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1st man killed with 1st Btn Sherwood Foresters

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A medal recently came into my hands with an intensely human story behind it that I feel compelled to share. It is just one of the 6.5 million British War Medals that were produced at the end of the Great War of 1914-19, and is therefore nothing special in itself. As with so many of these, it’s true value can only be found by discovering the story that lies behind it.

As always, my start point came from the meagre details that the mint had punched into its rim, telling me that the medal was issued to recognise the service of “950. PTE. A. COOK. NOTTS & DERBY”. The actual Medal Rolls proved to be much more informative, revealing to me that he had in fact served with their 1st/8th battalion. Alfred Cook was therefore a member of the newly formed Territorial Force which had emerged from the reorganisation of the old volunteers units that came about with the implementation of the Haldane Reforms in 1907.

Born at Sutton-in-Ashfield (near Mansfield), in November of 1891, he was the fifth surviving child in a family of six. His older siblings were Annie Elizabeth, Hannah, John William and Harold, whilst Robert, the final addition to the family, had been born when Alfred was two. It is however the special relationship which seems to have existed between Alfred and Harold that will occupy much of our story. He was just a year older than Alfred, and they seem to have been very close.

So far as is known, Harold was the first member of the family to join the Territorial Force, which he must have done around the year 1909. In those days Sutton-in-Ashfield had its own Company of what was then simply known as the 8th Battalion. Still organised on the old “8 Company system” until after war was declared, their unit had several bases scattered around north Nottinghamshire. There was “A” Company at Retford, “B” at Newark, “C” at Sutton-in-Ashfield, “D” at Mansfield, “E” at Carlton, “F” at Arnold, “G” at Worksop and “H” at Southwell. It would seem that Harold enjoyed the experience enough for some of his enthusiasm to rub off onto Alfred, who followed in his footsteps and joined in his own right on 22nd August 1910. The battalion had actually returned from their annual summer camp earlier in that same month, and perhaps the tales of Harold’s 2 week adventure had been a major factor in influencing Alfred to sign up himself.

The boys were however growing up in other ways too, and it was not long before Harold had both found himself a bride and started a family of his own. This young couple would go on to have 3 children before the war, who they named as Lilian, Alice and, perhaps significantly, Alfred. It is easy to see that, with a young wife and growing family, Harold may have begun to find his commitment to the Territorial Force a little irksome and, despite their training being part-time, it would certainly have eaten into the time that couple had for each other. Whatever the reasons that lay behind it, we do know that Harold did not extend his contract with the unit, and handed back his uniform when his 4 years were up.

The two brothers would still have had lots of time together with “C” Company before then, and doubtless went on several annual camps in each others company. If Alfred at all missed his brothers’ presence in the unit, perhaps he consoled himself with the thought that his own contract would terminate at the end of August in 1914. Unfortunately however, by that date the Kaiser already had other plans for both of them.

The 4th August 1914 actually found Alfred at summer camp with the entire Territorial Brigade of the Sherwood Foresters, where the outbreak of the European war apparently took very few of their number by surprise. In fact, it is recorded that the men were so gripped by “war fever” that it rendered any prospect of them following their planned training schedule completely impossible. Once the formal declaration of war became known to them, their summer camp at Hunmanby near the Yorkshire coast was broken up and the men were sent home. Alfred would doubtless have been exceptionally eager to talk things over with Harold as soon as he arrived back at the family home in Park Street.

Things then began to move very quickly, and as early as Friday 7th August, the entire battalion had been mobilised and concentrated at Newark, where their men were briefly billeted in the local schools. With their strength recorded at 29 officers and 852 other ranks, a Church Parade and official send-off was held for them in the market square on Monday 10th before they marched off to their designated war station.

Harold also acted quickly, and signed a new attestation document with his old unit on August 9th. It would appear that, despite his family commitments, he may have been determined to take part in what he perhaps thought promised to be a great adventure. It is also possible however that he was equally motivated by wanting to try to look after his younger brother.

Alfred’s destiny actually became sealed on 3rd September, when he signed Army Form E624 and volunteered for overseas service. As with many other battalions of the Territorial Force, the issue of overseas service had not been given much emphasis in the 8th before the war, though 80% of their men readily accepted the commitment shortly after they had been mobilised. The brothers would almost certainly have discussed this issue, and we know that Harold also stepped forward to join the majority.

