Second Lieutenant Joseph Pett, of the 2/4th (Territorial) Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, was killed in action, aged 28, on the 21st March 1918 in France, at the Battle of St Quentin during the opening day of Operation Michael, the German Spring Offensive, and is commemorated at Pozieres British Cemetery and Memorial, France (Panel 50).
Joseph was born on the 22nd February 1890, to James and Fanny Elizabeth Pett, (neé Greenwood) in West Ham, London. James and Fanny were both originally from Norfolk. In 1891 the family was living at 7, Disraeli Road, West Ham. James was described as a carman 1 and contractor. This involved the movement of goods around London. In a newspaper article in the East London Observer of May 1895 he was described as a contractor for the Millwall Docks, and in another article in the South London Press in September 1889 he was the victim of a robbery of his van, horse and a quantity of tea to the value of £460. There were six children living at home; Gertrude (11), Mary (10), Jane (8), Rachel (6), John (3) and Joseph (1). They employed a domestic servant, Ada Bates, who was 16 years old. The eldest daughter, aged 14, also called Fanny Elizabeth like her mother, was living with her maternal grandparents, John a farmer, and his wife Jane Greenwood, in Barnham Broom, Norfolk. The eldest son Henry (13, later referred to as Harry), was away boarding at Nelson College, a school in Lewisham.
London around 1900
Ten years later the family was living in Tredegar Road, Stratford. James Pett had died in 1895 and Fanny was now running the family business as a bonded carman and cartage contractor. She employed her eldest son, Harry, as the manager of the business. Although Harry was now back living with the family, Fanny was still absent. Gertrude and Jane were not at the family address either in 1901. Since the previous census another child had been born, Stephanie (9). Mary was working as a pupil teacher. Joseph received his education at Central Secondary School, West Ham.
By the next census of 1911 Joseph was a student at Winchester Training College. The family were living at 108, Portway, West Ham. Fanny was no longer employed and Harry had changed careers and was working as an assistant veterinary surgeon. Mary and Rachel were both working as assistant school teachers and Jane was a telegraphist. The daughter Fanny was still in Norfolk but she was living with a farmer, his wife and son, Leonard, Rose and Claud Banham. Fanny was described as a companion. They were living in a large 13 roomed house in Attleburgh, Norfolk.
Winchester Training College
Joseph began his two year training course in 1909. The College magazine ‘The Wintonian’ 1910-1914, only provides us with one snippet of information about Joseph; he contributed to a debate about unlimited municipal trading. The magazines contain more general information which can give us an impression of life as a student. The magazine from 1908-1910, when Joseph would have been in his first year and referred to as a Junior, carries a description of what it was like in that first year.
Our year as Juniors has been a very pleasant one. Within a month of arriving in Winton we had learnt to know and love our College as our home, this being very largely due to the hearty welcome and steady friendship of the Seniors individually and collectively.
After Joseph had completed his two years of academic study and practical teaching experience, he returned to the area where he had been born and raised, to begin his teaching career at St. Andrew’s Church of England School in West Ham. Joseph would have been expected to complete two years of teaching before he was considered to be fully qualified. Until then he would have been referred to as an assistant teacher.
Joseph enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment on the 17th September 1914 at Hornsey. He was described as 5ft 9in tall, weighed 10 stone, with a chest measurement of 34in and a range of expansion of 3in. He had good vision and fair physical development. After enlisting, Joseph remained on home soil until 31st January 1915, when he was sent with the Expeditionary Force to Gibraltar, and by the beginning of September 1915 he had landed in Egypt, disembarking from the Minnaweska, at Alexandria. As a Private, Regimental Number 3338, he became part of the Western Frontier Force with the 7th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. The western frontier of Egypt was over 700 miles long. Most of this faced the desert apart from a narrow strip of habitable land on the coast. The land was occupied by Arab and Berber tribes who had been financed, and influenced, by the Turks and Germans and were hostile to the British presence in the area. Frontier posts were attacked and there was considerable unrest across western Egypt. The troops were needed to protect the Suez Canal which was a vital route for the British to keep open. When operations in Egypt were completed the Middlesex Regiment returned to Marseilles on 15th May 1916 where they were quarantined due to an outbreak of typhus.
