Six Sons at War: A Stratford Family's Story

A letter from the King.
Image courtesy of Philip Coldicot

Not many of us could send a child off to war, so imagine having to say goodbye to all six of your sons, not knowing if you’ll ever see them again.

In Stratford, 53-year-old Philip Coldicott has been drawn to his family history since the death of his mother, and he’s unearthed a unique story. Philip’s granddad, Albert ‘Pickle’ Ryman, was the youngest son of Joseph and Jane Ryman from Clopton Road. He had five older brothers – William, Arthur, Fred, Harry and John – and an older sister called Esther.

“I’m a proper Stratford, we go back generations,” said Philip. His granddad Albert, who was born in 1899 got the nickname ‘Pickle’ as a child. “When he was a youngster he was always getting into a pickle,” explained Philip. “He was a bit of jack the lad when he was a kid.” That mischievous nature manifested itself in a different way when war broke out. When all five of Pickle’s brothers signed up to the army, he did too. He was just 16, two years too young. “He lied to get in,” said Philip. “He lied to join his brothers.”

Six sons in the army

It meant the Ryman family from Stratford had six sons in the army, a feat so rare it earned them a letter from the King George V in November 1915. It read: “Sir, I have the honour to inform you that The King has heard with much interest that you have at the present moment six sons serving in the Army. I am commanded to express to you The King’s congratulations and to assure you that His Majesty much appreciates the spirit of patriotism which prompted this example, in one family, of loyalty and devotion to their Sovereign and Empire.” Little did the King know that one of those brothers shouldn’t have been there.

But Pickle was found out. After enlisting on the 1st November 1915, he was discharged for being too young on 3rd July 1916. His grandson Philip reckons those nine months in the Coldstream Guards saved his life. Trained as a Lewis gunner, when Pickle rejoined the army at the proper age in late 1917 he was put on the machine guns because of his experience. “It saved his life because otherwise he would have been over the top,” Philip assured me. Although Pickle was out of the worst of the action, he didn’t escape injury. A hunk of shrapnel embedded in the back of his left knee nearly cost him his leg. “Apparently it was quite gruesome,” said Philip. “They could have cut his leg off but they didn’t because he was such a young man.” Discharged in January 1919, Pickle went on to live a long life in Stratford as a plasterer and builder. When the theatre burnt down in 1926, he helped rebuild it. Eventually he became a father, and then a grandfather, and he used to tell Philip stories about the war.

Nice stories

“He just told us the nice stories,” said Philip. “Like the time he found some brandy in an old château in France. All the other lads were knicking the wine but he managed to find the brandy – which was typical granddad.” As for the Rymans, five of their sons came home from the front, but third-oldest Fred died in a French hospital, never regaining consciousness from a sudden illness. His name is engraved on the war memorial in Stratford’s Garden of Remembrance, and it’s bound to attract more eyes in 2014. So if you see Fred Ryman’s name this year, spare a thought for his mother, who watched six sons go off to war, and only five return.

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