Fifty years on – veterans remember

Half a century ago, the fiftieth anniversary of the First World War prompted many veterans to remember their wartime service or to recall life at home during the conflict. Fortunately, some of these memories have been preserved as the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported the thoughts of these veterans as they either returned to Sevenoaks where they had once been garrisoned, or looked back to their boyhoods to a time when thousands of soldiers were stationed in the town, along with many wounded at the local VAD hospitals, as well as refugees from Belgium.

Fifty years after he had been stationed in Sevenoaks as a Private with 5th Battalion King’s Own Royal Lancashire Regiment, between November 1914 and February 1914, Harry Burrow returned to Sevenoaks. Harry was interviewed by the Chronicle during his visit and said

Sevenoaks was utterly familiar. I booked into the famous Royal Oak Hotel and it had many of it 1914 qualities. Sevenoaks was still full of riches and Granville Road was no exception. At the junction with Eardley Road, recognisable to me at once, were the two detached houses commandeered for our battalion HQ and Quarter-Master stores. Down at Tubs Hill, to my delight, I found the Elite. This was the local flea pit, a small music hall.

On Thursday nights the local talent tried out its stuff. Entrance was 2d for men in uniform. The stage was still there but the laughing legion of the 5th King’s Own had long since dissolved. On the other side of Tubs Hill station I found Holyoake Terrace and to reach it I drove over the main bridge where we had assembled on the bleak, historic, wet and cold St Valentine’s Day 1915 to embark for France. At Knole Park, all I could do was peer in the gates and see again in flashback our battalion in trench digging practice. Little did I know that within a few months this was to become a stern reality.

In 1914 the main shopping street was full of dignified horse and carriage trade and urbanity. Now much of that personality was lost. The Shambles area retained its antiquity and I was delighted to find the pavilion band stand on the Vine had not changed. I was swept back to a Sunday afternoon where we sat expectantly in the gardens, a great concourse of khaki figures, when a lady mounted the platform. She wore a flimsy hat and, to our delight, Lancastrian red roses on her bosom. In a moment she slipped into the rousing, emotionally, recruiting song that was sweeping the country. A thousand cheers, a thousand pair of clapping hands, a thousand hearts wishing she would do the kissing now. And then her encore, ‘you made me love you, I didn’t want to do it’. She was Mrs Reubens, someone said, the wife of Paul Reubens, the composer.

John Edward Smith was featured in the Sevenoaks Chronicle in 1966 in his workshop at the foot of Wickenden Road. A local resident and a gunmaker during the war, he was also best man at the wedding of the parents of future Prime Minister, Edward Heath.

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John Smith with son, Leslie, in his workshop

Smith worked at Woolwich Arsenal during the war, where he was in charge of a giant steam hammer, which could be adjusted so closely that it would come down on a watch placed on the anvil without breaking the glass. “I used to do it regularly. When the hammer fell, you couldn’t pull the watch out, but the glass was still intact”.

Smith bored 100ft long gun barrels for naval vessels. When the Zeppelin raids came he would climb into a barrel and wait until the bombing as over. “There was never a safer air raid shelter”. He recalled seeing Zeppelins brought down at Potters Bar, Cuffley and Billericay and was closeby when the Silvertown ammunition dump blew up.

Frederick Charles Zealey returned to Sevenoaks from further afield, having emigrated to Australia in 1920. Zealey was born in 1904 at the Limes, St John’s where his father was a well known builder. He attended Cobden Road School before graduating to the school at nearby Bayham Road. Although too young to enlist himself, his brother, Arthur William Zealey (1894 – 1960) served as a corporal with the West Kent Yeomanry and was stationed in India.

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Frederick recalled his memories of wartime Sevenoaks, writing for the Sevenoaks Chronicle that

I can remember when the firm of Quinnells, the removalists and contractors had a traction engine which pulled vans and wagons through the town, in 1911 – the Coronation year.

This engine and three open wagons, all covered in bunting took all the school children up through the town to Knole Castle (sic) where we had a picnic on the green in front of the castle.

I also remember Mr H Hill, the baker at St John’s, with his bread cart and blind white pony – also Mr Kipps, the butcher, with his butcher’s carts and his piebald pony Tetratch It used to pull a governess cart or trap around the town, and in it would be Mr and Mrs Kipps, their daughter, and son George, who was killed in World War One.

