In this guest blog post, Paul Bourton of the Unknown Soldier Military Archive & Soldier Research Service shares the latest instalment of his series revealing the stories behind a pre-war photograph of thirteen men of 119 Battery Royal Field Artillery. He focuses on the stories of Stanley Baker and F Thomas – the former has been traced, while the wartime exploits of the other remain a mystery.
- The Rogue
To anyone who has ever watched the 1964 film epic ‘Zulu’, the name Stanley Baker is synonymous with heroism and military glory. In the film, Baker portrayed Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers; the man who led the gallant defence at Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu War of 1879 and who won one of the eleven Victoria Crosses awarded for that action.
The Stanley Baker who enlisted into the ranks of the Royal Artillery in October 1910 did not enjoy the celebrated military career of the man portrayed by his namesake. In fact, if he could be compared to any of the characters depicted in the film, it is surely that of Private Henry Hook who was portrayed as a Cockney rogue, a drunk and a ne-er-do-well. Although this depiction was erroneous (Hook, a native of Gloucestershire, was a model soldier, a teetotaler and a devout Christian) it certainly fits with the man sitting in the front row of the photograph, second from the left and holding the football.
Stanley Baker was born in Maryport in Cumberland around April 1890. Nothing is known about his life before joining the Army, but he was working as a General Labourer when he enlisted into the Royal Artillery at Carlisle on 24 October 1910 aged 20. He signed up for a term of three years of service with the Colours and nine years with the Army Reserve.
He was sent for his basic training at the Number 2 Artillery Training Depot at Athlone in Ireland. Stanley Baker had a problem with authority and a poor disciplinary record and whilst training spent long periods in military detention.
On 7 February 1911, Gunner 62587 Baker was finally posted to the 119th Battery RFA in Ballincollig in County Cork. The proximity of his birthplace and age to that of his football teammate Frank Bramwell may have meant that the men were close friends. But the two men appear to have been polar opposites in terms of conduct.
In July, Baker was found guilty of sleeping whilst on stable duty and was sentenced to fourteen days in custody. The severity of the sentence reflects the value the Army put on its horses and the consequences of dereliction of duty in regard to their care and security. In October, the wayward Gunner contracted gonorrhoea and was hospitalised for several days. His conduct sheet continued to catalogue a string of misdemeanours. In May 1912, he was fined and confined to barracks for being drunk and creating a disturbance in the barracks. The following April he was sentenced to a week in the cells for disorderly conduct in the local theatre in Ballincollig and then breaking away from the military escort that arrested him.
His bad behaviour notwithstanding, he was selected for the Battery football team that won the 27th Brigade RFA Shield in the 1911/12 season and retained it in 1912/13. Shortly after my photograph was taken Stanley Baker got married. He wed a Ballincollig girl called Annie McDonnell on 13 September. The following month Stanley left the army on completion of his three years of service and was transferred to the Army Reserve. He settled for a while in Ballincollig. Meanwhile, the 119 Battery moved with the 27 Brigade RFA to its new quarters at Newbridge in County Kildare to join the 5th Division.
The following year Stanley and his wife Annie were expecting the arrival of their first child. He was not to be around to witness the birth of his daughter though. A daughter called Doris was born on 9 September. On the outbreak of war in August he was recalled to the Army from the Reserve. He reported to the 14 Brigade Royal Field Artillery at Woolwich on the same day his old Battery was mobilised for war at Newbridge. Gunner Baker was posted to the Divisional Ammunition Column of the 4th Division and he landed in France on 23 August 1914, the very day that his former comrades saw their first action at the Battle of Mons.
- The Mystery Man
Driver F Thomas stands in the back row and second from the right in the photograph and, despite a thorough search to uncover his story, his departure from the unit prior to its mobilisation in August 1914, makes him the only man in the photograph of whom nothing is known except his rank, surname and first initial.
The most likely explanation for his departure is that he either transferred to another unit or was discharged from the Army prior to the outbreak of war. If the latter was true, and providing the reasons for his discharge were not medical or related to his fitness to serve, then he would have been recalled to the Colours on the outbreak of the war as a reservist.
Working on the assumption that he would have been assigned to an artillery unit on transfer or call-up from the reserves, an assumption based on his previous army experience and training as a driver, a detailed search of soldiers of that name who served with the Royal Artillery in the Great War has revealed several possible candidates but, so far, nothing has been found to link any of them to the man in the picture.
Enquiries into the particulars of Driver F Thomas will be ongoing but enthusiasm and hope will be tempered with a degree of pragmatism; one of the most sobering lessons I have learned in my career as a researcher is that, no matter where or how hard or for how long one searches, there are instances where a particular soldier will always remain ‘unknown’.
In the next instalment of the blog I will cover the 119 Battery’s baptism of fire at the Battle of Mons and the subsequent retreat. I will introduce more of the eleven men from the photograph who served with the Battery in these opening phases of the war and explain how the 119th won honour, glory and even the highest award for valour – but at great cost.