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Three weeks after Robert’s death The South of England Advertiser 27/4/1916 published an anonymous letter ‘The wastefulness and stupidity of it all – on that the most illiterate private in the war were he articulate would preach certain public men a needed lesson”. Only two men served in 2nd Royal Sussex Battalion from the beginning to the end of the War.
Robert’s body was never found. He may now be in one of the thousands of graves to men whose names are known only to God. His bones may still lie in French soil under the Redoubt. His name is commemorated on The Arras Memorial with the names of almost 35 000 other servicemen who died in the Arras sector spring 1916 and 7 August 1918 and have no known resting place. When as in the case of Robert death was presumed it would be many months before death was declared.
A soldier’s death
When did his family know? On major offensives names often appeared on lists before families notified. These would be posted up in shop windows. Often the men made pacts with each other to write to each other’s families if anything happened. Had Robert been able to meet anyone to make such a pact? Junior officers and the responsibility to write to the next of kin, but as in Robert’s case it may have been about a newly drafted man he hardly knew. They could only write the usual platitudes, often lies. Telegrams notifying of deaths were reserved for officers, the news of ORs was sent in buff coloured envelopes. Regiments dead were seen as the property of that regiment. Identification of bodies was made easier from September 1916 when each man had two identity discs, one green, remained on the soldier. Both had surname, including regiment number, religion. The other was red. However both were fibre so biodegradable and for this reason many also wore metal bracelet (disc) with the same details. Under normal circumstances bodies to be taken to designated cemeteries with graves 5ft deep 2ft wide 6’6” long and no more than 1 foot apart. Paths were no more than three feet between rows. Each grave had a wooden peg with grave and regiment number. In a rolling campaign the dead were collected and buried 100 metres form nearest housing and not near a well. If time they were permanently buried in an army blanket. Their boots were reused. After a burial a return was mad by an officer/chaplain giving the location. Each grave was photographed by the GRC. Of course this didn’t happen to Robert. If his body was found it was unidentifiable and buried as an unknown soldier, known only to God.
Those who grieved
Families of men who like Robert were missing were presumed death were left in dreadful limbo, as there was always the faintest hope they had survived, possibly taken prisoner. At the beginning of 1919 the Germans said there were fewer than 14000 POWs, whereas Britain had expected over 3500. A lot had died as POWs. ‘Grief has no wings. She is an unwelcome lodger that squats on the hearth –store between us and the fire and will not move or be dislodged’. (Arthur Quiller-Couch).
1250000 filed past the Unknown Warrior in the week before his coffin was sealed. For many it was a cathartic experience. He was an ordinary soldier with steel helmet, web belt and bayonet on top of the coffin. However many surviving soldiers thought more should be done for the living, there was too much money and energy spent on commemorating the dead. Some families paid visits to France after; the Church Army arranged for 5000 families to go up to June 1919, the Salvation Army 185000 between 1920 and 1923 and the YMCA 600000 1919 to 1923. The numbers dropped off after 1925. There is no evidence that anyone in Robert’s family made a visit.
The letter dreaded by all families
Bessie Hughes was given by Robert as his next of kin and this is the form which she would have received.
No Army form B 104-82
No 2 record office Woking 13. 9. 1918
Sir It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office notifying the death of:-
(No) 41197 (Rank) Pte
(Regiment) 2nd Batten Sussex
Which occurred whilst serving with the British Expeditionary Force France
On the 8th day of April 1916
The report to the effect that he was
Killed in action
By His Majesty’s command I am to forward the enclosed message of sympathy from Their
Gracious Majesties the King and Queen. I am at the same time to express the regret of the Army Council at the soldier’s death in his Country’s service.