Part of the first full Division of the Territorial Force to be sent to France, the brothers landed at Le Harvre in early March of 1915. After moving up country towards the front line they engaged in an intensive training programme that culminated in them being sent into the trenches near Messines at the end of that month under the watchful eye of seasoned regulars. Despite the deep seated and widespread suspicions held about the Territorial Force amongst many of the full time professionals of the regular army, who frequently disparaged them as “Saturday night soldiers”, the 8th were judged to have performed well. So well in fact that, from the beginning of April, the battalion were detailed to take over a stretch of the front at Kemmel in there own right.

Up to this point the 8th had been lucky. Whilst 3 of their number had been wounded, their familiarisation had taken place in a quiet sector where they had not yet been exposed to the full grim reality of the war. All this began to change with the death of 18 year old Jack Hyde on Tuesday 6th April. Originating from Arnold but serving in “A” Company, he was shot through the head by a sniper and buried at the nearby Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery. In fact, as the days passed, and their casualties grew in number, Rows D and E in this cemetery began to assume the appearance of a plot reserved purely for the men of the 8th battalion. By Monday the 14th June, and after several tours in the trenches, it had already become the final resting place for no fewer than 43 of them.

Tuesday the 15th should have brought relief for the battalion, who were due to be replaced by anther unit thereby affording the 8th an opportunity to spend some time in one of the safer rear areas. It was reported as a quiet day until 21:00 hrs when, quite suddenly, with the unexpected detonation of three huge German mines, all hell broke loose. These acted as a signal that started a hail of artillery shells, trench mortars, rifle grenades and machine gun fire that then swept across the British trenches for over an hour. The enemy infantry proceeded to use this covering fire to advance into one of the mine craters that had been created within feet of where Alfred Cook had been standing, though they were swiftly driven out of this new position at the point of the bayonet. Major John Becher (a native of Southwell) was then able to supervise the reconstruction and reorganisation of the British defences, the coolness and efficiency with which he completed the task contributing towards him becoming the first man of the battalion to receive the DSO. By 23:00 hrs the situation had stabilised enough for the battalion to carry on with its planned relief but, by that time, both Alfred and another man from “C” Company, Oliver Bryan, were missing.

When greeted by this news, it would appear that Harold became beside himself. Joining forces with two of Oliver Bryan’s brothers, who were also serving with the battalion at that time, the three of them together swiftly sought and received permission from one of their officers to go back and search for their missing kinsmen.

In the darkness however they soon found that they were unable to conduct a proper search and, being in close proximity to the enemy, were at last reluctantly forced to abandon the enterprise. A court of enquiry later came to the conclusion that both Alfred and Oliver must have been buried under the front wall of their trench at the very start of the attack, when the German mines had been detonated. Neither of them were ever seen again and, having no known graves, they later became the first 2 soldiers from the 8th battalion to be remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing.

The story however does not end on that particular date, there being an equally sad postscript. Harold would lose his own life just 4 months later, during the same action which also saw Major Becher become fatally wounded. In a cruel twist of fate for the Becher family, two of his brothers-in-law, who were also serving as officers with the 8th battalion, were also killed on that same date. Becher eventually lost his own struggle for life at one of the base hospitals on the 1st January 1916, eleven weeks after he had been injured. The remaining Bryan brothers fared better, Charles went on to both win the MM and be promoted to the rank of Corporal, before being invalided out due to sickness in August of 1917. Stanley Bryan however was perhaps the most fortunate of them all, he was the only one of the 5 brothers that went on to serve until the end of the war, and was finally demobilised from the Labour Corps at the end of February in 1919.



I have recently acquired a broken trio of medals that purported to have been awarded to the first man who had been killed in the Great War with the 1st Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. Believing these to be of some historical importance, I have undertaken a raft of research to determine the validity of that claim, and I am publishing the results of that here.

It turned out that, in a series of PM's exchanged with an undoubted expert on the Foresters, who frequently posts here on the forum, that the validity of my claim for this man to be considered as the first is already known. That discovery however was only made after my attempts at uncovering the story behind these medals, and I am therefore posting here in an attempt to show the evidence that I have found during the course of my own independent investigations.

I hope anyone with an interest in the Foresters will find this of value, and would appreciate hearing from any members who can point out any inaccuracies in what I have done, or flaws in either my logic or the approach I have taken. I would also very much like to hear from anyone who may have seen this mans 1914 Star!


