Warning: this blog is long!
Today’s blog has special meaning to me as it concerns the first person I ‘knew’ that had died during the First World War. Now that probably makes no sense, as I was born 63 years after the First World War ended and couldn’t possibly know someone who died in the First World War, but it is the best way I can describe it.I remember when I was a child my Nanna telling me that her Uncle Laurie had died during the Great War. Being a child I didn’t listen fully to what she told me and so all I could remember was that Laurie was very handsome. I have never seen a photograph of him, so cannot comment. She herself was born years after he had died, so was either told he was handsome or had seen a photo – which has since been lost.
Going forward several years, when I began to research my family history, I rediscovered Laurie. And so, my interest in him was rekindled. This is his story.Laurie Arthur MEALING
Laurie was born in Harwich on the 28th February, 1891. His father was Charlie Mealing, a ships fireman, or stoker, on the Great Eastern Railway ships sailing between Harwich and Holland. Laurie’s mother was Isabella, and at the time of his birth Laurie was child number five.
Isabella was always striving to improve the life of her family and instilled a desire in all the Mealing children to better themselves. This message was passed all the way to me, many years later by my Nanna, with the phrase “You’re as good as anyone and better than most.”Laurie older brothers were Alf, Claude and Clifford and his older sister was Minnie. The family continued to grow and Olive, Ruth, Frank and Willie all arrived within the next seven years.
Their father, Charlie, worked hard as a stoker and managed to put money aside for the family – no doubt aided by Isabella whose skill as a cook supplemented his income.Charlie did enjoy a drink on occasion and one day was relaxing in the local pub after a hard week at work. Isabella, disappointed that he had not returned home for his dinner sent one of the children to the pub to tell him to come home. Charlie informed the child he would be home later – Isabella could save his dinner for him and he could continue to enjoy his drink and talk with friends.
The child ran back to Ingestre Street and duly repeated what Father had said. Now Isabella had a few options. Save his dinner for later. Throw his dinner in the bin. Feed it to the cat.Instead, she sent a gang of the children to the pub, with his meal, cutlery, napkin and all the other paraphernalia – the embarrassment sure to send him home.
However, the meal arrived and Charlie calmly set himself a place at the bar, unfolded the napkin and proceeded to slowly eat the meal before sending the children back home with the empty plate.It is not recorded what happened to Charlie when he returned home later that evening.
Laurie’s childhood was no doubt eventful with such a large family and strong-willed parents. However, tragedy struck in 1907 when his younger sister Ruth, then 12, fell down the steps at the front of their house, hitting her head and dying.
Later that year Laurie signed up to join the British Army, enlisting with the Lincolnshire Regiment. He lied about his age, claiming to be 18 when he was in fact only 16. However, he was accepted into the army, measured and weighed and sent to do his training. At this time he was 5ft 7 ½ inches tall and weighed 9st 10lbs.
While away with the army tragedy struck Laurie’s family once again. His father, Charlie, was in Rotterdam while his ship, the SS Amsterdam, was in dry-dock there. On 23rd February, 1908, Charlie was making his way back to the ship. As he climbed the ladder to board, he slipped and fell into the dry-dock. He was rushed to hospital, but died later from an internal haemorrhage.
Back in England, Isabella used the small savings they had collected to pay for her and her son Frank to sail to Canada and start a new life. Her youngest, Willie, remained with his older brother Alf who had by now moved out to his own home in Harwich. Willie would make the journey to Canada by himself three years later.
Meanwhile, in 1909, two years into his service Laurie requested a transfer into the Royal Garrison Artillery. His record states his reason for wanting to transfer was in order to serve alongside his brother Clifford who at this time was stationed with the artillery in Singapore. His request was granted, and they served alongside one another in the 80th Company, Royal Garrison Artillery.
This was to be short-lived; yet again the Mealing family was visited by heartbreak. In August, 1910, Clifford was declared missing in Singapore. The official army record states they believe he died rather than deserted and the family story was that he went swimming and drowned.
Laurie continued his service with the Artillery and was described at this time as being “a hardworking, intelligent, reliable man. A good signaller. Believed to be sober although he has one entry.”
The entry mentioned was a charge of being drunk & disorderly. His accuser was a policeman and the case was dismissed by the military due to his previous good character – however, he did receive another charge on 1st August, 1914, of being drunk on active service. This time Laurie was reduced to the ranks and demoted to Gunner.
Laurie was soon promoted once again to the rank of Bombardier and a request was received from the Border Regiment for him to be transferred due to his skill as a signaller. On the 9th June, 1915, Laurie joined the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of the Border Regiment.
Now back in the infantry Laurie excelled. In August, 1915, he was promoted to Lance Sergeant, and two months later he was sent to Gallipoli to join the 1st Battalion.
Gallipoli has deep meaning to those with some knowledge of the events of the First World War. By the time Laurie arrived in October, 1915, it was obvious the British and French were fighting a losing battle against the Ottoman Empire. Four days after arriving, Laurie was made Sergeant – almost certainly replacing a man who had become a casualty.
Heavy rain in the November flooded the trenches, drowning soldiers and washing the bodies of unburied men into the lines. This was followed by a severe snowstorm and many men died of exposure. The decision was made to evacuate and in January, 1916, the Border Regiment sailed for Egypt. Some time was spent in Egypt, no doubt regrouping and organising after the Gallipoli campaign, but it was soon decided that the Border Regiment was required in France, and on 29th March they sailed for Marseille.
While in France Laurie was promoted once again to acting Company Sergeant Major, although on 28th June he reverted to Sergeant. The 1st Battalion were now posted in an area south of Beaumont Hamel, on the Somme sector of the frontline.
At 7.30am, on the 1st July, the Border Regiment went over the top with the aim of capturing Beaumont Redoubt. The artillery was supposed to have destroyed the German positions, but as they advanced they found the German machine gunners were not only in position, but had targeted their guns perfectly on them.
The war diary from that day describes the men as being “absolutely magnificent” but within 30 minutes the advance had been reduced to “little groups of half a dozen men left here and there.”
Just over 800 men went over the top that day. 66 were declared killed that day, 423 were wounded and 150 were missing.
Laurie was one of those men declared missing and enquiries were made as to whether he had been captured and held as a prisoner of war. These enquiries yielded nothing and his death on 1st July, 1916, was officially accepted on 10th February, 1917. This is when the War Office began the process of informing Laurie’s family what had happened.
As previously mentioned, Laurie’s mother Isabella was now living in Canada with her two sons, Frank and Willie. She had also remarried. When the War Office tried to get in touch with her to inform her of Laurie’s death, they had many problems. First writing to Ipswich Police, they eventually tracked her down in Canada later in 1917, over a year after Laurie had been killed.
By this time Frank and Willie had both signed up for the Canadian Army. Her two eldest sons, Alf and Claude, were both in the merchant navy so danger threatened each of them. It must have been a heart-breaking time for Isabella and I’m sure I remember hearing that she never fully believed that Laurie had died – expecting him to return home one day.
So, happy 123rd Birthday, Laurie.