Lustleigh War Memorial – Stephen Voaden

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

Taken from the poem by Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, these words speak of the horror visited upon soldiers exposed to gas attacks in WWI.  Such was the dread, that the mere whisper of an imminent gas attack injected fear and panic into the front lines.  Indeed, the psychological impact, it is said, was in many ways as great as the physical effects.

 “A cynical and barbarous disregard of the well-known usages of civilised war”, was how the commander of British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French lambasted the first gas attacks by the Germans. Just four months later, however, he felt “compelled to resort to similar methods” owing to “the repeated use … of asphyxiating gases in attacks on our positions” and so it became a part of everyday warfare in WW1.

Some 30,000 troops, it is estimated, were killed by gas, among them was Stephen Voaden who fell victim to this most inhumane weapon just two weeks before war ended. It is even more sad to recount that the news of his death was just one of many to shatter the Pinkhurst Estate in Lustleigh during the war years.

Born in the summer of 1883 to William and Ann Voaden of Wonford, in the parish of Heavitree, Stephen was one of four boys in a family of nine children. Very little is known of his early life except that “he had been of athletic habit” according to Reverend Johnson in his roll call of all those who served in the Great War. He certainly won several prizes for walking including The Saunders Cup which he was allowed to keep after successfully defending his title in 1908, completing in the two-mile course, on behalf of Heavitree Football Club, in 17 minutes and 6 seconds.

Stephen’s father, William, commonly known as John, was employed as a gardener in Heavitree and several of his sons followed in his footsteps, including Stephen, and it was this aspect of his life that brought him to Lustleigh, arriving in this parish in 1913 to tend the grounds at Pinkhurst, now known as Coombe Hill. He was in the employ of Brigadier Raymond Williams CB, a distinguished military officer who had just retired to this residence following four years as Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General at the Gibraltar Garrison. Perhaps it was shortly after settling into his new home that he spotted the Situation Wanted advertisement that Stephen had placed in the Devon and Exeter Gazette promoting himself as a “Gardener (single-handed) or Groom-Gardener, married”.

Stephen had married a lady by the name of Mary Jane Webber, also the issue of a gardener, in the early days of 1906, being blessed that summer with the arrival of their first-born, who was to bear his father’s name, but answer to Steve. Two years later, another son, Leonard, enriched their lives, then a third and then a fourth; but, then tragedy struck when Leonard died, aged just five years old. Whether or not that advertisement was deliberately designed to force a change of scenery later that same year, that was indeed its outcome as they swapped town for country.

Unfortunately, it was not to prove a happy move. In 1915, a fifth son arrived, only to be snatched from them some nine months later. Happier times may have seemed on the horizon as Mary Jane was eight months pregnant with yet another boy, but he perished just one day old. Their bad fortune continued the following year when another son died not long after his fourth birthday.

Against this backdrop, it is hard to contemplate Stephen’s state of mind when he joined the army just two months later; harder still to place oneself in Mary Jane’s shoes having lost four children in as many years and now waving goodbye to her husband unsure of what the future would hold. Her world was rocked yet again later that year, when her brother-in-law (Stephen’s brother, Richard), a private in the Devon Regiment, was killed in action. Through all of this, she presumably had the moral support of her husband’s employer, but then the Brigadier was to experience his own grief, the following year when his son, Charles Ellicombe Williams, was killed fighting the Bulgarians in Salonika.

Perhaps Mary Jane would have also been comforted by the odd letter home during Stephen’s two years in France with the Royal Field Artillery. Being a gunner (in ‘B’ Battery, 156th Brigade) and therefore grouped under ‘other ranks’ in war diaries and other despatches, it is hard to trace his movements and know precisely where he served and in which battles he fought. Enlisting at the end of July 1916, he would possibly not have been ready for mobilisation to witness The Somme which ended that November; it was probable, though, that he saw plenty of action the following year during the many phases of the Third Battles of Ypres.

As the war drew towards its conclusion, the autumn of 1918 witnessed victories in the Battles of the Hindenburg Line, described as “among the greatest-ever British military achievements” and The Final Advance in Picardy, said to be “the hardest fought of the final offensive actions”. It would have been during one of these operations that Stephen was dealt his final blow, succumbing to a gas attack. His demise, though, wasn’t instantaneous. He was possibly evacuated to a specialist gas unit which had been established in Boulogne, but he contracted pneumonia and was sent back across the channel. Sadly, just two days after reaching home soil, he died at the Western Height military hospital in Dover.

Stephen’s repatriation was complete when his body was returned to Heavitree for burial in St. Michael and All Angels churchyard, just a short walk from where he started married life and where his first son and namesake was born and who went on to live three-quarters of a century in Lustleigh, seeing out his last few years at Woodpark, directly opposite the War Memorial bearing his father’s name.

Gunner 163784 Voaden posthumously received the British War Medal and Victory Medal for his service. As well as Lustleigh’s granite tribute to him and his fellow fallen warriors, Stephen is also listed on a memorial panel in St. Michael and All Angels Church.

Stephen Voaden will be remembered on Sunday 28th October when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.

Chris Wilson

Sources used include:

  • The War Poetry Website
  • co.uk/news/magazine
  • The Western Times
  • The Long, Long Trail
  • Lustleigh Parish Magazine
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  • Ancestry & FindMyPast
  • Wikipedia

Lustleigh War Memorial – James Ernest Hine

When armistice was declared on 11th November 1918, the country erupted in a sea of celebration. Across the land communities united in their euphoria that the end of the war had finally arrived. Everyone emptied into the streets to share in their collective relief that the Great War was finally over. Well, not quite everyone.

It wasn’t yet over for Eliza Hine. Behind the doors of Kelly Cottage, shut away from the joy & revelry, surrounded by three of her four children, she yearned for news of her eldest son, Ernest, who had been taken prisoner earlier in the year. Although he had written “a good account of himself from his captivity”, she was desperate to hear that he was still safe, well and soon returning home. It was news that she was never to receive.

Ernest Hine pictured with his mother Eliza

Eliza had given birth to James Ernest Hine, to give him his full name, in Torbryan on 28th March 1899 where his identically-named father worked as a farm labourer. They already had a daughter, born 15 months previously in Ilsington, and the family was further expanded a few years later, while living in Broadhempston, with the addition of another boy and girl.

Towards the end of that decade, around 1909, work took the family to one of the cottages at Moorhouse Farm, Hennock where Mr Hine was in the employ of a Mr John Isaac of Hawkmoor. It was not to be a happy move, though, as tragedy struck two years later during a violent thunderstorm. According to a newspaper report, “the thunder was the heaviest and most continuous remembered in the district for many years, and houses were shaken as if by an earthquake”.

