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 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