Story of Somme hero Ken

Story of Somme hero Ken

By Gareth Dennison | 15/11/2021

Story of Somme hero Ken

 

KENNETH Perkin had no previous military ambition but — when war broke out — he was among thousands who immediately knew their duty and rushed to do it.

Being in the army changed him from a “merry boy” into a confident man, and being in a “Pals” battalion meant the hopefully short break from a job he loved could be spent with friends.

Ken was killed on the Somme in July 1916, at the age of 22.

His story is told through a remarkable compendium, painstakingly compiled by his parents, Emil Scales and Isabell Lillian Perkin.

This detailed account of Ken’s life and death is among the Rotherham Archives collection at Clifton Park Museum, where staff have dubbed it the Scrapbook of Tears, because of its upsetting impact on those who read through its pages.

It includes photos of Ken, letters from the army, newspaper cuttings, obituaries and even pressed flowers collected later by the family at the spot where Ken lost his young life.

A note from Emil and Isabell at the start of the scrapbook reads: “It affords a melancholy satisfaction and is conducive to a sense of loving communionship with a dearly cherished and courageous son to preface this record, which has been a labour of love by both parents, with a brief and imperfect account of his life, full of promise, sweetness and beauty; which was so tragically ended almost before it had begun.”

Ken was born in Devon on February 26, 1894, and had a brother and sister. His parents describe his chief characteristics as a happy and joyous outlook, a healthy ambition, extreme earnestness, and an “almost unusual” gentleness.

He was unwilling to hurt anything. Even after a year with the army, this was evident.

He spent his Christmas on Salisbury Plain and was invited to go rabbit-shooting. Kenneth declined, saying that he “preferred not to kill the little things”.

“These attributes, together with a keen sense of humour, and exuberance of fun, made him always a bright, merry boy and a lovable companion, one who had many friends,” his parents said.

Ken was a keen sportsman and a talented choir singer. He learned the piano and violin too, but his pleasure was always in singing.

“Whistling became with him a true art,” according to the scrapbook. “On his last Sunday evening in England, his aunt, an accomplished pianist, accompanied him while he whistled from memory and with real taste and spirit, Il Trovatore.”

From an early age, Ken took a keen interest in a career in manufacturing, which is what would see him move to South Yorkshire.

There were no family connections with the industry, but coincidentally there came a visit to Ken’s Tiverton school by Messrs W Hutton and Sons, silversmiths with premises in Sheffield, Birmingham and London.

There followed a trip to the Sheffield factory in July 1910 and it was decided that Ken would join the firm on turning 17.

He immediately impressed bosses on starting with the company. Mr Hutton decided that Ken would be offered a senior position of considerable authority and responsibility after his 21st birthday. The directorship of the Birmingham branch was mentioned as the probable post.

In his spare time, Ken was learning Spanish, had joined the Hallamshire Golf Club and two cricket clubs and played regularly for the Sheffield University Rugby Club.

“Few things annoyed him so much as to play with one who disregarded the captain or the umpire,” his parents said. “Nothing induced him to deviate a hair's breadth from what he knew to be the right course, a thing which influenced him in other walks of life.”

In August 1914, Ken wrote home from Sheffield, asking for permission to train for a commission in the army. He enclosed a newspaper advert appealing for men to join up.

Only a day earlier, his dad had remarked: “Our boy will be in this war directly.”

Ken was rejected at first because his chest measurement was too small. Determined to do his bit, he immediately joined a gym and exercised for weeks to meet the army requirements.

Pals battalions were set up so that friends were able to go through the war together. It was decided to form one in Sheffield and this was the origin of the 12th (Service) Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment.

Towards the back of the scrapbook are details of the fates of Ken’s friends, on whom his parents kept tabs after their own son’s death.

The lads all stayed at home until December 1914 because they had yet to receive their uniforms or kit.  

Just before Christmas, they grouped at Redmires over the Derbyshire border. At 1,000ft above sea level, this was the highest army camp in England. Ken spent his 21st birthday there but had five days’ leave at Easter.

During training, Ken was selected as one of four “scouts”. He vividly described the horrors of creeping over Yorkshire Moors and lying about in ruts on wet, dark nights, either to track others or escape from them as they prepared for war.

Ken was offered a commission in the battalion and attended a military school at Formby, near Liverpool. The battalion sailed from Southampton on Christmas Day in 1915. He took his Christmas leave in January.  

This was the last time he would spend at the family home in Devon.

On that cherished visit, the junior officer’s parents noticed his “unusually accurate acquaintance” with the Yorkshire dialect (for a southerner).

In April, they met him again, this time for a few days in London. The scrapbook says: “They realised that discipline and experience had made him, who so recently was but a merry boy, a confident, self-reliant, discriminating man.”

On April 18, 1916, Ken saluted his mother and father before departing from Charing Cross station.

What followed for the parents was a period of anxiously perusing newspapers for updates and dreading the sight of the telegraph messenger near their home.

Ken wrote home two or three times a week. His portion of the British frontline was the extreme northern part of the Somme offensive, and one letter revealed that the battalion had been picked for a “special” task.

His dad replied, saying he hoped special was not synonymous with dangerous.

“It was, perhaps, a foregone conclusion that any battalion with such a task before them should be practically wiped out,” his parents would later write.

“Only a few, Kenneth amongst them, reached the German lines, but were never to be seen again. Mortals could do no more.

“When the accounts came in of what he had done on the fateful July 1, on the Somme, his parents’ thoughts turned, at once, involuntarily, to the contests of their dear one’s childhood, and clearly saw in these the beginning of the perfect preparation for the grim strife in which he was to take part when, he ‘played the game’ so correctly in the first wave of the big offensive.”

Lt CH Woodhouse told Ken’s parents: “We all regarded your son as one of our best officers. He was so reliable and we had the fullest confidence in him.”

A private in the same company, who was a few yards behind Ken, said: “We advanced to the German barbed wire in front of their first line.

“He was well in front of his men, and was using his revolver and shouting encouragement to them, and at the same time trying to work his way through the wire, when a hand bomb burst close to him.

“He reeled and half fell, but most pluckily pulled himself together for another effort, but another bomb burst which brought him down.

“Immediately afterwards another bomb exploded which took two pieces out of my leg and peppered me generally.”

A newspaper obituary said: “Very many letters have been received testifying to Lt Perkin’s heroism and the affection in which he was held by all ranks.”

Flowers gathered by the family from no man's land at Serre were pressed and placed in the scrapbook.  

Thiepval Memorial was still being built when they visited in August 1930, rising 150ft above the Stone of Remembrance, high above the Ancre Valley.

Ken’s name had just been carved on an inner pillar of the monument. As the top of the memorial had not yet been added and, as the relatives stood there, a bar of sunlight fell across his name.

The scrapbook will be among archive items available to view at the museum on Remembrance Sunday, after the service in Clifton Park.

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