Intriguingly, Zealey continued

I have a photo of the men of the Royal West Kent Regiment on the Tubs Hill Station, waiting for the train to France on about August 4, 1914. Sevenoaks in those days became a garrison town for troops, and many were in billets and empty houses. Regiments such as the Loyal North Lancashires, Yorkshires, and King’s Own were stationed in Sevenoaks. I attended the unveiling of the war memorial at the Vine after the war.

 

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Bat & Ball from Zealey’s own photographs

The old cinema was opened before World War One and the prices listed in the Sevenoaks Courier were listed as twopence a seat for children and nice plush seats for 6d and 9d and 1s for the gallery. There used to be a pianist to play and sometimes a violinist. You could hear us roar the house down at Charlie Chaplin, Steve Hart, Broncho Bill, John Bunny, and Flo Finch, and other old time film actors.

We used to play in the old Oast House or hop kiln opposite the cinema, long since pulled down.

I’d be very pleased to hear from anyone related to these men, especially if any photographs from the time are still in their possession.

 

 

Echoes across the century – a memorial for William Goss Hicks

An exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London is telling the story of local man, William Goss Hicks, who died as a result of his wounds on 3rd July 1917. The exhibition has been curated by artist Jane Churchill, a Great Great Niece of Hicks, and Alison Truphet. Based on Hicks’ life and drawing on family documents and his romance with fiancée, Jessie Ellman, Jane has worked with City livery companies and local school children to produce a moving chronicle of her uncle’s life, including many creative responses to the story from the children. The exhibition features over 600 objects through which real and imagined tales are told through heritage artefacts and reactive ‘response’ artworks.

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This Monday, 3rd July, on the anniversary of his death, family and local residents remembered Second Lieutenant William Goss Hicks at St Nicholas, the church where, with his fine singing voice, he was a member of the choir and helped run the Sunday School. Children from Lady Boswell’s School and scouts from the 1st Sevenoaks (Hicks Own)  took part to remember their former headmaster.

William Goss Hicks was born in 1882 in Fulham, the son of William, a footman and then butler at Eton College and his wife, Mary.

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Second Lieutenant William Goss Hicks

260th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery

In 1881, the family were living on Chipstead Lane, with William senior now working as a butler at Knole. The 1901 census, shows William Goss Hicks  living with his mother and sisters at 1, Surrey Villas, Sevenoaks and working as a teacher. This arrangement continued to 1911 with the family now living at 8, High Street.

William had joined the staff of the Lady Boswell’s School in 1898 as an assistant teacher and by the outbreak of war had risen to become its Headmaster. He is credited with having brought the new scouting movement to Sevenoaks and would have been well known to many of the other men who are remembered on the Sevenoaks war memorial, such as Ernest Chatfield, Arnold Jarvis and George Marshall, as their former teacher or scout master.

Hicks was a popular figure; on his last leave home, he was spotted by his former scouts and pupils and carried shoulder high through the town.

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Hicks, on right of group

He was an active member of the congregation at St Nicholas, and a long standing member of it’s choir. After his death, the Sevenoaks Chronicle carried an appreciation of him by Reverend J Rooker, Rector of St Nicholas

He was amazingly brave and smiling quite up to the last”, wrote the chaplain in a letter to the parents, the words brought up to one’s mind the picture of Mr Hicks as he always was. bright, alert and cheery, with a breezy swinging carriage, he moved about his boys and friends as one who rejoiced in life, and wanted others to share his joy…When the war broke out he was in some doubt as to his duty. It was at my request he waited, for I put it to him that while many could fight, few could teach. But as the war went on he felt he must go and it was plainly his duty. He joined the R.F.A and had rough times but was always cheery. When he came home there were no complaints, but he was full of fun about his adventures. Then he applied for a commission and was gazetted a Lieutenant in the R.G.A. It was not long after that he went out to France. His letters were still buoyant and hopeful – even when he got up to the line…

Lieutenant Hicks was in charge of the Battery on Monday 2nd July. A German shell came over and struck him. He was removed to the clearing station but the loss of blood was great. Transfusion was tried and it is a witness to his popularity that many men offered to give their blood to him. The operation was tried and he seemed to rally. It was only temporary, however, and about mid-day on the Tuesday he began to collapse and died about half past four. He knew he was dying but was quite happy. He left messages for those he loved and thanked all who had been kind to him, and passed away smiling”.

William Hicks was buried in the Barlin Communal Cemetery Extension, France.

