Celebrating The Fallen
by Eileen Leahy | 9th November 2018
Ahead of this weekend's centenary of the Armistice, Judith Johnson, who has penned an account of the people named on the Southborough War Memorial, reflects on why she decided to seek out the stories of the fallen
My aim in writing a book about the Southborough War Memorial was to uncover as much detail as I could of the 254 men and one woman named on the local memorial. I started the project in 2002 with the simple intention to uphold the promise ‘we will remember them’. They were not distant heroes, different from those living, but like us, with ordinary jobs, families and hobbies.
I spent many hours in Tunbridge Wells Reference Library during the time I was researching and writing, and also benefited from the knowledge of local historians and medal collectors. I was also fortunate to meet a few of the surviving relatives who responded to my requests via the local media, and whose stories and sense of loss were immensely touching. Bill Winter was lost when the HMS Somali, which had been torpedoed on Russian convoy duty in September 1942, and rescued initially by HMS Ashanti, sank in gale force wind conditions. His son Phil, aged 11, went with his mother to Buckingham Palace, walking from Charing Cross in his first long trousers supplied by the Armed Forces Charity SAAFA, to receive a posthumously-awarded Distinguished Service Medal from King George. He recalled with emotion, many years later, that of course he would have much rather have had his father back.
Many of those I originally spoke to have now passed away themselves, but it made the work itself worth it when they got in touch after publication of my book in 2009 to let me know how grateful they were that their loved one’s story had been recorded.
To make the information easily accessible I indexed it alphabetically into the following categories: Name, Military unit, Cemetery/Memorial, Residence, and Death date. I did this so that anyone visiting a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, or just walking down a street in High Brooms or Southborough can see which casualty was respectively buried or once lived there.
Our war dead are buried or commemorated all over the world, not only on the Western Front and the other European theatres of war we are familiar with, but also in far-flung places including India, Egypt and Iraq, Newfoundland and Sri Lanka.
The tragedies are manifold, but the blog I wrote on the Hythe tragedy receives more hits and comments than any other on my website, and I continue to hear from the descendants of both casualties and survivors.
On October 28 1915, the troopship HMS Hythe was sunk as she approached the Dardanelles in Turkey. HMS Sarnia, another troopship steaming away from shore after disembarking her troops, collided with her, causing the Hythe to sink in ten minutes.
They had been sailing without lights to avoid detection by Turkish batteries on the shore. There were 275 men on board the Hythe, including crew, and 154 drowned. 129 of these were men of the 1st/3rd Kent Field Company, Royal Engineers, from Tunbridge Wells, Southborough, and the surrounding region. Twenty-four are named on Southborough War Memorial. It is said that following the disaster, the local High Brooms postman, distressed by the sound of wailing of wives and mothers in the streets after delivering only half the telegrams he carried that morning, returned to the depot and refused to deliver the remainder.
Given the collection of names for war memorials was voluntary, there are often names missing, and for this reason I added a tab, entitled SWM (Southborough War Memorial) Extra, on my website, for those not commemorated on the Memorial itself, and for the War-Injured, plus information received since publication. They include Dorothy Barton, Aircraftwoman First Class, who died on 4 December 1946, aged 24, who is buried in Southborough Cemetery. Then there’s Petty Officer Frederick Allen, who died on the HM Armed Yacht Aries on 31 October 1915 when it struck a mine off Leathercoat Point, Kent.
The original book took seven years to research in my spare time and was printed locally in 2009. Once all the copies had sold out we made a Kindle version (still available) that came out in 2012, and recently, thanks to print on demand technology, I was delighted to publish an updated version, in this 100th Anniversary year of the Armistice.
To find out more about Southborough War Memorial please visit www.judithjohnson.co.uk