George Gunner – in the Shadow of the Great War

George Gunner was a Sevenoaks man who served with the Royal West Kent Regiment. and saw service abroad during the Boer War. Like many of those veterans of South Africa, he remained on the Reserve and later fought in the Great War until injury saw him sent home after only a few months at the Front. From that moment, George’s life changed. The once fit and experienced soldier in the prime of life was now plagued by poor mental and physical health until he could no longer bear it. The Great War cast a long shadow over the rest of his life. 

George was born on 24 June 1881 the eldest of three children ( he had two younger sisters) of Thomas Henry Gunner and Hannah Elizabeth (nee Higgs). The 1881 Census shows George’s parents living at 2 Hoopers Yard at the top of the High Street, with Hannah’s younger sister, Louisa, and a servant.

By the time of the 1891 Census, they had moved to Clarendon House in Granville Road and Thomas was noted as a gardener; he could have been employed at the nearby Royal Crown Hotel as he was a frequent winner at various flower and produce shows and at local carnivals. George was by then 9 years old and marked as a scholar.

By the time of the 1901 Census the family had moved to a new detached house, Woodbine Cottage, 2 Buckhurst Avenue. Father, Thomas, by that time had  ventured into plumbing, but George, now serving abroad, did not appear on that Census, although there were seven members of the extended family recorded there plus a postman lodger.

George had enlisted with the Royal West Kents in 1898. Although his service record from this time has not survived his obituary stated that he fought in the South Africa wars. The only surviving photo of him in uniform shows that he spent some time with the regiment in Malta.

A studio portrait of George taken in Malta

After his return to the UK and release from the Army, in 1906 George married Ada Mills at the newly built Methodist church in The Drive, Sevenoaks. The Marriage Certificate recorded George as an insurance agent. Ada had been recorded as a parlour maid with several other servants at the McNicol household  in St Botolph’s Road in the 1901 Census, but at the time of her marriage was living at 2 Knole Paddock. By the time of the 1911 Census, George had joined his father Thomas in the house painter business. By then George and Ada had three children, Eric, Gladys and Alice.

George’s papers in 1914 show his number as S/911 Army Reserve (Special Reservists) when he signed on at Maidstone on 19th September aged thirty-three. He re-joined as a private and was allocated to the 3rd Battalion but on the 30th he was transferred to the 6th Battalion for active service and promoted back to corporal. He arrived in France on 1st June 1915 and remained until he returned home on 23 November 1915. He was subsequently transferred back to the 3rd Battalion on home duties, then, on 13th October 1917 he was appointed as a lance sergeant unpaid and was eventually declared no longer fit for active service in February 1918, when he received the Silver War Badge on the grounds of sickness.

George had been wounded in November 1915. His obituary some twelve years later in the Sevenoaks Chronicle of 10 June 1927 recorded that

In that November he was injured by a heavy weight of falling earth near Loos. He remained in and out of hospital, having several operations, until his discharge in 1918

George’s obituary revealed that

He joined the RWK Regulars in 1898 and saw service in South Africa and the Great War. Went to France in June 1915 and in November 1915 was admitted to hospital with injuries to his head as a result of a fall of earth near Loos. He remained in hospital and underwent several operations until his discharge in 1918. Although very deaf he took an active part in several carnivals in Sevenoaks since the War.

Since his wartime injury George suffered from headaches and depression. His grandson Richard recalls being told that his grandfather had a metal plate in his head. Having returned to Buckhurst Avenue, he was employed as a cleaner at Sevenoaks Post Office. George struggled with his physical and mental health for the rest of his life until events came to a head in 1927, when he committed suicide in front of his friend Cllr Alec Nichol, who also happened to be chair of the Sevenoaks Branch of the British Legion. The Coroner described the case as ‘a tragedy of the war’ and the Inquest returned a verdict of ‘Suicide while of unsound mind‘.

The Inquest into George’s death was reported in detail

The Inquest into his suicide was reported fully in the Sevenoaks Chronicle, which noted that on the day of his death he was persuaded to go for a walk by his best friend Cllr Nichol, and despite being in an agitated state, Nichol told the Inquest that they had spoken for a long time and he had persuaded his friend to return home. However, while at Webb’s Alley (which led to Knole Park), George ran away, then initially pretended to overdose on carbolic acid before admitting this was false and insisting his friend fetch a policeman, Nichol left him, intending to fetch George’s wife from their nearby home. Tragically, George then hacked at his own throat and died on the scene very quickly.

Nichol told the Inquest, which was reported at length in the Chronicle that:

He was a man of the Old West Kents. To my idea it is a tragedy of the war. He was broken through a fall of earth when he was at the Front, and I have no doubt the history of his illness is attributable to war service“.