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Voces8 perform at the memorial

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Local schoolchildren performed wartime songs

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A wreath to remember William beneath his memorial plaque

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Local Scout leaders and former members of Hicks Own

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William’s niece, Jean, remembers her uncle

Remembering Private William Manktelow, 1/4 Essex Regiment

William Wallace Manktelow was born in Farningham in 1892, the son of William, a carpenter and joiner and his wife, Winifred. The 1901 census recorded William at home with his parents and siblings living at White Post Cottages in the parish of St Peter and St Paul, Seal near Sevenoaks. By 1911, he was working as a footman for the widowed Sir Vyall Vyvyan, a Baronet and Clerk in Holy Orders, who, at eighty four, lived with his daughter and a total of eleven servants.

For several years William had been a choirboy at St Mary’s Riverhead. After his death, William’s friend, Geraldine Parkes published a small collection of extracts from his letters and diaries including letters to herself, the Rev G F Bell, Vicar of Riverhead, and his parents as well as extracts from his diary while on service, including vivid descriptions of his life in Gallipoli and Egypt.  The Sevenoaks Chronicle carried a story in November 1917, detailing the publication of “a neat little brochure” which had been privately printed.The article noted that :

During his leisure hours he made himself almost perfect in French and also studied other languages. When war broke out he was one of first the first to volunteer. He was rejected at one recruiting station, but later tried again at another and was in khaki before many months of war had passed. He did not take the step without anxious reflection, as his thoughts were turning more and more to ordination. Ever a dreamer and a thinker, a soldier’s life was quite against his nature, and it was only the thought that he was helping bring war to an end that he so heroically through so many hardships, to the supreme sacrifice (sic)”.

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Private William Wallace Manktelow 

William served with 1/4 Essex Regiment and his Battalion had left England at the end of July 1915 and landed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli in the August. Some weeks later he wrote to Rev Bell: “The Turkish trenches are just 200 yards away. You dare not show a finger over the top. Bullets often go through the periscopes”.

He later described the charge across the Anafarta valley, bathing in the sea and “taking no notice of the occasional shell – whizzz, whizz”.

He wrote of how he celebrated Holy Communion under fire and then how he himself was shot and taken to a dressing station on a hospital ship. He wrote to Miss Parkes that “My cot was put in a sort of wooden cradle and we sailed to Alexandria. You can’t think what it is like after 12 weeks in Gallipoli, it is another world. Still, I am not a coward. I will go back and finish my work right to the end when I am well”.

He was later invalided home and spent Christmas 1915 there. On his recovery in the New Year, he rejoined his regiment, sailing for Egypt in June 1916.

He wrote to Rev Bell: “A great aim of mine is to make myself worthy of the confidence you have placed in me”. To his parents he wrote “I have set my heart on ordination and intend to work hard to make myself fit, physically and mentally.”

He later wrote again to Miss Parkes, commenting that “I am sorry to see that I am the only private out of three hundred men here in Egypt to make my communion”.

By February 1917, he was marching with his battalion to Syria, where he wrote: “ Can you picture our long march across sand? This morning we passed several wooden crosses – the last resting place of some of our English Tommies, fallen on the field of honour. At night I saw those magnificent stars, this heavenly roof. It is so superb, shining and grand. It is enough to make one think and see further than the blood-stained battlefields of Europe“.

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William’s grave at the Gaza War Cemetery 

William died at the Battle of Gaza on 26th March 1917 and was buried in the Gaza War cemetery. His father received a letter stating that “Your son was seriously wounded on the outskirts of Gaza at a place called The Green Hill. He lingered for a few hours but did not suffer pain as we gave him morphia. I saw him just before he died and cannot write too highly of him. He was an example to his officers as well as to the men and would hold Evensong Services in his tent. He, like the master he loved and served with his whole being, died on a green hill far away without a city wall – if not at Jerusalem – in the Holy Land”.

As a young reporter on the Sevenoaks Chronicle, local journalist Bob Ogley interviewed William’s father, Wallace, in the mid 1950’s about his memories of Sevenoaks in the 19th century when he played cricket for the Vine and football for Woolwich Arsenal. Bob recalls:

Aged 90 at the time, he told me about his friendship with Winston Churchill, his early adventures as a prize fighter, his extraordinary trip to the North Pole, how he found a living as a bricklayer and helped to build the Club Hall, destroyed by a bomb in 1940. His most treasured memory was helping to build the world’s first glider, which flew from Magpie Bottom in Eynsford and gave the Wright brothers’ the inspiration to develop their own flying machine. He did not tell me anything about his heroic son Wallace, who succumbed to his wounds in a faraway country. Maybe because I did not ask him. Maybe because the memory of him was just too powerful to talk about”.

