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Albert Thomas Parsons

Gunner 14467 Albert Thomas Parsons, 459th Howitzer Battery, Royal Field Artillery


Royal Field Artillery badge

The regimental badge of the Royal Field Artillery..

Albert was born in Barnes, Surrey, in 1881 the son of John Parsons and his wife Marion (Mary Ann) née Paulin. His parents had married relatively late (mid 30s) so theirs was not as large a family as many of the time, Albert had only three siblings: Alice Mary (born 1876), William John (1879) and Sidney Charles (1883). Albert and Sidney were baptised during the same ceremony at Holy Trinity, Barnes on 3 August 1883.

Albert was not satisfied with working like his father as a labourer, he wanted a more exciting life – so he joined the army, enlisting into the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) on 11 May 1898, claiming to be 18 years old (he was 16½). In enlisting he was following the example of his elder brother, William John, who was already serving with the RFA.

In 1899 war broke out in South Africa when the Boer republics of South Africa (Transvaal) and Orange Free State took up arms to prevent the absorption of their territory into the British South African colony. The Boers had considerable initial success, forcing the British to send large numbers of troops to the conflict – including Albert, who landed in South Africa on 5 September 1900. He was there throughout the remainder of the war, not leaving until January 1904 when he was sent to India.  His service in South Africa earned him the Queen’s South Africa Medal with clasps for Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Transvaal – showing where he served. He also received a King’s South Africa Medal with clasps for 1901 and 1902.

After almost two years in India he returned to England on 28 October 1905. This completed the first stage of his service ‘For the term of twelve years, for the first seven years in Army Service and for the remaining five years in the First Class of the Army Reserve.’ However, he took the option of remaining in uniform for a further year, so it was not until 11 May 1907 that he returned to civilian life. He remained a member of the Army Reserve, liable to a recall to the colours in the event of national need.

On 28 October 1907 Albert married Emily Lucy Spanswick at the Registry Office in Fulham. Emily was born in Lambourn in 1883, the daughter of James and Elizabeth Spanswick, who moved from Lambourn to Newbury in the 1890s. Perhaps Albert’s final year in uniform was spent in the Newbury area for it was not long after he left the army that they married.

In 1910, on 10 May he was finally discharged from the Army, had he chosen so this would have been the end of his involvement with the army until might have been conscripted in 1916. However, although no record of this has been found, it seems that he signed on as a member of the Special Reserve – time expired soldiers who accepted a small but not insignificant sum to remain on call.

By 1911 Albert had found work as a laundryman in or near to Brixton where he, Emily and their three young children, Albert (aged 3), Alfred (2) and James (10 months) were living at 52 Railton Road.

In 1914 the Army called up all of its Reserve troops immediately following the declaration of war, even old soldiers like Albert were desperately needed. Sadly his WW1 service record was lost in a fire in 1940 that destroyed about 70% of all such records. So his enlistment can only be a matter of conjecture.  He may have signed up as a member of the Special Reserve (a continuation of the Regular Reserve service) following the end of his 12 years, or he may simply have decided to re-enlist after war was declared. The latter is, perhaps, the more likely as he was not posted overseas until March 1915; a fit member of the Special Reserve would be more likely to have been sent to the Front in late 1914 when the demand for trained replacements peaked in the face of the losses at the 1st Battle of Ypres.

It is also not clear whether he and his family moved to Newbury before the war; it seems unlikely, but he does appear (as Gunner A F Parsons, RFA Res) on Newbury’s Active Service Roll regularly printed in the local paper during 1915.  It is, however, more likely that Emily brought the children to her parent’s house, either when Albert left to serve, or following the start of the German bombing of London. This was far less severe than the WW2 Blitz, but, nevertheless, caused many to seek safer accommodation elsewhere. As the mother of small children existing on the separation allowance paid by the army she would have found life easier with the support of her parents and siblings in Newbury.

Men from all over the Empire responded to the mother country’s call for support; the first organised troops to arrive in Europe were regular soldiers of the Indian Army, who saw action in the latter days of 1914. Closely following them were raw recruits from Canada. The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) trained in England for six months before they were deemed ready for the Front. The first unit of the CEF arrived at the Front in December 1914 but the main body, the Canadian 1st Division crossed the Channel in February 1915. The Division was short of artillery so the CXVIII (98th) (Howitzer) Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery were sent to France to join them, landing at Le Havre on 11 March.  This Brigade included Albert’s unit, the 459th Howitzer Battery, though he himself did not arrive in France until 20 March.

The 1st Canadian Division took part in several of the major battles of 1915 – notably being among the first troops to be attacked by gas during 2nd Battle of Ypres. The Canadians spent the winter of 1915-1916 holding the line in a sector of the Belgian front running from just south of St Eloi to a point north of Ploegsteert (the Tommies’ Plug Street), where they could be watched at all times by the enemy above them on the Messines Ridge. While life with a howitzer battery may not have been as arduous as in the front line trenches it was still very dangerous; artillery was the pre-eminent weapon in WW1 warfare, whenever an attack was made by either side a key factor in its success or failure was the ability to knock out the opposition’s batteries. Every time a battery went into action they had to expect to be shelled themselves, it was very difficult to conceal a battery from the watching eyes on the Messines Ridge.

