The Hampstead Heavies
138th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery
The Centenary of the Hampstead Heavies
A personal view of my father's service and the development of the Hampstead Heavies website
My father, Sydney Ridler, was born in December 1890, enlisted as a volunteer in the Hampstead Heavies in October 1915, and was aged 26 when the Battery embarked for France in April 1916. A few days later, with the Battery, he had reached Bully les Mines in northern France where he was to remain for just over a year. One hundred years later to the day I was in Bully les Mines having been invited to the town's commemoration of the First World War centenary in April 2016 and was able to visit some of the places close to the town where the Battery had camped. Here are a few of the thoughts which came to me at that time.
When the War started in August 1914 my father was unmarried and living with his widowed mother in a small terraced house in Kilburn, some two to three miles south west of Hampstead Heath. His four elder brothers had left home and had established jobs on the railway, in engineering and with the Royal Mail. My father's employment was as a clerk on the local coal wharf where his father had worked until his death in 1893.
In the enthusiastic early months of the war there must have been great pressure on my father to volunteer which clearly conflicted with his responsibilities at home. No family memories of this period have reached me so I can only imagine that the pressure to volunteer must have increased during 1915 as the mayor of nearby Hampstead called for volunteers firstly for the Howitzer Brigade and later the 138th Heavy Battery. Recruitment for the latter was nearing completion when my father came forward on 4th October 1915.
As far as I know, my father had no experience whatsoever of dealing with horses but this did not stop the army from assigning him as a driver and he must have been one of the men to whom Walter Wright referred in his comment on "the wonderful adventures of the then new recruits, in getting the horses, from the various parts of London, to the stables in the Corporation Yard at Lymington Road, Hampstead".
My father served throughout the War in a Sub-Section under the command of 2/Lt, later Captain, S Johnson. All Sub-Sections naturally experienced varying dangers throughout the War and, in my father's case, actions in support of the Vimy Ridge offensive, at Ypres, and at Gentelles Wood, near Amiens in April 1918 appear to have been particularly hazardous. Perhaps the most arduous experience, for all in the Battery, was the retreat of some 60 miles in 5 days as the Germans advanced in March and April 1918.
My father is in the second row immediately in front of 2/Lt Johnson
Neither the Battery's War Diary or Walter Wright in his Narrative mentioned my father by name but along with his colleagues he was clearly frequently faced with carrying out his duties in extremely dangerous conditions requiring much courage and bravery. At the end of the War Captain Johnson provided him with this reference.
The army also gave him a reference as a help to finding civil employment.
As far as I know after the army my father never worked in any way with horses but I was not surprised to learn that he handled them well during the War as I do remember him being concerned for the welfare of animals. I wonder just how many horses in his care perished as a result of three and a half years of warfare and what affect this had on him.
My father never talked to me about these horses or his experience of the First World War and how it had affected him. I knew of course that he had served in an artillery unit during the First World War but it was not until after his death in 1963 that I had any idea of what he had actually been through. In his papers I found a copy of Walter Wright's Narrative which paints such a vivid picture of what the Battery had endured. I kept this in mind until my retirement in 1996 which coincided with the accelerating development of the internet. I saw this as the ideal way of making the experiences of the Battery known to a much wider audience.
Progress was slow until 2005. Apart from having to learn a new computer language it was not easy to find a reliable host for the website I was developing. I did have some small successes in making contact with others who were interested in the experiences of the Heavies but it was not until Brian Bristow got in touch in 2005 through the website and subsequently came to see me that development of the website began in earnest.
Brian, grandson of Mayor Paris, Commanding Officer of the Battery, kindly made available much information from his family's archive and also put me in touch with a reliable web host. Since then the website has grown in content and accuracy from responses I have received from all over the world.
I am particularly pleased that the website has aided events associated with the centenary of the First World War. In 2014 the Hampstead Museum at Burgh House used some material from the website in their Fellowship and Sacrifice Exhibition and for the past two and a half years I have been in contact with Alain Chaupin and David Robillard trying to answer their queries about members of the Battery for use in their exhibition and commemoration ceremony.
Now, 100 hundred years after the foundation of the Hampstead Heavies during the First World War, I should like to place on record my appreciation and thanks to all those throughout the world who have helped to make the website a more comprehensive and accurate record of the courage, bravery and suffering experienced all those years ago.
John Ridler, April 2016