‘I can only say that his men loved him’: Geoffrey Harrison on the first day of the Somme

Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Harrison, Machine Gun Corps

Geoffrey Harrison is the fifth and last of the Sevenoaks men that were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His great nephew, Sir Michael Harrison, still lives in Sevenoaks and has written this account of the life of his great uncle, which is included in my book on the war memorial.

Geoffrey Harrison, my paternal great uncle, was born on 8th April 1896. His father was Bernard Bowles Harrison and his mother was Elizabeth Anne Harrison (nee Franks). In the 1901 Census, Bernard Bowles Harrison was described as a Master Printer. At the time of that Census, the family was living at ‘Hurstdale’ in Granville Road, Sevenoaks, a house which was built sometime between 1890 and 1896 and which is still standing today. The family at that time included Geoffrey’s older brother Bernard Guy (my grandfather, who later became Sir Guy Harrison), who was fifteen at the time, and his two sisters Winifrid Madge, then aged thirteen, and Elsie, then aged twelve. Geoffrey was the youngest, aged four. Guy Harrison married Cicely Vicat, sister of Horatio John Vicat and Frederick Holland Vicat, who are also remembered on the Sevenoaks War Memorial.

Geoffrey was educated initially by Miss Webb in Granville Road, Sevenoaks. He then went to a prep school called Beechmont in Sevenoaks where he was captain of the school. After that, he went to Rugby School in 1910. He left Rugby School in 1914 to go to University College, Oxford but shortly thereafter, on the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the Public Schools Brigade. Documents at that time record that he was 6’ 2 inches tall and weighed 160 lbs. He was described as having a fair complexion, blue eyes and blond hair.

In December 1914, he obtained a Commission in the 12th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, transferring later to the 13th Battalion. On 21st December 1915, he was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps (Infantry), and in April 1916 he left for the Front.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 11.08.54Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Harrison

He was killed only a few months later on 1st July 1916 on the first day of the battle of the Somme (there is a telegram from the Army Council to his father dated 9th July informing him that Geoffrey was killed on 2nd July but that was corrected in a later document dated stating that there had been confusion between officers of the same name and confirming that Geoffrey had been killed on 1st July 1916).

The circumstances of his death were that he was leading his Section in ‘No Man’s Land’ at Contalmaison when he received a wound in the thigh. He gave instructions to his NCO to push on, when a shell burst and killed him. He was aged twenty.

Eleven days later a brother officer, GB Martin Scutt, wrote to Geoffrey’s mother.

My dear Mrs. Harrison,

‘I have been out of action ever since the first day of the attack, and only had my first news of the Coy. late last night, and with it the terrible news about Geoff. As you know we have been chums ever since we joined the Corps. and for the last six months have done everything together. Since we have been in France, whenever the officers had to be paired off for billets, etc, or an occasional day free, we two were together. This is a fairly stiff test of friendship, yet I can honestly say that no man could ever want a better pal, and throughout that close relationship I have never known him to say or do anything unworthy of the true Gentleman he always was.

Off parade and in Mess his classical allusions and quaint phrases kept us in constant good humour up to the last. He was everybody’s pal. On parade I can only say that his men loved him.

We said Good-bye to each other on the evening before the attack commenced at about 6.30 when he was in the best of spirits. As our sections were on opposite flanks I had no chance of seeing him during the action, and before we’d been moving a quarter of an hour I had a bullet through both lungs. I shall do my best to learn more details from those who were with him up to the last, if I get the opportunity – but I know there is only one way in which he could have gone out, and that is as a gallant officer and gentleman.

As I am sure you know, my sympathies go out in full to you and Mr. Harrison, and I feel much more than I can express.

If I succeed in learning anything that I think would interest you at all, I will let you know, or, when I am well enough, may I come and see you?

Until then, I remain,

Yours very sincerely,

G. B Martin Scutt

Geoffrey is buried in Ovillers Military Cemetery in the locality of the Somme.

IMG_0346Memorial to Geoffrey Harrison in St Nicholas Church

There is a splendid plaque inside St. Nicholas’ Church, Sevenoaks, in memory of Geoffrey Harrison. It refers to him being killed in action near Fricourt in the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, aged 20. ‘He died the noblest death a man may die Fighting for God and Right and Liberty’.

His name is also recorded on the Roll of Honour inside the church, as well as on the church War Memorial near the entrance to the churchyard. His name is also recorded on the Roll of Honour inside St. Mary’s Church, Kippington, Sevenoaks although not on the War Memorial outside.

The Headmaster’s son: Captain George Heslop at the Somme

George Henry Heslop

Captain, Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment)

George Henry Heslop is the fourth of the five Sevenoaks men who died on (or whose death was officially recorded as having occurred) on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

He was the son of the Headmaster of Sevenoaks School, also George and his wife, Gertrude. Born in Sandbach, Cheshire in April 1895, the 1901 census shows the family living at the School, with George living with his three sisters, Margaret, Evelyn and Faith.

George had prepatory lessons at his father’s school until he was sent to Lancing College, where he was in Olds House from September 1910 to July 1914. He was a member of the Officer Training Corps where he achieved Certificate A. He was in the Cricket XI from 1911 to 1914 being Captain in 1913 and 1914.

He topped the batting average in all his summer terms, scoring 981 runs in his time at Lancing, finishing the 1914 season with an average of 89.

He also bowled, taking nine wickets for fourteen runs against Eastbourne College in 1913 and finishing the years 1913 and 1914 as the school’s highest wicket taker also being second in the bowling averages for both years. Consequently, he was described by Wisden as being “the most promising young all rounder who had yet to appear in a first class match”.

He was also a member of the Football XI from 1911 to 1914 and was Captain from 1912 to 1914. He was appointed as a Prefect in 1913, won his sports colours in 1912, 1913 and 1914 and was Victor Ludorum in 1914.

He won a place at Trinity College Cambridge in 1914 but did not take it, due to the outbreak of war, choosing to join the army instead. On the 11th of September 1914 he enlisted at 24 St James Street, London as Private 433 in the Public Schools Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.

