Percy Watkiss Fisher
This great adventure…
Chaplain of the 1st Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
He loved his youth, and youth has become eternal.
At the Speech Day in 1919 held in the Town Hall, the Rev. Robert de Courcy Laffan remembered: ‘PERCY FISHER came to me the first Sunday after the war broke out, and asked me to sign his papers. He told me he had been through the Boer War, had fought with the Bulgarians against the Turks, and now had got the biggest cause to fight for. An hour afterwards Raymond Fisher came to me on the same errand. I told him I had just seen his brother, and his answer was that he did not know Percy was joining up. There was a fine instance of two brothers enlisting at the first available moment.’
There were five Fisher brothers, the sons of Joseph Fisher, a draper, and his wife Mary Anne, who had lived above their shop in High Street before moving to Bridge Street in Kineton in 1908. Percy and his brother Raymond both started at King Edward VI School on the same day in 1893 leaving five years later. Leaving school Percy was articled to electrical engineers in Birmingham and to shipping engineers in Liverpool. At the age of 19 he fought in the Boer War from 1901, and on his return was carried shoulder high through the streets of Stratford by his friends. Later in October 1902, he gave a well attended talk in the School Room at the back of the Methodist Chapel on the Birmingham Road entitled ‘A Stratford Yeoman’s Reminiscences of South Africa.’
He had an aptitude for making and ‘telegraphing’ of maps, and was engaged for his skills by The Times as their Military Topographical Correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War between 1904 and 1905. Published by The Times in October 1905, ‘The War in the Far East 1904-1905’ included thirty four specially prepared plans by Percy Fisher. It was the first war in which both sides employed large regular armies equipped with machine guns, barbed wire, and fighting battles lasting in some cases more than a week. After the war he was retained by the newspaper, in addition to producing exceptionally detailed geographical military maps for the War Office.
Between 1908 and 1909 he was a Major of Gendarmerie during the Persian Civil War, followed by a further engineering commission in Canada from June until December 1912.
Percy enlisted on September 15 1914 in the 22 (Service Battalion) (Kensington Battalion) of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) that had been raised at the White City four days earlier by the Mayor and Borough of Kensington. Quickly promoted to unpaid Lance Sergeant on September 29 he was confirmed as Sergeant only two weeks later. The Battalion moved to Horsham in October and by June 1915 it had moved to Clipstone Camp in Nottinghamshire as a unit of 99 Brigade, 33 Division. On July 1 it was were taken over by the War Office and a month later moved to Tidworth in Wiltshire.
Astonishingly, in view of his later record, Percy was the subject of three disciplinary proceedings, and against the background of the carnage in France and Flanders his offences may appear moderate. On April 21, as Sergeant in Charge, he reported his hut all present when one man was absent, and was severel reprimanded. On May 25 he arrived ten minutes late for parade at 10:00pm and was reprimanded. Two days later, at his own request, he reverted to the rank of Corporal, and it was in this rank that he was again reprimanded at Tidworth on October 26 for neglect of arms. By early November he had been restored to the rank of Lance Sergeant, and along with the thirty officers and 991 other ranks of 22 Division he crossed from Folkestone to Boulogne on November 15/16, and on November 25 transferred to 99 Brigade in the elite 2 Division. In Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves called the division ‘top notch.’ By 1916, the highest rated divisions in the British army were the 2, the 7, the 29, the Guards, plus the 1 Canadian.
On September 18, Mr and Mrs Fisher had received a telegram from the King ‘to celebrate five sons in the armed services.’ Raymond in 10th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, Percy in the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), Archibald in the Warwickshire Regiment and 10th (Prince of Wales’s Own Royal) Hussars, Joseph in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and South Staffordshire Regiment, and Reginald in the 52 Battalion Canadian Cavalry and Northumberland Fusiliers. Archibald, Joseph and Reginald survived the war.
In its first month in France Percy’s battalion moved from one place to another, before spending a short period attached to 6 Infantry Brigade for trench experience and an introduction to the practicalities of warfare.
December brought no major events, but there were few days without casualties as a result of enemy artillery fire. January was again full of movement and the Battalion was not involved in any serious action until May 1916.
