Pte. Alfred Leonard Parris (1889 – 1914)
Southeast of the city of Mons, near Spiennes, a signalman nonchalantly makes his way along a railway line, occasionally stopping to light the trackside lamps, echoing the same routine he has carried out a hundred times before, only today something is different. The quiet summer’s evening had become restless, and his thoughts, as he proceeds along the tracks, are periodically interrupted by the occasional chink of metal striking the rails. Unknown to the signalman, huddled together just over the other side of the railway line behind an embankment, were men of the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards, watching in astonishment as the man continues his work, seemingly unconcerned by the peril unfolding around him.
An officer calls out in French, warning the local that the Germans were advancing, to which the man is heard to mutter ‘ça m’est égal’ (I don’t care.) With bullets and shells increasingly whistling over their heads, and remaining concealed, the battalion wait for orders to advance and engage the enemy – an order that would never materialise. Instead the Grenadiers were given the edict to retire, and began their long, exhausting and generally demoralising retreat from Mons. It was 23 August 1914; the guardsmen had been in France exactly ten days and would have to wait another 48 hours before they were given their first crack at ‘The Hun’. Among their ranks was a married farm worker named Alfred Leonard Parris, who was usually known by his middle name and recorded as such on the Platt War Memorial.
13194 Pte. A L Parris has the distinction of being the first soldier from the Parish to set foot in wartime France, but also the unhappy one of also being the first to lose his life. He was one of ‘The Old Contemptibles’, a self-adopted name by the first units of the British Expeditionary Force to engage the enemy, and derived from the Kaiser’s alleged reference to them as a “contemptible little army.”
The Parris family had worked as agricultural labourers in Offham for over a hundred years, Leonard was born during February 1889 and the third of 12 children to James Parris, a local labourer, and his wife Jane Standen. In 1891 the family lived at Hayes Cottage and had moved to Kettle Cottage, both in Offham, by the time of the 1901 census.
Leonard and his siblings probably attended the village school and, when old enough, he joined his father working as a farm labourer. On 26 March 1907, at the age of 18, Leonard visited the recruiting office in Maidstone and signed up for 12 years with the colours (three years Army Service and nine in the Reserve.) Like his older brother James, who had enlisted the week before, Leonard joined the Grenadier Guards and was assigned to the 1st Battalion. At the time he gave his address as Godwell Cottages in Offham and was described in an army medical examination as being 5’ 7” in height, weighing 125 lbs with a fresh complexion, grey eyes and brown hair. In the box reserved for recording any distinctive marks, the examining officer duly noted that Leonard had a two-inch scar below his right knee joint. Leonard was passed fit for service and sent to join his new unit at Wellington Barracks in London.
During 1908 he would have been based with the battalion at camp in Aldershot, and was eventually transferred into Section ‘B’ of the Army Reserve (meaning he could be called upon in the event of general mobilisation) on 26 March 1910.
By 1911 the Parris family had moved to Platt and were living at 15 Whatcote Cottages. Leonard’s brother James had extended his period of Army Service, whilst Leonard had returned to farm labouring. Living with the Parris family in this period was a 22-year-old general servant from East Peckham named Daisy Ellis. Leonard must have taken a shine to Daisy and they were married in the Platt Parish Church by the Reverend Brand on 4 November 1911. Eight months later on 13 July 1912 Daisy gave birth to a son named Alfred Leonard James, with a daughter, Daisy Emily Jane, born two years later on 26 June 1914. At the time of Daisy’s birth, the drums of war would have been beating loudly, and Leonard must have feared that time spent with his young family would soon be interrupted by escalating events on the continent.
War with Germany was declared on 4 August and Leonard was immediately mobilized for military service. Along with his older brother Frederick, who had enlisted in 1908, he re-joined his unit in London. Their brother James however, had been discharged from the Army during 1913 for robbery, and was serving 12 months hard labour in prison.
Leonard was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, whilst Frederick was posted to the 3rd Battalion, both of which were based at Wellington Barracks. Within a month their younger brother Ernest would also enlist in the Army, and joined the same regiment, although like Frederick, he wouldn’t see overseas service until 1915.
On 12 August, Queen Alexandra waved off the 2nd Battalion as they marched out of the barracks towards Nine Elms, where they entrained for Southampton Docks. At 8 p.m. Leonard left England and sailed with his unit for France on board the Cawdor Castle. Tucked away in the tunic pocket of every man who boarded a troop ship that evening was a message from Lord Kitchener that read:
You are ordered abroad as a soldier of the King to help our French comrades against the invasion of a common enemy. You have to perform a task which will need your courage, your energy, your patience.
Remember that the conduct of the British Army depends on your individual conduct. It will be your duty, not only to set an example of discipline and perfect steadiness under fire, but also to maintain the most friendly relations with those whom you are helping in the struggle. The operations in which you are engaged will, for the most part, take place in a friendly country, and you can do your own country no better service than in showing yourself in France and Belgium in the true character of a British soldier.
