The Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire unveiled a new memorial to 17 Eccleshall soldiers killed in the Great War. Duncan Honeybourne tells the story of one of them, his great-grandfather William Augustine Mossop.
On 24th June 2018, at Eccleshall Parish Church, the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire unveiled a memorial commemorating 17 Eccleshall servicemen who died in the Great War but whose sacrifice has not hitherto been recorded on the town’s War Memorial.
Wreaths were laid by descendants of the 17, and I had the privilege of laying one of them, for those men include my great-grandfather, William Augustine Mossop, and his younger brother Bernard. Their journeys, which began in Eccleshall, ended amidst the carnage of the Western Front but, by the time they died, their family had moved away. Now, over a century later, thanks to the efforts and research of the Eccleshall Historical Society, they will at last be permanently honoured in the town of their birth.
I was born 60 years after my great-grandfather fell at Passchendaele in the autumn of 1917, but he hadn’t been forgotten. His daughter, my grandmother, was a powerful and everyday fixture in my life until I was 30. It was to me that she bequeathed the battered, bloodstained photograph, inscribed to her “with lots of love”, that had been retrieved from his mangled body in Lijssenthoek Military Hospital, sent back to Birmingham, and treasured by her for nine decades. In my youth, this priceless, personal and poignant document haunted and fascinated me, as did my grandmother’s accounts of this now distant war: her father’s return on leave, when his louse-infected clothes had to be burned; his touching concern at Christmas 1916 that he would not survive another year in Flanders; and the heartbreaking penury she and her widowed mother endured after his death.
William and Bernard Mossop were born in Castle Street, Eccleshall, in 1884 and 1888. A portrait taken in the late 1890s depicts them, with their five brothers, exuding an air of confidence and mischief. But the picture is an essay on a blighted generation: four of the boys were destined to fight in the First World War and, whilst two survived, to bear lifelong scars, the other two never came home. Bernard, 27 years old and unmarried, was killed in the Battle of Loos in 1915 and his body never found; he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial. William survived until the Second Battle of Ypres, when he was mortally wounded and endured his final agonising hours in the largest evacuation hospital in the Ypres Salient.
William’s parents, Edward Mossop and Ellen Hall, came from Irish families long settled in Staffordshire. Edward seems to have been a lively lad, starting off as a bricklayer and eventually setting up his own building firm. But in 1870 he hit the headlines when he was fined £2, plus £1 8s and 6d costs, after an altercation with a ticket collector on the North Staffordshire Railway. The Birmingham Daily Gazette of 14th February 1870, heading its article “Struggle in a Railway Carriage”, reported that Edward and his brother Thomas
“were charged with having assaulted and impeded Abraham Williams while in the discharge of his duty….On the arrival of a train at the ticket platform, Thomas pretended to be asleep when his ticket was demanded, though his fellow passengers swore that they had seen him make faces at the officer behind his back. Williams at last shook Thomas, whereupon Edward jumped up and seized him….the passengers were obliged to call other officials before the Mossops could be restrained.”
One hopes that Edward mended his ways, but his later fortunes were mixed. He settled briefly in the United States before returning to Eccleshall, but in middle age was declared bankrupt and moved south to Smethwick, where he reinvented himself as a steeplejack. William and several of his brothers joined their father’s business and looked after many Midland landmarks including Smethwick’s Galton Bridge and the spire of Coventry’s mediaeval cathedral. Having earlier joined the Army and served in Ireland, William signed up again early in the Great War. By now he was a married man, living in Birmingham with his young wife Emily. Of his five children, three predeceased him, and his youngest daughter died of whooping cough just three months after William’s own demise at the front. Only the eldest of his offspring, my redoubtable grandmother, survived infancy to tell the tale.
As a musician, I have often spoken of my great-grandfather in lecture recitals showcasing WW1 composers and, last year, his name – and battle-scarred picture – were immortalised in a piece of music. As part of the Passchendaele centenary commemorations in Ypres Cathedral, the Belgian composer Ludo Geloen gave the world premiere of his own Warscape, for cello and harmonium, a powerful triptych dedicated to the memory of William Augustine Mossop, who had died there 100 years earlier and lies nearby
“In some corner of a foreign field”.
The exquisite closing piece, Keepsake, reflects on the weathered photograph’s journey to the battlefield and back. And indeed now this Staffordshire soldier himself has finally come home, to be commemorated forever in his birthplace.
Duncan Honeybourne is a pianist, writer, broadcaster and a Lecturer in Piano at the University of Southampton.