Royal Flying Corps Deaths

By kind permission of John King, Author

1917 was a year when the number of Grove Park and South Lee men who gave their lives for their country was to increase. Second Lieutenant John Rex Proud was the first Grove Park casualty in the Royal Flying Corps. Aged 22, he had attended Quernmore School and Merchant Taylors’ before going to St John’s College, Oxford where he was a student at the time of the outbreak of war. He had joined up when war was declared and was subsequently gazetted to the Royal West Kent Regiment. In 1916 he joined the RFC, gaining his wings in January 1917. Proceeding to France in the early part of March, he was killed on Good Friday, 6 April 1917 in the series of great air fights which preceded the advance at Vimy Ridge. His death was not, however, confirmed until the autumn when an official German list was received. His Company Officer in the West Kents said that he was absolutely without fear while his squadron commander wrote that he was a good pilot. His family lived at Parkfield, one of the big houses in Baring Road, which was next door to St Michael’s Hostel. His father was the Clerk to the Magistrates Court at Greenwich.

Another RFC fatality was Lt. Harold Collins, on Easter Monday, 9 April, in an air fight over Arras in France. Collins, who was only 21. lived with his family at Northcote House in Baring Road. His father, the influential silversmith, D. George Collins, had, ten years earlier, briefly managed Durham Farm. Harold was buried in the municipal cemetery at Hither Green.

These deaths were followed by H H Bye of 281st Brigade, RFA. Bye was only 19 and a former choirboy at St Augustine’s. He had enlisted under age in August 1914 and was killed on 25 April 1917. The same day another Grove Park man was killed, 2nd Lieut F W Ground of the 44th MGC. His family lived in Luffman Road.

Lieut Proud’s family was not the only one to suffer anguish for some months before confirmation of death. Even worse was when the War Office advised after some months that the son must be presumed dead. Such was the experience of Cecil Gaskain’s parents who lived at The Grange in Somertrees Avenue. His father, Dennis, was a wealthy hop and seed factor with offices in Southwark and one of the Parish Representatives of St Augustine’s; his wife was the secretary of the Kent Penitentiary at the Church. Cecil Gaskain was born in 1892 and after secondary education at St Olave’s Grammar School went to Eastbourne College. In July 1914 he was a member of the Grove Park team that played in W G Grace’s last match. In September 1914 he went to France with the Artillery. After being made Lieutenant in 1916, he joined the RFC, receiving his wings in March 1917. After returning to France, he was reported missing on 7 May, but it was not until 15 December that his parents were advised by the War Office of the assumption.

The Bishop of Woolwich visited St Mildred’s for a confirmation on 22 May 1917. There was a total of 77 candidates including eiqhteenfrom StAugustine’s and thirty three from six other parishes. After the service the Bishop dedicated the War Shrine in the churchyard. The War Shrine had been presented by W H Le May but he failed to get to the service due to pressing work at Lewisham Town Hall.
More deaths followed. Lieutenant Arthur Adkin, son of the tobacco manufacturer John Adkin of Claverdon in Baring Road, was killed on 3 June by a shell whilst on duty in front line trenches. He was 22. Frederick Taylor was also 22 when he was killed on 7 June in France. The obituary described him as an old Band of Hope boy of St Augustine’s. Thomas Riches, a former choirboy at the church was killed in action in France on 18 July, although his death was not announced until the following January. Captain G F Pragnell whose father had only died the previous year, was killed in action on 23 July in France. On 31 July 2nd Lieut David Gray with the Royal West Kent Regt was killed in France.

To return to the beginning of 1917, the residents were already beginning to forget the nearness of some of the Zeppelin raids on London. In fact the disastrous (to the enemy) raid at the beginning of October 1916 effectively sounded the death knell of the Zeppelin as a means of destroying British military installations. There were no raids on London between October and January. Perhaps the St Mildred’s vicar’s announcement in the January magazine reflected a relaxation — from 7 January Sunday evensong would be restored to its original time of 18 30 because it had caused inconvenience to numbers of people; but it was also pointed out that the church lights were sufficiently obscured to comply with the lighting restrictions. The St Augustine’s evening service had already reverted to 18 30 but it was interesting that the vicar of St Augustine’s noted in the February magazine that the Band of Hope Monday meetings had not taken place that winter although they had been advertised each month in the magazine, because “it was thought, all things considered, that it would not be wise to bring the children out when the nights were so dark and there was always a possibility of Zeppelin raids”.

The Scouts in the meantime continued their activities which included War Service duties at the two YMCA establishments in Grove Park. Church parades were held on the second Sunday in each month. Help from the community continued with the gift of a billiard table by Mr Hadlow of Chinbrook Road while the young Miss Dalton of Chinbrook Road encouraged “certain members of the troop to be more practical in their scout-work and general bearing”; and Miss Ford “performed many kindnesses to improve the troop’s efficiency and smartness”. The troop also formed a band and was grateful to Sgt Nabarro at the barracks for assistance and encouragement.

A further re-organisation within the ASC took place in June. Inevitably this was because the previous one had not been completely successful. Perhaps it was because there were not enough clerks as a proposal had been put forward to the War Office for the formation of a ‘proper administrative staff’ and the total separation of Grove Park’s sub-depots from the parent. The plan was approved and in June 1917 the Reception & Training Area was formed comprising No.1 Reserve M.T. Depot at Grove Park with sub-depots at Eltham, Kelsey Manor and Mottingham Camp; and M.T. Depots at Lee, Shortlands and Norwood, a mobilisation depot at Sydenham and London M.T. Repair Depot at Camberwell.

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