1914 - 2023

The Marston Lads

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Stanley Mathews

Killed in Action
2nd December 1917

Aged 19

The 15th Battalion
Lancashire Fusiliers

24 & 26 Ollershaw Lane
Stanley Mathews was born in 1898 and the son of John Holland Mathews and Elizabeth Kasbrook Mathews, of 24, Ollershaw Lane, Marston. Stanley was one of 9 children. Stanley's father John Matthews was a Saddler, and self employed.

Saddlers make high-quality saddles, bridles or harnesses from leather. Most saddlers will offer a saddle fitting service to ensure the saddle fits the horse and rider correctly. The job also involves repairing and restoring saddles, bridles, harnesses and other leather goods. In 1901 the family was living at Slade Street, Northwich, and close by the Lion & Railway Hotel had a large stable. By 1911, the family had moved to 26 Ollershaw Lane, Marston and a few years later to number 24 Ollershaw Lane.

In 1911, John Mathews was still a Saddler and working from home and joined by his son John Hollas Mathews, Stanley was in school aged 13 years. The family appears to have moved around the town with children being born in Northwich, Davenham, Winsford and Marston. But they now appeared settled. Two other Mathew's sons were working as Railway Engine Stokers.
Unfortunately, Stanley Mathews war enlistment records are missing, almost certainly due to the National Archives being bombed during the London Blitz in 1940. But I have been able to locate a number of war records which does help to map out Stanley Mathews time in the war.

Due to his age, the earliest Stanley could have joined the war effort was 1916. He was attested to The 15th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers. The 15th was a new battalion only formed in 1915.
Serving hot stew to the troops of the Lancashire Fusiliers in the front line trench from a container. Opposite Messines, near Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium, 1917.
Stanley Mathews date of death was confusing for a number of reasons. It's clearly recorded when killed he was serving with the 15th Battalion. This battalion's last campaign in Belgium was The First Battle of Passchendaele which was the 31 July – 10 November 1917. The next battle the 15th Battalion were involved was The Battle of Cambrai which started 3rd December 1917, but that's in France and some 100 miles away.

If he had been injured at Passchendaele, records would exist; if you're injured and in a field hospital when you die, the body is always buried. He wasn't captured.

Given he is commemorated at Tyne Cot, Belgium, which is Passchendaele, and where the 15th Battalion was fighting, does suggest it was there that Stanley died, although some time later.
The Battle of Passchendaele, also called The Third Battle of Ypres (July 31–November 6, 1917) was a First World War battle that served as a vivid symbol of the mud, madness, and senseless slaughter of the Western Front. In total there were around 500,000 casualties, 275,000 were British Commonwealth soldiers.

The third and longest battle to take place at the Belgian city of Ypres, Passchendaele was ostensibly an Allied victory, but it was achieved at enormous cost for a piece of ground that would be vacated the following year. But, Stanley Matthews had survived it, and you only had a 1 in 4 chance of doing so.
'Out of the frying pan right into the fire' | Night action of 1/2 December 1917
The Battle of Passchendaele had not fully achieved its objectives. The area was being subjected to constant German artillery bombardment and its vulnerability to attack led to a suggestion by Brigadier Cecil Aspinall that the British should either retire to the west side of the Gheluvelt Plateau or advance to broaden the salient towards Westroosebeke (now Westrozebeke). The decision was to attack and do so at night.

The British attacked towards Westroozebeke on the night of the 1st December, dispensing with a preliminary bombardment, the artillery remaining silent until eight minutes after the infantry advanced. The ploy failed because the noise of the British assembly and the difficulty of moving across muddy and waterlogged ground had alerted the Germans. In the moonlight, the British troops were visible when they were still 200 yards short of the German defences.

John Nettleton, the former Intelligence Officer for the 2nd Battalion, Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own) wrote that 'In conditions where the moon was near full, there was no cover and the 4th Army would stumble forwards right into German machine gunfire'

What followed was carnage and suffering so many casualties that it had to dig in only about 100 yards in front of the original front line.

In hindsight, the decision to send troops towards German machine gun nests at night when the moon was full was foolhardy at best. And with the 4th Army decimated, it takes a 'very special kind of stupid' to pass an order and repeat it, but that's exactly what they did. With the army now reinforced with units including those that survived Passchendaele, and with Stanley Matthews 15th Battalion being one of them, on the 2nd December, they tried again.

'Hostile machine-gun fire from prepared positions on a bright moonlight night was more to be feared than any barrage'

The artillery barrage that began eight minutes later was "magnificent" but the attack had already been defeated, the German machine-gunners having "wiped out" the British infantry in the moonlight. The attack had cost the British another 1,600 casualties, Stanley Mathews was one of them.

Stanley Mathews was killed 2nd December 1917, his body was never found. Stanley Mathews is commemorated at Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium.

Epitaph: Young men like Stanley Mathews look to leadership to make the right decisions. Bad decisions do occur, the general idea is not to repeat them.  In the aftermath following the 1st December night attack, they would have known sending troops 'over the top' again for the second time on the 2nd December onto a moonlit battlefield and in full knowledge German machine-gun nests were waiting, would be suicide.  This is one of the most disturbing decisions taken of the First World War and utterly senseless.

On the night of the 2nd December, young Stanley Mathews would be stood in a trench with his friends and comrades knowing exactly what happened the night before, they would know they were about to die.

When they heard the whistle they went over the top, eight minutes later 1600 men lay dead.

For the Mathews family, further tragedy was just 3 months away. Stanley's older brother John was fighting on the Somme in France with the Kings Liverpool Regiment, he too would also die in this war on the 28th March 1918.
Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium
Tony Hayes