The report recounts that James Hine had been toiling in the fields and was leading his pair of horses to the stable, when “just as he reached the door, he and the horses were killed, the lightening being attracted, it is thought, by the steel harness on the horses”. Although the cottage in which the family were living was not affected, it went with the work: so, as well as losing a husband and father, they were also about to lose their home.

Through connections, perhaps, Eliza found a new roof at Kelly Cross, possibly the same connections that found her work in the laundry at Hawkmoor Sanatorium. Now the man about the house, Ernest had to support his mother and after leaving school, he found work at Kelly Mine. Much as he appreciated his family role, when he reached the requisite age in 1917, he could not resist the call to duty and journeyed to Newton Abbot to enlist in the army; his place, both in the home and at the mine, being taken up by his younger brother, William.

Ernest spent ten months in one of the battalions of the 22nd Training Reserve Brigade at Chiseldon Camp in Wiltshire, said to have been an ideal training ground for trench warfare by virtue of the surrounding downland “providing some imitation of the battlegrounds of Belgium and France”. Following his preparations, he was drafted into the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry (DCLI) as a Lewis machine-gunner and he crossed with his regiment to France on 2nd April 1918, a very significant time in the course of the war.

Just the previous month, prime minister, Lloyd George, had decided that more men would be needed if disaster was to be averted and took charge of the War Office to rush all available troops to the front line. As a consequence, shipping capacity was dramatically increased from 8,000 to 20,000 men per day. During that first week of April, when Ernest went to war, a total of 73,618 men were sent to France.

The timing was crucial as the German Army had just begun its Spring Offensive, a concerted push to win the war by cutting off the British supply lines from the Channel ports of Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne. The second major operation of this campaign, known as The Battle of The Lys – also as the “Fourth Ypres” – began on 7th April, with Ernest and his comrades of the DCLI, arriving four days later to reinforce the front-line south of Merville. It was a desperate time with the allies on the back foot: indeed, the picture looked so bleak that Field Marshall Haig issued his “Backs to the Wall” address in which he declared that “There is no other course open to us but to fight it out.  Every position must be held to the last man… believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.”

Despite the rapid deployment of troops to the area, the German Army continued its push with the British Army constantly having to fall back. On 12th April, our forces were so surprised by the speed of the German advance, that the gunners became the front line and in the scramble to escape some guns were lost. By that evening, the 51st Division (of which the DCLI was a part) ceased to exist as a fighting force. More significantly, in our story, Ernest had been captured, just ten days after landing in France.

News slowly filtered through and the June issue of the parish magazine announced “the sad news that Private Ernest Hine is reported missing. The best that can be hoped for is that he may yet be heard of as a prisoner of war”. An update, that he was indeed a POW, appeared the following month and, in September, our village journal was pleased to tell its readers that Ernest Hine “writes a good account of himself from his captivity at Sprottau. His wounds were not serious and have healed.” A silence then fell, and it was not until after the war had ended that news finally reached Lustleigh that Ernest had sadly died in captivity on 24th September, the cause being inflammation of the lungs.

“There is much that is especially lamentable about this”, recorded Lustleigh parish magazine. “But his short life was a blameless one. And now there is peace.” His body was laid to rest in a churchyard at Ebersdorf, close to the POW camp at Chemnitz in which he died, with some of his comrades taking part in the funeral. Today, his remains lie in Berlin South-Western Cemetery where graves from 146 burial grounds across eastern Germany were brought together during 1924-5.

Of course, his loss was lamented by his mother, and also by his siblings, his younger brother honouring his hero by giving his son, born in 1932, the middle names, James Ernest.

For his part in the Great War, James Ernest Hine was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal. As well as being listed on the Lustleigh War Memorial, he is also commemorated on the memorial in Bovey Tracey; and by virtue of his previous residence (and school attendance) in Hennock, he is also listed in that parish’s Book of Remembrance.

James Ernest Hine will be remembered on Monday 24th September when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.

Sources used include:

  • Lustleigh Parish Magazine
  • Western Morning News
  • “The British Army on the Defensive” by Geoffrey David Blades (accessed on nickpowley.com)
  • “Smitten Down yet Not Destroyed”, Bovey’s WW1 book
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  • Swindonweb
  • Ancestry & FindMyPast
  • Wikipedia

Lustleigh War Memorial – Frank Lake

In July 1918, Lustleigh Parish Magazine reported that four men were prisoners of war, three of them barely more than boys who had been captured within days of their arrival in France. “Could not Lustleigh, as a parish, do something to relieve the hardship of our friends in their captivity”, pleaded Revd. Herbert Johnson, although precisely what he had in mind is difficult to fathom. Two of the four survived the war, the other two died in captivity including Frank Lake.

Frank was considerably older than the other three men, having been born in 1884 in Cheriton Bishop. He was the only son, among ten children, of Jeremiah and Ellen Lake, both of whom hailed from agricultural stock, although Jeremiah took a break from the soil for a few years around 1890 to run the New Inn at Cheriton Cross.

Frank, himself, was not averse to turning his hand to different professions. In 1901, he was working in a bakehouse in Cheriton Bishop, while at the time of his first marriage to Ethel Maunder, he was living in Newton St. Cyres working as a groom, only to change again a few years later to become a gardener.

At the time of their wedding, on 9th July 1910, Ethel was working alongside her mother, at the Confectionery & Lozenge Works located just behind East Street in Crediton, where they were living cheek by jowl with many of their co-workers. The factory was that of Ernest Jackson & Co Ltd which produced a range of medicinal sweets, pastilles and lozenges and was first founded to develop ‘something effective but soothing for a troublesome sore throat’. Sadly, Ethel died little more than half way through their first year of marriage.

Frank was working, at this point, as a stableman groom in Newton St Cyres. Precisely where is unknown, but a few years later, he was earning his living as a gardener at the prestigious Newton House, home to Lady Audrey Buller, widow of General Sir Redvers Buller, the decorated British Army officer.

Newton House was once the seat of the Quicke family, founders of the eponymous cheese brand. While they relinquished Newton House in favour of Sherwood House, the Quickes continued as Lords of the Manor and would occasionally hold tea parties for their tenants. At these events, it was not unheard of for Lady Buller to offer the services of Frank Lake to decorate the room with evergreens and flowers.

