Home » Neil Fowler Wright and his sons visit OE graves

Neil Fowler Wright and his sons visit OE graves

In July Neil Fowler Wright (1991) and his sons Kieran and Ethan, both currently at Eltham College, did their own amazing Battlefields Tour, visiting every one of the 24 OEs who fell in France and Belgium in the First World War, and providing a wealth of information, photos, site maps and descriptions for each grave.  They also created a separate wooden cross for each one and planted it by the name of the fallen OE.  The full record of their tremendous research has been handed over to the Eltham College Archives and will be a valuable resource for future generations of Elthamians.

This is Neil’s story.

Avoiding GCSE history revision… I remember my own GCSE revision was at times tedious; but Kieran (Yr12) augmented his revision this year by researching the old boys who fell in France and Belgium during the First World War.  From an initial idea, and a photograph of the commemorative plaque in the chapel, there followed a discussion with Mark Stickings (the school archivist), leading to a thorough review of the existing archive data that had been collected over the years.  Thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, Kieran was able to find the cemetery/memorial map for each of the locations, and mark on it where each boy lay or was memorialized, and furthermore created a detailed Google Earth map.

Not to be left out, Ethan (Yr10) worked with the school CDT equipment and Mr Bacon to laser etch 24 individual British Legion wooden crosses, one for each old boy; subsequently he chose to join the adventure a mere two weeks after his official school trip to the region. All that was left for me to do was book somewhere to sleep, arrange transport, and fill the car with supplies…

Whilst we also visited many other memorials and historic sites, outlined below is a brief summary and observations on the specific graveyards and memorials relevant to our forebears. Where a headstone bears an inscription, I have also included it here in italics.

1. Lance Corporal Norman Macintosh Badger: Just outside Boulogne is Wimereux, the site of a military hospital behind the front lines, with the CWGC cemetery off the back of the community graveyard.  Here rather than vertical headstones it is one of the few places with flat memorial stones marking each grave. “And from the ground there blossoms red life that shall endless be” A.T.C.

2. Sergeant Eric Percival Fahmy: Loos Memorial sits to the side of a busy road with farmers’ fields all around.  The site has a commanding view of the surrounding area.  The memorial panels flank each side with lines of gravestones down the middle.

3. Private George Kerry Williamson: Bethune is a quiet French town, with the CWGC enclosure set behind the community cemetery. Here the graves are laid out head-to-head in double rows, and the graveyard includes a number of unknown German soldiers. “Requiem aeternam dona eis domine et lux perpetua luceat eis”

4. 2nd Lieutenant Wilfred Earlstone Marler: Aubigny community cemetery includes an extension with a large number of the concrete French soldiers’ graves along with the rows of densely packed commonwealth soldiers. “I will give thee the crown of thorns”

5. Private Samuel Bingham Drake: Maroeuil CWGC cemetery is a small secluded site with many intermixed nationalities amongst the graves. Drake lies next to an unknown German soldier. “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter”

The Arras Memorial is breath-taking in its scale, with 10 huge memorial panels. Whilst the road-side approach in central Arras is impressive, it is really the back of the site which is meant to be viewed from across the large attached CWGC graveyard, and despite being so closed off, the desired effect was achieved through the memorial architecture.

6. 2nd Lieutenant Henry Bernard Oakley: High up on panel 9 in the alcove, he is surrounded by hundreds of other names.

7. Private Albert Henry Turner: Almost exactly opposite Oakley, across the Air Service Memorial, he is also high up, but on Panel 4.

8. Private Robert Rendell Summers: At the opposite end of the memorial, he is carved high up above the centre of Panel 1.

9. Lieutenant Frank William Terrell: Set back behind silver birch trees off the main road, the Heath Cemetery is otherwise very isolated. Terrell lies just beyond the chapel of remembrance. “Resurgam”

10. Lance Corporal Reginald Arthur R. Kerry: Daours CWGC cemetery is a long thin plot of land to the side of the equally shaped communal cemetery. The view along its length seems to fade in to the distance. “To his ever dear memory in the hand of god he is in peace”

11. Private Ernest Clifford Thomas: Bertrancourt military cemetery, is built into the V of the valley, surrounded by wheat fields, and is accessed down a long grass path. “Faithful to Christ and king”

12. 2nd Lieutenant Ernest Dann: De Henu is an unmapped graveyard with just a few dozen CWGC stones in the corner of the churchyard, very much hidden away from the road and the path. “Fidelis usque ad Mortem”

13. 2nd Lieutenant Godfrey Marshall Rawlinson: The two small Couin British cemeteries flank each side of the main road with the woodland and local farm buildings in the background. “Greater love hath no man than this”

As the weather had been kind we got ahead of schedule, and as it became possible, it also became increasingly important to us to visit all 24 OE’s.

