First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Family Man - John Frederick Gaywood


John Frederick Gaywood was a hard working ordinary man but his fate was extraordinary. He was the only surviving male in his family and had trained as a pianoforte maker and tuner. In 1909 at the age of 29 he married Eliza Florence Collins They had three children Leslie Frederick Gaywood in 1910,
Bernard William Gaywood in 1912 and Marjorie Florence Gaywood in 1914.

So at that time with three healthy growing children and with the father and mother aged 35 years and 28 years, family life was alright, with John Frederick employed in a sought after job as pianoforte tuner and the family living at 12, Aldine Road Shepherds Bush. All would have been ‘set fair’ were it not for the historical events about to unleash and which would be completely outside their control.

John Frederick Gaywood was my grandfather and his second child Bernard William Gaywood my father. WW1 had begun on August 1914 and consequently then shaped these families lives and all their subsequent descendants.

So totally mind blowing is the undisputed fact that, for us to have existed at all the events had to have happened the way they did. For this reason I have delved into the following circumstances in some detail and especially as even my father knew hardly anything about his parents, having been orphaned at 7 years of age.

A lot is written about WW1 and its futile losses and poor command. Sometimes I feel this could detract from the valour and sacrifice of the fallen heroes. Not many would have wanted to be there but their motivations at that time would have come from a passionate desire to protect and to make life better for those back home and a strong sense of patriotic duty. Of such sentiments are soldiers made and destroyed. Those at home are spared the hardships or knowledge of the soldier’s plight at the front line and can continue to bring up the soldiers children and carry on with their lives, albeit changed lives. Ironically this reinforces and fulfils part of the soldiers ethos and fuels the propaganda machine for sending a nations youth into that hellish hostile environment in the first place.

The War Years The war began on August 1914 until 1918 although the build up to the event had been festering across Europe for some time. It was fought mainly in France and Belgium against the German, Turkish army. It was often made up of a battle seesaw, winning and losing small areas of ground fought for by infantrymen dug into trenches. Casualties were astronomically high and advancing warfare techniques included rifles, bayonets, mortars, gas, and later aircraft and tanks. Remember this was before the age of multi communication methods and then pigeon and runners or cyclists were the method sometimes used to give out orders to the battalions at the front. Often the generals in command were secure some distance back from the front line.

Typically an infantryman’s uniform would have been a helmet, gas mask, shovel, rifle, bayonet, water bottle, back pack, ammunition pouches, battle dress blouse and trousers, puttees worn to below the knee and ammunition boots. Conditions in the trenches were unspeakably terrible and in addition the soldiers were plagued by miserable rations, lice and rat infestations. They had to endure constantly soaking wet boots and uniforms plus the threat of poisoning by gas and flying ammunition, together with the deafening and confusing sounds of battle. Their physical shape and general health was poor and their hope of survival negligible.

1917 3RD Ypres Passchendaele Somme Salient. The third major battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, took place between July and November 1917. General Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief in France, was encouraged by the gains made at the offensive at Messines in June 1917. Haig was convinced that the German army was now close to collapse and once again made plans for a major offensive to obtain the necessary breakthrough.

The opening attack at Passchendaele was carried out by General Hubert Gough and the British Fifth Army with General Herbert Plumer and the Second Army joining in on the right and General Francois Anthoine and the French First Army on the left. After a 10-day preliminary bombardment, with 3,000 guns firing 4.25 million shells, the British offensive started at Ypres a 3.50 am on 31st July.

John Frederick Gaywood was an infantry soldier with the Somerset Light Infantry (Prince Alberts). He was no. 235088 PTE JOHN FREDERICK GAYWOOD and part of the 8th Battalion of the 2nd Army and attached to 63rd brigade A/C Company. On the 31st July 1917 at the Battle of Pilkem on the first day of the Haig offensive and the start of the 3rd battle of Ypres John Frederick together with many other infantrymen was lost in Flanders Field!

A significant passage from the war diaries for that day says: -

“5.40 p.m. Pigeon report from Capt. Baker that platoon sent forward had retired, that posts were established N. and S. of Beek Farm that 2nd Lt. Blake had been killed, that his platoon had suffered many casualties and that it was at that hour impossible to bring in wounded.”

Maybe he was killed in action? Sniper fire? Wounded? Shot? Drowned in the quagmire of slime and mud? No one knows, as he became one of thousands of soldiers whose bodies were never found in the battles of the Somme.

Back in England During 1917- 1918 back home in England, Florence Jessie and the three children were left without a husband and father and source of income, and had to find a way to survive. The hardships of fighting the war for any country have far reaching implications on the economy as the war ends and shortages and other deprivations ensue. Neither Eliza’s father James William Collins nor John Fredericks mother Eliza Gaywood would have found it possible to provide the resources for the four destitute members of the family and Florence Jessie was forced to seek employment. She found a job as cleaner and general housekeeper to a local GP. This was with Dr. Warren residing in Enfield Highway and this demanding job included accommodation for her and the three children. Sadly it was not long after that she became gravely ill and on 29th April 1921 she died of acute diabetic coma aged only 33 years.

The children were then orphaned and split up, with Leslie and Bernard going to live with James William Collins and family at 31, Uckfield Rd. and Marjorie being taken into the family of George and Jessie Hudson (nee Collins) with their daughters Joan and Nina. As soon as Leslie and Bernard were old enough Leslie was encouraged to join the army as a boy soldier and Bernard who was short sighted and thus not suited to the army was sent to London to become a clerk in a warehouse, the job included basic keep and accommodation.

The independent streak within these three youngsters and their strong characters were forged in the experiences of the tragedies and traumas of their early life. As they each later chose wisely in their partners and raised their own families they fulfilled any parents dream for their offspring. Their father would have been proud of them and they also of him.

90 years later His name is all one can find in Belgium carved into the huge memorial Menin Gate crossing one of the main routes into Ypres, the vast walls of this arch are covered from floor to ceiling in some of the names of soldiers lost on Flanders Field in the battles of the Somme. There are many more memorials in the region with tens of thousands of soldier’s names, enough to render the visitors speechless and to hang their heads at the enormity of the seemingly needless losses on both sides. Some years later there was a memorial inscription added to the words on a family gravestone at Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

Several descendants have visited the Menin Gate and as you stand within its vast arch looking towards the town there are steps on the right hand side. When climbed these lead to an area where those visiting leave wreaths and messages. Just above this and to the right is the name John Frederick Gaywood. It was both moving and poignant to stand on this spot and made even more so by the presence of some old soldiers from another regiment who were visiting to view the names of fallen comrades. They produced a bugle and unfurled a regimental flag and played ‘the last post’ whilst standing to attention. This was an apt mark of respect and was very memorable and moving and a well timed ceremony coincident with our own visit.

This has been researched and composed in respectful memory of a family man who had little choice but to’fight for king and country’ and thus to unwittingly become ‘cannon fodder’. He was engaged in a war not just against an enemy army but with hardships compounded by poor command, inadequate training in appalling conditions. The story once more showed the futility of the Somme battles and the subsequent demise of tens of thousands of infantrymen who found themselves undeservedly and unwillingly in that abhorrent hellhole.

Bringing such stories to the attention of modern Britain 90 years on should give this nation a sense of pride and respect. We can luxuriate in our own lives only because of our ancestor’s unselfish acts of heroism. None of us should ever forget such a significant sacrifice.

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