This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Virginia.
Captain W F Fitch MC was one of two instructors serving with the British training mission who died during the influenza epidemic in 1918 and who were buried in Virginia (the other is Company Sergeant Major G M Symons). Fitch died on 1 November 1918 while serving as an instructor at Camp Lewis in Washington state. His body was transported by train across the country to Washington DC, where he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on 12 November.
Walter Frederick Fitch was born on 20 November 1892 at Matching in Essex, the only child of Frederick William Fitch, a gardener, and Harriet Winifred (née Halls). The family moved to Dunston in Norfolk and, sometime after the 1901 census, moved to Hertford where Walter attended All Saints’ Church of England Elementary School and, for his final two years at school, Hertford Grammar School. When he left school in 1910 he became a bank clerk in Hertford and lived at home with his parents at Mangrove Road.
He enlisted into The Herfordshire Regiment (3081, Private)—a Territorial Force regiment—on 9 September 1914 and joined the 1/1st Battalion.
The Battalion received orders to be ready for embarkation by 5 November. That day Private Fitch and his fellow Territorial Force soldiers travelled in two trains from Bury St Edmonds and embarked at Southampton on SS City of Chester for Le Havre. He was soon in action—the Battalion was shelled as it marched through Ypres on 11 November to take over part of the trench line at Nonne Boschen east of Ypres, which resulted in the Battalion’s first (albeit minor) casualties. This was at the final stage of the First Battle of Ypres and the Battalion was now under command 4th (Guards) Brigade in the regular 2nd Division.
In early February the Battalion was commended for the manner in which it supported the attack by the Irish Guards at Cuinchy but otherwise the first part of 1915 was largely uneventful. In May the Battalion took part in the Battle of Festubert, largely in a support role and, in the early autumn, Corporal Fitch (he had been promoted on 12 June) was posted to an Officer Cadet Battalion, which he joined on 24 October. He was commissioned into The Suffolk Regiment on 28 November and posted to the 9th (Service) Battalion.
Second Lieutenant Walter Fitch joined his new battalion in France on 8 December 1915, with Second Lieutenant C H Box. The Battalion was in 71st Brigade, 6th Division and his time here until the late summer comprised the routine of trench life as the Battalion moved into and out of the line.
By mid-September 1916 the Battle of the Somme had been raging for 2½ months and 9th Suffolks would take part in an historic attack—the Battle of Flers-Courcellette. This would be the first Allied offensive to use the tank and 6th Division, part of XIV Corps, 4th Army, would play a major part on the right flank in the attack on Quadrilateral Redoubt, a strongly fortified position east of Ginchy.
On 13 September, 9th Suffolks launched its attack. From the Battalion’s war diary:
‘‘B’ ‘C’ & ‘D’ Coys attacked at 6.20 a.m. 1st two lines of enemy’s trenches were captured but owing to heavy casualties from artillery and M.G. fire the situation could not be cleared up. At 7.30 p.m. ‘A’ Coy were ordered to attack the QUADRILATERAL but failed to reach their objective due to very heavy M.G. fire. A new trench was dug by the Battn which enabled them to get in touch with the 2nd Sherwoods on the left and 8th Bedfords on their right, it also cleared up the situation. During these attacks the Battn behaved splendidly and it is regretted the casualties were heavy.’ 
In this, the first of two attacks by the Battalion in this phase of the battle, two officers and 15 other ranks were killed in action and 10 officers and 185 other ranks were wounded. After a day in the trenches the Battalion attacked again. This time with 2nd Sherwoods in support to 1st Leicesters and 9th Norfolks. Again from the Battalions war diary:
‘The Battn lined up to move forward at 7.50 a.m. but owing to very heavy artillery and machine gun fire half of ‘C’ Coy could not leave their trenches. The remainder of the Battn moved forward but were held up from heavy M.G. fire which came from the enemy’s strong position called the QUADRILATERAL. It was from the M Guns that the Battn lost very heavily. Lieut. Col. A. P. Mack was killed at 8.30 a.m. The remainder of the Battn dug themselves in and got in touch with both flanks. The enemy’s barrage was very heavy and caused many more casualties. The Battn held the line they established until relieved by the 14th Durham Light Infantry and moved back to support trenches where they reorganised.’
