourt was fought. In the lead up, the 13th Brigade moved forward beside the 12th, taking over from the 35th Division. Together, the two brigades faced an attack by two and a half German divisions in what was described by historian Chris Coulthard-Clark as “the strongest attack mounted against the Australians in the war”.

In early May, the 12th Brigade carried out a follow up attack around Monument Wood, to the east of Villers-Bretonneux, which made little headway against the defending Jager troops; nevertheless, the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux had restored the Allied line in the sector.

Following the defeat of the German Spring Offensive, a brief lull followed while the Allies prepared to launch their own offensive, which ultimately would bring an end to the war. During this time, the division went on to fight in the Battle of Hamel in July. The 4th Division was responsible for planning and commanding the attack, but the decision was made the only one of its brigades would take part with the 4th Brigade being reinforced by brigades from both the 3rd and 5th Divisions, as well as four companies from the US 33rd Infantry Division for the attack.

After the Allies launched their Hundred Days Offensive in August 1918, the division took part in the Battle of Amiens, the Battle of Albert, the Battle of Épehy and the battles against the Hindenburg Line outposts, finally reaching the town of Bellenglise.  Withdrawn in late September, the division was replaced by the 3rd and 5th Divisions, although  the 4th Division provided 200 advisers to assist the inexperienced US troops that were assigned to Monash’s corps.

battle_of_the_hindenburg_line
Members of the 45th Battalion at the Battle of the St Quentin Canal in September 1918, just before the battalion’s withdrawal from action.

In early October, the remainder of the Australian Corps was withdrawn from the line for rest at the insistence of Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes.  After the armistice in November 1918, the division was not selected to advance into Germany with demobilisation due to commence before the end of the year.  Unlike 10,973 of his comrades in the Australian 4th Division, Charles had survived the Great War and his service was almost at an end.

Unfortunately, Charles was never to return to Australia or even to England.  On 2nd December 1918, with Germany defeated and after serving in the most deadly theatres of a war he may well have attempted to travel half-way around the world to flee from, Private Charles Ford Asbrey died, according to army records, of ‘sickness’ in France.  It’s unclear if his illness was a result of his service, linked to an injury or, like one of millions of others in 1918, a result of the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic.

He was buried at Saint Sever Cemetery, across the river Seine from Rouen, in Normandy.  In August 2012, I happened to drive through Rouen, en route from Calais to Bordeaux and must have passed within a few miles of his final resting place.

Ginny Asbrey née Bentham was re-married in 1924, to a man called Gerald Wadeson who was fifteen years her junior and only six years older than James, her and Charles’ eldest son.  They lived for a time on Talbot Road, Manchester, near to Lancashire’s cricket ground although her residence was listed, perhaps unsurprisingly, as Blackpool when she died on 17th April 1964.  Gerald lived on until 1980.

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