Alfred Patterson


Alfred James Paterson was aged 24 when he died on the 8th April 1916 and, unlike most of the Hoxne men, he does have a known grave as he is buried in SS Peter and Paul's churchyard, Hoxne. His grave has recently been refurbished by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as part of the commemoration of the First World War.

The Paterson family were relative newcomers to Hoxne, the 1911 census records Alfred as a single man aged 19 being employed by his farmer uncle, another Alfred, as a domestic coachman. Alfred's own father, a widower by 1911, is recorded as a farm labourer and lodging with the Shemming family in Church Street, Hoxne. Although the census records Alfred James as the nephew of Alfred research indicates that this is incorrect and that he is actually Alfred's grandson and his father, James, is Alfred's son.

Prior to moving to Hoxne early in the twentieth century the Patersons had for many decades lived in the Yare Valley. Alfred's grandfather was born in 1849 in Hassingham, a small village lying on the northern side of the river some 10 miles east of Norwich and a similiar distance west of Lowestoft on the coast. The 1871 census records Alfred, employed as a agricultural labourer living, together with his wife Mary Ann, their children James and Alfred together with Mary's sister Margaret Wright, at Barn Cottage, Hassingham. Alfred was clearly a man with ambition, by 1881 he is recorded as farming eight acres in Thurlton, a small village on the southern bank of the Yare and only a few miles from Hassingham. Here the family stayed, James started work as an agricultural labourer at the age of 15.

By 1901 James had been married for a number of years and had moved, together with his wife Rachel and sons Alfred James and Leonard, a few miles east to the village of Gillingham near Beccles where he was working as a shepherd. His father, Alfred, was recorded as still living in Thurlton but now he was a market gardener with nine acres. Sometime after 1901 the Patersons moved to Hoxne where Alfred was sufficiently established to employ Alfred James as a domestic coachman, no doubt enjoyed his status as a farmer, it had been a long and hard route. His own son however, now a 45 year old widower, remained an agricultural labourer in lodgings. Alfred James's brother Leonard, who by this time would have been 15 years old, does not appear in any 1911 census nor any subsequent record.

There are no attestation papers extant for Alfred James, quite possibly they were part of the 'burnt documents', it is however, possible to recreate something of his military career. Alfred's army service number with the Royal Fusiliers was GS/17284 (General Service (ie) wartime enlistment only), from the armyservicenumbers blog spot there were two postings relating to service numbers RF/19982 and GS/26148 that could be tied to his month of enlistment into the Royal Fusiliers, the former was dated to October 1915 the latter to December 1915. This indicates that Alfred could have been one of Kitcheners volunteers, possibly part of the K4 or Sixth New Army intake from the late spring or early summer of 1915, had he been one of the Group or Derby scheme entrants then given his age and the fact that he was single his mobilisation would not have occurred until the 8th February 1916, a mere two months before his death. It is also more probable that, with no prior connection to the Army, once enlisted his training period may well have taken place over a period of several months.

We do not know whether Alfred chose the Royal Fusiliers when he enlisted, there certainly appears no direct family link to London, or that he was persuaded or allocated to the Regiment. The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) was certainly very active in recruiting raising some 49 New Army Battalions during the course of the First World War but its casualties, including men from the seven Regular battalions reflected this and numbered some 22,000 men killed. The Regiment was also known for it 'Pals' Battalion, units where men from similar background or occupations enlisted together so that Battalions were formed with the unofficial titles such as the Stockbrokers, Bankers, Sportsman's, Public Schools, Kensington or Jewish. Having completed basic training Alfred would have been sent to a Regimental Depot from which he would have been transferred to a Battalion. Although Alfred was no Stockbroker or Banker he did have the necessary experience and background to ensure that he was transferred to one of the new Labour Battalions that were being formed.

By November 1914 it was clear that the so called 'war of movement' and the 'race to the sea' were over and it was becoming very apparent to the majority of the participants that the war was certainly not going to be over by Christmas. The German failure to break the French Armies in the six weeks dictated by the Schliefflen Plan and their subsequent failure to split the Allied Armies at the First Battle of Ypres coupled with the onset of winter heralded the start of the trench warfare that would dominate the Western Front for the next four years.

With the end of the opening battles the hastily dug scrapes and holes of the first three months of the war were rapidly giving way to earthworks that would give some protection from the artillery, mortars and machine guns that were being massed by both sides as the military stalemate solidified. The demands created by the mass mobilisation of volunteers for Kitchener's New Armies had turned the United Kingdom into one vast military camp and this in turn had created immense stress throughout the military establishment. One the most urgent problems was to find and establish an efficient method of ensuring that the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) had the defences it needed. The traditional means of achieving this, in the more limited arena of maintaining the Empire's borders, was to use the Royal Engineers coupled with the judicious use of muscle from any available infantry to prepare and fortify any positions. It did not take the War Office long to realise that this was not going to be a short sharp war and that the traditional approach to the army's engineering problems would not be the most practical or the best use of skilled manpower resources, and it would certainly not cope with the requirements of industrialised warfare.

The answer to the problem was, in part, solved by utilising the experience of the Indian Army in its policing of the more turbulent areas of the Indian subcontinent, and creating a force dedicated to providing the expertise and, crucially, the labour required to support the B.E.F. Named 'Pioneers' an Army Order was issued in December 1914 allotting one Pioneers Battalion to each Division of the New Army being formed in the U.K. It was left to the Divisional Commander to assess which of his Battalions were best suited to conversion to Pioneers but if he could not identify one then the decision was taken out of his hands and he would loose a Battalion and have a more suitable 'Pioneer' Battalion transferred in. Although trained as infantry it was clearly recognised from their inception that the fighting ability of these Battalions would be secondary to their ability to wield a pick and shovel. As such the criteria used in allocating men to these Battalions was clear and to the point, fifty per cent of these men would come from backgrounds where manual labour was the norm whilst the remainder would be from skilled trades such as carpenters, metal workers, bricklayers or masons. Officers would also be recruited with a background in engineering and associated professions. If either an officer or other ranker did not meet the criteria then they would be transferred and replaced by men who did, given the circumstances that many of these men volunteered this could be seen as being rather arbitrary.

The organisation of the New Army has been described by one historian as verging on a state of anarchy in the first months of the War so it is probably not too surprising that whilst the Order to organise Pioneers Battalions was made in December 1914 it was not until March 1916 that the 33rd Labour Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers was formed at Seaford Military Camp on the East Sussex coast. Close to the harbour and railway at Newhaven, the camp, like hundreds of others throughout the United Kingdom, was built during 1914 and 1915 to house and train the hundreds of thousands of volunteers enlisting in Kitchener's New Armies. By the time the 33rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers mustered at the Seaford Camp the facilities could cater for upwards of 18,000 men.

The War Diary of the Battalion states that it was formed on the 4th March 1916 and for the next three weeks records a succession of officers, presumably with some engineering background, from various regiments arriving to take up their new duties. The Commanding Officer (C.O.), Colonel W.R. Inglis a career soldier who had previously served with the Norfolks and the Connaught Rangers, assumed command on the 7th March and on the 28th informed the Battalion that it would shortly be serving overseas. Colonel Inglis would not be joining them, a severe chill the following day kept him in his bed and on the 30th March he died.

We do not know when Alfred joined the Battalion as the War Diary does not record when the detachments from what it terms "various" Depots arrived it is quite possible that few were actually Royal Fusiler's before their posting to Seaford. If the War Diary lacks specifics of their arrival it makes up with a description of the men, the contrast between the Army Order issued in 1914 and the reality of the situation in early 1916 is marked, recording that the men are unfit "for the first line duty, the majority being recruits but in some cases returned wounded soldiers" and then complaining that the work of forming the men into companies was "considerably put back by the Medical Board's rejecting a large number of men". Despite these pressures and the death of their C.O. the Battalion left Seaford on the 2nd April 1916 aboard two trains for the short journey to Southampton Docks.

Alfred did get as far as Southampton but he did not embark on the S.S. Archangel with the rest of the Battalion. At some point on the journey Alfred became unwell and on arrival at Southampton was transferred to the Royal Victoria Military Hospital in Netley, an imposing Victorian edifice, which at the time of the admission of its first patients in May 1863 was considered to be the largest military hospital in the world. Although passed fit by the Medical Board at Seaford Alfred's health was clearly not good by the time the Battalion left for Southampton, it is likely that he had a severe chill and his immune system was not functioning, this allowed bacterial organisms to enter the airwaves travel to the lungs where they colonised the lung's airsacs causing breathing problems, high fever would probably follow. Today aggressive antibiotics would be used to destroy the bacteria but in 1915 these did not exist. Over a period of seven days the pneumonia would develop through four stages, Alfred's illness followed the classic pattern but rather than recovery his death certificate records death by Lobar Pneumonia and Cardiac failure on the 8th April 1915. Netley Military Cemetery contains the remains of 700 men who died at the Victoria Hospital during the First World War. Many, like Alfred, were not buried there but taken back to their home towns or village's although his death certificate records Alfred's place of residence as Rushall, Norfolk his body was returned to Hoxne and buried in the churchyard of SS Peter and Paul.