Swavesey & The Great War

Joe Parish - A Final Tragedy


Nellie, Murial & Joe

On the 11th November 1998 it will be 80 years since the armistice was signed.This date will also be the 80th anniversary of the death of Joe Parish from Swavesey. Joe died on the last day of the war having only been in France for 32 short days.

The Parish butchers shop has now been converted into a house but in the first couple of decades of the 20th century this business had been run by Joe’s parents, Zachariah and Martha. The family who lived next door to the shop at Aylesford house were part of the local Strict and Particular Baptist congregation and like many in that community they were not closely touched by the war until the introduction of the Derby scheme and subsequently, conscription. As each young Parish came of age so he would start work in the shop displacing an elder brother who would seek work elsewhere. The job of butcher was one of a number of protected occupations.

The first member of the family to join up was Arthur, one of Joe’s brothers. Arthur who was a carpenter by trade joined the Royal Engineers on 17th March 1916. The Cambridge Independent Press had no time for families who were not eager to send their sons to face the guns :-

“The name of Parish is borne by more than one household in Swavesey, and Sapper Parish has the distinction of being the first of the name to join the countries forces.”

Joe had four brothers. Bernard was too young to enlist but John and Isaac both served, the latter having been conscripted into the Royal Sussex Regiment during 1917. Both survived the war and John (along with Arthur who had survived albeit with a shrapnel wound) took over the family butchers business whilst Isaac farmed at Fen Drayton.

Joe and Arthur Parish

Norcot house which Joe rented still sits in Station Road on the village side of the Frere cottages overlooking Swan Pond. At the age of 24 on 21st October 1914 he had married Nellie (25), a boot sellers daughter from Manchester and in 1916 the couple had a daughter, Muriel. Muriel presently lives in Needingworth and was two years old when her father was killed.

Joe was a fruit farmer by trade and had an orchard down “The Hale” which is the roadway at the bottom of Taylors Lane. I recently spoke with a Swavesey man who remembers Joe sitting on his cart taking fruit to Swavesey station on a weekly basis.

Joe was conscripted into the 1st East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) on 12th June 1918 having previously served in the UK as a Sergeant in the Cambridge Volunteer Regiment. When Joe left to begin training Nellie and their daughter moved out of the family home in Swavesey and in with Joe’s mother in law back in Manchester.Joe left England on 9th October by which time the tide had turned and the Allied armies were in the ascendancy.

The Battalion war diary in the Public Records Office (PRO) shows 1 “other rank” joining the Regiment in France on the 9th with a further 10 on the 12th. Major Lord Teynham had assumed command and the Regiment was billeted in the Bohain area of France.

During the following few weeks the Battalion moved forward taking its turn in the front line trenches until by the 30th October Battalion HQ was on the outskirts of Pommereuil. It was on this day that Joe Parish received his fatal injury during an attack on the village of Happergarbes.

A hand-written account or this action at Bois D’Eveque can be found at the PRO :-

“The Buffs were ordered to seize the farm and the high ground. The operation was entrusted to Lieut. L.W.Barber M.B.E. who had at his disposal B & C co’s (and later a platoon of D co.), A section of 6th Machine Gun Battalion and two light TM guns.

Zero was 6.00 a.m. at which time a creeping barrage opened with heavy artillery bombarding the railway.The attack was made on a two platoon frontage. Two other platoons operating on each flank so as to protect the advance and 3 platoons were retained in support.

The attack on the farm was at first frustrated by our own barrage which fell so short that all but 6 men in the leading platoon became casualties in the forming up line.

When the barrage lifted, which it did in stages, the 18” pdrs at 6.10 and the 4.5” at 6.22 another platoon was moved up but the advance was held up by enemy machine gun fire. It was not until 10 a.m. that, aided by the right flank platoon using rifle grenades and smoke the farm with another beyond were taken.

Meanwhile the platoon attacking the high ground had also reached its objective and captured the enemy machine gun. Our barrage from here was correctly aligned. Later the platoon was forced to withdraw somewhat owing to the flanks being exposed.We were then forced to withdraw from the farm following a heavy bombardment and an attack in strength by the enemy.

The last reserves were then brought up under a well directed barrage by our light TM on the farm. We again attacked and captured at the point of the bayonet 2 heavy and 3 light machine guns were captured and heavy casualties inflicted. By evening the village of Happergarbes had been virtually cleared.”

Following the action Joe was taken back to a Casualty Clearing Station at Premont, some 20 miles to the rear. There is a Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery on the site of this old field hospital and it is in this tranquil spot that Joe now lies.

A final cruel twist was that having experienced the immense relief of the armistice and having, no doubt thanked god for the new found peace, on 23rd November Joe's wife received notification that Joe had been killed. Nellie always suspected that Joe had been fatally wounded by his own side since the fatal wound was in the small of his back.

The news of Joe’s death reached Swavesey on the day that Ethel Hepher got married and took some of the shine off the subsequent celebrations. Joe’s daughter Murial remembers her mother throwing her husband’s victory medal, war medal and commemorative death plaque in the family dustbin. The accompanying note from the king went on the fire.

Joe's marker in 1998

Joe's marker as it was in the 1930s

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