As can frequently be the case, this journey of discovery begins with a pair of Great War campaign medals. The unique details engraved into the rims of these particular examples being:-


To be frank, the whole exercise perhaps begins with something of a disappointment, because on checking his Medal Index Card (MIC), we discover that the original recipient had also been entitled to a 1914 Star and clasp which are no longer present to complete the trio. Our interest was however re-kindled by other details that were to be found on this document, namely a note which states “K in A 16.11.14”, and a date for his entry into the theatre of war given as “4.11.14”, thus revealing to us that Private Dulake had lost his life just 12 days after his arrival in France. Incidentally, this same record also adds something to our knowledge of his personal details, by informing us that his first name had been William.

Having made the discovery that he is numbered amongst the fallen, the next logical port of call in our investigations automatically becomes the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website. A second disappointment awaits us here however, because there is actually no casualty listed with particulars that are an exact match for those that we have found on either the medals or the MIC. There is however an entry for an Albert Dulake – Private 11408, Notts & Derby, with a date of death given as 16/11/1914, at the tender age of just 21. With all these other details matching, this simply has to be the same man. Other vital information was also gathered for him from this source, which tells us that he had met his end whilst serving with the 1st Battalion of that regiment, and that he had been buried in Rue-du-Bacquerot No.1 Military Cemetery at Laventie in France. Family details, which will become crucial later on in our investigations, are also present, informing us that he had been the “Son of Rose Fox (formerly Dulake), of 7, Nutley Lane, Reigate, Surrey, and the late George Dulake. Native of Warlingham, Surrey.”

Carrying our journey onward to “Soldiers Died in The Great War” (SDGW), we discover that his entry here confirms much of the detail that we have already found, including the date of his death. A little more information about him can also however be gleaned from this document which shows us that, like his father, he had also been born in Warlingham. He had however taken up residence in Reigate at some point before his enlistment at Guildford. Once again however, we find that this document names him as William rather than Albert.

The next vital sets of clues are ones that could easily have been overlooked, because they were filed under the name of his mother. They come in the form of a partial and very badly burnt service record, which once again describes him throughout as William. Perhaps more importantly, it is this document which details for us exactly how this teenager from Surrey had found his way into the Notts & Derby Regiment. He had previously served as No 5427 in the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of The Queens (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, having attested to them at Guildford on Tuesday 1st February 1910. At the end of his compulsory 6 month training period however, he had been released from any further obligation to soldier with that particular unit by joining the Sherwood Foresters as a Regular. The date given for this is Thursday 4th August in that same year. This could either therefore suggest that the life of a soldier had suited him, or that perhaps there had been few other options available for him to earn a wage. Whilst his initial full time training with the Reserve would have paid him at the same rate as a full time Regular, this income would have been stopped after that first 6 months. From that point onwards he would instead have started to receive a small retainer, been placed onto the reserve list, and returned into civilian life with an obligation to attend annual camps and odd training days throughout the year.

Having picked up these extra details, and become curious to know even more about him, our attention must now focus on the Census returns. Identifying his Service Record has actually helped to make this process easier, because it had also introduced us to 2 of his brothers, Ernest and Thomas. Interestingly, it had also shown us that the latter of these was serving in the Royal Navy during 1910, aboard the pre-Dreadnought Battleship HMS Formidable.

The 1911 Census entry for William shows him at 18 years of age, and serving as a member of the 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, who were at that time located at Crownhill Fort in Devon. More interesting and intimate details about his past are however to be found in both the earlier census documents and on Freebmd. From these sources we discover that his mother, Rose Flint, had married George Dulake towards the end of 1888, and that they had gone on to have several children together. Our subject’s father had been a Farm Labourer and Carter who had tragically died at just 32 years of age, in the early months of 1900. Rose had however then gone on to remarry a widower in 1902 with the surname of Fox, a man with whom we are already familiar because he appears as her next door neighbour on Chapel Road in Tadworth during the Census for 1901.

Several other facts also emerge from these sources, the most important of which being that all of these early documents consistently refer to William as Albert! We might be tempted to think that Rose’s children had possibly not had an easy time with their new step-father, and perhaps that this had lain behind her son’s decision to leave home and join the forces at a young age under a changed name. The evidence however would strongly seem to suggest otherwise, because the first name of Rose’s new husband was also William. Surely Albert would have picked a different name to have enlisted under if there had actually been any enmity between them?

