Category Archives: WW2

Will Some Kind Hand in a Foreign Land Place a Flower on my Son’s Grave

Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

I’m back from my latest visit to the Western Front. Yet again I’m left with a sense of awe at the immaculate cemeteries and memorials to the missing. For this, all tribute to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), who organise the maintenance of the final resting places of our war dead and memorials to those with no known grave, ‘in perpetuity’. They, and by extension those working on their behalf around the world, do a wonderful job: one which we often take for granted.

Thiepval Memorial and Anglo-French Cemetery – Photos by Jane Roberts

Established by Royal Charter on 21 May 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission, it updated its name in the 1960s replacing ‘Imperial‘ with ‘Commonwealth‘. With almost 1.7 million Commonwealth war dead commemorated across 23,000 locations in 154 countries on land often granted in perpetual use, its task is to:

  • make fit provision in perpetuity for the graves and memorials; and
  • maintain the records of the dead.

One of its fundamental principles is that the headstones and memorials should be permenant. However, over the years, a number of individual graves and sites have been declared unmaintainable and consequently abandoned. This could be due to their physical setting, or a change in the political situation of the country in which they were located. In these cases the CWGC discharge their responsibility by providing an alternative commemoration elsewhere. 

The cost of supporting the work of the CWGC is shared by member governments, in proportion to the number of their graves. In 2015/16 the member governments contributed £60.9 million (up from £50.9 million the year before). Their respective percentage proportions are:

  • United Kingdom – 78.43%
  • Canada – 10.9%
  • Australia – 6.05%
  • New Zealand – 2.14%
  • South Africa – 2.09%
  • India – 1.2%

Money also comes from agency funds used for the care of military graves from other periods and memorials, and grant income. Taking this into account, the total CWGC income for 2015/16 was £60.9 million, up from £59.9 million in 2014/15. In addition, in 2015/16, the Chancellor awarded a one-off award of £2 million to renovate and tend approximately 6,000 non world war graves predominantly in the UK. 

An interesting, and possibly overlooked, fact are the numbers of World War 1 and 2 Commonwealth dead whose burials are located in the UK – over 300,000 in around 13,000 locations. We mostly associate the Commision’s work with those cemeteries and memorials overseas.

Serre Road No 3, Delville Wood, Norfolk and Mill Road Cemeteries – Photos by Jane Roberts

Our group discussed what exactly ‘in perpetuity’ means, and it raised some interesting points. Hopefully “in perpetuity” means what most people, including me, generally understand by the words – that is forever. However there are some question marks about this in terms of English legal definition, i.e. 100 years. We may also need to consider the definitions applicable to the countries in which our dead are honoured.  The potential implication is it may be a question of political will, both by our government and those governments in whose countries the memorials and cemeteries stand. 

Yes, political instability and conflict across the world has an understandable impact – look to Iraq. However now we are coming up to the end of the centenary commemorations maybe, heaven forbid, there may be a push to save money or reclaim land. There have been suggestions that this was indeed discussed under previous administrations. For example the attached link contains correspondence from the early days of the Thatcher government.

Surely it would be too politically sensitive to cut funding and abandon cemeteries as a consequence? Yes, we are coming to the end of the First World War centenary commemorations, but then there are still surviving veterans from World War 2; and beyond we will be looking towards the anniversary commemorations for that conflict. But will it always be the case? What about the small, isolated battlefield cemeteries? 

One final thought: How many of us visit these cemeteries and memorials, look at the headstones and inscriptions then move on. What evidence is there of our visits? Theoretically the visitors register should record footfall. But how many of us sign the books? And if we do is it just one person from the visiting group? Do the government, in times of  so-called ‘austerity’ see the CWGC as a potential easy target for cuts sometime in the future?  Will they use these registers as a proxy for value for money? For this reason I’m now taking a pen with me and signing the visitor registers – and as a result I’m noticing how few others do.

Ongoing Work of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Belgium – Photo by Jane Roberts

Footnote:  The title of this post is the inscription on the grave of Pte George Thomas Palmer of the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment who died on 28 April 1917 and is buried at Foncquevillers Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais.

Sources:

Brothers-in-Arms 

Sometimes we overlook more recent family history, concentrating on the more distant past. Currently events of 100 years ago are dominating the news, with national commemoration events for Battles such as Jutland and The Somme, to more individual and personal remembrances for the centenary of the death of a family member.

But here I will focus on a more recent conflict, World War II. We are moving towards a time when this too will disappear from living memory. Sadly those in my family with direct knowledge of this tale are long gone.

This post concerns the fate of Albert Edward Hill, or Ned as he was known: My grandad’s cousin.

