Sometimes, when you are researching, you discover more than you ever imagined. The most extraordinary, wonderful but sometimes sad events or people lead you to investigate further than you first thought. I believe the past calls you, in an unmistakeably loud voice, and you just have to listen!
This has happened many a time to me, and I am sure to most historical researchers, but none so poignant as my discovery at Toller Fratrum.
My friend Duncan and I had been working on a project entitled The Lost Templars, seeing if we could ascertain their existence here in Dorset. There didn’t seem to be much written about them, but we had ideas they traded from ports like Poole and we did have a definite 13c Templar connection with Christchurch.
We knew Templar lands were given to the Knights Hospitallers in other parts of the country after they were disbanded in 1307 so this may also have happened here.
Over a period of time we visited many Knights Hospitaller sites and one such was Toller Fratrum near to Maiden Newton in West Dorset.
This tiny parish is named after its position on the brook then called the Toller, now the Hooke, and the mediaeval ownership by the Knights Hospitallers, Fratrum being latin for brothers. These “brothers” owned the village until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536-41.
In the village is a beautiful 16th century farm house, that was badly destroyed by a fire in the summer of 2015, and a dilapidated barn that is thought to have been the Knights Hospitallers refectory due to a carving on the exterior of a man eating a loaf.
Although in 2013 the population of the parish was estimated at just 10 people, it must have been a hub of activity in the mediaeval period.
The church of Saint Basil is a real gem, accessed through an iron gate, with a path lined with daffodils leading you to the church door. On my first visit here there were a few friendly sheep grazing in the church yard, keeping the grass down in a very ecological way!
There are only two other churches in England dedicated to St Basil, a 4th century Eastern cleric, who became the patron saint of hospitals, a further reference to the Knights Hospitaller holding the land here.
The tiny single – cell church almost completely rebuilt in Victorian times may have been much bigger in the medieval period.
The font is absolutely fascinating, of Saxon or Norman origin and highly decorated with images such as humans with upraised arms and beasts. Also to be found in the church, on the wall behind the altar, is a fragment of carved stone that depicts Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Christ. Incredibly this stone dates back to c1130.
This little hamlet seemed to steal my heart and I have visited many times, but now I had more reason to explore the land because of an amazing discovery.
I had been researching my family tree on the Ancestry website, following my maternal line of mother, grandmother, great grandmother and great great grandmother.
I discovered the latter to be Louisa Alner, nee Stickland. Louisa was born in March 1869 in Hilton, a village very near to Milton Abbas (there holds another story). Her husband was Robert Henry Alner and he was born in 1865 in Hazelbury Bryan.
Robert had an early demise at just 43 on the 13th February 1908 at the place they lived at the time – TOLLER FRATRUM! I couldn’t quite believe my eyes!
It appeared the family lived in the Dairy House, a house that I had passed so many times on my visits there. They would have worshipped at St Basil’s, the very church I had spent so much time looking at, and to think they sat in the very pews where I too had sat to think about the Knights Hospitaller presence here. I was incredulous and I have to say rather excited!
The Alners had 8 children, Robert, Alfred, Sidney, Winifred (my maternal Great Grandmother), Minnie, twins Olive and Elsie and lastly Ivy. Louisa was 4 months pregnant with baby Ivy when sadly her husband died, I can only imagine how difficult life must have been for her.
Robert Henry Alner is buried in the tiny churchyard where the sheep graze. His headstone is very difficult to read, however the Toller Fratrum OPC website has a list of inscriptions, hence my being able to locate his resting place.
To my surprise not only is his name on the headstone, but his son Sidney.
My research had shown me that Sidney, like so many young men, had been tragically killed in the first World War in 1916 aged a mere 22. With his name on the headstone I wondered if somehow his body had been brought back from France to Toller Fratrum.
I decided to look further into the life and death of great great Uncle Sidney, it seemed important to discover what had happened to him in the evilness of war and to remember him.
Ancestry listed him as being killed in Mesopotamia, which was a surprise, I had no idea where that even was! I had assumed he was a casualty in France.