I am to add that any information that may be received as to the soldier’s burial will be communicated to you in due course. A separate letter dealing more fully with the subject is enclosed
Your obedient service
For the fallen, Lawrence Binyon
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children
England mourns for her dead across the sea
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of spirit
Fallen in the cause of the free
Solemn the drums thrill, death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears
They went with songs to the battle. They were young
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted
They fell with their faces to the foe
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them
They mingle not with laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the night
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness
To the end, to the end, they remain
What Robert left behind
On 11th May 1917 Bessie Hughes received Robert’s back pay of £1 17s 6d and on 17th October 1919 a war gratuity of £9 10s. A damaged form listing his service states that his total service was reckoned as ten years, 130 days
A War Office memorandum 11/5/1917 requests that any of his personal possessions be returned to his mother, but it is marked ‘no effects’. On 24 November 1919 the receipt for the 1914 Star was signed by E B Hughes, writing underneath ‘with many thanks’ and in 1922 she returned an acknowledgement for his British War Medal Bessie would also have received the ‘Dead penny’ for him. The memorial plaque was issued after WW1 to next-of-kin of all British and Empire service personnel who were killed as result of the war. About 120cm or 5 ins in diameter, made of bronze and popularly known as ‘Dead Man’s penny’. 1,355000 were issued. The plaque shows an image of Britannia holding a trident and an oak spray with leaves and acorns; an imperial lion; two dolphins representing Britain’s sea power, the emblem of Imperial Germany’s eagle being torn to pieces by another lion; a rectangular tablet showing the name in raise letters. No rank was given as it was intended to show equality in their sacrifice, the words ‘HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR’. The memorial plaque would be accompanied by a memorial scroll, a letter from Buckingham Palace and often a letter from the deceased’s unit. They would not usually arrive together but as a series of separate mailings. The plaque had received complaints over the size of lion, including those from the head keeper of London zoo; the lion’s neck was wrong, the mane paltry.
Bessie would also have received his medals. The Mons Star for the 1914 BEF, awarded to men who served between 5 August and midnight of 22–23 November 1914,
The British War medal which has St George on horse and the Victory medal, a winged figure of victory. On 24th November 1919 the receipt for the 1914 Star was signed by E B Hughes, writing underneath ‘with many thanks’ and in 1922 she returned an acknowledgement for his British War Medal
Robert’s name can be found in the NCOs and men of the Regiment killed, wounded etc. ( WSRO RS 2/65) traced only by his number, as he is entered as H Hill. 12/8/1914 to England 29/12/1915 to 7th Battalion 1/3/1916. He is not in the Deaths 2nd Battalion (RSR 2/66). His name is on the board for the 2nd Battalion in St George’s Chapel Chichester cathedral, the memorial chapel for the Royal Sussex regiment.
In 1922 Yapton parish church had a wooden war memorial tablet engraved. Unfortunately he is recorded as R Hills. After his mother died Robert’s name was engraved on her headstone, though his middle name is given as Henry not Edward. Bessie did not die until June 1938 and one can forgive the family for not having remembered Robert’s middle name.
The roll of honour for Yapton says ‘Private L/8364, 7th battalion, Royal Sussex regiment. 12th Division. Killed in action when a mine detonated under trenches in the Hohenzollern Redoubt Loos on the 8th April 1916. Son of Mr & Mrs Hill of Yapton. Born in Harting and enlisted Chichester, Regular soldier formerly with the 2nd Battalion. Commemorated on the Arras memorial Mr. 20’.
24 other men from Yapton are recorded in the Roll of Honour as dying on active service in World War I, 22 in the army, one in the navy, one unknown. 10 others as well as Robert joined the Royal Sussex regiment, enlisting in Chichester, Bognor or Arundel. Five of these were in the 1st Battalion and died in Gallipoli, Palestine and Egypt, one other was with Robert in the 2nd Battalion and two with him in the7th (the other two being in the 9th and 11th). Frederick Bacon of the 2nd Battalion was as we have seen killed in action on the Rue de Bois 30 April 1915.His younger brother Edward was killed in action during the Battle of the Craters 3rd March 1916 7th battalion, and was killed the day Robert joined that battalion in Etaples. Later that month William Pratt of the same division died of wounds after being shot by a sniper in the Quarries Sector, Loos on the 13th. He would have been a year below Robert at their school. Frederick and Maria Bacon of Church Road Yapton lost three sons on the Western Front, Thomas and Mary Hother of Bilsham Yapton lost one in Gaza and one in Ypres; Andrew and Fanny Saxby of Church Road lost one in action and one son died of wounds at home. Another casualty was David Stubbs who died of disease in a military hospital in Cairo in 1917. His widowed mother Emma was one of Robert’s father’s many cousins.
