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.

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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.

 

Searching for the Sevenoaks airmen

There are five men who served with the Royal Flying Corps named on the Sevenoaks war memorial: Bernard Vernon Gordon, George Walford, Nimrod King, Thomas Sillis and George Walford.

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Tom Silliss

Bernard Gordon’s brother, Cedric Foskett Gordon went on to serve with the RFC as an observer after losing a leg whilst serving with the North Staffordshire regiment. We know a lot about the Gordon family as their archive, especially Cedric’s letters of that period survive. Just over a week before Bernard’s death, Cedric wrote to his younger brother who was then in training:

9 December, letter to 2nd Lieut BV Gordon at the Aerodrome, Cramlington.

How are you getting on?   I am glad you have got over your Preliminary part.   I hope you still like flying.   What sort of a pilot are you turning out to be?   How long will it probably be before you get your wings?   Life out here in the Winter is pretty dull.   I have only been up twice in the last 3 weeks & there is nothing to do.   They have just started quite a decent officers’ club here.   I am going there for dinner tonight.   We have been having dreadfully dud weather here.   Not much chance of it clearing up ‘till about April.   A Hun who was out on a night bombing raid lost his way & landed about 2 miles from here 3 nights ago.   He only broke his prop. so he did pretty well. There was a great soccer match this afternoon.   There is quite a lot of footer out here;  I wish I could play & the fellows who can play don’t want to!   We have got a very good aerodrome here.   The Hun prisoners have made a good job of it.   There have been one or two very good concert parties down this way lately & there is to be a boxing show on this week.   You ought to try boxing one day, it’s quite good fun & very good exercise.   Let me know if I can do anything for you.   Who have you got as your Sqdn Commander & Flight Commanders?   Nice people I hope.    There are a lot of blighters in the Corps.   Well, very best of luck.   Cheerho.

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Bernard Vernon Gordon

Bernard was killed, aged 18, in an aircraft crash near Newcastle on 14 December, his 13th Solo sortie.

The exploits of other local RFC men were often reported in the Sevenoaks Chronicle but I am very keen to hear from anyone who might be able to shed more light on our airmen and their stories.

Ernest Horncastle was one such man. A son of Walter Horncastle, a tailor based in the High Street (a family business which still operates today), Ernest was born in Sevenoaks in 1890.  Aged twenty three and at 6’1  and in good health, he enlisted in August 1914 and soon received a temporary commission with the Royal Field Artillery, arriving in France that December. After a few months he was attached to the Royal Flying Corps Balloon Section. In August 1917 the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported that Ernest

…has seen some very stiff work and had some thrilling experiences.

By 1916, Ernest was suffering from shell shock and fever and spent a period of five weeks on leave at home. A Medical Board report concluded that his illness was due to active service and that he ‘is very neurotic and complaining of subjective symptoms’.

Ernest recovered well enough to return to service and continued until early 1918 when he was diagnosed with bronchitis and neurasthenia and was sent to hospital before returning home on leave to England. A Medical Board held in that March noted that his bronchitis had cleared but that he still suffered from muscular pains and other symptoms.

The medical officer’s opinion was that

He has done a good deal of active service. It is highly probable that his nerve for flying is failing or has done so. He is otherwise perfectly well.

In fact, by this time, Ernest had clocked up over 150 hours flying. The board concluded that Ernest should return to some duty, in order for his ‘mind to be distracted from himself’.

(he) leads an ordinary life of pleasure and enjoyment and takes plenty of exercise. He has greatly improved in every way since admission.

Ernest survived the war and lived until 1964.

Another Ernest, a brother of soldier Leonard Brooker who is remembered on the town war memorial, initially served with the Royal Engineers.

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Ernest Brooker

The Sevenoaks Chronicle reported in September 1917 that Ernest

is engaged in wireless telegraphy work. He has been in France eighteen months and finds his work pleasurable.

A chemist before the war, Ernest joined the RFC and survived the war but was tragically killed in a motor accident in 1929.

Horace Owen was born in 1890, he son of local councillor, Richard and his wife, Laura.

Initially joining the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve,  Horace later transferred to be the Flying Corps, where he served as a Temporary Lieutenant.

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Horace William Owen

The Chronicle reported in early 1917 that Horace had only recently left Sevenoaks to commence his duties in France as a member of the RFC and went missing after his first flight. After weeks of uncertainty, a letter from Horace arrived home informing his parents that he was now a prisoner of war and had been shot down while flying. Horace had been captured on 28th March 1917 and was repatriated on 14th January 1919. He lived on until 1969.