Finding out the circumstances surrounding death in conflict can be challenging: Which battle; location; precise cause of death; time; even date; and perhaps there is no known burial place. World War II in many ways presents a bigger challenge than its predecessor, with the public availability of records.

However in Ned’s case it’s all fairly straightforward. He is buried locally at St Paul’s churchyard, Hanging Heaton. His death is well documented. It was not caused by some battle injury. It was the result of a totally avoidably, foolishly tragic accident following a night out.

Ned was born on 2 February 1901, one of the seven children of Albert Hill and Sarah Ann Summerscales. These included Harry who died shortly after birth in 1890; Percy, Annie, Lilian, Doris and Arthur.

Ned never married. The 1939 Register, the population list compiled at on 29 September, as a result of the outbreak of war, shows him living at Wood Lane, Hanging Heaton. He is in the household of his brother-in-law Harry Robertshaw along with Harry’s two young sons. Harry’s wife, Ned’s sister Annie died that summer, her burial taking place at St Paul’s Hanging Heaton on 6 July 1939.

In the 1939 Register Ned is recorded as working as a willeyer in a woollen mill. This was someone who operated what was termed a willeying machine. Fibres were fed into this machine, which separated and combed them ready for carding. Newspaper reports at the time of his death, however, indicate prior to his army service he worked as a builder’s labourer, employed by Hanging Heaton-based building contactors George Kilburn and sons. 

I do suspect some confusion in the report though, and this occupation possibly applied to his brother Arthur. In the 1939 Register he was a public works contractor’s labourer. 

Whatever the true facts are war changed all this, and some two-and-a-half years before his death Ned joined the Army, as a Gunner.

Albert E Hill Batley News July 28 1945 8 (2)

Gunner Hill

His death came entirely out of the blue. Summer 1945, and war in Europe over, Ned returned home to Batley on leave. He finally managed to meet up with his younger brother Arthur, a driver with the RASC, similarly on leave. This was the first time they had seen each other since Ned’s military service. Arthur had been in the Army for four years at this point, serving in Germany, Belgium, France and Holland.

Things must have seemed hopeful. They had survived so far. All being well they would be home soon permanently. The past tragedy of the family would not repeat itself….

Little could they have envisaged that this meeting would be their last, and in three weeks Ned would be dead.

Leave over and Ned returned back to his Unit, the 397 Battery, 122 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment, stationed at Walberswick, near Southwold in Suffolk. This was part of the network of coastal defences, established in response to the threat of German invasion from May 1940 after their rapid victory in Western Europe. That German threat was now gone.

On 20 July 1945 he and another soldier from the same unit, Gunner Leonard Lomax, had evening leave. They left camp at 6pm that Friday for a night out in Southwold. The ferryman took them over the River Blyth and said he would return for them at 10-30-11.00pm.

An interesting aside is the ferry service from Walberswick had featured in Parliament only weeks earlier on 8 June 1945. There had been a seam steam-driven chain ferry which was discontinued in World War II, and it seems a rowing boat service replaced it. The ferry was privately owned and there had been problems in maintaining a regular service. Suffolk County Council was negotiating to acquire the ferry rights to ensure an adequate service.

Walberswick Ferry circa early 1940s Postcard, F Jenkins, Southwold

Ned and Leonard visited three public houses in Southwold and consumed about six pints of mixed beer. They left town at 10.15pm for the return ferry but there was no sign of the man with the boat. As they were debating whether to return to Southwold to catch the liberty truck to camp, a boat containing two soldiers came from the Walberswick side of the river.

These two soldiers, Lance Bombardier Edward Davis and Bombardier George Rennie were from another Battery. They heard shouts from the Southwold side of the river and thought some men from their Company were stranded as it appeared the ferry service had stopped. Despite having consumed three pints, or maybe because of it, seeing a boat moored in the water they decided to cross to collect their companions, but when they arrived found they were strangers. Nevertheless they offered Ned and Leonard a lift back. 

They clambered in the small boat, which turned out to be a yacht’s dingy and using the home-made paddles which were aboard the boat, Edward and George set about rowing back. About halfway across Leonard became aware of his feet feeling wet, water sloshing over the top of his shoes.

George and Edward were now having difficulty controlling the craft and stood up to paddle. They were about eight yards from the Walberswick side when the boat got into trouble with the tide and started to drift back towards Southwold and then seawards. The boat was filling up with water, either the result of a leak or overloading.  At this point Ned grabbed a paddle from Edward and the boat turned over throwing all four men into the river.

Leonard and George managed to get hold of a step ladder running down the harbour wall and climb ashore. They could not see the other two men, so made their way to Southwold to inform the police.

