Home Page

325834 Sapper
JOHN STANLEY EDWARDS
Royal Engineers

by
Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis
2002. All Rights Reserved.

1. INTRODUCTION

Unless otherwise noted, the details supplied in this narrative were extracted from original service papers and photographs acquired by the author at the time that he acquired Sapper Edwards’s medals. A search was made for Edwards’s service papers in the Public Record Office at Kew, Richmond, Surrey, but none were found.

2. EARLY LIFE AND FAMILY INFORMATION

John Stanley Edwards was born in Liverpool in 1892. He lived in Liverpool as a young man prior to the start of the Great War of 1914 to 1918 and worked as a shipping clerk. He went by the nickname "Stan" and does not appear to have used his given name "John" except on official documents [1].

Edwards had a brother named Joseph who also served in the Great War as a Corporal in the Royal Flying Corps [2]. Joseph Edwards and his wife Ethel emigrated to Canada after the Great War and took up residence at Stratford Hall on College Avenue in Winnipeg. A postcard written by Joseph to his mother indicates that their mother was alive and living in Liverpool in September of 1919.

3. PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

The following is a description of John Stanley Edwards at the time he enlisted in the Army in 1915:

Apparent age:

23 years

Height:

5 feet 6 inches

Complexion:

Fresh

Hair:

Light brown

Eyes:

Grey

There is an unusual note in his Description on Enlistment where the Recruiting Officer made a comment about his dress "being plain." This rather gratuitous and snobbish remark is rather humorous since nothing could have been "plainer" than the British service dress of the Great War period; clothing for which Edwards was going to trade his plain civilian garb.

A photograph taken of Sapper Edwards in Murmansk in 1918 shows that he was thin, sullen looking man (at least in this photograph). In the photograph he is sitting on a corrugated metal pipe in front of a wooden shack with a cigarette in his hand and an expression on his face that clear says "What am I doing here?"

4. ENLISTMENT AND TRAINING

John Stanley Edwards attested for General Service at Liverpool on the 18th of November 1915. He enlisted under the Derby Scheme for the duration of the war. The Derby Scheme was devised by Lord Derby after his appointment as Director General of Recruiting on the 11th of October 1915. Lord Derby’s plan to increase the size of the army allowed for men between the ages of 18 and 41 to enlist voluntarily or to attest with an obligation to serve if called up. The Derby Scheme did not produce the results hoped for and it was terminated on the 15th of December 1915. Between the 16th of October and the 15th of November 1915 a total of about 215,000 men had enlisted for immediate service and almost 2.2 million men attested for service if called. The Derby Scheme was replaced by the Military Service Act on the 27th of January 1916 and conscription was started [3].

Edwards was one of the men who took advantage of the Derby Scheme to attest and await call up for active service. On the day following his attestation he was transferred to the Army Reserve, Class B, Group 6 [4].

5. ASSIGNMENTS AND CAMPAIGN SERVICE

In May of 1916 the Royal Engineers Signal Service requested permission to establish a new engineer trade to be known as telephone switchboard operator. This request was made based on a recognition of two main deficiencies regarding the growth of the military telephone system. Firstly, it was recognized that there was a shortage of motor airline sections and cable sections within the armies in the field. This was corrected by adding one of each to each Army. Secondly, the lack of telephone exchange operators was recognized. Permission to create the new trade of telephone switchboard operator was initially refused by the War Officer; however, a temporary solution was instituted to provide for the addition of Pioneers to signal companies to perform this duty. This second question was raised again some months later with more satisfactory results [5].