Frank remarried in 1914 to Eva Lowton, a milliner from the St. Thomas district of Exeter. This time it was war that interrupted his marriage and in September 1915, he enlisted in the Army Service Corps at Aldershot. The following year, he was mobilised to France and was transferred, first to 11th Battalion (Finsbury Rifles) London Regiment and later to 1st Battalion of the 20th London Regiment (Blackheath and Woolwich).

Little has been found about his movements in France until we reach March 1918, a peaceful time being had at the beginning of the month spent in rest and reorganisation with the odd gymkhana and boxing match thrown in for entertainment. Then came a massive assault on the allies known as the German Spring Offensive.

Opposition forces had just been boosted by Russia’s withdrawal from the war, giving the Germans the ability to redeploy some 500,000 troops to the Western Front: this was their chance, they felt, to push for victory; they were particularly keen to do so before American troops arrived on the scene in significant numbers.

On 21st March, the German’s launched a massive offensive against the British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army, the gap between the two being covered by the 47th Division of which Frank’s regiment was part. The assault began with a heavy bombardment of high explosives and gas shells, the Germans later using the ensuing smoke screen to launch its large-scale attack. The operation saw the deepest advances made by either side since 1914 and at the end of the first day, British casualties amounted to over 7,500 dead and 10,000 wounded, and by the following day the Fifth Army was in full retreat.

More significantly, in this story, is that by the end of the first day, 21,000 British soldiers had been taken prisoner. Whether, Frank was one of the first wave of our men to be captured, or whether it happened over the following few days, is of little consequence; what does matter is that he fell into enemy hands. Frank had been wounded in the leg and how badly he was treated or how poorly his injury was attended to is not known, but it is well documented that the German captors had little respect for their prisoners. “The likelihood of dying in a camp during the First World War was higher than the likelihood of dying in battle”, wrote John Lewis-Stempel in “The War Behind the Wire: The Life, Death and Glory of British Prisoners of War 1914-1918.

Frank Lake died in captivity, in the Alexandrinenstrasse Lazaret, a special military hospital for POWs in Berlin, on 9th September 1918. Revd. Johnson noted that he died from his wounds although one of his POW index cards says that death was the result of exhaustion: perhaps both are true. The precise cause may be unknown, but his resting place is: he is buried in Berlin South-Western Cemetery alongside 1,175 other fallen comrades.

“There is a special pathos attaching to those who, like him, have been called away just at the end, when the fighting had almost ceased, and the Victory almost ours” wrote Revd. Johnson in the parish magazine in December 1918. Interestingly, Frank never lived in Lustleigh, so it is the residency of his parents at Brookfield before and during the war that earnt him a place on the war memorials of both Lustleigh and Bovey Tracey.

Frank Lake will be remembered on Sunday 9th September when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.

Chris Wilson

Sources used include:

  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  • Ancestry & FindMyPast
  • “Smitten Down yet Not Destroyed”, Bovey’s WW1 book
  • Lustleigh Parish Magazine
  • historylearningsite.co.uk
  • telegraph.co.uk
  • Wikipedia

 

Lustleigh War Memorial – Hugh Douglas Livingstone

Glasgow, Lustleigh and Toronto have rarely, if ever, been written in the same sentence, but they form the backdrop to the story of Hugh Douglas Livingstone who perished on the French battlefields on 27th July 1918. It is also a story which throws up some tantalising questions which, for now, remain unanswered.

Douglas, as he was commonly known, was born in Glasgow in 1885 and moved to Lustleigh with his family, probably when he was just two years old. It is believed to be the shiny ore mines of the Wrey Valley which lured his father, Alexander, south of the border: by 1892, he was Chief Agent at Plumley Mine, but he may have been involved in Kelly Mine when he first arrived. It has been suggested that the relocation was through a connection with Scottish businessman, James Dick, who had an interest in Plumley Mine, and perhaps Kelly too. It was very likely a strong connection, possibly even a close friendship, considering that when Alexander’s 6th child was baptised in Lustleigh church in 1894 he was given the name James Dick Livingstone.

Hugh Douglas Livingstone, in front of his father, and with the rest of his family at Shaptor Rock, c1895

Douglas attended Lustleigh Board School where his father was clerk and he was clearly a star pupil, reaching the unusual heights of 7th Standard before moving on to Torquay Grammar School. Perhaps this is not a total surprise considering that this was clearly a very bright family as is suggested by Alexander’s profession and the role of Douglas’ elder brother William during WW1 as an intelligence officer in Africa.

Sadly, Alexander was struck down in 1897 following a long illness, possibly pneumonia or ‘miner’s lung’, which were occupational hazards in his line of work. Suddenly, his wife, Margaret, found herself as a single parent with six children to care for. One daughter, Annie, just short of her tenth birthday, moved to Scotland to live with her eldest brother and aunt while the rest of the family moved to Bovey Tracey where accommodation was found in the Town Hall, and where Margaret became caretaker of the armoury for the town’s Territorial Force soldiers (part of the 5th Devonshires).

It is likely that Douglas remained in the family home for a while to help his mother look after his younger siblings, but when they became more self-sufficient he moved to London and became a civil servant. It is here where two of the most intriguing aspects of his life remain unanswered.

In the November of 1911, in the parish church of North Brixton, Douglas married Margaret Macaulay Gray. Sharing, as she did, the same middle name as his mother, it is highly likely that they descend from the same clan. Certainly, his family has a proud tradition of retaining family names: Douglas, himself, taking his mother’s maiden name. There was also another child, born in Lustleigh, but who died aged just 5 months who had been baptised Macaulay Livingstone. It is almost inconceivable that there wasn’t a link between the two women in his life, but it is a conjecture which remains to be proven.

The second puzzle about this stage of Douglas’ life was his decision in February 1914, less than two years after the birth of his first son, Alexander Douglas Livingstone, to set sail for Halifax with the view of settling in Canada. Although his travelling alone could be explained by going ahead to prepare for the intended later arrival of his wife and child, why did he want to exchange a stable, well-paid job to become a farm labourer? Or was this simply a clerical error in the ship’s passenger log? With the First World War interrupting his plans, we shall never know his original intentions.

On 20th January 1915, Douglas presented himself at a recruitment office in Toronto to sign up for service in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force, disclosing on the attestation form that prior to leaving England, he had seven years’ experience with the London Rifles.

Initially appointed sapper in the Canadian Engineering Training Depot, he was soon on a ship back to England and found himself moving around various locations including Tidworth Barracks near Salisbury Plain, but principally Shorncliffe Army Camp in Kent.  During his first month, he was made Acting Lance Corporal and in May he was promoted to 2nd Corporal Orderly Room Clerk. In October, he was mobilised to France and by the end of the year he had been elevated to the rank of Sergeant as Engineers Clerk in the 4th Field Company, Canadian Engineers.

