George Harold Alexander Sketchley

Born: 19 June 1887

Died: 17 November 1917

Studied at the RCA: October 1911–October 1914.

Before arriving at the College as a fee-paying student, George had attended Woolwich Polytechnic, becoming an assistant art pupil teacher there. Art and design seem to have been the only subjects he studied, and reports suggest he won many prizes over the years for his drawing. His apparent intention was to become a qualified teacher (like his older sister), and despite the College matter-of-factly describing his education to date as ‘poor’ in his student file, it was also reported that he ‘has gifts’ and, although he worked slowly, he ‘was improving’, showing aptitude for furniture design.

During his time at the College George lived at home in Blackheath with his parents and much younger sister, where his upbringing may have given him an indirect connection to the military. His father, Samuel, had worked for the War Office since the 1880s, first as a clerk living in Kensington, where he married Emily (a curate’s daughter), then Waltham Abbey (site of the ordnance gunpowder works) and, by the time war was declared in 1914, as Principal Clerk of the Royal Ordnance at Woolwich Arsenal.

When he enlisted in October 1914 George did not, however, seek munitions work. Instead, perhaps either in reaction to his father’s line of work or with his encouragement, George joined the 1/1st City of London Yeomanry (the Rough Riders), a cavalry regiment formed in 1908 under the London Mounted Brigade – its precursor was known as the Imperial Yeomanry. It is impossible to know if this was simply because he liked working with horses, or had some romantic view of riding into battle.

No service file for George has survived, but mounted division records show the Rough Riders did not serve in Europe during the early part of the war. Instead they departed on 7 May 1915 for operations in Egypt. This ‘theatre’ reflected strongly the imperial character of Britain at the time with Gurkhas, New Zealanders, Australians and many other ‘colonials’ joining up to defeat the Ottomans and their German allies.

George may have served ‘dismounted’ at Gallipoli, but in 1916 would have been back on his horse to protect the Suez Canal as part of the 8th Mounted Brigade. After the canal was secured the brigade moved on to Salonika and the Macedonian front.  In 1917, however, the British Government wanted some good news for the public and began to focus on the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) and reversing their unsuccessful attempts to capture Gaza (an Ottoman garrison). In the summer George’s brigade transferred to southern Palestine to reinforce the EEF, under a reorganisation ordered by the newly arrived General Allenby.  As part of the establishing of the general’s new Desert Mounted Corps it is possible that it was at this time that George moved from the Rough Riders on attachment to the 1/1st East Riding Yeomanry (ERY), as some later records indicate.

Somewhat ironically, considering the development of new tactics elsewhere, horses were essential to desert operations: it was partly as a result of a cavalry charge that ANZAC troops overwhelmed the opposition at the Battle of Beersheba on 31 October. With the fall of Gaza the following week Allenby’s aim,  to take Jerusalem by Christmas, suddenly seemed to be on course.

While such victories suggest that the reorganisation was successful, on the ground this came at considerable cost. The war diaries hint at what was actually happening to the ERY (and others) during the next few weeks, but personal accounts (held by the East Riding Museums Service) clearly reveal a chronic and  life-threatening lack of supplies and water for the men and their mounts. Nonetheless, during November the exhausted troopers somehow continued to edge their way closer towards the desired objective, with the ERY held in support for an attack on ‘Abu Shushe’ (Abu Shusha) on 15 November.

No direct reference has been found for George in either the ERY war diaries or those of the Rough Riders: he was a private throughout his service and names are rarely given for those in the lowest of the ‘Other Ranks’. On 16 November, however,  as the ERY marched towards Ramleh the diary notes ‘4 O/Rs to hospital’ with a similar number of wounded also recorded for the Rough Riders. It is likely that George was one of these, with later records stating he was wounded at Zernuka, Palestine. He died the next day.

George was buried at Ramleh War Cemetery, Israel. Rather than the simple ‘Rest in peace’ for George’s headstone, his father, Samuel, specified the Latin ‘Requiescat in pace’, a poignant reminder of the antiquity and, perhaps, biblical significance of the land in which his son lost his life.

Student file – Royal College of Art Archive
Student file, Form 16 – Royal College of Art Archive
Student file, Form 6 – Royal College of Art Archive
Student file, Form 231 (includes reference to P.R. Paul) – Royal College of Art Archive