On the 22nd of June 1916 John Stanley Edwards was called to the Colours for duty with the Royal Engineers Signal Service. He was issued Regimental Number 325834 and the rank of Sapper and proceeded to undergo his basic training as a soldier. In August of 1917 he completed his basic and trade training and qualified as a Switchboard Operator. He was assigned to the Home Establishment on Home Defence duties in his new trade and appears to have trained other switchboard operators, since these were in short supply in the Army. Although he had been trained in the duties, there was no Army trade designation for a "switchboard operator" at this time. It might have been anticipated that telephone exchange operators provided by the Army would have been inefficient, for no men of this trade were carried on the Army Signal establishments. This was not usually the case, however, for many men in all signal units were employees of the General Post Office. Among these there was a proportion of men trained in switchboard operations in a civil capacity at home. Except in the lowest formations, there was at once a sufficient availability of trained men to meet the initial demand. Later, shortages occurred, but these shortages were met by a "special system of training" and by the enlistment of further qualified men from the General Post Office to fill the needs as they arose, while the creation of the army trade "Switchboard Operator" finally regularized the situation [6]. Sapper Edwards appears to have been one of the men who received the "special training" referred to above.

In October of 1918 Sapper Edwards was posted to the Royal Engineers Signal Service Draft Depot at Hitchin in Hertfordshire. In the following month he was assigned to SYREN Signal Company, R.E. and was drafted for service in Murmansk in Northern Russia where his draft would join SYREN Force. The following narrative was taken from Sapper Edwards’s diary. It describes the lives of the men in Edwards’s draft for Northern Russia, their attitude regarding foreign service, and their preparations for the journey.

With the North Russian Expeditionary Force, 1918-1919.

The Diary of 325834 Sapper J.S. Edwards, R.E. Signals

"SYREN" Signal Company
Murmansk, North Russia

Drawing Lots

"To the majority of men the word "adventure" has a fascination, it is magnetic, it attracts and holds him, it appeals to the romantic side of his nature. At the sound of the word he pictures adventures grave and gay amid strange people in a strange land and he is eager to set out and realise to the full the joys and excitements of the adventure.

Such was the case in October 1918 when 28 young men of the R.E. Signal Service were sent to the Draft Depot at Hitchin and informed that their destination was North Russia. The war was at its height. Drafts were bound for France, Italy, Salonika, Egypt, India, Africa, etc. But to the imaginative mind these did not appeal. All eyes were centered on the little band of "Esquimoes", as they were cheerfully "nick-named." Some pitied us, others envied us. But to a man we all looked forward to the adventure. Russia was a land of mystery. She was in the grip of a civil war. The papers were full of the "Bolshevik" crimes. The YMCA spoke of the terrible arctic winter "when the icy winds and the touch of metal seared the flesh like red hot iron." Could adventure be more attractive? It appealed to all of us and what a varied group we were. No two alike, yet all alike in the one desire to get to Russia as soon as possible and so begin the "great adventure."

But the days dragged on and no sign of departure, until November dawned. Then the signs of activity were noticed – a visit to the Quarter Masters stores and the issue of equipment and clothing which consisted of fur lined coats, Shackelton boots, woolen socks and stockings, fur cap, leather jerkin, woolen cardigan, British warm gloves, mittens, gauntlets – a lot of "stuff." We were to be well provided for our adventure.

We were now awaiting with patience our "marching orders" when a bomb shell was dropped in our midst by the announcement that only 22 out of the 28 were to go. Who will drop out? Was the question put to us? No one moved. We were left to decide it between ourselves. But results were nil. No one would drop out. Then we were told we must draw lots as to who was to go, so the numbers were placed in a hat and excitement ran high as each man drew the fatal slips out of the hat. One glance at the man’s face told whether he was to proceed on the great adventure or stay at home. Disappointment was written on six faces and soon their persuasive powers came into force. Some offered money to be allowed to go. But no one would sacrifice his right to go upon the adventure. We had all set our hearts and so the disappointed six had to abide by the result of the drawing of lots.

