Published on the Website of the South African Military History Society in the interest of research into military history
Told by his Great-Nephew, Keith Guy
© Keith Guy 2015
1 - Introduction
This is a brief biographical account of the life and death of my Great-Uncle Seth (1876 to 1917). I am a descendant of Seth’s parents, James Churchill (1836 to 1910) and his wife Jane (née Batter) (1835 to 1909), through their son Edwin Thomas (Tom) Churchill (1871 to 1949), his Wife Betsy Harriet Painter Churchill (née Francis) (1869 to 1965) and their daughter Elsie May Churchill (1912 to 1986). I was inspired to write this account of Seth’s life as a result of my researches into the lives of various members of the Isle of Purbeck and Poole Churchill families. This task has been totally absorbing – and is by no means complete. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be pleased to hear from anyone interested enough to want further details.
Keith Guy 2015
2 – Seth’s Story
2.1 – Family matters
Seth Batter Churchill was born on 2nd January, 1876; one of 12 children. His parents, James and Jane Churchill, lived at Ower Quay on the southerly shore of Poole Harbour, not far from the Purbeck villages of Corfe Castle and Arne. James rented the family home, one of a pair of cottages, and about one acre of adjoining land from the local squire, Mr Calcraft of Rempstone Hall. James paid Mr Calcraft a yearly rent of £4.10s. 0d (£4.50). On rent pay days, probably the traditional quarter days, 25th March, 24th June, Michaelmas, 29th September and Christmas Day, 25th December, James and the other tenants on the Rempstone Estate would be expected to attend at the Hall to pay their dues. Traditionally; the Landlord treated his tenants and their families to an annual Christmas feast of ale, mutton pies, Figgie pudding and a dance.
In 1907, one of Seth’s sisters, Emily, married Thomas Harris from nearby Goathorn and they moved into the adjoining cottage. Another sister, Sarah, married Thomas’s brother Cecil in 1911 and they moved into the former family home which had become vacant as a result of the deaths of their parents; James in 1909 and Jane in 1910.
Another of Seth’s sisters, Ellen and her husband-to-be, Harry Chaffey of Corfe Castle had a son, Fredrick, in 1886. Ellen and Harry married in Corfe a few years later, settling into a cottage in East Street. They had other children and raised them there, but Fred was brought up at Ower Quay to be raised as part of his grandparents’ family. After the deaths of James and Jane, Fred remained in the cottage as Sarah and Cecil’s lodger until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.
Fred enlisted in the Machine Gun Corps at the outbreak of the Great War and died of his wounds in a military hospital on the Somme in May, 1917, just three months after Seth’s death not far away. Fred’s mother Ellen received a telegram from the Army, advising her that Fredrick had been dangerously wounded and offering her passage to France to visit him. It seems she didn’t make the journey, as he died before arrangements could be made to cover the cost of travel.
The cottages at Ower Quay have been amalgamated into a single unit in recent years. This much larger unit is nowadays used as an upmarket holiday let. The old family home stands on the Harbour’s edge and commands magnificent views toward Poole Quay, Green Island and beyond to Brownsea Island.
Little remains to remind the occasional visitor to this remote part of Poole Harbour that Ower Quay was once an important commercial quayside. The Quay was first established by the Romans, mainly for the export of Purbeck marble. The only possible clue to the onetime existence of a working quay is the line of stones forming the boundary between the present cottage garden and the shore. These stones could well have been salvaged from the harbour mud after they had lain unnoticed for centuries and their historic importance unrecognised.
Seth’s father James was employed as a clay cutter in the local ball clay mines and several of his brothers and cousins werealso employed in that industry. The mines are no longer worked, but the industry has not been forgotten. Several local enthusiasts have recently restored the former mine buildings and have now opened the Purbeck Mineral and Mining Museum, exhibiting artefacts and displaying other items of interest. The museum successfully displays elements of the former working environment in the redundant mines.
The Churchill family kept two pigs and their litters on the land at Ower Quay. They grew crops to feed themselves and the pigs, then slaughtered the pigs in time to raise cash to pay the rent. The money from the sale of one pig probably paid the rent; the other pig would have been butchered and salted for home consumption. Although poor in cash terms, the family lived comfortably off the land in comparison to some of their contemporaries. Their diets were supplemented with wildfowl and fish from the rich waters of the Harbour. They owned a small rowing boat, a Poole Canoe, designed and built locally with a flat bottom to cope with the shallow backwaters of the harbour.
