Frank and Frederick were two of the five surviving children of Thomas Syson Hillyerd Ashwell (1855-1924) and Mary Ann Jamblin (1854-1927), all born in Leicester and baptised at St Mark’s. These were: George William Henry (1881-1931); Florence Sybella (1882-); Frank Elmit (1884-1917); Thomas Hillyerd Clawner “Hillyard” (1886-1973); Frederick John (1888-1914) and Arthur Syson (1889-1921). Thomas was a pawnbroker and auctioneer and later also a clothier. From 1881 the family lived at the shop at 38-40 Belgrave Gate, and then after 1886 moved to a separate house at 102 Sparkenhoe Street, and again to
38 Highfield Street. As they grew up the children assisted in the family business.
The family were highly active at St Martin’s. Thomas was Churchwarden between 1906 and 1909 and again between 1923 and 1924, a sidesman, a member of the PCC and later a Lay Canon of the Collegiate Church of St Martin. Thomas had joined St Martin’s in 1896. He and Mary Ann were stalwarts of the church, contributing to every activity and every fund.
Frederick John Ashwell was baptised at St Mark’s on 15th March 1888. After leaving school Frederick joined the 2nd Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps and by 1911 had risen to the rank of Lance Sergeant. As an experienced soldier he was one of the first to the front when war broke out. He was also one of the earliest casualties of the war, dying of wounds in France on or just after the 14th of September 1914 at the Battle of the Aisne. The exact date was recorded at the time as “not known”. On 11th August the battalion was visited by the King and Queen at Aldershot. The following day they entrained at Frimley for Southampton, then at 4.30pm embarked for France aboard the Union Castle liner Galeka, arriving at Le Havre after a smooth passage at 2.45am. A march in the hot sunshine followed, then a train journey to Le Novion. The next few days were spent moving from one small French town to another, often at little notice and with no time to prepare food. The narrow streets were crowded with troops and refugees, mostly women and children driving wagons “drawn by animals of all sorts, even cows…now and then one saw a woman wheeling a barrow which she had loaded with her most precious belongings, including a small child or two on top of all.” Artillery fire was heard nearby on 23rd August. On 30th August they marched via Gobain to Prémontré, where a large number of men were fed generously with coffee and bread by four nuns from a nearby convent. They marched on, with the sound of explosions caused by the Germans blowing up bridges close behind. During the next couple of weeks very little sleep was had and food and water were not always available: The battalion diary records “When the supplies were issued there were about 20 loaves for 1000 hungry men!”.
On 14th September the real fighting began. 8 officers were killed or missing – only two of these could be buried – and 7 wounded, and 306 men from other ranks were killed, wounded or missing. Many of the wounded lay unhelped throughout the night as stretcher bearers were fired upon. The war diarist reported “During the night of 15th September and the next day, some [fifteen] wounded men came in. They were all shot in the legs or wounded or in such a way to prevent them walking…and had lain out between the two fighting lines all that day and the following night and day….a German officer seems to have treated them kindly during the fighting, pulling them in under a haystack. All the men who could walk had been taken prisoners and marched off…the others who had been left started after nightfall, dragging themselves along with their hands as best they could through the turnips in the pouring rain. They were shot at as they came in.” The next day he described a rifleman who had been brought in after three days lying out, “He looked more like a mummy than a man; the skin of his face was drawn and yellow, his limbs limp and powerless…from a wound in his side the blood had stained the webbing of his belt and his clothing; one amongst many who must have been in similar agony, slowly dying from loss of blood, and starvation in this so-called civilized warfare.”
Like this man, who was taken to hospital at Troyon but probably died, Frederick was one of 321 men of the battalion who died between 14th and 17th September at the Aisne. The entire British Expeditionary Force had been ordered to entrench, but few tools were available and the soldiers inexperienced in trench warfare. They dug only shallow pits, providing limited protection. Frederick’s grave is unknown and he is commemorated with over 3500 missing officers and men who fell at the Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and the Aisne between August and October 1914, at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre.
Despite this, Frederick appeared in the St Margaret’s book of remembrance along with one hundred and ninety nine other men – meaning that he must either have been a member of the congregation (or choir), a server, or someone who lived in the parish – with the confident statement that “their bodies are buried in peace.” He is also remembered at Welford Road Cemetery on the family memorial. Frederick left effects of £22 10s 8d which was sent to his father in March 1916. A War Gratuity of £6 was also sent in August 1919.
Frederick’s older brother Frank Elmit Ashwell was baptised at St Mark’s on 13th June 1884. As a young lad Frank served as an apprentice and then as assistant hosiery and yarn wholesaler. He lived at home with his parents in 1911. Like Frederick, Frank joined the Kings Royal Rifle Corps 10th Battalion, then transferred to the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade. On 4th May 1917 his battalion occupied Cordite trench, south of the Arras-Douai railway. At 3am A and C companies made an unsuccessful attack on a chateau north of Rouex. Two officers and 40 other ranks were initially reported wounded in the regimental war diary, including Frank. In fact, Frank had been killed and was buried at Brown’s Copse Cemetery in Roeux, near Arras. At first he was officially reported as wounded, then in early July he appeared on the ‘wounded and missing’ list in the Leicester Mercury. This must have been a very difficult time for his family and friends. Eventually on 24th July his parents posted a memorial notice in The Leicester Mercury:
“ASHWELL – Killed in action in France, Rfn Frank E Ashwell, second son of Mr and Mrs T S H Ashwell, 38 Highfield Street, Leicester.”
Like Frederick, Frank’s small account with the Army was sent to his father – £10 12s 9d in September 1917 and War Gratuity of £3 10s in October 1919.
The surviving war service records for the Ashwell family are very limited. It is very possible that Thomas Hillard Clawson Ashwell served as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers and survived the war, but it is impossible to be certain. There is no record of Arthur Syson Ashwell serving; perhaps due to poor health. He died in 1921.
Parents Mary Ann, Father Thomas Syson Hillyerd and Arthur Syson are all buried together at Welford Road Cemetery with several children who died in early infancy. Their gravestone commemorates Frank and Frederick:
ALSO/ FREDERICK JOHN (ASHWELL)/ 2ND BATT THE KINGS ROYAL RIFLE CORPS/ KILLED IN ACTION ON THE AISNE/ 14TH SEPT 1914/ AGED 26 YEARS/ FRANK ELMIT/ 1ST RIFLE BRIGADE/ KILLED IN ACTION NEAR ARRAS/ 21ST MAY 1917 AGED 33 YEARS