Pte. Richard Haxon Andrews (1875 – 1916)
Prior to the war new recruits into the Army had to be aged between 18 and 38, with those of the younger end disallowed from serving overseas until they were 19. These guidelines continued after the start of the war in August 1914, however, men who had previously served in the forces could be accepted up to the age of 45. Much has been written about teenage boys who lied about their real age and found themselves at the Front, however equally there were men whose years had surpassed the upper-limit, but still wanted to serve their country, so like their younger counterparts, were also rather more flexible with the truth.
Of all the men from the parish who saw action on the Western Front, Richard Haxon Andrews counts among the oldest, and at almost 41 when he died, was the most senior of the tragic list of those who lost their lives in the conflict. In 1914 he claimed to be 37, and we can only imagine that he was enthused with patriotic zeal when he enlisted, as the large majority of other Platt men who joined the Army at the start of the war were in their late teens and early twenties. Of course, he was by no means the oldest person to serve on the Western Front. That distinction goes to a Henry Webber from Tonbridge, who was 67. He had been motivated by a desire to serve with his three sons, who were all in uniform.
Richard was born in Shoreditch, London during January 1875 and was the son of a butcher from Camden Town named Richard William Andrews, and his wife Mary. On 1 August 1898 in St Mary’s Platt Church, Richard, then aged 23 years, married 18-year-old Alice Violet Hayes of Wrotham Heath. Following the wedding, Richard, who had been living in Bermondsey and working as a packing case maker, returned to London where he and Mary had two children, Richard, born in Bermondsey in May 1899 (died 1902), and May Violet born in Vauxhall, during April 1901. They then moved to Kent as their next child, Albert, was born in October 1904 in Wrotham Heath with another son named George being born in Addington during 1908. By 1911 the family were living back in Wrotham Heath at Railway Cottages, where their youngest child, Florence Mary was born. Richard had found work in a rag stone quarry, and was working as a general labourer at the time war broke out.
On 10 December 1914, Richard travelled to Bromley to enlist and joined the 6th (Service) Battalion, The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) – a battalion formed on the outbreak of war with a nucleus of officers and men from the 1st Battalion of the regiment that had recently been stationed in Dublin.
G/4957 Private Richard Andrews joined his unit at Hythe on 19 December, and after spending six months in the UK was posted to France on 1 June 1915. The battalion entered the front line at Ploegsteert Wood near Ypres on 30 June and remained there until September when it was moved south to the area around Béthune.
In October the battalion suffered its first heavy casualties in a series of attacks on the German lines, causing the loss of three officers and 82 men missing or killed. The West Kents then moved to the Hohenzollern Redoubt where on 13 March 1916 Richard suffered a shrapnel wound to his head. After passing through No.9 Casualty Clearing Station and then No.2 General Hospital in Le Havre, he was repatriated to the UK on board the Hospital Ship Asturias and spent time initially in Fulham Military Hospital, and then convalescing in Eastbourne. On 16 June Richard went back to France and rejoined his unit on the Somme during Sunday 25th. At the time he arrived, the West Kents were assault training north of Amiens, near Flesselles, in preparation for the forthcoming attack.
At 3:15 a.m. on the morning of Monday 3 July the battalion attacked German positions south of Ovillers. Richard, who was in ‘A’ Company (with Henry Ashdown from Platt), found himself in the first wave of the assault, which had been tasked alongside ‘C’ Company with taking the first line of German trenches. Ten minutes prior to zero hour Richard and his comrades crawled as far across No Man’s Land as they could, and as soon as the Allied artillery barrage lifted, leapt up and charged the German lines. According to the battalion War Diary, and despite heavy enfilade machine gun fire, this was achieved without too much difficulty, and after capturing it they began bombing along the trenches towards both flanks in order that they could clear out any remaining Germans, and secure the position. At this point, the two remaining companies (which included Peter Piper from Crouch) pushed through and moved against the second German line, which was about 300 yards further on. Richard’s company provided covering fire for this stage of the assault, however, due to the wire not being cut, it soon became apparent that the attack had failed, and men were mercilessly mown down in front of the defences, their limp bodies left hanging on the wire in contorted positions. Meanwhile, the battalion on Richard’s right flank had also faced stiff opposition, and suffered a similar fate, leaving Richard’s company dangerously exposed. ‘C’ Company’s left flank fell too, which resulted in the West Kents becoming cut off from both supplies and reinforcements. Small parties of men were observed heroically dashing across the open with ammunition and bombs, only to be repeatedly cut down by the machine guns. They gallantly held the enemy line for as long as possible, however with the Germans quite literally hunting the men down with bombs and bayonets, and casualties mounting, the rapidly diminishing battalion were eventually forced to pull back, which allowed the Germans to regain their position.
Richard was listed as ‘missing in action’ during the day, and later in the month his death was accepted for official purposes, however, his body was not recovered.
Over a decade later in 1928, a number of men were exhumed from the former battlefield with most being West Kents. Richard was eventually identified based on the titles attached to his uniform, and a service number engraved on a cigarette case.
He was re-buried with military honours at the Serre Road Cemetery. Alice was sent her husband’s medals, which were the 1915 Star, British War and Victory medals.
Photograph of Richard Andrews courtesy of Mr & Mrs Waters.