The stories of men like George are sometimes tucked away in family memories or in their obituaries and it’s important to remember these men whose names may not be on any public memorial but who gave their all like their fallen comrades. 

A well liked man whose death and personal struggles were reported in detail, George was buried in Greatness Cemetery in Sevenoaks and I will find his grave and leave a wooden cross the next time I visit, as well as including him in future guided walks of the Great War graves there.

My thanks to George’s grandson, Richard, for his help in researching this post.

Maidstone Friends Killed at Zillebeke

Privates Frederick Shepherd Filmer and Owen Gilbert James Williams of Maidstone, Kent were two of over 20 men of the Regiment who were killed in action on 22 February 1915.

The Kent Messenger reported the deaths of the men in its 13 March edition and profiled Filmer and Williams the following week.


Both men were from Maidstone and had long been friends, having been pupils together at All Saints’ School. According to the paper in its article ‘Friends Fall in Action’:

Private Fredeick Filmer

They enlisted in the West Kent Yeomanry during the Boer War…Feeling it their duty to “do their bit” for their country, they joined the Royal West Kent Regiment last autumn (on 9 November according to Private Filmer’s service records) and left for the Front on 2 February. On the previous day they spent a few hours’ leave at home. Before departing they intimated that they would not have willingly gone to France without each other, and they made a mutual promise that, should either “go under” the other would regard it as a sacred duty to interest himself in the widow and children. Unfortunately, both have been killed.

The paper continued:

Private Filmer was born in St Philip’s parish, and had worked since he left school for Mr T Stannett, greengrocer. It was on Lord Mayor’s Day that he enlisted in 1st Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment. He was married fourteen years ago (to Olive), a daughter of Mr Vinten, one of the Corporation workmen, who is left with eight children, the eldest being only eleven. She is now confined to her bed in very enfeebled health, having given birth to twins nine day’s after her husband’s death.  Naturally Mrs Filmer is very anxious to hear further particulars of the action in which her husband fell, and she will be very grateful if any of his comrades can supply her with some information.

Private Owen Williams

Before the war, Private Williams had worked as a painter, having previously been employed at a tannery. He had been married for 15 years and had five children. 

Williams’ wife had last received a letter from him dated ‘Rouen , February 14th’:

I have not had an answer from you yet, although I have sent four postcards and two letters. You might write so that I can get a letter once a week, just to hear some news. 

The Gurkhas and Sikhs here are fine fellows, with shining eyes and teeth. Many of them can talk English. You might send me out some fag papers. We get two ounces of smooth mixture a week, and they are allowing us five francs weekly – that is 4s 2d. We get plenty of food; jam and tea for breakfast. Today we are leaving for the trenches, so we shall soon know what’s what but I shall keep cool and do my best. We have had a lot of rain the last few days, and I have got a shocking cold. I suppose it is sleeping under canvas.

On 22 February both privates Filmer and Williams were based at Zillbeke about one and a half miles south-east of Ypres.

The War Diary for the 1st Battalion records:

During the morning a furious artillery and rifle fire began about 10 am and continued for about half an hour on our left.

At 4.20pm a message was received by runner from C company that part of B company’s trench had been bombed by the enemy with a trench mortar and had had to be evacuated. 

Soon after Pte WRIGHT who was the signaller in charge of the telephone in B company’s part of the trench came down and reported to the same effect the telephone wire having been broken.

2 platoon of the Duke of Wellington Regiment which were in close support were ordered to reinforce the firing line at dusk in case the enemy should try to rush the damaged trench at dusk.

The enemy however did not attack and the battalion was relieved in the trenches in accordance with previous instruction. Relief was completed by 11pm when A & B companies returned to billets in YPRES C company and 100 men with 2 officers of D company remaining in close support to the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, which Battalion had taken over the trenches.

During the afternoon B company had suffered severely from the enemy’s bombing which lasted from about 2.15pm till 4.30pm.

Lieut BROWN, B company, 2nd Lieut FROST, A company, were killed. Lieut Brown’s body was brought back to some brick works just north of ZILLEBEKE where the battalion first aid post was established. Here he was buried with 8 men whose bodies had been recovered. 2nd Lieut FROST’s body could not be found.2nd Lieut BURBURY, B company was severely wounded and died during the night in the 3rd London field ambulance. Captain MOLONY was slightly wounded. 18 men of A & B companies were killed and 19 wounded.

The Rev ROYCE chaplain to the 3rd London field ambulance conducted the burial service over Lieut BROWN and the 8 men whose bodies were recovered.


Owen Williams is buried in the Tuileries British Cemetery. Frederick Filmer’s body was not recovered and he is remembered on the Menin Gate.

