Alfred Stapleton was born in 1890, one of three brothers who served in the Great War. The family tree accompanies this site. The Stapleton family in Winkleigh was a large one. Alfred, together with his brothers Albert, born in 1892 and Charles in 1897 all served in the war. Their father, another Alfred, was an agricultural labourer who had been born in Winkleigh in 1866. His first wife, Elizabeth Ford, died and he was remarried to Elizabeth Alford, mother of the three brothers and their two sisters. Their uncle Richard Stapleton also served. His military documents have survived and the story of his war is recorded on the Roll of Honour. Documents also exist for Alfred’s brother Albert: sadly he died a few weeks after joining the 6th Devons, and this account is documented on the Memorial Roll, his name inscribed on the Cross. Charles volunteered almost at once for the Army Service Corps to work with the Horse Transport. Alfred had already joined the 6th Devons Territorial battalion before the war: his original army number is a low one. Alfred and Charles both survived. Just before the war, in June 1913 Alfred had married Beatrice Kate Brook, then aged 19. She was living with her widowed mother on Coopers Hill helping her mother run a laundry business. (Her father had been one of the village tailors).
Sadly, Alfred’s documents did not survive the London blitz which destroyed so many of these records. We do, however, have his medal card which shows that he served in the 6th Devons Territorials before the war, renumbered together with all Territorial battalions in 1917 with the usual 6 figure numbers. The 6th Devons were issued with numbers between 265001 and 290000, and Alfred’s low number in this series shows he had certainly enlisted at an early stage. On the other hand, the Chumleigh Deanery magazine, which at the start of the war listed those who were already serving in 1914, did not mention Alfred’s name, although his brother Albert’s name was included. This seems to show that Alfred had dropped out of the battalion before 1914 (perhaps at the time of his marriage in 1913) and rejoined very soon after the war had begun.
The Territorial Army, created as a result of the Haldane reforms in 1906, had envisaged a force of 300,000 men in fourteen large infantry divisions including field artillery and ancillary services, while the Yeomanry Regiments would provide a matching 14 cavalry brigades. The Territorials were designed to be the main force in home defence - to repel enemy coastal raids and deter the threat of a possible invasion. Service overseas was to be strictly on a voluntary basis. The Territorial Force came into existence on 1st April 1908, and was initially very successful in attracting recruits, responding both to the national mood regarding German expansion of their fleet following the launching of British super-battleships, the ‘Dreadnoughts’ together with the fact that the annual camp provided young men with 15 days paid holiday which their employers were constrained to permit, though there were many complaints about this in many areas of employment. On the outbreak of war on 4th August, the 1/6th Battalion of the Devonshire Territorials, part of the Devon and Cornwall Infantry Brigade, was one of the four battalions already in camp for their annual two weeks training programme at Woodbury Common near Exmouth. The 1/6th was commanded by Lt. Col. N.R. Radcliffe with 21 other officers and about 700 other ranks, and like most Territorial battalions was well under strength. Recruits for the 1/6th however began to flood in. So great was the rush to join this Territorial battalion that it was immediately named 1st/6th, so that a second duplicate battalion, the 2nd/6th could be raised. Although in the opening weeks of the war the Territorial Army was still considered to be a Home Defence force, many men were coming forward in the hope of going overseas. As the first winter of the war approached their wish was granted by act of parliament.
During August 1914 the Battalion remained in Barnstaple, attached as Army Troops to Wessex Division. Territorial troops were needed to replace regular battalions brought home from the Empire, and on 9th October 1914 the 1st/6th sailed for India, landing at Karachi 11 November 1914. Here they came under orders of 3rd (Lahore) Divisional Area at Lahore, and in January 1916: joined the independent 36th Brigade in Indian Army. The battalion, however, was now needed as fighting troops, and on 5 January 1916 they landed at Basra, and remained in Mesopotamia for the rest of the war.
The early story of the 1st/6th Devons in India and Mesopotamia can be read by turning to the story of Thomas Knight whose account can be seen on our Memorial Roll. Unlike Thomas, Alfred Stapleton was not transferred to the Dorsets, and would therefore have been involved in the attempted relief of Kut at the battle of the Dujailah Redoubt. The history of the 1st/6th Devons after the battle is a related topic account added to this site. Of interest, too, among the other topics on this site is the account of how Turkey entered the war and the unveiling in 1922 in Barnstaple of the Memorial to the 6th Devons.
Without supporting documents we cannot know Alfred’s part in these events but two clues remain on the medal card. First, Alfred was renumbered which shows that he was still serving in the Devons in early 1917. Second the word ‘disembodied’ is included. This could possibly mean that before the war was over Alfred had returned to the UK either sick or wounded and had been demobbed as a result. It is possible that Alfred became a casualty during this time: the 6th Devons were employed on the Lines of Communication. The weather was appalling, disease rampant and food was of very poor quality. Many of the sick were evacuated to hospitals in India.
Alfred was awarded the victory and British medals. Although he was certainly a volunteer the Territorials that went to India and on to Mesopotamia were never awarded the 1915 Star, a source of much criticism and disappointment at the time. The village can be extremely proud of the Stapleton family: four served, one died and possibly one wounded or sick. Alfred had certainly played his part, and it is to be hoped that further information might be made available by the family at some time in the future.