Served with Essex County Constabulary from July 14, 1914 and died on Aug 26, 1914.
Alfred Welham was born in Lavenham, Suffolk in 1890. He was the youngest son of Harry and Eliza (nee Elliston). After leaving school he went to the recruiting office in Sudbury where he enlisted with the Suffolk Regiment and later saw service with the regiment in Malta and Egypt. Following his discharge from the army, still a single man, he joined Essex Constabulary on July 14, 1914, as Police Constable 511.
He had barely completed his month long police training when, with the outbreak of war, he was recalled to The Colours on August 4, 1914, and rejoined his regiment as Private 7265, 2nd Battalion Suffolk Regiment.
The 2nd Battalion Suffolk Regiment formed part of the 14th Brigade in the 5th Division and was part of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.). Within days of reporting Alfred Welham and other members of the battalion moved to France.
The Germans, having invaded Belgium, had turned south with the intention of advancing on Paris. The B.E.F., about 110,000 men, confronted the German Army on August 22, in positions along the Mons-Conde canal, just inside the Belgian border. The Germans were stopped in their tracks by rapid rifle fire, but with far greater strength and outflanking movements the German armies forced the B.E.F. to retire the following day.
The 2nd Battalion Suffolk Regiment were not involved in that action and on August 22, 1914, had marched from St Waast at the head of 14th Brigade, with A and B Companies forming the advance guard. At 2pm. they arrived at Hamin and went into billets.
The events of the next four days are briefly recorded in this extract from the War Diary of 2nd Battalion Suffolk Regiment:
Sunday 23rd August.
Guns heard all the morning.
1pm - C & D Companies sent off to take up an outpost position along the canal facing N.
4pm till dusk.
Outposts engaged in which 3men were killed and 2/Lt. V M G Phillips wounded.
A retirement was ordered.
Monday 24th August.
A & B Companies took up outpost position to cover the retirement.
C & D Companies arrived at Dour am.
Battalion occupies trenches at Boussu.
11am Retirement was ordered.
6pm. Bivouacked at Bavay.
Tuesday 25th August.
Battalion formed part of rearguard in a general retirement.
9pm. Arrived at Monthay.
10pm. Bivouacked in a barn near Le Cateau.
Wednesday 26th August.
4.30am. Battalion took up a position in the front line facing Le Cateau improved position with entrenching tool as much as time permitted.
7.30am. Shrapnel fire commenced on the trenches and proved most effective. The supports to the firing line which were noted just in front of the battery of Field Artillery suffered terribly.
9am. Lt Colonel G A H Brett DSO mortally wounded.
12.30pm. Shell fire exceedingly heavy enfilade fire from the left flank.
4pm. A general retirement of the Division.
10pm. Near Bohain a short halt was made when the transport and a few of the Battalion were collected together.
These brief entries, like so many other entries in battalion war diaries, whilst accurate, give no real account of what the 2nd Battalion Suffolk Regiment faced. The concluding line 'and a few of the Battalion were collected together.', is profound. Out of the Battalion strength, around 1,000 men, 720 were casualties having been killed, wounded or missing.
A more graphic account of the action on August 26 is that at 4am the 14th Brigade received orders to act as rear guard whilst the retirement continued. The 2nd Battalion then moved off in artillery formation along open ground on the east side of the of the long, straight Roman road running south-west towards Reumont. Having reached the cross-roads south-west of Pont des Quatre Vaux the senior officer present was informed by Lord Douglas Malise Graham, ADC to the Divisional Commander, 'You are going to fight it out here.'
Positions were allotted to the respective battalions and they did their best, in the short time available, to prepare entrenchments as best they could. It has been acknowledged that the Suffolks in particular, who lay immediately to the west of LeCateau, 'were badly placed for a general action: there was much dead ground on every side; the field of fire was for the most part limited.' The situation was not of the commanders' choosing and they were reminded that there was to be no thought of retirement.
At 6am the enemy was sighted and the Suffolks opened fire, shortly afterwards the German guns opened fire. It was evident that their artillery was far superior to that of the British. By 10am the Germans had begun their advance but were checked by the good work of a machine-gun section. German aeroplanes dropped smoke bombs of various colours as a signal to their artillery and the hostile fire increased to a pitch of tremendous severity. By 11am German machine-guns had been positioned on the Le Cateau - Cambrai road and were able to enfilade 2nd Battalion, making their position critical.
The end came about 2.45pm when, with an overwhelming force, the Germans advanced on the Suffolks, who were now short of ammunition, from the front, the right flank and right rear. They were overwhelmed.
'They had for nine hours been under an incessant bombardment which had pitted the whole of the ground with craters, and they had fought to the very last, covering themselves with undying glory.'
Alfred Welham was one of the gallant Suffolks killed during the action on August 26, 1914. Just two weeks earlier he had been wearing his police uniform in the comparative safety of Essex. His involvement in the Great War had lasted three days. He was twenty-four years old and was the first of the Essex Policemen to be killed in the war. His body, if ever recovered, was not identified and he is commemorated on the La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre Memorial.
La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre, Seine-et-Marne is just 66 kilometres from Paris and the memorial commemorates nearly 4,000 officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force who died in August, September and the early part of October 1914, and who have no known grave. The monument consists of a rectangular block of stone, 62 feet by 30 feet and 24 feet high, with the names of the dead engraved on stone panels on all sides of the monument. It is surmounted by a sarcophagus and a trophy carved in stone. At the four corners of the pavement are stone piers with urns, carved with the coats of arms of the Empire.
The inscription on the memorial reads:
TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND THE LASTING MEMORY
OF 3,888 BRITISH OFFICERS AND MEN WHOSE GRAVES
ARE NOT KNOWN AND WHO LANDED IN FRANCE IN THE MONTH
OF AUGUST 1914 AND BETWEEN THEN AND OCTOBER
FOUGHT AT MONS AND LE CATEAU AND ON
THE MARNE AND THE AISNE.
In 1927 General H L Smith-Dorrien, who had been the Commander of the British troops who fought at Le Cateau on August 26, 1914, wrote:
'Some one, certainly not I, ordered that on no account were the Suffolks to retire. Such an order was enough for the Suffolks. For nine hours they fought with desperate losses, their C.O., Lieut.-Colonel Brett, being killed comparatively early in the day; but no thought of retirement entered their heads, for had they not been told to fight to the last? I was not surprised when I heard of their grand behaviour, for I had had previous experience of this magnificent regiment, especially in the Boer war, but it was never my intention that any troops should have been called on to fight to the last.'
Smith-Dorrien also acknowledged that but for the gallant action of the 14th Brigade in checking the German advance whilst other troops withdrew there was a possibility that the whole of the 5th Division would have been overrun by the enemy. He went on to say:
'It was the blow to the Germans delivered on the field of Le Cateau which upset their plans and prevented their descent on Paris. The Suffolks were one of the units which made that blow possible. I thank them, and the whole nation should be grateful to them.'
On March 1, 1916, The Chief Constable reported to the Police Authority: 'Pc Welham has been missing since August 26th, 1914, and the Army Council have accordingly informed his father that they have concluded he was killed on or after that date. Constable Welham was unmarried.'
On December 6, 1916, the Police Authority: 'Resolved that £0. 1. 10. be paid to the dependants of Constable Welham who was killed in action, being the rateable deductions made from pay whilst a member of the County Police Force.'
'Good-morning; good-morning!' the General said
When we met him last week on the way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
2nd Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon
(Royal Welch Fusiliers)