The Journey

At last the day arrived. The day looked forward to for week had dawned at 8:30 p.m. We were to depart. Not one of that little Band will ever forget that day. It was "Excitement Day." Now that the time had come there was a tinge of regret in our hearts as we took the last look at our billets. They were comfortable. We thought of the happy hours we had spent in them. We said goodbye to the pals we had made and the hearty handshake was more expressive that the words of good cheer and the good luck that they gave. Then as time was getting short we wandered into the canteen for our last cups of tea and plates of cake. What feelings we had had in this place, what glorious sing-songs! It was here we had written all our letters, here we had "growled" to one another. It was here we had "slain" (in our minds) the S.M. and various N.C.O.s. It was a cozy, comfortable place, bright and cheerful, air chairs and "posh" fires and as we drank our last cups of tea the memory of all these things came back to us and we realized how much we would miss this place. Now we were leaving. We thought of the struggles we had had to get a bar of chocolate or a box of matches. These were luxuries and we were limited to "one" bar or box about twice a week. How often we had tried to "bluff", "persuade", "flatter", etc. the girls behind the counter to let us have more than one. But our appeals were always in vain. They remained "firm" to canteen rules. So tonight we appeared for our last bar of chocolate. "Bar of chocolate, miss, please, and a box of matches."" Our requests were made in a hushed voice because we had been refused before. The girls looked at us and noted our equipment and "Blue and White" on our arms which denoted we were going away. "Are you going to Russia?" was the query. Yes, the answer. "Well, we’re sorry your going and wish you the best of luck, etc., etc. You can have six bars of chocolate if you like and you had better take three or four boxes of matches in case you can’t get any." Bless them! Canteen rules didn’t count when they wanted to try and cheer a chap up. This was their method of showing it. We owe a lot to them for their sacrifice [and] their cheery words and as we left the canteen we knew we would miss them and as we went down the road we could hear the piano and the lads singing in chorus, "If You Were the Only Girl in the World."

Prompt on time we marched out of the gates of the camp led by the R.E. Band, which played the liveliest tunes they knew. What a march to the station it was! There was no order. People join in the ranks with the troops and arm in arm singing and

shouting we wended our way to the station. Hundreds joined in the march. Some carried lamps and torches, some with [ ? ]. Everyone cheered and sang. Never shall we forget the scene. It was immense, it was great. The people were determined to give us a good send off and they did.

At the station good byes were said. It was hard to leave the girls behind. How many [ ? ] promises were made I do not know. But the parting was hard and there rose a lump in a good many throats that night.

At last we were off and as the train drew out of the station, cheer followed cheer, and mingled with the cheers were the strains of the ever popular R.E. march "Wings." What a journey! Packed 10 in a coach, 20 kit bags and equipment, no room for comfort, no room to stretch our legs. Some were perched on top of a pile of kit bags near the roof. Hour after hour we sped along in the darkness. What weariness we suffered. How we began to wish we had dropped out when we had the chance. Too late now. Hour after hour we looked into the blackness of the night and as dawn came, we found we were approaching Scotland. How bleak and desolate it looked. One popped his head out of the window and shouted to his chum, "Say Jock, is this Scotland?" Jock, his face beaming, answered back "Yes." "Well, it’s rotten."

Over the [ ? ] Bridge we went. What an enormous structure! Man looks small against this mighty work. But he is greater. At last we passed over the Tay Bridge and stopped at a station outside Dundee. How glad we were to alight, 13 or 14 hours cooped up had tried our tempers and the scene around did not improve them, desolate and dreary was the station. Not a soul about. We were marched down to the docks by the back ways. Hardly a soul we met. How disappointed we were. No chance of a bit of "grub." No welcome voice, but straight into a large shed we were marched and there waited another couple of hours before we boarded the boat.

Edwards’ diary ends at this point. The boat mentioned in his diary was a ship named Silver Axe in which Edwards’s draft sailed from Dundee Scotland to Murmansk, North Russia [7].

