Private Alan Percival Skett
Thank you to Jim Edwards from North Holmwood for this research.
Alan Percival Skett was born in Pixham, Dorking early in 1889, but was baptised in St John’s on 7th April. In the 1891 census he was living at Bentsbrook Cottage, North Holmwood with his father Joseph Henry (a gardener) and mother, Mary Ann.
By 1901 the family were in a cottage near The Studio and Bhoems Cottage, not far from the church. He was a pupil at Powell Corderoy School, Dorking (then in Vincent Lane). He joined the Militia with the 3rd Battalion Royal West Surrey Regiment on 18th September 1904 with number 3683, while working in Dorking as a shop assistant. He gave his age as 18 years and 9 months and his parents were living in Little Egypt, North Holmwood. He then joined the Coldstream Guards as number 6055 on 25th January 1905, giving his age as 19, when he was actually just 16. He gave his denomination as Church of England and his occupation as stationer’s assistant. His father and two brothers were living in Sefton Villas (opposite the present fire station).
He spent 20 months in home service and then the remainder of his 3 years’ service with the colours in Egypt, before returning home and transferring to the reserve on 31st January 1908. (Unlike most other regiments Guards served three years with the colours and 9 on the reserve at this time.)
By July 1908 he was back in Dorking, working as a relief postman. In 1911 he was working as a gardener living in the family cottage, with his two brothers, Ernest Edward, 29, a postman and Walter Harold, age 12. His father, now a retired head gardener, was living a few doors away in Sefton Villas with Mary and one daughter.
The Guards were preparing for war before the declaration. Along with many other reservists Alan was recalled on 6th August, equipped and sent to France, landing at Le Havre, with 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards, on 12th August 1914, only eight days after war was declared. He was wounded at Mons and taken prisoner in September. He was in a group of 2,000 prisoners who were moved in May 1916 from camps in Germany itself to an area now in Latvia, but then part of Russia, occupied by the Germans. They were equally divided into four different camps. In February 1917 they were moved to different retaliation camps with deliberately harsh conditions, poor accommodation, little food, no food parcels, severe cold weather and long hours of exhausting work in an area close to the Russian front. This was in retaliation for the treatment of German prisoners who were working near the front in France.
Alan died on 6th April 1917 (Good Friday). He was at Pinue (Pinne) and his death was reported in The Times in May 1918 as an example of the ill treatment of prisoners. Although classed for “Light Duties” he was engaged in moving German baggage from Latschen (Latchen) to Pinue. This involved a journey of 8 kilometres with a cart, going through mud up to its axle. On the second trip he collapsed from weakness, so the sentry tried to make him move. When he argued that he could not do so, the sentry shot him. A question was asked in Parliament and Mr Churchill, Secretary of State for War, gave a written answer on 5th June 1919. The German explanation had been that Alan was feigning exhaustion. [Hansard report.] Alan was initially buried nearby and later at Kliwenhof churchyard, Latvia. One of his wounded comrades wrote, “It was God’s great mercy that released Alan from the brutal persecutions of his captors.”
Many of the British prisoners became unable to work and were returned to Germany, sometimes permanently incapacitated. After the German prisoners had been moved away from the front in France, in June 1917, the British survivors in Latvia were rested and returned to normal prisoner of war conditions.
After the armistice all 36 British graves from small cemeteries throughout Latvia were brought in to Nikolai Cemetery, Jelgava (Mitau), Latvia. A service was held on 9th November 1924 and this was also reported in The Times. Harrowing accounts of the conditions in Latvia given by one of the survivors to the enquiry after the war can be found on-line: [Account of transfer] [Account of conditions].
In 1917 Alan’s parents and older brother, Ernest (the postman), were still living at Sefton Villas. Ernest was mobilised in the Labour Corps in February, in medical category C2 – “able to walk five miles, fit for home service”. He had varicose veins in both legs, which had been operated on, “but does 6 mile rounds daily and helps in laundry”. He never served abroad and, in August 1918, he was transferred to the Non Combatant Labour Corps, before being discharged three weeks later as “no longer physically fit for war service”, because of varicose veins. He was awarded a pension for 30 weeks. By April 1919 his parents moved to Royston Cottage, North Holmwood.
Death Notice – Surrey Advertiser August 4 1917
“Pte Allen Percival Skett, Coldstream Guards, son of Mr and Mrs J H Skett, Sefton Villa, North Holmwood; has just died a prisoner of war. He was sent out to France the day after war broke out, August 5th, 1914, taking part in the early stages of the war, and was taken prisoner in September of the same year. Information of his death came from the Red Cross Society.”
Another prisoner in the same unit reported the following.
“One man, Skitt [sic], (of, I think 1st Life Guards), fell out of the ranks exhausted on the march, and a guard shot and killed him.”
Commemorated on North Holmwood Memorial, Brookwood Memorial, St Martin’s Church, South Street (Dorking) Memorial, Powell Corderoy School (now missing) and the URC memorial.
Son of Joseph Henry and Mary Skett of Royston Cottage, North Holmwood, Dorking
School Dorking British School (Powell Corderoy)
Regiment 3rd Battalion, Coldstream Guards
Date of Death 6th April 1917
Place of Death Russian Poland
Cause of Death Murdered while a Prisoner of War in Russian Poland
Cemetery Nikolai Cemetery, Latvia