As fascinating perhaps as the intimate details of century old family relationships may be, our main interest in Albert actually concerns his military career, and his being accorded his rightful place in the history of the 1st Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. Simply put, the evidence that will be outlined in the following pages proves conclusively that he was actually the first man who served with that Battalion to have been killed in the Great War. Despite the complexity of the process needed to prove that he should be accorded what must be amongst the saddest of distinctions, the evidence discovered during these investigations will however also overturn an accepted and previously published view on this subject which has actually prevailed for over a century since his death.

Although it is still unclear exactly when he made the move from the 2nd Battalion into the 1st, irrefutable evidence fortunately still exists to show that this must have been the case. In particular, this can be found in the use of his 11408 service number, which remains a constant throughout all the primary military sources that both relate to him and have survived to be consulted today.

The first man to fall with the Regiment would actually have been a member of the 2nd Battalion. They had been in Sheffield on the day that war was declared, and were therefore readily available to be despatched to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Their arrival into that theatre of war on 11th September actually predated that of the 1st Battalion by almost 2 full months because, on 4th August, that unit had actually been serving in India. Drawn back to England to form a part of the 24th Brigade, along with battalions from various other regiments who had also been serving in the Raj, the 1st Battalion did not arrive back in Britain until 2nd October, and their Brigade did not actually sail to France as part of the newly formed 8th Division until early November 1914.

To begin to establish Dulake’s place in history, it is first of all necessary to see what the reputable sources have to say concerning the identity of the first man of the 1st Battalion to have lost his life, and at first glance, his name appears to be way too far down that list. Using data gathered from both the CWGC and SDGW however, we can start to establish the early wartime losses of the battalion by date of death, together with noting the official “cause of death” that was ascribed to each man:-

11542 Walter Jones Kirkee Memorial 13/08/1914 DIED

11884 Harold Boulton Kirkee Memorial 13/08/1914 DIED

10170 George Seaman Plymouth Cemetery 05/10/1914 DIED

9714 Thomas Duckmanton New Irish Farm 20/10/1914 KIA

12291 Henry Hare New Irish Farm 30/10/1914 DOW

11408 Albert Dulake Rue-du-Bacquerot 16/11/1914 KIA

Immediately this is completed, we find that the first three names can be excluded from our research, simply because two of them had died in India and one in England. Having lost their lives before the battalion had landed in France, they are all additionally shown in SDGW as “Died”, the causes of their deaths therefore not having been attributed to any action which had involved the enemy.

At this stage however, we are also presented with a mystery because, whilst the two remaining men ahead of Dulake in the list do have graves in France, they have also been given dates of death before the 1st Battalion actually arrived on the Continent. Fortunately however there are other sources that can be consulted to clear up these apparent discrepancies. On examining both the Medal Roll entries and MIC for 9714 Duckmanton, we find that all of these documents consistently show that he had actually served with 2nd Battalion. That fact actually being noted on his MIC in 3 different places!

Consulting these same sources for 12291 Hare initially gives a slightly more confusing picture, because one of the Medal Rolls erroneously identifies him as being a member of 12th Battalion. This however is clearly incorrect, as that battalion were only been formed on 1st October 1914, thereby making it highly unlikely that any of their men would have been in France on the date that he had died. Fortunately, his MIC proves to be a more reliable source, giving his disembarkation date as 24th September, and confirming the second Medal Roll entry that we have for him which also states that, like Duckmanton, he had in fact served with 2nd Battalion.

Suddenly Albert Dulake comes to the head of our list, but given the host of discrepancies that we have already found, together with the conflicting evidence concerning his name, the onus now falls on us to prove conclusively that he was the first man of the 1st Battalion to have been killed during the Great War. As noted from the very start however, his date of death has already been corroborated by CWGC, SDGW, and his MIC. Frustratingly, there is no mention of his death in the few remaining pages of his service record. The only evidence that can be found here is entirely circumstantial, and comes in the form a fragment from a receipt slip signed by his mother, under her remarried surname of Fox. This however does in itself represent something that is not likely to have existed at all if he had survived the war.

For many years, the main source on the history of the battalion has been the book “1st and 2nd Battalions The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire And Derbyshire) Regiment In The Great War” by Col. H.C. Wylly. This source however unequivocally gives the name of the first casualty of 1st Battalion to have been 10393 Private Septimus George Backhouse, and declares the date of his death to have been 17th November. As such however, this does agree with the information that can be found for him in both SDGW and CWGC, with the former of these sources also helpfully confirming that the cause of his death was attributed to him having been “Killed in Action”.