Be invariably courteous, considerate, and kind. Never
do anything likely to injure or destroy property, and always look upon looting as a disgraceful act. You are sure to meet with a welcome and to be trusted; your conduct must justify that welcome and that trust. Your duty cannot be done unless your health is sound. So keep constantly on your guard against any excesses. In this new experience you may find temptations in wine and women. You must entirely resist both temptations, and while treating women with perfect courtesy you should avoid any intimacy.
Do your duty bravely.
Honour the King.
At daybreak the following day, as the ship neared Le Havre, men on board French fishing-boats and trawlers were observed cheering at the sight of the new arrivals with Leonard and his comrades crowding on the decks to get a better view of this ‘new country’.
After disembarkation, the battalion marched through the streets to camp, which was about five miles away. Locals lined the route, throwing flowers and cheering “Vivent les Anglais,” “Vive I’Angleterre,” and “Eep-eep-ooray.” It was a hot day, and after an impromptu bath in the sea followed by a night’s rest, the men were said to be refreshed, fit and in good spirits. Shortly after a battalion inspection, a message from the King was read out to the men:
You are leaving home to fight for the safety and honour of my empire. Belgium, whose Country we are pledged to defend, has been attacked and France is about to be invaded by the same powerful foe.
I have implicit confidence in you, my soldiers. Duty is your watchword, and I know your duty will be nobly done.
I shall follow your every movement with deepest interest and mark with eager satisfaction your daily progress, indeed your welfare will never be absent from my thoughts.
I pray God to bless you and guard you and bring you back victorious.
That evening Leonard entrained for the front, which at that stage was near the Belgian city of Mons. The battalion reached the outskirts on the 23rd and bivouacked in a field awaiting further orders. In the distance he would have heard the battle raging, and with nervous excitement coursing through his body, probably suspected that he was about to plunge headlong into the fray.
About 6 p.m. the battalion moved off and passed through Harveng before proceeding in artillery formation towards a hill near Spiennes, where they encountered the laissez-faire railwayman. Unknown to Leonard, at the point his unit began to retire, two German Corps were bearing down on their position.
The Grenadiers eventually engaged the enemy for the first time at Landrecies during the evening of the 25th. ‘Shadowy forms’ were spotted moving about in the darkness, with a voice, realising they had been spotted, calling out “Don’t shoot, we are French.” This trick was new to the men, and having hesitated, the guardsmen rapidly found themselves being rushed by German infantry.
Along with a battalion of Coldstream Guards, the Grenadiers held their own, and repelled repeated enemy attacks. Leonard would have been in the thick of the action and fighting furiously in the darkness, however a number of houses caught fire, lighting up the town and providing the men with a clear indication who was friend, and who was foe. The assault fizzled out around midnight and the battalion were able to consolidate and strengthen its position. In his dispatch of 7 September, Sir John French wrote:
The 4th Guards Brigade in Landrecies was heavily attacked by troops of the Ninth German Army Corps, who were coming through the forest on the north of the town. This brigade fought most gallantly and caused the enemy to suffer tremendous loss in issuing from the forest into the narrow streets of the town. This loss has been estimated from reliable sources at from 700 to 1000.
At daybreak on the 26th the battalion were ordered to retire, and marched with the brigade due south to Etreux. Exhausted, Leonard and his comrades plodded on, falling asleep every time they stopped for a brief rest, even if for only a few minutes. On arrival, and in a moment of light relief, the men had their first sight of a German plane, and all shot at it as it flew away like a ‘wounded bird’ (it eventually came down and was captured by another division.)
Within a few hours the retreat resumed, with many malcontents in the battalion muttering that they were heading in the ‘wrong direction’. By the 31st the Grenadiers had reached Soucy, and dug in on the high ground above the town, before withdrawing and taking up a position in the Retz Forest, where the brigade covered the retreat of the rest of 2nd Division through Villers Cottérêts. Leonard’s unit was based along the main road running east and west through Rond de la Reine, and it was assumed that the advancing Germans would not attempt to attack through such a dense wood. They were wrong, and the battalion was forced quite suddenly into engaging the Germans at close quarters with bayonets. Substantial casualties were sustained on both sides, however Leonard survived, and was among the Grenadiers who withdrew to Boursonne, where they took up another rear-guard position to cover the retirement of the 6th Brigade, who had encountered the Germans in another wood.
As the retirement continued, men who had left England three weeks earlier were said to bear little resemblance to those who had been on the road for almost two-weeks. A regimental history compiled by Sir Frederick Ponsonby wrote:
It was a sadly tattered, unshaven, footsore body of men that marched at 3 o’clock next morning through La Celle and Malmaison Farm to Fontenay, where they went into billets. No Londoner seeing them would have guessed that these were the same smart Grenadiers whom he had often admired on the King’s Guard. But if their looks were gone, their spirit was indomitable as ever.
At the start of September, the German right flank became exposed and the Allied forces were ordered to halt the retreat and advance eastwards towards the enemy. This change of direction lifted the men’s spirits, with Sir John French writing:
After a most trying series of operations, mostly in retirement, which have been rendered necessary by the general strategic plan of the Allied Armies, the British Forces stand to-day formed in line with their French comrades, ready to attack the enemy. Foiled in their attempt to invest Paris, the Germans have been driven to move in an easterly and southeasterly direction, with the apparent intention of falling in strength on Fifth French Army. In this operation they are exposing their right flank and their line of communication to an attack by the Sixth French Army and the British Forces.