Casualties were heavier in this attack: four officers and 35 other ranks were killed, seven officers and 99 other ranks were wounded, and two officers and 93 other ranks missing.
It was in this second attack that Second Lieutenant Fitch earned the Military Cross ‘when he took command of the firing line and under very heavy artillery and machine gun fire consolidated the position’. The award was announced in October and published in the London Gazette in November:
‘For conspicuous gallantry during operations. He did fine work consolidating the new position, organising the line under heavy shell fire and keeping up communications.’
The rest of the year and early 1917 was spent again in the routine of trench life, which included the occasional raid on the enemy’s trenches—casualties mounted steadily, with officers and men killed and wounded in every stint in the line. Walter Fitch was slightly wounded while in the line on 12 April but was able to remain at duty. He was promoted to Acting Captain on 20 July, and confirmed in that rank on 8 August 1917, and appointed Assistant Adjutant sometime in the summer; an appointment he retained until he left the Battalion.
The autumn of 1917 saw the Battalion take part in its next major action—The Battle of Cambrai—with two sections of ‘H’ Battalion of the Tank Corps. Captain Fitch prepared the Battalion’s operation orders for the attack, which took place on 20 November. The Battalion was successful, capturing its objectives in the Hindenburg Line, and then Ribecourt and the bridges over the canal at Marcoing. It suffered relatively few casualties in the process: eight men were killed and 59 all ranks were wounded.
In February 1918 the infantry of the British Expeditionary Force was reorganised with each brigade being reduced to three battalions. In the process 9th Suffolks was disbanded. On 29 January Captain Fitch was one of the 30 officers of the Battalion who attended the ‘farewell dinner’. The Battalion, de facto, ceased to exist on 5 February 1918 with drafts of officers and men proceeding to the 11th and 12th (Service) Battalions and the surplus to IV Corps Reinforcement Camp, destined for 5th Entrenching Battalion. Captain Fitch was part of the draft of 15 officers and 300 other ranks that joined 11th Suffolks in 101st Brigade, 34th Division.
Captain Walter Fitch had done his fair share of work in this war and, exhausted, he was sent home ‘tired’ on 15 March 1918 to recuperate. This was a common practice later in the war and officers very often returned to their battalions after a period of rest in a training or staff appointment. He was lucky to leave when he did— a week later 11th Suffolks was one of many forced to retreat in the face of the German attacks—the Kaiserschlacht. The actions over the next few days cost the Battalion dearly: eight officers and 196 other ranks were killed, wounded and missing. A further 23 officers and 471 other ranks were killed, wounded and missing after fighting in the second phase of the German attack on the River Lys at Erquingham, west of Armentieres between 9 and 21 April.
In the late spring of 1918 Captain Fitch found himself with orders to proceed to the United States to join the British War Mission as an Assistant Instructor. Before he left he had time to get married; Captain Walter Fitch MC married Miss Alice Elizabeth George at Hertford in the second quarter of 1918.
Fitch arrived in the United States on 8 June on board the RMS Olympic, having left Southampton on 31 May. He joined the British War Mission on 10 June and was posted to Camp Lewis, near American Lake, Pierce County in Washington state, one of three training camps on the west coast.
Camp Lewis, named after the explorer Meriwether Lewis, was one of 32 cantonments built to cater for 16 National Army and 16 National Guard divisions. It was built in 1917 and was the home of the 91st Infantry Division until it proceeded overseas in June 1918, soon after Captain Fitch’s arrival. Thereafter, the camp became the home of the newly constituted 13th Infantry Division; also based there was 166th Depot Brigade.
Influenza struck at Camp Lewis on 23 September. The scale of the disease soon outstripped the capacity of the camp hospital and barracks were taken over as a hospital annex to treat milder cases. The hospital dealt with almost 8,000 cases in the period up to December 1918, of which 2,249 cases were of broncho-pneumonia.
