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.
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 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.
During research for another Great War project (at sevenoaksww1.org), one comment from a witness statement regarding the death of Lieutenant Henry Arthur Poland, who was one of several officers killed at Hill 60 in April 1915, lodged in my memory. There were, wrote Lieutenant Colonel Robinson in a statement kept in Poland’s records, ‘about 3000 corpses on a space 150 yards square’. Two other Sevenoaks men, Privates Thomas Francis and John Tester also ended their lives in action at the Hill. The stark statistic in Robinson’s statement prompted me to reflect further about these events, a significant action for the Regiment in the early months of 1915. Who were these men; where were they from in Kent; how was the action at Hill 60 reported, and what did those who survive think of it? This article attempts to answer these questions.
Hill 60 had been an insignificant manmade mound of excavated earth South East of Zillebeke. War transformed it into an important observation point with commanding views of the Ypres Salient and gave the Germans ‘sight of many of our trenches’. It was for this vantage point that the Royal West Kents fought.
The initial assault on the Hill by 13th Brigade of 5th Division was successful. The West Kents had moved into position on the night of Friday 16th having waded through deep water in disused trenches, every man carrying as much ammunition as he could. After a long quiet day of waiting in position, following the explosion of the large mines that had been placed under and around the hill from 7pm, and with supporting artillery and covering fire, the hill was taken swiftly with minimal casualties, any suffered being more attributed to falling debris from the mine explosions rather than enemy fire.
Initially caught off guard, the enemy gave little defence and the dazed Saxon survivors surrendered to men of C Company who had rushed forward to deal with any survivors and secure the position. Sergeant Stroud DCM later stated: ‘The attack was, apparently, unexpected as the Germans had neither on their boots nor equipment’.
A captured German officer remarked ‘It was just like an earthquake and my whole platoon must have been wiped out‘.
Private Frank Piggott later observed that: ‘…the vibration was felt in the trenches 150 yards back, the earth swaying.’
The German response to the capture, however, was swift and merciless, carried out under the weight of a bombardment with the full capacity of their artillery. This hampered the Royal West Kents as they set about building a defensive position in the shattered earth and digging communication trenches under shellfire. Under this barrage the regiment, with C and B Companies at the summit and A and D in support, held its gain until B and C Companies were relieved before dawn on 18th by the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. The arrival of the relief battalions coincided with a reinvigorated assault by the Germans. Only one platoon of each company led by Lieutenant Walker (B Company) and Second Lieutenant Poland (C Company) had not yet departed the Hill and both platoons quickly headed back to support.
D and A Companies were later brought forward once again and suffered heavy losses until both companies and the King’s Own were withdrawn and replaced by 18th Duke of Wellington’s. A shell taking the lives of many in D Company just as they arrived at Ypres.
At home, the press reported on the heroic actions of the West Kents together with more detailed individual accounts of men wounded or worse.
In its 1st May edition, The Kent Messenger reported on ‘severe losses’, noting:
‘The attack and defence of Hill 60, near Ypres, has been very expensive to the West Kent Regiment, who led the attack…their losses during last week amounted to over 500. To replace these, and others, drafts of over 600 have been sent out from 3rd Reserve Battalion during the past fortnight.
What our troops withstood can to some degree be realized if it be remembered that the space fought over on the four and a half days between April 17th and 21st was only about 250 yards in length by about 200 in depth. On to that small area the enemy hurled tons of metal and high explosive, and at times the hillside was wreathed in clouds of poisonous fumes. Yet our gallant infantry did not give way. They stood firm under a fire which swept away whole sections at a time, filled the trenches with dead bodies, and so cumbered the approaches to the front lines that reinforcements could not reach it without having to climb over the prostrate forms of their fallen comrades’.
The report described how, despite these losses, the men, including wounded, were ‘extremely cheerful, for they know that the fight for Hill 60 has cost the Germans far more than it has us’.
The paper went on to note that the relative ease of the taking of the Hill was followed by the strength of the German counter-attack, which:
‘…soon increased to a terrific ferocity. Under the continuous light of star shells all Saturday night till Sunday morning high explosive shrapnel, bombs from trench mortars, hand grenades, and bullets from machine guns and rifles searched Hill 60, while the British hastily constructed improvised defences and Maxims, and more men were brought up to replace the dead and wounded. At one time only 30 men of the West Kents held the summit of the hill against a German attack.’
Private Piggott again, quoted in the Bromley and District Times, by whom he was interviewed back home after having been injured at the Hill stated: ‘I got my wound as I was going up the Hill with hand grenades. I was just about to throw one when a shell burst just over the top of the trench, and that is about all I can remember.’
The Kent Messenger noted the action again in its May 29 edition: West Kents at Hill 60 – Desperate Fighting – Several Hundred casualties. Over 50 Killed.