Douglas’ service record indicates that he was regularly being moved around to different parts of the Canadian contingent, sometimes in France and other times back in England, such as a few months in the middle of 1917, when he was stationed at the Canadian Military School in Crowborough, East Sussex. The birth of a second child, David James Livingstone in 1917, suggests that he was occasionally granted leave; it was certainly recorded that he had 14 days leave to the U.K. in March 1918 which lead to the birth of a daughter, Margaret, five months after his tragic end.

It is unclear precisely when Douglas returned to France, but in July 1918 he found himself at Anzin; by now, he was a Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion, Canadian Infantry (Eastern Ontario Regiment) and was making preparations to advance to the front line.

On July 23rd, his battalion travelled by train to Neuville-Vitasse on the outskirts of Arras, the following day proceeding to the trenches at Wailly Wood Camp. They experienced low levels of activity over the next few days, with very little shelling and aerial activity hampered by the weather, so their efforts were mainly directed towards repairing and deepening trenches and other defences. In such mundane circumstances, it is particularly unfortunate that during one of the tours, while in charge of a wiring party, Lieut. H.D. Livingstone received a machine-gun bullet to the chest and right arm at 1.30 in the morning, with his death being reported 45 minutes later.

Today, his body rests just yards from where he fell, in the Wailly Orchard Cemetery which was started in May 1916 by the Liverpool battalions of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division, as a front-line cemetery, but considerably enlarged between March and August 1918 by the Canadian and other units defending the Third Army front. He is, of course, remembered on the Lustleigh war memorial.

Hugh Douglas Livingstone will be remembered on Friday 27th July when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.

Chris Wilson

As well as particular thanks to Nick Walter of Kelly Mine Preservation Society, who provided much information, other sources to be acknowledged include:

  • In the Footstep of the Victorians
  • The Clan MacLea/Livingstone Forum
  • Ancestry & FindMyPast
  • Kelly Mine and the ‘Shiny Ore’ Mines of the Wray Valley
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Lustleigh War Memorial – Leonard Wright

The summer of 1913 has been written up, by various columnists and others, as the last golden summer; with the horrors yet to come furthest from most people’s minds, attitudes were carefree and good times were had by many. They were certainly had by Leonard Wright who, alongside Percy Brimblecombe (see last month’s issue) enjoyed the glorious September weather at camp on Berry Head, Torbay with Lustleigh Scouts.

A “most enjoyable week’s camp” was had by all involved: taking part and winning their rifle match against the Torquay Scouts; being shown over a newly-built Brixham Trawler; enjoying evening songs and yarns around the camp fire; being treated to a display of rocket and life-saving equipment by the Brixham Scouts on the last evening. No doubt, Leonard was pleased to be sharing the moment with his cousin, and possibly best friend, Percy Bunclark, the Scout’s Patrol Leader.

Lustleigh Parish Magazine recorded the event, saying that it will “be long remembered by all who were fortunate enough to take part in it”. Less than a year later, though, Leonard and his cousin were at a camp of a different sort – on Salisbury Plain readying for war.

Leonard had been born in Lustleigh in March 1897; originally, the family was living at Brookfield, but by the time Leonard entered Lustleigh Primary School in 1900, they had moved to Moorwood on the Moretonhampstead road. At this point, Leonard had only one other sibling, Bessie, who was two years his senior; four years later, brother Cecil arrived on the scene.

The family unit was due to swell again in 1907, but his mother died, quite possibly in childbirth as new brother Reginald is recorded as being born and dying around the same time. It would appear that Leonard’s father, William, at least initially, tried to continue to raise their three children on his own, but found himself increasingly unable to cope. First, he sent Bessie to live with her aunt who ran a lodging house in Bovey Tracey; then, the following year, Leonard was being schooled in Drewsteignton while perhaps living with his cousin, Percy.

When he left school, Leonard was temporarily re-united with his father, working together as gardeners in Pethybridge. But then the call of war came and arm-in-arm with his cousin, Percy, he went to Moretonhampstead to enlist into the 1/5th (Prince of Wales’s) Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. In October 1914, following the training camp on Salisbury Plain, they were sent to India where they spent two years at Multan. In March 1917, they left for Egypt and in June they crossed into Palestine where General Allenby was planning to capture Jerusalem by Christmas.

By the time the battalion was ordered to France in May 1918, Leonard’s battalion had encountered many ferocious battles, losing significant numbers of men; unfortunately, the change of theatre was not to bring about a change in fortunes.

The 5th Devonshires’ route to the Western front was a long one, working their way back through Egypt to Alexandria, then setting sail for Marseilles, landing there on June 1st. Following a train journey across the length of the country, they joined the 185th Brigade, 62nd (West Riding) Division at Mondicourt in the Pas-de-Calais department. The Battalion saw some comparatively light engagements during June before receiving the welcome relief of two weeks training at the beginning of July, but it proved to be the lull before the storm.

Orders then came to take part on what was to become one of the battalion’s most important actions in its Great War history: along with the rest of the Brigade, it was to join the French Army on the front line at Marne, to deal a blow to the enemy which proved to be the last major German offensive on the Western Front. The ensuing victory marked the start of the relentless Allied advance which culminated in the Armistice with Germany about 100 days later.

It was at 8pm on July 19th that Leonard’s battalion commander received his instructions on their tasks for the following day. By 8am, they were on the move encountering heavy enemy barrage as they made their way through the woods south-west of Reims. Although they reached their objective by 11.30pm, it was at the cost of over 200 casualties including the loss of 2 officers and 34 other ranks; as the battalion commander recorded “the operation was a good deal hampered as the enemy put down a hostile barrage, mistaking our stretcher parties for attacking troops”.

Unfortunately, Leonard was one of those stretcher bearers and was killed by an explosive bullet while carrying out his duty, thereby falling in similar circumstance to another cousin, George Bunclark (Percy’s brother) in Salonika the previous year. Percy, who was also a stretcher-bearer, mercifully survived this action, although he was gassed about a week later during the same campaign, but not before attending Leonard’s burial, possibly at Ecueil Farm Military Cemetery.

Such was the significance of the action at Marne, that the commander of the 5th French Army wrote a letter thanking the British army for their part in the “victorious counter attack which had just stopped the enemy’s furious onslaught on the Marne”. Paying his own tribute the following month, the commander of the 62nd (West Riding) Division wrote to the Devonshire Territorial Association in Exeter to record the worthy part that “the men of fine physique, soldierly bearing and splendid courage” played in the Great Battle of the Marne.

