Alphonse Meulbrook and the 10th battalion Gloucestershire Regiment Battlefield Cross

 

Among the exhibits on view at the CLHS History Afternoon in St Matthews Church on 19 July 2014 was an item minded by Steven Blake (former Deputy Director and Keeper of Social History of Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museums): a single page, about A3 in size, dating from World War 1, with the following citation No2250 Sergeant Alphonse Augustus Meulbrouck, Gloucestershire Regiment Served with honour and was disabled in the Great War. Honourably discharged on 17th December 1917 George RI’. The names Alphonse Augustus suggested a Catholic connection, and having written an account of the men named on St Gregory’s Catholic Church World War 1 memorial I decided to research him.

In the Cheltenham Chronicle & Gloucestershire Graphic (CCGG) I found a photograph of St Gregory’s Church rugby team of 1925.[1] Standing far right on the back row and dressed in ‘civvies’ was ‘A Meulbrouck’, maybe unable to play rugby because of an old war wound.

The name ‘Meulbrouck’ pointed to a French or Belgian connection and there were plausible links. Cheltenham had welcomed French refugees following the 1789 Revolution and during the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). In August 1914 Belgian refugees fleeing the invading German armed forces began to arrive in Cheltenham with tales of German atrocities.

Alphonse was born in Cheltenham on 24 September1876 and baptised at St Gregory’s on 22 October 1876. According to one family source his father Jules (1847-1928) came to Cheltenham from Belgium to teach French at the Boys College,[1] and his granddaughter Vivienne Halliday believed the family were Flemish.[2] In fact, he was born in Roubaix on the French/Belgian border in 1847. In the 1871 census Jules (24) and wife Ellen (22) were in lodgings in Stamford, Lincolnshire; in 1891 Jules was a wood carver living at 6 Grove Street. In the 1911 census, Jules gave his nationality as French.


[1] Cheltenham 4 u website; information posted in 2009 by Georgette Way.

[2] Vivienne Halliday was Georgette’s mother and grand-daughter of Alphonse, fn 5.

Before the outbreak of war, father and son were lodging-house keepers at Cumberland Villa, Grove Street, accommodating thirty male lodgers.[1] A decade earlier, in 1901, Edith, Alphonse’s wife, was in charge with a male deputy and twenty lodgers including a young charwoman and her daughter.[2] Grove Street was sited in a poor area and was eventually bulldozed in the 1930s as part of a slum clearance programme. The photograph of Edith and five children dates from 1913/14 and perhaps Alphonse took a copy as a keepsake when he went off to fight.

When the 1901 census was recorded Alphonse was serving in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) as a sapper (left) with the 1st Gloucestershire Royal Engineers (Volunteers). It was not his first experience of military service; on 6 October 1892 he had enlisted for short service in the 4th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. Alphonse’s Army Medal Roll Index Card reveals he embarked for France with the 10th (Service) Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment on 9 August 1915. Within six and a half weeks many from the battalion (including more than forty Cheltonians) would be dead, wounded or missing. The 10th had trained in Cheltenham throughout the autumn and winter of 1914/15 and many of the men attended services at Christ Church. The 10th comprised volunteers, ready to enlist in the weeks following the declaration of war on 4 August1914.


[1] The 1911 census has ‘Common lodging house keeper’ i.e. ’doss house’. Many of the lodgers were labourers.

[2] Her maiden name was Faulkner; she and Alphonse married at St Mary’s Parish Church in 1896 and had seven surviving children, including a son Alphonse who was baptised at St Gregory’s on 8 March1903.

The opening day of the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915, witnessed the first major offensive action by Allied forces during the war; it was also a baptism of fire for the inexperienced soldiers of the 10th Battalion and of those who perished three are named on St Gregory’s World War 1 Memorial.[1] In the summer and autumn of 1916 the battalion was engaged in the attritional Battle of the Somme and at the end of August another St Gregory’s man was killed at High Wood.[2] In Nick Christian’s book In the Shadow of the Lone Tree (2012, revised edition) Alphonse is mentioned twice, firstly (pp133/34) as the recipient of a letter from the former commanding officer of the 10th, Lieutenant Colonel Henry E Pritchard and secondly (p195) as the soldier who made a memorial cross for the battalion.[3]

The story is related in the Postscript to the book. Attacks on German positions at High Wood between July and September 1916 resulted in many casualties. Nick Christian describes how on Christmas Eve 1916 ‘the battalion’s survivors held a solemn service amidst the splintered shambles of High Wood. Here they erected a wooden cross crafted by Sergeant Meulbrouck and dedicated to their lost comrades.’It would seem Alphonse had inherited some of his father’s wood carving skills.


