On my first battlefields trip with my school in 2009 we paid a special visit to Athies Communal Cemetery to visit the grave of my great great grandfather. My mum had printed me his information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website but I knew little else about him, or why he was buried here on the outskirts of Arras. I was 13, and while I knew it was significant to visit a relative's grave, it also felt odd as I had no connection to him and didn't know why or how he'd died.

As my interest in the First World War grew in the years since, the natural starting point for my research was with my great great grandfather, Percy William Parsons. Through the generations Percy's belongings have become separated and so all we have of his are his shoulder titles: one for the Royal Field Artillery and one for the East Yorkshire Regiment. Alongside this, the only information we had was from his CWGC record, which placed him in the Yorks & Lancs. None of this really made much sense to me at the time, yet it made for a good jumping off point.

Percy had grown up in North Nibley, Gloucestershire, the village where my granddad would later be born and just a few miles away from where my family currently live. Like many in the area, he was a farmer. His elder brother, Alfred, ran the family farm and Percy a smallholding, where he lived with his wife Edith. In 1914 the couple had their first son, who was given the family name Alfred, and their second, Francis James, was born in early 1916.
After the outbreak of the First World War, Percy remained working on his land, also completing odd-jobs around the village. He resisted enlistment, and following the introduction of conscription at the start of 1916, also tried to remain home. His case went to tribunal on the grounds that farming was an exempt occupation but it was deemed that because his income was only partly from farming, and had to be supplemented by the odd-jobs, this was not enough for him to be exempted from service. His brother Alfred, however, was able to stay home on the farm. A small consolation was made, allowing Percy one further month home in which time he could get his wheat thrashed.

I can't imagine that this would have been easy for Percy. The family sold the smallholding and Edith moved with their two boys into her parents' house, also in North Nibley.

We have been extremely fortunate in piecing this story together that his full service records have survived. This isn't the case for the vast majority of soldiers, yet it really helped us to be able to place where he had served throughout his short war service. Percy attested on 1st June 1916 at the Colston Hall in Bristol. His form details that he was 26 years old and 11 months, 5'6 3/4" tall and weighed 135lbs.

He initially joined 7th Training Reserve Battalion for basic training at Rugeley in Staffordshire. This unit was linked to the 9th Reserve Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment, which explains the first of his shoulder badges. On 24th October he was transferred to No. 3 Depot of the Royal Field Artillery, thereby explaining the second of his badges. This next wave of training would have taken place at their base in Hilsea, Portsmouth.

In February 1917 Percy was granted six days' leave in which he was able to return home to his family. This was reported in the local newspaper, without comment of how he had found army training. Sadly, it seems, Percy may have brought an illness back from camp to his family, for within a fortnight of his departure, his youngest son, Francis, had been taken to an isolation hospital with "spotted fever". Edith was able to go with him, but this must have been a wrench to Percy.

On 5th March Percy was finally sent over to France, being transferred to the 1st battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment. He was held at an Infantry Base Depot, most likely in Rouen, until 14th April when he was transferred once more to 10th battalion, Yorks and Lancs. This was the last day of the First Battle of the Scarpe so seems that he was brought in to replace those who had died in the battle.

The battalion had finished the battle near (what is now) St Laurent-Blangy and they then moved towards Fampoux where they began the Second Battle on 23rd April. Athies is about halfway between these villages and it was here that Percy was 'killed in action' around the 20th April, most likely by shellfire. In his last letter home Percy had written that he was 'getting up near to the Germans'.

At the time it seems his death was not initially recorded. The pensions officer wrote in his file that he was 'assumed dead' - a phrase usually associated with those missing in action - and his family were forced to wait a month for news of his whereabouts. As was reported in the local Gazette in May 1917, Edith was informed that he had been killed at some point between 20th and 28th April, although his body had not been found and buried until 4th May. She was later sent a photo of his grave; a place she would never get to visit.


Edith arranged to have an epitaph inscribed on Percy's grave, choosing the Song of Solomon quotation 'until the day breaks and the shadows flee away'. There's much discussion about the IWGC's charging for these epitaphs, but it is unlikely that Edith would have been able to pay for the inscription on Percy's grave as the family continued to have little spare money. Despite this, it is perhaps a sign of her love for him that she wanted to have an epitaph on her husband's grave.

I have since returned to Percy's Athies grave on a number of occasions, including at the Centenary of the Battle of Arras when my mum and I were able to lay a cross to remember him. Since learning his story, visiting the cemetery has been more personal. It is certainly sadder knowing he did not want to fight and that he died having never gone into battle, yet it is also more touching knowing he loved his young family.

Although Percy's is not a remarkable story, it is an important one to me, both in my family history and as he was one of the first soldiers I ever researched.

Kathryn





2 Comments

  1. Duncan Macaulay19 April 2020 at 21:43

    Sad ending. Thanks for sharing it.

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  2. Thank you for that piece. My grand-father was in that area with the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers and although knowledge is patchy (he did not discuss it) his regiment was involved at the battle of Arleux at the end of April 1917. He had volunteered in May 1916 at a time when volunteers in Ireland had all but dried up but we don't know his reasons for volunteering.

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