I have not been able to find any information about Seth as a child, but he probably joined in all the usual boyhood activities and adventures. A descendant of one of Seth’s uncles, who has recorded some of the family’s activities, tells of trips to Green Island to gather fern. This was loaded onto two canoes tied together and then rowed back to Ower Quay to be used as fuel. James’s boys also earned a few pennies by cutting peat to supplement their neighbours’ fuel supplies.
Seth probably wanted to be a soldier or a sailor when he grew up: not for him a life digging clay like his family before him. In fact he achieved his ambition by joining the Royal Marines Artillery. Seth enlisted in Poole on 29th June, 1892 aged just 16 and after training, and promotion from Private to Gunner, he embarked on HMS Empress of India on 11th September, 1893, his first taste of life on the ocean wave!
2.2 – Seth’s Military Career
Although most of the menfolk in the Purbeck Churchill families were employed in the clay mining industry or on the land, Sethand at least four others in this immediate family had other ambitions. One brother, William moved to Dorchester and became a train driver. A nephew, Alfred, migrated to Vancouver, Canada in 1913 - to work in the coal mines! My Grandfather Edwin Thomas (always known as Tom) and his twin brother, Timothy, moved to Poole to seek other employment. For some while Tom worked from Poole Quay as a lighterman on the clay barges, which transported Purbeck clay from the pier at nearby Goathorn across to Poole Quay to be loaded onto larger vessels. In later years he was employed as a general dock worker, helping to load and unload cargo from visiting vessels.
Seth seemed to relish his military life and his career quickly prospered. After ‘learning the ropes’ in Chatham Royal Navy dockyard, he was promoted to the rank of Gunner, and was posted to serve on HMS Empress of India in September, 1893 for a little over a year. He was then transferred to HMS Royal Oak in January 1896, and then followed service for a time on HMS Prince George.
Seth married his sweetheart, Ethel Scott in St Mary’s Parish Church, Longfleet, Poole on Christmas Day, 1897 and they set up home in Lagland Street, Poole, producing six children; Lionel, born just two years into their marriage, the last, Arthur, born in 1910.
The 1901 Census return tells us that Seth was on board HMS Alexandra in Portland Harbour in March 1901. By that time, the ship had been transferred to the Fleet reserve. Seth had been posted to that vessel in early 1899; but he was due for another posting.
The following month Seth was transferred to HMS Bacchante, his last posting before being stood down from the Royal Marines in July 1904, aged 28 years. His Service Record shows that, although not outstanding, his conduct throughout was rated as ‘very good.’ Although retired from regular service, Seth remained liable for recall in the event of a national emergency.
Back in civilian life, Seth found employment as a labourer on Poole Quay, probably alongside his brothers Tom and Timothy. His job, loading and unloading visiting ships' cargoes, was probably not regular; he would have been hired on a 'ship by ship' basis, competing with the other dockworkers for a limited number of jobs each time a ship docked. He probably missed the companionship which he had enjoyed during his military career, but he was destined to serve again – and to lay down his life for his Country.
2.3 – Wartime Service
Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 4th August, 1914 had been anticipated for some weeks. Germany was becoming increasingly belligerent following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, the Archduchess Sophie in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo on 28th June. The Assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a nineteen year old member of a revolutionary group calling itself ‘Young Bosnia.’ He was swiftly apprehended, tried and sentenced to a twenty year prison term. He was spared execution because of his youth, although he contracted tuberculosis and died in prison in 1918.
Germany’s Kaiser and his advisers were fearful of flanking action by neighbouring states, including Russia and France. In order to counter these supposed threats, the Kaiser ordered the invasion and occupation of Belgium.
Troops marched into that small nation in the early hours of 4th August, 1914. In accordance with a seventy-five year old treaty with Belgium, Britain was obliged to take action to rid the Belgians of the occupying forces. Diplomatic efforts were made immediately to try to persuade Germany to withdraw its forces back across the border, but to no avail.
When it became clear that the Kaiser was not going to relent, Britain declared war and the Royal Navy was immediately issued with the order to commence hostilities. That order was given on the direct instructions of First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Seth would have been amused, perhaps, with the thought that his namesake had to take this step and probably anticipated an early call back to duty. Perhaps Seth reported for duty straight away, without waiting for the call. He would have been pleased at the prospect of a regular wage again.
Seth’s Service Record shows that here-enlisted ‘for the period of hostilities only.’ His Unit was destined to be attached to the South African Heavy Artillery, 75th Siege Battalion, and he sailed for Cape Town on HMS Hyacinth in October, 1914 to join the South Africans.