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Ivan Hart Davies

Ivan Hart Davies (1878-1917), had been  a schoolmaster at the Beacon School in Sevenoaks and counted Siegfried Sassoon amongst his pupils. Himself the son of a vicar, he also taught the sons of the Rector of St Nicholas and  the Rev. Thompson of St Mary, Kippington. Hart Davies had left the school by the time of his death, which was reported in The Times

Lieutenant Ivan Beauclerk Hart-Davies, RFC, who was killed in an aeroplane accident in England was the son of the late Rev John Hart-Davies of Southam Rectory, Warwickshire and was 39 years of age. He was educated at a school at Maidenhead and at King’s School, Canterbury, and began life as a schoolmaster at New Beacon, Sevenoaks. Afterwards, however, he worked up a wide life insurance and motor insurance business in the Midlands. He held the “end-to-end” “record” for motor cycles and light cars, and in 1913, with three other motorcyclists, won the Murren Cup, though none of the four had done any bobsleighing before. He took to flying before the war as an amateur, but last year he obtained a commission in the RFC and was on the eve of going to the front. A brother officer writes ‘A gallant fellow who we all liked immensely, and are deeply grieved that he should have been fatally injured when he so much wished to go to France, where doubtless he would have won honours’.

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Harry Watson Durtnell

Harry Watson Durtnell was a scion of the Durtnell family of Brasted, builders since the reign of Elizabeth I. Harry was a cousin of Richard Neville Durtnell who was killed in action in 1917. Initially serving with the Welch regiment, Harry later transferred to serve with the RFC. He survived the war, living until 1971.

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Frederick Whyntie

Fred Whyntie was the brother of Jack Whyntie, whom I recently wrote about. Like his brother, Fred survived the war but died in 1937 aged 48. His grandson, Adrian Whyntie, told me that the family believed his health had suffered by his job of ‘applying aircraft dope to the fabric. This damaged his lungs badly, which resulted in his early death’.

Many other local men served with the RFC at all levels in the new service. John Potter  had worked with his father for five years in the Blacksmiths Forge at Knole and had joined the army in November 1916 aged 19. Putting his training to good use,  the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported that he had been selected for ‘flying machines repair work’ and was employed in the Royal Naval Flying Corps workshops.

Little is known about Howard Reeder Daws (1898-1969) beyond this excellent photo of him and I’d be very pleased to hear from relatives of any of these men and those listed below whose service is mentioned only briefly in local papers.

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Howard Reeder Daws

Sevenoaks airmen mentioned in the Chronicle
Capt Nevill Hudson
Lieut Halliday
Lieut A Sargent

Air Mechanic Charlie Bassett
Air Mechanic George Dawson
Air Mechanic A Diamond
Air Mechanic Anthony Holmden
Air Mechanic Charlie Martin
Air Mechanic Arthur Terrry
Air Mechanic Frank Thorogood
First Class Air Mechanic B Frank Townsend
Second Air Mechanic Gordon A Waters

Private S Brazier
George Dawson
Private Harrington
Lionel Hicks
Private W Hoadley
Private Charlie Martin
Corporal R Morris
Private Rich
T E Weller

Air Mechanic (First Class) E C House, RNAS
Bernard Sears RNAS
Arthur Smithurst RNAS
F W Weller, RNAS

 

 

Mollie’s story, ‘My father was a conscientious objector’

When I wrote about conscientious objectors in Sevenoaks earlier this year, I tried to convey a sense of how the men who objected and their families were viewed and treated in the town but any personal testimony was difficult to find. In the last week, I have been extremely lucky to find exactly what I was looking for in a book of reminiscences from Somerset.

Mollie Wren was born Ivy Florence Tester in 1912 in Sevenoaks to George Tester (1883-1962) and Emma nee Banfield (18881-1960). Known as Mollie, she married Philip Wren and later in life moved to Somerset. In the early 1990’s, Mollie, along with several other elderly women living in the Winsham area, talked about her childhood memories in an initiative run by the South Somerset Reminiscence Project, the results of which were published, with several of Mollie’s family photos included. Mollie died in 1996 and the couple do not appear to have had any children. Fortunately, her memories are clear and evocative of the challenges her family faced as a result of her father’s stance, as the family were abused, ignored and faced financial hardship.

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George Tester and Emma Banfield on their wedding day

The 1911 census shows Mollie’s parents, George and Emma, living at 13, St Botolph’s Road with their son, George Albert (1906-1994) with George recorded as a builder. The family were active members of the Vine Baptist Church. By 1916 the family had moved to Cedar Villa, Cedar Terrace and, that June, George was mentioned in the Sevenoaks Chronicle in its report on the proceedings of the  local Military Tribunal. The paper noted that George

wanted to save life rather than take it, but did not object to non-combatant service, to which he was referred.

George’s military records show that he was thirty three and a half, five feet tall, and working as a painter when he subsequently  enrolled with the Non Combatant Corps in July 1916. That December, George was working at Newhaven when he was charged with disobeying a lawful command given to him by an officer while on active service. He was tried by court martial and sentenced to be detained at Wormwood Scrubs.

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The family at Seaford Cliffs

Mollie recalled this these events in a number of interviews that were edited and published in 1995.

