The centenary of the end of World War One on 11th November, 2018 marks the climax of four years of commemoration and remembrance of events that shook the world over a hundred years ago. It is impossible for us to imagine the hardship and suffering experienced by those involved, or to fully comprehend the numbers – the 19,240 British and Commonwealth servicemen killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the 54,896 Allied personnel who died at Ypres and are listed as having no known grave on the Menin Gate, or the 130,000 unidentified sets of remains in the Douaumont Ossuary in Verdun.
Such statistics soon become meaningless, and we must focus on the personal stories of individuals in order to bring home the realities of the war. Take Lieutenant Joseph Frederick Mead for example. He was the eldest son of Frederick and Mary Ellen Mead of The Moorings, Althorp Road, St Albans, and he was the first man from Hertfordshire to be killed in World War One. Joseph was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in 1892, and was educated at Winchester School, where he was President of the Boat Club and twice won the Gold Medal for athletics. After attending Sandhurst Military Academy, Joseph obtained a commission in the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers. A year later he gained his aviator’s certificate, with the intention of transferring to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps.
The declaration of war against Germany put this on hold and as part of the regular British army Joseph and his battalion were quickly sent to Belgium. On August 23rd, a mere 19 days after the outbreak of the war, and only 24 hours after the first shot was fired by a British soldier six miles away at Casteau, Lieutenant Joseph Mead was killed. His unit was attempting to defend a bridge over the Mons-Conde canal at Nimy, in the face of overwhelming numbers. Reports said that Joseph was wounded whilst bringing up reinforcements but quickly returned to his post after receiving treatment, only to be hit almost immediately by rifle fire. Lieutenant Mead is buried in St Symphorien military cemetery near Mons.
Sadly, this was not the only tragedy to affect the Mead family. Joseph Mead’s younger brother Robert had enlisted in the 8th Service Battalion, Royal Fusiliers upon leaving Winchester School, and was sent to France at the end of May, 1915. He died of wounds at Armentieres on August 2nd, 1915, the day after a member of the digging party he was supervising accidently set off an unexploded bomb, killing Robert and injuring 13 others. Lieutenant Robert John Mead is buried in Cite Bonjean military cemetery, Armentieres.
Perhaps the death of his second son in the war was too much for his father to bear. Frederick Mead passed away on August 11th, 1915, aged 58 years, just 9 days after Robert. Three years later in August, 1918, Frederick’s widow Mary commissioned a stained glass window in memory of her husband, and of her sons Joseph and Robert. The window and its inscription can still be seen in St Peter’s Church, St Albans.
Does the death of the first man from Hertfordshire in World War One have any more significance than the last soldier from the county to perish? Or any of the other 19,000 Hertfordshire men to fall for that matter? Probably not, certainly for the family and friends of the soldier involved. But highlighting the stories of individuals makes us realise that wars are fought by men (and women), each with their own history and each leaving their own legacy of grief and memories. At this time of remembrance, we should think of them all as people and not just statistics or names inscribed on a weather-beaten war memorial.