Reports from the Front show the severity of the German counter-attacks last Sunday, after the British had taken the important and commanding Hill 60 near Ypres. It is evident that the West Kents, who had just come from billets, were in the encounters. Among those who fell in the fight was Captain Tuff. The paper quoted a letter written home to Maidstone by an anonymous NCO:
‘…The weather was simply splendid. You will no doubt be reading in the papers of the doings of the old Dublin Brigade (the West Kents). They have distinguished themselves again…Our ‘friends’ got the shock of their lives and won’t forget what they got in a hurry. When the regiment was coming back to the rest camp (after the battle), the reception we got from the other regiments and brigades brought a lump to our throats big enough to choke you – cheers and yells of ‘Good old Kents’.
The action took a heavy toll among officers, illustrated by a sobering image taken the day before the assault. The majority of the men in this group were killed and or wounded within the next twenty-four hours.
Given the extraordinary fighting on such a small amount of ground, it is no surprise that the bodies of some of these officers were never recovered but are instead recorded on the Menin Gate. This was thought to include Captain Cecil Tuff, who had led D Company but recent research revealed that Captain Tuff’s body was lying anonymously in a Commonwealth War Grave in the Oosttaverne Wood Cemetery, Belgium. Tuff’s grave was rededicated in May 2019 with his great niece and nephew in attendance.
Some confusion surrounded the circumstances of Second Lieutenant Henry Poland’s death. He was initially reported missing and then posted as killed in action. His parents, thinking that he may have been taken prisoner, or later attempting to find an anonymous stretcher bearer who they believed may have had information on where their son was buried, desperately attempted to build a picture of his last moments.
Lieutenant Colonel Robinson recorded in a note that “There is absolutely nothing known about him – I have written twice to his father – there were only two survivors of his platoon and I questioned both of them closely – the fighting was extremely confused and at close quarters for the best part of 3 days. We calculated at the end that there were about 3000 corpses on a space 150 yards square. It is not difficult to imagine how men disappeared from sight”.
Major Joslin, who was killed in the early hours of the 18th, had long been with the regiment and was a veteran of the South African wars. A brother office wrote of him: ‘And in action he was splendid, quite without fear, and able by his example to inspire and encourage those around him. But in your sorrow should mingle pride, for to the very end he did his duty right well, and did much to keep the regimental standard of self sacrifice as high as it is now. And such records never die.’ Both Lieutenant Walker (who according to some reports was killed with Joslin as he walked alongside him) and Second Lieutenant Job were sons of vicars. The latter’s father, Reverend Job, wrote to the Secretary of War from his vicarage in Dudley on 23rd April: ‘I am anxious to know some particulars of his death, and I should be glad if you will let me know to whom I ought to write for this. Will his personal effects be sent on in due course? There are some things especially that we should treasure’.
The Regiment had the dubious honour of being among the first to experience the use of gas by the Germans. Men who were washing in the early morning of 18 April first thought that something in the water was causing their eyes to sting. Belfast newspaper, the Northern Whig, reported:
The terrible effects of the asphyxiating gas employed by the Germans was testified by Private G White of the 1st Royal West Kent Regiment, who is suffering from the effects of the gas in his eyes. He said that after Hill 60 had been blown up by the sappers the West Kents attacked and captured one trench without any casualties.
After the capture of the Hill by the British the enemy opened a heavy artillery fire, and their shells emitted poisonous gas which rendered men senseless. The gas entered his mouth and eyes, temporarily blinding him, and rendering him unconscious.
Three soldiers fighting beside him died of the fumes, which left a burning sensation in the head. He declared that this was the most terrible weapon yet used by the Germans in the war. When informed of the pads which were being made for the mouth to counteract the effects of the gas, he said they would not be entirely effective because they did not protect the eyes. White added that he left Dublin with his regiment on 14th August last, and had been at the front ever since.
As the weeks progressed obituaries and personal accounts, either from letters home or interviews conducted by local papers with wounded men were published. Private Wickens wrote to his parents in Tunbridge Wells which was reported in The Courier. According to his account:
After exploding the mines, a bayonet charge was made in the midst of shells bursting all round and the attack was pressed home. The shelling was tremendous and…it was quite the experience of his life, but he put his trust in God, and has come through it all safe and well…it is maddening to see one’s comrades blown to pieces by German shells but hundreds of Germans went up with the hill that was blown up. One of their officers was buried alive, and when the British dug him out, he turned round and shot his rescuer, with the result that he was not spared.
Wickens also explained that he had not got any German helmets for the children as he was, unsurprisingly, ‘too busy to pick them up‘.
Richard Carman, another Tunbridge Wells member of the Regiment suffered more severely. A long-standing territorial who had subsequently entered the National Reserve, he was recalled at the outbreak of hostilities and arrived in France in February 1915. Forty-one year old Carman was struck by shrapnel and wounded in the right shoulder and ribs and was recovering in a Military Hospital in Southampton when The Courier reported his case.
