In July 1918, Lustleigh Parish Magazine reported that four men were prisoners of war, three of them barely more than boys who had been captured within days of their arrival in France. “Could not Lustleigh, as a parish, do something to relieve the hardship of our friends in their captivity”, pleaded Revd. Herbert Johnson, although precisely what he had in mind is difficult to fathom. Two of the four survived the war, the other two died in captivity including Frank Lake.
Frank was considerably older than the other three men, having been born in 1884 in Cheriton Bishop. He was the only son, among ten children, of Jeremiah and Ellen Lake, both of whom hailed from agricultural stock, although Jeremiah took a break from the soil for a few years around 1890 to run the New Inn at Cheriton Cross.
Frank, himself, was not averse to turning his hand to different professions. In 1901, he was working in a bakehouse in Cheriton Bishop, while at the time of his first marriage to Ethel Maunder, he was living in Newton St. Cyres working as a groom, only to change again a few years later to become a gardener.
At the time of their wedding, on 9th July 1910, Ethel was working alongside her mother, at the Confectionery & Lozenge Works located just behind East Street in Crediton, where they were living cheek by jowl with many of their co-workers. The factory was that of Ernest Jackson & Co Ltd which produced a range of medicinal sweets, pastilles and lozenges and was first founded to develop ‘something effective but soothing for a troublesome sore throat’. Sadly, Ethel died little more than half way through their first year of marriage.
Frank was working, at this point, as a stableman groom in Newton St Cyres. Precisely where is unknown, but a few years later, he was earning his living as a gardener at the prestigious Newton House, home to Lady Audrey Buller, widow of General Sir Redvers Buller, the decorated British Army officer.
Newton House was once the seat of the Quicke family, founders of the eponymous cheese brand. While they relinquished Newton House in favour of Sherwood House, the Quickes continued as Lords of the Manor and would occasionally hold tea parties for their tenants. At these events, it was not unheard of for Lady Buller to offer the services of Frank Lake to decorate the room with evergreens and flowers.
Frank remarried in 1914 to Eva Lowton, a milliner from the St. Thomas district of Exeter. This time it was war that interrupted his marriage and in September 1915, he enlisted in the Army Service Corps at Aldershot. The following year, he was mobilised to France and was transferred, first to 11th Battalion (Finsbury Rifles) London Regiment and later to 1st Battalion of the 20th London Regiment (Blackheath and Woolwich).
Little has been found about his movements in France until we reach March 1918, a peaceful time being had at the beginning of the month spent in rest and reorganisation with the odd gymkhana and boxing match thrown in for entertainment. Then came a massive assault on the allies known as the German Spring Offensive.
Opposition forces had just been boosted by Russia’s withdrawal from the war, giving the Germans the ability to redeploy some 500,000 troops to the Western Front: this was their chance, they felt, to push for victory; they were particularly keen to do so before American troops arrived on the scene in significant numbers.
On 21st March, the German’s launched a massive offensive against the British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army, the gap between the two being covered by the 47th Division of which Frank’s regiment was part. The assault began with a heavy bombardment of high explosives and gas shells, the Germans later using the ensuing smoke screen to launch its large-scale attack. The operation saw the deepest advances made by either side since 1914 and at the end of the first day, British casualties amounted to over 7,500 dead and 10,000 wounded, and by the following day the Fifth Army was in full retreat.
More significantly, in this story, is that by the end of the first day, 21,000 British soldiers had been taken prisoner. Whether, Frank was one of the first wave of our men to be captured, or whether it happened over the following few days, is of little consequence; what does matter is that he fell into enemy hands. Frank had been wounded in the leg and how badly he was treated or how poorly his injury was attended to is not known, but it is well documented that the German captors had little respect for their prisoners. “The likelihood of dying in a camp during the First World War was higher than the likelihood of dying in battle”, wrote John Lewis-Stempel in “The War Behind the Wire: The Life, Death and Glory of British Prisoners of War 1914-1918.
Frank Lake died in captivity, in the Alexandrinenstrasse Lazaret, a special military hospital for POWs in Berlin, on 9th September 1918. Revd. Johnson noted that he died from his wounds although one of his POW index cards says that death was the result of exhaustion: perhaps both are true. The precise cause may be unknown, but his resting place is: he is buried in Berlin South-Western Cemetery alongside 1,175 other fallen comrades.
“There is a special pathos attaching to those who, like him, have been called away just at the end, when the fighting had almost ceased, and the Victory almost ours” wrote Revd. Johnson in the parish magazine in December 1918. Interestingly, Frank never lived in Lustleigh, so it is the residency of his parents at Brookfield before and during the war that earnt him a place on the war memorials of both Lustleigh and Bovey Tracey.
Frank Lake will be remembered on Sunday 9th September when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.
Sources used include:
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission
- Ancestry & FindMyPast
- “Smitten Down yet Not Destroyed”, Bovey’s WW1 book
- Lustleigh Parish Magazine