He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 16th Battalion on the 29th of September 1914, was promoted to Lieutenant on the 25th of January 1915 and to Captain on the 17th of May 1915.He attended Staff College for a month and qualified as a first class instructor of musketry.

IMG_0892Captain George Henry Heslop

By November 1915 he was at the front where he saw action at the Hohenzollern Redoubt.

On the 26th of January 1916 the Germans attacked across the old Loos battlefield and the 16th Middlesex were called upon to re-enter the front line (they had been resting) to support a battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. On the morning of the 28th of January the Company Commander of B Company, Major Way, was moving along the front line trench with Captain Sholto-Douglas and the company runner. Shortly behind them was George Heslop leading a group of men of roughly platoon strength. Suddenly a heavy barrage fell on the group killing the two officers and wounding Heslop and a number of others.

He returned to his unit shortly afterwards when he spent much time involved in the reorganisation of his battalion after the losses they had suffered during the fighting at Loos.

He was put forward for promotion to Major but this was turned down on the grounds of his age and of insufficient experience. He attended a number of courses in bombing and machine gun practice and was appointed to the staff at his Headquarters.

He took part in a number of raids in the three weeks before the opening of the British offensive on the Somme on the 1st of July 1916. His Chaplain wrote of his attendance at Holy Eucharist shortly before the attack.

In the early hours of the 1st of July 1916 the 16th Battalion Middlesex Regiment moved up from where they had been resting at Auchonvillers to assembly positions from where they would take their part in the opening attack. They were to join the rest of their Brigade in assaulting the German positions from the village of Beaumont Hamel to a position 100 yards to the west of the German trenches at the Hawthorn Redoubt. The Middlesex were to be in support of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers and the attack would be immediately preceded by the explosion of a large mine under the Hawthorn Redoubt which would be the signal for the British advance to begin. D Company, led by Captain George Heslop, would be on the left of the battalion’s advance and would take a Stokes Mortar with them.

They reached their assembly positions by 3am and by 6.25am the British artillery had become intense as zero hour approached. At 7.20am the mine under the Hawthorn Ridge exploded and at 7.30am the British advance began. The Middlesex followed at 7.55am, D Company quickly formed up into ranks, described as “parade ground straight”, and moved forward.

As they crossed no man’s land their ranks were swept by intense machine gun fire and men began to fall immediately. German artillery also joined the retaliation and began falling on the front line and support trenches adding to the enormous casualties.
The attack quickly faded under the weight of fire with the few survivors going to ground to seek cover from the relentless fire. But most had died in the two hundred yards between the British front line and the edge of the Hawthorn crater, including George Heslop.

By the end of the day the battalion had suffered 3 officers killed, 10 wounded, 5 missing with 6 more officers missing believed killed. Among the other ranks 19 were killed, 306 were wounded, 37 were missing believed killed and a further 138 were missing.

One of his men wrote that he advanced that day “not minding the shells and bullets, but just leading us on as if nothing was happening“.

His Colonel wrote of the love felt for him in the regiment, of his rapid promotion and that of the 24 officer casualties on the 1st of July and that “no one’s death would be more deeply felt”.


In order to establish what had happened to George Heslop a number of statements were taken from members of his battalion who were present that day.

On the 25th of October 1916 a statement was taken from Sergeant 1217 H.G. Valentine while he was in No. 11 General Hospital at Etaples. Valentine had been with the battalion signalling section that day

“I started out with the Colonel, but got separated from him and found myself with Captain Heslop who was in charge of the Pioneers. By his order, we lay down by the wire and advanced about 100 yards. Then we saw him drop down. At first we thought he was giving the signal to halt, but as he lay still, we concluded that he was dead and continued on, leaving him there. Later we retired and reported to the Colonel. Search parties were sent out, but could find no trace of him”.

A statement from Sergeant 1443 A. Butler, D Company was taken while he was at 5 Southern General Hospital, Faucett Road, Portsmouth

“Informant states that on 1st July or July 2nd at Beaumont Hill Capt. Heslop was seen lying dead just outside our parapet by L/Cpl Sephin, who told informant that he had examined Capt Heslop and had found him to be dead. Informant was lying out wounded for three days in this part of the line and said that the Germans were picking up and taking in many of our wounded, but as he was told that Capt. Heslop was lying nearer to our parapet than that of the Germans he did not think it likely that they had taken him in”.

The date of death was accepted for official purposes as having occurred in action on the 1st of July 1916.

Heslop’s family received a telegram informing them of his death on 6th July. His devastated father wrote to a in a letter to a parent

“My boy was killed on 1st July in the first ten minutes of the great push. There is nothing to say. He had a duty and it was done”.


imageGeorge Heslop senior’s letter describing the loss of his only son

Later in the war, in November 1917, Heslop wrote to another parent

“The war is very cruel. By our post yesterday I heard of the deaths of two more old boys. We schoolmasters have suffered. For though our boys are not of our blood they become very dear to us and something more than friends”.

imageGeorge Heslop senior

Over three hundred Old Boys of Sevenoaks School fought during the war with around forty being killed.

George Heslop’s body  was  recovered, identified and buried in 1917 and in another letter his father wrote

“I have just had a letter from the Front giving me a full account of the finding and burial of my boy”.

Captain George Heslop is buried at Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery and commemorated on the war memorial in the chapel at Trinity College Cambridge and with a memorial plaque inside the church at St Nicholas, Sevenoaks.

IMG_0345Memorial to George Henry Heslop at St Nicholas Church

The Sussex Daily News recorded another memorial to Captain Heslop on October 28th 1916

“In memory of Captain G.H. Heslop, Middlesex Regiment, who fell in action last July, and who was very prominent in athletics at Lancing College, an anonymous gift has been provided, by means of which a cricket bat will be presented annually for the best individual performance in the Brighton College match”.




My thanks to John Hamblin on behalf of Lancing College and Mrs Sally Robbins, archivist at Sevenoaks School, for their collaboration and permission to use some material published elsewhere.





