Although a blog is, by definition, pretty personal, I tend to stick to the lighter side of family life. But with the centenary of the end of the First World War this weekend, I thought I’d break from the usual round of eulogising about midcentury stuff to add my contribution to the stories of the people who made the 20th Century what it was, and who lived through those midcentury years with the memories of a global war.
My grandfather, William Arthur Montellier, known throughout his life as Bill, was born on 5 June 1896, the second of five children to James May Montellier and his wife Ellen Sophia (nee Flogdell). The family seem to have led a fairly peripatetic life, moving home almost each time a child was added to the family. In October 1894, when first son Edward James arrived, they were at 96 Great Portland Street in Marylebone; William Arthur was born at 59 Cavendish Buildings in the Clerkenwell Road. The building still stands, close to the junction with the Grays Inn Road. It is actually called Cavendish Mansions, and has been since at least the 1920s, so there perhaps an error by the Registrar. Charles Booth’s poverty survey of London conducted around that time records the block as ‘mixed – comfortable’, and the area seems to have been a healthy mix of English and other communities, particularly the Italians who thrived in Clerkenwell.
Two years later, by the time Frank James was born in November 1898, they were living just around the corner at 4 Holsworthy Square in Elm Street (just off the Grays Inns Road). Although still there in August 1900 when fourth son, Harry Thomas, was born, by October of the following year and the arrival of sole daughter, Nellie Elizabeth, they had relocated to Fulham, at 57 Bramber Road, not far from Earl’s Court. Bramber Road still stands, although all the odd numbers have gone (probably following WWII bombing which hit the area behind them) and are now either park or school. Thus most of my grandfather’s youth was spent in West, rather than Central, London.
By August 1914, however, he had moved further inwards as his Army enlistment papers show his address (and that of his father, his next of kin) as 114 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea – the western end close to Lots Road power station. The building still shows signs of having been the King’s Arms pub, which ties in with his father’s occupations as wine cellarman and licensed victuallers manager and suggests that the family were living over the pub at the time.
His enlistment into the Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Force at the Duke of Yorks HQ in Chelsea on 8 August, 4 days after the formal declaration of war, points to his being an early volunteer. His occupation at that time was as a suitcase maker for Carl Lutz & Co; at 18 years and 5 months old, he stood at 5’ 6”, with a 34½” chest and ‘good’ physical development. On enlistment, he was appointed to the 2nd London (City of London) General Hospital; however, his Army medical career was short-lived as, just 39 days later, on 15 September 1914, he was discharged from the Territorial Force on having joined the Regular Army. Allocated Service No 11510, he was appointed to the newly formed 11th (Service) Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, one of the Pioneer battalions to be attached to every Division.
Much of what we know of his Army career has to be deduced from certain fixed points in what remains of his Service record, as the principal record appears to have been destroyed in the bombing of the Kew Records Office in the Second World War. However, what we do know is consistent with the Hampshire Regimental history and a history of Pioneer Battalions in the Great War (relevant sections are reproduced at the Annex). The 11th Battalion came into existence at Dublin on 14 September and trained at Mullingar, also in Ireland. The Battalion appears to have returned from Ireland in August 1915 with the 16th Division, and spent some time at Pirbright, near Aldershot. A Battalion photograph album of the time shows Private Montellier in No 11 Platoon; it also indicates that the Battalion was responsible for building the road through the woods that links Pirbright and Deepcut camps.
The Battalion crossed from Southampton to Havre on 18 December 1915, going on by train to Chocques, whence they marched to Noeux les Mines. This chimes with my grandfather’s medal record card which shows him having entered France on 19 December, thus qualifying him (narrowly) for the 1915 Star. Beyond that, we know from a Communion Certificate that Private Montellier was at Chocques again on 15 June 1916 although, as a major HQ as well as a hospital, we do not know whether this was on a task or under treatment.
We can realistically assume that he was injured at some point later in 1916, as a photograph in the Western Weekly News of 4 November 1916 shows him in a group from various regiments wearing collar, tie and soft overcoat which has been suggested to be a hospital or convalescent uniform. Sadly, the photograph’s only caption ‘Sympathetic and Tender Hearted’ (one of the soldiers is cradling a small child) gives no clues as to location. We can, however, make a guess that his injury occurred in action in September 1916. For one thing, the Battalion diary records individual casualties and even minor injuries by name for most of the year, but in the September actions only numbers of casualties are given as the action was fiercer and casualty rates higher. Secondly, amongst my grandfather’s effects is a page torn from a book bearing a photograph entitled ‘Looking towards Ginchy from Trones Wood – September 1916’, which clearly had some relevance for him. This ties in with the Regimental History which records the 11th Battalion as entering the battle for Ginchy, in the Somme sector, on 4 September and remaining there throughout fierce fighting until 9 September when the town was taken.
Of his service for the remainder of the War, we know even less. The Medal Rolls show him transferred to the 1st/7th (Territorial Army) Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, a transfer between units not being uncommon on return from convalescence, and his having been promoted to Lance Corporal. Given that the 1st/7th served in India and Aden during the First World War, this would chime with his mention of having been ‘in the desert, but we know nothing of his discharge date or the seriousness of his injuries. We also cannot be sure when he joined the Battalion, as they left India for Aden at the start of 1918; dependent on how long he spent in recuperation or awaiting reassignment, he may even have seen service in India, too.
On 11 December 1926, he married Amy Louisa Higgs at St John’s Church at World’s End in Chelsea (the church still exists but in a modern building on the Cremorne Estate as the original was bombed in the Second World War). By that time, he was working as a Civil Servant (possibly in the Ministry of Pensions at Burton Court, Chelsea, where my grandmother worked and for whom he was working in 1934, albeit possibly at Kew by that time) and was living at 105 Sydney Street (off the King’s Road opposite Chelsea Town Hall); again, the house itself is gone, replaced by the Royal Brompton Hospital. At some point before my father’s birth in 1934, they moved to the eastern part of Hounslow, often regarded as part of Isleworth, to a new semi-detached house at 74 Worton Way, backing on to the Piccadilly Line which was undergoing extension to replace the earlier District Line service. My grandfather remained there for the rest of his life, later transferring to work for the nascent Ministry of Aviation in connection with the forerunner to London Airport at Heston Aerodrome. My father was born in the house in 1934 and the family remained there throughout the Second World War; indeed, their employment appears to have been sufficiently important to merit being early recipients of a telephone, registered in the 1941 telephone book under my grandmother’s name with the number HOUnslow 5005.
My grandmother died on 16 December 1957 from a condition she had carried since birth. My grandfather stayed in the same house in Hounslow until his own death on 29 January 1980 at the age of 83.