On 31 March, 2000, I acquired a British Infantry Officer's sword, 1897 pattern, from an antique weapons dealer in Gothenburg, Sweden. The reasons for my purchase were that I liked the model, that the sword was in good condition, and that the price was affordable. A year earlier, I had bought the Staff Sergeant's version of the same pattern, so the new sword was seen as a nice addition. The sword carried the royal cypher of King George V, which placed its manufacture in the years 1910 - 1936, and as it was sharpened (something that was done on mobilisation), I surmised that it had been made before the end of WW1 (1918). My collector mentality took a back seat, however, when I spotted a name on the scabbard's attachment strap: "R W L EDGINTON". This fired my curiosity, and I started searching on the Internet for some info. It might seem like I was looking for a very small needle in a very big haystack, but I already had three clues: the officer's name, the service to which he was assigned, and a fairly good idea of what years he had been active. After a couple of hours of fruitless searching, I came across the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's website, a site dedicated to the soldiers killed in various British wars, and often visited by genealogists and surviving kin. I entered the few facts I had, and was rewarded with a hit: a file on a Lieutenant Robert Walter Laurence Edginton of the 1/5th Bn., Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Suddenly, the sword had a history. With help from the regimental museum, research in the Public Records Office in London, as well as searches and inquiries on the Internet, I could fit the pieces together. During the summer of 2001 came another breakthrough, when I got hold on more details on him, as well as a photo! This is the result.
R.W. Laurence Edginton was born on 14 September, 1895, at 42 Bristol Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, England, the first and only son of Robert William and Elizabeth Baker Edginton (née Showell). Laurence had three older sisters; Dorothy, Winifred and Mary. His father was a surgeon, probably in one of the hospitals in Birmingham. In all probability, Laurence attended a "preparatory school" from the time he was 8 years old until he was 13, before being accepted at the public (which is a private school in Britain) school Bradfield College outside Reading. While studying at Bradfield, he participated in the Officers Training Corps (OTC), which had been introduced to the public schools and universities in 1908. He studied there for about five years, finishing on 31 July, 1913 with the rank of Sergeant. He applied for a posting as an officer in the Territorial Force on 4 December, 1913. By that time, he was a medical student, probably at the medical faculty of Birmingham University. Apparently, he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. The family appears to have moved sometime during those years to 70 Portland Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham (today, the house is a nursing home). Laurence applied for a posting as 2nd Lieutenant at ”G” Company, the 1/5th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The "1" in "1/5th Bn." Meant that it was the active battalion, while the "2" was reserved for the battalion made up of the recruits that were left when the 1st battalion was at full strength. These battalions were usually remaining at home in time of war, but many went overseas as the war progressed. A "3" indicated the reserve battalion, which was a cadre unit that trained replacements for the active battalion. It was probably around this time that he bought the sword, along with his uniform (officers were expected to buy their own uniform and other equipment). He wrote his name on the attachment strap so that the sword wouldn't be confused with another officer's sword, or lost.
By the time the United Kingdom entered what was to become the Great War on 4 August, 1914, the battalion was in the Thorpe Street barracks in Birmingham, being a part of The Warwickshire Brigade, South Midland Division. Laurence ould have been on summer vacation after his first year at the University, when he most likely received his mobilisation orders - the medical studies would have to wait. During the autumn, the British battalions went through a re-organization, and the previous structure with eight companies was changed to four. Laurence probably ended up in ”D” Company. The brigade was part of the British Expeditionary Force, and arrived to France on 23 March, 1915. Laurence was probably leading a rifle platoon, assisted by an experienced sergeant. The 5th Battalion was doing trench rotations, alternating between trench duty and rest and training behind the lines. Despite not being involved in any engagements, enemy fire killed several soldiers. On 13 May, 1915, the brigade changed designation to "143rd Brigade", and the division to "48th Division". The battalion wasn't involved in any battle until 1 July, 1916, when it participated in the action at Albert in Belgium. That was only one of many battles that were to become the Battle of the Somme, a half-year hell that cost hundreds of thousands of young men their lives. On 9 May, 1915, there was a minor battle, where the battalion lost seven killed and 18 wounded. Laurence subjected himself to great danger, when he went over the top under severe enemy fire and rescued one of the wounded soldiers (a sniper). Laurence Edginton got away unscathed, but he had less than a month to live… In the 1/5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment's war diary the following entry was found:
Note the faulty spelling of his surname. "3rd" was 3 June, 1915, and the place was "Trenches 61 - 65". This was close to a place called "Point 63" by Court Dreve, which in turn lies near Cassel (between Calais and Lille). The trenches were situated in the River Douve valley, with the small towns Wijtschate-Messines and Ploegsteert close by. He was the second officer lost by the battalion; the day before, Captain John Francis was killed. Captain Francis was CO for ”D” Coy, and commanding the battalion’s scouts and snipers. He was shot by a German sniper. Laurence assumed command of the scouts, but was apparently killed by a sniper in the same place in the trenches as Captain Francis, less than 24 hours after he took over. Ironically, Laurence was killed on the 50th birthday of his king, George V, whose royal cypher was etched on his sword, but he never even got to celebrate his own 20th birthday… He was buried at the regimental burial ground by Petit Pont, and his family was informed of his death. Laurence wasn't married, nor was he engaged. A few days later, his replacement arrived to the battalion. The 48th Division carried on fighting on the Western Front, and was later transferred to Italy, where it fought until the Armistice on 4 November, 1918. It appears Laurence's father retired in 1916 (having reached the age of 65), and he and his wife moved to Walton St. Mary, Clevedon, Somerset.
