Harold John Francis came to Chelmsford from Danbury around 1900. He lost his father before he was eight, and later worked as grinder, probably at Hoffmann’s. He is thought to have joined the regular army before the war because he landed in France in August 1914 within three weeks of its outbreak. He was killed in action the following May at the Second Battle of Ypres. His home was in Victoria Road.
FRANCIS, HAROLD JOHN,
Private, 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment
At 5 o'clock on that Sunday evening a thick wall of gas, greenish yellow in colour, some 60ft. or 70ft. high, was observed creeping along the front of the trenches held by the 12th Brigade, the concentration beting thickest on the right, where the Lancashire Fusiliers were stationed, and on the left, where the Essex were smitten on both flanks. The King’s Own, in the centre, were not so severely affected.
‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies and a platoon of ‘A’ Company were holding the Battalion’s front system. The men stood to and were told to remain whatever happened, but, almost simultaneously, the cloud broke upon the Pompadours. In spite of respirators, they were driven from the line by the suffocating fumes. “The gases were absolutely overpowering; officers and men seemed to lose their senses, most of them getting out of the trenches and reeling to the rear."
Captain Pechell and 12 N.C.O's. and men of ‘B’ Company would not withdraw and with great bravery held on until the trenches were reoccupied.....Lieut. Irwin, with soldierly presence of mind, led the right support, consisting of three platoons of ‘A’ Company, stationed some 400 yards in the rear, through heavy shrapnel-fire and a gas-laden atmosphere, reoccupying the right end of the trench. ‘C’ Company, under Lieut. Atkinson, also moved up from reserve, 1,500 yards back, and, in face of artillery and machine guns, reoccupied the left centre. Splendid aid was received from the French and British artillery, particularly a battery of French 75s, whose fire on the enemy's trenches prevented them from moving forward.
The King's Own were pushed forward into some ruined farm buildings, whence they enfiladed an attempt to enter the trenches of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who had also suffered severely. The South Lancashires subsequently took over the Fusiliers' position and French infantry closed to the right and thickened the Essex line, whilst a company of the Monmouths was later moved up in support. After the line was re-established the enemy made two attempts against the Essex right, but were driven back each time. A hostile aeroplane also came over, flying low, and was brought down by the Battalion, but fell just within the German lines.
During the night the enemy effort died away. Losses were heavy in the 12th Brigade and the Essex had 265 casualties—23 killed, 67 wounded (six officers) and 175 missing (two officers). Of the last-named a large number were subsequently found to have been "gassed" and admitted to hospital. Next day the 10th and 12th Brigades were warmly congratulated by the Commander-in-Chief for their steadfastness.”
Today the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists 32 men from ‘The Pompadours’ who lost their lives ib 2nd May 1915. Among them was Harold, killed in action aged 21.
Harold was born at Danbury in the spring of 1894, the son of Henry Francis and Annie Francis (nee Pratt). He was christened at Danbury on 19th August 1894, at which time his father was described as a labourer of Danbury.
His father had been born at Salcot c1855; his mother in Little Baddow in 1860. The couple married on 23rd September 1876 at St. John the Baptist’s Church in Danbury.
In 1881 they had been living in Chelmsford Road, Danbury, when Harold’s father was been an agricultural labourer. A decade later the family had been resident at Horne Row, Danbury, with Harold’s father was employed as a wood merchant.
Harold’s ten siblings were: Frederick William Francis (born 1876), Henry George Francis (born 1879), Clara Louisa Annie Francis (born 1882), Arthur Willie Francis (born 1885), Alfred Bertie Francis (born 1887), Lily Jane Francis (born 1890), Claude Victor Francis (1892-1958), Ethel Francis (born 1896), Edward Stanley Francis (1898-1976), and Hugh Charles Francis (1899-1900). All were Danbury-born.
The 1901 census found six year-old Harold living with his younger siblings and widowed mother at 22 Regina Road, Chelmsford. Henry’s father had died earlier in 1901, aged 48. Harold’s mother had a boarder, 48 year-old widower Frederick Turnidge, an
engineer’s labourer originally from High Easter. The latter married Harold’s mother in 1902 in but he was to die in early 1906.
According to street directories of 1910 and 1913 Harold’s widowed mother was living at 50 Victoria Road, Chelmsford, directly opposite Regina Road. The census of 1911 listed Harold, his mother, four siblings and two boarders living at the address. By then two of Harold’s siblings had died. Harold worked as steel grinder, as did his brother Claude, while their mother was a house keeper.
Harold lived in Chelmsford and enlisted at Warley and served as Private 10153 in the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment (‘The Pompadours), which formed part of the 12th Brigade. At the outbreak of the war in August 1914 the Battalion was in Chatham, Kent, forming part of the 12th Brigade in the army’s 4th Division. In the first weeks of the war the Battalion was in Norwich and Harrow, but reached Le Havre, France by the end of the month. Harold’s medal index card shows that he landed in France on 22nd August 1914, suggesting that he was a pre-war regular or reservist with the Battalion.
In late April 1915 Harold’s Battalion was moved to the Ypres area to help defend the town in an action that lasted from 22nd April to 13th May. Late on 30th April 1915 the Battalion was put in the front line to the left of Vanheule (Shelltrap or Mousetrap) Farm, north of Wieltje. The following day the Battalion came under shell-fire from German howitzers from Houthulst Forest, killing 15 men and wounding 14 others. A post war account of the Battalion reported what happened the next day:
“A greater trial came next day, May 2nd, for the Germans used gas for the third time, in this instance against the French on the left and the 4th Division on their right, which, if successful, would have sealed the fate of Ypres and of British troops along Broodseinde Ridge and in Polygon Wood. The Division stood firm, however, as on many another occasion in that month's awful ordeal, for the 4th earned a great reputation in the Salient.
Chlorine gas, which was that first used by the Germans, was very painful in its effects and the scenes which were witnessed on the Western Front during the early days of its employment did much to embitter feeling in the British nation.
It attacked the respiratory tracts and by coming in contact with moisture formed hydrochloric acid, which destroyed the tissues. Vomiting and diarrhoea were also caused, and in cases where men were seized by a high concentration immediate death occurred through spasm of the glottis.
An antidote was soon found in mouthpads made of flannel or wool, soaked in hyposulphite of soda, and these were in use by the troops against whom the attack of May 2nd was launched.
Harold has no known grave and is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial West-Vlaanderen, Belgium, on the Civic Centre Memorial, Chelmsford and by the Chelmsford Parish Great War Memorial in Chelmsford Cathedral. Harold was entitled to the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, and Victory Medal.
In 1920 his mother was still living at 50 Victoria, Road, Chelmsford. She died in 1926.