There is nothing in his medical records to suggest that Joseph was one of the unfortunate soldiers to suffer from typhus, but he was recorded as having a slight case of dysentery at this time. Joseph arrived in Rouen on 14th June 1916 with the rest of his unit. The following month, on the 27th June, Joseph received a gunshot wound to his chest. He was first treated in the field and then moved to a casualty clearing station, then to a General Hospital, before being returned to ‘Blighty’on the 4th July 1916. The Sick List record describes his injury as “grazed by a bullet, just below right nipple”. The length of time that Joseph remained in hospital suggests that there must have been some complications, possibly an infection, as he was not discharged from hospital for a period of home leave until 5th August 1916, after which he returned to France. At the beginning of September he was readmitted to hospital with gastritis.
Joseph was accepted for admission to No.13 Officer Cadet Battalion at Newmarket from May 1917. He was then commissioned to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry on the 24th September 1917. It is unclear whether he had already been serving in the Ox and Bucks and if so, when he transferred, but it is also possible that he was transferred on commissioning. By 1918 he was in France in the Somme area. The German army had transferred troops from the Eastern Front and planned a major offensive in the Somme area. Codenamed Operation Michael, the Germans wanted to break through the British lines, cut off lines of communication and surround the British, forcing them to surrender. Their tactics were unfamiliar to the British troops who were used to an advance along the extent of the forward line. German troops had been trained not to persist when they met heavy resistance but instead to press forward only in areas where they had success, so infiltrating deeper in fewer areas. This was combined with a concentrated effort to disrupt all means of communication behind the front lines. The British troops had only recently taken over the forward trenches from the French and discovered that they needed much work to make the line into a good defensive position, but they were undermanned.
The Battle of St. Quentin began early on the morning of 21st March 1918. A heavy bombardment from the Germans was concentrated on artillery and machine gun positions, HQ and lines of communication. The war diary for the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry for 21st March gives us a contemporary record:
Bombardment started; all lines to front companies cut in ten minutes, and the shelling between the redoubt and line of resistance too heavy for us to repair them. Before the lines went, I was told that the Boches were using mostly trench mortars to cut our wire.
I go up out of the dug-out and find the redoubt is full of gas, the Boches having burst their shells some distance over the redoubt and allowed the wind to blow it back on us. I order all men below, and have the gas blankets put down. Some of the men who were on sentry are pretty bad from its effects. One can order everybody down in safety, as if the enemy has gassed a place he cannot come there himself until its effects have worn off.
Gas is very bad. We have had orders to evacuate the redoubt if the place is badly gassed. I go out to see if this is possible, and, although I know the place by heart, I have not gone 50 yards in the fog with my respirator on before I am lost. It took 15 minutes to find my way back to the dug-out, so therefore I determine to stick where I am, as it would be impossible to move a company and Battalion Headquarters.
No more gas shells coming over. We are now shelled by high explosives alone. I judge, together with a gunner officer, attached for liaison, that about three 4.2 batteries and one 5.9 battery are now shelling our quarry, a space of about 50 yards by 60. It is evident that having, as they hoped, demoralized us by gas, they are now giving the gas time to clear off before attacking. The officers I have with me now take it in turn to go up and hear, and see what they can. As a matter of fact only five men are put out of action by gas.
Very heavy shrapnel and high-explosive shelling now taking place; also the noise of the bombardment of the line of resistance seems nearer. I expect they are attacking. I order all the men to get ready to rush up.
Shell fire has lifted off us. We rush up and man the posts; we can only see about 20 yards, and no Boches to be seen; they have no doubt lost their barrage, which is not to be wondered at in the fog. Three of the outlying posts come in; the moral effect of not being able to see is too much for them.