What kind of person was Laurence Edginton, and what were his interests? We may never know. All I was able to learn is that he was 5' 10" and in good health. A certificate of his good character was attached to his application for a posting at the Royal Warwicks. I may never be able to find out much more, but I get the impression that he was a dutiful young man.
Laurence Edginton was posthumously decorated with three medals: "1914-15 Star", "British War Medal", and "Victory Medal" (commonly known as "Pip, Squeak and Wilfred" after some popular post-war comic characters). The two latter medals were awarded to almost everyone who fought in the Great War, but the first medal was only given to those who had been on the Western Front before 1916. It appears that he was promoted to Lieutenant, something that might have been in the works while he was still alive, but which he didn't get the opportunity to enjoy; he is listed as Lieutenant in the Regiment's Roll of Honour. It seems that his remains were moved to the Berks Cemetery Extension, Ploegsteert, Comines-Warneton, Hainaut, Belgium. The grave has reference/panel number III. D. 20. With the records of his medals and his final resting-place, Laurence Edginton was lost in obscurity, apart from the fading memories of his friends and family, until the day his sword happened into the hands of an inquisitive collector.
Here’s the text from the obituary for Edginton, published in The Birmingham Evening Mail, dated 8 June, 1915:
”Second-Lieutenant Edginton, who was killed on the same day as Captain Francis, was reported upon most favourably for a brilliant deed on May 9, when under severe fire he left the trenches carrying a sandbag in order to aid a member of his company who had been wounded. He was 19 years of age, and the only son of Dr. Edginton, 70, Portland Road, Egbaston, who for many years was an artillery officer at Stoney Lane. Lieut. Edginton had succeeded Captain Francis in the command of the Scouts of the 5th Battalion, and their photographs are reporduced from a group of the Scouts taken the day before they left for the front. Another member of the party, Private J. Maring of Nechells, was killed a month ago.”
Apart from the faulty information that Captain Francis was killed the same day (it was probably within 24 hours, but not the same day), we learn quite a bit. Earlier in the obituary both officers are mentioned as “popular”, which might be a standard phrase, but considering the courage shown by Laurence, it might very well be true. The blurry photo shows a young man with a pleasant countenance and alert eyes. A moment in time preserved for eternity, and which together with the sword is one of the few mementos left by Laurence Edginton. At last I learned what he looked like, and a few more pieces could be added. Perhaps there will be more.
The feeling of triumph for having successfully identified the original owner of the sword was mixed with sorrow over the fact that he died so young. Suddenly, I no longer felt that I was the owner of the sword, but its caretaker, and that it was my duty and responsiblity to find out everything I could about the young lieutenant who never returned to England. I have no idea how the sword in question ended up in Sweden. It had been bought by the antiques dealer in an auction as part of a bigger lot of swords, and it might have changed hands many times before that. Perhaps it was kept in the family until someone decided that there was no point in keeping Granduncle's old sword. In any case, it has been well cared for: the metal hasn't corroded and the leather of the scabbard has not become dry and cracked. The one exception is the nickel plating of the basket, which has seen better days.