Remembering the Sevenoaks Anzacs; a visit to the war graves

I’ve written before about some of the Sevenoaks ANZACS. In particular,  George Marshall and his friend, Arnold Jarvis, who emigrated to Australia together in 1912, possibly with another friend, Kenrid Horace Davey. Tina and Robert Higgs are related to Arnold Jarvis and were the first relatives of a man named on the Sevenoaks War Memorial that I met on a glorious summer day in August 2014 when we held a special service at the memorial to remember the outbreak of war, one hundred years to the day. At the time, I hadn’t found any relatives of Arnold’s friend George Marshall and so, during the ceremony, Tina lay a cross to remember George as well as one for Arnold. Since then I’ve been very pleased to meet Tim Marshall, George’s Great Nephew and we’ve all exchanged emails. Tina and Robert have recently visited a number of family First World War graves and have written an account of their visit, including a trip to George’s grave.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 17.33.14

It’s always special for family members to visit the graves of their relatives and I’m pleased to share Tina’s account of their trip in memory of both friends and the sacrifice they made:

My husband and I have recently returned from visiting the WW1 graves in France and Belgium of six of our great-uncles, plus the best friend of one. This was something we had been intending to do for several years and at last we were on our way.

We travelled from our home in Peterborough to France via Eurotunnel, and stayed for a week at a gîte just south of Lille. This was a fairly central location, with the furthest cemetery being 1 hr 10 mins away and the nearest 30 mins. We visited two memorials at Thiepval and Loos (Dud Corner) and five military cemeteries at Bulls Road, Dozinghem, Carnières, Calvaire (Essex) and Dernancourt. The smallest, with only 54 headstones, was in the picturesque village of Carnières and the largest, commemorating over 72,000 men, was Thiepval. The cemeteries were of similar appearance in their design, with a Great Cross, Stone of Remembrance, Grave Register and Visitors’ Book. The book and register were stored in an unlocked metal box in the wall, but there was never any sign of vandalism or graffiti. The cemeteries were all immaculately kept.

Two of the men are remembered on the Sevenoaks War Memorial – Arnold Jarvis and George Marshall. They were best friends who emigrated to Australia in 1912, no doubt full of excitement and optimism for their new lives. They enlisted in the Australian Infantry Force and ended up in France, where they died.


Headstone of Arnold Jarvis


Headstone of George Marshall

Another great-uncle, Harry Underwood, is remembered on the Knockholt Memorial. The family lived in Star Hill Road, Chevening, where his father was a gamekeeper.

At Dozinghem we met a young Belgian couple who told us that they often visit the cemetery and feel much love and respect for the men who lost their lives there. This was so heart-warming to hear.

At each grave we laid a small wooden cross and said a prayer. We left for home feeling reassured that our loved ones are at peace and not forgotten.

Since Tina’s visit, further research has led to the discovery of extracts from two letters that Arnold sent home during the war, to the Reverend Thompson at St Mary’s, Kippington, Sevenoaks, which were published in the parish magazine, the first in Spring 1915.

Ulysses. – here I am, really a soldier at last. This is a family large boat, and it is carrying (number censored) of us fellows: we all belong to the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade. None of us have the faintest idea as to our destination, whether it will be England or Egypt. We have just passed Aden and the voyage has been magnificent. we are getting 5s. a day, and 1s. a day deferred pay, and we all put in about ten weeks hard training before we came on board. I am sorry that I must not tell you much of our doings yet, but if we come to England and get a day or two off, of course I shall come up to the Vicarage to see you all. I have not been sea sick and I am quite happy. Do wrote to me often.

A later extract is introduced in the magazine with the news that after 12 weeks silence, a letter had arrived from Arnold, who had been wounded at the Dardanelles and had written from hospital in Egypt.

Heliopolis Hospital

June 8th

I received a slight wound in my leg, it is nothing in itself, but poison or something has got in so I cannot put my foot to the ground, however I hope soon to be out of this, although I am getting very good treatment. We had a very rough time of it for six weeks, with two days in the trenches and two days out all the time. Our Company lost nearly all its non-commissioned officers and several officers before we had been in the firing line an hour. It seemed awful at fist to see ones own friends being shot dead all round you, but afterwards everything seemed natural. I had several very marvellous escapes – in the first half hour a machine gun was turned on us and we had no trenches then, one bullet took a piece out of my trousers and another hit me in the jaw and took half a tooth out, another made a furrow in my leg and I had a piece of shrapnel in my back. I shall never forget it if I live another two centuries. There is a great fascination about it all and I am longing to be back, it is a nuisance to be lying here when there is so much to do, and I want to get back to my pals.

Update: July 2017

Tim Marshall and his three sons, Stuart, Doug and Gary, visited the grave of George Marshall on the centenary of his death on 13th July and later visited the grave of Arnold Jarvis, meaning that both families have now visited the graves of the two friends. A few weeks earlier, Stuart and joined me at the annual ANZAC service at Westminster Abbey to remember his uncle.


Tim Marshall with his sons at the grave of their Uncle George


Stuart Marshall and Matthew Ball on ANZAC Day


An officer of The Buffs -another story from the first day of the Somme

Edouard Herbert Allan Goss, 1877 – 1916

Temporary Lieutenant, 7th Battalion, The Buffs East Kent Regiment

In this second post on Sevenoaks men killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, I focus on one of the three officers from the town killed that day.

Edouard H A Goss was born in Burma on 13th June 1877, the son of Louis Allan Goss, Inspector of Schools in Burma and his wife, Marie Leonie Goss.

The 1891 census shows Edouard living at 4, Oak Field Grove, Bristol, with his mother, and siblings: Leo, Clement, Cecil and Marie. Aged four, Marie, is the only one not to have been born in Burma. Edouard’s mother was born on the French Colony of the Isle of Bourbon in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, now known as Reunion Island

Edouard was educated at Clifton College 1889 to 1895 and lived in Bristol until around 1901, leaving for Burma in 1902 where he worked in the Burma Forest Service, and was a member of the Burma Bombay Trading Association. He returned to the UK in November 1905 and by 1911 was resident at 20 Brookside, Cambridge with his parents and sister, Marie, while working as an assistant in the timber business.

