Whilst editing the transcription of the parish return for Crewkerne, I came across an intriguing note made by J Worner. It followed a description of a war memorial in Christ Church which had been dedicated to Captain Alfred Stanley Marsh of the 8th battalion Somerset Light Infantry, who aged 24, was killed in France on 5 January 1916. The memorial had been erected by a few of his friends.
It was the following paragraph, scribbled cross-ways at the end of the page by Worner which caught my attention:
This reference Captain Marsh should be elaborated. I will do it in due course. What The necessary information is not now available his death was a loss to the whole civilised world. J.H.W.
It made me think – what was so special about this man that Worner wanted to go back and elaborate on it? What did he do? Was the cause of his death remarkable? If so, why is he not listed amongst those that won military distinctions? Who was he? Why was his death “a loss to the civilised world”?
The first thing I checked was the Commonwealth War Graves website, as I wanted to check the accuracy of the information I already had. I also thought it would list his regimental number, but unfortunately this is missing from his Commonwealth War Graves record.
I then checked the service records and medal cards, which the National Archives has made available online via www.ancestry.co.uk I hit a bit of a brick wall here; without knowing his army number, I couldn’t find him easily.
The only obvious entry for an Alfred Marsh in the Somerset Light Infantry was for a Private Alfred J Marsh, and having checked the image of the original it was definitely a ‘J’, not a transcription error for an ‘S’!
There were plenty of Alfred Marsh’s but having scanned the first few pages, none were for the Somerset Light Infantry. I then simplified my search, and looked for A S Marsh’s in the Somerset Light Infantry – bingo! He was awarded the Victory Medal the British Medal and the 1915 Star; his medals were claimed by his father in 1921.
Deciding to follow a different line of investigation, I checked the census records, which are also available online via www.ancestry.co.uk. The 1911 census showed Alfred living at Blacknell, Crewkerne, with his family; parents William Warren Marsh and Emily Marsh, and siblings Ralph, Gerald and Eric. His father’s occupation is shown as ‘Receiving Officer and Registrar of Births, Death and Marriages for Chard Union’. Alfred is listed as a University Student.
The next step on my internet search was to have a look at the British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) which has a number of digitised newspapers for the country.
The first hit showed his name in a roll of honour for the Western Times newspaper, on 20 Jan 1916. The report states that Captain Alfred Stanley Marsh had been killed in France on 5 January.
It also gave details on his pre-war life; he was educated at Sexey’s School, Bruton, and gained a county scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1909, where he was awarded a first class degree in Natural Science. At the outbreak of war he was acting as lecturer and demonstrator in the botany school, and had published works in the Journal of Ecology and ‘an important paper’ on The Maritime Ecology of Holme-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.
I now had an inclination of why Worner wanted to elaborate on Marsh, but I thought it was time to look at original records. Amongst the archives at the Heritage Centre is a volume of extracts compiled by P W Randall on the war time magazines of Sexey’s School. The entry for Marsh in the school magazine of Easter 1916 records:
A.S.Marsh came to Sexey’s in 1903…after an exceptionally brilliant school career went up to Cambridge…He was awarded the University Frank Smart Studentship in Botany, and was appointed Assistant Demonstrator in the University Botany School. During his last year at Cambridge he published one or two original papers on Ecology, and showed every prospect of becoming an able investigator of Ecological problems…Marsh was without doubt a man of great intellectual ability…He was widely read and had a genuine love of literature. He had the power of writing clear and fluent prose, which made it a pleasure to read his letters, even apart from their subject matter…He never forgot the debt which he owed to the School…His bequest of his scientific books to the School Library is only the last token of that thoughtfulness he always showed for Sexey’s…At games he was not good, but he was a great walker…It was no doubt this habit of walking which led him to study ordnance maps so thoroughly. Even at Cambridge he was an expert map reader, and on joining the Army became indispensable to his Colonel, who used always to rely on him for map-reading…Marsh had in a high degree the peculiar British trait of hating any display of emotion. Always cheerful and essentially good-humoured, he might yet have appeared to the casual acquaintance indifferent and cold. Those who knew him well, however, realised that that was far from being the case. He had a very sensitive and warmly affectionate nature, and his true and generous friendship was highly prized by those who were privileged to possess it. Sentimentality he abhorred, like many who think and feel deeply. By his death, Science has lost a worker full of brilliant promise, and his friends suffer a loss for which adequate compensation will indeed be hard to find.
I now had an idea of the man, his personality and how others thought of him, although I did feel somewhat guilty at writing an article about a man who “abhorred sentimentality”. I now wanted to find out more about his death. Being an Officer it was likely that his death would be reported in the 8th Battalion War diary. The entry for 5 January 1916 reads:
That day Capt. Marsh was killed by a sniper about 3 P.M. at the junction of Trenches 69 & 70.
The battalion had moved up from Armentieres on the night of 1st January, before being relieved on the night of the 5th January. The published regimental history also records the incident describing Marsh as ‘a valuable officer’.
So with or with out sentimentality, it appears that if he had lived, Alfred Stanley Marsh may have become a great scientist, and achieved his great potential, which his peers recognised.
Alfred is buried at Cite Bonjean Military Cemetery, Armentieres.
Liz Grant, Archivist.