Edwards refers to his Signals unit in his diary as the SYREN Signal Company, alluding to "Syren" Force or the North Russia Expeditionary Force composed of many nations attempting to stem the tide of Bolshevism in Russia. The anti-Bolshevik armies in North Russia, consisting of British, Americans, Italians, Serbs, Finns and others, even at the height of their success in 1919, were too disunited in aims and methods to prevail over the "Red Army" with its combination of communist ideology and the national defence of mother Russia against the foreign foe.

Sapper Edwards served at Murmansk in Northern Russia until well into 1919. A photograph in the author’s collection labeled by Edwards "Billet, Murmansk, N. Russia, 1918-1919" shows that he and the men of his unit lived in a well-built log building with casement windows. The building appears to be typical of the construction in North Russian towns at the time and probably was commandeered by the British Army as living quarters for the men.

Edwards brought home a small photograph album of snapshots taken in North Russia during his stay there. Among the photographs is a snapshot entitled "Murmansk. View from Telegraph Hill." This was probably Sapper Edwards’s duty station while he was in Murmansk. The building from which he operated his switchboard was a very rustic wooden structure built from a combination of logs and clapboard. The building does not appear to be well insulated from the outside and was probably very cold and drafty in the winter. The photograph of Telegraph Hill depicts a desolate scene showing snow-covered terrain with telegraph and telephone lines used by the British troops of the North Russia Expeditionary Force.

Another photograph entitled "Our Water Supply" shows a mule-drawn wagon being loaded with water from a small pond. One wonders how the water was made potable and safe to drink?

A photograph entitled "General View from Telegraph Hill" appears to have been taken from the top of the hill. The buildings of Murmansk are visible in the background and behind the buildings is Murmansk inlet.

Another photograph in Edwards’s small album is entitled "Alexandrousk Church Interior." Alexandrousk does not appear on modern maps of Russia or in modern gazetteers. It may have been a small town near Murmansk or it may be a town that has disappeared completely, perhaps as a result of World War 2 [8]. The interior of the church was beautiful and it was this beauty that probably prompted Edwards to take the photograph.

In the autumn of 1919 Sapper Edwards returned to England and was posted to the Bedford ‘A’ Signal Depot, R.E. His stay at Bedford was a short one, as he was being prepared for demobilization. Lieutenant H.L. Collingbourne, R.E., Officer Commanding Bedford ‘A’ Signal Depot, had this to say about him with regard to his qualifications, work done, and skills acquired during his Army service:

"This man is fully qualified in his military engineering trade as [Telephonist Switchboard Operator], and has performed his duties in an efficient manner."

On the 18th of September 1919 he was posted to No. 1 Dispersal Unit at Prees Heath in Somersetshire in preparation for demobilization.

For his service during the Great War Sapper Edwards was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal [9].

NOTE: Sapper Edwards was not Mentioned in
Despatches as indicated by the oak leave on the Victory Medal.

6. PROMOTIONS AND CONDUCT

a. Promotions: Sapper Edwards received no promotions during his time in service.

b. Conduct: There is no mention of Sapper Edwards’s conduct in his service papers, although there is no reason to believe that it was anything but good.

7. EDUCATION AND QUALIFICATIONS

a. Education: There is no indication in his service record that Sapper Edwards earned a Certificate of Education during his time in service.

b. Qualifications: Sapper Edwards qualified as a Switchboard Operator shortly after his call up for active service. By the time of his demobilization in 1918 his Specialist Military Qualification was listed as Telephone Switchboard Operator (Proficient), the actual designation for which was Telephonist, Switchboard Operator or T.S.O.

8. MEDICAL INFORMATION

Other than the results of his medical examination upon attestation in 1915, there is no Medical History Sheet included in Sapper Edwards’s service papers.

9. MARRIAGE AND PERSONAL INFORMATION

There is no indication in Edwards’s service papers that he was married during the time he served in the Army.