When the tragic news of Leonard’s death reached Lustleigh, it must have come as a particularly hard blow to his father, who was instead expecting news of Leonard’s return home for his first leave since departing for India four years earlier. Although not immediately, but perhaps later, his father was able to take comfort in the knowledge that his son had played a role in one of the turning points in the war, the beginning of the end, as Churchill would have put it.

“He was but a boy when he left Lustleigh to fight as a volunteer for his country”, recalled the Parish Magazine of September 1918”, “but all who remember him speak highly and with feeling of him. May he rest in peace. His record on earth is all honourable.”

Leonard rests in peace in Jonchery-sur-Vesle British Cemetery, west of Reims, where his body, along with many others, was reinterred after the armistice. His part in the war, and his sacrifice, is of course also remembered on the Lustleigh War Memorial.

Leonard Wright will be remembered on Friday 20th July when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.

Chris Wilson

 Sources used in compiling this story have included:

  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  • Ancestry & FindMyPast
  • Wikipedia
  • Lustleigh Parish Magazine
  • Lustleigh and the First World War
  • The Keep Military Museum

Lustleigh War Memorial – Percy Brimblecombe

On 27 May 1918, the German army began one of the most intensive artillery bombardments of the First World War. Some 41 divisions lined up against 16 or 17 allied divisions (sources vary) supported by several thousand guns which fired some two million shells that morning, so starting the Third Battle of the Aisne. The offensive took the allies by surprise and the inequality of the opposing forces resulted in the German army tearing a hole in the front line and progressing 13 miles on the first day, the single biggest advance since the beginning of trench warfare in 1914.

Meanwhile, the 9th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, which had been worn down and depleted during two months of almost constant action, were 450 kilometres away recuperating and allowing time for those new to its ranks to receive proper training. This, though, was brought to an abrupt stop as “warning orders were received that transport must be prepared to move at short notice”. The following day, they commenced their journey by French lorries to the front line, one of the troops on board being Percy George Brimblecombe.

Although Percy grew up and went to school in Lustleigh, he was born in Chagford where his grandfather ran a successful building business and acquired a number of properties in New Street, one of these perhaps housing the workshop from where Percy’s father, Walter, operated as a carpenter. For reasons unknown, it was away from the centre of town, though, that Percy was born: at Broadles (now Broadhalls) Farm on 31 January 1899. Two years later, he was living with his parents, brother and sister in Weymouth House, Mill Street, Chagford, which the family had possibly named to commemorate Walter’s birthplace.

Percy’s initial schooling was at Chagford Infants’ School but, following his family’s move to Brookfield in 1907, he resumed his education at Lustleigh Board School before leaving on his 14th birthday. Whatever his working intentions may have been, he enjoyed community life and, according to Reverend Herbert Johnson, “in all ways held an excellent record as a boy”.

During his first summer away from school, he enjoyed a summer camp with Lustleigh Boy Scouts in Torquay during which they defeated their hosts in a rifle match, rubbing salt in the wounds the following month when they invited Torquay Boys Scouts to home soil and won by an even bigger margin. Another draw for Percy was the church and he became a “frequent communicant at the Alter”, according to Revd. Johnson, and had begun to qualify as a bass singer in the choir.

When war came, he was eager to play his part, but with his age against him, he became “a keen member of the cadet corps so that he might be able to go and fight directly he was old enough”. His impatience, however, won through and like many thousands of teenagers he lied about his age, enlisting in Newton Abbot in March 1916, some nine months short of the legal entry age of 18. Initially, he was in a Cyclist Corps and then the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry before joining the Devon Regiment. Sometime later, he was transferred to the 9th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment with whom he was mobilised to France around the time of his 19th birthday.

Percy, Muriel, Freda and Reg Brimblecombe During WWI

So it was that, in the spring of 1918, he came to be at La Chaussée, south-west of Tours. Then, shaken from their much-needed R&R and travelling all night, Percy’s Battalion arrived near Chambrecy, outside Reims, close to the front line on May 29, the following day taking up reserve positions around Sarcy village to allow other units to withdraw. Two days later, on May 31, “the enemy was massing and an attack was expected”. However, according to the Regimental History, it was most difficult to select, organise and dig a defensive position owing to the standing corn. Shortly after midday, the enemy commenced heavy shelling which increased in violence on the whole Battalion. With the troops lying out in the open with practically no cover, significant casualties were sustained, even more falling in the ensuing attacks and counter-attacks. During this fighting, Percy was killed by a shell along with 41 other men who lost their lives that day.

On 13 July, Revd. Johnson held a memorial service for Lance-Corporal Percival George Brimblecome in St John the Baptist Church, and in the parish magazine that month wrote that “All who knew him will sorrow over his loss… he will be remembered by us as earnest in his religious duties and of upright life. He has left behind him an honourable record. May he rest in peace.”

His body was laid to rest alongside some of his comrades in Chambrecy British Cemetery, not far from where he fell. Also described by Revd. Johnson as “an enthusiastic soldier and a devout Christian”, Percy was posthumously awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

Today, he is not only remembered on the Lustleigh War Memorial, but also that of Bovey Tracey. More touchingly, though, his elder brother, Reginald, who served as a First Air Mechanic in the Royal Air Force, ensured his memory lived on in the family by giving his daughter, Peggy Georgette Brimblecombe, the same initials as his brother.

Percival George Brimblecombe will be remembered on Thursday 31 May when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.

Chris Wilson

 Sources used in compiling this story have included:

  • HistoryOfWar.org
  • http://www.stockport1914-1918.co.uk
  • Ancestry & FindMyPast
  • Lustleigh Parish Magazine
  • Lustleigh and the First World War
  • “Smitten Down yet Not Destroyed”, Bovey’s WW1 book

Lustleigh War Memorial – Henry Wills

Henry Wills

When Ivy Jean Smeeth died in a Hertfordshire care home on 6th December 2011, she did so having lived for 94 years without ever knowing her father. When she was born in June 1917, he was fighting in the trenches of Ypres and five months later he became one of more than half a million Allied and German soldiers who perished in that bloodiest of campaigns.

Elizabeth and John Wills of Higher Hisley

Ivy’s father was Henry Wills, one of the long line from that Lustleigh ‘dynasty’ to have grown up at Higher Hisley. Born on 23rd April 1885, he was the sixth of ten children of John and Elizabeth Wills. He was baptised in the parish church by Henry Tudor two months later and shortly after his fifth birthday he registered at the Board School, of which his father was one-time chairman.

