H G Field. Australian Munition Worker: (there’s more here than meets the eye)

H G Field.  Australian Munition Worker:  (there’s more here than meets the eye)

In section H2 of Foster Hill Cemetery, near Bedford Park, there are several headstones that barely hint at the strange but true stories that can be told about those who are buried. There’s the boy who cried wolf…and was drowned. There’s the spiritualist fraud who could levitate …or perhaps not. There’s the sad story of a flood victim…who isn’t there. In death, all are no doubt supervised by Mr Dann himself, the first Superintendent of the Cemetery, watching the others from his family plot near the path. And then there’s the enigmatic headstone giving only the basic details of H G Field, an Australian Munition Worker who died in April 1919. His is certainly a Commonwealth War Graves Commission stone, but it seems less well looked-after, and is some distance from most of the other soldiers of the Great War.

Was he a soldier? If not, how did he end up in Bedford? Why did he stay in England after the war? Had he been wounded? Was he a secret agent, masquerading as a civilian? How did he die? Was it in the Spanish Flu Pandemic? We can all imagine an interesting backstory, and in reality, his was an enigmatic life, a story of someone who you might condemn and sympathise with in equal amounts. But we’ll never know what he was truly like.

Henry George Field was born 1st October 1858 in Hampshire, the youngest in a family of agricultural labourers, and in 1871 he became a brickmaker’s labourer working in his father’s firm. His early life was probably typical of many at the time with limited opportunities, and it isn’t surprising that the next record of his life is when he married, in Australia. He married a widow, Martha Ellen Johnson (nee Wright) in 1895 at Greenmount Queensland. They had five children: Ellen Caroline, Frances, Sarah Elsie, Edward James and Mary Ann, in addition to Martha’s children from her previous marriage (Silas and Anne Johnson).

A HARRY George Field, aged 54 from Toowoomba, Queensland enlisted into the Australian Imperial Force in November 1915, and was given service number 2309. His next of kin on the Attestation Papers was given as Martha Field, but later, on his Embarkation Roll, he changed this to his step-daughter Mrs Annie Sowden. Private Field embarked from Sydney two days later, on RMS Orontes, with the 2nd Australian Remount Unit, 8th squadron..

In April 1916 he left from Suez on the “Seabang Bee” after his Unit was demobilised and he arrived back in Australia on 31st May. He was discharged in June, and was entitled to the 1914/15 Star, British War medal and the Victory Medal for his service in the AIF. It seems likely that he was involved in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, and was perhaps wounded in some way. Most likely he wasn’t a hero or a villain, just an “ordinary” soldier.

However, on 30th May 1917, a HENRY George Field of Toowoomba, Queensland apparently aged 51 and with no dependants, applied to become a Volunteer for Manufacture of Munitions in Great Britain. He had for the last three years been a “Flower Gardener at Gatton College, at present Home Service, Returned Soldier.” He was prepared to embark “at once” and wanted to sail with a Joseph Harris. He was given Munitions Worker number 1214, embarked on 29th July on the “Medic” and reached Liverpool on 12th October 1917.

Under the Australian Munitions Workers scheme, starting in August 1916, volunteers would receive free passage to Great Britain, an allowance for travel time, a special allowance for the duration of service and free return to Australia. Married men had an extra allowance. Because of manpower shortages, they were needed in a range of industries helping in the war effort, especially munitions and engineering. Initially this required skilled men but unskilled men were also taken. Overall, about 5,000 men were involved, working at some 420 locations. Some former AIF soldiers were already here under private agreements with firms such as Vickers. At the end of the war, about 4,500 men were still in this country. 384 had returned to Australia, mainly due to ill health.

Initially, Henry Field worked at RMAT Sleaford as a labourer from 15th October 1917, but he soon became ill, receiving Doctors’ Certificates for bronchitis. In February 1918 he requested a transfer from Messrs Holloway Bros of Cardington as “the climate didn’t agree” with him. Various letters were sent, all saying that the climate at Bedford was undermining his health. Throughout the year, he had times off work due to dysentry. In November he asked for his contract to be terminated but not to return to Australia, as he had married a lady in Bedford, had no ties in Australia and both he and his wife dreaded the long voyage.

He was transferred to work at Spondon in Derbyshire, but his health got no better and he continued to be off work ill most of the time, with lumbago, bronchitis and rheumatism. On 30th December 1918 his file stated that he was going back to Australia by himself, and wanted to go within two months. His last employer was Howard’s of Bedford. At the end of March his health got worse, and he went into Bedford Infirmary where he died of Tuberculosis on 5th April. The Death Certificate says he was 62 years old, and lived at Groyn (?) St Bedford. He was buried in Section H2 plot 174 at Foster Hill Road Cemetery.

What can we make of all that? Well, on the face of it, he might have been an honest English “son of the soil” who emigrated to get a better life, married a widow and took on her children as his own, patriotically volunteered to join the war effort, returned to Australia (perhaps injured), became a widower, patriotically volunteered to go back again as a Munitions Worker, had a series of unfortunate illnesses, found happiness with a second wife, but in the end died and was given a formal headstone by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to mark his contributions.

However, as with most good tales, there’s a twist…In Sept 1919, the Australian Defence Department received an enquiry, stating that a PERCY George Field, who had left Australia as a munitions Worker 30th July 1917 and was understood to have died in England, had a widow in Toowoomba, and she wanted to know what had happened to any Estate he might have left in England. So perhaps his Australian wife, Martha, was still alive. He had turned down the opportunity to get a married man’s allowance when he left for England in 1917, so was he telling the truth, that he was indeed a widower, or just trying to cover his tracks in order to start a new (unmarried) life?

The Defence Department replied that when in England, Mr Field had signed a Statutory Declaration that he was a widower with no dependents, and had married (a Bedford woman,“C.L”). This second wife had made the funeral arrangements. On his original embarkation form he had given Annie Sowden (his step-daughter) as his next of kin. As nothing more happened afterwards, it seems possible that the Australian family members just gave up a reasonable enquiry, or perhaps Martha had indeed died, and Annie Sowden was trying to get her hands on any estate, making out that she was still the next of kin.

Official records often raise more questions than they answer. Presumably Henry, Harry and Percy are the same person, but official handwriting has confused things. Or perhaps Henry deliberately wanted to give himself another identity, to escape from an unhappy marriage in Australia, desperate to get away again after returning in 1916. His record as a munitions worker is perhaps that of a malingerer, but can he be criticised for ill-health alone? Did he deceive “C.L” into thinking he was a widower, and why did he say in Dec 1918 that he wanted to go back to Australia alone…was he deliberately going to abandon a second wife?
I like this story. H G Field’s headstone hides an enigma, and even after seeing the details of his life, it still is. Hero? Villain? Bigamist?
Who knows?

Grave Ref: H2.174

Heather Maggs
Cathy Sedgwick