We remember William on the hundredth anniversary of his death.

For King and Country – a memorial to the sons of Henry Forster MP

By 1914, Henry William Forster had been the MP for Sevenoaks for twenty two years, holding the seat from 1892. A Deputy Lieutenant of Kent he went on to serve as Financial Secretary to the War Office from 1915. Forster had married his wife, Rachel, daughter of the 1st Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, in 1890 and the couple had four children, John, Alfred Henry, Rachel and Emily.

Henry Forster later became MP for Bromley in 1918 and was ennobled in 1920 becoming 1st Baron Forster of Lepe in Southampton. From 1920 until 1925 he  served as Governor General of Australia before returning home to live at Exbury House until his death in 1936 aged sixty nine.

Forster’s eldest son, John, was born on 13th May 1893 and was gazetted as a Second Lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifles on 3rd September 1913.

In the early days of the war the fact that the son of the local Member of Parliament was already at the front was mentioned several times at public recruitment meetings in Sevenoaks, to demonstrate that the sons of the politicians and the gentry were already ‘doing their bit’.

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Second Lieutenant John Forster

John Forster was killed in the early hours of 14th September 1914 during the First Battle of the Aisne. His battalion had been ordered to advance to the plateau of Troyon and dig in.  They went forward in bad weather and when they reached the crest, were unable to continue further and found themselves pinned down by enemy fire coming from the occupied sugar factory at the crossroads above Troyon.

John’s death was reported in the Sevenoaks Chronicle, along with a letter that had been written to his parents

“I ought to have written before about your dear brave Jack, but I was shot through the head the same day and it has been impossible. He died like the gallant English gentleman that he was, leading his men at a critical time when men wanted leading. He was shot right through the head and never recovered. He was my best and brightest officer under all the most trying circumstances and his men all adored him – as of course we all did”.

“The circumstances were as follows:

Our Battalion was ordered out in advance of the Division to occupy some high ground and hold it while the Division passed. We were just getting up to the top at 4 a.m., when, at a point where the space between us and the top was almost perpendicular, we suddenly found ourselves being fired at in the dark by hundreds of Germans, who were firing right down on us as if we were in a rat-pit, so to speak. We had to force our way up to the top of the hill, and when we arrived there we found ourselves confronted by a strong force of Germans, entrenched with machine guns in position, and only 200 yards off. We remained there all day under a heavy shell and rifle fire”.

 “It was a terrible day for our Battalion. By mid-day there were only six Company officers left. We lost 15 officers out of 24 and 283 men. These heavy losses were mostly caused by those dirty Germans holding up their hands in token of surrender and then opening fire on us when we got within 20 yards of their trenches. I am so very sorry about your son, He was a first-class officer and a great favourite with his brother officers as well as his N.C.O’s and men”

John’s brother, Alfred Henry was born on 7th February, 1898 and educated at Winchester College before attending the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He was commissioned in the 2nd Dragoons Guards (Royal Scots Greys) in July 1916.

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Lieutenant Alfred Henry Forster

Alfred was sent to France the following February and was promoted to Lieutenant on 19th January, 1918. On 17th October 1918 he was seriously wounded near Le Cateau and transferred to the Gerstley-Hoare Hospital for Officers at 53 Cadogan Square, Belgravia, London, where he spent five months before dying of his wounds on 10th March 1919.

While at the hospital, Alfred became friends with fellow patient, the sculptor Cecil Thomas (1885-1976). After Alfred’s death, Lord and Lady Forster commissioned Thomas to design the remarkable memorial to John and his brother, which is in the church of St Katherine at Exbury in the New Forest. The bronze figure was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1924 and a model is held by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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Memorial to the Forster brothers at St Katherine’s, Exbury

All images ©Come Step Back in Time

The memorial, which displays a recumbent figure of Alfred, is inscribed

To the glory of god and in loving memory of their two sons John and Alfred who gave their lives for king and country in the Great War 1914 -1918 this monument is erected by Lord and Lady Forster of Lepe.

There is a similar memorial in the church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, London. It was Lord Forster’s wish that this would not be a personal memorial but one to all those who had died. There are similar memorials at the church of St John, Southend and in Newcastle Cathedral, Australia.

