Letters from the Front
I am always amazed by how fate sometimes lends a hand or points us in a direction that we’d never even considered.
That happened to me recently. Someone told me the Receiver-General had been given a list of all the World War I memorials within the Cathedral and its Precincts. Having been able to blag a copy of said list I thought to myself that given the importance of this year, and the next four, to those memorials, there might be renewed interest as the patriotic spirit of our nation is rekindled. I thought it would be good to see if I could find out any more information about any of those memorials, you know, just in case someone asks, so I contacted Archives. Come on over they said and of course off I toddled. Nice way to while away a couple of hours I thought. What Archives didn’t tell me is that once you start you are hooked!
The letters that I was able to look at have survived because they were sent to the Warden of St Augustine’s College, Canterbury, from young men who had come to train as missionaries and the College kept them safe. In some there is a glimpse of their family life but mostly they are letters from a student to a much trusted and respected teacher. In with most of them is a black bordered card and letters sent to the Warden from the family of that student now deceased, kept safely by the College. Names that for some have passed into obscurity as those that knew them have followed their path. Each one a mother’s and father’s son.
Each piece of information I uncovered threw up more questions than answers. Each name became a mission to find out more. What happened to these men who boarded these ships to sail to France for King, Country and the British Empire? The personal stories are too vast to number; each statistic somebody’s son; but thanks to someone meticulously saving a soldier’s letters there are a few stories we can tell.
One story I pursued was that of Horatio John Read Rowsell. Horatio, or Jack as he was known to his family, was born on 28th March 1895 in Bonavista Newfoundland.
In 1913 aged 18, he applied to the Missionary College of St Augustine’s, Canterbury for admission. What a leap of faith, coming half way around the World to a place and country that would be alien to him. It speaks volumes of his commitment, courage and determination.
Amongst the well-thumbed pile of papers on his college file (U88/A/216/C/878), there are letters and an application form sent by the Rt Rev Arthur M Knight, Warden of the College, to R.R. Wood Esq. Headmaster of St John’s College in Newfoundland, and the Revd Augustus Bayley, the Rector of Bonavista Parish, asking for references regarding Jack’s character. The questionnaire asks about his piety, devotion, humility and diligence, all answered in the positive (of course) but the question I loved was ‘does he show signs of grit?’, to which the answer was ‘yes’ as it was to all the others. R.R. Wood goes even further commenting: ‘One who is ready to sacrifice for what he considers a good cause… he will do special work for the Church’.
H.W.F. Blackall Esq endorses even further when he writes to Arthur Knight on 2nd November 1913 saying: ‘He has a mind which may be beautifully moulded by the guidance which you, if anyone, can give to serve God and the Church for the Glory of them both’.
Jack was accepted into the College but by June 1916 is serving with the 1/1 Newfoundland Regiment in France. He writes what is now an even more poignant letter (because I know what happens) to Arthur Knight, still the Warden at the College. He talks about how they have been relieved in the trenches and had an eight mile trek to get back to their rest billet and how the next day was spent scraping mud off his clothes. He talks about the different officer parades and how after one such parade he had rushed into Communion but then ‘felt as if I had rushed too quickly into the presence of God’. He explains that they will be going back to the trenches very soon and hopes to write more fully of certain things. He asks to be remembered in prayers on St. Peter’s Day (29th June), the college’s Commemoration Day, and for some time afterwards as ‘I may not have much opportunity to think of the Festival on that day’. He asks that in the event of his death can the Warden arrange for his belongings to be sent to his mother in Newfoundland and that he has written to his Rector to arrange a bequest to St Augustine’s College. This letter is dated 27th June 1916.
At 21.00 hours on 30th June 1916, the regiment turns out for the final time: 25 officers, 776 NCO’s and other ranks. Jack’s regiment has been well prepared and trained intensively for the task they have been given so there is an air of confidence. They are physically prepared, the forthcoming battle meticulously planned and the word from their CO, General de Lisle, is that the strength of the British offensive and the weakness of the German position will ensure victory. The objective centres on a village called Beaumont Hamel. On 1st July at 6.25 hours, an artillery bombardment of the German line begins. Mines at Hawthorne Ridge are exploded but there is a 10-minute delay before the offensive is launched giving the Germans an opportunity to prepare for the onslaught. As the first line advances they come under murderous enemy fire. De Lisle sees German flares and mistakes it for a signal that all is well and orders the 88th Brigade, part of which is Jacks Newfoundland Regiment, to move up in support. The Newfoundlanders are on the move. Each wave of men, 40 metres apart, leave their trenches. They head for the gaps in the barbed wire that had been cut the night before. The Germans target those gaps and the men are mown down until in the end an eye witness states he “could see no moving, but lots of khaki slumped on the ground”. Those few that make it to the German barbed wire find their way still blocked as the artillery barrage the previous night has failed to make any impact on it. (In one of Jacks letters to the Warden, Jack talks of ‘the bombardments about which I daresay you have been reading in the paper’). By 9.45 it is over. The Newfoundland Regiment is decimated. Jack, severely wounded, is taken to 2nd Stationary Hospital in Abbeville, France where on 8th July he dies aged 21. He is laid to rest in Abbeville Communal Cemetery.
There is a letter from Jack’s brother, Captain Reginald Rowsell to Arthur Knight, the Warden, informing him of the death of Jack and that he himself is recuperating in the London General Hospital in Wandsworth from injuries also received from the same action on 1st July. The letter goes on: ‘I understand you were kind enough to allow him to store my bag with his… Send his belongings with any military bag…’ Written on the letter in pencil is a tick list; ‘1 suitcase, 1 small portmanteau, 1 packing case and jacket’.
Perhaps the final words for Jack should be his own. There is a letter in the Archives file from C.A. Hornchen which says: ‘In his [Jack’s] last letter to me marked Whit Sunday “It has been a joyful day for me. Religion is vital out here; I have no doubt about that and it is a great inspiration. Tonight I have a real sense of the presence of God. The same God watches over us all”.’
Jack’s brother, Captain Reginald Roswell, was killed in action on 14th April 1917 at Monchy-le-Preux, a small village five miles south-east of Arras. His name is written on the Beaumont–Hamel (Newfoundland) Memorial. Today there is much debate about whether or not we should have gone to war. As always hindsight is a wonderful thing. I do wonder if we were able to speak to John and Lydia Rowsell of Bonavista, Newfoundland what their answer would be.
Cathedral Visits Department, April 2014
Published 16th April 2014