Recently I’ve been doing some more research into the 1st Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). The battalion had a chapter in the regimental history, published in the early 1920s, but other than that little has been written about its experiences during the war. I am therefore attempting to write an updated history using the plethora of sources that are now available. The battalion took part in the Retreat from Mons, fought on the Aisne, was virtually annihilated at First Ypres, then was involved in Loos, the Somme, Arras, Third Ypres, the German Spring Offensive, and the final 100 Days Offensive. In total approximately 1,563 men from the battalion lost their lives. It is certainly an experience that deserves telling.
With such a rich array of source material I keep finding myself distracted from the actual writing and disappearing down rabbit holes of side-research. One aspect of this was looking at the 1914 medal roll for the battalion and what it can tell us; another the POW and ICRC records.
As part of my research I have been photographing the casualties’ headstones during my trips to the western front, visiting many of the well-known cemeteries as well as some of the lesser-visited ones, ones that I probably would not have been to otherwise. As part of this I started to record the epitaphs, where present. However the epitaphs are now easily available on the casualty records on the CWGC website. So my latest distraction has been collating the epitaphs for the entire casualty list.
As mentioned, the battalion suffered approximately 1,563 casualties; approximately because there will always be some doubt as to the actual figure. I have come across men listed under the battalion who were actually attached to other units at the time of their death, and vice versa. There is even one man listed under the battalion on the CWGC website but who is buried under a headstone inscribed ‘East Surrey Regiment.’ The exact total number may therefore never be known.
Of these 1,563 casualties 853 (55%) have no known grave and are commemorated on the memorials to the missing. Of the 710 who do have a grave, 414 (58%) do not have an epitaph. I was surprised at how high this number was; I perhaps expected that more men would have had an inscription chosen by their families. Perhaps the cost put them off, or perhaps there was no relatives left to mourn them. Of these 414, 259 have no additional information recorded on the CWGC website, suggesting that maybe there was no one to provide the information, they were not able to contact the relatives, or perhaps even in some cases the relatives did not want to provide any further details .
That leaves 296 men who do have an epitaph recorded on their headstone. The inscriptions are quite diverse, but there were clearly some popular choices:
REST IN PEACE – 17
PEACE PERFECT PEACE – 15
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN – 14 [but with another 10 that have a variation/addition to this]
THEIR GLORY SHALL NOT BE BLOTTED OUT – 14
THY WILL BE DONE – 9
These top five account for nearly one quarter of all the inscriptions.
In total there are 101 inscriptions which appear on more than one grave; that leaves 195 unique inscriptions, although some are variations or very similar. There are 11 headstones, for example, which have an inscription on the theme of ‘GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN…’. Religious inscriptions are the most prevalent – 40 (14%) make explicit mention of God/Lord/Jesus whilst many others feature religious inscriptions or are religious in nature.
Others are more patriotic –
HIS COUNTRY CALLED HE ANSWERED (Sergeant Frederick Norman Flower, 21/09/1918, Meath Cemetery)
HE DIED FOR HIS COUNTRY BUT LIVES IN THE LOVING MEMORY OF HIS PARENTS AND THREE BROTHERS (Second Lieutenant Arthur William Emmanuel Long, 24/08/1916, London Cemetery & Extension)
HE ANSWERED HIS COUNTRY’S CALL (Private Frederick John Hardcastle, 21/09/1918, Pigeon Ravine Cemetery)
It is interesting to note that two of the above are casualties from very late in the war, but the inscriptions still reflect duty and patriotism, even after four years of war.
Captain George Herbert Wallis’s epitaph reads IN LOVING MEMORY A SOLDIER WHO PUT HIS REGIMENT BEFORE ALL ELSE THY WILL BE DONE. R.I.P. Wallis had been one of original members of the battalion to go to France on 13 August 1914 and died of wounds received from a shell on 20 September 1918. He is buried in Thilloy Road Cemetery, Beaulencourt. Age 48 when he died, he was one of the oldest casualties from the battalion.
Finally some of the epitaphs provide an indication of the impact of the death of the soldier –
NO ONE KNOWS HOW MUCH WE MISS HIM NONE BUT ACHING HEARTS CAN TELL (Private Cecil Adrian Hall MM, 29/05/1918, Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No.3)
SADLY MISSED BY HIS SORROWING WIFE LIZZIE (Private George Bain, 03/11/1916, Grove Town Cemetery)
IN LOVING MEMORY OF A DEAR HUSBAND & FATHER (Private Thomas Henry Peters, 26/09/1915, Phalempin Communal Cemetery)
GOD TOOK HIM FROM OUR HOME BUT NEVER FROM OUR HEARTS MOTHER, DAD SISTERS, BROTHERS (Private Frederick Howard Currell, 17/07/1917, Boulogne Eastern Cemetery)
LOVE FROM MOTHER (Lance Corporal Henry Perkins Moorley, 13/04/1918, Outtersteene Commuanl Cemetery Extension)
DEAR SON & A LOVING BROTHER (Private William Thomas Moates, 21/09/1918, Villers Hill British Cemetery)
OUR BELOVED BROTHER (Private Thomas William Miatt, 14/04/1918, Meteren Military Cemetery)
I am not sure how worthwhile an exercise it has been, and whether the results would be similar on a wider basis. What it has done however is open a window onto the grief of the families and loved ones these men left behind. For me it is part of building up a comprehensive picture of the battalion and its men, and as such it has helped to bring these names back to life.