There is also a memorial plaque to John Forster at the church in Exbury.

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Memorial plaque to John Forster

All images ©Come Step Back in Time

The Forster family had previously lived at Southend Hall in Lewisham (now demolished) and Lord Forster donated the land for Forster Memorial Park near Catford in memory of his sons and the park was opened by his daughter, Dorothy, in 1922.

The brothers are also remembered at their schools and in the parliamentary books of remembrance at Westminster.

 

All images of the Forster memorial are reproduced with kind permission by ©Come Step Back in Time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The gallant sons of Sevenoaks’ – the story of our war memorial

The Sevenoaks War Memorial was unveiled on an autumn day in October 1920 when thousands of local people assembled on The Vine to pay their public tribute to the memory of two hundred and twenty five sons of Sevenoaks, who lost their lives during the conflict. The Sevenoaks Chronicle subsequently noted in its report of the event how every class was represented and had suffered loss, all had been bound together in one great act of sacrifice.

The Memorial was funded by public subscription, including from house-to-house collections, with individual donations of up to £500. The total raised being £5,663. On the afternoon of the unveiling the memorial was covered with the Union Jack, with the town’s coat of arms. Lord Sackville and the Bishop of Rochester led proceedings and were joined by many other official representatives of the town. The relatives of the men stood in their own enclosure and a boy scout stood at each corner of the mound. Representatives of the VAD also attended as did many of the local churches and other organisations, all gathered to honour their fellow townsmen.

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Order of Service for the unveiling ceremony

The choirs of St Nicholas, St Mary, Kippington, and St John’s led the singing and the ex servicemen marched to their places from nearby St John’s Congregational Church.

After hymns had been sung and prayers said, Lord Sackville, who had served throughout the war himself, spoke movingly

“I suppose there can be no occasion which calls for greater unity of feeling than an occasion like the present, when we meet here together for the purpose of unveiling and dedicating a Memorial to our fellow towns-men who fought and died in the Great War. It was inevitable that there should be divergence of opinion as to the particular form that any Memorial should take; it is inevitable that there should be criticism of the site chosen and of a dozen other matters: but I think that I may safely say that this gathering, as fully representative of all the various interests in this town of Sevenoaks, is united here today with one common thought, to pay tribute to the memory of those whose names you will find inscribed on this Memorial”.

“Many of these men were known to many of us: some of them met their end in my own regiment with me, and they went forth from Sevenoaks, hoping no doubt, that they might be safely spared to return in all safety, knowing full well the dangers they were going to encounter and yet facing those dangers with that cheerful uncomplaining acquiescence for the call of duty which has won for them a place in our esteem which no Memorial can ever adequately fill… I am glad to know that there are many in the assembly today of the men who were the comrades in arms of those whose memory we are honouring today”.

He concluded by speaking of the relatives gathered before him

May I, on behalf of the whole community, offer to them our heartfelt sympathy, our reverent gratitude for the sacrifices which they were called upon to make, and may I tell them that in erecting this monument, we are not unmindful of their sorrows but that we are erecting it as a sign to this generation and to future generations with the high honour and esteem with which we regard those so dear to them, who gave all, who lost all and yet who gained all”.

He then unveiled the memorial with the words “Let us ever remember with thanksgiving and all honour before God and man the gallant sons of Sevenoaks who laid down their lives for their country in the Great War”.

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Postcard of the war memorial with flowers laid by relatives, October 1920

Mr Frank Robinson, Chairman of the Urban District Council, then read the list of the 225 names, which included those of his son, Frank, and nephew, Herbert Lethebe. He noted that it was unknown how many men from Sevenoaks had gone to war but 225 were remembered on the memorial and 1,265 had returned. He remarked, perhaps with his own loss at the front of his mind, that Sevenoaks had paid rather heavily.

The Bishop of Rochester then spoke saying , according to the newspaper report, that

The monument stands on a great highway along which hundreds of thousands of people would pass through from the great Metropolis to the seaboard. It would stand when all present that day had followed those men beyond the grave into the great Hereafter. It would stand to inspire those that came after us to be worthy of the heroisms of those men…He wanted the monument to uplift them and make them stand as the man on the monument stood, sentry-like, prepared not only to fight for their country but to fight against all that was evil, all that was of discord and all that prevented the country from rising in the time of peace to the high position it attained during the years of war. It was only Christ who would enable them to do so”

After the Bishop’s address wreaths and flowers were placed at the foot of the memorial by the relatives, helped by the Boy Scouts. Then came the Blessing, Chopin’s Funeral March and then the Last Post, sounded by two buglers of the Royal West Kent Regiment. After the silence came Reveille and the end of the service.