[1] Fred Smith 34, Francis Driscoll, 20 and Cecil Delaney, a boy soldier aged 16.

[2] A married man Edward McCormick, 32, born in Ireland.

[3] Quoted at length by Nick Christian the letter references the glorious deeds … of our heroic men’ but also the grief and strain suffered by Pritchard who ‘discovered myself on a stretcher, being carried away, until I was landed in a hospital at home in the old country.’Vivienne Halliday showed me a copy of the four page typescript letter which was sent on 27 March 1927 in reply to a letter from Alphonse. It is clear from Pritchard’s letter he had only recently become aware that Alphonse made the cross.

The story of the cross does not end at High Wood in December 1916. In 1927 the French government made it clear it wanted only official memorials on French soil. Accordingly the cross was collected by Lieutenant Colonel Pritchard, brought to Cheltenham and placed in Christ Church where it remains in a small alcove to the left of the sanctuary.[1]


[1]‘… along with the battalion’s Colours, which were laid up in 1932’, Nick Christian (p 133). The Colours now hang from a wall in the old baptistry at the back of the church.



Alphonse (the portly man in photograph 4, above) waited with other 10th Battalion veterans in wet weather to witness the return of his battlefield cross on 10 February 1927 and he was spotted by his former commanding officer outside the church after the service

At the very least it must have gratified Alphonse to see his handiwork on the front cover of the CCGG (26/2/1927). However, it is a moot point whether he actually set foot in Christ Church, as at that time it was most unusual for a Catholic to enter an Anglican church and vice versa.

A striking example of this Catholic reticence occurred on Sunday 3 August1919 when a public commemorative event was prohibited to his congregation by the parish priest, Fr. Bede Ryan. The Church Notice Book for the week reads, ‘as the project is tantamount to a religious or quasi-religious service, it is clear that we as Catholics may not take part.’A service was held instead at St Gregory’s on the same afternoon, but flowers were sent to the public event.

On Remembrance Sunday each year the cross is placed in the main body of Christ Church and it was given pride of place on 25 September 2005 (below) for a service to commemorate the men who died a century early on the first day of the Battle of Loos.

When I photographed this cross in August 2014 I was puzzled when a long-standing member of the congregation referred to it as the ‘Loos Cross’ despite the precise inscription honouring the officers and men killed in action at High Wood during August and September 1916.              A citation below the Colours specifically refers to the cross ‘from the Somme Battlefield’.

The memorial plaque on the wall to the left of the cross lists fifty four military personnel from the parish who lost their lives in World War 1, including one man (Private S G Mitchell 9th Battalion Welsh Regiment, aged 26), who died on 25 September 1915.[1]  At the base of the memorial is a dedication to those who were killed in the Battle of Loos and this may possibly account for the title ‘Loos Cross’.


[1] He appears twice on the Cheltenham Borough Memorial in the Promenade as Pte S and Pte G.

Alphonsus Meulbrouck died on 29 May 1955, aged 79. Although he was not a regular church attender, he was buried in the Borough Cemetery after a service at St Gregory’s. His wife Edith died the following year.


The grave of Alphonse and Edith Meulbrouck
 Cheltenham Borough Cemetery (8/10/2014)

Article by Chris Bentall, October 2020

Acknowledgements: Mrs Vivienne Halliday, the late Brian Meulbrouck, Nick Christian, Gloucester Record Office for permission to quote from St Gregory’s Church Notice Book (1916-19), Cheltenham Local History Library for permission to use material from the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic, Martin Chapman of Christ Church, and Steven Blake.