I call upon the British Army in France to show now to the enemy its power and to push on vigorously to the attack beside the Sixth French Army. I am sure I shall not call on them in vain, but that on the contrary by another manifestation of the magnificent spirit which they have shown in the past fortnight they will fall on the enemy’s flank with all their strength, and in unison with their Allies drive them back.
The operation began in the early hours of 6th, bringing the BEF up to a line parallel with, and a few miles southwest of the Grand Morin-Aubetin Rivers. Leonard was in action again on the 8th when his battalion attacked along the Marne at a battle that eventually forced the Germans back and halted their advance on Paris.
During the assault, the 4th Guards Brigade, supported by three brigades of RFA and a heavy battery, mounted an attack on a number of bridges along the Petit Morin River in the area of La Trétoire. Faced with both infantry and machine-gun fire, the ensuing battle was ferocious and at times confusing, however the brigade fought valiantly and were able to forge a river crossing which allowed the cavalry to advance and force the Germans to fall back. With a retreat in full-effect, Leonard’s battalion pursued the enemy, and engaged them again along main road from Montmirail to La Ferté sous Jouarre near Orly.
Following their defeat at The Battle of the Marne, the German armies undertook a tactical withdrawal towards the River Aisne. The Allied pursuit had been slow due to fatigue, stretched supply lines and having to tackle numerous enemy rear-guard actions, giving the Germans time to dig in on the high ground north of the river and command a superior defensive position with full field of fire that covered all the river crossings and meaning that the BEF would have to both cross the river and then attack uphill.
The first British troops navigated the Aisne during the night of the 12th with Leonard’s unit crossing under cover of darkness the next day. On this occasion they were unable to gain a foothold, and were forced to withdraw until the following morning, when they were able to make a more successful attempt via a pontoon bridge that the Royal Engineers had constructed during the night.
Moving forward with the Connaught Rangers, the Grenadiers came under attack from German infantry at a large farm called La Cour de Soupir. Reinforced by the Coldstream and Irish Guards, the Grenadiers courageously fought against overwhelming enemy numbers. Faced with successive German counter-attacks across the fields and through dense woodland, British casualties rapidly mounted as they made repeated attempts to advance. Many of the battalion officers were wounded or killed adding to the overall confusion.
The battalion was dealt a further blow when two days later a German artillery shell hit a group of Grenadiers situated on the edge of a quarry pit. About half the company (59 men), were killed outright, with further casualties sustained in the quarry below. After this disaster, just before dawn the next day, the battalion was relieved and went into billets at Soupir, however the respite was temporary, and they were called back to the line the next day when they began work digging and deepening the trenches. Throughout the next few days Leonard’s unit was under constant heavy shellfire (it was calculated that on average, 50 shells a minute were falling on the Grenadiers) and they successfully repelled a number of enemy attacks that occurred both day and night. In addition to the constant threat of attack, sleep became non-existent due to the German practice of sending out specially selected snipers after dark to keep the whole line from getting any rest.
Probably with some relief the battalion was finally withdrawn from this section of the line at 4 a.m. on the 21st, and relieved by the Irish Guards. From there Leonard marched to Chavonne where his unit took over the trenches held by the 1st Cavalry Brigade. This section was deemed to be considerably quieter, and the Grenadiers spent the next three weeks holding the same position. Trench warfare had begun, and months of comparative inaction were to follow. While the artillery pounded away at the infantry in the trenches. “No Man’s Land” between the trenches became littered with unburied bodies, but for either side to venture out merely meant adding to their number. The trenches were gradually improved and deepened, and communication trenches were dug in every direction.
The Grenadiers left the Aisne on 12 October and entrained at Fismes on the 14th. Between 35 and 40 men were tightly packed into each covered truck, leaving hardly any room to sit down. Over the next 24 hours the train rumbled across northern France, passing through Paris, Beauvais, Amiens, Etaples and Calais before coming to a halt at Hazebrouck at 7 a.m. the next day. Sir John French now made the calculation that the Germans might now attempt a wide turning movement on his left flank, and consequently he sent the Corps north towards Ypres. The 2nd Grenadiers were among those ordered into Belgium, where they took up an entrenched position north of Ypres at St. Jean, before moving to Hanebeek Brook, which was about two miles west of Zonnebeke.
Five days later the battalion moved forward to Polygon Wood and took part in an attack on the Reutel Spur, after which they withdrew to the line and held their position against several counter-attacks. Over the next few weeks the battalion came under almost continuous duress from shellfire, with the battalion War Diary recording casualties on virtually every day up until mid-November. On one occasion an entire company was almost wiped out by enemy artillery, and it seems likely that Leonard became a victim of such an action during this period.
Badly wounded, Leonard was taken back to Wimereux Hospital near Boulogne and died from his injuries on 11 November. He was buried in the communal cemetery in Wimereux and posthumously awarded the 1914 Star, British War and Victory Medals.