Mesopotamia, for those who like me don’t know, is now modern day Iraq. What on earth were British troops doing in that part of the world I wondered.
I really needed to know what had taken this young man to such a far flung place in order to fight for our country.
Sidney had enlisted in the Dorsetshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion, a lance corporal, his regimental no 10308.
I wondered if the Dorsetshire Regiment had anything to do with the “Barracks” in Dorchester that I walked past regularly as a child growing up in the town. I found this building intriguing, as a little girl it looked to me just like a castle.
This barracks is now The Keep Military Museum. The building itself, built of Portland Stone, was completed in 1879 and was actually designed to resemble a Norman castle.
I discovered the Keep was indeed linked with the Dorsetshire regiment and was their Depot Barracks as well as the County Armoury. Completed for the amalgamation of the 39th and 54th Regiments of Foot who became the 1st and 2nd battalions of the Dorsetshires in 1881. The barracks was used for recruitment and training for the young men like Sidney.
The museum has information on its website about the Dorsetshire Regiment 2nd Battalion and World War One. This enabled me to learn more about what led Sidney and his comrades, these poor soldiers, into this horrendous Asiatic Theatre, as it is known!
The following is taken from their website:
The Dorsetshire Regiment in World War One https://www.keepmilitarymuseum.org/history/first+world+war/the+dorsetshire+regiment/the+second+battalion
In August 1914, on the outbreak of the First World War, the Dorsetshire Regiment had two Regular battalions, one Special Reserve battalion and one battalion of Territorials (part-time volunteers). During the war they expanded to form nine battalions and a single company, which served within the 2nd Hampshire Regiment in North Russia in 1919.
Six battalions of the Dorset Regiment fought in France and Belgium, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, Egypt, Palestine and North Russia.
They lost more than 2,600 men killed and about three times that number wounded. Some were Regular soldiers, some Territorials. Most were volunteers and conscripts.
Many came from Dorset but many did not. Between them they won fifty-eight new battle honours and 1070 gallantry awards and mentions in Despatches. All wore the Dorset Regiment badge and helped to earn Dorset’s county regiment a magnificent reputation.
In August 1914 the 2nd Dorsets were in India. Initially prepared for service in East Africa, their planned destination changed first to Europe then, at short notice, to the Gulf. Turkey’s entering the war threatened supplies of oil from the Shatt-al-Arab at the mouth of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). The extension of a German-financed railway to Baghdad provided another threat to be countered.
Although the Battalion’s landings in the Shatt-al-Arab on 6th November 1914 met little opposition, the Turks, backed by Arab levies, were quick to respond. The Dorsets faced stiff fighting expelling the Turks from Saihan on 15th November and Saihil two days later.
In eleven days these actions and the diseases prevalent in the marshy conditions of the region cost the Battalion 25% of its fighting strength. They reached Basra on the 23rd.
After minor engagements, mostly against Arab insurgents, the 2nd Dorsets advanced to Shaiba (ancient Sheba).
In February 1915 they were forced to wade knee-deep through the annual flooding of the two rivers. At Shaiba they endured very difficult conditions, including sand storms. Mounting frequent offensive patrols, they fought major actions on 3rd March and 14th April in which the depleted Battalion showed great resilience, earning Shaiba as a new Battle Honour
Recognising that Kut-al-Amara was key to preventing the Turks encircling British forces on the Tigris, General Townshend’s division (including the 2nd Dorsets) took the town on 28th September 1915.
Despite the depleted state of his units, Townshend pushed on towards Baghdad, taking Ctesiphon on 21st November before being forced to withdraw to Kut. He decided to stand and fight here until reinforcements could be sent up-river but, against mounting Turkish resistance, it proved impossible to raise the siege.
Kut fell on 28th April 1916.
The treatment of captured NCOs and soldiers was substantially worse than that suffered by Japanese prisoners in 1942-45. Only 70 of 350 captured Dorsets survived to the Armistice.