When he was young, it was probable that Henry would have helped his father on the farm – either Higher Hisley or Waye, which he also owned – but it wasn’t a life he wished for himself. By the age of 16, he was apprenticed as a draper in Paignton where he lived with his aunt, coincidentally also in the parish of St John the Baptist. Ten years later, he was working as a drapers’ assistant in Hertford; what took him there is unclear – was his marriage, to Emma Jane Clarke, in neighbouring Bedfordshire, in 1912, the reason or the result?

Some members of the Wills Family outside Higher Hisley Farm

Henry returned to Devon with his wife and he was carrying on his profession in Newton Abbot when he signed up in 1916. In doing so, he was following his youngest brother, Alfred, who was already serving in the Devon Yeomanry at the outbreak of war, and the next youngest brother, George, who had been called up into the Royal Engineers.

Henry attested in Exeter on 18th May 1916, at which time he was put on reserve, not receiving his call-up until September when he was posted to the Royal Field Artillery, initially joining their depot in Portsmouth before moving to a training camp built on Lord Lichfield’s Estate at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. At the beginning of 1917, he was transferred to the Durham Light Infantry, first the 15th Battalion but then on to the 13th with whom he would mobilize to France.

Freezing weather welcomed Henry’s arrival with his unit at Winnipeg Camp, Ypres, where the fighting was comparatively light: deceptively so, that he would have no clues as to the horrors to come. Even then, Henry missed quite a bit of the action, finding himself admitted to hospital on more than one occasion suffering from scabies.

Officially, the Battle of Passchendaele (also known as the Third Battle of Ypres) began on 31 July 1917, but not for Henry and his comrades. The first week of August, for example, saw a concert, a football match, a revolver competition, a boxing competition and a cricket match; but perhaps this was to build moral before engaging in what officers no doubt knew would be a fierce and punishing campaign.

There followed a prolonged period of training, readying the 23rd Division, to which the 13th Battalion of the Durham Light belonged, for their part in this major offensive. Their opportunity came on 20 September with The Battle of Menin Road; despite that day being declared a success, Henry’s battalion lost a captain and 44 other ranks with a further 16 missing and more than 180 men wounded. The battle continued for five days with the allies sustaining over 3,000 losses. At the end of the assault, the 13th DLI received a letter from the 33rd Divisional Artillery saying that we “cannot let you go out without wishing you the best of luck and giving you our heartiest congratulations”.

Of course, other engagements were to follow and on 9 October it was preparing for another attack, moving from its camp at Westoutre, south west of Ypres, to Scottish Wood, described as a rest area before the front line. The following day, as they proceeded to take up their positions, the battalion was met with enemy fire and sustained further casualties with 34 wounded including Henry (and three missing). Initially, he was treated in the field, but a few weeks later was sent back to England, arriving at Bradford War Hospital on 5th November.

It is impossible to know whether he was visited by his wife and daughter living 300 miles away in Newton Abbot. The November parish magazine sympathised with Mr. John Wills, acknowledging “the serious wound to his son”, but such words may infer an expectation of recovery; if so, such optimism may have persuaded Emma from making the trip and thereby missing the only opportunity of introducing father to daughter and vice versa. Even if they had not met, Henry would of course have known that he had become a father, if only via a letter to his locker; perhaps when he was docked five days’ pay for being absent without leave just before Christmas 1916, he had been out celebrating the good news…

Sadly, Henry did not recover from his wounds and he died at 3am on 27th November; his body was sent to Higher Hisley two days later with his funeral taking place in Lustleigh parish church on Saturday 1st December. His final resting place is marked by a headstone, beside the path between the church and the old vestry, which not only recalls his demise but also remembers both his wife and daughter. As a resident of Newton Abbot at the time of joining up, his name appears on that town’s war memorial as well as on our own.

 

The following June (1918), Mrs Wills was awarded a war pension of 20s 6p per week, but it was a few more years before she received the true recognition of Henry’s contribution in the shape of his British War Medal and Victory Medal. No doubt, these were much cherished by both his wife and daughter; Ivy certainly treasured the few photographs she had of her father, which she kindly donated to Lustleigh Archives some years ago and which are reproduced here.

Henry Wills will be remembered on Monday 27th November when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.

Chris Wilson

Sources used include:

  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  • Ancestry & FindMyPast
  • Great War Forum
  • Tipton Remembers
  • Wikipedia

 

Lustleigh War Memorial – William Charles White

We probably all have visions of First Wold War soldiers ‘going over the top’ to meet almost certain death as they become target practice for enemy snipers, a futility brought home poignantly in the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Perhaps, few of us, though, are aware of a similar sacrifice made by naval ratings taking to the seas in Q-Ships, but such was the fate of another of the men remembered on our war memorial, William Charles White.

Few traces of William’s civilian life remain, but his association with our village appears to have been quite brief. He had been given birth by Elizabeth, a single woman, in Wells Union Workhouse in Somerset on 27th February 1896, and was baptised there by the chaplain two months later. What then became of either of them is unknown, but it is understood that William was later brought up by the Poor Law Authorities in Newton Abbot. This would suggest a connection with the area as Unions would rarely take on the financial responsibility of an outside parish, but the nature of the link remains a mystery, the only hint being the mention of his next of kin as a Mrs Hatherleigh of Brookfield and later Wreyland: did she foster him perhaps?

By the age of 15, he had found employment at Rudge where he helped farmer, Edwin May, with the cattle, working alongside the farmer’s son, another casualty of WW1, Edwin Wilfred Wrayford May. Whatever may have been his early experiences, they were perhaps not strong enough to give him a sense of belonging or at least made him sufficiently restless to consider a life on the open seas: so, at 16, this diminutive (5’ 1’’) fresh-faced youth became a Boy 2nd class at Devonport.

Following a natural progression path, he was elevated to Boy 1st class six months later and on his 18th birthday he officially signed to the Royal Navy ranks as Ordinary Seamen: he had enlisted for a minimum of 12 years, but had barely recorded a quarter of that time when he met his fate.

His first taste of active service was aboard cruisers and battleships, and when war broke out, William was aboard HMS Cumberland, a 10,000-ton Monmouth-class armoured cruiser with fourteen 100-pounder guns, ten 12-pounders, three 3-pounder guns and two torpedo tubes. Initially, she served in West Africa where she captured ten German merchant ships in September 1914 before moving on to convoy escort duties and patrolling for German commerce raiders, or Handelskrieg as it is known in the native tongue.