His application for a temporary commission, dated 17th November 1914, showed that he could ride and had served for approximately five years with the volunteer rifles. He applied to serve with any Kentish unit. The officer who interviewed him at Maidstone wrote that “He is 37 years of age but should make a very good officer” He gave his present address for correspondence as Fig Farm, Sevenoaks, which he had run for some time. On joining up he passsed responsibility to a manager and thereafter stationed himself at the Royal Oak Hotel in Sevenoaks when on leave.

He was gazetted Second Lieutenant in December 1914 and was stationed at Purfleet for some time before being posted to France in October 1915. He was later Mentioned in Despatches. He was last on leave in May 1916, returning to the Front on 16th May.

Edouard was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Some service records survive and show that he was killed instantly by a shell. His friend, Captain Kenchington, later recorded the incident.

ON OPERATIONS OF 1st July 1916


Before “Y” day I had collected and stored in No 10 sap necessary bombs and apparatus. I had put notice-boards directing runners to this point at the end of all saps trenches in the crater area.

At Zero (07.30), the three sections of each platoon advanced as arranged round to flanks and the other two sections with snipers went over the craters which were very muddy.

The left hand party entered the enemy trenches with only one casualty, the platoon commander Lieut E.H.A.Goss who was killed instantly by a shell. This platoon found the rear portion of the crater area quite knocked out of recognition, and soon overcame two
bombing parties and three or four snipers who opposed them”.

In the book Historical Records of the Buffs 1914-1919 by RSH Moody, published in 1922 it says

The Carnoy mine craters took six hours to clear, and six hours very heavy fighting it was, carried out under 2nd Lt Tatam whose excellent work was rewarded by a M.C. C Company was soon called away to aid the East Surreys, as were later two platoons of A Company. In fact, these two platoons of A, together with one of C Company, under Lts Dyson and Budds respectively, reached the final objective and held that part of it allotted to the East Surrey Regiment until relieved by other troops. Again it became necessary about noon to send up half of D Company to make good part of the final objective of the 7th Queen’s. This was done successfully, but the company lost its commander Capt GT Neame, during the operation.

There is no doubt that during the whole operation, which was carried out more or less as planned, our troops encountered far more oppostion than was anticipated; particularly was this the case at the craters, to attack which only two platoons were originally assigned, a number of men quite inadequate. The whole position, indeed, proved to be a very strong one, consisting of four lines.

The batttalion lost the following casualties on this day:


Capt G T Neame, Lts P G Norbury and E H A Goss and 2nd Lt J F Baddeley and 48 other ranks.

Edouard Goss was initially buried on the Carnoy Montauban Road but after the war his body was exhumed and reinterred in Danzig Alley British cemetery, Mametz, East of Albert, France.

In a brief obituary, the Sevenoaks Chronicle recorded that

He was very highly respected by all who knew him, embodying as he did, the finest qualities of a typical English gentleman.

He is remembered on the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation Memorial, in the cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Rangoon, Myanmar. He is also remembered on the Riverhead memorial as well as the nearby Sevenoaks War Memorial at The Vine.

Stories of the conscientious objectors in Sevenoaks

After the introduction of the Military Service Act in 1916, many local men appeared before the local Military Tribunal to seek an exemption from service and could appeal decisions to the West Kent Tribunal in Maidstone. I’ve written about some of these stories in a previous post. Many of these men were seeking exemptions on health grounds, working in a reserved occupation work or family commitments.

In Sevenoaks, and across the country, some men refused to serve on religious grounds. As conscientious objectors they stated that they could not take another man’s life. The Act allowed for objectors to be absolutely exempted, to perform alternative civilian service, or to serve as a non-combatant according to the decision of the Tribunal.

Around 16,000 men were recorded as conscientious objectors: 4,500 objectors were sent to do ‘work of national importance’ such as farming, 7,000 were given non-combatant duties, and around 6,000 were forced into the army, and when they refused orders, they were sent to prison.  However,  cases regarding conscientious objectors formed only around 2% of Military Service Tribunals’ cases.

As most of the files for conscientious objectors were destroyed in the 1920’s, I have had to rely on newspaper reports for information. I would be very interested to hear from any relatives of who might have more information on these men and what happened to them and their families following their decision to take such a stand.

Stories from the Tribunal

In March 1916, Charles Edward Farrant, 26, of 42, Cobden Road, was a cowman employed by Mr Mond at Combe Bank, and applied for absolute exemption on religious grounds. His case was supported by his employer, who stated that he was looking after pure bred stock. His exemption was refused and he was recommended for non combatant service.

Harold John Mann was a 22 year old schoolmaster of Heatherleigh, Dartford Road, employed at the New Beacon School. Mann stated that the religious views he had been brought up with prevented him from taking life in any circumstances. He also had to support his mother. In his case a temporary exemption was granted for three months.

Leslie Frank Hoad was living a 2 Gilehurst Villas, Argyle Road and had been employed as a draper’s assistant, when he appeared before the Sevenoaks Tribunal in September 1916. The fact of his conscientious objection was accepted without argument and Hoad stated that he had given up his job to work on agriculture near Swanley to demonstrate that he was willing to do something of which the country had need.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 17.21.08The Sevenoaks Chronicle reported Leslie’s appearance before the local Tribunal

However, the committee refused to grant an exemption. He subsequently appeared before the West Kent Tribunal in January 1917. This Tribunal granted him an exemption for three months, conditional upon him remaining in employment on the land. Leslie was working as a motor tractor driver when next reported as having been granted a further four month extension when he appeared before the county Tribunal again in July 1917.

