Letchworth family still treasures plaque dedicated to grandfather’s fallen First World War comrade

Rodney Collins of Letchworth holds Arthur Blackburn Bamkin's Memorial Plaque or 'dead man's penny', which has been passed down from his grandfather Arthur Arnold. Bamkin's surname is spelt incorrectly on the plaque. Picture: JP Asher

Rodney Collins of Letchworth holds Arthur Blackburn Bamkin's Memorial Plaque or 'dead man's penny', which has been passed down from his grandfather Arthur Arnold. Bamkin's surname is spelt incorrectly on the plaque. Picture: JP Asher

Archant

In a Letchworth living room sits a bronze plaque dedicted to a fallen hero of the First World War, whose friendship with one of his comrades is still held dear by the family after 100 years.

Soldier Arthur Blackburn Bamkin, who was born in Uruguay and returned to family in Britain after his parents died. Picture: Courtesy of Rodney Collins Soldier Arthur Blackburn Bamkin, who was born in Uruguay and returned to family in Britain after his parents died. Picture: Courtesy of Rodney Collins

Arthur Blackburn Bamkin, born in Montevideo as Augusto Walston Arturo Blackbory Bamkin Davis, served in the British Army in South Africa, India and elsewhere before the war with Germany began in 1914 – and died in hospital three years later, probably from wounds suffered at the Somme.

A commemorative plaquette bearing his name was passed to his close friend Arthur Arnold, from Royston, who settled in Letchworth following the war – and is now in the possession of his grandson Rodney Collins, who treasures it to this day.

A photograph of Pte Arnold in his army uniform is prominent on a sideboard display as 73-year-old Rodney speaks to the Comet across his front room in Letchworth, holding Pte Bamkin’s memorial plaque in his hands.

His grandfather was loath to ever speak about his experiences, he says – and when asked to tell stories about the war, almost always stayed silent.

“During the Passchendaele battle they had to drink their own urine and eat rats,” says Rodney.

“The only story my grandfather would tell was of when he and a fellow soldier went out at night and rolled into a shell hole occupied by two Germans.

“They killed them and took their papers, and found that one of them had a photograph of his wife and child – just the same as the one he had.

“He never came out with any stories at all. He was just a grandad who always came with his hat and his moustache.

“But reading some of the battle histories now, I’m quite amazed at what they went through – some of the casualty figures were just huge.”

First World War solider Arthur Arnold, who lived in Royston and later Letchworth. Picture: Courtesy of Rodney Collins First World War solider Arthur Arnold, who lived in Royston and later Letchworth. Picture: Courtesy of Rodney Collins

Arthur Arnold and Arthur Bamkin served together as privates in the Rifle Brigade for years before the First World War began, having been cadets together before that.

Arthur Bamkin – born in Uruguay to Welsh mariner Thomas Bamkin and his Cambridgeshire-born wife Elizabeth, or Isabel – came back to Britain as a teenage orphan and lived with relatives in the Cambridgeshire town of Wisbech.

Arthur Arnold, born in Cambridge, lived in Swaffham Prior before marrying and moving to a house in Royston – next to the brewery where the town’s Tesco store now stands.

He and Bamkin enlisted in 1900 and 1901 respectively, and were still together in the Rifle Brigade when the First World War broke out in 1914.

They shipped out to France on August 23, 1914, as part of the 11th Brigade within the 4th Division of the British Expeditionary Force – and were part of the Allied force that was pushed back from Le Cateau during the retreat from Mons.

They then took part in the great counter-attack in early September that stopped the Germans on the edge of Paris – the so-called ‘Miracle of the Marne’.

“It is hard not to admire the panache and resource of the BEF units during the Battle of the Marne,” says Rodney.

Two years later, during the Battle of the Somme, the two friends were among the troops who took the Heidenkopf on July 1, 1916 – while suffering fatalities of about 50 per cent in what became a bloody hand-to-hand fight.

Surrounding units failed to take their positions, meaning the Rifle Brigade eventually had to fall back.

Pte Arthur Arnold with his wife and children Edna and Donald. Picture: Courtesy of Rodney Collins Pte Arthur Arnold with his wife and children Edna and Donald. Picture: Courtesy of Rodney Collins

Arthur Blackburn Bamkin died on March 2, 1917, probably from wounds suffered at the Somme, and is buried at Étaples Military Cemetery in France. His friend Arthur Arnold fought on through battles such as Third Ypres, survived the war and finally returned home in 1919.

For reasons lost in the mists of time, the war memorial bearing Arthur Blackburn Bamkin’s name is in the Lancashire village of Bolton-le-Sands.

The Memorial Plaque issued in his name ended up not in the possession of any of his relatives, as was usual, but with his old army friend Arthur Arnold – because Bamkin’s next of kin did not want it, says Rodney.

Arthur Arnold moved to Letchworth’s Baldock Road after being demobbed, and worked at the De Havilland plant offices in Hatfield and later at Letchworth’s K&L Foundry.

“He loved his football and his chickens,” says Rodney.

“He was very much a soldier. My mum used to say they had strict discipline at home, and that she and her sisters always had to be home by such-and-such a time.

“They were called the Old Contemptibles, but that came from the German generals. They said it was a contemptible little army, but they were so good. They used to stand and fight, and they stopped the Germans right to the last man.”

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