For ever Norfolk

In a quiet corner of Greenford Park Cemetery, close to its southern boundary, you’ll find the earliest of its thirteen First World War graves, that of Driver George Jarrett, of the Army Service Corps (ASC). As a member of a Horse Transport Company George drove one of the hundreds of carts and wagons used by the ASC. A photograph in the archive of the National Army Museum shows some of the soldiers, horses and vehicles of the ASC, the men wearing khaki jackets and trousers, with leather gaiters. Although the army used mechanised transport horses remained important. When war broke out in July 1914 the ASC dealt with over 28,000 of them. By November 1918 this had risen to almost 900,000. Today we’re so used to the hum of traffic that we barely notice it. A hundred years ago the sound of horses, the ring of their harness, the stamp and clatter of their hooves outside our homes, would have been just as familiar to all of us.

Although horses were then still a part of everyday life handling them was not such a common skill. Born in Reepham, in rural Norfolk, George had been a coal carter before joining the army, probably delivering it to households for a coal merchant. The vehicles coal carters used ranged from plain, serviceable carts to others with ornately painted boards that displayed the company name, along with fancy harness. Their role could be compared with that of today’s LGV and HGV drivers who transport the essentials of daily life. Imagine most of the men (and they are still, largely, men in those occupations) who take stock to shops from warehouses and bring your internet order to your door disappearing to join the armed services. George would probably have been identified fairly quickly as having skills useful to the ASC.

As a child George moved around Norfolk with his family, living on farms in the north of the county. We can get some idea of what he would have sounded like thanks to a recording made in 1957 of Walter Smith, who was born a year before George, in 1892, and lived in Docking, Norfolk, one of the places George would have known. The recording is part of the Survey of English dialects held in the National Archive. At the time of George’s birth his father was a labourer but census records show that he eventually worked as a shepherd. For hundreds of years Norfolk had been part of a thriving wool industry, exporting high quality raw material to Flanders where weavers were keen to use it. It generated enormous wealth, both for its producers and English kings who benefited from export taxes. By the time George was born a number of landowners who had inherited these fortunes had spent them, in some cases land was sold to developers, and agriculture in the county was in decline. This had a profound impact on those who depended on it for a living. Some members of George’s family are described as “outdoor paupers” in census records. This meant that they had accommodation but no income so received financial support rather than being taken into a workhouse. His parents also had to cope with great personal sadness. The 1911 census record revealed that four of their nine children had not survived. By that time George was a labourer but he must have learned other skills in order to be able to move on to handling horses.

When Lord Kitchener told him his country needed him George answered the call, enlisting in Norwich, as a member of his 4th New Army which was raised in November 1914, during the Secretary of State for War’s recruiting campaign. It must have been clear by that stage to anyone considering joining the army that they might be injured or killed so he must have been quite strongly motivated to do so. In joining the ASC he was playing a part in an enormous logistics effort. Each Division of the army was accompanied by a divisional train, carrying everything it needed in terms of supplies for men and animals (except for weapons and ammunition which was the responsibility of the Army Ordnance Department). According to the website “The Long, Long Trail” the Army Service Corps grew considerably to cope with this, “At peak, the ASC numbered an incredible 10,547 officers and 315,334 men.” Their work was so important to the war effort that the Corps was given the prefix “Royal” in 1918, in recognition of what they had achieved. It has now evolved into the Royal Logistic Corps.

Eventually George was based at a reserve park, a place where some of the horses, equipment and supplies needed to support a division were kept ready before being sent abroad. It is highly likely that the one in question was on the former showground at Park Royal, which had been used by the Royal Agricultural Society of England. This took up the area bounded to the north by Twyford Abbey Road, the south by Coronation Road, the west by Abbey Road (the showground entrances were here) and had its own railway sidings. It was probably the earliest and largest reserve park for horse transport. A divisional train used up to four hundred horses so thousands must have been kept there during the war. Much of this area is now covered with housing, business parks and industrial premises. I wonder if being quartered with so many others exposed George to pneumonia, which seems to have been common at the time.

George died aged twenty-one, on the 26th May 1915, in Willesden Military Hospital. This was, in fact, St. Matthew’s Church Hall in St. Mary’s Road, NW10. Before the First World War a number of buildings were designated for use as hospitals as the authorities realised that existing facilities would be overwhelmed once casualties were transferred from the battlefield. George was cared for by members of a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). As the name suggests these were trained but unpaid volunteers, part of a pre-war arrangement to help cope with the demand that would be made on services in the event of war. They worked alongside professional medical personnel but did much of the cleaning and cooking. Thousands of women across the country gave their time in this way, some for the duration of the war.

When George was laid to rest in Greenford Park Cemetery the area was not the busy suburb it is today. The road which runs alongside it, Windmill Lane, and the road it connects with, Oldfield Lane, was the route that traveled north to south through what we now think of as Greenford.  It was another decade before work began on Greenford Road. There were still farms and windmills, meadows and horses. The magic of Google Earth has allowed me to explore the area around Reepham, in Norfolk, and it seems to me that it resembles Greenford as it must have been in 1915, with lanes between fields, connecting clusters of houses and churches. George’s history is also a reminder that poverty existed in Greenford as well as Norfolk. The hamlet at Brabsden Green began as housing for poorer families who were in need of assistance.

His military career was so brief that George was not entitled to any medals as he did not enter a theatre of war, although he probably deserved one for surviving into adulthood. Even his service records seem to have disappeared, some of around sixty percent destroyed by enemy action in September 1940. Yet he must have been quite brave to volunteer to fight in a war that had not been over by Christmas. We celebrate, quite rightly, those who displayed courage under fire but I feel it’s just as important to show respect to someone like George, who was prepared to risk his life for his country but didn’t get the chance to do so. So many members of the Army Service Corps, like George, lie in cemeteries that are a long way from home. Many did their essential work under fire. In his poem, “The Soldier” Rupert Brooke speaks of “A body of England’s, breathing English air” enriching the foreign soil in which it is buried, “In that rich earth a richer dust conceal’d”. I feel we are honoured to have him in our local cemetery. George Jarrett risked but did not meet a soldier’s fate abroad, but in failing to do so ensured that there is a corner of Greenford Park that is for ever Norfolk.

Text © Albertina McNeill 2016 with the exception of quotations. Do not reproduce without written permission on each occasion. All rights reserved. Do not add text or images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright. At the author’s request this blog site has been excluded from Internet Archive.

I would be grateful to learn of any errors or additional information. Please leave a comment or see the contact information. The following sites were very useful: 
Alan Greveson’s World War 1 Forum Alan was kind enough to find out when George enlisted.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission Maintains the memorials and graves for 1.7 million war dead.
The Long, Long Trail The British Army in WW1
Scarlet Finders British Military Nurses
The National Army Museum
St. Matthew’s Church, Willesden
Poores of Acton Document by Acton History Society
The British Library
Seven Sisters Sheep Centre Page about the history of wool
National Library of Scotland – map images
Geograph List of military hospitals
Recommended for anyone with an interest in horses: ‘Theirs Not To Reason Why’: Horsing the British Army 1875-1925 by Graham Winton
I am grateful to David Knights for the information about the Park Royal showground.
Thank you also to Father Andrew Teather of St Matthew’s Church