Meanwhile Edward, realising that Ned could not swim, tried to keep him up despite not being a strong swimmer himself. He managed to get them both to the concrete wall where Ned grabbed some weeds. Unfortunately they broke away. Edward continued to hold onto Ned but eventually became too exhausted and he had to let him go. Edward then managed to get hold of the ladder and escape.

In summing up the Coroner censured the boat’s occupants. The accident, he said, was the result of four “landlubbers” knowing nothing whatever about boating. The two soldiers should never have taken Leonard and Ned aboard because they overloaded the boat. There must have been some movement with the result that the boat capsized.

He went onto say that he hoped the tragedy would be a warning to others not to take boats without leave, and not to go on a swift running river like this one unless they were experienced persons who know how many a boat would take. “It is difficult to blame anyone because it is pure ignorance” he added.

A verdict of “Death through drowning through the upsetting of a boat” was recorded.

The Commanding Officer of the Battery wrote to Ned’s sister Doris extending his and the Battery’s sympathies as follows:

On behalf of the ranks of this battery wish to express to you our horror at this tragedy. Gunner Hill was a grand soldier and a man well-known and loved by the men of this unit”.

Ned’s body was brought back to Batley and he was buried in the church yard at St Paul’s, Hanging Heaton, just weeks before VJ Day and the war effectively ending.

Arthur survived the war. But Ned’s fate echoed that of another brother in another conflict, Percy. He died almost 29 years earlier in The Great War, during the Battle of the Somme.

Memories too of the newspaper “Roll of Honour In Memoriam” notices which the Hill family, including the then teenager Ned, placed in the papers all those decades before, mourning the loss of Percy.

Batley News – 5 October 1918
Hill – In sad but loving memory of our dear son and brother, 1736 Sergt Percy Hill, 1st-4th KOYLI (Batley Territorials) who died from wounds at Warloy Baillon, West of Albert, France, September 30th, 1916, aged 24 years.

When last we met, and fondly parted
Our hopes were high, our faith was strong,
We trusted that the separation
Though hard to bear would not be long 

We often sit and think of him when we are
all alone
This memory is the only thing we can call
our own;
Like ivy on the withered oak, when other
things decay
Our love for him will ever live, and never
fade away 

Ever remembered by his sorrowing mother, father, sisters and brothers, 92, Back Bromley Street, Hanging Heaton 

A family which had now lost a brother in both World Wars.Albert and Percy Hill Headstones

Sources:

We Will Remember Them: Contemporary Parish War Register Books

War Memorials can be found in churches, towns and villages the length and breadth of the country, inscribed with the names of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Years later researching those named can prove problematical, as all that exists on the Memorial is a name.  I know this only too well from my Batley St Mary’s research!

However some Parishes and Districts went a step further and, in addition to these Memorials, they produced registers and books containing more details about their war dead.

This Christmas my parents bought me a limited edition reproduction of one such book, the Upper District of Soothill War Register and Records of War Service 1914 to 1920.  Soothill War Book

The original was compiled by the Rev W.E. Cleworth, Vicar of St Paul’s, Hanging Heaton. Printed by E.F. Roberts in Batley, it was based on a War Service Register kept by the Vicar from the start of the war. The Soothill Upper War Memorial Committee subsequently assisted. When the war ended 1,000 Record Forms were printed, information inserted from the Manuscript Register and then these were distributed to households in the area for correction and additions. Over 900 were returned and these were used in the production of the book, which was truly a parish effort. Copies of the original book are held at St Paul’s Hanging Heaton and Batley library.

It is particularly noteworthy that this book contains the names of not only those who gave their lives in the course of the conflict; it includes information about all those from the District who served. So a wonderful record of those who came home and are all too often overlooked.

It contains addresses, Units, age when war service commenced, places served, promotions, distinctions and other points of interest about the service careers of those featured.

Details of the limited edition reproduction organised by Margaret Watson can be found here. The book includes a number of men linked to my family tree, including Jesse Hill, so I am so pleased to now own a copy. And I am indebted to Margaret and all those who worked on putting the reprint together.

On a recent visit to Lavenham, Suffolk I popped into the local Parish Church of St Peter and Paul to look at their War Memorial. To my surprise and joy beneath their Memorial they too had a book.

Lavenham Church

Lavenham Parish Church – Jane Roberts

This one commemorated those who died in both World Wars. A handwritten Book of Remembrance dating from 1922, it was compiled with the specific intention that those who died would have more than their names remembered.

Lavenham War Memorial

Lavenham War Memorial – Jane Roberts

There appeared to be a page devoted to each man, giving name, age and address alongside service details and even extracts from letters informing families of their loss. A wonderful lasting legacy for generations to come.  Lavenham book of remembrance

These books are particularly poignant because of their “of the time” nature. I wonder how many more are out there? And how many are being reprinted to ensure these men’s memories are perpetuated?