by John Goldsbrough

William Fletcher and World War 1

William left behind some clues as to his experiences in WWI which he survived.

1. A photograph in his army uniform.
2. A soldiers bible with his service number, 264107 on it.
3. Two medals, the British Medal and the Victory medal also inscribed with his name and service number.
4. A Christmas Greetings drawing of some wooden barracks, labelled North Russia 1918.
5. A couple of photographs of wooden crosses on wartime graves.
6. Some pre-revolutionary Russian bank notes including a 25 Rouble note.
                                                                             7. A photograph from his days in the army.

Using his service number of 264107 we have been able to locate his medal record card which shows his entitlement to the British Medal and the Victory Medal and also records the fact that he was a Sapper in the Royal Engineers. He doesn’t appear to have served in France as he wasn’t entitled to the 1914/15 Star Medal. It does seem that he served in North Russia around 1918/19.  As children, we were often told that he was fighting with the White Russians against the Bolsheviks.

The British War Medal - 1914 - 1920.

This medal was awarded for service overseas. The medal is round, silver, and bears the sovereign’s coinage head. The reverse design by W. McMillan is of St. George trampling on a skull andcrossbones.

The Allied Victory Medal.

This medal was awarded in conjunction with the British War Medal, however it was awarded only if the recipient was on the strength of a unit in a theatre of war. The obverse depicts a winged Victory, while on the reverse are the words: “The Great War For Civilization 1914-1919”.

The photograph showing William with his army colleagues may have been taken before he went to Russia. William is seated on the floor on the right.  It is interesting to speculate that his colleagues would have included Asbury and Holden, at this stage there is no way of knowing, but if contact could be made with their descendants then it may be possible to place them.

Examination of the wooden crosses in the grave photographs shows that the men commemorated were both L/Corporals in the Royal Engineers, the same regiment as William. They were 262808 L/Cpl H. T. Asbury and 231628 L/Cpl J. W. Holden. The photographs of the graves of Holden and Asbury must have been taken in the early summer as there was no snow on the ground, in fact  snow can be around for 250 days in the year in Murmansk.  Both men died on 1st February 1919.  As these photographs were in the possession of William, it seems extremely likely that he knew both these men and that they were in the same RE Company.  The Commonwealth Graves Commission web site gives more information about the location of the graves of Asbury and Holden. The cemetery shown in the photographs is the Old British Cemetery in Murmansk which was used by the No 86 General Hospital in 1918 - 1919. Subsequently the burials were moved to the New British Cemetery in Murmansk. Following the recent (2008) release of WW1 service records by Ancestry, we now more details about the deaths of L/Cpl Asbury and L/Cpl Holden, as both their service records are available on-line. This is quite fortunate as around 60% of the records were destroyed in a WW2 bombing raid.

From a detailed study of the papers it soon becomes clear that both men lost their lives in a fire at their barracks and not as a result of any enemy action. Both sets of files include a couple of copies of the Proceedings of the Court of Enquiry held to investigate the cause of the fire. We are using a copy of the proceedings from L/Cpl Holden’s file as it appears to be complete and not as damaged as that in L/Cpl Asbury’s file.

We now know that both men were with 548th (Dundee) Field Company, RE. It seems very likely that William Fletcher was with the same company, however we can’t confirm this as his record is not  available. It appears from some of the witness statements from 492nd Company who raised the alarm, that they didn’t know the men in 548th Company that well.

From other information on L/Cpl Holden’s file is the fact that 548th. Field Company embarked at Newcastle on 16th June 1918 and disembarked at Murmansk on 23rd June 1918. It must have been a tough existence in the Barracks at Murmansk with the ever present threat of fire in the wooden barracks, the cold climate and the long period of Polar night. 

The story of Britain’s invasion of Russia at the end of the First World War has remained largely untold. Although not its initial architect, its chief advocate was the passionately anti-Bolshevik, Winston Churchill. The campaign that followed, in a war that was never declared, constitute an extraordinary episode in British Military History, fought in extreme conditions and amid great uncertainties. Churchill’s Crusade by Clifford Kinvig is in fact the first complete account of a unique campaign. Britain did not strike a campaign medal in the undeclared war, instead the authorities extended the entitlement to the Great War’s Campaign and Victory medals to those whose first war experience was in the distant Russian Theatres.

A cloud of secrecy cloaked the assembly of the expeditionary force for North Russia. The two task forces, known only by their code names, were assembled at the Tower of London. There was absolute secrecy as to their destination, though the men were allowed to hint at America where the weather extremes were similar to Russia’s and which would explain the extra kit taken on the march to King’s Cross station. The force boarded the heavily camouflaged , City of Marsailles, and set sail from Newcastle on 18th June 1918 with its destroyer escort. It was a difficult journey, avoiding Uboats along with the influenza pandemic which affected most of the men on board. The force arrived at Murmansk on 23rd June 1918. So it was here in Murmansk that William Fletcher arrived, he must have been wondering why he was at such a godforsaken place

For a detailed account of Wiiliam Fletchers World War 1 experience see the document tab above.