Twenty years ago, Roger and Doug Goodman discovered a collection of 72 letters written in 1916 from the trenches on the Western Front. The letters were addressed to their grandmother from their uncle, Bertram Alec Reader. The discovery encouraged extensive research into Alec’s experience during the First World War; medals, photographs, official correspondence were assembled and this September, 100 years on, Alec’s relatives will commemorate his life.
With the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme fast approaching, Doug Goodman shares the story of Alec Reader and their family pilgrimage to the Western Front.
At the outbreak of the war, the age of military enlistment began at 18. During the early recruitment drives it was easy enough for younger boys to enlist by giving false ages. With thousands of men joining the British Army, recruitment officers could not confirm the age of each man who came forward. Alec Reader enlisted in August 1915 with the Prince of Wales Own Civil Service Rifles at the age of 17 – four months underage. He was one of the thousands of ‘Boy Soldiers’ who went to France to fight.
Following his enlistment, Alec found himself based at Richmond Park for training and was billeted with a family in Barnes. He was sent to France in early 1916. However, by September Alec had been discovered: the British Army served him with release papers after his true age came to light. At this time, Alec was stationed on the Somme. On the 12th September 1916 he wrote home to his family in South London which he signed, ‘Au revoir, Yr loving son, Alec’ [sic]. Three days later, Alec was killed during the Battle for High Wood, just two weeks before he was due to return to England. In October, Alec’s family were informed of his death.
During the 1920s, his family tried in vain to find out where he was buried, as he had no known grave. In 1923, the Imperial War Graves Commission told Alec’s mother that, although High Wood had been searched and remains of soldiers re-buried, the grave of Private Reader could not be identified. In 1928, the family toured the memorials and cemeteries across France but found nothing. The renewed search by Roger and Doug led to the discovery of Alec’s name on the Roll of Honour at Emanuel School and on the Thiepval Memorial in France. They were contacted by a descendant of a Captain Bates – who had penned a letter to Alec’s mother notifying her of his death.
Private Reader’s story has been told many times in a number of publications, and at an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2014. The son of a soldier who had served alongside Alec, having seen his name in one of many books, contacted Doug. He had seen Alec’s name in his father’s war time diary, which chronicled the moment of Alec’s death. The diary entry of 16th September recorded that Alec was shot by a bullet and died ‘a hero’s death’.
An exhibition at the Emanuel School dedicated to the pupils who had served and died in both the First and Second World Wars featured Alec. A book, Treasure Island, was included in the display. Alec had borrowed the book from the school library in 1914 and had failed to return it. The book travelled with him to war and had been enjoyed when off-duty.
At around 7am on the 15th September 2016, Doug Goodman and his family will stand on High Wood to remember Alec Reader, the boy soldier who lost his life on the Somme.
With thanks to Doug Goodman for sharing this story. If you have a WW1 story with a connection to Richmond upon Thames that you’d like to share, please contact Daniella Hadley at Daniella.Hadley@richmond.gov.uk.