He wrote from his hospital bed:
‘It was a lucky get-off for me. We did not lose many of our men going up the hill; it was when they attempted to retake the position that we suffered. I got hit at 3 a.m., and had to walk all the way to Ypres hospital, with shells dropping all around. Thank God, we are in old England now’.
Carman made a full recovery and returned to service. Wounded three times during the war, he was with 8th Battalion of the West Kents when he was reported missing on 20 March 1918. He is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.
George Barnes of Great Chart in Kent was another private serving with 1st Battalion. His letters home are preserved as part of the Great Chart Sailors and Soldiers War Fund archive. Barnes, like other serving men from the village, was the recipient of letters and parcels from home and his replies were carefully kept. His final letter was written on 10 May, eleven days before he died and shortly after his 36th birthday.
To my dear friends of Great Chart, I am just sending you a few lines to thank you so very much for the parcel of cake and other numerous comforts which I received on my birthday on 8th May, we had just come back for a day of rest for we have been at it ever since I wrote to you, before we had just that one night and are still under shellfire, a beautiful big town bought to the ground by shell and fire but we are safe enough and I think we are …pretty hard on them now or at least I sincerely hope to see the dastardly work they are doing here. I am sure that any fellows in England could only realise the destruction that is being done out here and compare it that we had lacked out and let the enemy get into our country would not hesitate one moment to give his hand and help to the old land for they are all needed that are fit and available.
Yes, my dear friends, I must admit that we were in a very funny predicament a fortnight ago today as we got gassed as you have already seen in the papers and so we wandered away and that is how I lost my wallet, not only that I lost the whole of my pack, but I came back in daylight of the same day and very soon made up a fresh kit so that was alright.
A note in the scrapbook records that ‘This is Private G. Barnes last letter – Eleven days after writing this he died of fever, exhaustion, and gas, the effects of the severe fighting for Hill 60.
By now the battalion was a mix of old soldiers who had been based in Dublin in August 1914 and newer recruits, who had signed up on the outbreak of war. Local papers carried the obituaries of pre-war regulars and recent joiners alike.
With so many casualties, many Kent families were affected by the loss of loved ones. The loss of Private Walter Alfred Chapman of Maidstone was perhaps unique in that the young soldier’s father was serving with him and recalled his last conversation with his son on 17th April.
According to the Kent Messenger, Chapman, of 4, Canning Street, Maidstone, was with the regiment in Chatham in August 1914, (having enlisted in the May of that year). At the front, the young private had volunteered for bomb throwing. Having followed in the footsteps of his father, Lance Corporal Amos Chapman, who had served for twenty-one years and fought with the regiment in South Africa, Walter died shortly after their final farewell.
Amos wrote home:
Our poor Wally wrote his last letter to you on his birthday, which was the day we came out of the trenches for eight days rest. We have been at it since the 17th., the night we took Hill 60, and that is the place where our poor Wally was killed. We had just on 300 men killed and wounded, including eight officers, and since then we have lost another 200 killed and wounded. So, you see the old regiment is still keeping its name up.
Don’t worry too much about me. I only wish it had been me who had gone under instead of our poor boy, because he had got the whole of his young life in front of him., and he was as brave and good a lad, as anyone will tell you. He had volunteered for the bomb-throwing party and was with C Company instead of his own. I am very pleased to think I was out here with him. When I left him the night before he was killed, I kissed him and said ‘Goodnight, Wall, God bless you; don’t forget to look after yourself’. He replied, ‘All right dad, don’t worry about me; I shall be all right’. He was just as happy as could be. The man who was with him at the last described him as ‘a brave youngster and a good boy’. The last words he said were, ‘I hope my poor dad is all right, and not worrying too much about me. Then he was gone, almost immediately, and they tell me he did not suffer’.
Sir John French’s praise for the regiment in the taking of the Hill was widely reported and the action generated feelings of immense pride for the West Kents. Our anonymous NCO in the Kent Messenger again:
The way the boys came home you would never have dreamt they had been in one of the most desperate fights in the world’s history. You might have thought they were coming home from a circus to hear them singing ‘Tipperary’ and all the ragtimes going. You can’t help feeling proud of being in the old regiment. No doubt we shall be hearing more about the Kents never ‘losing a trench’ or anything else they get hold of’.
Perhaps the last word should go to Private Manewell, whose poem was published in the Kent Messenger of July 31st 1915.
It was a glorious victory,
Re-echo it with pride:
It shows how gallant soldiers
So nobly fought and died.
We never shall forget the day,
It clings right to us still,
And may God bless the boys who fought
At Number 60 Hill.
Atkinson, Captain C.T The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment
Cave, Nigel. Hill 60, Ypres, Pen and Sword Books Ltd
Molony, Major C.V INVICTA with the 1st Battalion The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment in the Great War
Great Chart Letters and Correspondence, Kent County Archives, Ch144/C3
Northern Whig, Monday 3 May 1915
The Kent Messenger, various editions, April to June 1915
The Bromley and District Times, Friday 7 May 1915
The Courier, April 30 1915
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