Alfred Mannington Sayers appeared before the Tribunal in June 1916 and pleaded guilty to a charge of not reporting himself for military service. Detective Coley gave evidence against Sayers, stating that he declined to go because he was a conscientious objector.   The defendant’s father, agreed that there was no doubt that his son was an absentee but argued that it was well understood that ‘the tribunals had not administered the Act’. The Chair denied this and highlighted the responsibility of the court to carry out the law; the defendant had been ordered to do something by a competent authority and had not done so. He went on to remark that

defendant might be a perfectly amiable young man and did not want to hurt anyone at all, not even his country’s enemies. The bench would accept that for him.

The court then imposed a fine of forty shillings and the defendant was handed over to a military escort.

De Barry Cox, aged 22, of 4, Barrack Corner, was another man arrested by Detective Coley for not reporting for military service on the grounds of conscientious objection. He was fined fifty shillings, which was to be deducted from his military pay, and handed over to the authorities.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 17.04.30De Barry Cox served with the Non Combatant Corps

Jack Harbour a railway porter, of Greatness Terrace was similarly charged. Records for both Cox and Harbour survive, showing that each served subsequently served in the war with the Non Combatant Corps.

Herbert Sears was another conscientious objector who served with the non combatant corps. Sears had worked for the Rector of Sevenoaks, Revd. John Rooker, managing the rectory farm. He died in October 1918 of pneumonia and is buried in the churchyard at St Nicholas, together with his wife who died only days after her husband.

Harry Raven, 33, of Sunnyside, Clarendon Road, was the manager of a shirt making and hosiery business in Picadilly. Raven claimed to be

A true and consistent follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose commands he must obey. Thou shalt love thy God and thy neighbour as thy self

Raven was willing to do farm work, though he had no experience of it. The tribunal refused his case and recommended him for non-combatant service.

At the same hearing, James Samuel Bolton a married signwriter of Bradbourne Villas, Bradbourne Road stated ‘I hold it wrong to terminate human life unnaturally’.

Thousands, he added, were suffering innocently owing to the use of arms, which secured the victory to the stronger side, whether it was in the right or wrong. Bolton said that he was not a member of any religious body and pleaded that he was only able to keep himself, his wife, and family without being a burden to the community, and without being able to take part in philanthropic work. He remarked that he was not averse to agricultural, railway or police work. The tribunal refused the case and Bolton declared that he would exercise his right to appeal.

George Mullen appeared before the tribunal in June 1918. Mullen was the manager of a grocery business in St John’s for his employer, Mr Frank Rowley. Aged 44, he had been classified as grade 2 and his appeal had been supported by the Local Food Control Committee (by casting vote of the Chairman). A solicitor for Mr Rowley stated that he had had bad health for two years and had 700 registered customers for sugar. Mr Mullen had managed the business and been with him for 22 years. There were two other shops and the other manager was not fully qualified. It was revealed that Mullen was a member of the International Bible Students’ Association and conducted meetings at Tunbridge Wells. Mullen was questioned on the information that he had a son of eighteen serving in the navy, replying that he allowed his son to hold his own opinions.

Rowley’s solicitor argued that if Mullen were taken, the business would have to close down as he was not fit enough to run it on his own and he could get no one else capable to run it for him.The Tribunal dismissed the appeal but gave 56 days before call up in view of Mr Rowley’s condition.

Objectors at Greatness Farm

Many conscientious objectors worked on the farms in and around Sevenoaks. No doubt some of these men were local but others, such as  thirty-six year old Walter Flexman, had been a manager and buyer in the books and stationary department at Hamleys store in London. Flexman had lived on Brondesbury Road, North London, but in 1916 was resident at 11, Bethel Road and working for Mr Wood of Greatness Farm.

Walter Flexman had been granted a conditional exemption from combat service only in August 1916 and was offered work on the farm from the September, at a rate of three shillings day. In that December he was required to apply for a renewal of his exemption, which was supported by his employer on the farm, Mr Wood, who stated that after three months, Flexman was a real help on the farm; to lose him would be to lose valuable experience and require time in training new workers.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 16.06.19Walter Flexman’s employer supported his case for renewal of his exemption

Walter Flexman was granted a renewal. At around the same time, his employer, Mr Wood appeared before the local Tribunal in the case of a Mr Cheeseman, a worker on the farm. Cheeseman was described as a skilled farm labourer. Mr Wood stated that there were six conscientious objectors on the farm but they were not skilled farm hands and had taken the place of other men who had gone to fight.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 16.16.06Walter’s certificate of exemption

A committee member asked how they men worked, to which Mr Wood’s reply was laughter and Mr Cheeseman was given a conditional exemption.

Local hostility

On the limited evidence available, the Sevenoaks Tribunal appears to have conducted its hearings in a business like way. Few men who appeared before it as conscientious objectors were granted complete exemptions. More often cases were dismissed and the applicant recommended for non combatant service. There is little evidence of local hostility toward conscientious objectors and their families but this must have existed. No doubt individuals and their families were ignored, given white feathers and viewed with suspicion by those whose friends and relatives were serving.

Public opinion generally viewed conscientious objectors with suspicion and disdain and the Sevenoaks Chronicle did occasionally carried criticism of conscientious objectors, from printing popular jokes to reporting the speech of the Earl of Denbigh when he visited Sevenoaks in January 1918.According to the Earl

We should spare no effort to make the women understand the things the Germans did. Let the women of Kent think about it, because probably they might be the first to feel it. If the British women knew and realised one quarter of the German ideas; they would see to it that no conscientious objector would dare to show his contemptible face in the public street.

Occasionally, the paper also printed criticism of objectors from serving soldiers. Rifleman H Woodfine from Hither Green, wrote a letter from Salonika in June 1916, which was printed in the Chronicle (the writer’s link to Sevenoaks is not noted). Woodfine wrote

The boys are making huge fun of the conscientious objector. In the times of Nelson and Wellington, such people would be shot. They ought to go and see places like Mons, Ypres, Louvain, Rhiems, and Alsace. I think this would alter their attitude.

After the Armistice, a concerned parent wrote to the paper, indignant at the thought that the rights of conscientious objectors would be put before those who had served.

