Today, 9th June, sees the centenary of the death of a Belgian soldier who, for a brief time, had lived in Sevenoaks during the war.
In the churchyard at St Nicholas in the heart of Sevenoaks, there is a family grave, which bears witness to this remarkable love story between a Sevenoaks woman and a Belgian soldier.
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
Also in loving memory of my dear husband, Sergeant Emile Leonard de Coster, 22nd Infantry Belgium Army, killed about 9th June 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 researched 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.
Emil is first mentioned in a list of wounded Belgian soldiers in the 23 October 1914 edition of the Sevenoaks Chronicle. Named as de Koster, he is a patient at St John’s Hall VAD Hospital, with fellow Belsele townsman, Gustave van Hoye.
Emil 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.
A list of wounded Belgian soldiers, including Emil, in the Sevenoaks Chronicle
Although Rosina does not appear to have worked as a VAD nurse, she was a popular and industrious woman who sang and performed throughout her life. Perhaps she first met Emil at St John’s Hall whilst visiting or fundraising, or at one of the many entertainments provided for refugees in the town.
Emil, sat bottom right with fellow soldiers, and on crutches outside St John’s Hall VAD Hospital, Hollybush Lane, Sevenoaks
Emil and Rosina’s marriage with Rosina’s mother likely seated in striped dress, and Frederick Caplen standing behind her.
However they met, we know that Emil married Rosina Caplen on 31st January 1917 at St Mary, Kippington. He 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.
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.
Emil’s grave in Belsele
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.
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.
Rosina’s obituary in the Sevenoaks Chronicle
Rosina and Emil’s story was recently bought to life in a play by Lisa Whitbread, premiered at the Stag theatre in Sevenoaks in November 2018. He is also remembered on his home town by Ann Pieters, a historian of the Great War in Belsele.