Meanwhile detachments from the 2nd Battalion who had not been at Kut provided a cadre for a composite battalion formed with the similarly depleted 2nd Norfolks. Known, inevitably, as ‘the Norsets’, they went into the line in February 1916 and joined the unsuccessful attempt to relieve their besieged comrades at Kut.
In July the arrival of reinforcements permitted the establishment of the 2nd (Provisional) Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment.
Having spent the winter of 1916/17 down-river guarding lines of communication, they took part in the final recapture of Kut in December 1916 and the subsequent clearing of the Shatt-al-Hai, but missed the fall of Baghdad in March 1917.
On 25th March the 2nd Dorsets distinguished themselves at Jebel Hamrin, suffering 220 casualties out of 500 in action.
At Suez in April 1918, they joined General Allenby’s Palestine campaign, fighting at Brown Hill on 19th September and in the subsequent advance on Nablus, north of Jerusalem. Within a month the Turks had been expelled from Damascus and Aleppo and made peace on 30th October 1918.
Wikepedia also has information on the Siege of Kut mentioning that, In April 1916, No 30 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps carried out their first air supply operation in history dropping food and ammunition to the defenders of Kut. This was sadly rather unsuccessful as many parcels went into the Tigris or enemy trenches.
30,000 Allied were killed or wounded as the relief efforts failed. Aubrey Herbert and T.E Lawrence were part of a team of officers sent to negotiate a secret deal with the Ottomans and offered £2 million and a promise not to fight the Ottomans again in exchange for the troops. This was rejected by Enver Pasha. The British also requested help from the Russians, but they couldn’t reach there before surrender took place on the 29th April 2016, after negotiations by General Townshend had failed. The siege had lasted 147 days.
The survivors of the siege, around 13,000, were marched to imprisonment in Aleppo after the surrender, during which many died. Historian Christopher Catherwod called the siege “the worst defeat of the allies in World War 1” 65-70% of the British and 15-30% of the Indian troops died of disease or at the hands of their Ottoman guards. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Kut
Sidney would have been one of those poor men marched to his imprisonment in Aleppo, goodness only knows what suffering these men endured ! They were beaten and starved most cruelly.
He passed away on the 26th July 1916 and is buried at the Basra War Cemetery, not in Toller Fratrum as I had thought with his father. Perhaps Louisa had his name added to the headstone of her husband to have somewhere to grieve for them both as her precious son was killed and buried so far away.
General Townshend however, was taken to the island of Heybeliada on the Sea of Marmara, to sit out the war in relative luxury. The author Norman Dixon, in his book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, described Townshend as being “amused” by the plight of the men he had deserted, as if he had pulled off some clever trick. Dixon says Townshend was unable to understand why his friends and comrades were ultimately censorious over his behaviour.
Jan Morris, a British historian, described the loss of Kut as “the most abject capitulation in Britain’s military history.” After this humiliating loss, General Lake and General Gorringe were removed from command. The new commander was General Maude, who trained and organized his army and then launched a successful campaign which captured Baghdad on 11th March 1917. With Baghdad captured, the British administration undertook vital reconstruction of the war-torn country and Kut was slowly rebuilt.
This has been an interesting journey into my past, discovering my ancestors, but so incredibly sad and shocking. These men, as with all war heroes, should be remembered for their bravery and sacrifice. One cannot imagine the horror they experienced, just ordinary young men, many of them farming the fields of our beautiful county. For the sake of our future they enlisted to fight for our country, enduring worse than nightmares could imagine.
RIP and Thank You to each and every one of them.
I will leave you with the words written by T.E Lawrence –
“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”
― T.E. Lawrence
Update 31st January 2020 – I have just found this wonderful article from the Western Gazette stating that a memorial plaque is unveiled at Wynford Eagle Church dedicated to all the men who gave their lives in WW1. Sidney lived just across the hill from Wynford Eagle and I will definitely endeavour to find the plaque on my next visit there.
Useful links and further reading :