Dear Sir

I saw in your last issue an appeal from one of the Territorials in India. I myself have a son serving there, who has been away for the past four years and a half, and who is anxious to return. The idea of releasing conscientious objectors before the man who has done his duty! I hope this will meet the eyes of those who shouted for the men to join! Are they still shouting to get them released?

Yours faithfully,


Conscientious Objectors were still viewed with suspicion after the war and were not allowed to vote until 1926. However, many of the objectors from Sevenoaks appear to have carried on living and working in the community after the war. George Mullen took over his former employer’s shop when Frank Rowley died in 1922. During the Second World War, Alfred Sayers published a collection of poetry – Poems of 20 years, that the Chronicle featured prominently, which suggests that by then he was viewed as a respected member of the local community.

It would be interesting to hear from anyone with more information on any of these men who took the difficult and principled decision not to fight.






Sevenoaks men at the Somme: stories from the first day

Five men from Sevenoaks died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme – 1st July 1916. Although the anniversary of the battle is still a few weeks away, July will be a month filled with similar stories and I thought that it would be nice to write about each man in the days leading up to the centenary.

Three officers were killed on that day – Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Harrison of the Machine Gun Corps, Captain George Henry Heslop of the Middlesex Regiment, and Lieutenant Edouard H A Goss. The two ordinary soldiers who died were near neighbours from the St John’s area of the town.

Private Leonard Bowles, G/2217, 7th Battalion, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment

Leonard Bowles was born in 1888,  the son of William, recorded as a gardener in the 1891 census and his wife, Alice. The Bowles family had lived variously at 6, Cobden Road, on Hartsland Road and at 11, Bethel Road, where, like his late father, he was recorded as a gardener in the 1911 census. Leonard had returned to the Front from leave a fortnight before his death.


Three of his other brothers,Lawrence, Clifford and Reginald, were also serving in the 7th Battalion of the West Kents, as was their one-time neighbour Jack Lewis. Lawrence Bowles was killed two weeks after his brother on 13th July.

Private Jack Lewis,  G/3418, 7th Battalion, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment

Jack Lewis was born in 1895, the son of Jack, a plumber and his wife, Maria, and grew up at 5, Cobden Road. By 1911, Jack was working as a plumber’s assistant, most likely with his father. Jack enlisted in September 1914 and served with the Royal West Kents, being sent to France in August 1915.

Private Jack Lewis

Fred Gilks his friend and neighbour from Sevenoaks, also from Cobden Road (who was killed only two weeks later on 13th July), wrote home describing what had happened

‘Jack and I both got over safely on the day of the attack. Next day, which was Sunday July 2nd, the Germans shelled the trenches we had captured. Poor old Jack was standing near me when a piece of shell hit him. He turned to me and said: ‘I am done, Fred’ and then dropped. I am thankful to say that he did not suffer at all, but passed away quietly…he was a chap to make a lot of friends as he was always so lively and good natured’.

Second Lieutenant Arthur Hogg wrote to his parents

‘As his platoon commander I can say that he was always cheerful and good natured and very popular with all the platoon. He is a great loss to us and we are all sorry he is gone. He lost his life in a battle which is probably the greatest in our country’s history and he did his duty’.

Despite Fred Gilks’s account, all official records give Jack Lewis’s death as 1st rather than 2nd July. Both Leonard Bowles and Jack Lewis are remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.

A further eleven Sevenoaks men died that July, including, Fred Gilks among them,  another four from Cobden Road.

Stories of the men buried in Sevenoaks

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission estimates that there are 300,000 war graves and memorials in the UK.

The Commission lists five graves at St Nicholas, Sevenoaks, which I’ve written about in an earlier post and it seems a timely moment to write about the sixteen First World War graves at Greatness Cemetery. The Town Council has produced a booklet which shows the location of these graves at the cemetery (and which also shows the graves from the Second World War).

Six of these men are remembered on the town war memorial and I’ve written about them in my book. Their stories are included below along with the other ten.

Some of these men were evacuated home to Sevenoaks and died from their wounds. Others were taken ill unexpectedly or died accidentally, not having left the UK. Others were billeted here and died from their wounds or disease and were buried locally rather than returning to their homes for burial. Three of the deaths occurred after the end of the war.

As ever, I welcome any comments that can add to our knowledge of these men, especially from family members.

imageCommonwealth War Graves and others at Greatness Cemetery

Sapper James Galligan, 6659 1st Field Company, Royal Engineers

1882 – 4th November 1914

James Galligan was from St Helens, Lancashire, the son of Peter and Elizabeth. The 1911 census records him as a 29 year old at home with his wife, Sarah Ann and two young sons: William aged four, and Peter, four months. James served with the No.1 Co West Lancashire Company of the Royal Engineers. He is recorded as dying of natural causes at the Amherst Arms, Riverhead, (now a Harvester) near Sevenoaks. There does not appear to have been a report of his death in the local paper but he was the first soldier to be buried at Greatness Cemetery. He is remembered on the Roll of Honour in his home town.

Harry McCarthy, Private 14889, 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry

1893 – 6th April 1915

Harry McCarthy was born at Shinecroft Cottages in Otford, the third of nine children of John Richard McCarthy, a railway worker, and his wife, Sarah Ellen. Prior to the outbreak of war, he was listed as being a laundryman on the 1911 census. By that time the family was living in Moor Road, Sevenoaks.

The Sevenoaks Chronicle recorded Harry’s funeral in some detail

“ A most impressive spectacle was witnessed on Saturday at Greatness Cemetery, when, with full military honours the mortal remains of Pte H McCarthy, 2nd Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, were laid to rest in the site which has been set aside by the Sevenoaks Urban District Council for the burial of natives and former residents of Sevenoaks or inhabitants of the town who have taken part in the Naval and Military Expeditionary Forces of the Crown.

Deceased, who was only twenty one years of age…enlisted, leaving a situation on the railway at Erith in September last. After some six months training he was drafted to the Front on 11th Marchand took part in the battle of Neuve Chapelle where he was wounded in the spine. McCarthy was taken to a hospital at Boulogne and then to Folkestone where he expired on Tuesday last”.

