The Royal West Kents at Mereworth

Mereworth (pronounced Merryworth) is a small village in the Kent countryside, not far from Maidstone, our county town and home of regimental headquarters. It has a fine church, dating from the mid 1700s, the earlier building having been demolished by the then new owner of Mereworth Castle. Inside the church of St Lawrence are a number of memorial plaques and rolls of honour to local men who served and fell during the Great War.

The church of St Lawrence, Mereworth. June 2022

The churchyard contains two Commonwealth War Graves, one for a soldier of the London Irish Rifles and the other of a Royal West Kent regiment man. The other notable grave in the churchyard is that of Rear Admiral Charles Lucas VC, the first man ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross, which he received for bravery during the Crimean War.

It doesn’t look as if anyone has researched and published material on these men (apologies if I am wrong), and so I thought I would see what I could discover about the men of the village who served with the Royal West Kent Regiment.

The memorials and roll of honour inside the church of St Lawrence, Mereworth

In September 1914 the Kent Messenger reported on a recruitment meeting held in the meadow at Mereworth Rectory in response to Lord Kitchener’s appeal for men to join the New Army. Principal speakers including Major Wood Martyn and local aristocrat, Viscount Torrington.

Major Wood Martyn’s speech began by considering the historic defence of liberty, including in the Napoleonic wars. Addressing the younger men of the village, he acknowledged that they lived under a system of voluntary service with no obligation to enlist but “...if, just because it was more comfortable, they preferred to sit at home and let the other fellows face the German shrapnel – if they were holding back merely because there was better money to be made and better food to be enjoyed here in Kent than out there in the trenches – then they were not Englishman!”

According to the Messenger’s report “he told of the new Battalion that was being raised of the Royal West Kent’s, and, saying that he himself hoped to go out with it and serve under his younger brother, he invited the men to come and join.”

Accordingly several men, along with Viscount Torrington, travelled to the West Kent’s depot at Maidstone the following day, with seven more doing the same the day after that.

Those first new recruits were: Ernest Baker, Thomas Burton, Hubert Holdstock, Edmund Moore, Robert Saunders, Viscount Torrington, Richard Holding, William Coombes, Walter Weller, William Dulborough, and Arnold Brooker.

Three others, John and Frank Reynolds, and Ernest South were refused on health grounds.

Tom Burton was one of the earliest casualties from this group who joined up together. Aged twenty, he was serving with C Company of 6th Battalion when he died of his wounds on 6 July 1915. He was buried at Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension.

The next Mereworth casualty was also serving with C Company in 6th Battalion. He died on 15 October 1915. Edgar Goose was an only son and his father had died just before he left for the front.

Hubert Holdstock also served with 6th Battalion, enlisting in August 1914. A former groom and then chauffeur to Viscountess Torrington, he continued in service with the family after her death. After Hubert’s death on 3 July 1916, the Kent Messenger noted that of the six Mereworth men who had served with the same company, only two now remained. He was also the third to lose his life, the fourth having lost a limb and been discharged.

Lance Corporal Baker, again with C Company, 6th Battalion appeared in the paper having been Mentioned in Despatches. Baker, who was now twenty and had received his first stripe when he was nineteen, had been singled out for his recent participation in bomb throwing for fourteen hours.

Albert Diprose was twenty-one when he enlisted at Tonbridge in Kent. He arrived in France with 1st Battalion on 1 May 1915 and served with A Company. His death was presumed as on or after 22 July 1916.

Henry Bassett, although not included among those who enlisted with Lord Torrington, was an early joiner who volunteered shortly after his eighteenth birthday. Bassett had been popular in the village, a good actor and singer, he also trained with the Red Cross and had helped instruct the local Boy Scouts, as well as being a member of the Volunteer Fencibles.

Private Cheeseman of Butcher’s Lane, Mereworth, was a reservist, recalled at the start of war. He had been wounded in April 1915 and was invalided home before returning to the front on his recovery. He returned in early May 1916. He was wounded on 15 September 1916 and subsequently died of his wounds, leaving a wife and young son.

Lewis Newman was not among the earliest of the Mereworth recruits to the regiment but he joined up only a few months later in early 1915. Slightly older than the other local recruits, he had served in France for just over a year, including being present at Trones Wood, before he was killed.

Alfred Pett had enlisted underage, in November 1914 when he was sixteen. He died on 12 July 1917 after serving in France for a year.

Frank Reynolds was one of the local men initially declined in August 1914 as unfit. Later accepted, he served with C Company of 10th Battalion. Frank died in July 1917 at Waltham Abbey Hospital and was buried in the churchyard at Mereworth.

The grave of Frank Harold Reynolds in the churchyard of St Lawrence, Mereworth
A report on the funeral of Private Reynolds, unfortunately the promised photo was not printed

By the time the war memorial to the fallen was unveiled in Mereworth, Captain Wood Martyn had been promoted to Colonel, and been invited to unveil the memorial. Wood Martyn had had a successful war, commanding 10th Battalion of the Royal West Kents, Mentioned in Despatches several times, he was appointed DSO in August 1917 according to the citation

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in leading his battalion to the assault, which was completely successful. He superintended consolidation throughout the day, setting a very fine example of personal courage and good leadership.

The Messenger, which reported on the ceremony, noted that “Not only did he commence recruiting in Mereworth in August 1914, but a number of the village lads were actually under his command in the 10th Royal West Kent’s

In his speech he observed that “It was not the people on whom honours were showered who had won the war, but the plain infantry soldier.”

Plain infantry soldiers such as the men from this small village in the heart of Kent, who are remembered with honour in their parish church.