Edwards was proud of his service in Army and especially of his active service in North Russia. While he was in Russia, someone at home (probably his mother) collected various news cuttings of stories relating to the North Russia Expeditionary Force. Edwards held on to these cutting and preserved them so that over 80 years later they were intact and part of his collection of memorabilia. Among the newspaper articles he kept were the following:

The newspaper articles are too lengthy to reproduce here in this narrative; however, their headlines provide some interesting incite into the military activities in North Russia and the newspaper coverage of the time.

Newspaper cuttings were not the only other mementos that Sapper Edwards held on to over many years. His collection of memorabilia also included two Russian bank notes and a Russian postage stamp. A note by Edwards indicates that the postage stamp also was used as currency by the Imperial Russian forces in 1919. He also kept a copy of a blank telegram form written in Russian as well as his Royal Engineers cap badge and a pair of his two-piece shoulder titles "RE/Signal Service." [10]

10. DISCHARGE

Sapper John Stanley Edwards was issued his Protection Certificate and Certificate of Identity at No. 1 Dispersal Unit in Prees Heath, Shropshire on the 18th of September 1919. The certificates indicated that his record and pay offices would be at Chatham, Kent and that in case of an emergency he was to rejoin the Colours at the Signal Depot in Deganwy, Wales. His medical category was listed as A1 meaning that he was "fit for despatching overseas, as regards physical and mental health, and training."

On the 20th of September 1919 Edwards proceeded on 28 days furlough to his home at 11 Lytton Grove in Seaforth, Liverpool. On the 17th of October he was transferred to the Class "Z" Army Reserve on demobilization. Edwards was discharged from the Army on the 31st of March 1920. His total service was reckoned as shown in the tables below:

Location

Period of Service

Army Reserve, Class B, Group 6

18 November 1915 to 21 June 1916

Recruit and Trade Training

22 June 1916 to August 1917

Hitchin, Hertfordshire

August 1917 to November 1918

Murmansk, North Russia

November 1918 to September 1919

Prees Heath, Shropshire

18 September to 16 October 1919

Army Reserve, Class Z

17 October 1919 to 31 March 1920

Location

Period of Service

Home Service

3 years and 193 days

Service Abroad

305 days (approximately)

Total Service

4 years and 133 days

11. POST SERVICE LIFE

Little is known about John Stanley Edwards’s life after leaving the Army except that he returned to his home at 11 Lytton Grove in Seaforth, Liverpool. He appears to have been a religious man and was a boys Sunday School Teacher at Orrell Hey in Litherland, Liverpool for a number of years. In April of 1928 he resigned his position as a Sunday School Teacher. The clergyman in the parish, one A.J. Warren, wrote this to Edwards at the time of his resignation:

ORRELL HEY,

LITHERLAND,

LIVERPOOL

April 18, 1928

Dear Stanley,

I am sorry that you find it necessary to resign your class in the Sunday School. I know the boys will be sorry too.

I must thank you on behalf of the School for all the service that you have rendered for so many years. Sometimes when I have seen you among your lads I have thought of the times gone by when your father used to bring you to Linaire to recite. A good deal has happened since those days and you have had wide & varying experiences, such as either develop a man or break him.

I pray that in all the years to come you will continue to keep the faith and place first things first, and that the blessing of God may rest upon you and upon all your interests.

Yours very sincerely,

A. J. Warren

ADDENDUM NO. 1

RECORDS OF THE 1901 BRITISH CENSUS

The 1901 British Census verifies that John Stanley Edwards was born in Liverpool, Lancashire. The census record shows the following details:(*)

Civil Parish:

Toxteth Park

Ecclesiastical Parish:

St. Agnes

Parliamentary Borough or Division:

East Toxteth

Administrative County:

Liverpool C.B.

At the time of the 1901 Census, John Stanley Edwards was 8 years old and living with his mother at 37 Ullet Road in Liverpool. His father was deceased or no longer living with the family. His mother, Emma Dorothy Edwards, had been born in Liverpool and was 30 years old at the time of the census. She was the head of the household, but she had no occupation and her employment status was "undefined."

