First World War Project

Walter GAMBELL (of Newnham)

b. 1892
d. 25th August 1920

Private, Service Number L/9023
2nd Battalion
Buffs (East Kent) Regiment

Burial Place - Doddington Churchyard
Died of Illness (chlorine gas)
Hollingbourne District

Walter was born to James and Eliza Gambell of The Street, Newnham.

He served from 3rd December 1908, so was already serving in India at the outbreak of war. He was wounded and discharged 'from the Depot' on 18th December 1915 - "No longer physically fit for war service."

He was awarded the Silver Medal (No. 35,367), the 1915 Star, as well as the Victory and British War Medals.

His death was not reported locally. However, his Probate record confirms: "GAMBELL, Walter of Stuppington-cottages, Doddington, Kent, late private 2nd Buffs died 25 August 1920 at the County Sanatorium, Lenham, Kent. Probate - Canterbury on 6th November to James Elias Gambell agricultural labourer. Effects £133 0s. 5d.

His story

Walter was born in 1892 at Stuppington Farm, Norton. He was the seventh of the 10 children born to James Elias, an agricultural labourer born in Newnham, and Eliza (née Kemsley) Gambell, born in Frinsted.

Walter had four surviving older siblings, Annie, Esther, Emily and Herbert, and three younger siblings, Hilda, Eliza and Grace. Two further brothers, Frederick and Wilfred, predeceased Wilfred, and a younger sister, Eliza, also died in infancy.

Walter was a regular soldier, enlisting in the The Buffs, East Kent Regiment on 3 December 1908. At the outbreak of war, Walter was serving in the 2nd Battalion at its headquarters in Wellington, India. On the declaration of war, the base was immediately put on stand-by for an immediate return home. Training continued through September and October. Once the Territorials, who had only signed up for “home” service, arrived to relieve the Battalion, the 2nd Battalion set sail for England on 16 November 1914. The Battalion left everything behind them in India, including all the women and children, taking only the mess silver and the Colours.
The journey home and the conditions when they arrived back in the UK were a foretaste of the hardships they were to endure. The following extract from “The Historical Records of The Buffs” by R S H Moody sets the scene:

The battalion embarked at Bombay on the 16th November on the Cunard ship Ultonia, which was old, slow and dirty, and fearfully overcrowded owing to the 2nd Battalion East Yorkshire regiment being also on board. The ship was under convoy together with thirty-three others, and the whole made Plymouth instead of Southampton on the 23rd December, after making a wide detour in the Atlantic to avoid submarines. The Buffs were bundled off their ship in great haste and without their kits; they got off somehow to Winchester, where they found themselves on a cold, bleak down, in pouring rain and with but very meagre equipment - cooking-pots being one of the very many items that were deficient. An Army Service wagon or two ultimately came along and threw some blankets upon the wet ground, and some bread and meat on top of them, and went away; but of course their drivers were not responsible for cooking-pots. Christmas, 1914, may have been a merry one in many places, even in the trenches to a certain extent, but it is doubtful if the 2nd Battalion of the Buffs ever spent a more miserable one. Certainly, Captain Tomlinson's company got plum puddings, but that was the one bright spot.

The battalion, together with the 3rd Royal Fusiliers, 2nd East Surrey and the 3rd Middlesex, all from India, found itself in the 85th Infantry Brigade under Brigadier General A. J. Chapman, C.B., who had Captain C. J. Deverell for brigade major. The brigade was part of the 28th Division Major-General Bulfin, C.V.O., C.B. Captain L. Fort, and afterwards Lieut. the Hon. P. G. Scarlett, was appointed staff captain to the 85th Brigade.

Military exercises of an intensive kind were, of course, the daily lot of the men while at Winchester, particularly so because the latest pattern rifle (not used in India) had just been issued to them. A furlough of three clear days to 25 per cent of the soldiers at a time was, however, granted, so that those just returned from India, after a foreign tour of nearly ten years, might get a glimpse of their friends before starting for a new and sterner foreign service. A few drafts of new men arrived, but it must be understood that these reinforcements for each and all of the battalions during the four years under consideration were of such frequent occurrence as to render constant reference to them both tiresome and superfluous. It may easily be understood that the strength of a unit must constantly be varying. A hard-fought action would reduce the numbers enormously, as well as did the regular drain by death, wounds and disease during the weary trench work.
The only events worthy of record during the stay at Winchester were a violent squall which did great damage to the tents on the 28th December, and a grand inspection of the division by His Majesty the King accompanied by Lord Kitchener on the 12th January, 1915. The battalion moved into billets in the city on the 6th January, the officers being accommodated in Winchester College.

It is only fair to note here that the newly issued boots were not of proper quality: the heels came off and the nails went through. Later on, in France, the men experienced a good deal of quite unnecessary hardship on account of their boots, which to an infantry soldier are only of second importance to his weapons. Someone was to blame, of course, presumably the contractor, and it seems that in every war these men must make their fortunes at the expense of the soldier.

