Albert Hendley – A Village Baker

Albert Henley was a baker in the years before the First World War. Following its outbreak he volunteered to fight.

Albert Thomas Hendley was born in the village of Frant, East Sussex at the beginning of 1892. He was the youngest of William Richard Hendley and Annie Susanna née Flawn’s eight children. The Hendley family was from Mayfield and Rotherfield in East Sussex and the Flawn family were farmers in Withyham before living at ‘Stilehouse Farm’ Rotherfield.

Shortly after Albert was born his parents and the family moved to Eastbourne living at 18 Carlton Road, off the seafront. Albert and some of his siblings attended nearby Christ Church School. His mother Annie died in the summer of 1906 aged 54 when Albert was just 14. Albert, his father and a married sister Florence Rose Relf and husband Henry Relf then moved to a house named ‘Sea View’ in Red Lion Street Willingdon, now called Wish Hill. Opposite the house was the village post office housed in the bakery of John Roberts. Albert was apprenticed and trained there as a master baker and confectioner.

Willingdon bakery and Post Office – Image Courtesy of Rosalind Hodges

Almost opposite ‘Sea View’, in ‘Malthouse Cottages’, lived Elsie Wooller with her parents and two brothers Ernest and Harry. When war was declared in August 1914 many of the young men of Willingdon enlisted including Albert, his brother-in-law Henry Relf and Elsie’s two brothers, Ernest and Henry, all joining the Royal Sussex Regiment. Albert enlisted at the Eastbourne recruiting office in the 12th Battalion.  Henry Relf joined the 7th Battalion, Ernest Wooller the 12th and Henry Wooller the 9th. None of the four friends were to survive the fighting. Along with other recruits Albert marched through the town amid cheering crowds, leaving Eastbourne Railway Station to a great public send off, for Cooden Mount Camp near Bexhill, to commence training with the Southdowns Battalions. He remained here until July 1915 moving with his battalion firstly to Detling Camp in Kent, then on to Aldershot and finally Whitley Camp.

Albert and Elsie became engaged on Valentine’s Day 1916, seven weeks before the three Southdowns battalions embarked from Southampton for France on 4th April 1916, Sailing on the ‘Viper’ it was bitterly cold and snowing. They docked at Le Havre at 7am the following day, disembarked and boarded trains, travelling in goods wagons for some 22 hours to Steenbecque. Once off the train they marched a further 2 miles through the snow-covered countryside to the small town of Morbecque where Albert was billeted for 4 days in a barn on the outskirts. On 11 April the battalions moved forward from here approximately 18 miles and commenced preparations for what was to be the Battle of the Boar’s Head at Richebourg, the day preceding the Battle of the Somme.

At the beginning of June, Albert became severely ill with enteric fever, a disease similar to typhoid, which is caused by ingesting contaminated food or water. It was not an uncommon disease of the trenches with the obvious problems associated with hygiene and sanitation. Albert was hospitalised which meant he avoided the disastrous action on 30 June at the Battle of the Boar’s Head when so many of his comrades in the Southdowns battalions were killed, including his fiancée’s brother Ernest Wooller. At the beginning of August Albert was sent home to recuperate. He had lost weight and was still weak but improved considerably before returning in September to re-join his regiment in France. Whilst home he and Elsie planned to marry at Willingdon church in August 1917. Albert was to come home on leave once more during which time he made and iced his wedding cake, leaving it with Elsie.

Albert’s brother in law Henry Relf was killed on 25 July 1917 when 400 enemy made a surprise attack at approx. 3.00am, with mortars, gas and flame throwers, on the 7th Battalion trenches in the Wancourt-Feuchy lines.

Meanwhile Lowther’s Lambs, 11th, 12th and 13th battalions Royal Sussex Regiment were preparing for the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele. They marched to Poperinghe on 16 July suffering daily shelling with casualties and were kept awake all one night by shells exploding at a British ammunition dump set alight at Vlamertinghe. On the evening of 28 July they were moved forward, relieving the 6th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment amid the incessant barrage of the British artillery. Once in place by midnight there they were given tea and hot meals. The following day things were comparatively quiet enabling the working parties to move supplies forward.

Enemy shelling increased during the night of 30 July as the battalion moved forward to the assembly trenches. At 3.50am on 31 July the battalion went over the top attacking the enemy front line, advancing at ‘Hill Top Farm’ some 2 miles north-east from the centre of Ypres. They succeeded in taking and consolidating all their objectives recording only slight casualties but Albert was one of the few killed in action. His sister Rose lost both her husband and youngest brother within six days.

Albert who was aged twenty-five was killed less than a month before his planned wedding at Willingdon to Elsie. His commanding officer wrote a ‘sympathetic’ letter to his father saying: “ Personally I look upon his death as promotion, for I feel he has passed into the presence of his Maker, and is at rest, and although the loss to us is great it is really his gain.” Albert was buried in Buffs Road Cemetery Ypres. He is commemorated on the Willingdon War Memorial in the parish church, the Roll of Honour in Willingdon Memorial Hall and on the panel of the 12th Battalion, in the Royal Sussex Regimental chapel at Chichester Cathedral.

Six years later Elsie married another Albert in Willingdon church. They were my grandparents and together they visited Albert’s grave at Buff’s Road in the 1950s and 60s.

This story was submitted by Rosalind Hodge, Archivist, Willingdon Parish Church