Lieutenant Edginton's sword is a British Infantry Officer's sword, 1897 pattern. Officers were expected to buy their own swords, and this particular sword was made in or close to London, judging by the words "London made" etched on the back of the blade near to the hilt. As previously mentioned, King George V's royal cypher is found on both basket and blade. The fishskin grip is still a bit rough; on other swords of this vintage, it is usually worn smooth. Unfortunately, there's sad a reason why it isn't worn: the owner did not use it for long. The edges are sharpened in the final 13 cm (5 inches) of the blade, and the point is sharp. Grind marks indicate that the sword was sharpened after it was purchased, which correlates with the fact that Edginton was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant before the start of the war, and that he most likely had it sharpened later. As the stalemate of trench warfare set in, swords were relegated to a ceremonial role, and were not worn in the trenches.
Some vital stats:
Length: 98.1 cm (38.62")
Blade length: 82.7 cm (32.56")
Blade width: 2.75 cm (1.08")
Point of Balance: 11.5 cm (4.5") from the hilt
Centre of Percussion: 49.5 cm (19.5") from the hilt
Weight: c. 880 gram (1.94 lbs.)
The blade pattern was introduced in 1891 and has not been changed to the present day. It is single-edged, apart from the last four inches at the point, where it has a back-edge as well. A 33 cm (13") long fuller runs on both sides, starting 5 cm (2") from the hilt. The last major change of the hilt of the infantry officers' sword was in 1895, when a completely new steel guard was adopted. It was a 3/4 basket hilt in plated sheet steel, with a 'scroll' pattern design in pierced strapwork, which also incorporates the royal cypher and crown. In 1897, the left or inner edge of the guard was modified so that it was 'turned down' to avoid the edge fraying the wearer's clothing, thus becoming the current 1897 pattern. The grip is 13 cm (5.1") long and covered with fishskin. This skin has the advantages of being both water resistant and tough, as well as providing a safe grip with its slightly rough surface. The grip is also wound with twisted metal wire. The back-piece has a washer for the riveted tang. The back of the grip is of chequered steel. In order to avoid rattling between the guard and the metal scabbard mouth, there's a thick buff leather washer at the base of the blade. The sword-knot with its distinctive acorn was a part of the sword, and was a wrist strap intended to avoid the loss of the sword in battle. At parades, the scabbard was replaced with one made in nickel-plated steel. There were two types of the 1897 pattern, the one described above and a lighter one, presumably for evening wear etc. The lighter sword had a smaller hilt and although the blade length was the same, it was only 11/16 inch wide. The 1897 pattern is regarded by some to be the best sword ever developed for infantry officers. If this is true isn't for me to say, but the sword is fast and well balanced, suited for both vicious thrusts and to a certain extent cuts.
The scabbard is of the Sam Browne pattern, introduced in 1899 in response to the need for a more practical scabbard for field use than the one made of steel. It is made of wood, with a metal scabbard mouth, and covered with brown leather. The "ferrule" is made of leather, too, and close to the scabbard mouth there's a leather strap attached. The strap is for the fastening in the belt frog supplied with the Sam Browne side belt.
The sword was in a good condition when I acquired it, but I thought that it needed some cleaning. I polished the scabbard with a leather balm, removed the sword knot, polished the blade (carefully) with a mild polishing agent and oiled it, removed dirt from the basket and polished it, and finally restored the sword knot after having repaired, reinforced and polished it. As one should always do when cleaning antique weapons, I took care not to use anything that could scratch or in any way cause damage to the sword.
Everything has a history, and there is at least one human being behind every object. This was the history of an officer's sword that turned out to be something more than simply a collector's item. This article is dedicated to Laurence Edginton and all those who fell during the First World War, and whose memory must never be forgotten.
Thanks to Major R.G. Mills at The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, Warwick, Lawrence Woodcock of Front Line Research http://www.btinternet.com/~lawrence.woodcock/, Carsten Petersen at Birmingham Post, Joe Sweeney, Chris Hamerton, Tim Birch, "George Armstrong Custer", Graham Evans and Bryn Dolan on "Trenches of the Web", and Paul Kilmartin, Jean Binck and Susan Jane Boulton. Finally, thanks to Koshka Delgado for proof-reading and suggestions.
Original documents in the Public Records Office
The War Record of the 1/5th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment
1/5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment War Diaries
Roll of Honour of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment A.D. 1914 – 1919
The Birmingham Evening Mail, 8th June, 1915
The following websites were of great help during my research:
The Western Front Association
The British Army in the Great War
British Army Research
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Trenches of the Web
© 2001 Björn Hellqvist