Lost but not Forgotten! Henry Gristwood’s Medal

On 24 September 1920 The Buckinghamshire Examiner on page 7 carried the following appeal:
‘LOST — Between Chestnut Lane and Lexham Gardens, Pocket Book containing three £1 Treasury Notes, D.C.M. Medal and various Demob Papers. Anyone bringing same to H. Gristwood, Lexham Gardens, Amersham Common, will be rewarded.’

This looked worth exploring, partly because Gristwood came into the category of WW1 soldier which is harder to research (those who served and survived) and also because he must have done something outstanding to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and it would be a pity for that to be totally forgotten.

The Absent Voters List of 1918 confirmed the Lexham Gardens address and, crucially, gave his military details — 687480 Driver 160 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. Click for details. Previous experience suggested that it would not be easy to track an individual artilleryman. Even using his service number and with the advantage of an uncommon surname it took several attempts to track down his medal card and his entry in the RFA medal roll. Disappointingly neither record showed when he first entered a theatre of war or noted the award of anything other than the Victory Medal. He appeared, however, to have had two numbers — TF 687480, almost as quoted in the Absent Voters’ List, which suggests he may have had some Territorial Force experience, and another number, 297712.

Census and other records helped to start building a picture of him. He was born on 5 April 1884, the son of William Gristwood, a railway platelayer, and Sarah Ann, and had been christened in Rickmansworth on 11 May. In the 1901 census he was working as an errand boy aged 16. His older brother William, 19, was like his father, a platelayer. A younger brother, Charles was also running errands and there were three younger sisters.

Ten years later Henry was living at Bury End, Amersham, working as an assistant to an egg merchant. On 26 December 1908 he had married Amy Lindars at Tetsworth in Oxfordshire. The couple do not appear to have had any children by 1911, nor do there seem to be any Gristwood/Lindars births registered after this date.

Searching the newspapers produced no account of how the medal was won, but did reveal other aspects of Henry’s life. He did not join up on the outbreak of war. When conscription was introduced and call-up papers started arriving his employer Ernest H Sladen went before the Amersham Appeals Tribunal to argue that Henry was a vital worker. His work force had been reduced to a lad of 18 who was expecting his call-up very soon and one other man. Henry did heavy work in the warehouse and made three journeys per week. Captain Bertram remarked that women in London were doing equally heavy work and also driving two-horse vans, which suggests that this was what Henry did. Mr Sladen was allowed a delay of one month to make alternative arrangements (Buckinghamshire Examiner, 26 May 1916, p 4).

As we know, Henry Gristwood survived the war and when he returned to Amersham it was to work for the same employer. This is clear from two more reports in the Buckinghamshire Examiner. The first, on 22 May 1925 p 6, was the appearance before the magistrates of Edgar Howard Sladen, dairyman, of Chestnut Lane, who was accused of selling cream that was not properly labelled to show that it contained boric acid as a preservative. His roundsman Henry Gristwood had been stopped while driving his milk float along Chestnut Lane by the County Inspector who had bought two cartons of cream from him, paying one shilling.

About two years later on 6 May 1927 (p 3) the Buckinghamshire Examiner published another report of a court case. Henry was accused of cruelty to the pony he had been driving on his milk round. The pony, described as a ‘terribly restless animal’, had gone forward about ten yards on its own while Henry was occupied with a delivery and a car had stopped close to it. Gristwood made the pony go backwards for about twenty yards and was accused of jagging her mouth with excessive force. When upbraided by the RSPCA inspector who had observed this, Henry allegedly said I am very sorry: I lost my temper; and I ought to have put a chain on the wheel.’ In court he stated that there was simply not time to chain the wheel for every stop. Evidence was given that the pony was feeding normally soon after, was frisky when turned out and that no sign of recent injury could be found, other than a small bruise. The magistrate fined Henry £2 plus the witness fee of 10 shillings and sixpence. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, it brought out some details of Henry’s life that would otherwise never have been known. He had been employed by Mr Sladen for twenty years (which takes us back to 1907) and had charge of horses all that time. He was said to be ‘a splendid man with horses’, feeding and looking after them well. The Rector of St Leonard’s Chesham Bois, the Reverend GH Lawrence, also attested to Henry’s friendly manner with animals. Henry himself stated that he was aged 42 and had worked with horses since the age of 11. He had been an RFA driver in charge of horses and had been awarded the DCM during the retreat while driving horses under shell fire. He also mentioned that he had had a serious accident just before Christmas and suffered from rheumatism which may have affected his temper. The Buckinghamshire Examiner kindly also documented this for us. Close to the Boot and Slipper Henry had stepped out into the road next to a stationary vehicle and was hit and knocked down by another. The car stopped immediately but came to a standstill on his foot. His right knee and ankle were also injured. This was followed by a rather opportunistic advert for accident insurance from the Bucks Insurance Bureau (8 October 1926, p 7).

The additional details gleaned about the DCM were too generalised to offer any real clues to follow up. Eventually a notice of the award after the end of the war was found in the London Gazette on 30 May 1919, p 6849. The late date may account for its not being noted on his medal card. Better still a detailed citation appeared on 9 March 1920, p 3046:
‘687480 Dvr. H Gristwood, A/160th Bde., R.F.A. (Amersham).

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the recent operations behind Gheluwe from 7th October to 15th October 1918. When the battery was in an open position he brought up rations night after night without fail, frequently having to pass through very heavy fire. In addition to the shell fire he had to contend with difficult ground to get over. It was entirely due to his determination that the battery was kept supplied with rations.’

The War Diary for the 160th Brigade is available in the National Archives at WO 95/2447/5. It has maps of the area but consists of copies of orders and much technical detail about ranges and arcs of fire. Other than confirming roughly where ‘A’ Battery was it adds nothing to the story.
By the time the Second World war broke out, Henry had found employment of a different kind. He and Amy were resident caretakers in the Council Offices in Amersham and Henry was in addition an Air Raid Precautions Warden.
Some time later the couple moved to 46 Grove Road, off Plantation Road. Henry died aged 70 in Amersham Hospital on 27 May 1954 and it seems that Amy died aged 94 in 1983. So we are unlikely ever to find out happened to Henry’s medal, but at least his bravery and skill in controlling horses under heavy fire can be appreciated.

Gwyneth Wilkie

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