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List of names from the Order of Service, 1920

The Memorial was designed by sculptor and painter, Arthur George Walker, who designed several others, including those of Dartford and Ironbridge which bear the same figure. The inscription on the Memorial reads ‘To keep in mind those from this place who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1918’.

Private Bartholomew

There were  225 names listed on the memorial when it was unveiled. Two more were later added and one was removed, that of Adrian Maurice Bartholomew of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Adrian’s service records survive and show that he enlisted in 1914 and was sent for instruction at the Royal Army Medical Corps School in Chatham before being posted.

He survived the war and lived to see his own name commemorated. His name is listed in the order of service for the unveiling of the memorial in 1920 (above) and is visible on a postcard of the memorial taken shortly after its unveiling.

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Side view of memorial, October 1920

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Panel showing where Private Bartholomew’s name had been

Adrian was born in 1895, one of seven children born to Frank Bartholomew, a house painter and his wife, Annie. The 1911 census shows that Adrian was working as a grocer’s boy and the family living at 3, Bradbourne Road Cottages.

His inclusion on the memorial is curious as there were plenty of family members living locally, none of whom would have requested his name to be included. His brother-in-law, John Tester, had been killed in 1915 and was remembered on the memorial, although not under his regiment, the Royal West Kents but with five other unassigned names. Adrian’s two nephews, John’s sons, Eric and Leslie Tester, were later included on the memorial as both died in the Far East at the end of the Second World War. However, their names were only added after their mother’s death in 1979 as she could not bear to see them named on the memorial while she lived.

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Adrian’s obituary in the Sevenoaks Chronicle

Adrian Bartholomew died in Sevenoaks in 1966, aged seventy.

In August 1914, our memorial project gathered descendants of the men from across the country to remember them in a special service and family members lay crosses at the foot of the memorial as the names of the men were read out once more in remembrance.

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Descendants of those remembered gather at the memorial, August 2014

 

“No one knows how I miss him” – a wartime love story

In the churchyard at St Nicholas in the heart of Sevenoaks, there is a family grave, which bears witness to a remarkable love story between a Sevenoaks woman and a Belgian soldier.

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The family grave at St. Nicholas church

The memorial to the Caplen family has now fallen into disrepair but it is still just possible to read the inscriptions to Frederick and Rosina Caplen and their two children, Frederick and Rosina. However, one side of the memorial includes the following inscription

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Also in loving memory of my dear husband, Sergeant Emile Leonard de Coster, 22nd Infantry Belgium Army, killed about 9th August 1919, somewhere in Germany aged 35 years

No one knows how I miss him

No one knows how he died

No one knows how he suffered

No one knows where he lies

Having previously written about the arrival of Belgian soldiers and refugees in Sevenoaks, I have tried to research this story further. What emerges is a love story and a tale of one woman’s passion and determination to find out what happened to her husband.

Frederick Caplen was born in Worthing, Sussex, in 1856 and married Rosina Jane Gunn (1858-1926) in 1880. Frederick and Rosina had two children, Frederick Nathaniel (1887-1920) and Rosina Jane (born 1884) and the 1911 census shows the family now living in Sevenoaks High Street, with Frederick senior working as a confectioner and his two children were running their own hairdressing business.

I can find no mention of Emil de Coster (spellings of his first name vary) in Sevenoaks during the war years and am assuming he arrived, wounded or otherwise, during the early years of the war. He married Rosina Caplen early in 1917 and is not mentioned again until a brief report of his death by drowning in 1919. A full account of the story does not appear until three years later in an article in the Sevenoaks Chronicle on 15th September 1922.

Entitled Sevenoaks Woman’s Search for Her Husband’s Grave, the article describes how Rosina, now Madame de Coster, had searched for three years for the grave of her husband, who had died while he was serving with the Army of Occupation in Germany.

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How the Chronicle reported Rosina’s search

According to the paper, after years of ‘unavailing inquiries’ as to the circumstances of her husband Emil’s death and burial place, Rosina travelled to Brussels to make inquiries in person. At Brussels she was able to trace and meet one of the officers of her late husband’s regiment who told her the full story of his death. He told her that

“Just after dinner, Sergeant de Coster went with others to the soldiers’ bathing pond. He had not been long in the water when he was seized with cramp. His comrades rescued him from the water and a doctor was called, but life was extinct. They buried him with full military honours in a pretty little churchyard at Rheinberg”.

