By Mitch Peeke
This medal was purchased by chance, purely in passing, by my daughter, Katie; from Fieldstaff Antiques in Rochester High Street, in September of 2019. She saw it and just thought that it might cheer me up whilst I was laid up, having had a serious motorcycle accident. (I think she also knew that I wouldn’t just say “Thank you” and leave it there)! I have to say, curiosity aroused, it certainly gave me something positive to do!
The medal was easily identified as the Great War Victory Medal, which was awarded to every British Serviceman who’d survived that war. On the bottom edge of the medal, there is an impression which reads: “83870. Gnr. E. Ashley. RA”. Beyond that, there was no other information that came with the medal. So; who was 83870 Gunner E. Ashley? Time for some online detective work, and Army serial numbers are a great starting point!
83870, Edgar Ashley, was born on 14th December 1889 in Nottingham. His Army papers show that he was 5 feet 7 and three-quarter inches tall, weighed 151 pounds and was in good physical condition, having a 38 and a half inch chest that he could expand by three and a half inches. He had a short scar above his left eyebrow and he was a “Telephone Instrument Fitter” by trade. An early phone engineer.
His exact date of enlistment is not shown but it was around mid-May 1916, as his papers give a declared age at enlistment of 26 years, 156 days. His Army medal card shows he was not entitled to either the 1914 Star or the 1914-1915 Star. To qualify for either of those medals, a soldier would have had to have volunteered before conscription was introduced, early in 1916. Therefore, he; like many others, was a conscripted soldier.
He enlisted in his native Nottingham, at No 4 Depot, Royal Garrison Artillery and passed the Army medical at Nottingham Recruitment Centre. Initially, he was posted to the 111th Battery, RGA. There he would receive three months basic Army training, before moving on to a further three to six months of specific Artillery training. After training and practice, he was posted to the 181st Siege Battery, RGA, in France.
The 181st Siege Battery was one of two such units raised at Forth in June of 1916. It was one of ten new Batteries raised that month, the other eight all being raised down South. Armed with BL 6 inch, 26cwt Medium Howitzers, the 181st were sent to France on 12th October 1916.
By 1916, the RGA had grown into a very large component of the British Army and it was still growing at a rate of ten new Batteries per month. The Siege Batteries were all armed with heavy, large-calibre guns and howitzers that had immense destructive power. Hurling its 100lb shells aloft in a high, plunging trajectory, the BL 6 inch, 26cwt Howitzer, with its combination of firepower, (two rounds per minute) range, (9,500 yards) and (for its day, anyway) mobility, was arguably one of the British Army’s most important weapons of World War I. A later variant, fitted with solid rubber tyres mounted on solid metal wheels, was still in active front line service during WW2, such was its design quality.
In WW1, the Artillery would be positioned well behind the infantry battle line, firing at unseen targets and controlled by a Forward Artillery Observer. As the war progressed, the heavy artillery and the techniques of long-range artillery were massively developed. By mid-late 1915, the RGA was often supported by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) who had devised a system whereby the crew of a spotter aircraft could use wireless telegraphy to give corrections of aim to the guns. The two-man RFC spotter aircraft carried a wireless set, a hand held Aldis Signalling Lamp (in case the wireless set failed), and a map divided into squares. After identifying the position of an enemy target the Observer in the aircraft was able to transmit messages such as “Square A5” (or B3, or C1, etc) in Morse code to a RFC land station attached to a heavy artillery unit, such as the Royal Garrison Artillery’s Siege Batteries. Later advances in the science of Gun Laying enabled the guns to be aimed at co-ordinates on a map calculated with geometry and mathematics; a technique later used in WW2.
The RGA, especially the Siege Batteries, had significantly increased in size by the time Edgar Ashley joined their ranks. The RGA had increased from 32 Regular and Territorial Force Batteries in 1914, to 117 by the end of the war. The Siege Batteries increased from just three Regular Batteries in 1914, to an incredible 401 by the end of the war. Siege Batteries had the largest guns such as 5 inch 60 pounders, 6 inch, 8 inch and 9.2 inch howitzers. There were even a few of these Siege Batteries that had huge 12 inch Howitzers, specially mounted on equally large railway flat cars or on fixed concrete emplacements.
Being an Artilleryman in WW1 was not an easy posting. Whilst not quite as risk exposed perhaps as an Infantryman in the trenches, the Royal Artillery collectively lost about 10% of its personnel in WW1, with countless others wounded, or returned home having survived being gassed, but incapacitated. One of the main objectives for the German Artillery was of course to neutralise the British Artillery! To that end, the Germans constantly targeted the British Artillery positions, raining High Explosive, Shrapnel and of course Gas shells onto the British Gunners, who tended to return like for like. Just because the Artillery positions of both sides were behind their respective trenches, did not mean that they were safe positions. Far from it! They were out in the open, not dug in and covered only with light camouflage netting. There was also no crew shield fitted to the guns for the Gunners to get behind either.
