Ned, George and Arthur Goodchild were three brothers – my uncles – who volunteered to serve in Kitchener’s New Armies in 1914. All joined the Suffolk Regiment (see cap badge, left): George attested on 24 August in 7th Battalion, and Ned followed on 8 September in 9th Battalion, where he was joined a week later by Arthur. They all wrote frequently to their mother, who kept their letters, the last dated July 1916. These came to me on the death of my mother, their sister. With my cousins’ approval, I used them to write an account of their fathers’ army lives, now online at www.goodchilds.org. Why did they volunteer? As agricultural labourers, they clearly felt that army life could not be worse than farm work.
While Britain’s small regular army was despatched immediately to France, the New Armies remained at home to be trained up by inadequate numbers of senior officers and NCOs. Obsolete or non-existent rifles, no uniforms and poor accommodation in winter 1914-15 delayed the creation of battle-ready troops. Instead of the intended six months, George reached France after nine months and Ned arrived fifty-one weeks after enlisting.
Arthur’s war history was complicated. In 1914, he was fourteen months under-age and severely deaf since birth. He spent many days confined to barracks, sometimes (but not always) having failed to hear an order. In March 1915 he was transferred to 3/Suffolk, a Special Reserve unit at Felixstowe. Because he had refused to allow army surgeons to operate on his ear, Arthur believed he was classed as unfit for active service. But the decision was reversed, and he arrived in France at the end of July 1915, ironically a month ahead of Ned.
The war on the Western Front in 1915 was dominated by the British assault at Loos on 25-26 September. One of the great set-piece battles of the war, it was also one of the least successful. So great was the slaughter by German machine guns of British soldiers caught on open ground that German medical personnel were moved to come out and assist the wounded survivors to return to the British lines. For 9/Suffolk, the experience was shocking. Civilian soldiers of the New Armies required a gradual introduction to the trenches in order to acquire battle skills. But, having arrived in France on 31 August, 9/Suffolk was held near the coast for three weeks, then marched some 70 miles over four nights and thrown unprepared into the battle on 26 September.
In the aftermath, all three brothers were briefly in the vicinity of Loos, although they did not see each other. George’s 7/Suffolk took over trenches at Loos on 30 September. Arthur joined 1/Suffolk at Loos in September and went into action on 1 October. But the battalion was withdrawn a few days later. His experience of trench warfare was terrifying but brief and not repeated. By the end of October, 1/Suffolk was en route to Salonika in northern Greece, where the battalion dug trenches to protect against an attack that no enemy intended to make. Arthur remained there, bored but not endangered, until sent home for surgery on his ear in July 1916. His final war letter was written from hospital in Brighton where the surgery failed, and he was duly discharged from the army as unfit for further service.
Ned and George were less fortunate. On 4 November 1915 George received a leg wound in the Hohenzollern Redoubt at Loos. He wrote home: ‘When I got hit there were four of us standing close to each other, talking and smoking, Ford and Palmer they were on my left and they both got killed by the same bomb that hit me, the other fellow was on my right and he escaped.’ Invalided home, George thereafter battled with the medical authorities not to be returned to the trenches. ‘They will send me to France again if they possibly can, but not if I can help it… Scores of my old mates from the 7 batt. have been sent back again but they won’t get me back.’ George completed his war service on home duty in Britain and Ireland and was discharged in March 1919.
While George lay in hospital, news came that Ned had been killed on 19 December 1915. After Loos, 9/Suffolk had moved to the Ypres Salient, where the enemy launched the first phosgene gas attack. He was buried that night in a small local cemetery. But when permanent cemeteries were built after the war, there was no trace of his body for re-burial. His parents were informed of his death by letter dated 20 December – officers’ next-of-kin would receive a telegram – but they were still unaware of their loss when his mother next wrote to him on 28 December. In March 1916 they received the balance of Ned’s pay owing to him (£5-14s-4d) and a small bag of his personal effects which included a cigarette case with his last three “ARF A MO” cigarettes. I found these undisturbed almost a century later (see photo, right).
Arthur spoke for all the brothers when he wrote in 1915 that ‘if I get out of the army alive I shan’t work on the land if I can get anywhere else’. After the war, he and George returned to live close to my grandparents in Suffolk, but not as farm labourers. By the time I knew them, Arthur had his own house-building business while George worked for an engineering company in Ipswich.
Private Edmund Leonard Goodchild, 9th Battalion Suffolk Regiment (1893-1915), Private George Goodchild, 7th Battalion Suffolk Regiment (1895-1987), Private Arthur Goodchild, 9th Battalion Suffolk Regiment (1896-1963), infantrymen; relatives of Henry Finch, Senior Fellow, School of History (via Economic History and Latin American Studies), retired 2001