At that time, South Africa was part of the British Empire and so were as much at war with Germany as Britain and the rest of the Empire. Seth and his fellow Marines were ordered to assist South African forces in chasing the Germans out of their enclave, South-West Africa, now Namibia. This territory had been a German colony since 1884 and had proved troublesome to the South African government, due to the presence in South Africa of the largely sympathetic Boer settlers whose natural sympathies were allied to Germany.
The South African forces were led by General Louis Botha, who was later to become South Africa’s first Prime Minister, but the British contingent was under the direct leadership of Brigadier-General Sir George Grey Aston. Official South African government papers show that, in anticipation of the Campaign, the South Africans telegraphed London with an urgent request for heavy guns and the loan of a detachment of the Royal Marines Artillery to help in their campaign. Aston was Commandant of the RMA, then based at Eastney Barracks in Portsmouth. Although he organised the implementation of this request, he stayed behind in Portsmouth in order to direct other Royal Marines operations. He was suffering from ill-health, which may have contributed to his decision to request home duties, and was relieved of all duties shortly after Seth and his colleagues set sail for South Africa.
The campaign to oust the Germans from South-West Africa was planned for early 1915, but these plans were disrupted for a while because of a major rebellion in the ranks of the South African forces. The South African Army included many Boers. Of German or Dutch descent, the Boers were naturally more sympathetic toward the Germans than the South African Government would have liked. Around eleven thousands of their number rebelled when told of the plan to invade the German territory. Botha was forced to put down this rebellion before activating the planned invasion. The rebellion was quickly and effectively quashed and the battle for South-West Africa began in May 1915.
Botha quickly captured the capital city of Windhoek with the aid of offshore bombardment by ships of the Royal Navy’s Cape Squadron.By mid-July, the Germans had evacuated their territory and were heading for home, leaving the South African forces in complete control. This was a relatively straight forward campaign, probably because the Germans were running out of supplies; theirover-extended supply lineshaving beenconstantly under attack by the Royal Navy.
A cartoon in the magazine ‘Punch’ published in May 1915 shows a confident General Botha dictating a telegram to the Kaiser saying ‘Just off to put down a small gang of troublemakers – Congratulations may be sent to British/South African HQ, Windhoek, German South Africa.’
At the end of the South-West Africa campaign the South African government sent official thanks to London in appreciation of the services of Aston and his men and expressed “hope they will receive recognition by His Majesty’s government.”
Seth was quickly repatriated to England after his service in South-West Africa, having been wounded in action. A year later, recovered from his wounds, he was promoted to Acting Bombardier.
There is no record available to explain how Seth was wounded.The South African Heavy Artillery used the British 4.7 inch Naval Gun in the 1915 campaign to push the Germans out of South-West Africa. Although this rather elderly artillery piece was effective, it was not particularly reliable and was not popular with the South African forces. It had a tendency to malfunction in a particularly dangerous manner. The gun crews referred to its most deadly malfunction as ‘a squib round.’ The rifling in the barrel of this particular type of gun had a design fault which sometimes caused the shell to stick in the barrel due to insufficient projectile force on firing. In normal use, the gun crew could use the ramrod to free the shell, but if a practice round was used, the pressure generated by the powder used in such rounds was much greater than in live rounds. On occasions, the results were fatal. If the gun had been in use for some time, metal fatigue would result in fragmentation of the barrel on firing the gun. This could prove fatal or at least cause serious injury to the gun crew and anyone else standing nearby. Perhaps Seth was unlucky enough to have been manning one of these weapons when it chose to malfunction and perhaps he was lucky to escape with a relatively minor wound!
Back home in Blighty, Seth remained attached to the South African Heavy Artillery and was destined to play a further part in the war in Europe. With his fellow artillery-men, he embarked for France overnight on 23rd April 1916,where they went straight into action against the retreating German forces in France and Belgium. By this stage of the Great War the Germans were facing ever increasing Allied advances and Seth’s Unit would have been kept busy bombarding the enemy’s positions. The battle lines had reached the region around Ypres by early 1917.
Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig’s despatches indicate that, on the night of 16th/17th February that year, the German lines around Hooge, just a short distance from Ypres, wereunder attack. There were small advances and retreats by both sides and the Allied units were hoping to regain lost territory that night. The night was very dark and heavy rain had turned the ground into a quagmire. These conditions hampered the intended advance and heavy casualties led to orders being issued for a withdrawal. It is not hard to imagine the difficulties encountered in trying to manoeuvre heavy artillery pieces in such conditions.