Father said no, he wasn’t going to fight. He just simply believed Thou Shalt Not Kill. He was sent with a lot of others to Seaford Cliffs to load food ships for the troops. He continued with that until they wanted him to load firearms. They all refused. So then we was sent to Lewes gaol and court-martialled. He was tried by Lord Salisbury, who was sympathetic to conscientious objectors. Even so, he sent my father to Wandsworth prison for a year in solitary confinement, and then to Dartmoor Prison for two years and seven months.

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George (third right) in the workshop at Wormwood Scrubs

As a family, we were ostracised. I remember walking hand in hand with mother along St John’s Road. Two men, up ladders, shouted something abusive at my mother. She gripped my hand tightly and hurried me away. Father had said mother must continue to go to the Baptist church, although no-one spoke to her. I remember walking up the aisle to our pew, which was halfway up the church. My mother held my hand tightly.

A couple of teachers at Sevenoaks Council School were horrible to me because my dad had been a conscientious objector. They felt very strongly.

As my father was a conscientious objector, my mother had no government pay, and in the end she was virtually penniless. One night she knelt at the armchair by the cold grate in the kitchen, and prayed to God to help her. Even as she prayed the front door rattled, and she heard something put through the letterbox. She went through the passage and there was an envelope on the mat. No letter in it, but a five pound note, which in those days was a great deal of money. Mother never forgot this, and she always used to quote me afterwards: The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail. And it never did. Finally, kind people came to their senses and brought Mother sewing. She was extremely able. People would bring their sewing on the quiet to start with, but at least it came.

Lord Mons (actually Robert Mond of Combe Bank), who lived at Sundridge Place, gave Home Farm over as a convalescent home for wounded officers and their batmen. Mother became the sewing woman here. Her eldest sister, Fanny, became cook-housekeeper, and my uncle became head cowman.

There was no shortage of food there, despite the war. My aunt was a typical cook of that generation: a large lady in a blue-print dress and snow-white apron, with her lovely hair brushed back. I can see her now, standing at the kitchen table with enormous tin plates covered in pastry, and a gallipot of jam clasped to her bosom, ladling jam onto these plates. Then they were cut in six for the wounded soldiers. They loved her pastry.

Not only was  I spoiled by my aunt, but by the soldiers, I walked out with them in the country lanes and into Sundridge village, where they bought me sweets. A lot of them were married and had children of their own.

There was a great bronze gong hanging on a stand and a stick with a leather ball at the top, I loved sloshing this gong. The soldiers tried to teach me how to work up a real crescendo, but I was too little. I just loved banging it! On Sundays we went to Chevening church in a horse brake, which had seats on either side. There was I, in the middle of all these soldiers, going off to church!

There was one ward for the batmen, and the officers were in another. I remember the long rows of beds and red blankets. One particular officer was very fond of me, and when he was he dying asked to see me. Mother carried me upstairs and told me to be good. We went in with the Matron. I remember being sat on the bed. He held my hand, and his hand was very hot. I remember that clearly but no more. 

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Mollie and her ‘particular officer’ at Combe Bank

In 1916, my mother took in a lodger, a Miss Bunting. This lady was a brilliant dressmaker. She’d been very adventurous and gone off to Russia and become one of the Tsarina’s court dressmakers. When the Revolution was boiling up, she fled home quickly. One night she tapped at the bedroom door and said, ‘Mrs Tester, you must come quickly! You must see this!’. My mother picked me up out of the cot, wrapped a shawl round me and carried me into her bedroom, which had a wonderful view over the North Downs. And there was this airship going along, a German airship. It had caught fire: it was blazing as it went along. I remember my mother murmuring over my head, ‘Poor souls, poor souls!’.

Father wasn’t released from Dartmoor until 1919. I was seven. Mother couldn’t go to the station to meet him after that separation, so my brother and I went. I remember running round the garden picking a bunch of flowers. It was perfectly ridiculous: I was going to meet this unknown ‘Dad’. I remember getting to the station, and a cloud of steam; and out of it came this man whom my brother rushed to, because he remembered him. Then I remember being crushed, flowers and all, against this man. When we got to the garden gate, Mother, who had been standing watching in the sitting-room window, came to the front door. Father went in, and I was going to prance in after, but my brother hung on to the back of my frock and took me round the garden. He was more sensitive that for just a little while they wanted to be alone.

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George senior, George and Mollie after the war

George Tester lived on until 1962, surviving his wife, Emma, by two years. His own mother, Martha Tester nee Letchford (1845-1946) lived to see her 101st birthday. Interestingly, she had been born at Chatham Barracks where her own father, Frederick Letchford (1806-1887) was Colour Sergeant with (according to the Sevenoaks Chronicle) ‘the old 50th regiment, known as the Blind Half Hundred’. He had been born in Sevenoaks in the house which eventually became a pub, The Halfway House, and at one point, home to Charlie Draper the subject of a recent post.

Mollie and Philip do not appear to have had children but I would be very interested to hear from anyone who remembers her or any family members who may be able to share more of her and her father’s story. Thanks to Mollie and the oral history team in Somerset, we have this insight into the life of a conscientious objector and his family in Sevenoaks during the war.