Private Harry McCarthy

Harry’s coffin was covered with the Union Jack and borne from his home in Moor Road on a gun carriage by a team of six horses and preceded by the band of 5th Kings Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, which played the Dead March from Saul and Chopin’s Funeral March.

According to the Kent Messenger:

“The treble singers with Mr Neave and Mr Meeks of St John’s Church Choir sang the hymn “On the resurrection morning” at the graveside, after which a firing party from the 2nd 5th King’s Own Royal Lancashire Regiment fired three volleys over the grave and the “Last Post” was sounded”.

Private Thomas Unsworth, 3916 2/5th Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

1896 – 9th May 1915

The Sevenoaks Chronicle reported details of the inquest into Private Unsworth’s death on Friday 14th May 1915. According to John Bellows, a fellow soldier in the same regiment, the two men had decided to cycle to Oxted together. Bellows was riding behind Unsworth when he saw him fall as his bicycle slipped on the road, which, despite being fairly straight and flat, was greasy because of the soft tar. Private Unsworth was dragged about ten yards by the bike before two men of the Royal Army Medical Corps picked him up; they carried him to a nearby house where an ambulance was sent for and he returned to Sevenoaks.

imageGrave of Thomas Unsworth

Unsworth was admitted to the Hospital at Cornwall Hall where he was examined by Dr Mansfield. In his testimony to the inquest the doctor stated that Unsworth was concussed and unconscious, having a bruise on his forehead and one on the back of his head. Private Unsworth never regained consciousness and died from a haemorrhage caused by his fall in the early hours of the following morning.

The funeral was held with full military honours and the coffin was conveyed to the council offices by B Company of Private Unsworth’s regiment, where it was transferred to a gun carriage and carried to the cemetery. Three volleys were fired and the Last Post sounded as he was laid to rest.

Private George Francis Fitzwalter Benest, 2877 2/4th King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment)

1896 – 25th May 1915

George Benest was born in Bebbington, Cheshire, in 1896. He was the son of George and his wife, Gwitha. He enlisted at Ulverston, most likely in August 1914, and was based in Sevenoaks with his regiment when he died at Tonbridge Hospital. He is remembered on the war memorial at Broughton-in-Furness.

Ernest Edward Mitchell, Leading Stoker, K/13729, HMTB 11, Royal Navy

2nd April 1886 – 13th March 1916

Ernest Mitchell was born and grew up in Beckenham, the son of William, a bricklayer and his wife, Laura. Ernest married Lilian Charlotte Tolhurst on 11th November 1908 at Wandsworth and the couple went on to have four children, Ernest, born 1906, Dorothy Ellen, born 1909, William Louis, born 1915 and Alfred James, born 1917.

imageGrave of Ernest Michell

His records show that he was working as a printer’s machine minder when he joined the Royal Navy on 2nd April 1909. He served first on the Nelson and then the Jupiter and the Prince of Wales before becoming a Stoker on 24th January 1912. Ernest was serving on HM Torpedo Boat 11 when he was killed as a result of enemy action.

Regimental Serjeant Major Ernest Alfred Bence, L4803 2/9th Middlesex Regiment

1879 – 29th April 1916

Ernest Bence was found dead by his colleague, Company Sergeant Major Henry Charles Thorn, on 29 Aril 1916, having apparently shot himself with his revolver. According to newspaper reports, Thorn had gone to see if Serjeant Bence was coming for his dinner at around 14.30. No one had heard a shot being fired but he testified that his fellow Sergeants had been in the mess and there was generally a lot of noise. The inquiry heard how Bence had recently been arrested for a disciplinary offence but nothing had yet been proved; his conduct was generally good and if he had been found guilty, the punishment would have been light, not more than a demotion to Sergeant.

imageThe Sevenoaks Chronicle carried a detailed report of the Inquest

Lieutenant Quarter Master W R Shepherd had known Serjeant Bence well and gave evidence to the inquest that Bence had been practicing cleaning his revolver recently, and some cleaning materials were found on the scene. His body had been discovered lying on his back with his head underneath the bed and a bullet wound to his left breast. His revolver was lying on a table with its butt toward the bed and had been issued to him at the end of March as part of his kit. According to the newspaper

It seemed from the position of the chair and the body that the deceased had been “fiddling” or “playing” with the revolver. It was not customary to have it loaded but the deceased had only been issued with ammunition recently…Before deceased was a Company Serjeant he was a Colour-Sergeant and they did not carry revolvers. Deceased was a thorough man and a good soldier, but he did not think he would understand a revolver.

Second Lieutenant Bryan reported that within the last 10 days he had been together with the deceased practicing revolver shooting when, after firing off several rounds, Serjeant Bence had reloaded his revolver when it had suddenly gone off and hit the ground yards away ‘the pull-off being very light’.

Serjeant Bence’s widow, Annie Maud Wywne Bence, who resided at the Drill Hall at Staines, stated that she had last seen her husband when he had visited Staines a fortnight before his death when he had appeared in his usual health, with nothing appearing to trouble him, his usual disposition being “happy and bright”.

Dr Brown who examined the body stated that the deceased had died from syncope as a result of internal bleeding, having shot himself, at the table at very close range.

An open verdict was recorded and Serjeant Bence was buried with full military honours at Greatness.

George Bernard Taylor, Private G/12547, 7th Battalion, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment

1889 – 26th July 1916

George Taylor was the son of William, a house painter and his wife, Mary of 4, Cobden Road.

The 1911 census shows George working as a gardener, while a few years later his service papers show that he was working as a plumber when he enlisted in 1916. He was confined to barracks for five days for ‘Improper conduct on the line of march’, while stationed at Fort Darland in Kent. He arrived in France that June, joining his Battalion on 6th July.

imageGeorge Taylor’s grave on the hundredth anniversary of his death

On 13th July George received a gunshot wound to his left leg, resulting in fracture and gangrene. He was evacuated from France to the 1st Birmingham War Hospital, where he died as a result of his wounds on 26th of July 1916. He was buried at Greatness Cemetery and the Kent Messenger carried an account of the funeral in its edition on 5th August. The 2/7th Devon Regiment provided a firing party and funeral bearers.