The exact circumstances of Seth’s death are not recorded, but it is likely he was struck down by random fire, coming in from the somewhat disorganised but still lethal enemy positions at that time. His Service Record simply shows a pencilled note recording that he was ‘killed in action, buried at Assevillers Cemetery.’ Two other members of his gun crew, Gunners Todd and Pearson, were killed at the same time. Their bodies, along with those of ten other valiant young men, were laid to rest in this cemetery, but not permanently: after the Armistice permanent cemeteries were established by the newly established Imperial War Graves Commission. Seth and his two comrades were moved to their final resting place in the military cemetery at Fouquescourt, a few miles further south of the scene of his last battle.
As with all cemeteries under the care of what became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Fouquescourt Cemetery continues to be maintained to a very high standard.
Back home in Poole, Ethel and the children had moved into 4 Waterloo Buildings, off Lagland Street early in 1916, when the landlord evicted her from 91 Lagland Street, along with most of her neighbours. The landlord probably wanted to sell his properties and knew he would get a better price by selling without the tenants in residence. The house in Waterloo buildings was one of a long terrace of similar properties, probably built shortly after the Battle of Waterloo to commemorate that famous victory. These dwellings enjoyed a pedestrian access leading from Lagland Street, each with a small enclosed back yard and an outside privy.
Seth had probably enjoyed a short spell of leave to help with the move into the new family home before returning to prepare for embarkation to France a few weeks later. This proved to be his last chance to be with his family.
Ethel would probably have known that the knock on the door foretold bad news. Most wives with husbands in the services lived in dread of that knock. Any other visitor would just knock, but, somehow the dreaded knock when it came, brought with it a chill; an immediate gut-wrenching knowledge that the caller, the telegram boy, would be handing over that dreaded news; that dreaded finality – your husband is dead.
I hope you have found this short account interesting. As a child I regularly visited my Granny Churchill at her home in Old Orchard, Poole, but I cannot recall anyone talking about Seth, or the ‘Purbeck connection.’ Only recently did I become aware of my connection with the extensive Churchill ‘clan’ in Dorset’s Purbeck Hills. Recent research has opened up to me a wealth of information about the family – and each new discovery leads me on to even more. Who knows what else I may discover!
I conclude this account with some details of the ships upon which Seth served. I am grateful to Wikipedia for the opportunity to read about these vessels.
3 – Appendix - Seth’s Ships
HMS Empress of India (14,190 tons)
Seth was posted 11th September, 1893 (on the day the ship was commissioned) and paid off 10th January, 1896
Seth’s tour of duty saw no recorded action, but no doubt he and his fellow crew-members were kept busy training and maintaining the ship, along with a number of ceremonial duties and courtesy visits.
HMS Royal Oak (14,190 tons)
Seth was posted to this ship on 14th January, 1896 (once again, on the day the ship was commissioned). He was paid off on 25th November, 1896.
HMS Prince George (14,900 tons)
Seth commenced duties on yet another newly commissioned warship on 26th November, 1896. He was paid off 28th February, 1899.
The ship saw no action during Seth’s tour of duty, but had the honour of taking part in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Spithead Review in June 1897.
HMS Alexandra (9,492 tons)
Seth first went aboard this ship on 1st March, 1899. He was paid off on 17th April, 1901.
Alexandra was launched in 1875 and served the Navy until 1901. She spent her last five years as a training ship and was sold and broken up in 1908. She was one of the last combined steam and sail powered warships, so designed and equipped in deference to the traditionalist in the top brass of the Victorian Royal Navy. After service in the Mediterranean fleet, she was modernised in 1889, but then re-designated as the flagship of the reserve fleet based at Portland, where she remained until she was decommissioned and her crew, including Seth, paid off in April, 1901. Her last sea-going service was as flagship of the ‘B’ fleet in 1900.
Seth was on board Alexandra in Portland Harbour when he and his fellow crew members and officers were visited by the Census Officials on 1st April, 1901. The Census Enumeration Book describes Alexandra as a ‘second Class Battleship.’
The ship’s Captain at that time was 49 year old Frederic W Fisher, later to become an Admiral. Frederic was the brother of the more famous Admiral of the Fleet ‘Jacky’ Fisher who was appointed to replace Prince Louis of Battenberg when he was forced to resign shortly after the outbreak of WWI. Prince Louis was quickly made aware by the popular press that his German name and family connections to the Kaiser were causing many people to question his loyalties. Louis took immediate action to quell the public’s disquiet by adopting the family name of Mountbatten.