How the family fared during the War
Fortunately Robert was the only fatality in his family. After the War his mother and stepfather moved from Black Dog Cottage to Victoria Terrace at the bottom of Bilsham This
Was a relatively new house which had been built by Sparks for their work force. Brother Bill Hughes returned to live there when he came out the navy in 1919. His naval war seems to have been most eventful at its start and finish. On the 7th August 1914 his ship HMS Vindictive captured the German ship the Schlesion and took it to Plymouth. Most of the rest of the war was spent in the Mediterranean. At the end of the war he was on HMS Victorious at Scapa Flow and would have witnessed the German sailors scuppering their fleet on the 23rd June 1919. His ship took on some of the survivors
Brother Joe Hill was first in the Royal West Surrey Regiment, and then moved first to one of the Regiment’s labour companies, and when the Labour Corps were established his company became the 117th. During the German push in March 1918 it was lost behind enemy lines for a while. On being demobbed he returned to being a bricklayer like the other men in his family. Robert may have seen his niece Gladys Ellen born on 31st July 1915 when he was in England at the start of 1916. During the War Nellie with her father had moved from Slindon Common to Dairy Lane Walberton. The family continued to live there after the War and three more children were born. Nellie and Joe’s son was born on 23rd December 1919 and named Robert Henry, after our Robert Hill and Nellie’s brother William henry Blunden, known as Henry or Harry who had been killed in the War in July 1918. Joe was an active member of the British legion and a special constable. My middle name is Roberta, for Uncle Bob and therefore Great Uncle Robert too.
Robert’s half-brother John Hughes went into the Royal Sussex regiment too, and arrived in France on 31st May 1915. I haven’t been able to establish his battalion, and like Joe he was at some point transferred to a Labour Corp. He married and had a daughter. More is known about half-brother Len Hughes’s war. He went into the 1/4th Battalion of the Royal Sussex which departed Devonport on 17th July 1915 as part of the MEF (Mediterranean Expeditionary Force) and saw service in Gallipoli, Palestine and in 1918 the Western Front. He was promoted to sergeant and in civilian life was possibly the most successful financially as he had his own building business in Arundel. He married late in life and had one son
Brother-in-law Bill Wakeham continued as a bricklayer. One of the houses he built was his own, Oakcroft in Downview Road Barnham. Sadly Billy the little fair curly haired nephew Robert knew was to spend most of his adult life and die in Graylingwell, Chichester’s mental hospital. Sister Bessie was married in 1924, but as she was then 40 she remained childless. Ethel never married and towards the end of their lives she and brother Bill continued to live in Victoria Terrace Yapton. As I have said Robert’s mother Bessie died in 1938, and her husband John Hughes in 1949.
I think it is fitting to end with these veterans returning less than twenty years later to the roads which would have been walked by Robert
The road to La Bassee Bernard Newman & Harold Arpthorp 1934
I went to France again, and walked about the line,
The trenches have been all filled in – the country’s looking fine
The folks gave me a welcome, and lots to eat and drink,
Saying, ‘Allo Tommee, back again? Ow do you do? In ze pink?
And then I walked about again, and mooched about the line.
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine.
But the one thing that amazed me most shocked me, I should say
-There’s buses running now from Bethune to La Bassee!
I sat at Shrapnel Corner and I tried to take it in,
It all seemed much too quiet, I missed the war time din,
I felt inclined to bob down quick – Jerry sniper in that trench!
A Minnie coming over! God, what a hellish stench!
Then I pulled myself together, and walked on to La Folette –
And the cows were calmly grazing on the front line parapet.
And the kids were playing marbles on the road to La Bassee!
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine –
I had a job in places picking out the old front line.
You’d never think there’d been a war – ah, yet you would, I know
You can’t forget those rows of headstones every mile or so.
But down by Tunnel Trench I saw a sight that made me start,
For there, at Tourbieres crossroads – a gaudy ice-cream cart!
It was hot, and I was dusty, but somehow I couldn’t stay –
Ices didn’t seem quite decent on the road to La Bassee
…The Somme’s a blooming garden, and there are roses in Peronne
The sight of dear old Arras almost made me give three cheers
And there’s kiddies now in Plugstreet, and memselles in Armentiers
But nothing that I saw out there seemed to beat the band
As those buses running smoothly over what was No Man’s Land
…Then I got into a bus myself, and rode for all the way,
Yes, I rode inside a bus from Bethune to La Bassee,
Through Beuvry and through Annequin, and then by Cambrien Tower –
The journey used to take four hours, but now it’s half an hour
…Four years? Aye, longer still for some – they haven’t got there yet
…And I wondered what they’d think of it – those mates of mine who died –
They never got to La Bassee, though God knows how they tried.
I thought back to the moments when their number came around.
And now those buses rattling over sacred, holy ground,
Yes, I wondered what they’d think of it, those mates of mine who died
Of those buses rattling over the old pave close beside.
‘Carry on! That’s why we died!’ I could almost hear them ay,
‘To keep those buses always running from Bethune to La Bassee!'