Missing but not forgotten – the tragic story of Bognor’s WW1 victim

Private Arthur Percy Bale
Private Arthur Percy Bale

Who knows what glittering career in showbiz may have awaited 20-year-old Bognor Regis lad Arthur Percy Bale?

Instead he found death in the killing fields of the Somme, posted as missing on October 17 1916 - another sad statistic in one of the bloodiest battles within one of the bloodiest wars.

It’s a story told in a fascinating new exhibition at the Historial de la Grande Guerre, a First World War museum housed in the impressive castle which dominates the attractive town of Péronne, just a few miles from the WWI British and French front line in France.

The exhibition focuses on 141 British soldiers whose bodies were never found, one for each of the 141 days that the Battle of the Somme lasted.

Arthur represents Oct 17 - one of the many thousands who could have been chosen to mark a battle which began with the worst-ever day in the entire history of the British army.

His great nieces, Karen Nesbitt, of Chichester, and Pam Schooley, of Bognor, travelled to Péronne for the opening of the exhibition, a display which brings powerfully to life the personal cost of war.

Arthur’s name is recorded on the imposing Thiepval Memorial which was opened 80 years ago this year.

Standing 45m high and visible for several kilometres in every direction, it carries the names of 73,367 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fell during the First Battle of the Somme between July and November 1916 and who have no known grave - in other words, The Missing Of The Somme, the title of the new exhibition at the Historial.

Each of the 141 “missing” is recalled in words and images in a powerful, understated exhibition which brings home the appalling toll. For each and every single one of them, there are more than 500 others listed as missing on the Thiepval Memorial.

Visit both momument and exhibition, and you will find yourself at the heart of one of the nation’s blackest hours - a humbling experience as we look back very nearly a century later.

Tale to tell

The point of the exhibition is that each and every one of the men who died had their own individual tale to tell.

Even so, Arthur Percy Bale’s must surely rank among the most striking - and certainly among the most moving. Arthur was offspring of a music hall family, and there’s an appalling contrast between the happiness of a family which was born to entertain and the awful, war death of a man cut short in his prime.

For years after the First World War, Arthur’s father Frank delighted visitors and locals alike on Bognor seafront. Known as The Bognor Clown, he was a town institution, a fixture who brought a smile to everyone’s face.

It’s a sobering thought that behind his own smile, though, was tragedy - the tears of a clown who had his son ripped away from him, with no known grave.

Karen has researched extensively the history of her remarkable family, one steeped in entertainment. She hopes that in his last days, young Arthur might perhaps have had the chance to lighten the mood of his comrades with a few performing tricks.

“He must have been an outgoing and lively person,” Karen believes. “He was a performer.”

Arthur was born to Frank and Kate Bale in Paddington in 1895, but Frank, a performer of some standing, was often away when his children - among them, Karen’s grandmother Dorothy - were young.

Frank performed sometimes on his own, sometimes with his four brothers. On stage he was known as Tyko Menia or Professor Menia, and with his brothers, he was part of a successful family juggling act, the Zanettos, which travelled the UK, Europe and the USA.

Move to Bognor

But in June 1909, Frank, with his performing dog, Towzer, left his brothers in the USA and returned to the UK. The Zanettos continued, but Frank - Karen presumes - had had enough of being so far away from his family so much of the time.

Starting a new life, Frank moved the family to Bognor where he established himself as the Bognor Clown, performing in local theatres and on the sands until the mid 1930s. One photograph shows young Arthur helping him. The 1911 census lists Arthur - barely a teenager - as a “music hall artiste”.

Within a few years, the war intervened, however. Arthur volunteered in Southampton on October 27 1915, aged 19 years and 10 months. A private in the 2nd Battalion Hampshire Regiment, he was in France on the first day of the Somme, the British offensive on July 1 1916.

By October 11, he and his comrades were in the trenches south of Gueuedecourt. On October 17, the Battalion records show that the casualties included 13 wounded, ten sick to hospital and one killed. That one was Arthur…

Curated by Pam and Ken Linge, the Missing of the Somme exhibition is at the Historial de la Grande Guerre, Chateau de Péronne, 80210 Péronne, France until November 25. Open daily from 10am-6pm. Admission to the exhibition is free

We travelled courtesy of P&O Ferries which offers a choice of 26 return sailings a day on its Dover – Calais service. Full details at: www.POferries.com or call 08716 646464.