Bullets begin to come over, and Lieut. Bassett and my good servant are both shot in the head. We reply, though we can see nothing. Now we can see about 50 getting out of the Fayet-Holnon road, which is sunken as it passes the quarry where we are. We see about 25 go down and the rest run back on to the road. The men are very steady. I asked the Brigade for our last protective barrage, but only about five of our 18-pounders answer. I suppose they cannot serve them, as they are being tremendously shelled.
Captain Rowbotham reports to me that an important part of the redoubt, the sand-pit, has fallen. We organize a bombing attack, and he leads it, regaining the sand-pit, so now we hold the entire redoubt, with the exception of Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 Posts. I go down into the sand-pit and find five dead Boches down there.
Joseph was reported missing on the first day of the battle of St. Quentin. His body was never recovered or identified. His soldier’s effects record tragically gives his date of death as on or since 21st March 1918. He was not declared dead for official purposes until 30th April 1919. He left £283 4s 3d to his mother Fanny Pett, who was living at 108, Portway, West Ham. There is a letter in the National Archives that was sent to Fanny Pett about a draft for £76 17s that had not been cashed. A second draft was requested and sent.
Joseph is commemorated on Memorial Panel 50 at the Pozieres British Cemetery and Memorial, France.
Researcher and Author: Dee Sayers
Pett’s Signature from the Students’ Register photograph by Dee Sayers
- A carman drove a horse-drawn vehicle collecting or delivering goods for a railway company or other firm of carriers. A bonded carman was a cartage contractor licensed by H.M.Customs to convey dutiable goods, duty having not been paid, from the dock, quay or warehouse, into a bonded warehouse, or from a bonded warehouse to a ship for export. He would have been accompanied by a customs watcher.
Alwyn Ladell photography. (2018). Home page. [online] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/sets/72157665876163520/ [Accessed 2018].
Ancestry (2018). Home page. [online] Available at: www.ancestry.co.uk [Accessed 2018].
British Newspaper Archive (2018). Home page. [online] Available at: www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk [Accessed 2018].
Lightbobs (2018). Home page. [online] Available at: www.lightbobs.com [Accessed 2018].
Londonist (2017). In Photos: London in 1900. [online] Available at: https://londonist.com/london/best-of-london/in-photos-london-in-1900 [Accessed 2018].
The Long Long Trail, (2018). Welcome to the long long trail. [online] Available at: http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/ [Accessed 2018].
The National Archives. 2/Lieutenant Joseph PETT. The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, WO 374/53680. London.
Rootschat (2018). Home page. [online] Available at: www.rootschat.com [Accessed 2018].
Vickers, J. University of Winchester Chapel Memorial Rail image.
|University of Winchester Archive – Hampshire Record Office|
|47M91W/||P2/4||The Wintonian 1899-1900|
|47M91W/||P2/5||The Wintonian 1901-1902|
|47M91W/||P2/6||The Wintonian 1903-1904|
|47M91W/||P2/7||The Wintonian 1904-1906|
|47M91W/||P2/8||The Wintonian 1905-1907|
|47M91W/||P2/10||The Wintonian 1908-1910|
|47M91W/||P2/11||The Wintonian 1910-1914|
|47M91W/||P2/12||The Wintonian 1920-1925|
|47M91W/||D1/2||The Student Register|
|47M91W/||S5//5/10||Photograph of 5 alumni in Mesopotamia|
|47M91W/||Q3/6||A Khaki Diary|
|47M91W/||B1/2||Reports of Training College 1913-1914|
|47M91W/||Q1/5||Report and Balance Sheets 1904- 1949|
|47M91W/||R2/5||History of the Volunteers Company 1910|
|47M91W/||L1/2||College Rules 1920|
|Hampshire Record Office archive|
|71M88W/6||List of Prisoners at Kut|
|55M81W/PJ1||Managers’ Minute Book 1876-1903|
|All material referenced as 47M91W/ is the copyright of The University of Winchester. Permission to reproduce photographs and other material for this narrative has been agreed by the University and Hampshire Record Office.|