Following practice in attack on dummy trenches at Outon, behind Bethune, orders were received for an attack to be launched on May 23 at Villers-de-Bois, behind Lens. However, the Germans raised a heavy artillery barrage and the attack was first postponed and then cancelled. The counter-orders did not reach B Company of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), who went into the attack and succeeded in taking a section of German trenches which they held for an hour and a half. The operation cost three officers wounded, seven men killed, and seventy-eight wounded.
On June 15, back in the front line trenches at Carency, Sergeant Percy Fisher was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The London Gazette of July 27 1916 reported: ‘For conspicuous ability, when his Company had attacked and captured an enemy trench, he organised the defence of a flank with great coolness and skill. When a withdrawal was ordered he again displayed great ability, directing the various parties by the bearings of certain stars.’ His strong interest in maps and navigation had begun whilst he was at School.
The Battalion was involved in serious action in the fiercely contested battle for Delville Wood. On July 27, it was on the left of the front line when 99 Brigade attacked via Bernafay Wood and took Delville Wood. Every available man was thrown into the fight, first to win and then to hold new ground. In the action, one 98 officer was killed and four wounded, twenty six men killed, 143 wounded and twenty missing. The fighting strength of the Battalion had fallen to eighteen officers and 400 men during this period of bitter fighting and heavy losses. Three German regiments were annihilated. Enemy shelling was intensive and continuous, and even carrying parties were organised into fighting units. 100 men succeeded in holding the south-east flank of the Wood. By August 6, casualties had risen to sixty four killed and 210 wounded.
It is worth noting that Frank Byrd, 14th Battalion (1st Birmingham Battalion) Royal Warwickshire Regiment (13 Brigade), killed in action July 30 1916 (Chapter 11) and Percy Fisher both fought in Delville Wood between July 27 and 30 when the 2nd and 5th Divisions were involved. They would have been within less than a mile of each other during the battle.
During this action Sergeant Percy Fisher and CSM Evans were commissioned Second Lieutenant ‘for distinguished conduct’ in the field and commenced their new commands on August 7 in the front trenches at Hebuterne.
Fisher was granted home leave soon afterwards when it was reported that he was ‘in the best of health and spirits,’ and returned to the trenches on September 8. Three days later he was leading a patrol of twelve men and a fellow officer in no man’s land when Germans opened fire on them with a machine gun. Percy was shot through the heart and died instantly.
The Captain of the Regiment, B.F. Woods wrote: ‘He was held in very high esteem by his brother officers. He is a great loss to the Battalion and his record has 99 been a splendid one. Such men are irreplaceable.’ The Mayor of Kensington, William Davison, explained that Percy Fisher had been buried by the chaplain of the 1st Battalion The King’s Royal Rifles Corps, who said that he had the privilege ‘to lay to rest the mortal remains of 2nd Lieutenant Fisher in a little French cemetery at the end of the communication trench. Several officers and men were present as a mark of respect at his graveside, the noise of artillery activity being a fitting requiem for one who had made the greatest sacrifice at the high call to duty for country, King, and God. The officers and men alike speak of his spirit and comradeship, which means so much in this great adventure. His comrades have erected a durable wooden cross to mark his last resting place.’ The Stratford-upon- Avon Herald recorded ‘He was a fearless fighter and he has built up a record that no former son of Stratford has approached, and his memory should be locally honoured.’
Mr and Mrs Fisher later received a letter from Buckingham Palace, in which the King and Queen ‘deeply regret the loss you and the army have sustained by the death of your son in the service of his country. Their Majesties truly sympathise with you in your sorrow.’
Percy was later buried in the Hebuterne Communal Cemetery, Pas de Calais. He is commemorated on the Kineton War Memorial, the memorials in both the Wesleyan Methodist Church and St. Peter’s Church in Kineton, and in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.
Percy Fisher died on the same day that his brother Reginald was admitted to hospital in France and one day before his brother Raymond was killed in Salonika.
Sleep lightly Lad –
Thou art for the Kings Guard
at daybreak, in
spotless kit, turn out,
And take thy place of honour.
Written on the reverse of Percy’s photograph by his mother.