One of these cases was Walter Fitch, who fell ill at the end of October. He died on 1 November 1918, one of 157 fatalities at the camp during the epidemic. His body was transported by train to Washington DC where he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on 12 November.
He was buried with full military honours and the funeral was well attended. An honour guard was provided by a troop of United States Cavalry and the graveside ceremony was officiated by the Reverend William T Snyder, the rector of the Episcopalian Church of the Incarnation in Washington DC. The mourners were led by the commander of the training mission, Brigadier General G F Trotter CB, CMG, MVO, DSO, and attended by Major-General Emilio Guglielmotti, the Italian Military Attaché, Brigadier General Henri Claudon, the head of the French training mission, Colonel Louis Collardet, the French Military Attaché, Lieutenant Colonel The Honourable E Coke DSO, MC Rifle Brigade, the British Assistant Military Attaché, and Lieutenant Colonel E D Giles DSO, the training mission’s chief of staff. The pall bearers were: Major A G Nutter, Canadian Infantry; Lieutenant F C Fellowes-Gordon, Royal Navy; Captain C W G Gibson, Royal Fusiliers; Captain J G Hope, Royal Flying Corps; Captain T L Tillie, Royal Flying Corps; Captain W P Latham, Connaught Rangers; Lieutenant G H H Eadie, Canadian Infantry; and Lieutenant H W G Duthy, RFA.
His grave was marked initially with a US Government headstone, which has recently been replaced by a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone.
He is also commemorated on the Hertford war memorial, on two memorials at All Saints’ Church, Hertford—the First World War memorial to the dead of the parish and the memorial to the men of The Hertfordshire Regiment who died during the course of the war—and on the war memorial at Richard Hale School. He is also remembered on his parents grave in Hertford Corporation Cemetery.
His medals group comprises: Military Cross, GVR; 1914 Star, with clasp ‘5TH AUG.-22ND NOV. 1914’; British War Medal 1914-20; and Victory Medal.
The Richard Hale School First World War Book of Remembrance
Herts at War.
The National Archives. Public Record Office. WO95/1625-1. War Diary of 9th (Service) Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment.
Norman Huxford for the photograph of All Saints’ Church War Memorial.
Julian Osley for the photograph of Hertford war memorial.
Michael R. Patterson for the photograph of the original grave marker.
1. (Back) Now Richard Hale School, Hertford.
2. (Back) The Regiment had its origins in the Hertfordshire Rifle Volunteers, which, after a number of reorganisations, became the Hertfordshire Battalion, The Bedfordshire Regiment (Territorial Force) after the Haldane Reforms in 1908. The following year it became the 1st Battalion, The Hertfordshire Regiment, remaining associated with The Bedfordshire Regiment as its second territorial battalion.
3. (Back) Box and Fitch were commissioned into The Suffolk Regiment on the same day. Box was subsequently wounded on 14 May 1916 by shellfire and relinquished his commission on 9 May 1917 as a result on his wounds.
4. (Back) The National Archives (TNA). Public Record Office (PRO). WO95/1625-1. War Diary of 9th (Service) Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment.
5. (Back) Op. Cit.
6. (Back) Op. Cit.
7. (Back) Op. Cit.
8. (Back) Citation published in London Gazette 14 November 1916. Issue 29824, p 11052. See also the ‘Annotated Gazette’: TNA. PRO. WO389/2. War Office and Ministry of Defence: Military Secretary’s Department: Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross Registers.
9. (Back) TNA. PRO. WO95/1625-1. Op. Cit.
10. (Back) The Battalion was formally disbanded on 16 February 1918.
11. (Back) He was officially appointed an Assistant Instructor as of 8 July 1918 and transferred to the General List in London Gazette 5 October 1918. Issue 30937, p 11786.
12. (Back) The other two being Camp Kearny and Camp Fremont in California.
13. (Back) Camp Lewis. (1918). Influenza. RG 112, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army). National Archives.
14. (Back) ‘Obituary’. (23 November 1918). Army-Navy-Air Force Register and Defense Times. Volume 64, number 2001, p 585.
15. (Back) The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records Fitch as serving with the 7th (Service) Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment, but there is no record of him having ever joined that Battalion.