Frederick Blackwell was born in 1896, the son of Richard and Annie Blackwell whose marriage was registered in Witney in late 1891. Richard had been born in Eastleach Turville and Annie Clack in Clanfield. By the census of 1901, the Blackwells were living in Eastleach next to the Almshouses, though which side is indeterminate. Richard was aged 32, described as an estate labourer so was most likely employed by the Bazleys, and Annie was aged 31. In ten years they had produced a brood of six children, ranging from Richard Harold aged eight down to Laura Kate aged 3 months. Frederick was the third child, by then aged 5. All had been born in Eastleach. By the 1911 census, the first which householders completed themselves, the pair had produced ten children, all of whom were still alive. Two, Oliver and Beatrice, were no longer at home – or were sleeping over somewhere else on census night. Frederick was described as a farm labourer, aged 15.
When the Great War began on 4th August 1914, eighteen year old Frederick was not slow to answer the call. Perhaps duty called or life in Eastleach in the crowded cottage had become restrictive and he took the opportunity to see a bit of life. On 1st September 1914 he enlisted in Cirencester in the 8th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment. Interestingly enough, George Pratley had enlisted in the same regiment on 31st August 1914. It isn’t difficult to imagine a scenario where he returned to the village telling the lads that he had joined up and others were pulled along in the excitement of it all, the war that would be over by Christmas.
The 8th (Service) Battalion was formed in Bristol in September 1914 as part of Kitchener’s Second New Army. They moved to Perham Down and in March 1915 to Tidworth. In July 1915 they sailed for France and saw action at Pietre, a supporting action during the Battle of Loos. The Battle of the Somme began on 1st July 1916, twenty weeks in which every one of the Gloucestershire battalions fought. It was the greatest tragedy of our military history and has gone down as one of the bloodiest battles of the Great War. During the last few days of the Somme the 8th Battalion fought in the Battle of Ancre near Thiepval, fighting to control the heights overlooking the Ancre valley. It is likely that this was Frederick’s last resting place as his death was recorded on 18th November 1916, officially the very last day of a battle that had cost over 600,000 Allied losses. His name, like many others in that tragic arena, is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, along with 72,193 of his comrades, all of whom have no known grave, such was the carnage of the conflict.
The Thiepval Memorial was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and was and remains the largest British War Memorial in the world. It was inaugurated on 31st July 1932 by the Prince of Wales. The Memorial Registers containing all the names and details of those inscribed are held in brass register boxes at the site, as is true of all Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries. Some, at smaller cemeteries, hold only one Register. At Thiepval there are six or seven very well-thumbed volumes. When visiting this summer, I approached the box to check that the information I had was correct. I picked up the top volume on the pile, opened it at the very first page to see which letter of the alphabet it contained. There, leaping out at me was the name of Frederick Blackwell of Eastleach, Gloucestershire.