Having learnt this, the intrepid Rosina set off for Rheinberg, some 400 miles across the frontier, she reached Cologne, where her impression was that “the British soldier rules”. In her words “The Germans are afraid of them“.  According to the paper

Everything she found to be fearfully expensive to the Germans, and the effect of the downfall of the Mark (it was 8000 to the £ during her visit) is illustrated by the fact that the journey from Brussels to Cologne, 2nd class, was only 2s in English money. “There were plenty of English people in Germany but it is difficult to bring anything out owing to the Customs”.

Following a further 12 hours train journey, Rosina arrived at Rheinberg and was able to visit her husband’s grave and met a German woman who had witnessed the funeral and was able to give more detail on his death and burial.

The paper concluded that Rosina’s one desire was to have her husband’s body returned to Sevenoaks for reburial and she was making an appeal to the Belgian War Office for this. Failing that, she wished her husband’s body to be returned for burial in his home town.

Rosina’s efforts were ultimately successful as Emil’s body was exhumed on 1st June 1923 and removed to Belsele for reburial.

Some years later in January 1931, the  Chronicle reported that Madame de Coster was presented to Baron and Baroness Moschier the Belgian Ambassador and his wife, at a party given by the Society des Invalides at the Earl Haig Memorial Hall, Fulham, in memory of the Belgian soldiers who fell during the Great War. Later that year, in the November,  as the only known widow of a Belgian serviceman in England, Rosina de Coster laid a wreath at the cenotaph on behalf of the Belgian Federation.

Unfortunately, despite some months of research, I have not been able to discover much more about Emil himself. He was born on 25th January 1886 in Belsele, St Niklaas, to Charles Louis August de Coster, a farmer/agricultural worker, and his wife Francoise. It is possible that Emil had two brothers, Gabriel, born 1887, and Leo Frans, born 1889, and the family, at least around 1919, were living at Groenstraat 6, Belsele.

Unfortunately, Emil’s service records are missing from the National Archives and the local archives at St Niklaas have so far been unable to help.

His widow, Rosina, continued to live in Sevenoaks and, as a singer and performer took part in many local productions and events. She lived on at her home ‘Coniston’ on The Drive, Sevenoaks,  until 1948, when she was buried in the family grave at St Nicholas.For many years, Rosina posted an In Memoriam notice in the Sevenoaks Chronicle in remembrance of her husband.

De Coster obituary

Rosina’s obituary in the Sevenoaks Chronicle

Rosina and Emil did not have children and neither did her brother, Frederick. It is possible that Emil’s brothers did have children and that there are descendents today who might be able to provide more information on this story. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who can offer any help in discovering official records or a family link to help remember a couple brought together by the war and Rosina’s remarkable determination to discover what had happened to her husband and to ensure that he was remembered in Sevenoaks and reburied in the place of his birth.

Letters home – ‘The Full Story of the Arethusa by a Sevenoaks Jack Tar’

In the early weeks of the war, a number of men from Sevenoaks who were by then in training or already on active service, wrote to the Sevenoaks Chronicle with tales of their exploits. One of the first to do so was Thomas Porter. Thomas was born in Sevenoaks in 1891, the son of Thomas Porter and his wife, Ellen. The 1911 census showed Thomas as aged twenty four, living at 13, Redman Place, High Street, Sevenoaks, with his parents and four of his siblings.

Thomas’s letters are accounts of his time as a Stoker on the Arethusa during the Battle of Heligoland Bight, the first naval battle of the war, which was fought on the 28th August 1914.

Thomas had joined the Royal Navy on 6th August 1909, for the usual period of twelve years. At the time of his joining up he was working as a plumber and his papers show that he was nearly 5’4 tall, with a fresh complexion, brown eyes and hair. Thomas served on a number of ships before joining the Arethusa. From 1909 he was part of the crew of nine ships including the Pembroke, Agamenon, and Blenheim. He was promoted Acting Stoker while still with the Arethusa in January 1915 but left the ship that March and continued to serve with the Navy until October 1919 when, as Leading Stoker, he was invalided out of the service with his character having been ‘Very Good’ throughout.