Captain Fisher’s command of Alexandra seemed to have been a temporary posting. A year previously he was in command of HMS Illustrious, but just over a week after Census day Captain Fisher and Seth were both posted to HMS Revenge.
Fisher opted for voluntary retirement in October, 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the Great War. He spent his retirement at Kilverstone Hall, near Thetford, Norfolk and died there in December, 1943
HMS Revenge (14,150 tons) (renamed Redoubtable in 1915)
Seth’s tour on this ship lasted from 18th April, 1901 to 24th November, 1902.
Launched on 3rd November, 1892, Revenge was one of the Navy’s Royal Sovereign Class of pre-dreadnaught battleships. These ships became known as ‘Rolling Ressies’ as a result of their tendency to roll heavily in certain sea conditions, the worst of these being HMS Resolution, hence the nickname. The problem was partly alleviated by the fitting of bilge keels. This class of battleship was rendered obsolete when, in 1906, HMS Dreadnaught, the first of a new and very powerful type of battleship was brought into service. With the exception of Revenge, which was still in service at the outbreak of World War I, the whole of the Royal Sovereign Class was quickly scrapped or sold to other navies.
During Seth’s time on board Revenge she served as a coast guard ship at Portland and as the flagship of the Admiral Superintendent Commanding Reserves.Then, after a refit she served as flagship to the newly formed Home Squadron.
After Seth left Revenge, the ship suffered a number of misfortunes, including, in April, 1904, a collision when she and her sister ship Royal Oak both struck a submerged wreck off the Scilly Isles. Revenge suffered bottom damage. In June 1908, Revenge collided with a merchant ship, the SS Bengore Head, and in January 1912 she broke free from her moorings in Portsmouth Harbour during a gale and collided with the Battleship HMS Orion.
The outbreak of war in 1914 seems to have allowed a reprieve for Revenge, which had earlier been laid up awaiting disposal. She was refitted and used in various duties with the Channel Fleet’s newly formed 6th Battle Squadron. Having served a very useful period of duty, Revenge was given a further refit, but was not re-commissioned. Instead she was used as an accommodation ship at Portsmouth until early 1915. After languishing for a further four years she was scrapped in 1919.
On leaving Revenge Seth was posted to HMS Bacchante.
HMS Bacchante (12,000 tons)
Seth joined ship on 25th November, 1902 and was paid off on 27th June, 1904.
Bacchante was one of six Cressy class armoured cruisers and was launched in February 1902, just a few months before Seth was posted to her. Seth served on board during Bacchante’s short spell as part of the Mediterranean Fleet, but he was retired from the Service and placed on the Royal Fleet Reserve List on 28th July, 1904. This meant he missed the opportunity to sail to exotic ports when Bacchante joined the North America and West Indies Squadron in 1906.
Bacchante saw action during the Great War as part of the 7th Cruiser Squadron, nicknamed the ‘Live Bait Squadron’ within the Fleet. This sobriquet was given because, at the time, a senior Navy Commodore, Roger Keyes advised his Admiral that, in his opinion, the ships were in grave danger of attack and sinking by the enemy because of their age and inexperienced crews. Bacchante and the other ships in the Squadron were in poor condition and well past their intended lifespan and could not maintain their design speed. The crews’ lack of experience meant that these ships were especially vulnerable to attack, hence their unfortunate nickname. Keyes’ message reached Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. After consulting his colleagues, Churchill minuted his decision to withdraw the ships in this squadron on the grounds that ‘the risks to such ships is not justified by any services they can render.’
The Squadron’s task had been to patrol the North Sea around the area of the Dogger Bank, with destroyer support, to protect ships carrying supplies between Britain and France. The Germans were keen to disrupt this traffic and sent out regular sorties to attack and destroy the ships.
HMS Hyacinth (5,700 tons)
Built on the Clyde and launched on 27th October 1898, Hyacinth initially served with the Channel Fleet and then undertook duties as flagship on the East India Station. After a refit in 1911, she was placed in reserve, before being recalled in 1912 to serve as flagship of Rear-Admiral Herbert King-Hall’s Cape of Good Hope Station. In addition to an active service career, Hyacinth performed excellent service escorting troopships carrying British forces between the United Kingdom and South Africa. She remained at the Cape Station until she was paid off in 1919 and was sold for scrap in 1923.