Apart from occasional trench raids the winter was uneventful. Sadly the war diary of the 459th Howitzer Battery for November 1915 has been lost, so it is not possible to determine what precisely was happening on 28 November, the day Albert died, but the odds are that he was the victim of enemy shellfire.

Whatever happened, it is clear that Albert was wounded and died of those wounds in the 3rd Canadian Field Ambulance, which, despite the name, was a medical unit, not a vehicle for the transportation of the wounded and sick. A Field Ambulance operated stretcher teams, Advanced Dressing Stations virtually in the trenches, Dressing Stations a little further back and a forward hospital (Main Dressing Station) in a relatively safe location further still from the line; the system was designed to facilitate the removal of the wounded from the field, the treatment of minor wounds and the transport of more seriously wounded to Casualty Clearing Stations. In many cases the seriously wounded made it no further than a field ambulance facility before dying.

Albert died in the hands of the 3rd Canadian Field Ambulance whose Main Dressing Station was located in Bailleul; however, Albert died at their Dressing Station located close to the village of Romarin. Albert was buried in grave no A.8 at Maple Leaf Cemetery just outside Romarin; the cemetery got its name from its use by the Canadians from July 1915 through to April 1916.

Name on Newbury War Memorial

Albert's name on Newbury War Memorial

(upper middle)

Locally Albert is remembered on tablet 13 of the Newbury Town War Memorial and on the Speenhamland Shrine (as A Parsons) dedicated to the fallen from the now defunct parish of St Mary’s, Speenhamland (within which Emily’s parents home was situated). The Shrine is now located in St Nicolas’ Church, Newbury.

It appears possible that he is actually commemorated twice on the Newbury Town War Memorial. Tablet 1 holds the name ‘A Parsons’; no other deceased A Parsons with a Newbury connection has been identified. It seems that part of the process of gathering the names included the collection of the names on pre-existing memorials in churches, etc – such as the Speenhamland Shrine.  Townspeople were also invited to submit names for consideration.  By this time (1922) Emily had moved from her parents home to 3 Brixton Rise, an alley off Cheap Street.  If the collator of the names had a submission for A T Parsons from Brixton Rise and A Parsons from Speenhamland it is easy to see how they might be seen as separate individuals.


Albert’s younger brother, Sidney Charles Parsons, may well have been the first of the brothers to volunteer after war was declared. He enlisted with the Middlesex Regiment on 29 August 1914. However, he only served 92 days before he was discharged on 30 November as not likely to become an efficient soldier. The cause of such a discharge was usually medical, in Sidney’s case this may be related to the varicose veins observed during his enlistment medical  – though he was passed fit for service at that time.  Some idea of what he may have looked like can be gleaned from his attestation form which shows he was 5ft 6½“ tall, weighed 124lbs (56kg) and had a clear complexion, grey eyes and dark brown hair.

Older brother William John Parsons re-enlisted into the Royal Field Artillery on 25 May 1915 and was soon sent to France landing on 12 July.  He spent over two years at the front, returning to England on 14 April 1918 suffering the effects of severe gas poisoning. It is a little ironic that he received this gassing only days after being posted to a conventional artillery battery after almost two years in the front lines with a trench mortar battery (10 May 1916-1 April 1918) – generally considered to be a far more dangerous assignment.  The effects of the gas left him partially disabled and he was awarded a small pension after he was discharged from the army on 17 February 1919.

Albert’s wife, Emily, also had brothers in the army; George Spanswick enlisted on 28 December 1914 into the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Initially posted to the regiment’s 8th (Service) Battalion he was soon transferred 3rd Battalion on 5 January 1915, after a few months he was discharged on 30 May 1915 as not likely to become an efficient soldier. The early transfer to the 3rd Battalion indicates that there were early problems (the 3rd Battalion was a depot/training/reserve unit whereas the 8th Battalion was training in preparation to go to France. His sparse service record gives no indication of the issue that led to his discharge.

James Alfonso Spanswick enlisted on 4 February 1915. As he was working as a lorry driver he elected to join the Motor Tranport section of the Army Service Corps. It is easy to see the attraction of driving supplies around over life in the trenches, but James was unlucky – he was compulsorily transferred to the 6th (Service) Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment on 24 September 1917.  Three months later he was admitted into the No 1 Canadian General Hospital at Etaples suffering from ‘myalgia’. Myalgia is the medical term for muscle pain, the underlying cause is not given in James’ service record. He was transferred back to England for treatment in Toxteh Park Military Hospital, Liverpool and eventually to his discharge no longer fit for war service on 4 July 1918. He was awarded a pension of 27/6 per week for the six months following his discharge. The cause of his disability is given in his pension record as frost bite – how this relates to the myalgia is a mystery; nor would one expect a soldier to suffer from frost bite in September.


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 Died this day:
25 July 1945
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