For the duration of Lustleigh’s commemorations of those on our War Memorial that gave their lives in the Great War, one man proved elusive with not a shred of evidence to reveal his identity. Then, a letter to our Community Archives from a lady trying to trace her Lustleigh roots, provided a tantalising clue which then led to the unlocking of his story. Too late to mark the 100th anniversary of his passing, it is presented here instead on the eve of his 130th birthday.
With as many children as there are WW1 casualties listed on our War Memorial, William Parker was perhaps a larger than life character: a trait, maybe, that explains how he was able to have the name of a son, who barely set foot in the parish, inscribed on that granite tribute to the fallen.
William was an agricultural labourer in the North Devon village of Dolton, where he married Lucy Dymond in 1874; they had their first child, Mary Ann, the following year and by 1889, May 2nd to be precise, their brood had grown to seven children with the birth of Frederick. A further three offspring entered the world before Lucy passed away in 1892, aged just 36; understood to have been one of nine children herself, perhaps she was predisposed to such productivity!
Suddenly becoming a single parent, in his late thirties, with ten children at his feet, William wasted little time in remarrying, tying the knot with Elizabeth Horrell within a year of becoming a widower. Providing for a hungry hoard was, however, not about to get any easier as Elizabeth was even more fruitful, producing another 11 little Parkers.
Around the beginning of 1897, they moved to Petrockstowe where Frederick, now eight years old, attended the local Church of England School with some of his siblings and by 1900 the family had relocated yet again, this time to Lustleigh, taking up residence at Willmead. Whether this new home afforded insufficient room for this ever-expanding family or perhaps for financial reasons, Frederick did not share this space with his father and step-mother, at least not for long: by 1901, he was living and working at Yard Farm in North Bovey.
Little is known about Frederick’s formative years except that at some point he moved back to North Devon and in 1911 was living with his brother at Little Heale, Ashreigney, continuing to work as a farm labourer. Not long after this, though, he and at least a couple of his siblings decided to emigrate to Canada.
He arrived in London, Ontario in the summer of 1912 and there he married Ada Dennett on 18th September 1913. Their union quickly produced a son, William John, born in 1914 and taking his first name from Frederick’s father. Then war came and interrupted their marital harmony with Frederick, now a boiler maker with The Grand Trunk Railway Company of Canada, joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) on 2nd August 1915.
It was some months before he was mobilized with the 33rd Battalion setting sail from Halifax on St. Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1916, leaving behind several feet of snow in exchange for rough seas which caused widespread sea-sickness. Their home for the next eight days was SS Lapland, an 18,565-ton passenger ship which a few years earlier had been making a journey of a very different sort, having been hired by the White Star Line in 1912 to take surviving crew from the Titanic back to England.
On this occasion, with its CEF cargo on board, the ship docked in Liverpool on March 25th; once disembarked, the soldiers continued their journey by train to the Army base at Shorncliffe, Kent and then by foot to their camp at St. Martin’s Plains. A few weeks later, Frederick received news that he had become a father for a second time with Lucy Ada (named after her mother and grandmother), a daughter, tragically, who he would never see. Three months after his arrival on this side of the Atlantic, on 28th June 1916, Frederick was transferred to the 4th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry, although it was another couple of weeks before he was alongside his new unit on the French battlefields.
It would be an understatement to say that this was not good timing for Frederick: only a few days earlier had begun what became one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, The Battle of the Somme. Although the Canadian forces were not engaged from Day One of this campaign, in fact not entering the fray until September, they were certainly going to be involved in many of its major actions including the Battle of the Ancre Heights which took place to the east of Thiepval. Disastrously for Frederick, he was to become not only a participant, but ultimately a victim, of an event within this battle which became known as the Regina Trench Disaster.
The Regina Trench was a major feature of this battlefield: indeed, it was said to be one of the most formidable defensive positions on the Somme and, at nearly two miles, one of the longest trenches on the German Front during the whole of the war. Being positioned just over a ridge, it was almost untouchable to allied artillery which would normally focus a barrage of fire on wire defences ahead of an attack.
The Allies’ first major assault on the trench began on October 1st but met with abject failure. Paul Reed wrote in Courcelette: Somme that although the trench had been entered, it was not held “and many of those who succeeded in this never returned alive to submit a report on the nature of the defences”. Lessons, however, had been learnt and prior to revised orders being issued for a second assault, the 4th Battalion engaged in two days of rehearsals. However, despite attacking with twice the strength of the previous attempt, by now “the wire and the weather were more formidable antagonists than the enemy”.
This second assault began at 4.50am on Sunday 8th October in cold rain. Despite the usual opening artillery barrage, the wire defences largely held firm with only small breeches being achieved, the effect of which was to cause bottlenecks. The 4th Battalion’s Lieut. W.H. Joliffe said that his men were like sitting ducks as they bunched up in the congestion and succumbed to an endless rain of bombs. The ensuing losses equated to the virtual destruction of three battalions; Joliffe’s unit alone is reported to have lost between 480 and 510 out of 600 men of all ranks.
During this battle, Joliffe was actually by Frederick’s side when he was fatally struck. He wrote to his widow, Ada, that on that morning “we made an attack which was one of almost unequalled intensity… in the face of heavy fire”. They made their objective and held it all morning, but then suffered a terrific counter attack: “the huns attacked fiercely and at the time your husband was at my side. I noticed he was firing his rifle and a moment later he fell at my feet with a bullet through his head. I can safely assure you he suffered no pain whatsoever. The time was about five minutes to two”.
Lieut. Joliffe finished his letter by saying that “Fred Parker was a very good soldier and was an example to the rest of the men… I sympathise with you deeply for your loss but I assure you your husband died a hero”. Despite such tragedy, there is some comfort in noting that Frederick’s sacrifice was not in vain with Regina Trench finally falling into Canadian hands three days later and remaining in their possession until the end of the war.
In addition to his place on the Lustleigh War Memorial, Frederick is ‘Remembered with Honour’ on the Vimy Memorial, Canada’s largest overseas National Memorial commemorating more than 11,000 men from the CEF who lost their lives in the Great War.
Frederick Parker will be remembered on Thursday 2nd May, his birthday, when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.
This story draws on information provided by two of Frederick’s great, great nieces and from various other sources including.
Library and Archives Canada
- “Courcelette: Somme” on Google Books
- “Canada in Flanders, Volume III” on gutenberg.org
- “First Canadian Division, C.E.F., 1914-1918” on www.collectionscanada.gc.ca
- Ancestry & FindMyPast
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission