When World War One started on 4 August 1914 Wimbledon’s own battalion of army reservists - the 5th Battalion East Surrey Regiment - was way below strength.
There should have been 800 local members of the Territorial Army - known as “Terriers” – but a smaller number immediately went through their toughest day of training to date and in the early hours of 5 August were all quartered at Pelham School.
Anxious parents, wives and friends besieged the school but were not allowed to see their menfolk, who were strictly confined to the building before being sent by train to Strood, Gloucestershire. As the 800-man strength was built up, they spent the next two months stationed first at Maidstone in Kent and then at Canterbury with detachments on guard duty at Dartford.
Unlike most ordinary recruits they were not bound for the trenches of France and Belgium but destined to fight very different enemies from the Germans. On 29 October, under the command of Lt Col R K Harvey, they sailed from Southampton to India to help protect the Empire. They reached Bombay on 1 December and were stationed at Cawnpore (scene of the murderous Indian Mutiny half a century earlier) until the following summer. During the period their time on manoeuvres included two months near Darjeeling in the Himalayas. Early in 1915, some of the men were transferred to Mesopotamia - now Iraq – to fight the Turks where they endured military blunders and disasters that were later the subject of a special commission. Many were killed.
In August 1915 those remaining in India were despatched from Cawnpore to Peshawar and Nowshera to fight the equivalent of today’s Taliban on the North West Frontier. Although more of the battalion were transferred to another regiment in Mesopotamia in late 1916, most were engaged in brutal hill warfare against the Taliban-type tribesmen which lasted right until early 1917. Then they moved down to the plains and eventually left India, also to join the war in Mesopotamia. They arrived there in December 1917 and were posted to the Tigris.
Their colleagues, transferred earlier, had been drafted into another regiment on the Euphrates and had faced hostile Arab snipers as well as the Turks. After taking Baghdad they had faced an enemy determined to retake the capital but had managed to capture a Turkish force at Ramadi. Eventually the Wimbledon Terriers in Mesopotamia alongside other British troops won a resounding victory over the Turks at Khan Baghdadi. In between battles, the Wimbledon men worked on railway and road construction and endured long, hard marches in excessive, heat, blinding dust and insatiable thirst. But eventually they fought successfully on the heights of Jebel Hamrin, the last battle before the armistice with Turkey. When the main Wimbledon and other East Surrey battalion men arrived from India, those already in Mesopotamia applied to be reunited with them. This was achieved soon after the Khan Baghdadi victory and about half of those who had left India the year before rejoined their colleagues.
By the end of the Great War in 1918 only a minority remained of the 5th Battalion’s original 800 men. Many had either died in action or suffered fatal diseases. The survivors remained on active operations in what would soon become Iraq and did not reach home until February 1920.
This article is the third in a five-part series as The Wimbledon Society and the Wimbledon Guardian mark the centenary of the First World War, published each Friday throughout July and the beginning of August.
Last week: When Wimbledon crowds clamoured to fight for King and country
Next week: The Specials who kept calm and carried on regardless
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.
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