May you sleep well in the earth of beautiful France

Corporal William Stuart Barnett, KIA 7.9.14

William Stuart Barnett was born in Sutton, Surrey, in 1892. His father, a jeweller and silversmith, died when he was just three years old. After leaving school William worked as a Pawnbroker’s assistant and joined the army in 1910. He initially served with the London Regiment (9th Battalion, Queen Victoria’s Rifles), where he was promoted to Lance Corporal in 1912. He transferred to the Royal Engineers in May 1914 and was among the first troops to land in France in August.

William was killed in action at Doue, 50 miles east of Paris, on 7th September 1914 while carrying despatches from General Headquarters to the Second Army Corps Signals. The Reverend O.S. Watkins, a Chaplain during the war, wrote of William in his book ‘With French in France and Flanders’: “I found the brave lad lying in a cottage in the village. Peasants told me that in the darkness he had lost his way, and had actually ridden through two villages occupied by the Germans until he was brought to a stand at Doue with a bullet through his heart. As soon as the Germans retired the villagers had lifted him tenderly into the cottage, straightened his fine young limbs into decent restfulness, and covered him with a clean white sheet. I found him, a bunch of newly gathered flowers on his breast, his face calm and determined, but looking strangely young. He was carried to his last long rest by old men belonging to the village – there were no young men, for all were serving with the Army – and as we passed through the streets women came from the houses and laid flowers upon the bier. Up the steep road we toiled, with many a stop to rest the ancient bearers. Ahead boomed the heavy guns in action, and below we could see the infantry advancing to the attack. At last we reached the hill-top, crowned by its little church and peaceful graveyard. We laid him in his shallow grave, the peasants, with heads uncovered, listening with reverence to the grand words of the Burial Service in a language they did not understand. Before the service was over shrapnel was bursting on the hill, and silently the peasants crept to the wall for shelter, their heads still uncovered.

As the final ‘Amen’ fell from my lips, and I stood for a moment looking down on all that was left of that fine young manhood, one of the old men, forgetting his fear of the thundering guns, stepped to the graveside, and, as he cast earth upon the prone body with his hands, with wonderful dignity he addressed the sleeper. As far as I could understand his words he said: ‘You are a brave man and our friend. You have given your life for our country. We thank you. May you sleep well in the earth of beautiful France’, and the others said ‘Amen’.”

William remains buried in Doue churchyard, the only Commonwealth burial located there. He is also commemorated on Sutton war memorial.

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4 Responses to May you sleep well in the earth of beautiful France

  1. A great post Andy.

    Have you been to Doue? I think it will be quite something to stand at his grave and to place the written description within the landscape.

    Also, I wonder if William’s story has been passed down amongst the inhabitants of Doue? I am sure they would love to know more about your work upon him.

    Many thanks,

    Steve Garnett

    • ww1geek says:

      The closest I’ve got is looking at the village on Google earth! But I would love to go there someday. Yes I wonder if anyone there still knows the story- worthy of further investigation I think.

      Regards,
      Andy

  2. Nick Shelley says:

    May I add to your kind appreciation of William Barnett? Another motorcycle despatch rider, Corporal WHL Watson of the 5th Signals Company, was the author of “Adventures of a Despatch Rider”, a contemporaneous account of the 1914 campaign which was published in 1915, and which is available on the internet.

    In his chapter “Over the Marne to the Aisne”, he wrote: “That night [7th September] a 2nd Corps despatch rider called in half an hour before his death. We have heard many explanations of how he died. He crashed into a German barricade, and we discovered him the next morning with his eyes closed, neatly covered with a sheet, in a quaint little house at the entrance to the village of Doue.” Clearly Watson saw exactly the same sight.as the Rev Watkins

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