How a search for new life ended in wartime death in Sinai

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM: One hundred and three years after the first Remembrance Day, DAVID MORGAN searched the Croydon Minster archives for further records of those lost in what was believed to be ‘the war to end all wars.

Howley Road in the old town, close to the cathedral, like many other streets in Croydon, suffered its share of losses during the Great War when news of the death of a family member arrived.

In January 1918, Charles and Susan Broomfield, who lived at No.31 Howley Road, learned that their son Charles Broomfield had been killed when his Royal Navy minesweeper exploded in the English Channel.

In May 1917, Miss Matthews, a few doors down at No 57, had received a letter about her brother Alfred Matthews.

His letter said:

“Dear Madam
In reference to the report of the regrettable loss of late No352 Sergeant A Matthews, 2nd Light Horse Regiment. I now receive a notice which shows that he was killed in action at El Arish, Egypt on January 9, 1917 and buried 200 yards from the telegraph pole on the north side of the road below to Sheikh Zeweit on the same day, the Rev HK Gordon officiating.
These further details are provided by instruction, as it is Department policy to pass on all information received regarding the deaths of members of the Australian Imperial Force.

Alfred had probably not seen his sister for several years.

Register: Alfred Matthews’ attestation papers for the Australian Army in August 1914, with his next of kin listed as his sister in Howley Road, Croydon

He was one of hundreds of men from Croydon who emigrated to Australia at the turn of the 20th century to seek their fortune halfway around the world.

Alfred Matthews settled near Rockhampton in central Queensland and started a new life as a farmer.

When war broke out in August 1914, Matthews enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. His attestation papers show he already had significant army experience, having served in the British 9th Lancers for nine years.

In 1914, Matthews was 34 years and eight months old. His papers show he was 5ft 6½in tall and weighed 10th.

After a period of training in Australia, Matthews was shipped to join the Allied Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in Alexandria, Egypt. He arrived in May 1915.

The Australians were under the command of generals from the British high command. Since February of that year they had been involved in the Dardanelles campaign at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. This seaborne invasion of what is now Turkey had been proposed by Britain’s Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener – the face on those ‘Britons Want You’ posters – and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.

Recruitment campaign: the face of Victorian army hero Kitchener was used on posters in 1914

The Ottoman Turkish Empire was among the Central Powers, fighting with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Britain, France and Russia. Ottoman warships crossed the Black Sea and attacked ports in Crimea, then part of the Tsar’s Russian Empire.

Kitchener and Churchill wanted to tie up the Ottomans and threaten their capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), and protect strategic sea routes through the Suez Canal. And they decided to use mostly old, obsolete warships, and what they considered largely expendable Australian and New Zealand forces to do so, made up of thousands of emigrants from Britain, including Alfred Matthews.

Matthews’ unit, the 2nd Light Horse, was transported to Gallipoli. The 2nd Light Horse was light of their horses – the British generals decided they needed Australian cavalry as infantry.

They landed in what is now notoriously known as Anzac Cove, where both sides had quickly become embroiled in fierce trench warfare, often in scorching heat.

It wasn’t long before Matthews was injured. He received a scalp injury on July 18 and was transferred to Tigne Military Hospital in Malta six days later. Here, his injuries were classified as a “gunshot wound to the head and shoulder”.

Deemed fit to return to combat, he was sent back to the Gallipoli peninsula on September 9.

Trench warfare: The Australian forces sent to Gallipoli were sacrificed to a poorly planned and poorly executed campaign proposed by Churchill

Towards the end of that month, Matthews received a field – that is, temporary – promotion to the rank of corporal. There were a lot of promotions on the pitch at Gallipoli. By December, Matthews had reached the rank of acting sergeant.

Matthews and his comrades’ miserable time at Gallipoli ended in January 1916, when after suffering many losses and making no significant gains, the British generals abandoned the campaign and the Allied invasion force has been removed. The Ottomans had suffered around 250,000 casualties, the Allies nearly 300,000. The Australians suffered 7,594 dead and over 18,000 wounded.

What remained of Matthews’ unit was redeployed to the Middle East.

Nothing appeared on Matthews’ service card for an entire year.

Then came the fatal event, January 9, 1917.

Service registration: First World War soldiers such as Croydon-born Alfred Matthews had their postings and wounds carefully recorded

No details were given on the circumstances of his death. All that was recorded was the location, El Arish in Egypt. El Arish is today the largest city in the Sinai, on the Mediterranean Sea about 210 miles northeast of Cairo.

His regiment recorded that he was originally buried 200 yards from the telegraph pole on the north side of the road below to Sheikh Zeweit. His body was later removed for burial at Kantara War Memorial Cemetery on the east side of the Suez Canal. Alfred Matthews rests in plot F, grave 154.

The dreaded note: How Sgt Matthews’ death was recorded and notified to his next of kin, his sister in Croydon

In a poignant reminder of the fragility of a soldier’s existence in war, his personal effects were collected after his death and sent to his sister in Croydon. In the package were his shaving stick and brush, a safety razor, lanyard and whistle, a leather belt with a damaged wristwatch, a small amount of Turkish currency and his identity disc. There were also three notebooks.

Alfred Matthews left Croydon over 100 years ago. His new life in Australia did not last long. He answered the call to join. He survived the hell that was Gallipoli to die in the sands of Sinai.

Besides his sister, there would have been others to mourn him in Howley Road. Another casualty of World War I, his travels in the military providing an example of the global reach of what was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”.

Read more: How the ‘buddies’ and the despicable set the standards at the cathedral
Read more: The brothers in arms who lost their lives at Ypres and Gallipoli
Read more: Names on Addiscombe War Memorial; the real lives sacrificed
Read more: War tragedy that devastated a Croydon family
Read more: The double tragedy of war suffered by a wife and a mother
Read more: The life and death story of a soldier from Croydon in the Somme

Previous posts by David Morgan:

David Morgan, pictured right, is a former headmaster of Croydon, now a volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who provides tours or illustrated lectures on the history around the cathedral for local community groups.

To read his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected to it click here

If you would like a group visit to Croydon Minster or would like to book a school visit, call the cathedral office on 020 688 8104 or visit the website at www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page

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Brandon D. James