In addition to John, Emma Edwards one other child: Henry Hoch Edwards, 6 years old. Henry also had been born in Liverpool. The census return lists three servants living in the Edwards household at the time: Margaret Davies, 25 years old, a cook; Helge Henrietta Lund, 28 years old, a domestic waitress; and Margaret Parker, 16 years old, a housemaid. For a woman of 30 with no occupation or employment to have three servants, Emma Edwards must have been a woman of independent means.

No mention is made in the census of John's brother Joseph. It is possible that John's father had not died and was living apart from his wife in 1901. His son Joseph may have been living with him. Henry Hoch Edwards would have been 19 years old at the start of the Great War of 1914-1918. He too may have served with His Majesty's forcers. If he did serve, he survived the war, as no record of him was found in Soldiers Died in the Great War.

(*) PRO Reference. RG Number, Series RG13, Piece 3440, Folio 73, Page 1, Schedule Number 1.

REFERENCES

Books

1. BANKS, A. A Military Atlas of the First World War. Heinemann Educational Books, London, 1975.

2. PRIESTLEY, R.E. The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918 (France). The Institution of Royal Engineers and the Signals Association, Chatham, 1921.

Periodicals

1. The News of the World, Sunday, October 27, 1918.

2. Liverpool Weekly Post, Saturday, January 11, 1919.

3. Liverpool Weekly Post, Saturday, March 1, 1919.

4. Daily Sketch, Friday, April 4, 1919.

5. The Yorkshire Post, Saturday, July 26, 1919.

Soldier’s Documents

  1. Pass for Recruits, Army Form B. 216.
  2. Protection Certificate and Certificate of Identity, Army Form Z. 11.
  3. Certificate of Transfer to Reserve on Demobilization, Army Form Z. 21.
  4. Certificate of Employment During the War, Army Form Z. 18.
  5. Medal Index Card.
  6. Authority to Travel "Syren" Expeditionary Force to the United Kingdom.
  7. Original box of issue for the British War and Victory Medals.
  8. Letter from A.J. Warren to John Stanley Edwards dated Liverpool, April 18, 1928.
  9. The Diary of 325834 Sapper J.S. Edwards, R.E. Signals, "SYREN" Signal Company, Murmansk, North Russia.

Internet Web Site

A Tommies Recruitment in 1914-1918. Internet web site http://www.1914-1918.net/recruitment.htm

 ENDNOTES

[1] In a postcard message sent to their mother from Canada in 1919, Edwards’s brother Joseph refers to him as Stan rather than John.

[2] Corporal Joseph Edwards appears to have served in France. A postcard photograph of his in the author’s possession shows him standing in front of an SE-5. He is wearing a wedding band in the photograph, hence it appears that he was married either before or during the war.

[3] A Tommies Recruitment in 1914-1918. Internet web site http://www.1914-1918.net/recruitment.htm.

[4] The Derby Scheme classified men into married and single and into 23 groups according to their age. Since the Scheme covered a 23 three period between ages 18 and 41, and since Edwards was unmarried, it is apparent that Class B, Group 6 was for unmarried men who were 23 years of age.

[5] Priestley, p. 157.

[6] Ibid., pp. 61 and 155.

[7] No reference could be found describing Silver Axe, but from a photograph in the Edwards collection it appears to have been a cargo ship or freighter. The photograph shows some of the 22 men in Edwards’s draft with gantry cranes and block and tackle gear in the background. It does not look like a passenger liner.

[8] The spelling of Alexandrousk is uncertain since it was written by Edwards in cursive on the page of the photograph album. The name of the town may be Alexandrous. In either case, there is no record of the town by either name on modern maps.

[9] Medal Index Card. These medals were the basis for this research work.

[10] All of these items are in the author’s collection.