George Taylor is the only man buried in Greatness to have died from wounds sustained during the Battle of the Somme.

Henry Ramsdale, Private G/13035, 3rd Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment

1875 – 17th October 1916

Henry Ramsdale was born in Sevenoaks to Silas, a coal seller of Cobden Road and his wife, Sarah. By 1891 the family had moved to Bethel Road and Henry was working at the local laundry. He married Clara Jane Pickering in 1900 and the 1901 census shows the couple living on Golding Road and both working in the laundry. Ten years later and the couple are living with their five daughters on Sandy Lane.

imageGrave of Henry Ramsdale

Henry enlisted in Sevenoaks and joined the Royal Sussex Regiment. His service records have not survived but the Kent Messenger reported that, having enlisted in June 1916, he was sent to France in September and was taken ill while crossing, being sent to hospital in Calais on arrival. He stayed for four days before being sent to hospital in Birmingham but was discharged and returned home, dying shortly after. The paper recorded that he had never been a strong man and there had been surprise when he was passed fit for active service.

Private Herbert Thomas Lloyd, 2439 Dorset Yeomanry (Queen’s Own)

1892 – 30th January 1917

Herbert Lloyd was born in Westerham, to George and Elizabeth. The Sevenoaks Chronicle reported in its 2nd February edition that Private Lloyd was a shoeing-smith who had recently transferred from the West Kent Yeomanry to the Dorset Regiment. He had died of a cerebral haemorrhage. A military funeral was held and three volleys fired over his grave. It is likely that he is the Herbert Lloyd remembered on the war memorial at Hastingleigh.

Major Edward Stigant Carruthers,  Royal Engineers

1866 – 16th May 1917

Edward Carruthers was born in Chatham in 1866. An Inspector of Works with the Royal Engineers, he had returned to Sevenoaks in May 1917 to attend the funeral of his late father, who had died aged 86. The funeral was held in Chatham and, after returning to Sevenoaks, Major Carruthers was taken ill and died suddenly that evening at his home, The Laurels, on St John’s Road. The funeral was held on the Saturday when, according to the Chronicle, large bodies of men from the Essex Yeomanry and the Hertfordshire Yeomanry followed the cortege to Greatness Cemetery, preceded by a firing party, and the band playing Handel’s Dead March.

Frederick George Dobson, Private 13169, Royal Army Service Corps

1874 – 7th July 1917

Frederick Dobson appears to have been born in Margate in 1874. His army pension records show that he was working as a hotel porter when he first enlisted with the army in 1895 aged twenty, going on to serve as a Gunner with the Royal Artillery. He served in India and had a good service record until he was invalided out of the army in 1901 on health grounds. He reenlisted in 1915 when he was nearly forty one and was sent to France and served with the Army Service Corps.

Frederick reported sick in 1916 and was diagnosed with a gastric ulcer and discharged as unfit for further active or home service. He died the following year, aged forty three and is buried in Greatness cemetery.

Serjeant Arthur Sidney Piper, 200044 Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)

1876 – 28th August 1918

Arthur Piper was born in Hildenborough, the son of John and Charlotte.  Arthur served as a territorial from 1908 and had been employed as a railway guard for several years. During the war he served in India from March 1917 until January 1919.

imageHow the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported Arthur’s funeral

Described in his obituary as a popular NCO in the Territorials, he was demobilised only months before his death. Arthur was killed in an accident during the routine shunting of trains at Shoreham station. The inquest reached a verdict of accidental death but how it was caused remained unknown.

Gunner John Thomas Fisher, 83338 Royal Garrison Artillery

1881 – 17th October 1918

John Fisher was born in Spitalfields, the son of John and Annie. He was married with three children and working as a clerk when he enlisted in May 1916. During the war, John served at home with the Anti Aircraft Artillery. He had been a patient at the Cornwall Hall Hospital with pneumonia since September 1917. Gunner Fisher had lived at Clerkenwell, London and  was survived by his wife and family.

Reginald Frederick Sudds, Lance Corporal 204838, 1st Battalion, Devonshire Regiment

1896 – 16th December 1919

Reginald Sudds was the third son of Edward, a coachman and his wife, Annie, who lived at 46, Cobden Road. By the time he was fifteen, Reginald was working as a bottle washer in a local brewery.

He appears to have enlisted in 1915, first with the Royal West Kents and later serving with the Royal Devonshire Regiment, where he reached the rank of Lance Corporal. He served in the Dardanelles as part of the Gallipoli campaign, and then in Egypt. He died in December 1919 not of wounds but of an unspecified disease contracted while abroad, and was buried in Greatness Cemetery.

Private William Fuller, L/14263 Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)

1889 – 5th July 1920

William Fuller was the second son of Mr & Mrs John Fuller of Chatham Hill Road, Bat and Ball. William had enlisted in September 1906 and his records show that he was 18 years and 9 month, being just over 5’4 tall with grey eyes and brown hair.

His records note that his conduct was indifferent, while also recording that he was hardworking. Numerous drunken incidents and absences appear on his conduct sheet throughout his years of service.

William was sent to France with the Expeditionary Force on 13th August 1914. He returned home after forty six days, on 29th September and did not return to the Front until two years later in September 1916. After the war, he sought to reenlist and, despite his previous conduct, it was noted on his application that he was

A very smart and intelligent man; has previously served 13 years Colour Service and wishes to reenlist to complete 21 years service in order to qualify for a pension.

imageGrave of William Fuller

He was stationed at Maidstone and died at the Fort Pitt Military Hospital in Chatham of pneumonia. A private rather than a military funeral was held, in accordance with his family’s wishes.

Corporal George Thomas Slade 9656 Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)

1893 – 1920

As yet, I have not been able to find much information relating to Corporal Slade. He served with the 2nd Battalion Royal West Kents from 1915 in Asia.