Alfred William ELSON was born on 23 February 1890 in Rugby, and baptised on 13 April 1890, at St. Andrew’s church, Rugby. He was the son of John Elson and Elizabeth née Clarke Elson whose births were both registered in early 1859 in Rugby. The couple had married at St. Andrew’s church, Rugby, on 22 May 1879 when John was 19 and a labourer living at 34 Queen Street, Rugby, his father a bricklayer; and Elizabeth was 17, living at 19 Gas Street, Rugby; her father a labourer.
At the date of Alfred’s baptism the family were living at 56 Cambridge Street, Rugby and Alfred’s father was still a labourer but by 1891 with the family still living at the same address, John Elson was now a ‘coal carter’. In 1891, Alfred had three elder siblings.
By 1901 the family had moved to 184 Lawford Road, Bilton, and Alfred now had an additional three younger siblings. John Elson was now a ‘plasterer’s labourer’ and his two eldest sons were hairdressers. Alfred was eleven and presumably still at school. John Elson died aged only 42 later in 1901.
By 1911, Alfred’s widowed mother was living at 39 Pinfold Street, Rugby. At this date six of her seven children were still alive, but she was living with two of her younger sons, one of whom, Ernest Thomas Elson, also served in WWI and it was possibly him who was listed, and if him, in error, as E. Elson, on the Rugby Memorial Gate – the story of the various E. Elsons was told in Rugby Remembers on 9 April 2017.
In 1911 Alfred was working in London as a ‘Plasterer Builders’ and lodging – although enumerated as ‘Head’ – at 12 College Street, York Road, Lambeth S E. He was still ‘Single’. It may be that he had been following his father’s later trade of plastering. However, he was to return to Rugby to work with BTH in their Winding Department.
Alfred married with Gertrude Ethel née Davies in 1914 and the marriage was registered in Q3 1914 in Rugby. Gertrude’s family lived in Coventry.
He was recruited initially as Private No: 11877 in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He went to France on 2 June 1915. He was later transferred and became Private No: 16413 in the 1st Battalion, the Hampshire Regiment. It is uncertain whether this occurred before or after he went to France. Certainly he was in action later with the 1st Hampshires and the Battalion War Diary can provide some information on the actions immediately prior to his death and suggest when he may have been wounded.
After June 1915, the 1st Battalion, the Hampshire Regiment were still in the 11th Brigade of the 4th Division. It cannot be known in how many of their actions Alfred was involved, he would though have been in similar action if he was still in the ‘Ox and Bucks’. In 1916, he could have fought in the Battle of Albert, and the Battle of Le Transloy, and then during 1917, the First and Third Battles of the Scarpe, the Battle of Polygon Wood, the Battle of Broodseinde, the Battle of Poelcapelle, and the First Battle of Passchendaele.
The front was quieter in early 1918 and for the first three weeks of March 1918, the War Diary of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment notes that the Battalion was out of the line and involved in training and similar activities at Fosseux and then Warlus, moving to Arras on 19 March. It relieved the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards north of the Arras-Fampoux Road, on 20 March 1918.
Whilst the front had been comparatively quiet, an attack was anticipated and on 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a major offensive, Operation Michael, against the British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army. However, the focus of the first attacks, the Battle of St. Quentin, from 21 to 23 March, was some 40 miles south of Arras and the 1st Hampshires, and the attacks were directed from St. Quentin towards Amiens.
The German artillery targeted command and communications; then, the destruction of artillery; and then the front-line infantry. The artillery bombardment began at 4.40am on 21 March 1918, and hit targets over an area of 150 square miles, the biggest barrage of the entire war. Over 1,100,000 shells were fired in five hours.
The 1st Hampshires although nearer to Arras, also experienced shelling on 21 March from 5am to 8am which was supporting the attacks to the south. At 11pm the Battalion moved troops forward with only one man wounded. This section remained fairly quiet over the next two or so days, but enemy movements were seen. On 25 March the area was shelled and an attack was expected. In the event the 26 March was fairly quiet, but on 27 March there was further shelling and a raid on the trenches which was repulsed.
On 28 March – ‘The enemy attacked our position…’. Two officers and 33 Other Ranks were killed; one officer and 74 other ranks were wounded; three officers and seven other ranks were wounded and missing; 76 other ranks were missing; two officers and two other ranks were missing, believed killed; and one man died of wounds. This action would be known as the Battle of Arras 1918. On 29 and 30 March the Battalion went out of the front line into the Brigade reserve, and on 31 March had a ‘quiet day’.
The first few days in April were again fairly quiet for the Battalion and although there was some shelling on 5 April, no casualties were mentioned in the Diary
Alfred was wounded, although it is not possible to know exactly when or where. However, he would have been passed down an extended chain of evacuation over a distance of some 60 miles, from the Arras area to Etaples. This would typically have included various treatment as he was carried in turn to the Regimental Aid Post; an Advanced Dressing Station; the Field Ambulance; a Casualty Clearing Station; and then finally to a Stationary or General Hospital in the Base Area, in Alfred’s case around Etaples, before he died of his wounds on the 6 April 1918.
It seems most likely that he had been wounded in the extensive shelling during the Battle of Arras on 28 March 1918, when some 74 other ranks were wounded.
Alfred was buried in the nearby Etaples Military Cemetery which was used by the hospitals in the area. His body was buried in grave ref: XXXII, B, 10. Later, when a permanent gravestone replaced the temporary cross, his family’s message, ‘Gone from our Home but not from our Heart One of God’s Best,’ would be carved upon it.
The Etaples Military Cemetery is the largest CWGC cemetery in France, located on the former site of a large military hospital complex at Etaples, a town about 27 kilometres south of Boulogne. The Military Cemetery is to the north of the town. The nearby hospitals, which included eleven general, one stationary, four Red Cross hospitals and a convalescent depot, could deal with 22,000 wounded or sick.
Alfred’s death, aged 28, was announced in the Coventry Herald, together with a very poor quality photograph which shows him earlier in the war wearing the cap badge of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
PRIVATE A. W. ELSON has been killed in action. He married the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J. Davies, of 14, Stoney Stanton Road, Coventry.
Alfred William ELSON is also remembered on the Rugby Memorial Gates; on the list of BTH Employees who served in the War 1914 – 1918; on the BTH War Memorial; and on the New Bilton War Memorial, by the chapel in Croop Hill Cemetery, Addison Road.
His Medal Card showed that he was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, and also the 1915 Star.
Alfred’s widow Gertrude received his back pay of £16-16-2d on 15 July 1918 and his Gratuity of £17 on 2 January 1920. Her address latterly was 14 Stoney Stanton Road, Coventry, she had returned to live with her parents.
RUGBY REMEMBERS HIM
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This article on Alfred William ELSON was researched and written for a Rugby Family History Group [RFHG] project, by John P H Frearson and is © John P H Frearson and the RFHG, January 2018.
 See: https://rugbyremembers.wordpress.com/2014/09/05/5th-sep-1914-rugbys-magnificent-response/ and Rugby Advertiser, 5 September 1914.
 Coventry Herald, Saturday, 27 April 1918.
 This is from a list of names on the BTH War Memorial when it was unveiled. It is taken from the list published in the Rugby Advertiser, 4 November 1921 and given at https://www.rugbyfhg.co.uk/bth-war-memorial.