Whilst Wylly obviously used other sources along with the Battalion War Diary in the compilation of his work, it should firstly be remembered that he was writing after the event. Secondly, it would also seem that he actually missed crucial information that is contained within that document. Although the Battalion War Diary does not go so far as to name the individuals who were killed, it was written at a time much nearer to the events that it describes, and was meticulous in its recording of both the number of their fatalities and the dates of their deaths. It is therefore from the detailed casualty returns which appear on the pages of this record that sufficient evidence can be found to cast serious doubt on Wylly’s version of events which starts with:-

“… on the evening of the 15th, “A” and “C” Companies, the Machine Gun Section and 20 men of “D” Company, acting as ammunition carriers under Lieutenant Young, moved out of billets [which were about 1 ½ miles east of Vieille Chapelle] and joining the 2nd Bn. East Lancashire Regiment, accompanied that unit into the trenches. The rest of the battalion marched to new billets at Pont du Hem”

Before more importantly going on to add that:-

On the 17th the battalion suffered its first casualty in the war, No 10393 Private Backhouse of “C” Company, being killed, while on the following day [18th] the casualties rose to 11, two other ranks being killed, while 8 were wounded and one man was missing

The Battalion War Diary entry for the 16th November however clearly states:-

Casualties, Other Ranks, One killed”

Whilst the entry which follows for the 17th then goes on to record:-

Casualties, Other Ranks, 3 killed [almost certainly alluding to Backhouse and two other men, Pte 9952 Henry Bywater and Pte 10268 William Rhodes, who all share this same date of death and have it confirmed by both CWGC and SDGW] 3 dangerously wounded, 1 severely wounded, 4 slightly wounded, 1 missing”

The diary actually then goes on to confirm these figures even further, by giving running totals for both of these days which it declares to be:-

4 killed, 3 dangerously wounded, 1 severely wounded 4 slightly wounded and 1 missing”.

Not only therefore are the details concerning the dates different to those shown in Wylly, but the numbers do not tally either!

The most important consideration highlighted by these discrepancies however is that, with Dulake’s date of death having been recorded on 16th, it exactly matches the War Diary entry for that date. In addition, the 3 deaths which occurred on the following day, given by the diary as the 17th, and which would rightly therefore seem to include Backhouse, are also an exact match.

Beyond this, we should perhaps also be mindful that Backhouse is commemorated on the memorial to the missing at Le Touret, whilst Dulake, Bywater and Rhodes have all now lain close together within the same cemetery for over a hundred years. This may possibly even suggest that Backhouse could originally have been the man who was declared as “missing”. Despite that scenario seeming to back the casualty figures given by Wylly, it does not however have any bearing on the reliability of the corroborated dates of death that were accorded to any of these four men.

Additionally, it should be stated that all 4 of these men have their dates of death recorded on their MIC’s but, whilst the document for Backhouse shows the same date of entry into theatre as the other three, it incorrectly describes his fate as “died of wounds 7/11/1914”. This however simply can not be have been the case as, not only was the battalion nowhere near the front line at that time, but nothing is to be found in any of the other sources which would even suggest that they had actually suffered their first casualty on this earlier date. The most likely explanation for this erroneous MIC entry is simply that the “1” which should have preceded the “7” in giving the true date was somehow missed. The cause of his death being attributed to wounds also directly contradicts the information relating to him that we have found in SDGW, and must unfortunately remain a mystery, because both of these sources would originally have been compiled using information taken from his service record which has unfortunately not survived. His cause of death does not however have any relevance in determining the date on which it occurred.

When all of the evidence for each of the 4 men is considered together in this way, it becomes quite clear that it was in fact Albert Dulake, and not Septimus Backhouse, who was the first man of the regiment’s 1st Battalion to have been killed in the Great War.

The other mystery, which has surrounded Dulake from the very beginning of these investigations, has almost certainly also been resolved. The consistency found in the Census details compiled before 1911 and the record of his birth on Freebmd, which all name him as Albert, are further endorsed by the memorial that was erected in his home town of Reigate after the war. This also names him as “Dulake A”, and shows him to be the only man with that surname who was included in the lengthy list of their fallen. When considered along with the consistency of all the surviving military records, which only ever name him as William, it becomes clear that for reasons unknown, he had chosen to enlist under an assumed name. Despite there being a total of seven men killed during the war who share this surname, three of whom had “A” as their first initial, Albert remains the only one amongst them to have had any direct and proven connection to the town of Reigate.

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