Royal West Kent Territorials in India

Journey and first impressions

In the early weeks of the war, the Foreign Service battalions of the Regiment, the 1/4th and 1/5th, found themselves deployed to India rather than the anticipated Western Front. On arrival they were to take over garrison duty, so that units of the regular army could be sent as reinforcements to France.

Stationed in Sandwich before they departed, the two battalions sailed from Southampton on 29 October 1914. Their voyage took over five weeks and included stops at Port Said, Suez and Aden. On reaching Bombay in early December, the 1/4th was deployed to Jubbulpore, the 1/5th to Jhansi. Many of the men wrote home to family and friends giving detailed accounts of their journey to India and descriptions of life their from the food to the local people.

Private Charles Reginald Hayles (born 1894) of 1/4th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment of Bromley had enlisted with the Territorials at the Tonbridge Depot on 2 September 1914. He wrote home from Sandwich Bay:

I am getting on very well now. It was very strange at first, but I soon got used to it. We are doing a lot of work here, and we do not get much time to ourselves. We are quartered in the large house on the seashore. We are treated very well, with plenty of food, but very plain. We are making the most of that. My bed is the hardest I ever had, being the bare floor with one blanket, with a kit bag as pillow, but I am happy with it all. It is doing me a lot of good. I don’t think it will be long before we go abroad.

Private William George Thake of 11, Belgrave Road, Tunbridge Wells, was employed by the Tunbridge Wells Gas Company. He enlisted in his home town on 25 September 1914 aged 22. Thake wrote home to his parents who lived at 11, Belgrave Road, to tell them about his journey to India:

At Port Said several Egyptian natives came on board with oranges, cigarettes, etc and did a good trade. It amuses us watching the traders try to do business in boats just off our ship. Whenever they came near the vessel they were drenched with water from one of the ship’s hosepipes. Leaving Port Said, we had a lovely sail in the Suez Canal for 96 miles. We passed several native villages, and also saw many troops – native and English.

For the greater part of the way there were high sand mountains on either side. Ships have to steam very slowly on account of the wash created, and it took us just a day to get through the canal. We then entered Suez Harbour, and remained there for a week, seeing much to interest us.

Before any of the Egyptian traders were allowed on board the boat their goods were inspected by one of the officers. Two-thirds of our men were allowed to have a stretch on shore at Suez, and went for a short march through the town. Great difficulty was experienced in re-embarking. The men boarded a destroyer, which made four unsuccessful attempts to get alongside the transport. Eventually some had to jump up on deck, and one chap fell in the sea. He was promptly rescued by a stoker from the destroyer. 

So grateful we’re our men for the work of the destroyer’s crew that a collection was made on board, and a sum of £30 raised. The money was sent to the lieutenant, who was told it was a mark of our appreciation. The naval officer, however, said his men accepted our thanks, but could not receive the money, as it was their duty to help the Army. He recommended that the amount should be sent to the fund for the relief of those engaged with the destroyer flotilla in the ships, which were being escorted by HMS Sydney, the one that destroyed the Mandan. The Sydney and HMS Falmouth will be our escorts on the last lap to India.

It is not like Christmas weather, but rather like mid-summer. The temperature is about 105 in the shade. We have to wash our own clothes in cold water. We have sports on board and they create plenty of fun. We also have concerts twice a week. 

After remarking upon the rough weather experiences at several points of the journey, Private Thake goes on to say that his Company did very well in the sports on board ship.

In a point-to-point race, D Company were second among the whole battalion, and in a boxing tournament they had hard luck, as several of the men picked for the team fell sick, and could not take part. The officers and sergeant had a tug-o’-war, the former winning.

(Kent & Sussex Courier, 1st January 1915).

Private Francis Pelham of Offham near Lewes wrote home describing how he and others in the regiment had spent Christmas in India. Extracts of his letter home were published in the Sussex Express:

I went on guard Christmas Eve till 7.00 a.m on Christmas morning. Some of our chaps were on all day. We had a fine breakfast to start with, ham and eggs. At dinner we had chicken, roast beef, etc, as much as we wanted, not to mention the plum pudding, which was a treat. £25 was sent from Sevenoaks to help pay for some of it, and, altogether, we had a fine spread. 

                                                                 Private Francis Pelling

According to the paper:

Private Pelling goes on to say that the Tommies are very comfortable in barracks, and the native barber goes round and shaves them while in bed. Private Pelling was always ambitious, and we are not surprised to hear that he is learning Hindustani. About a dozen of them are having daily lessons from an Indian.

Private Godley, son of Mr Godley of 4, South Grove, Tunbridge Wells, wrote back to his father and described his journal from Bombay and arrival at Jubbulpore:

We arrived at Bombay on 3 December, after a very monotonous journey. We stepped straight off the boat ship into the train, which was almost half a mile in length. The scenery was very fine as we ascended the mountain. At midnight we had risen 2000 feet, and it was very cold. I looked out of the window as we were passing a deep chasm, and it made me hold my breath for a minute. Among the many points of interest was a waterfall, and it looked magnificent by moonlight.