However, a different kind of war was destined for William, when in the spring of 1917, already by now elevated to Able Seaman, he joined the crew of HMS Vala. This was not a conventional naval warship, rather what was known as a Q-ship, a merchant vessel, in this case an ex-collier, with the express raison d’être to attract the attention of German U-boats targeting allied shipping. The theory was that a lone merchant ship would draw the U-boat to the surface, opting to use its cannon and so saving their expensive torpedoes for greater prizes, at which point the Q-ship would drop its sides and open fire with hitherto concealed guns.

A cunning plan, as Baldrick would have put it, but one which owes a significant degree of its success to the element of surprise. The deceit seems to have worked initially, but as war wore on and U-boat commanders became wise to the subterfuge, the efficacy wore off. In 1915, six U-boats were sunk without any loss of Q-ships; the following year, the ratio was three to two; in 1917 six U-boats were sunk but so too were 18 Q-ships, including five in August alone. It was clearly a tactic that had run its course.

During the first half of 1917, HMS Vala had been involved in gun fights with five different U-boats, so not only was the Q-ship tactic becoming better known to the enemy, so too was HMS Vala’s appearance.

On 20th August 1917, she was cruising in the Atlantic approaches to the English Channel around the northern fringes of the Bay of Biscay some 120 miles south west of the Scilly Isles. There, she was spotted by UB.54 under the experienced command of Captain Egon von Werner who, on spotting six look-outs aboard HMS Vala saw through the disguise and, without surfacing, launched two torpedoes, the first striking a forward hold, the second an aft hold.

The precise sequence of subsequent events is unclear. Some reports seem to imply that most of the 43 crew went down with their ship, while other accounts record that many of the men took to lifeboats which were launched in two waves, firstly with around a dozen or so men and another with as many as 20. With the admiralty recording William’s official date of death as August 21st, they clearly believe that the men perished in their lifeboats during the ensuing hours in a worsening sea state.

It would have taken some time for news to reach Lustleigh, it always does take longer when a fate is unclear, and in November’s parish magazine that year, villagers were prepared to expect the worse when it was announced that “we fear that there can be no doubt that he has gone down with his ship”.

Who exactly, though, would have been the first to know? According to Rector Herbert Johnson, William’s next of kin known to the admiralty was the aforesaid Mrs Hatherleigh, although other naval records indicate that the relative to be notified was a sister, Mrs S.A. Sewell of Harrogate while the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record him as the brother of Mrs. Mary Rowe of Southampton. All may be true, but we are unlikely to ever know.

As well as the various memorials in the village, William is remembered alongside comrades on the Plymouth Naval Memorial which was erected specifically to commemorate those members of the Royal Navy who had no known grave, the majority having lost their lives at sea where no permanent memorial could be provided. Perhaps another memorial should be considered to acknowledge the sacrifice of the crews of the more than forty Q-ships sunk by their prey in WW1. Knowingly becoming cannon fodder takes a different sort of bravery.

William Charles White will be remembered on Monday 21st August when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.

Chris Wilson

Sources used include:

  • Commonwealth War Graces Commission
  • Great War Forum
  • Ancestry & FindMyPast
  • Britain’s Small Forgotten Wars
  • net
  • The University of Edinburgh

 

Lustleigh War Memorial – Charles Ellicombe Williams

To misquote Oscar Wilde, to have lost one son in a military conflict must be heart-breaking, but to lose two must be agony. That is the fate that befell Brigadier-General Raymond Burlton Williams CB, whose eldest son died during the Second Boer War, unfortunately due to the accidental discharge of his own revolver, and his third son, Charles Ellicombe Williams, who was killed on the battlefields of Salonika in WW1.

There is reason to be thankful, though, as two other sons returned home safely. Charles’ older brother, Harold Radcliffe Williams, rose to the rank of major in the Gurkha Rifles serving in Burma and Mesopotamia. His young brother, Lionel Stewart Williams, who was serving with the Camel Corps at the outbreak of war, received a commission in the Flying Corps and miraculously survived a crash when his plane was brought down at 6,000 feet. One of their brothers-in-law also survived the Great War.

Charles was born on 7th October 1889 in Pennycross, Plymouth at which time his father was a captain in the Somerset Light Infantry and his mother, Ella Maud Radcliffe, was fending with four other children. Little is known about his early childhood, but in May 1905, Charles started at King’s School, Bruton in Somerset where “he soon gained a reputation for being a larger than life character; he approached everything he did with great enthusiasm, gusto and humour, and he was understandably a very popular member of the School” according to the school’s obituary for him.

Cricket was a major passion for Charles and his skill not only earned him a place in King’s Cricket XI, but also the Somerset County Juniors, his proficiency being such that he is listed in “Wisden on the Great War: The Lives of Cricket’s Fallen 1914-1918”. He enjoyed other sports too, being in both the King’s Football XI and their Hockey XI, crowning his achievements as Captain of Sports in his final year.

 

On leaving school in 1909, he went to Ceylon to work on a tea plantation and became an Assistant Superintendent on the Ratganga Estate. At the outbreak of war, he joined the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps, a volunteer (reserve) regiment based in Kandy, made up of European tea and rubber planters. In October 1914, the unit sailed for Egypt and was initially deployed in defence of the Suez Canal against the Turkish threat.

The following year, Charles fleetingly joined the 9th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment, before gaining a commission as a Lieutenant in the 7th Battalion South Wales Borderers on 23 March 1915. In June, he was appointed Adjutant and in September his unit landed at Boulogne: for a short while, they were concentrated near Flesselles in the Somme, but the following month were diverted for service in Salonika. They saw their first action in December in the Retreat from Serbia and the following year were engaged in various actions against the Bulgarian army including The Battle of Horseshoe Hill and The Battle of Machukovo.

Between 22 April and 8 May, 1917, the First Battle of Doiran took place, a major military offensive which began with a four-day artillery barrage in which the British fired about 100,000 shells. The action over these couple of weeks, though, was futile and the campaign had to be abandoned with the loss of 12,000 lives. After this, there was comparatively little activity on the British part of the Macedonian front except for local skirmishes.

Towards the end of May, the South Wales Borderers were in a defensive position at Whaleback Ridge, south west of Doiran; at 1600 hours, the enemy started shelling with at least one of the munitions having Williams name on it. Coincidentally, a Captain Leonard Vincent Williams was killed during the onslaught while Captain Charles Ellicombe Williams (he had relinquished his post as Adjutant and appointed Captain the previous month) was seriously wounded. Charles was transferred to a Dressing Station at Chaushitsa, the first unit of the medical services evacuation chain where injured soldiers were treated and prepared for the casualty clearing station. Sadly, Charles was so seriously injured that he died of his wounds.