Most judges agree that English soldiers are seldom seen to such perfection of training and physique as in India, and the infantry of the 28th Division was entirely composed of units from that country, so that all who saw these troops prior to embarkation for France agreed that no finer body of infantry had ever taken the field.

On 16 January, the division marched to Southampton. This was not an easy march considering the winter weather conditions, the poor footwear and the weight each soldier had to carry.

On Sunday 17 January 1915, Walter left for France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Conditions for the 2nd Battalion did not improve. Again, R S H Moody explains:

Next day the Buffs embarked for Havre, for the Channel ports were safe enough by this time. 0n 21st they detrained at Hazebrouck and marched to Rouge Croix (41½ miles NE) after one of those terrible French railway journeys, during which sanitary arrangements are non-existent. The battalion now became a fighting unit in the great struggle that was raging round Ypres.

It is good in winter time to have plenty of warm clothing and protection from weather, but the kits at this period were terribly heavy to carry. Later on regular parties were told off to take what was required from the billets to the trenches and so on, but at first the soldier, in addition to his regular sixty-two pounds’ weight of kit was burdened with a fur coat, gum-boots and spare sandbags, all very excellent things to have with one but a bit of a job to get over the ground with.

On the 28th January the brigade was inspected by the Commander-in-Chief, accompanied by the Prince of Wales. During the month of February, the Germans made several more or less determined attempts to pierce the British line and sometimes with partial success. On the 4th of the month the 85th Brigade being at Ouderdom, received news that their comrades of the 83rd were being attacked south-west of the city, so two battalion started at once to the rescue, and these were followed two hours later by the Buffs and Middlesex, who entered the place and remained in readiness in the cavalry barracks.

Walter’s war was hard but short. On 22 April 1915, the Germans launched their first and only offensive of the year. Known as the Second Battle of Ypres, the offensive began with the usual artillery bombardment of the enemy’s line. When the shelling died down, the Allied defenders waited for the first wave of German attack troops. None of them would be prepared for what was about to happen.

Late in the afternoon of 22 April 22, a special unit of the German Army opened the valves on more than 6000 steel cylinders along their defensive perimeter. Within 10 minutes, 160 tons of chlorine gas drifted over Allied trenches. Within a matter of minutes, this slow moving wall of gas killed more than 1000 soldiers and wounded approximately 4000. Many would die later from the effects of the gas.

A British soldier described the scene:

I watched figures running wildly in confusion over the fields. Greenish-grey clouds swept down upon them, turning yellow as it travelled over the country blasting everything it touched and shrivelling up the vegetation. . . . Then there staggered into our midst French soldiers, blinded, coughing, chests heaving, faces an ugly purple colour, lips speechless with agony, and behind them in the gas soaked trenches, we learned that they had left hundreds of dead and dying comrades.

This was the beginning of chemical attacks during WW1. At some point around this time, Walter fell victim to chlorine gas and was returned to England.

After 7 years service with The Buffs, Walter was discharged from the army on Saturday 18 December 1915 under “Paragraph 392 King's Regulations (xvi)” due to no longer being fit for military service. The damage caused by gassing was incurable, debilitating and would eventually claim many lives, including Walter’s.

Silver medalIn 1917, Walter was awarded a pension and the Silver War Badge. This badge was first issued in September 1916 to service personnel who had been honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness. The sterling silver lapel badge was intended to be worn in civilian clothes. It had been the practice of some women to present white feathers to apparently able-bodied young men who were not wearing the King's uniform. The badge was to be worn on the right breast while in civilian dress, it was forbidden to wear on a military uniform. The badge bears the royal cipher of GRI (for Georgius Rex Imperator; George, King and Emperor) and around the rim "For King and Empire; Services Rendered". Each badge was uniquely numbered on the reverse. Walter’s number was 35,367.

Lenham SanatoriumWe know that Walter died at the County Sanatorium, Lenham. Completed in 1914 (pictured left), from December 1917 to July 1919, the hospital became the “Canadian Special Hospital (tubercular)” and was used for the care of Canadian soldiers who had been victims of gas attacks in the trenches. These men were repatriated
at the end of the war and the hospital returned to its intended use as a sanatorium for TB patients.

Doddington Churchyard headstone

Walter is buried in Doddington Churchyard. Walter would have qualified for a headstone arranged by the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) as he died before the cut-off date of 31 August 1921. However, his headstone is not the regulation IWGC design. His headstone was probably privately arranged by his family. His headstone reads:

In memory of Walter,
4th Son of James and Eliza Gambell,
who died Aug 25th 1920, aged 28,
Late The East Kent Regt.

His long suffering was borne with cheerfulness to the end.
In addition to the Silver War Badge, Walter was also awarded: 14-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.


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