After a brief station stop at about 3 o’clock in the morning, he continued:

We then started to ascend some more mountains, and the summit was reached about 12 p.m. but here the top was mangled with snow, and by Jove, it was cold!

I cannot really describe the scenery, as it was really magnificent. We arrived at Jubbulpore about 10 p.m and marched to a field, where we were given a splendid reception. Cheer after cheer went up as we marched here. A good breakfast awaited us, and English girls waited on us. 

The Scouts’ band accompanied us to our barracks, a distance of two miles; but it was awful marching as the roads are about four inches in dust, which rises in clouds, and fills ones nostrils. About 1 o’clock we were settled in our new home. The barracks consist of bungalows, just sufficient to take a company, and they are all very high-pitched and fitted out with fans. We have an institute connected with the barracks, fitted out with billiard rooms, reading. and writing etc, and we also have a picture palace on the grounds. The days here are so hot and the nights very cold. In the summer it is 130 in the shade. The food is fairly good, the meat being mostly goat, which I don’t like at all.


Men of the 1/4 Royal West Kent Regiment, including Frederick Charles Francis of Riverhead      (seated third from left)

Drummer F Dawson wrote home in similar terms:

We reached Bombay on the morning of December 2nd, and started for Jubbulpore about 7.30 in the evening. After two nights and one day we arrived at our destination, and after having refreshments which some ladies had got ready for us we marched to the barracks headed by the Somerset’s Brass Band. It is a very nice place here, the food, beds and general arrangements being very good.

We don’t get much to do besides our parades; the natives seem to do it all. The drums have a room to themselves, and we pay three natives four Annas a week to clean our boots, buttons and bugles, and run anywhere for us. 

It’s not so very hot here yet; about like an English summer in the day, but cold at night. They tell us the thermometer goes up to 112 degrees in the shade in the summer. We have had two route marches of about five miles. The men on guard had some frights at first. The jackals and laughing hyenas come nearly up to them, and ‘then run away laughing’. We often go to the native village in the evening for a bit of sport. If you want to buy anything you have to haggle for about half-an-hour, then turn to walk away. They soon shout out, ‘Ere y’ar, sa’b’ and the bargain is struck. But things seem jolly dear except cigars, which we can buy for one rupee four Annas a box.

We have a church parade every Sunday, and when inside it is just like being in England to see all the white people there.

I have not had a very good Christmas, being in hospital with an abscess in the throat, but the companies all had a good time – plenty of chicken and turkey, plum pudding, smokes and drinks.

One of our officers told us we were here to undergo ‘Kitchener’s test’ which is a 16 mile march, three hours’ attack, three hours’ defence, and then 16 miles march back, before going to the Front in the course of a few months. 

(The Courier, 29 January 1915).

Mr Wheatley, Headmaster of St John’s School, Tunbridge Wells received two letters from old boys serving with the 1/4th Royal West Kent’s in Jubbulpore.

Corporal Court wrote:

We find a great difference in India in climate and people. The climate is a lot too hot for us, for we were not at all climatised before we came out. 

I hope to go out one night for some sport (shooting jackals and hyenas), having had the offer of a sporting rifle.  The day I received your letter I went out for a field day. We started at 8 o’clock, and marched three miles, and then we started our attack on a hill about three and a half miles away, and by the time we had finished and marched back it was nearly 3 o’clock, so you see we had a long day in the broiling sum.

Drummer Harding wrote:

You can imagine how strange everything is to us, seeing so many black people, and some of the ways of these individuals are very comical. I don’t know whether they believe in the Suffragette movement, but the women seem to do most of the work, whilst the men sit down in a ring and smoke their peculiar pipes. It is nothing to see a woman on top of a ladder whitewashing a wall.

We have been here two or three months, and have only had one lot of rain, which caused as much excitement as seeing an aeroplane for the first time. We came here in the middle of winter, but it was hotter than the English summer., but very cold in the early morning and in the evening.

A soldier’s life is very different out here to what it is in England. Everything is done for us in the way of cleaning our kit up by black boys, who do it for four annas a week, and a barber shaves is for two annas a month twice a day. A soldier in India generally has a very easy time where parades are concerned, but it is not so with us. They are putting us through it a bit stiff, but none of us mind the training so long as it results in going to France, where we are all eager to get.




Setting up a website to cover the history of The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment during The Great War might seem like a bit of a presumption. But, we want to try and create a space for people to share the stories of their family who served, as well as publishing our research. We’ll also let the men speak in their own words and try to help raise the profile of this historic regiment during the Great War.

We hope you find it interesting and will want to join in the conversation.