Sergeant Edgar Clarence Matthews

16805 2nd Bn., Leicestershire Regiment who died on 11 October 1916

Family History

Edgar Clarence Matthews was born in 1895, the son of Thomas and Ellen Ludlum (nee Perkins). Edgar had four brothers and two sisters. The family were members of Oadby Baptist Church and Edgar, along with his brothers and cousins was a member of the Adult School Orchestral Band. Mother Ellen died in 1910 leaving Thomas with three school aged and three working children living at home. In 1911 the Matthews family lived on East Street but by 1916 had moved to Leicester Road. Edgar worked as a plumber. His eldest brother Alfred was a coal miner working in Derbyshire and second brother Ernest was serving in the Prince of Wales Own Yorkshire Regiment. His sister Ellen Mary worked as a hosiery hand.

Oadby Adult School Orchestra. Edgar C Matthews is third from the left on the back row.

 

Service Record

Edgar‘s service record no longer exists but his medical card from No. 32 British Field Hospital, Amara, suggests that he enlisted in the  2nd Battalion Leicestershire Regiment in March 1915. After initial training it is possible that Edgar joined his unit in France and saw action at the Battle of Loos 25 September to 13 October 1915. He rose  through the ranks and became Acting Sergeant in July 1916.

In November 1915 the 2nd Leicesters were transferred to the 28th Brigade which along with the 51st and 53rd Sikh Regiments and 56th Punjabi Rifles formed part of the Tigris Corps or Kut Relief Force. This was a hastily assembled force whose mission was to relieve Major-General Townsend’s 9,000 strong force currently besieged by Turkish, Arab and German troops at Kut al Amara on the River Tigris in Mesopotamia (now modern day Iraq).  The Brigade landed at Basra on 6 December 1915 and from there travelled up the Tigris towards Kut.

Indian troops carry the Sri Guru Granth Sahib before them in Mesopotamia

The Tigris Corps left Marseilles for Alexandria on SS Clan MacGillivray on 10 November 1915. From Port Suez they sailed on to Basra arriving on 6 December

Because of the lack of roads the only way to reach Kut was to progress up the River Tigris in the flat- bottomed river steamer The Medijihet.

Map showing the progress of the troops up the River Tigris from Basra towards Kut-al-Amara.

The locations which the troops passed on their journey up river would have been familiar to many men from the Bible and the Quran. Pt W Elliot recorded in his diary 10 December 1915: “Anchored at Qurna, reported site of the Garden of Eden for evidence we shown the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The 2nd night we moved by Ezra’s tomb. Passed through Amara the largest town between Basra and Baghdad. Above Amara the country becomes even more barren and desolate. Not a single tree between Amara and Ali-Gharbi”.

Qurna in 1915, reputedly the location of the Garden of Eden

Qurna in 1915, reputedly the location of the Garden of Eden

No longer the Garden of Eden, conditions for the men were truly appalling. Heat, flies and a lack of potable water meant cholera and dysentery were rife. The Corps was ill equipped. The terrain was flat and barren with no roads and as it was only passable by river steamer the troops were soon separated from their field ambulances and medical supplies. Conditions for the injured and dying were truly appalling with insufficient medical staff and supplies to treat the wounded.

Journeying up the River Tigris, the 28th Brigade saw significant action at the Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad, the Battle of The Wadi and the assault on the Dujaila Redoubt. On 6 April the exhausted 28th Brigade made the long march from reserve positions to engage Turkish troops at Sannayiat. The attacks at Sannayiat lasted for 3 days resulting in heavy losses and without the position being carried. The men were exhausted, lacked reinforcements and rations, and had been exposed to exceptional climatic conditions (bad weather resulted in flash floods) and physical obstacles. The 28th Brigade was forced to withdraw. The relief effort of Kut came to an end with unsuccessful assaults on the Turkish positions at Sannayiat.

In the course of almost four months fighting, the Tigris Army Corps lost over 23000 officers and men. The men besieged at Kut were starved into submission and on 29 April 1916 Major General Townsend the commanding officer of the Kut garrison surrendered to Turkish forces. 13,000 British and Indian soldiers and civilian support were taken into captivity.

After  the surrender the opposing forces settled into comparative inactivity although sniping continued from both sides.The heat during the summer months reached between 43- 48 C.  The daily ration was two hard tack biscuits, a tin of bully beef and black tea.  Fresh vegetables were unknown and resulted in cases of scurvy. The situation was exacerbated by regular flooding of the billets with fetid water from the Tigris. Lance Corporal W Billings recalled, ‘When I joined the battalion in June (1916)….. the number of effective officers was five and the other ranks about 150 to 200; the latter were mostly full of fever or ill with mild dysentery, but carrying on as best they could.  The flies were terrible and you had literally to fight your way to your mouth with each bite of food’.

Flooded stores on the bank of the Tigris

For the injured and sick conditions in the rudimentary medical facilities were particularly difficult. A military hospital was established in the town of Amara, accessible only by river boat from the Tigris. One soldier of the 2nd Leicesters described his ‘hospital bed’ in a letter home “At my feet runs a little muddy stream almost dry…around and upon my feet are a myriad of insect….mostly biting flies, but include some thousands of ants, great and small….houseflies, big houseflies and several unknown noxious small species. Overhead the Eastern sun smiting me through my thin blankets”. However the very basic medical facilities were improved during 1916 and 1917; seven general hospitals and some smaller units were built. Edgar’s medical card (below) evidences that systems were in place at the time of his admission to hospital so it is hoped that he was not subjected to the same conditions as those described above. Sergeant Edgar Clarence Matthews was admitted to No 32 British General Hospital, Amara on 19 August 1916 but died of enteric fever (dysentery) on 11 October 1916.

Edgar’s medical card from No.32 British General Hospital, Amara.

Memorials

Sergeant Edgar Clarence Matthews was buried in the Amara War Cemetery. The cemetery contains 4,621 First World War graves of which 3,000 were brought into the cemetery from the battlefields after the Armistice. The gravestones originally set against the graves by the British War Graves Commission were found to be disintegrating over time because of the prevalent weather conditions. The stones were removed and the names of the fallen were recorded on memorial plaques around the perimeter wall.

Amara War Cemetery

Edgar is also remembered on the memorial tablet in Oadby Baptist Church. Also included on the plaque is William Fenwick another soldier of the 2nd Leicesters who died at the Battle of Sannayiat.

Oadby Baptist Church memorial tablet

Edgar’s death was minuted by the Oadby Urban District Council, although his promotion to Acting Sergeant was not acknowledged.

Leicester Daily Post 12 November 1916

 

Other Family Members

Edgar’s brother Ernest William also served during the war. He was a member of the British Expeditionary Force and was severely wounded in the left hip in November 1914. The wound led to total incapacity and Ernest was discharged with a war pension in January 1916. He died in Oadby in 1917 and is buried in Oadby Cemetery.