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Arthur survives Great War—but dies on anniversary of Peace

PUBLISHED: 11:11 11 November 2008 | UPDATED: 13:45 05 October 2010

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Historian and archivist Gary Haines uncovers the story of a forgotten First World War hero from London’s East End who survived four years in the trenches—only to be killed in a road accident while taking part in the 10th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice. Few today know anything of Arthur Lovell, a costermonger from Limehouse. But thousands lined his funeral procession in November, 1928

Historian and archivist Gary Haines uncovers the story of a forgotten First World War hero from London’s East End who survived four years in the trenches—only to be killed in a road accident while taking part in the 10th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice. Few today know anything of Arthur Lovell, a costermonger from Limehouse. But thousands lined his funeral procession in November, 1928:

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By Gary Haines

TODAY marks the 90th anniversary of the Armistice which ended the First World War.

It is also the 80th anniversary of a hero from the trenches, a costermonger from London’s East End who joined up at the outbreak of war in August, 1914, and survived four years on the Western Front—only to die in a road accident on the 10th annual two minute silence to commemorate the Armistice and his fallen comrades.

The guns had fallen silent in 1918 on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Tragically, the last day of the Great War saw 242 British personnel die, including three women. The total loss of life on this final day was 863.

The last British fatality recorded was a Private Ellison of the Fifth Royal Irish Lancers who was killed at 9.30am—just 90 minutes before peace.

The last Allied soldier believed to have fallen was a Canadian, Private George Lawrence Price of the 28th North West Battalion, Second Canadian Division, killed by a German sniper at 10.58am—two minutes before 11am.

Arthur Lovell had survived four years in the trenches, but would die exactly 10 years later on Armistice Day in 1928.

The war veteran—a costermonger market trader in peacetime—was observing the Great Silence’ at his barrow at Burgess-street in Limehouse.

As the silence came to an end and the traffic resumed, the horrified veteran saw a four-year-old girl, little Rosie Wales, run into the road into the path of a steam lorry.

Arthur ran after her, without a thought for his own safety, pushing the child out of harm’s way.

But the brave veteran, who had cheated bombs and snipers’ bullets for more than four years, slipped and was hit by the truck.

He would die of his injuries in St Andrew’s Hospital in Bromley-by-Bow later that day.

It was an act of heroism which caught the imagination of the nation.

A week later, Arthur was given a full military funeral. The crowds which jammed the streets of the East End were even bigger than those that had turned out for Armistice Day seven days before.

Lovell’s son, also called Arthur, witnessed his father’s accident, which would leave a widow, Eliza, and seven children. His three eldest, all girls, were working in factories. The others, all boys, were aged 10 years to three months.

Arthur Lovell was one of the Old Contemptibles’ who served in the 17th London Regiment, part of the Middlesex Battalion, who marched off to war at the very beginning in 1914.

He was wounded twice, but survived to finish the war at Mons on November 11, 1918.

His funeral 10 years later would see a great outpouring of grief with thousands lining the route through the East End.

The East London Advertiser reported on November 24, 1928: “Vast, silent and bareheaded crowds thronged every yard of the route which the funeral procession took from Halgood-street, Bow, to All Hallows Church, Bromley, and to Burgess-street, Limehouse.

“The coffin was carried on a gun carriage which was draped with a Union Jack. Many wreaths lay upon it including some composed entirely of Flanders poppies.

“The funeral procession was led by mounted police and the Band of the K Division Metropolitan Police. Following the gun carriage were costermongers with their barrows and carts, the hearse covered with wreathes, police marching four deep, men of the East London British Legion, buglers and men from the 17th London Territorials, a group of Girl Guides, Brownies and lastly a contingent of nurses.

“The procession stopped in Burgess-street where the mother of Rosie Wales (the little girl he saved from the lorry) placed a harp-shaped wreath on the coffin, bearing the words From Little Rosie’.”

Crowds waited at Mile End outside the gates of Tower Hamlets Cemetery for hours for the burial. Mounted Police had to preserve public order when the crowd tried to rush the gates as the hearse left.

The service ended with the sounding of the Last Post and Reville. Crowds surged forward to get nearer to the grave and it was reported that many women fainted.

The story doesn’t end there. The Bishop of Stepney recalled at the funeral a strange tale from the day before.

“Last night there came to Arthur Lovell’s house a man who had been attracted by the name and asked if he could see the body,” the bishop recounted.

“He said quietly, I thought so—this man saved my life in France during the war and I haven’t seen him since then until tonight’.”

Arthur had saved the man’s life during a German gas attack by lending him his gas mask, risking his own life for a comrade.

A memorial to Arthur Lovell was unveiled by Countess Haig at Bromley Public Hall in May, 1929, six months after his death. Costermongers joined the countess to honour their hero and the service ended as Rosie Wales presenting a bouquet to her.

The ceremony was broadcast through loud-speakers to the crowds gathered in the street.

An anonymous donation covered the expense of the portrait which was the centrepiece of the memorial and the costs of administering the Lovell Fund set up to look after Lovell’s family. The fund raised £2,190 from a-thousand contributors.

The memorial was inscribed “Arthur Lovell. Love is indestructible. Its holy flame for ever burneth; From Heaven it came, to Heaven returneth.”

Among those at the packed service were Arthur’s widow and seven children. Their dad had been a hero in peace as well as war.

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Gary Haines


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