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Poignant First World War letters show why it is still important to never forget


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As we gather around war memorials or stand silent at home this morning at 11am, memory writers Patricia Robinson and Bel Austin remind us why, after all these years, it is still important to remember The Fallen.

Sometimes it needs the voices of the past to remind us of the full horror of war.

This is a poignant selection of moving letters from soldiers from Kent sent back to loved ones from the battle-torn Front Line of the 1914 to 1918 First World War - the war, they said, to end all wars. The letters were later published in their local newspapers.

Bugler James Crane of Sheppey Air Cadets at Halfway cemetery with the mayor and mayoress of Swale Cllrs Paul and Sarah Stephen
Bugler James Crane of Sheppey Air Cadets at Halfway cemetery with the mayor and mayoress of Swale Cllrs Paul and Sarah Stephen

Edward Thomas Brown served as a Private in The Buffs and died of wounds in a French hospital on August 3, 1917. He was buried in St Sever Cemetery, together with more than 8,000 other casualties.

His widow received this letter from the hospital matron who had nursed him: “My dear Mrs Brown, I am very sad to write you that Pte Brown passed away this morning at nine o’clock.

"He had been unconscious for the past 24 hours and did not realise his condition.

“My heart aches to send you this sad message and I hope you feel our sympathy. He will be buried tomorrow, having a military funeral. I am enclosing a lock of his hair. His personal effects will be sent to you by registered mail of the Government Department. I assure you we did all we could to save him.

“In deepest sympathy, Grace Allison.”

The Fallen: Sidney Honeysett. Picture: Historical Research Group of Sittingbourne
The Fallen: Sidney Honeysett. Picture: Historical Research Group of Sittingbourne

Sidney Honeysett was born in Borden near Sittingbourne in 1890 and died on October 26, 1917, although at the time he was reported as missing in action.

A letter was written by Private Simpson of the Hampshire Regiment to Sidney’s mother which said: “Dear Mrs Honeysett, I am very sorry in one way to have to write such a letter to you but perhaps, I am doing a kindness for I found your son one night.

“He had been killed. I am very glad I found his pay book and disc in his pockets which might be of some little use to you in putting in any claim for money due to him. I trust you have already been informed of the distressing news.

“It might be some consolation to you to know that we buried him, the best we could do under the circumstances. The grave is very close to the German lines.”

Like many men buried on the battlefield, his body was never found after the war, and he is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial in Belgium.

The Fallen: Herbert Gibson Picture: Historical Research Group of Sittingbourne
The Fallen: Herbert Gibson Picture: Historical Research Group of Sittingbourne

Herbert Victor Gibson served as a Gunner in the Royal Field Artillery and was killed by the explosion of an aerial bomb, dropped from a German plane, on November 8, 1917.

His brother William, who was serving in the same battery as Herbert, wrote to break the sad news: “Dear Dad, It is not very often that I write to you alone but this time I must, for I have some bad news for you.

“It concerns our Bert. He has met a glorious end and he died bravely working his gun. His death was instantaneous and I was very near to him when he died.

“Do not grieve too much, for he felt no pain, and he died like any soldier would wish.

“I and another signaller were the only two men left alive at the position. I searched for two hours for his body and a relief party searched all day but the only trace we could find of him was a small piece of a letter written to him by mama. This I am sending to you.

'We have found no trace whatever of their bodies...'

“Poor Harry Doe from Epps Road also went and many others.

“We have found no trace whatever of their bodies, so you see they could not have known anything about it.

“The small piece of letter I am enclosing, keep it safely, it is sacred. It has left me lonely and a little down in my spirits. You’ve lost a son, and I have lost my best pal.”

The letters are featured in a research project which was spearheaded by the Historical Research Group of Sittingbourne (HRGS) and biographies of the men, including many photographs, can be found in the Heritage Hub in The Forum shopping centre.

A number of books, published by HRGS about the war, are also on sale there.

Sheerness war memorial with new surround. A new memorial wall is being built behind it for its 100th anniversary
Sheerness war memorial with new surround. A new memorial wall is being built behind it for its 100th anniversary

Across the water of The Swale on the Isle of Sheppey, Sheerness war memorial will celebrate its centenary next year.

As residents gather around it today they will notice its uneven steps have been replaced with a wheelchair-friendly sloping base as part of a major refurbishment.

Campaigners are also building a new curved 'memorial wall' of white Portland stone behind it to carry the names of more than 1,000 Islanders killed during conflicts.

The Cenotaph, a copy of the Statue of Liberty, has has stood on its plinth in Bridge Road since April 29, 1922 when it was unveiled by Admiral Sir Hugh Evan Thomas.

When the Remembrance Service ends, poppy wreaths laid and individual wooden crosses planted, the crowds will drift away, while others linger to read the names of those inscribed in all four panels.

The unveiling of Sheerness cenotaph memorial on April 1922
The unveiling of Sheerness cenotaph memorial on April 1922

Youngsters may wonder about the stark reference to HMS Bulwark - a dreadnought class battle ship which exploded off Sheerness on November 26, 1914, with the appalling loss of more than 700 lives. It was the second most catastrophic accident in the history of the United Kingdom.

The ship disintegrated completely with the sound reverberating and shaking buildings as far as Maidstone.

Reports of the time of the disaster told of the pall of silence which settled over the Island when the vast flumes of smoke finally faded.

It was as though the people on land were paralysed in deep shock, then all hell let loose.

Emergency services could not cope. The explosion was early morning. The band from gunnery school HMS Excellent was playing on board, men were drilling on deck and others were at breakfast when the explosion ripped the vessel apart.

HMS Bulwark which was sunk off Sheerness on November 26, 1914 with the loss of 790 lives. Picture: David Hughes
HMS Bulwark which was sunk off Sheerness on November 26, 1914 with the loss of 790 lives. Picture: David Hughes

Fourteen men were bought ashore but died later of dreadful wounds.

Barely six months later in May 27, 1915, the mine-layer HMS Princess Irene exploded off Salt Pan Reach, Swale, with the loss of 273 officers, 76 dockyard workers from Chatham and Sheerness and some died on shore.

HMS Princess Irene was on a mine-laying mission and had already been loaded with 500 at Sheerness Dockyard - 150 tons of high explosive.

Reports of the blast make for gruesome reading - body parts found as far as Sittingbourne, a person on land injured by flying debris, another dying of a heart attack. It was gruesome in the extreme.

Once more, as in the case of Bulwark, sabotage was suspected but not proved.

Poppy cross in Halfway cemetery
Poppy cross in Halfway cemetery

Today, the nation will fall silent for two minutes.

Families who lost their men and women fighting on land, in the trenches, jungles, in the air and in sea battles, will also remember those who died in explosions like those of the Bulwark and Irene.

Incidentally, you are wearing your poppies correctly aren’t you? The leaf should be at 11 o’ clock representing the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

The red of the poppy is not only for Flanders Fields but also the blood spilled, and the black centre the widows and futility of war.

To read about the Armed Forces and how they have served Kent and beyond, click here.

Read more: All the latest news from Sittingbourne

Read more: All the latest news from Sheppey

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