Initially, Charles was buried at the newly constructed military cemetery at Chaushitsa (also known as Caussica), but the graves from here were transferred to Karasouli Military Cemetery in November 1920 where his gravestone stands today bearing the words “For God, King and Country”.

The 1917 summer edition of King’s School Bruton’s magazine, The Dolphin, reported Charles loss, stating that “Though not intellectually gifted, his intense keenness and enthusiasm soon won him a real position in the School. He was a sportsman of the best type, a prominent member of all our elevens, and probably the best remembered of them by our visitors. His cheerful aggressiveness and dauntless determination were such as leave an enduring recollection. But unhappily it is just such lives that War most surely claims among its victims. England is poorer by the loss of such a life and example.”

Charles, himself, was probably little known to Lustleigh, the connection being through his parents who moved to Pinkhurst (now Combe Hill) after his father retired from his post as Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General of the Gibraltar Garrison in 1912, an appointment which capped a distinguished military career including the Zulu War, South African War and the Relief of Ladysmith. He served again in the Great War, was churchwarden in Lustleigh from 1916 to 1920, shortly after which he and his wife moved to Ashprington.

 Charles Ellicombe Williams will be remembered on Saturday 27th May when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.

Chris Wilson

Sources used in compiling this story have included:

  • King’s School, Bruton
  • Alan Greveson’s World War 1 Forum
  • The Regimental Museum of The Royal Welsh
  • The British Newspaper Archive
  • The Wartime Memories Project
  • Google Books
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  • The Long, Long Trail
  • Ancestry & FindMyPast
  • Wikipedia

Lustleigh War Memorial – Cecil Bradford

As well as the war memorial, a plaque hangs in St John the Baptist Church, commemorating some of the men who lost their lives in WW1: it was unveiled in February 1921 by Lieut-Colonel O J Bradford. The mixed emotions that must have been running through his mind, one can scarcely imagine. Both pride and sadness would surely have been jostling for his thoughts, for all of the men listed no doubt, but particularly the first name inscribed, that of his son, Cecil Aubrey Bradford.

The family had moved to Welparke in Lustleigh when Cecil was an infant. He had been born at Thurborough House in Sutcombe, North Devon on 20th February 1886 to his mother, Mary Anne Ellen Bradford (nee Hutchinson). Only a few years of his childhood were spent in Lustleigh, though, as by the age of nine he was boarding at Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Marlow, Buckinghamshire; later, progressing through Wellington College before entering Sandhurst in June 1905.

That Cecil wanted to emulate his father, a life-long officer who served in Canada, Bermuda and India and who rose to become a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Dorsets, may not have been a surprise but neither was it assured. His older brother followed a very different path, taking holy orders and being ordained at Exeter Cathedral before serving in Ashburton with Buckland-on-the-Moor. Perhaps, though, it was Cecil’s calling.

Cecil Bradford in 1909. Photo Courtesy of Green Howards Museum

Cecil passed from Sandhurst on 7th November 1906, commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion, Alexandra Princess of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment. He served with them in South Africa from the following January until they returned to England, at which point he transferred to the 1st Battalion in Egypt at one time being attached to the Camel Corps.

Later, Cecil was stationed with his regiment in Khartoum, by which time he had been promoted to Lieutenant, and while in the Sudan he was able to indulge in big game hunting. He had previously demonstrated himself to be an all-round sportsman, not just taking part in cricket, polo, golf, athletics, running etc, but excelling at them. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he was a successful hunter, bagging “many fine heads” on expeditions on the Blue and the White Nile.

He proceeded to India with his Battalion in 1912 and the following year, after a short period of home leave, was sent to West Africa seconded to the Colonial Office. His WW1 induction came on 18th September 1914 when, attached to the Nigeria Regiment (part of the Royal West African Frontier Force), he arrived in Cameroon where the British and French were embarking on an 18-month offensive against the German colonial occupiers, not that Cecil was going to witness all of the action, having to return to England the following summer on sick leave.

Capitalising on the opportunity, two weeks after setting foot on home soil, on 5th August 1915, the newly-appointed Captain Bradford married Mildred Hillyard at Upton Pyne (her father was rector there), to whom he had become engaged on his last home visit. He was able to enjoy quite a few months of married life before sailing back to Cameroon the following January in time to see the fall of the final German garrison there two months later.

By 1917, Cecil was back in Nigeria and, that April, he boarded the SS Abosso in Lagos bound for Liverpool and a spell of home leave. His stiff upper, officer’s lip was probably no cover for the excitement of resuming married life which had been extended by the addition of a daughter, Margaret, born shortly after his last departure. Sadly, though, he was never to experience the true, hands-on joys of fatherhood.

Shortly after 9pm on the still, dark night of 24th April 1917, the 3,500-ton steamer was making good way at around 12 knots some 180 miles from Fastnet off the Bay of Bantry when she was struck abaft by a torpedo from a German U-boat. Although she didn’t sink immediately and the captain was able to launch all of the lifeboats, 65 lives were lost, many aboard three lifeboats which had been lowered prematurely and consequently swamped by water. Cecil was among those who perished.

Lustleigh parish magazine in June 1917 said that “the sympathy of the village has gone out to his aged father”. Rather oddly, it was his father who first received the news of Cecil’s demise, via telegram on 2nd May, as the admiralty had no record that he was married, let alone had a child. Despite receiving the news second-hand, his widow, Mildred, would have no doubt found comfort in the letters she received, particularly from those with whom he had served.

“Everyone who ever met him in Lagos loved him: there’s no other word for it. We shall all miss him more than I can say”, said one letter, while another echoed these thoughts while also recalling one of Kipling’s ‘Barrack Room Ballads’, a few lines of which he felt formed “the most suitable epitaph for a gallant gentleman, a loyal friend and, I am sure, a splendid husband and father.” The latter trait, of course, was one which he did not get the opportunity to show.

Cecil Aubrey Bradford is widely remembered. In addition to the memorials in Lustleigh, his name appears on War Memorials in Bovey Tracey and in Upton Pyne. He is remembered on the students’ War Memorial board of the chapel at the Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School. He is also commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial at Southampton, was erected to remember the 1900 service personnel lost at sea, many whose vessels were torpedoed in home waters.

Posthumously, Cecil was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.

Cecil Aubrey Bradford will be remembered on Monday 24th April when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.

Chris Wilson & Chris Vittle

Sources used in compiling this story have included:

  • Green Howards Museum
  • Great War in Africa Association
  • Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School
  • “Smitten Down yet Not Destroyed”, Bovey’s WW1 book
  • The National Archives
  • Ancestry & FindMyPast
  • Commonwealth War Graces Commission