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Thomas’s first letter in the Sevenoaks Chronicle

Thomas wrote two letters that were published, the first to his mother, the second to the Sevenoaks Chronicle. He tries to strike a reassuring tone in the letter to his mother

Don’t worry over me as I am as safe as ‘houses’. Since I said goodbye to Dad and the boys, I have been in the thick of the war and thank God for that. He has spared me to come back. We were in the great battle of Heligoland and I am sorry to say we have eleven killed and two wounded. We were engaged in the battle for six hours and our ship sunk four German cruisers, eight submarines and two torpedo destroyers. You talk about the charge of the Light Brigade, it was not in it. Now no more. We had a very rough time so now I will close. I have a lot to tell you when I write again, so goodbye, I remain, your loving son, Tom.

The second letter was published the following week billed as the Full Story of the Arethusa by a Sevenoaks Jack Tar.

This is an account of the great battle of Heligoland. I am just writing as I was an eye witness. It was a sight I shall never forget. We had only been in commission a week. We left on the Thursday from Harwich to try and decoy the skulkers out into the North Sea.

My captain told us the night before we went into action that we were going to have a rub at them sometime next morning. We were steaming all night long without lights, which was a very dangerous job, as there were forty seven destroyers of the British and two 2nd class cruisers about – the Arethusa and HMS Fearless. Well, all went well until about 7 o’clock next morning, and then we were at it.

There was a black fog all around us, but we were not more than three miles off the big forts of Heligoland, and we could see the German destroyers coming to meet us. But we had no idea we were going to meet cruisers. We opened fire on them and of course they retaliated and we had not been in action more than 20 minutes when we sunk one of their destroyers. Yes! Our boats peppered it into them. Then all of a sudden we saw a big cruiser coming towards us, so of course we had to do our best. I had just come off watch, and the fog was still very black, and as I came on deck a terrible sight I saw. Dead and wounded all around me, and the shells of the Germans still bursting over our heads. But we had to stick it. I did my best. I gave a hand with the wounded but I could not see a stretcher, and so I picked up a piece of old canvas, carried two poor chaps to sick bay in it, and back I came.

We came out of action and we had not been out about half an hour when our skipper sighted another two cruisers of the enemy, so of course we had to face the music once more. And this time we all thought it was all up with us, as we were badly damaged. We had our gunners shot away from their guns like nine-pins, and others came up to take their places and then we had four guns out of action, but we had two or three to carry on with, as we meant to fight until the last. Then all of a sudden we sighted the cruisers and battle cruisers of our own Fleet coming to our assistance. It was a Godsend, because we were hit badly below the waterline. We could only steam 20 knots then, as our engines had nearly been put out of action, and afterwards we had to be towed home to Bonny England by the cruiser Hague, and when we got to Sheerness we did get a “chuck-up” by the lads on the battleships.

Mr Churchill came aboard and had a look over our ship to see the damage and to look at our poor lads who had fallen in the battle. After all we went through, it was a marvel to come out of it all. And last of all I must tell you that our captain told us that we had all done our duty and the next time we went in action he hoped we would put our trust in him as we had put our trust in us. We are going to have another out later on to see if we can make some more of them come out and go under.

Apart from a brief reference to Thomas when his brother George was mentioned in the Sevenoaks Chronicle, I haven’t yet been able to find further reference to him, either during the war or after. On 21st September 1917, in its regular ‘Our Boys’ column, George Porter was mentioned as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers home on leave from his current base at Canterbury. According to the brief article, George’s brother Ernest was serving with the Kent Cyclists while Tom was noted as being ‘for some time on board the Arethusa when she did saucy things in the North Sea’.

This short but detailed piece was the first account of any Sevenoaks man who had experienced combat to be published and read by local people.

All of the Porter brothers appear to have survived the war but there was one wartime casualty in the family with the death of their sister, Clarice May Cross nee Porter  (1892-1918). In its report of her burial, the Chronicle reported that Clarice had died of blood poisoning in hospital in Folkestone. Her obituary noted briefly that Clarice had worked in a munitions factory during the war ‘and there contracted the disease of which she died’. Clarice was buried in the cemetery at St Nicholas and left behind her husband, Clarence, and baby daughter, Clarice, who was just a few weeks old.

Another of Thomas’s sisters, Elsie Nellie (1886-1975) married Charlie Draper, the soldier whom I wrote about in my post Remember Me 

As ever, I would be very interested to hear from anyone with further information regarding this local family, at least four of whom served either abroad or on the home front.