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Soldier presumed killed in action reappears in 1917

10th November 2016

Born in Kidderminster in 1892, Richard Henry Webb enlisted in the British Army on 29 December 1908 and was sent to France when War broke out in August 1914. Private Webb was presumed to have been killed in action on 29 August 1914 while covering the army in its retreat from Mons, only to later appear in 1917.

Webb's Granddaughter has shared pictures, diary entries and military documentation for inclusion in the People's Collection, here is her family story.

Private Webb was a soldier with the Royal Irish Dragoons, involved in Battle of Mons and got separated from small patrol together with Cpl Cheeseman on 29 August 1914.

Local Farmer Emil Fontaine, supplied Webb and Cpl Cheeseman with food and sacks to cover themselves. They remained hidden in the woods for 4 months. After being chased during a search of the woods they then moved into Mr Fontaine's barn, where he dug a pit to hide them and provided them with civilian clothes and minimal food.

They remained in hiding for 25 months until February 1917, during which time they only went out at night time and never spoke to any inhabitants of the district other than Mr Fontaine and his wife.

On 10 February 1917, when the village was evacuated by German authorities, the pair were confronted by a German soldier and captured. Initially they told the German soldiers that they were French, though after transfer to the commandment at Cugny they said they were Irish and only later admitted they were British soldiers.

Transferred to St. Quentin prison, then Avesnes and later Rheinbach and finally the punishment camp of Cottbus. Initially court martialed and sentenced to death for espionage the charges were changed and after being sentenced to death on two occasions they were sentenced to 15 years hard labour, which they served in ordinary prisons. Webb escaped from the last prison in all the chaos of the armistice, and made way to the local Revolutionary Council in Bremen where he was given a ticket for a train out of Germany. All the charges were dropped.

Webb's wife, Jeanie, gave birth to their daughter Marjorie in 1915 (Webb had been missing and presumed dead since August 1914).

He was repatriated at the end of the war, which is when he was able to meet his daughter for the first time. Webb became a fireman after the War and lived until nearly 90. His name is on the war memorial in Kidderminster and the Roll of Honour which used to hang in the main fire station in Birmingham.

Descendants Mr and Mrs Cox have donated a range of materials for the exhibition including Private Webb’s Military History sheet and short service attestation and his pensioners record card. The collection includes a notation that Private Webb and Cpl Cheesman were missing in the War Diaries along with Mr and Mrs Cox’ family history research.

To share your family history and artefacts contact us here.

In 2014 Mr and Mrs Cox made their own journey to France to find the barn where Mrs Cox’s Grandfather hid. Whilst much of the farmhouse has been rebuilt over the years the original barn was still standing. They also tracked down and met the descendants of Cpl Cheeseman.

Mrs Cox said: “The story was always a part of our family history but not often spoken of by my Grandfather. It was only when we were researching our family history that we really uncovered what is an amazing story not least because of its happy ending, which wasn’t the case for so many families who lost men during World War One. I am incredibly proud of my Grandfather, what he lived through, and as a family we are keen to share our story as part of the People’s Collection so his role in the First World War is remembered.”