First World War: Brave Hampstead Heavies sacrificed their lives to defend home front
- Credit: Polly Hancock
As the First World War entered its second year, the strain on British Army reserves risked seeing the Front move to UK soil.
In 1915, the war saw more use of chemical warfare and reports of conditions by returning soldiers mentioning gas attacks, relentless bombardment and trench warfare which left men physical and psychological wrecks.
So destructive had the war effort become that regular and even reserve soldiers in the British Army were in short supply.
News that it had been forced into a major retreat during the Battle of Mons (August, 1914) had also reached home and fears spread that the frontline would soon find its way onto British soil unless more men were found.
This was the situation Alderman Ernest O’Bryen, the Mayor of Hampstead at the time, and many other Hampstead community leaders across the country, found themselves in.
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With the public and government appetite for conscription still small, it was left to volunteers to ensure the war effort didn’t collapse and the Front was not lost.
And so, famous for being the first Catholic Mayor the area had had in its history, Mr O’Bryen decided to use his widespread support to transform the village and the Heath into a First World War volunteer training and recruiting ground.
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Posters were put up around the village invoking God and Country, the old Finchley Road baths were turned into a recruiting station, and men returning from the Front gave speeches at public meetings urging others of fighting age to sign up.
Many young men, coming from Hampstead and further afield, turned up to sign their names for service.
A public meeting at West Hampstead Town Hall on July 31, 1915, summed up the eagerness for residents to “do their part”.
A reporter from the Ham&High wrote: “Yesterday week a vigorous and gratifying response to Lord Kitchener’s appeal to Hampstead to raise a Brigade of Artillery for his new armies was given at the inaugural public meeting.
“After stirring speeches by prominent men of the borough, […] a number of splendid recruits boldly ascended the platform amid rounds of cheering and applause and announced their readiness to enlist.
“Hampstead had never previously had the honour of being attached to any unit of the Army; that honour was now granted, and [the Mayor] was certain that the district would wake up to its new responsibility and to the privilege which had been given to it.”
As so-called pals’ battalions continued to pop up throughout England, often comprising of friends, colleagues and even football teams, in Hampstead a Heavy Battery later known as the Hampstead Heavies was formed to support a brigade already recruited from the area.
Known officially as the 138th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, training for the group took place on the Heath.
It was crude and officers were forced to make do.
Pieces of piping were mounted on wheels to replicate real guns and were pushed across the Heath.
Men were sent to various parts of London to gather spare horses, taking them to the nearby stables in the Corporation Yard, Lymington Road, and exercises were conducted at the nearby Hampstead cricket ground.
An amateur group with no combat history, one wouldn’t expect these men to become much of a competent fighting force.
But it was the hard work of senior officers which turned this rag-tag group of Hampstead locals into a fighting unit which achieved remarkable feats.
Leading the Hampstead Heavies was Major Harold Graham Paris, who had returned from service in Hong Kong.
His grandson, Brian Bristow, said: “He did an extraordinary job and his skill at training these men is evident in the numerous acts of bravery recognised.
“It’s quite moving hearing about this group of men coming together to fight, no matter what you think of the war.
As men left to cheers, and Hampstead’s women admired their “attractive uniforms”, recruits recalled the “comfortable type of soldiering” that Hampstead offered.
But it was their journey to the Front in April, 1916, that would see just 30 of these 250 men return alive.
Positioned first near Bèthune, northern France, the men found themselves quickly engaged with hostile batteries.
Contemporary observers noted the battery quickly adapted to the conditions of the front and effectively replaced the more experienced unit which had previously held the position.
This expertise in fighting was taken advantage of as they were later sent to Ypres, where shelling seldom ceased, to the Belgian coast, where relaxing dips in the sea quickly ended with mustard gas attacks and several fatalities, and through much of northern France as the battery advanced during the 1918 Allied offensive.
Many lost their lives during this fighting. And many were recognised for their bravery.
Major Paris himself was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in keeping his men in action under very hostile shell fire, during which he worked at a gun himself, setting a splendid example to his men”, and later a Bar to the Military Cross.
He was killed in action, along with many other Heavies, at Estrées on October 6, 1918, just weeks before the end of the war.
Gunner Sydney Ridler was more lucky and became one of the 30 to return to his family alive.
His son, John Ridler, who created a website cataloguing the Heavies’ extraordinary history and bravery, said: “In reading contemporary accounts I was most impressed by the way in which the Heavies maintained the highest standards of discipline and morale through over two and a half years of terrible wartime experiences.
“It is clear that comradeship between them counted for a great deal.
“Some individual acts of bravery by members of the battery have been recognised by the award of medals including the Military Cross and Bar to Major Paris, the commanding officer, and the Meritorious Service Medal to Gunner Epps.
‘‘But for the Heavies to have performed in the way that they did, there must have been many other unrecorded acts of bravery by individuals and the sections in which they served.”
* An exhibition showcasing the impact of the First World War on Hampstead and detailing more of the Hampstead Heavies exploits is currently on show at Burgh House in New End Square, Hampstead.