Hidden casualties

The euphoria and relief that news of peace bought gradually subsided. Local life slowly resumed its old routine and the familiar sight in Sevenoaks of soldiers in khaki was replaced by former servicemen with obvious disabilities.

Others had less obvious but no less serious injuries. Continued efforts were made by organisations like the Comrades of the Great War to continue some of the ties that had bound the men closely together in wartime but there was clear evidence of the suffering that some endured. Some, like William John Ritchie, a former private in the Middlesex Regiment who had lost his sight, used the skills that he learnt at St Dunstan’s (which provided training for blind ex-serviceman in order that they could support themselves rather than relying on charity) making and repairing willow baskets and advertised his services in the Sevenoaks Chronicle in the early 1920s.

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Private Stephen Copper

Stephen Copper had enlisted in September 1914 and served with the Royal West Kents. He was shot in the left arm in March 1916, the wound being so severe that the arm was later amputated. Once he had recuperated he returned to his former employer, and despite his injury, drove a motorbike as a delivery man for Kipps the butchers at St John’s. Stephen was no doubt affected by the loss of three of his brothers and his brother-in-law during the course of the war. His sister, Amelia Garrett, also lost her husband, sergeant Thomas Garrett of the Royal Garrison Artillery; a career soldier, who died of natural causes late in September 1918 in Salonika, Greece. The widowed women of Sevenoaks, who had often suffered other family bereavements, were left to raise their children. Others had to contend with a returned husband who was never the same again.

Some men found life after the war too much to bear and the local paper recorded their circumstances. In November 1919, the paper reported a shell shock victim at Tubs Hill Station one Tuesday evening. A young passenger failed to produce a ticket for his journey and could not answer when asked by staff where he had come from. The staff took him in and gave him some food

While eating this he suddenly bent down, put his hand to his head, and commenced to moan as if afraid of being struck by something. Thinking that he had possibly had a blow on the head, one of the officials made as though to touch his head, but he started off again, saying “Whizz, whizz”. The police had meantime been communicated with and the man was removed to the Union.

Others, unable to deal with their experiences, returned home changed men, with all the implications for their family. Rose Baldwin of Seal was granted a separation order against her husband Charles Adam Baldwin, in 1929. The couple had been married in 1918 and had two children, a boy of eleven and a girl aged eight. Mrs Baldwin stated that the marriage had been very happy until her husband had begun to drink to excess after the birth of her first child. Charles Baldwin lived off his pension, having suffered from shell shock and neurasthenia. Baldwin was a country lad of eighteen and living in Ightham when he enlisted with 1912 with the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment. Mobilised on 1th August 1914, he served in France and was shot in October 1914.

Post war, Baldwin was well known to the police for drinking, bad language and other behaviour. On receiving the court summons he had returned home and “proceeded to sell the whole of the furniture, lock, stock, and barrel for £2, including much of his wife’s furniture”. His whereabouts at the time of the court hearing was unknown and the order of separation was given with Mrs Baldwin being awarded custody of their children and her husband ordered to pay maintenance. In 1935, when Baldwin was charged with yet another count of being drunk and disorderly, the Sevenoaks Chronicle noted that

Baldwin alleged that his drunkenness was caused through the war. He was terribly knocked about through the war and suffered with his nerves.

Charles Baldwin was killed in a motor accident in 1939 when, as a cyclist, he was killed while following the hounds. The inquest jury returned a verdict of accidental death. Baldwin’s bicycle was in a very poor condition and there uncertainty as to how much he had been drinking, although it had been asserted that he had only had a pint and a half before setting off.

The Chronicle carried reports of men who took their own lives unable to cope, others were able to carry on but their weakened constitution no doubt contributed to their early death.

Joseph Sutton had fought in the war with the Royal West Surrey Regiment. Two of his brothers, Dick,   a rifleman with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and Percy, a signalman on HMS Lavender, were killed during the war and are remembered on the Sevenoaks war memorial. Joseph sustained a fractured skull in April 1918 at Messines Ridge and was discharged from the Army as medically unfit. His injuries required several operations and caused him to become epileptic. The news report of his death in the Sevenoaks Chronicle stated that he had remained as cheerful as he could and was a much respected member of the Sevenoaks Services Club. However, he remained poorly for the rest of his life and died aged only twenty five in 1924. He was buried in the churchyard at St Nicholas, Sevenoaks, without any military ceremony.

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The Sevenoaks Chronicle reported Cecil’s death

Cecil George Thompson served for four years in France as a private with 76th Field Ambulance RASC and was recommended for the Military Medal. Both his older and younger brothers were killed during the war and are remembered on the town’s memorial. Cecil had been demobilised in August 1919 before serving for six months with the Imperial War Graves Commission.  In his obituary in the Chronicle, the paper linked Cecil’s death with his war service. He had been blown up in a car in 1917 and suffered acutely from shell shock as a consequence.

Some five or six years ago the trouble reasserted itself, and he has been in ill-health ever since, but he had not become seriously ill till the day before his death, when he suddenly lapsed into unconsciousness.

The paper noted that the date of Cecil’s death – 25th September – had a number of associations for the family. Cecil had first crossed to France on September 25th 1915; his brother Sidney, serving with 7th Battalion City of London Regiment, was killed on 25th September 1916; his older brother, Captain Arthur Herbert Thompson of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, was killed on 25th September 1917. The family, sons of Arthur Thompson, former Superintendent of Sevenoaks Post Office was well known in Sevenoaks and news of Cecil’s death, and full military funeral at Greatness Cemetery, was fully reported and no doubt keenly felt throughout the town. “We are grateful” wrote Arthur Thompson “to all our Sevenoaks friends who have shown us such kindness in the loss of the last of our three soldier sons, we say from the bottom of our hearts – thank you.

In 1940, the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported the case Albert Edward Chew. Chew, then aged fifty eight, was found drunk, singing and shouting in the High street, after drinking a toxic mix of beer and methylated spirit. Brought before the local magistrates he declared himself ‘Guilty, sir, and I am very, very sorry’. It was stated that Chew had tried hard to get work and did not normally drink methylated spirt, given to him on that occasion by another man. He had fallen on hard times and had already pawned his medals for 7s. He was able to provide the paperwork to demonstrate that he had kept up the payments in the hope of being able to recover his medals. The case was dismissed as a first offence on the understanding that Chew would leave the district.

This was not Chew’s first appearance on such a charge. Before a previous court he had explained that

He was hit on the head during the war and not been right since.

Among his medals was the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), which he had been awarded as Gunner A E Chew of the 308th Trench Mortar Battery, Royal Field Artillery for

Conspicuous gallantry when I charge of an isolated trench mortar gun. When his wires were cut he continued firing with good effect and observing for himself under very heavy fire.

Chew’s story clearly moved the magistrates who heard the case. One of their number, Sir Edward Meyerstein paid the costs to redeem his medals and returned them to him.

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