Morpeth School unveil plaque to Walter Gillings, their first victim of Great War
- Credit: Morpeth Secondary
Youngsters are to commemorate a pupil from their school on Armistice Day who was killed on the Western Front almost 100 years ago.
They unveil a memorial in the playground at east London’s Morpeth Secondary in Bethnal Green on Monday in tribute to Walter Gillings.
There used to be a memorial to the school’s first former pupil to be killed in the First World War.
But it was destroyed, ironically, when the school was hit in the Blitz during the Second World War 25 years later.
The new memorial is being unveiled at 11am to mark Armistice Day in 1918, when the guns fell silent at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.
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Walter Gillings was just 20 when he was killed at Passendaele on June 7, 1917, a lance corporal in the London Regiment, 10th Company Machine Gun Corps.
He was born in 1896 in Mile End to John and Alice Gillings and went to Portman Place Boys’ school, now part of of Morpeth, then left at 14. His father was a fish curer by trade, which had been the family’s occupation for several generations, the school has discovered.
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History GCSE students at the school are going on a trip at the weekend to Passendaele in southern Belgium, where Walter was killed 96 years ago.
“Walter clearly excelled in his fighting prowess because he was taken into the elite 10th company Machine Gun Corps,” Morpeth’s Head of History Tom Smith said.
“But he was killed in action at Ypres on the first day of the Battle of Messines. The British were trying to retake the high ground held by the German invaders on the Ypres salient and force them out of Belgium.
“Walter would likely have been sent forward to capture the German machine guns.”
But the toll was heavy as one of the fiercest battles of the Great War opened.
“The Machine Gun Corp suffered appalling casualties,” Tom explained. “They had 12,500 killed in the war, earning the Corp the nickname the ‘suicide club’.”
Walter’s body was never found. He is commemorated on Belgium’s Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, which has nearly 55,000 names inscribed.
All traffic through the gate is stopped each night at 8pm for a small remembrance service, in thanks to British and Empire forces defending Ypres which prevented the Germans conquering the whole of Belgium—the Allies kept a small corner of Belgium free of Occupation.
“Ypres never fell—and it was thanks to men like Walter,” Tom added.
“The Ypres remembrance service has been held 365 days a year since 1927. The only interruption was the five years of Nazi German occupation during the Second World War.”
Morpeth pupils are to read out memorial poems at Monday’s unveiling, including ‘Known Unto God’ by 16-year-old Sandy Elliot who got an A* in History GCSE when he was just 14. His poem is about unknown fallen worriers like Walter Gillings who have no grave.