Gunner Ashley arrived in France to join the 181st Siege Battery around February of 1917. His arrival amid the cold, the wet and the legendary mud of the Western Front, must have been something of a shock to him. As the Spring came, the weather may have improved and the mud may have dried out somewhat, but the war still raged on with no let up in its ferocity. It was almost inevitable: Near the end of April 1917, Gunner Ashley was badly wounded by Shrapnel to his left forearm. He was sent home to England for treatment and recovery, arriving at Fort Pitt, Rochester, on 20th April. Six days later, he was transferred to the Military Hospital at Lees Court in Faversham, where he remained till 29th May.
The following day, having been discharged from the hospital, he received a ten day leave pass and went back to Nottingham, to the family home at 56, Lees Hill Street, Sneinton; which was and still is, a tall and slim, three-storey, Victorian terraced house that had been their family home since April 1911.
He seems to have been fortunate enough to have come through his time in that awful conflict relatively unscathed, with only the Shrapnel wounds to his left forearm. His wounds were evidently bad enough for him to be sent home, but not bad enough for him to remain there. Ashley returned to his unit on the Western Front at the end of his ten day leave. He remained in France till the Armistice, after which, his unit returned to England.
Gunner Ashley’s military service ended in October of 1919, when the 181st Siege Battery, RGA, was sent to the Reserves. His Discharge Certificate shows that he had obtained a special Army qualification in Gun Laying for a six inch Howitzer Battery. Quite how that was going to help him in Civvy Street is unclear!
After leaving the Army, Edgar Ashley returned home to Nottingham and one might have thought, back to his pre-war occupation as a telephone engineer. However, he ended up working on the Nottingham Fruit and Veg Markets instead. He was awarded the British War Medal in Silver (Combatant) and the Victory Medal, for surviving!
There was no sign of his British War Medal in the Antiques shop, just his Victory Medal. This is not uncommon. The War Medal was made from solid Silver, so it had value. During the Great Depression of the 1920’s, it was very common for ex-servicemen to pawn, or even to sell their British War Medal for its scrap value, to help financially. The Victory Medal is not made from precious metal, like the War Medal was, so the Silver-coated Bronze Victory Medals tended to survive.
In July of 1922, Edgar Ashley married Ethel Cheatle, also of Nottingham. They had one child, a son called Roydon, but for whatever reason, the marriage didn’t last. In July of 1928, Edgar re-married. His second wife was Mary Elizabeth Carter; “Polly” to those who knew her, also of Nottingham.
Mary’s first husband had died in 1926 and using a £40 loan from a relative, Mary had opened a Greengrocer’s shop. She subsequently met Edgar at the Fruit and Veg Markets. They too had one child, a daughter, but sadly she died young. They both had children from their previous marriages though. Edgar’s son Roydon, died in 2018, aged 94. Mary had three daughters from her previous marriage.
Edgar and Mary moved to Skegness in Lincolnshire at some point later in their married life, becoming very successful Hoteliers. After 43 years together, Mary died, in 1972.
Edgar Ashley died nine years later, in October 1981, at home in Spilsby, Lincolnshire. He was almost 92. What seemed something of a mystery though is this: Although he was temporarily hospitalised at Fort Pitt, Rochester; Edgar Ashley had absolutely no other local connection to the Medway area. He did not return to the Rochester/Chatham area after the war. He spent most of the remainder of his long life in his native Nottingham and he died in Lincolnshire. So of all the places that it could have ended up; how on Earth did his Victory medal come to end up in an Antiques shop just half a mile down the road from where he was initially hospitaised, 100 years after it was awarded and sent to him in Nottingham?! It turns out that one of Mary’s Nephews, John, was last heard of living in Rochester. It would seem likely that he has either recently passed away or perhaps gone into care and his house was cleared, as the proprietor of Fieldstaff Antiques says he acquired the medal as part of a household lot.
Despite my enquiries in specialist online medal forums and the like, no trace of his Silver British War Medal has materialised. Perhaps it went the same way as so many of them. In the meantime: Here’s to the memory of the late Edgar Ashley of Nottingham; who, like so many others of his era, answered his Country’s call in its hour of need. Two, or even three generations down the line, we salute you:
Mitch Peeke has a keen interest in aviation, and is a former member of the Kent Gliding Club. He was also an Air Cadet, many years ago! In his spare time, he is often to be found roaring around the countryside on his classic custom 1,450cc Harley Davidson.
A founder member of Lusitania Online (website http://www.lusitania.net), Mitch co- authored Lusitania and Beyond: The Life of Commodore William Thomas Turner (Avid Publications 2001), as well as The Lusitania Story (Pen and Sword Books, 2002 and updated Centenary edition 2015). He also wrote Lost Souls Of The River Kwai (Pen and Sword Books, 2004) with the late Bill Reed, as well as writing 1940: The Battles To Stop Hitler. (Pen and Sword Aviation 2015).
Mitch writes for numerous websites and journals and has contributed to programmes on BBC Radio Kent. He has also acted as a historical advisor to The Discovery Channel as well as smaller, independent film makers. Mitch lives with his wife Jane with whom he has one daughter and one son, (plus Jane’s menagerie of rescued animals!). The family live at Allhallows-on-Sea, near Rochester, Kent; where in June 2019, having recently researched the story, he raised a memorial to the crew of an American B 17 “Flying Fortress” Bomber, which crashed on the beach at Allhallows in 1944 following its first combat mission.