14. Lieutenant Graham Brooke Barber: Bucouy is a tiny enclosure adjacent to the communal cemetery with just 64 plots. “Thou hast made him most blessed for ever”

15. Lieutenant Sergeant Harold Wilton Stephenson: Hebuterne cemetery has a beautiful set of steps at the entrance and a long grass approach, into a generously spaced enclosure where each grave seems almost individually spaced. “Peace”

16. Lieutenant Edward Hoernle Piper: Carnoy is a large oval enclosure, with Piper’s marker in the Special Memorials section at the very rear, to reflect that one of the unknown soldier grave markers there is his true resting place.  Even in the rain there remained a quiet beauty.

17. Lieutenant John Walter Glendenning Whitehouse: Peronne is a very large well laid out cemetery with Whitehouse’s headstone in the middle in line with the war stone.

18. Rifleman Clarence Walter Hills: Bulls Road is almost perfectly square and enclosed by a darker local stone than the typical CWGC red brick. It is but a few metres from a similar French nécropole.

The monumental Thiepval memorial stands out across the landscape and is humbling to visit. It is impossible to truly take in the number of names listed there. The boys also visited Sydney McLeod Whitaker’s engraved name; their own maternal great-great-grandfather.

19. Private Harold Angus Williamson: Thiepvals’ internal pillars are decorated on all sides with the near innumerable names. Williamsons name sits high on an inner side panel.

Leaving the Somme, we reflected that you can often see from one CWGC cemetery to the next, whilst it was driving distance between sites in Flanders. Whilst the CWGC graveyards appear full of light from the white stones and bright flowers, by contrast the huge German cemeteries appear colder and darker, mainly from the dark concrete crosses with iron plaques and the less meticulous maintenance, but also from the foreboding of the mass graves with their huge brown stone crosses.

20. Lieutenant Theodore Arthur Carnegie: Tyne Cot, once a German pillbox, and a Commonwealth field hospital, retains a few originally positioned interments, but otherwise hold thousands of bodies moved from many other cemeteries across the region, it is beautifully laid out in long sweeping arcs and regimented sections.

21. Private John Edwin Stephenson: Railway Dugouts Commonwealth burial ground is laid out across a large area of uneven land, its own pond, with both haphazard burials and ornate great circles of headstones. “Peace”

22. Sergeant Herbert Cullis Goffin: Ypres Town Cemetery commingles CWGC graves with the communal graveyard which maintains a separate extension plot.  Many of the CWGC staff are also buried there. “I leave myself in the tender hands of our merciful god”

23.  (and 24) 2nd Lieutenant Eric Abley Claxton, and 2nd Lieutenant Wilfrid Baldwin Harmon share the same stone panel on the outer balcony of the Menin Gate. The only place where you can see two boys’ names from a single vantage point.

It was fitting that we finished our journey with The Last Post service at the Menin Gate, with several currently serving British soldiers as well as many others, particularly schools, laying wreaths on the memorial itself. The pipers and poem brought a true poignancy to the end of our journey and thus the distances travelled should not just be measured in kilometres but also in respect and sorrow, and the toll on ones’ own emotions.

You cannot make this journey without being awed by the wonderful job that the CWGC staff undertake; maintaining the shrubs, flowers, in beautiful colours, as well as the mown grass, the pristine red brick walls capped with white stone and the bronze gates. The immaculate maintenance adds to the overwhelming sense of calm and serenity, befitting of such memorials. Even in the rain there is still an ethereal calming beauty to the CWGC locations.

What is starkly clear is the immense difference between French, Commonwealth, and German cemeteries, with the French using a simple wooden or concrete cross, the Commonwealth engraving immaculate white stone with each regiments emblem, and the Germans using dark concrete crosses or ground plaques with multiple names.

All in all, there were ~1750 photos taken across the 21 CWGC sites…  Anyone who would like copies of the CWGC site photos they have been placed in the school archives for posterity.

Neil Fowler Wright (travelling with Kieran and Ethan Fowler Wright July 2017)