The tragic and moving story of just one Great War soldier

I happened upon the fascinating grave of a First World War soldier recently.

All of these proud markers have a story to tell, but this one was intriguing as the date of this man’s death was months after the end of hostilities, on November 11th, 1918.

Vernon Alan Lawrence, known as Alan, a Private in the Bedfordshire Regiment, was listed as dying on Monday, March 3rd 1919.

The grave is in the grounds of St Mary’s Church, in Apsley, Hertfordshire.

A bit of research, on the excellent HemelHeroes.com website, revealed a moving tale of family tragedy.

Alan was born in Hertford in 1894 the third son and youngest child born to William Markwell Lawrence and Ada Williams Broome, who had a family of five children together.

A series of tragedies befell the Lawrence family as only one of the children survived their parents.

Nanette died in 1890 aged two, Wilfred in 1910 aged twenty-six, Eustace in 1912 aged twenty-four and Alan in the Great War.

The only surviving child Josephine died in 1964, in Hemel Hempstead, having never married.

William brought his family to Apsley End, near Hemel Hempstead, sometime shortly after Alan was born, when he gained employment with John Dickinson & Co. Limited, as a Printer’s Compositor at the historic Apsley Mills, home to the world’s oldest paper mill.

Alan followed his father into Apsley Mills when he had completed his education in 1907 and was initially apprenticed in the Engineering Department.

Both of his older brothers also worked with Dickinsons whilst his sister Josephine became a school teacher.

Not long after he went to work in Apsley Mills, Alan left to take up a position as a chauffeur for Percy Christopherson the Headmaster of a school.

Percy Christopherson had been an England rugby international and first-class cricketer for Kent before taking up the Headmastership of the school in 1902.

His position as a chauffeur was more lucrative and came with more responsibility than his job at Apsley Mills, though his early engineering experience would certainly have qualified him for the position. The job at that time would have included the maintenance and repair of the motor cars as well as driving.

On the outbreak of war, Alan immediately made a request to his employer to be released from his position so that he could volunteer.

A brief report was published in the local Hemel Gazette newspaper at the time describing his enlistment and the generosity of his employer.

Alan attested in Hemel Hempstead in the first week of September and enlisted with the Bedfordshire Regiment and was posted immediately for basic training at Aldershot.

He had joined the 7th Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment “The Shiney Seventh” and for the next eleven months he learned how to be a soldier.

He was sent overseas to France on the 26th July 1915 when the 7th Battalion was posted overseas.

In 1916 Alan was wounded in a raid on German trenches on the 26th April, an action reported in The Times and recorded in the Battalion War Diaries as follows: “Last night the Bedfordshire Regiment carried out a very successful raid near Carnoy.

“The raiding party rushed the trenches and after fierce hand to hand fighting drove the remaining Germans into their dugouts and bombed them there. Our casualties – eight wounded, all brought in. German loss considerable.”

Alan was mentioned in dispatches for “bravery and devotion to duty” and taken out of the line for treatment and recuperation.

A year later he was wounded for a second time in July 1917, but returned quickly following his recovery and continued to see significant action until, on March 23rd, 1918, he was taken prisoner at Cambrai.

He had been wounded for a third time but on this occasion severely in both legs. He was taken to a German Prisoner of War camp where he was treated and remained until the following October.

He was repatriated from Germany on the 23rd October 1918 along with 538 other prisoners, most of whom were stretcher cases, and he was admitted to No.2 London General Hospital, in Chelsea.

During the next few months, Alan underwent several operations on his legs to treat his wounds and it was reported that these were generally successful.

However, due to his weakened state, following his time as a prisoner, the medical intervention took its toll and Alan succumbed to his wounds.

He died in hospital on Monday, 3rd March 1919.

His body was returned to his parents in Apsley and Alan was buried in the Churchyard of St Mary’s in the village on Saturday, 8th March 1919.

The well-attended funeral was reported in some detail in the next edition of the Hemel Gazette which described the service and the presence of several of the men who had served with him along with his parents and relatives.

Messages of condolence were received from his ex-colleagues at Apsley Mills as well as one from Mr and Mrs Percy Christopherson who said: “In grateful and affectionate memory of one who served loyally.”

Alan is Remembered with Honour in the Apsley End (St. Mary) Churchyard, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom, where he is interred in a Grave Near the North Hedge.

He was 24 years old when he died.

This focus on just one young man, wounded three times in gallant action highlights the horrors and bravery of the First World War and really struck a chord with me when I learned of this extraordinary, tragic and short life, which ended just over a hundred years ago. 

It also highlights the that every single one of these graves has a story to tell.

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